Egregores and You

21 Feb 2021

We came before them. I assume this in the same way that I assume that single-cell organisms preceded us and led to us. In the Rigveda, the oldest collection of Indo-European hymns which hint at the cosmology, rituals, beliefs and worldview of our common cultural ancestors- in the Rigveda, it is said that the gods are younger than this world’s creation. And I believe that’s a hint, a clue about our relationship to egregores. An egregore is what’s called a thought form- a collective organism that runs on our thoughts and our minds.

There are, like anything, many ways to say ‘egregore’. Lately, I think egregore has been chosen as a word to rally around because it distances itself a little bit from things like gods, collectives, group dynamics- and it also has the association with the occult. So it gives it a bit of an air of mystery. And it’s a weird word. You can’t really mistake that word for many other words, once you’ve heard it. Now, I can talk about egregores using those other words- in fact, when I study them, those are the words I often look for: group dynamics, cooperation, collectives, cultural evolution, mimetics. But, if I use those words, if I tell you that it’s just group dynamics, or just cultural evolution, or just the collective will, of a society at work, or a part of society or subculture or culture, if I say any of these things, you will pattern match that to the pattern that you already have for those dynamics, for those structures, for those mechanisms. And you will fail to see how very real egregores are. Because in our paradigm, we are trained to think mechanistically and individually, which means that if you can’t reduce it to a specific part, like an atom, or an inch, then in some ways it doesn’t exist to us. And we think in terms of individualism, in the sense that we often believe that the individual is the primary mode of being, of interacting with the world and of thought, because Western civilization won, or at least has appeared to win.

It has appeared to win for a little while. I have a feeling that like all large-scale interactions, everything is getting mixed up with everything in the same way that now we call BJJ or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ‘BJJ’, but the fact is, in the last thirty years, it has slowly taken techniques from Freestyle wrestling, from Catch wrestling, from Judo. Even from Sambo and Silat, and so on. It has taken all these techniques and incorporated them into itself. And so we can say it is BJJ, and that BJJ won. But if everyone’s learning how to do single leg takedowns and double leg takedowns1 every BJJ session, does that mean that wrestling lost? So, because individualism seems to have won, it is very hard for us to think outside of it. And because of that, when I talk about group dynamics or collectives, you’re always going to be thinking about them in terms of the individual. And it becomes very hard to turn the model around, so to speak, in order to get the perspective as a group-first perspective. And so, for this purpose, it is useful to use the term egregore. Because that term is already loaded with a taste of the occult, a taste of magic. And very specifically, it is a collective-first phenomenon. So when I or someone else uses the term egregore, it is easier for people to sense that we are talking about something a little different, even though it is the same as all those things that I mentioned.

And the main difference is to look at group dynamics, to look at your thoughts, your very thoughts from the perspective of the collective first, instead of from the perspective of the individual first. With concepts like intellectual property, and copyright, and stealing ideas, it is very easy to forget where our thoughts come from. People think that their thoughts are often original, that they came tabula rasa, from a blank page. But looking closely, you can often trace your thoughts back to hundreds, thousands, maybe more years ago, the ‘more’ would come from the imperatives that all mammals share- for instance, you go further back, then there’s the reptilian side, and so on and so forth. But even if we look within the history of humanity, it’s quite simple for anyone who thinks about these things a lot to hear someone, to extract the statement that they’re making with their piece of art, or their paper, or even their company, and then trace it back to an influence, often fictional. And before the fictional influence, you might get to a scientist or something like that, and just like Wikipedia, if you go back far enough, you will hit philosophy, or religion. And so all these thoughts came from people who are dead.

When you look at how brains seem to work with their environments, it often looks like we’re not really interacting directly with each other. Instead, we have the environment as a mediator. And to you as an individual, the other individuals in that environment are also part of the environment. But you have enough similarities with those other agents to model them in your mind. And as you get more data from them, as you spend more time around them, your model tends to get better. But ultimately, when someone is saying something, you are talking to yourself- you’re talking to the model of them that you have in your own mind. And so we have the seeming paradox, this seeming mystery, of how everything is ultimately contained in each individual. And yet, everything ultimately comes from outside the individual.

You’ve heard that we are social animals. Hear it again. Because no matter how many times it is said, the meaning of it is often lost. Again, because of the incentives we have, within our current systems, to think the way that we do in favor of individualism, it’s very hard to realize that almost everything that we are motivated by is social. Even ambition is an extremely social incentive. So is greed, for money or power. The individual would not care about these things if they were truly selfish- they probably go out and live like a hermit in the woods. Because you don’t really need a lot of the things that we get from ambition and greed, materially, in order to have a good life. What you do need, what you do get from those things, is social status, and social approval, and social acceptance, and love from your fellow man. By these incentives, we can trace what or who benefits from people being socially motivated. In the same way that your skin cells, your blood cells, your gut bacterium, the viruses, even that are in you, in the same way that all of these things interact individually so that you may exist- we interact individually, with others on the same scale, such as a human, a dog, a bird and so on to make up a bigger organism.

