#54 Cumulative advantage and mental mastication

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb, pages 190-252

“Those who got a good push in the beginning of their … careers will keep getting persistent cumulative advantages throughout life. It is easier for the rich to get richer, for the famous to become more famous” (Taleb, 2007, 216-218).

The above quote refers to the Matthew effect or “cumulative advantage.” Sociologist of science, Robert K. Merton, noticed that academics wouldn’t necessarily read the entire text of which they were citing, if at all (pertaining to some, not all, of the texts they referenced); instead, they would cite authors used in similar studies, and thus, a group of authors would concentrate in their field as the most cited works. This also happens when a cohort of researchers, similar to a comedy troupe working primarily with each other, would simply cite each other in each of their papers. When Taleb says professionals “keep getting a persistent cumulative advantage,” what he means by this is that the system is rigged in a way, because the big names in their fields will cite other big names, therefore, making it ever the more difficult for up-and-comers to penetrate the “citation wall” in order to advance their career. In playing devil’s advocate, I agree with Merton’s and Taleb’s conclusions, however, if these up-and-comers were worth their salt, then, they would nonetheless penetrate the current discourse and get cited by their peers. There are two sides to every argument.

As I read about this Matthew effect, which I had never heard about before, I started thinking about the visionary phenomena, the what or content of experience, and the how or context of visions presenting themselves to my consciousness. Let’s first take a step back and consider Aldous Huxley’s seminal piece, The Doors of Perception (1954). His rendition of the mescaline/psychedelic experience colored the way people conceptualized their own experiences. Had he written a cautionary tale of “do not do this because [insert harrowing event]…”, (i) fewer people probably would have taken these substances, instead passing on the opportunity to spend their free time doing other activities, and (ii) I believe more people would have had more bad trips. Remember that Huxley was a well-known and respected member of the intelligentsia; his words carried weight and couldn’t be dismissed so easily. But the above is not what happened, and we have Huxley partly to thank for inspiring generations of future recreational users and academic researchers.

The point I’m teasing out from Huxley’s impact on many other people is this: I wonder what the effect of one’s first experience with a particular substance has on subsequent experiences with that substance, in addition to all previous media content about said substance one consumed prior to the initial experience?

If I experienced A, B, & C, the whats and hows of mushrooms during my first experience, for example, will I see them again? Will A-B-C dominate future visionary experiences because my mind expects to see these already identified patterns, or, are A-B-C common denominators for whomever takes mushrooms? There is an inherent causality dilemma at play for we cannot know what we don’t know and must start the journey somewhere, that is, with the first experience. My biggest concern is whether A-B-C will become so dominant in my future experiences that the potentially (and currently) unknown X-Y-Z phenomena struggle to present themselves because A-B-C have such a hold on my pattern-recognizing brain and mind. Whatever what and whatever how presents itself first, during the first experience, will likely determine how subsequent experiences unfold to and for me.

Furthermore, it takes practice to consciously divert attention away from what you don’t want toward what you do want, or least to innumerous happy unknowns. Some people will likely remember the last bad experience and then manifest that thing or worse in their next experience. It seems to me that the harrowing content of bad trips will more likely creep into subsequent trips; they are harder to shake, but not impossible.

The only way to shake oneself free from A-B-C is to integrate and deal with that which comes up during one’s initial experiences. I suspect that over time and after many experiences, the X-Y-Zs and other potentialities of mushrooms’ eliciting effects will make themselves known. It’s as if these substances have an intelligence, releasing to experiencers just enough to keep them curious, to keep them consuming these chemicals and the experiences produced by them.

As Taleb says in the opening quote that it’s easier for the rich to get richer and the famous to become more famous, might the psychedelic user’s good experiences become better, or bad experiences to become worse, or knowledge of these realms and the insights they provide to go from minimal to great. I believe this to be so. The person who takes these substances more than anyone else or in a manner different to others will have a cumulative advantage when discussing these realms and the insights gleaned therefrom. Not only does it take repetition of the psychedelic’s usage, i.e. the frequency of ingestion, but also constant mental mastication to make sense for oneself and/or others about what happens during these experiences and what you can get out of them whatever your motive. We don’t swallow food whole; we chew it, so we don’t choke on it, but also, the more we chew it into a pulp the easier it is for our bodies to absorb the nutrients. The same applies to psychedelic visionary content and the apparent messages they contain: the more we reflect on them, the easier we’ll absorb them and their messages into our being.

How reflective are we when we partake in commonplace activities? After you ride a bike, or a bus, or go on a date, how much time do you spend reflecting on that experience? For example, after my parents go out for dinner and drinks with their friends, they rave for hours about how wonderful it was to be in their company, to have good chat, to eat good food, to drink good wine. They really enjoyed it and reflect on the experience. We need more of this when it comes to taking psychedelics, whether recreationally, therapeutically, or exploratory. By reflecting on such experiences can we increase its cumulative advantage in subsequent experiences, simultaneously break out of the pattern recognition of previous A-B-C phenomena to make room for new and exciting “first-time phenomena,” for them to show themselves once we prove to be able to deal with initial visionary and cognitive contents, to let it be known that we are ready for another helping of something new to chew.

Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

Scroll to Top