Mindfulness Machines: what I’m doing during this whole here PhD business
I recently swapped advisors because the other one was hellbent on making me produce science, when all I wanted to do was change the world. Maybe I’ll split the difference in the next next life (the next life is the one where I’m born in the vacuum of space, for reasons no one will ever know).
New advisor understandably wanted me to write down just what I was thinking about thinking about for the next few years — so I wrote this as an executive summary. It’s painfully free of jargon and stunningly short by my rambly rambly standards. Here it is!
Theory of Everything
1 — Not a theory!
2 — Not everything!
Herein lies a very broad and unavoidably vague picture of what I’m aiming to research from IR through dissertation (and beyond?!)
The world is getting objectively better for humans. We live longer, healthier, have more choices, autonomy, wealth, connections, and all-around marvels. Yet it only seems that way for some few–sometimes–and certainly not to the degree that our ancestors would have hoped when they toiled to develop the technologies that now sustain our lives. Were we to teach an alien human language and expose it to Twitter or Facebook, they would infer that human life is nasty, brutish and all too long. Yet we are objectively flourishing in spite of reports to the contrary. There may be a disconnect between material flourishing and mental flourishing. Can we bridge this gap?
3 — I use objectively throughout–somewhat ironically–as a sort of catchall for externally observable, materially grounded, evolutionarily adaptive, scientific facts that describe continued human survival, without consideration for conscious experience. My position leans more towards process over substance ontologies, especially in this context.
4 — Discounting future consequences, of course
5 — We don’t have the luxury of interviewing versions of ourselves from the past but it’s worth wondering whether our past selves would report feeling as hopeless as our present selves (unless we caught them at a particularly plague or genocide-ridden time). Not that we can resolve this wager, but I would wager with all the Monopoly money I have that we would have reported feeling that our lives are more meaningful, plague-riddenness or not.
Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning documents his shared, harrowing experience through one of the objectively worst possible worlds for humans–one as captive in the Holocaust. As a sufferer and ultimately lucky survivor, he observed his fellow men and his own experiences. Amidst sickness and death, some found meaning in the darkest moments–these were able to not just survive but to live in the years that followed. Tragically, many others did not. What explains this difference? We have blanket terms such as “resilience” and “hardiness” but they don’t quite capture the depth and breadth what plays out in the face of extreme stressors: a separation between what is objectively real and what is experienced as meaningful.
6 — Experience/Experiential describe conscious experience. Though this experience is likely grounded and rooted in objective reality, in this context–where material facts strongly diverge from mental facts–I make an effort at keeping them separated.
Some people are dispositioned towards searching for and finding meaning in any and all things that happen to them and those around them. This meaning-making allows them to mentally flourish. However, others (or the same people at different times and in different places) do not find meaning in experiences that dispositional meaning-makers would take to be intrinsically meaningful. You show the meaning apathests a double rainbow and they wearily sigh and tell you they’ve seen one before or that it’s just a well-explained physical phenomenon. Light hits water droplets and pow!–a couple rainbows. These disparate positions suggest that something is or is not motivating about the way we perceive the stream of experiences that amount to our lives as we know them. The double rainbow can come to mean and motivate any number of possible responses. If we were wondering whether we should buy that house that just came on the market and we suddenly saw the double rainbow, we might feel as though we just got the confirmation we needed. Or–say we’re not into magical realism resolving important life decisions–we may laugh the double rainbow off as a fun coincidence but ultimately ascribe no greater meaning to its appearance. That’s one context. If we were instead a person who came from an isolated, arid land, without Internet access, a double rainbow appearing in front of us could be grounds for starting a religion or two. We can readily imagine any number of situational, mental, and social contexts that could completely alter both the experience in the moment and the stream of experiences that comprise our greater life story. The thing that surprises me most is that we haven’t done all that much on identifying, quantifying, and qualifying meaning-making in our sciences–though there have been some efforts.
7 — Flourish in the sense that they tend to report feeling happy and successful, connected and satisfied. There are of course ways in which such a result could be undesirable from an ultimate perspective. If I’m always completely and utterly content, I run the risk of starvation, hunger pangs being treated as noisy background music. (Or, in a less extreme example, if I am too prone to meaning-making, I may find myself sucked into a cult or another local attractor.)
8 — Calling them nihilists would be not quite correct. Where nihilism denies, not finding meaning where others find meaning does not make you a nihilist so much as it makes you someone who does not find meaning where others find meaning. If you were to deny all kinds of meaning, however–this would make you an attempted nihilist. Run as fast as you want–meaning will always find you. The very act of denial is itself an expression of meaning.
