Friday, February 11, 2005

Maslow, Wilson and the Peak Experience

Many years ago, I read a book called Semiotexte that is an anthology of science fiction works. This isn't your standard fare wookies and princesses kind of stuff. It is some mind bending and sometimes disturbing stuff by guys like JG Ballard and Colin Wilson. This dark gritty stuff was boxed in with the typical but dark SF like Snow Crash, Mirrorshades, Neuromancer etc.

Back to the point, Colin Wilson and Dr. Abraham Maslow have a theory about peak experiences (published in Semiotexte) that mentally healthy people had a regular abundance of peak experiences. I have no idea about how this the Peak Experience theory ended up in a book about science fiction but that was no ordinary book. Here's an excerpt from a random web page about Wilson:

"...we live in a culture which is saturated with pessimism. To the cynic, the solution to the above problem is simple: the Christmas-morning sensation of childhood (what Wilson and others have named "peak experiences," and which G. K. Chesterton called "absurd good news") is an illusion caused by seeing beyond the plain, immediate facts of existence which constitute our everyday reality into another world that has been invented by overactive glands and imaginations. Wilson's contention, however, is the exact reverse: it is the peak experience which gives us a brief moment of clarity about the surrounding world, and the drabness of our everyday perceptions is the illusion."

From an article about Maslow:

"Maslow saw human beings' needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical -- air, water, food, sex. Then came safety needs -- security, stability -- followed by psychological, or social needs -- for belonging, love, acceptance. At the top of it all were the self-actualizing needs -- the need to fulfill oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming. Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder would inhibit the person from climbing to the next step. Someone dying of thirst quickly forgets their thirst when they have no oxygen, as he pointed out. People who dealt in managing the higher needs were what he called self-actualizing people. Benedict and Wertheimer were Maslow's models of self-actualization, from which he generalized that, among other characteristics, self-actualizing people tend to focus on problems outside of themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is phony, are spontaneous and creative, and are not bound too strictly by social conventions.

Peak experiences are profound moments of love, understanding, happiness, or rapture, when a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world, more aware of truth, justice, harmony, goodness, and so on. Self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences."

This is something that stuck with me since I read that book a decade ago, the reason that I bring it up is that it seems to make sense that besides survival, my real motivation is the quest for continual peak experiences. The problem is that peak experiences are non-cognitive, you don't think about them and can't force them. You have to use cognition most of the time to put yourself into situations where you are receptive to them. This seems to be the (tragic) ironic twist to this theory.

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