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Colin Wilson and Abraham Maslow: Why cutting-edge experiences matter

As a biographer of Abraham Maslow, I am fascinated by the range of thinkers who influenced his psychological outlook – and among the most intriguing is the prolific British writer Colin Wilson. By the vagaries of fate or the subtle workings of fate (take your pick), he was to write Maslow’s biography but sadly gave it up when Maslow died suddenly of a heart attack in 1970. Years later, inspired by Wilson’s books, including New paths in psychology, based largely on Maslow’s ideas, I started the same project and finished it happily. In the meantime, we began to actively correspond about the man we both admired. Colin (we were soon on a first name basis) was extremely generous in writing the lengthy foreword to Future visionsMaslow’s major unpublished articles, which I edited and organized into a book that is still in print after 25 years.

Photo by Colin Wilson.

Source: Tom Ordelman Thor NL/Wikimedia Commons

Who was Colin Wilson?

Born into a working-class family in the Midlands during the Depression, he was an avid reader from his teens, particularly interested in science and philosophy as ways to find meaning in life. Like his former compatriot HG Wells, also from an uneducated working-class family, Colin was completely alienated from his social background. But unlike Wells, who apprenticed under the eminent biologist Thomas Huxley, Colin became a high school dropout and held a long succession of menial “day” jobs. Convinced of his literary potential, he filled notebooks with ideas, then, at the age of 24, he wrote the strangera 1950s bestseller about our need for meaning and purpose in a modern world promoting mass conformity.

Dubbed a “genius boy”, Colin rose to instant stardom in 1956 – caricatured as a James Dean-type rebel – and was even considered for a biopic. Perhaps inevitably such adulation did not last, and in the early 1960s he moved with his wife Joy and their children to remote Cornwall for the life of a freelance author-lecturer. His goal? Develop an indisputable and lasting vision of individualistic creativity and inner freedom.

Maslow initiated their relationship after reading Colin’s The size of the man (title The age of defeat in its American edition). Reveling in his optimism about human potentiality (similar to the notion of self-actualization), Maslow sent him copies of his psychology papers. The two began a heated correspondence, repeatedly citing each other’s ideas in their subsequent books. Although both are intellectually driven family men, they never became close friends, likely due to differences in temperament.

Maslow’s work on peak experiments, which he later called “the secret to the next stage of human evolution”, particularly captivated Colin. According to him, Maslow had scientifically proven that human consciousness has heights unimaginable in conventional psychology and psychoanalysis – and that the joyful essence of peaks was at the core of their nature. Additionally, mental states such as apathy, boredom, and apathy could now be understood as immature Where defective modes of consciousness – and, especially in Colin’s worldview, utterly correctable.

As for Maslow, he considered Colin’s emphasis on the limited and lame quality of ordinary human consciousness extremely insightful. In this context, he often quoted Colin’s telling concept of the “St. Neot’s Margin.”

Colin named it after the English village where his epiphany occurred: discovering while hitchhiking on a hot Saturday that not only had he been oblivious to his low-energy boredom, but he could be overcome by an awakening of interest in one’s environment. In Colin’s case, such interest was sparked accidentally when two consecutive truck drivers reported curious mechanical problems in their vehicles – “and suddenly my boredom and indifference (was) gone.” This experience catalyzed Colin’s notion that most people usually live far below their daily capacity for happiness, pleasure, and wonder.

During Maslow’s later years, he became increasingly impressed with this notion, thus arguing for the need for what he called “cognitive refreshment”. Such activity, he believed, could help sustain what he called set experiences, prolonged times of transcendent serenity. He also saw refreshment as essential to overcoming lethargy towards loved ones. To do this, Maslow advised, it helps to imagine you see that person for the last time before death — a technique that likely emerged spontaneously after their first major heart attack.

Maslow and Colin Wilson are now gone, but in contemporary psychology, Ellen Langer’s work on “mindfulness versus mindlessness” in everyday life offers a valuable avenue to extend their powerful insights.

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