the evolution of human consciousness

You may be familiar with Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of human needs’. In The Never Ending Quest, the psychologist Clare W Graves suggests that, in much the same way, human beings exist at different stages of consciousness that tend to evolve over time.

What causes this evolution of consciousness, and what are the implications?

Graves found that there are 6 stages of consciousness in a lower ‘1st tier’ and a further 2 stages of consciousness (that we know of so far) in a higher ‘2nd tier’.

Graves labelled the 6 stages of consciousness in the 1st tier ‘AN’ through to ‘FS’:

  • the ‘A’ stands for the set of existential problems that humans face at that stage
  • the ‘N’ for the neurological system in the brain upon which the psychological system is based

Thus, in the ‘AN’ stage, one calls on the ‘N’ neuro-psychological system to solve the ‘A’ problems of existence. Graves refers to these 6 stages of the 1st tier (AN, BO, CP, DQ, ER and FS) as the ‘subsistence’ stages (as opposed to the ‘being‘ stages of the 2nd tier).

The evolution of consciousness from one stage to another is driven by requiring solutions of increasing spatial and temporal breadth to solve the increasingly complex problems of existence.

As an existential problem is solved, a stage of equilibrium is achieved and a sense of ‘order from chaos’ is restored. However, the stage of equilibrium is only temporary. At some point, a person learns that the values, beliefs and behaviour which were good for them are no longer good because of the changing conditions of their existence. They recognise that the old values are no longer appropriate, but have not yet understood the new. This causes a sense of dissonance that is only solved when an elevation in consciousness provides for a new way of thinking.

In Graves’ own words:
‘Briefly, what I am proposing is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behaviour systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change. These systems alternate between focus upon the external world, and attempts to change it, and focus upon the inner world, and attempts to come to peace with it, with the means to each end changing in each alternatively prognostic system.’

In some cases, a person may not be genetically or constitutionally equipped to change in the normal upward direction when the conditions of their existence change. Instead, they may stabilise and live out their life at any one or a combination of stages in the hierarchy. They may show the behaviour of a stage in a predominantly positive or negative manner, or they may, under certain circumstances, regress to a stage lower in the hierarchy. Thus, an adult lives in a potentially open system of needs, values and aspirations, but they often settle into what appears to be a closed system.

Importantly, a person who is centralised at a lower stage cannot even understand people who are at a higher stage. I believe that this is the root cause of the difficulties in tackling the most intractable challenges we face today.

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