Well, I've finished the book I've been writing about recently, Andy Clark's The Experience Machine: How Our Minds Predict and Shape Reality.
I enjoyed it a lot. In this post I'll share some tips from the final chapters about how we can use the theory of predictive processing to improve how we experience life. This is a leading theory of modern neuroscience, with references to it popping up in many places.
For example, here's how a review of The Experience Machine in a recent issue of New Scientist starts out.
On a building site, there is a scream of pain. A worker has jumped down from scaffolding and landed on a long nail that is now emerging from the top of his boot. In clear agony, the man is taken to hospital, where his footwear is cut away to reveal that the nail passed between his toes without even breaking the skin.
The pain was entirely in the man's head -- yet it was very real to him, a paradox explained by Andy Clark in his new book The Experience Machine: How our minds predict and shape reality.
In contrast to what we might expect, and what neuroscientists used to believe, the way we perceive the external world isn't just based on raw data coming in through our senses. It is a merging of our brains' predictions combined with that new data.
Known as predictive processing theory, this is one of the hottest topics in neuroscience at the moment, and it has been described as a grand unifying theory of the brain.
On Sam Harris' Waking Up app for smartphones, yesterday I finished listening to a fascinating two-hour discussion between Harris and Shamil Chandaria, a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Eudaimonia and Human Flourishing at Linacre College, University of Oxford.
If you've ever thought of giving the Waking Up app a try, this audio discussion would be a great way to see some of what it offers. The app says that I can invite a friend to try the app for 30 days. Here's a link that supposedly unlocks that offer: https://dynamic.wakingup.com/shareOpenAccess/SC548CF28
Don't know if it will work for you, but it's worth a try. If it doesn't, email me (address is in right sidebar), and I'll share the Waking Up invite with you that way.
Harris and Chandaria talk about the brain from first principles; Bayesian inference; hierarchical predictive processing; the construction of vision; psychedelics and neuroplasticity; beliefs and prior probabilities; the interaction between psychedelics and meditation; the risks and benefits of psychedelics, Harris' recent experience with MDMA; non-duality; love, gratitude, and bliss; the self model; the Buddhist concept of emptiness; human flourishing; effective altruism, and other topics.
You also can hear the first part of their discussion on YouTube. And seemingly all of it if you sign up for a certain YouTube channel.
Now, on to a necessarily brief rundown of some tips that Clark shares in his book. These aren't new by any means, but they take on a different flavor when viewed through the lens of the predictive process theory.
One that especially resonated with me is realistic optimism.
The common idea, taking us all the way from short-term motor control to long-term goal-directed action, is that we are pulled along by our own highly predicted future states -- such as the state of drinking the coffee, arriving at that airport on time, or improving my surfing skills. This in turn requires a kind of informed optimism.
We must at some level strongly predict that we will occupy the states that we can plausibly attain and that best realize our goals. We will then act in ways designed to eliminate errors calculated relative to the optimistic-yet-realistic prediction that those goals are achieved. Realistic optimism is thus the order of the day.
...[Predictive processing] suggests that the way we see and experience the world is quite routinely shaped and guided by our own (often unconscious) predictions and expectations
Then there's expecting relief, which includes placebos.
Since experience is always shaped by our own expectations, there is an opportunity to improve our lives by altering some of those expectations, and the confidence with which they are held. For as we have seen again and again, it is only confident predictions (even if they are ones hidden from conscious view) that get to exert a real grip on the shape of human experience.
...Confidence in a given intervention reflects our confidence in the person (and the larger establishment) offering it, but also the nature of the intervention itself. Injections and surgeries, being considered relatively "powerful" interventions, clearly demonstrate this effect... Remarkably, patients receiving the placebo surgery reported similar amounts of relief as those undergoing normal surgery.
...A fascinating range of cases involves the use of "honest placebos." In these cases, potent predictions of relief can still be activated despite the person knowing perfectly well that there is no standard or clinically active ingredient present.
The power of self-affirmation is real.
Just as placebos and rituals can impact the deep prediction engines that sculpt human experience, so too can verbal interventions of various kinds. Cases in point include the strings of comforting words uttered by someone well-trusted (for example, in the context of talk therapy), but also the words we ourselves use, either actually uttered or in inner monologues, to frame our own thinking.
In these and many other ways, the careful use of language has the capacity to reach into the heart of the experience machine. A well-studied example is the positive, performance-enhancing power role of self-affirmation.
...We also can use words to frame and reframe our own experiences and anxieties. This is another potent tool whose powers and mechanisms can now be better understood. For example, consider that prickly rush of adrenaline so often felt before going onstage or delivering a speech. We can practice attending to that feeling while verbally reframing it as a sign of our own chemical readiness to deliver a good performance. This can lead to more relaxed and fluent behavior.
Lastly, meditation and the control of attention.
Properly used, psychedelic drugs offer a way to step back from our usual daily doubts and self-concerns, providing what has been described as "holiday from the self."
This is also one of the key effects of meditation, a practice that likewise quiets the ego, as evidenced both by verbal reports and by dampened neuronal responses in areas (such as the default mode network) associated with introspective self-consciousness -- the same areas in which activity was seen to be dampened by the action of the psychedelic drugs.
