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Maslow’s Two Forms of Cognition and EHEs
Rhea A. White
Well-known psychologist Abraham Maslow, who coined the term "peak experience," also posited two forms of cognition. For our purposes, Maslow’s being-cognition (i.e., B-cognition) is similar to the form of knowing that results from immersion in the Experiential Paradigm. The relevance of Maslow’s work to exceptional human experience is pointed out, as well as aspects of exceptional experience in which we vary from Maslow’s approach. In preparing this 1997 flyer we drew on three of Maslow’s books, Motivation and Human Personality (rev. ed.) (New York: Harper, 1970); Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (Viking, 1970); and The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (Viking, 1971).
Abraham Maslow was one of the first American psychologists since William James to recognize and study exceptional human experiences and their attendant worldview. He coined the term peak experience and argued that there are two kinds of perception/cognition that humans can have, D-cognition, where D = Deficiency, and B-cognition, where B = Being. These forms of cognition are viewed within his larger theory of human motivation, needs, and self-actualization, which cannot be dealt with in this brief flyer (see Maslow, 1970a, 1971). D-cognition is the way we in the West ordinarily see reality, and it is considered by many to be the only way; and in any case, it is viewed as the preferred and most productive way. It corresponds to the mechanistic objectivist science paradigm.
According to Maslow, B-cognition takes two forms. One is a global type of consciousness "in which the whole of the cosmos is perceived and everything in it is seen in relationship with everything else, including the perceiver" (Maslow, 1971, pp. 252-253). In the other there is an extreme focusing of consciousness on a specific object, whether it be an art form or a tree or a child or a rock, such that the rest of the world, including the perceiver, disappears. "The percept becomes the whole of the cosmos" (p. 253). These two ultimates of perception/cognition also were identified in the ancient Hindu scriptures as depicted in the dual statements: "That art Thou" and "Thou art That." Maslow also identified a longitudinal form of peak experience, which he called a plateau experience. In the plateau experience what previously had been the "heights" or "peaks" of experience have become the experiences of every day. As Maslow expressed it, one perceives "under the aspect of eternity and become[s] mythic, poetic, and symbolic about ordinary things....There is nothing excepted and nothing special, but one lives in a world of miracles all the time" (in Krippner, 1972, p. 113). He observes that although the plateau experience includes elements common to peak experiences, such as "awe, mystery, surprise, and esthetic shock," they "are constant rather than climactic" (in Krippner, 1972, p. 113).
Maslow points out (1971, Ch. 21) that all B-cognitions involve one or more of 25 forms of transcendence, which he describes. We have made the same point about EHEs (White, 1996). Each one goes beyond what had previously been assumed by most humans of a particular culture to be a limit, whether that limit involves time, space, person, self, species, or death. Maslow developed a whole psychology of peak experiences, which in essence are forms of exceptional human experience, and of what it is like to be inside what we have called "the Experiential Paradigm" (White, 1995), which in essence is Maslow’s plateau experience. Unfortunately, Maslow died before he could fully research or theorize about the plateau experience, as he was just becoming familiar with it himself in his later years. We, too, initially concentrated on the role EHEs play in catapulting experiencers onto the plateau, to continue the metaphor, but our main aim now is to find out what it is like to live there, not just visit.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Maslow’s work is his emphasis on the biological basis of D- and B-cognition and his insistence that they be studied empirically. He devotes a chapter (Maslow, 1971, Ch. 20) to a description of 28 theses about self-actualization, B-cognition, and metamotivation in the form of testable hypotheses. Maslow has been criticized because his approach is too biological and not sufficiently mythological, sociological, and symbolic. The EHE approach has tried to respond to these legitimate concerns by adopting an interactionist symbolic narrative approach that tries to incorporate societal and cultural influences.
Another component of Maslow’s work important to EHEs is his insistence that both D- and B-cognition are perceptions of the same world, and humans should aim at retaining both approaches to it. As I see it, the problem here is that B-cognizers are able to also approach the world via D-cognition because they have achieved "double vision" (White, 1994). D-cognizers, on the other hand, generally are unable to perceive and/or honor the reality of B-cognitions. They are entirely caught up in what poet William Blake called "single vision," or "Newton’s sleep."
Our work with exceptional human experience has three major components that are not dealt with by Maslow. First, our term "exceptional human experience" is much more all-inclusive than Maslow’s "peak experience," which we view as just one type of EHE. (Maslow, for example, admitted he did not consider parapsychological/paranormal experiences, characterizing his attitude toward them as one of "benevolent disinterest" (see his remarks in Krippner, 1972, pp. 107-112). Second, and most important, is our emphasis on the role played by anomalous (exceptional) experience in the creation of B-cognition. This can be extended to any encounter with the "other" that one meets in life. Honoring such experiences can lead to double vision, which involves seeing the world both from inside the Experiential Paradigm and from the D-cognitive worldview. I question, however, whether they can be experienced at the same time even if they are alternating percepts of the same world. I think it is essential that we honor both and recall the existence of one while involved in the other, just as in the dark of night we can remember daylight and vice versa.
Anyone who has had an EHE or wants to research them will find many valuable insights in the works of A.H. Maslow. The three books by him listed below provide a good introduction. If one does not have access to Maslow (1970b), with its useful new preface in which he warns "about over-extreme, dangerous, and one-sided" applications of his thesis which could apply also to EHEs, it is reprinted in Maslow (1971).
Krippner, S. (Ed.). (1972). The plateau experience: A.H. Maslow and others. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 4, 107-120.
Maslow, A.H. (1970a). Motivation and Human Personality (rev ed.). New York: Harper.
Maslow, A.H. (1970b). Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. New York: Viking (Original work published 1964)
Maslow, A.H. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
White, R.A. (1994). The need for double vision in parapsychology. In L. Coly & R.A. White (Eds.), Women and Parapsychology (pp. 241-252). New York: Parapsychology Foundation.
White, R.A. (1995). Exceptional human experience and the experiential paradigm. ReVision, 18(2), 18-25.
White, R.A. (1996). Exceptional Human Experiences: A Brief Overview (2nd ed.). New Bern, NC: EHE Network. (Flyer available upon request)
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