Meditation Without Meditating

“Over the past several decades, studies examining the potential for meditation to curb mental anguish and increase wellbeing have yielded promising, if complicated, results. For patients, complications can arise when meditation is marketed as a ‘happy pill, with no side effects’. This commodification and oversimplification is at the root of a conundrum for Jay Sanguinetti and Shinzen Young, the co-directors of SEMA Lab (Sonication Enhanced Mindful Awareness) at the University of Arizona. In the early stages of developing a technology that they believe could lead to meditative states without the need to meditate – a Silicon Valley-ready concept if there ever was one – the duo now must navigate the intricate ethics of introducing such a powerful product to the world. This short film from The Guardian follows Sanguinetti and Shinzen in their quest to ‘democratise enlightenment’ via ultrasound technology, while also attempting to ensure that, when the time comes, it will be properly implemented as a therapeutic tool.”

Lina Lyte Plioplyte, “‘Meditation without meditating’ might be possible. Can it also be made ethical?Aeon.com via TheGuardian.com. August 16, 2021.

Metaphor as Mental Model

“In 2011, Stanford researchers Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky published research that showed how the way we talk about crime changes our ideas about what to do about it. They asked two groups of students to read reports about crime in their area – one using a metaphor of crime as a ‘beast’ that was rampaging through the neighbourhood, and one describing crime as a ‘virus’ that had to be stopped. Their research showed that students shown the ‘virus’ metaphor were more likely to favour policy that looked at the root causes of crime, such as social deprivation, whilst students who read the ‘beast’ metaphor story favoured enforcement policies.”

-Matt Locke, “Data isn’t oil, so what is it?” howtomeasureghosts.substack.com. May 15, 2021

Be careful with choosing analogies and metaphors. It guides thought.

Preferring Pain to High Cognitive Effort

“Cognitive effort is described as aversive, and people will generally avoid it when possible. This aversion to effort is believed to arise from a cost–benefit analysis of the actions available. The comparison of cognitive effort against other primary aversive experiences, however, remains relatively unexplored. Here, we offered participants choices between performing a cognitively demanding task or experiencing thermal pain. We found that cognitive effort can be traded off for physical pain and that people generally avoid exerting high levels of cognitive effort. We also used computational modelling to examine the aversive subjective value of effort and its effects on response behaviours. Applying this model to decision times revealed asymmetric effects of effort and pain, suggesting that cognitive effort may not share the same basic influences on avoidance behaviour as more primary aversive stimuli such as physical pain.”

Todd A Vogel, et al. “Forced choices reveal a trade-off between cognitive effort and physical pain.” eLife: Neurosciences. November 17, 2020. doi: 10.7554/eLife.59410

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than outlined in this abstract.

Destruction & Creation

“There are two ways in which we can develop and manipulate mental concepts to represent observed reality: we can start from a comprehensive whole and break it down to its particulars or we can start with the particulars and build towards a comprehensive whole.[28,24] Saying it another way, but in a related sense, we can go from the general-to-specific or from the specific-to-general. A little reflection here reveals that deduction is related to proceeding from the general-to-specific while induction is related to proceeding from the specific-to-general. In following this line of thought, can we think of other activities that are related to these two opposing ideas? Is not analysis related to proceeding from the general-to-specific? Is not synthesis, the opposite of analysis, related to proceeding from the specific-to-general? Putting all this together: Can we not say that general-to-specific is related to both deduction and analysis, while specific-to-general is related to induction and synthesis?

John Richard Boyd, “Destruction and Creation.” US Army Command and General Staff College. September 3, 1976.
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See also: OODA Loop.

The Rule of Awkward Silence

“[T]he rule of awkward silence is simple: When faced with a challenging question, instead of answering, you pause and think deeply about how you want to answer. This is no short pause; rather, it involves taking several seconds (10, 20, or longer) to think things through before responding.

If you’re on the receiving end–and not used to this type of communication style–it can seem very awkward.”

—Justin Bariso, “Intelligent Minds Like Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos Embrace the Rule of Awkward Silence. You Should Too.” Inc. September 9, 2020.

We Are All Confident Idiots

“An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power (See: crisis, financial; war, Iraq). As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Ironically, one thing many people “know” about this quote is that it was first uttered by Mark Twain or Will Rogers—which just ain’t so.)

-David Dunning, “We are all confident idiots.” Pacific Standard. October 27, 2014.

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

Four problems that biases help us address:

Problem 1: Too much information.

Problem 2: Not enough meaning.

Problem 3: Need to act fast.

Problem 4: What should we remember?