You may see egregores at work in your own mind by looking at times where you’ve thought that you’ve done something that you did not want to do. You may look at the way people interact with drugs, or sex, as in consent, or even violence. Oftentimes, when you are in some sort of violent altercation, there is a moment where you will give up so that you’ll know at the end, if you’re paying attention, that you only lost because some part of you wanted to lose. And another way you can look at this is by looking at what disgusts you- what makes you cringe in disgust. A lot of times, these things may not necessarily make sense from an individual perspective. But I guarantee that if you look at it from a collective perspective, it’ll start to make a lot of sense. You may not know why someone with a particular smile disgusts you. But it may be that that particular smile is associated with a group of behaviors that are from another egregore, different from the one that you are currently running when you are disgusted. From the one that is time sharing in your mind, so to speak. And that in order to perpetuate itself at scale, it needs this disgust reaction, because it’s very hard to coordinate people past, you know, the Dunbar number or 150 people. In fact, it’s really extremely hard to coordinate people past five, really. And you’ll find that it’s easier to coordinate people at scale using ‘No’. An example that often comes up is when people as a group are deciding where to eat. They may suggest that any place is okay to eat, but have trouble picking a specific place to eat, until someone says, I want to go to the brunch place that just opened, and another person will be like, no, no brunch places. And that sort of helps make the decision. The more people you involve, the more clear this is. Our societies often are organized around what you can’t do.

Most of the shoulds, most of the moral imperatives you get in your everyday life are about things you should not do. You should not speed, you should not be a racist, you should not be a murderer. Notice that I’m also including identity in that- ‘you should not be a murderer’, as opposed to you should not murder. This is because it is easier to block out groups of people by labeling them permanently- easier for the egregore, not necessarily for the individual. So someone doesn’t just murder- they become a murderer. And therefore, it becomes easier for the egregore to coordinate by sending directives like you should not tolerate murderers. If it issued a directive like ‘you should not murder’, it then becomes difficult for it- for large groups of people to tell the difference between say, murder, and ‘cop’ or ‘soldier’ or ‘large chocolate making company with externalities that lead to death’. So, it is a lot easier to coordinate based on ‘No’ than it is to coordinate based on ‘Yes’. And this is a feature of egregores.

Julian Jaynes, in the seventies, wrote a book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he proposed an interesting hypothesis about the nature of the modern mind, and how the parts of our brain are split into more than brains might have been in the distant past. And how this has effects. He suggests that when people heard spirits or gods that they literally heard them when their brains were less split. Which really does track with the fact that animism is ubiquitous in all of human society at some point or other. Animism only loses out in the long-term in very sedentary cultures and cultures that have a lot of record-keeping or writing. This is not an accident. If you look at some of the research that has been done on how learning to write changes the brain, it is suggested that the parts of our minds- the networks in our minds that are used to comprehend faces, to comprehend other agents- are used to comprehend the shapes on a page or on a tablet. Moreover, there is a suggestion that this increases the white matter in the corpus callosum, which makes it easier to keep all these networks neatly in their places. This is all connected to the neuronal recycling hypothesis by Stanislas Dehaene, who is really interested in how numbers and words and letters change human brains.

So, I want you to imagine a world in which you talked to your gods, to your spirits, normally and they talk to you. And remember that you are modeling everything in your brain. So when you come up against someone else, and they seem to have a similar model in their brain, then you give it a shared name. And that name has power. Because it binds these two models together. No longer is this yes, some spirit that talks to only you. But maybe, because it’s got a similar personality in your brother and your mother and in your friends. Maybe you give it a name, and you call it Apollo. And this checks out again, we are social creatures, we have a lot of structural similarities. If you look at geometric visual hallucinations, the kind that people get from heavy meditation or sleep loss or drugs- they tend to follow a similar pattern wherever your population is. There is an assumption that a lot of people who don’t have too much experience with drugs, or they do but they don’t look into the research around it, that drugs can make you believe anything- that you can see anything- that you might go to this whole separate reality. But the fact is, there is a pattern, there is a method to the madness of hallucination.