It is unsurprising then that the meditative route to the effects is itself now being understood using the tools and constructs of predictive processing. Focused-attention meditation provides a good example. In focused-attention meditation, practitioners learn to maintain attention on a single object such as the breath.
In predictive processing terms, upping the precision on that sole reliable object inevitably results in dropping the precision assigned to all other states, effectively down-weighting all the rest of the information flowing in from the senses. Once this skill is acquired, thoughts, memories, and sensations can also arise without capturing attention.
This means they can be experienced in a way that is helpfully disengaged from our normal tendencies to react and respond. A bodily itch or a disturbing thought may still arise, but it is not experienced as an immediate call to action, such as scratching or rumination.
For those following the comment game, Spence Tepper lost
For those who have been following the interesting exchange of views about consciousness and the brain in comments on a recent blog post, I'm pleased to present the final score on a debate about whether there's evidence that awareness can be free of filters and concepts.
Commenter Spence Tepper ended up without scoring a debate point due to his religious dogmatism. Commenters Appreciative Reader and myself scored numerous debate points because we used facts and logic. Tepper never actually played the debate game, choosing to ignore calls to produce evidence for his assertion.
Bottom line: you can't win a game unless you're willing to play the game. Calling out "I won!" from the sidelines is a spectator sport, not a genuine sport.
Here's how Appreciative Reader put it in his typically courteous and reasonable fashion.
Most of what you say now, in this last comment, is reasonable, and I agree generally with most of that, I guess.
Except! Except, that isn't what this was about, was it. You'd claimed, originally, that meditation enables us to bypass the model-building thing of our brain, and bypass those mental filters to apprehend reality directly. That extravagant claim of yours is what Brian had flagged, and asked you to substantiate. And pre-empting exactly this kind of bobbing and weaving, I'd wondered if you could do that, without changing the subject etc.
(Here's your own words, that Brian had quoted there: "...if we can go to that place of awareness within ourselves free of filters, a place where filtering and conceptual reconstruction do not function, who knows what we may experience? Maybe God? But no label would work there. Maybe reality directly. Maybe pure experience of the moment. Maybe the moment is eternity." And you've said similar, often enough, other times as well.)
If you'd been able to substantiate that claim, then that would have been fantastic. I'd have been first to accept it, and change my mind and my worldview accordingly. If you hadn't been able to do that, even then, had you directly admitted that that isn't evidenced, but merely how it appears to you, personally and subjectively, and what some religious traditions teach, fair enough, no harm done. We'd then have known clearly where we stand. And nor would that have detracted from your experiences --- except we wouldn't be then looking at them as (allegedly) a "direct" apprehension of reality.
As it happens, you did neither. In your reply to Brian, you simply doubled down, with this further extravagant and unevidenced claim thrown in: "You have experience but it is often entirely beyond the thinking brain, and so without impression, zero memory. You think you saw nothing. But thinking is the problem. You saw something, you can't think of it. (...) You'll have to Grok it. Sartori it."
Once again, the claim that in meditation you experience something that is beyond the thinking brain. In as much as these words of yours are linked to what you'd said before, presumably you mean to imply that this is that direct apprehension of reality, that you'd referred to earlier.
In other words, all you did was to "substantiate" your extravagant claim, with yet another extravagant and unevidenced claim.
And now, now you present to me very reasonable comments, very wise views on meditation, and indeed evidenced opinions on meditation. All of which I agree with. Except none of them have anything to do with that original claim.
The one part of your comment now that does directly deal with that original claim is where you say: “Part of that reality reconstruction the brain does all the time. We don't have to be a willing, mindless participant in that.”
That’s worded kind of ambiguously, but it seems to indicate that meditation allows you to go outside of the reconstruction, the model building, that the brain does. In which case it’s simply you repeating your original claim, yet again, in different words, instead of substantiating it. (And yes, like I said that's worded ambiguously. If you didn't mean to convey that by those words, then fair enough, I take this last back. But in that case, again, this has nothing to do with your original claim at all.)
As for the Mayo Clinic link, it’s a cool article, and I enjoyed reading it. But it’s simply a general article written by the clinic staff, a kind of overview of meditation, and it doesn’t come close to providing the kind of evidence we’re talking about here; and nor does it actually claim, either, that meditation helps you apprehend reality directly and minus the filters of mental model-building.
It's a straightforward issue. You know my views on meditation. I'm a fan, and in fact a practitioner and aspirant myself. I agree that meditation is generally beneficient, in terms of what you've discussed here, and more. In general I'm interested in knowing more about all of that, sure.
But the issue we're focused on at this time is this: Can meditation enable us to bypass the model-building via which filter we apprehend reality indirectly, so that we might be able to apprehend reality directly? That had been your claim. Can you substantiate it? If not, then I don't see the issue with clearly admitting it, and retracting that original claim. (And nor do you need jettison that POV altogether. You can always present it, instead, and if you like, as a speculation, maybe, rather than as fact. We can speculate all we want, about whatever we want, why not, as long as we're clear that speculating is all we're doing.)
Not to force the issue beyond this! And apologies if any of my comments in this thread appeared less than fully courteous. Absolutely no offense intended, Spence. Cheers.
Posted at 10:52 AM in Comments, Neuroscience | Permalink | Comments (12)