-Buster Benson, “Cognitive bias cheat sheet.” Medium.com. September 1, 2016.

Recommend reading this in its entirety, but at minimum, it is worth a click through and scroll to the bottom to see the graphic. You can also purchase a poster of the cheat sheet.

Pity the Feeling

On top of Everest, in my mind,
a dark cloud, lightning blasts, 
a hurricane of controversies, unwind
below, nonsense sea, fish net casts.

The Sherpa is fishing about
prefers an understanding cartel.
Procrustean commodities—easier without 
a heart, a totalitarian Tinkerbell.

Feelings, the repugnant social Other,
are the dream within the dream.
Before we think, we must feel, brother,
a mind | heart alone, cannot reign supreme.

How to Teach Yourself Hard Things

  1. Identify what you don’t understand (maybe the most important one)
  2. Have confidence in your knowledge
  3. Ask questions
  4. Do research

…Taking a bit of extra time to take a piece of knowledge that you’re pretty sure of (“there are 65535 ports, Wikipedia said so”) and make it totally ironclad (“that’s because the port field in the TCP header is only 16 bits”) is super useful because there is a big difference between “I’m 97% sure this is true” and “I am 100% sure about this and I never need to question it again”. Things I know are 100% true are way easier to rely on.”

—Julia Evans, “How to teach yourself hard things.” jvans.ca. September 1, 2018.

I would add that the an important pitfall is those things that we are sure is 100% true that aren’t true. Being a philosophical skeptic, this is probably everything.

Rearranging Our Minds

Open Question: Should we make an effort to change our minds in some fundamental way? And if so, how?

There are a number of stories of people suffering a traumatic brain injury that results in the brain being rearranged in a way that gives them a new ability. Generally, this involves some skill with art, understanding music, improved memory or doing calculations in math. Although, a few also involve different kinds of experience, such as synesthesia.

It’s not limited to injuries. There is also the question of psychedelics. Scott Alexander makes this point in an article in his blog Slate Star Codex:

“The third possibility is the one that really intrigues me. A 2011 study found that a single dose of psilocybin could permanently increase the personality dimension of Openness To Experience. I’m emphasizing that because personality is otherwise pretty stable after adulthood; nothing should be able to do this. But magic mushrooms apparently have this effect, and not subtly either; participants who had a mystical experience on psilocybin had Openness increase up to half a standard deviation compared to placebo, and the change was stable sixteen months later. This is really scary. I mean, I like Openness To Experience, but something that can produce large, permanent personality changes is so far beyond anything else we have in psychiatry that it’s kind of terrifying.”

Scott Alexander, “Why Were Early Psychedelicists So Weird?” Slate Star Codex. April 28, 2016.

Anyone that has been around people that have taken a lot of LSD know that they are different. Often, they are different in ways that make it more difficult to function in society, not easier. But, the opposite can also be true.

There was also a lot of discussion a few years ago about how people in Silicon Valley were microdosing LSD in an effort to boost their creativity. Clearly, in this case, psychedelics were being used to improve performance in a particular context and probably without full consideration of the effects beyond creativity.

There has also been research done in using electrical impulses to change mental states in people. The U.S. military, for example, is using electrical brain stimulation to enhance skills. Of course, there has been a dark side to this as well, as any discussion of Electroconvulsive Therapy will invariably bring up.

Meditation is also said to have effects on our mental states. A meta-analysis into meditation research by the medical community described it as follows:

“Results indicate that meditation leads to activation in brain areas involved in processing self-relevant information, self-regulation, focused problem-solving, adaptive behavior, and interoception. Results also show that meditation practice induces functional and structural brain modifications in expert meditators, especially in areas involved in self-referential processes such as self-awareness and self-regulation. These results demonstrate that a biological substrate underlies the positive pervasive effect of meditation practice and suggest that meditation techniques could be adopted in clinical populations and to prevent disease.”

M. Boccia, L. Piccardi, P. Guariglia. “The meditative mind: a comprehensive meta-analysis of MRI studies.” Biomed. Res. Int. 2015:419808. 10.1155/2015/419808

It seems like meditation is a good idea and has many positive aspects, but it also fundamentally changes the biology and the functioning of our brains. Should we be doing it?

You could probably make arguments that music, creating art, exercise and many other activities have dramatic and important effects on the mind and likely change it on a biological level. But, should we be striving to reorganize our minds to achieve some goal or mental state? And what techniques should we be using and why? This strikes me as a fundamental unanswered question about human life that warrants investigation.

Reference: Might be useful to consult Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence” to get a sense of how psychedelics are currently being used.