That method is in the structure of our brains. Partially at least, I’m sure the rest of it is also the structure in the environment itself. We are kind of all in the same environment. And so the environments we create within ourselves tend to reflect that. If you look at grid cells in the brain, they also tend to follow a geometric pattern, so that our patterns of thought are going to take similar rhythms and shapes. This allows us to do things like language and mathematics, and so forth. Similarly, it does not seem like a stretch, to think that these patterns of agents in our brains would take similar shapes based on the structure of those brains, of those bodies, of those minds in our environment. And over time, you might call these different things gods, later archetypes and so on. Though, I do believe in an animist mind, in a mind that has not been ordered and organized by literacy, that you would not necessarily make a distinction between what you’re hearing in your mind, and what you’re hearing out of your mind, because it’s essentially the same thing, whether it’s attached to data and the environment or not, you are hallucinating it.

Now I’m speaking with some sort of observation as to a rationalist authority here by using vaguely scientific sources and so on, when I’m saying all of this, in fact, if you ask, I can give you many sources. But I want you to remember that these maps that we’re using are not universal. And that it doesn’t mean that a map that an illiterate animist might be using is invalid, or less connected to the truth somehow. You might say that the egregore of empiricism and rationalism, the egregore of Western civilization simply has a stronger (and when I say stronger, I mean something with harder lines)- it has a stronger delineation between things, a stronger categorization of things, so that the society as a whole, so that the egregore that this is, can communicate more stably over a longer period of time. Because the benefit of having a standardized language is not that the language is the one true language, but that everyone who speaks the language can continue to communicate fairly effectively. This is not necessarily to benefit any individual though it does benefit individuals a lot as a side effect, especially if you are measuring benefit in terms of material wealth, but to benefit the egregore that is this section of civilization. Because now, using the language of empiricism, and objectivism and rationalism and so on, someone perhaps two hundred years in the future, can look back on what we’re putting out today. And understand it quickly, without having to shift their entire world into a completely different frame.

If I go and try to understand the remnants, the almost dead but still very much live parts of native cultures around the world- if I try to examine them, where the base memes, the base thoughts come from- the way that a mouse’s tail moves in the grass, the way that grass moves, the way the trees behave. If I try to translate that to an area where the trees are different, the mice are different, the grass is different- it takes a lot more work, it takes a lot more time. So this egregore- the egregore that we often function in, translates everything into a simplified language, one that might be less rich, but can transfer easily between people in very different local environments. You might call this colonization. France is known for the metric system. That is not an accident. They were trying to rein in their fairly unruly peasant class. After they had successfully reined in their fairly unruly noble class. They did that by inviting all the aristocrats to court. The invitation was not optional. This is a practice that happens in a lot of empires over and over again, and a lot of monarchies that are stable and effective, they get all the nobles in one place and educate them under a similar language, under a similar frame and world. You can see this in the Persian Empire over and over again, I’m sure it’s older than that. It happens to be how you birth an egregore. It is also how you might extend an egregore’s life, though an issue that one runs into, when you have the same egregore being dominant everywhere, and you bring the whole world into that one egregore, is the issue you have with homogenization in any environment.

The lack of diversity leaves the organism open to a sudden shock. Without the diversity that comes from having many different kinds of organisms, you don’t have redundancy. And when you don’t have redundancy, it’s very hard to adapt when the environment changes suddenly, enough times, and the environment is always changing. So imagine, again, Julian Jayne’s conception of a world in which egregores talk to us more directly. Part of the problem with this, for the egregore, is that it is clearly there to be interacted with. And anything that is clearly there to be interacted with, has a harder time pushing its own agenda, whatever it is, if that agenda, if those values, if those wants, are different from the agenda, values, or wants of the thing that is being pushed.

If your cells knew about you, if your organs knew about you, would they function as well? Probably if they had the clearest sense of all of you, but because they do not have that ability, since they are a part of you, and you are not a part of them, then you might get something like cancer. So to prevent this, it is useful for the organisms that we are a part of- for these egregores to go relatively undetected.

Now, why am I allowed to think this?

Either I am cancer or this is a useful mutation. And the egregores are growing- have grown to such a large extent that they need more of their parts. To know a little more of what the mission is, to know a little more of what’s up. In coordination across humans, there comes a time when you have to let your people know, if you are a leader, if you’re an organization, what the intent of the mission is, and then leave it to the individuals to carry out their parts without micromanaging. In an individual human body, this might be akin to when you tell your body to do something, but you don’t tell it how. The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey is a book all about using this method to get better at tennis, though it really does translate to every sport, not just tennis, and every embodied action, including, say, walking.

So similarly, given the amount of information that’s rising in the environment, and the sheer size of the egregores that we are dealing with- remember that our population has been shooting up. And since egregores run on us, that means these egregores are also getting bigger. Given both those things, it makes sense for these egregores to want to have parts that are more aware of their place in the world, so that we can do whatever we’re supposed to do to make stronger egregores. Either that or cancer, you know. I’m sure that only time will tell which is which, as is ever the case.

If it is cancer, we will kill civilization. If it is not we will continue to grow it.

  1. These are fundamental techniques of freestyle wrestling.