Soul Evolution

Although there’s kind of a “mystical” perspective on certain altered states, scholars like Jung and Wilber have pointed out that there are very real transcendental aspects of consciousness that can be experienced, but also ‘pseudo-existential’ experiences that represent a type of escapism from genuine emotion and trials of the human condition. Another way to conceptualise this theoretic chasm, based on trending neuroscience, is to capture the divisions between Freud (biological drives), Adler/Erikson (social dynamics), and the numinous realm of idea, spirit, and potentiality – most aptly captured by Jung and the transpersonal school.

Theories of consciousness can be considered from an evolutionary lens, because “our” spirituality as a human race, is uniquely demarcated based on the historical development of the body and brain, and ‘modern cognition’. In other words, rather than seeing consciousness as solely a numinous and mystical aspect of the human experience, it is worthwhile to explore its evolutionary thrust and developmental unfoldment. Abraham Maslow, Robert Kegan, and Lawrence Kohlberg have all captured ‘higher’ aspects of psycho-spiritual experiences, whether related to self-actualisation, individuation, or moral reasoning. There’s a rich tradition in psychology of theorists catching the William James “mystic germ”, as Eleanor Rosch so eloquently put it.

Likewise, the description of many of Carl Gustav Jung’s ideas on ‘types’ are often misinterpreted as folklore or personality constructs rather than as what they are — poles of conscious experience and directionalities into inner knowledge. The very principles underlying psychodynamics imply that we’re necessarily confronted by the opposite force within ourselves as we mature emotionally and spiritually throughout the lifespan. Introverts may be confronted with an impetus to develop their extraverted ‘side’; those dominant primarily in the feeling function may find themselves called to develop their thinking capacity and grounding in rationality, likewise (as mere examples).

Psycho-spiritual Flourishing v Stagnation

In our society this thread of discourse is often frowned upon because it directly and unequivocally contributes to relational and emotional richness in life: An aim in direct opposition to the goals of accumulation-driven capitalism. The former is horizontally-motivated, and sadly situated in a vertically-motivated world.

Yet the “meta soul” theory, to adopt Metzinger’s wording, is a direct consequence of evolution, not antithetical to it. From a research standpoint, factors such as loneliness and lack of ‘social capital’ have a hidden sunk cost, as we prioritise material gains in lieu of these heritage-rich pursuits.

While it’s possible to get lost in the numinous, as Wilber pointed out with his pre/trans fallacy in psycho-spiritual development, there are substantial virtues in developing one’s consciousness that are often lost in modern psychology practice; especially those grounded in the traditions and epochs past.

Self-transcending mind

In the collaborative work of Erik Erikson and his wife Joan Erikson, they observed that towards the end of life one is faced with an honest reflection on how they have lived, but also confronted with transcendence and letting go of one’s attachment to the physical. E & J Erikson sum that up via a three-stage life sequence focused on (1) self and others (first few stages of lifespan development), (2) self and society (mid-stages of lifespan development) and finally (3) transcendence of the individual (later stages of lifespan development and letting go of the ego).

“Gerotranscendence is the final stage in a natural process moving toward maturation and wisdom. The gerotranscendent individual experiences a new feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe, a redefinition of time, space, life and death, and a redefinition of self.” – Lars Tornstam, who coined the term

As scholars such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross have pointed out, our perspective on life, death, and transition is often very physically driven, emphasising biological rather than broader social and psycho-spiritual evolution. The latter helps us to better reflect on and conceptualise the lifespan, in the grander scheme of reality.

Constant process of return reintegration and rebirth

As a lecturer in developmental psychology, I often emphasise to students the cycles and archetypes of life that are relevant in informing a greater self-understanding. When Jung applied the terminology “Self”, this notion encompassed broader social, cultural, and genetic potentials, rather than the ‘small self’ we tend to view developmentally. The latter is often a product of Westernised countries, and ignores the structure of genomic potentials, evidence of greater connectedness between human beings, and constructs like collective consciousness.

“What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history.” – Peter Kaufman

Also, it makes sense to most people to think about human development as occurring from age 0-18 – and once we become adults, we no longer develop as dramatically, if at all. Of course, that’s not the case, and we can see various facets of human development related to how we socialise (Kegan), how we deal with ethics and morality (Kohlberg) as well as cognitive autonomy in the mid-later lifespan. Some might go so far as to argue that the main job of a university lecturer is to teach students how to move into a level of greater cognitive flexibility.

Recent research has pointed out that personality is not as solidified as we once thought by early-mid age, as psychedelics for instance produce a marked positive shift (toward openness) in personality in many people; events like harsh COVID lockdowns have in turn produced negative effects (toward neuroticism) as shown in recent work.

(I’m going to probably update this article in due course as more ideas build from the above in the virtue and spirit of Kaufman’s words. Thanks for reading).


Updates to this article?


Alex De Foe is based in Melbourne, Australia. He mostly writes academic work, but from time to time also publishes more informal articles on the topics spanning social neuroscience and embodied cognition.