9 — The most notable exception is a funny one–language/linguistics. We’ve been professionally puzzling over how symbols turn into semantics for several decades now. It’s funny because this work has largely concerned itself with the how of it all, where my kind of meaning-making doesn’t care overmuch about that aspect and instead focuses on the so-what of it all. Still, there are interesting parallels that I actually think are worth looking into. If there were more of me, I’d assign at least one if not two of me to investigate.
Phenomenologists have done work in raising an awareness of experience and experiences, possible and realized. Psychologists have gently prodded by asking whether people think their lives are meaningful and have indirectly furnished methods for meaning-making in certain forms of therapy. Anthropologists have documented different social contexts that produce shared sources of meaning. Neuroscientists have identified chemicals and regions in the brain that reliably produce loss of self (associated with many meaning-making activities, discussed later)–and so on. These fields are doing great work but I’m skeptical any one of them is in a position to bring all of this together. But this ← of course smuggles in an assumption–can we bring this all together? Is there anything to be brought together? I think that there is and that we can! At least, we can get the ball rolling.
We ought to be able to observe and manipulate experiences and thereby more clearly understand the phenomenon of meaning-making. To find candidates for meaning-making contexts, we can look towards practices that are commonly associated with meaning-making, which also share the property of being testable in controlled environments over manageable timescales. Two candidates immediately present themselves–mindfulness meditation and psychedelic experiences. These have often been discussed alongside each other–recently called “Pivotal Mental States” or PiMS–as they share both behavioral and neurophysiological fingerprints.
10 — Examples of difficult to capture yet reportedly meaningful experiences include the birth of one’s child, surviving a life-threatening situation, and religious rapture
Another potential avenue for insight is to identify the shared qualities of these altered states and see whether we can induce our own controlled, analogous experiences. Though these would lack the full depth of some of the most affecting PiMS, they would have the benefit of specifically targeting these states in a controlled way, allowing us to make and observe the effects of changing fundamental properties (e.g., duration, intensity, sensory modalities, frequencies, social context, framing, etc.).
Zooming out a bit, recall that my fundamental and over-ambitious interest was to bridge the gap between how objectively great the world is for humans and how seemingly little experiential meaning we have gotten from this. The exploration of forms of PiMS and developing tools for this brings–albeit naively–hope that this gap can be intentionally mitigated through our coming to understand the nature of the meaningful experiences that comprise a meaningful life.
More on that…
It has been taken as granted that we can connect meaningful experiences to expressions of belief about how meaningful our lives are. Before we can go so far, we have to lay some groundwork for both concepts–because they are distinct. Experience is notoriously difficult to measure and capture, so much so that mainstream psychology has mostly satisfied itself with ignoring experience and measuring and averaging behavior as a purer distillation of experience. This move has strategic boons, but has left out everything that does not lend itself to behavioral stimulus/response chains. Reduction to stimulus-response has also left our models vulnerable to individual differences constantly confounding our claimed clarities. Meaning may provide reasons for what we do, but behavioral psychology can simply ignore this folk understanding and instead point to more fundamental drives, such as survival and social acceptance. While these kinds of reductionist explanations are useful for some purposes, they produce insights that are themselves reductionist, limited in scope and ambition. If what we care about is improving our understanding of meaning, we should understand it as an experiential reality.
11 — I’m (admittedly unrepentantly) sorry to beat on mainstream psychology, but every story has to have a villain
As alluded to earlier, meaningful experience forms a background to many–but not all–experiences. It also motivates–when I say I want to sit on the beach and watch the waves, it may be unclear to an outsider exactly what might motivate this action. Our alien from the intro might ask me to provide some account of the what and why: what am I doing? (watching waves); why am I doing it? (because I want to). This might not satisfy the alien. In alien frustration, it might go down a few levels of description. Are waves patterns that produce pleasure in human brains? Is this wave-watching preparatory training for galactic conflict? Does an understanding of waves yield improved mate selection? Even if any or all of these were true in some ultimate sense, wave watching is meaningful from the only perspective I have direct access to. Any description that goes over or under this one fails to capture my meaning. The world I live in is one of meaningful objects–or so argued in Eudaemonia: Meaningful Existential Feelings. The briefest version of the central argument goes like this: Existential feelings form the background of all our experiences and some of these feelings have the additional quality of meaningfulness, of being meaningful beyond the context in which they are experienced. These meaningful feelings are what we use to inform the judgments that produce a statement such as “My life has meaning”. Without them, such an utterance would lose its representative content and therefore its coherence. We may as well demand that Siri or Alexa state that their lives are meaningful! Judgments of meaning always reference genuine experiences of meaning.
If this is true–that meaningful feelings beget meaning in life–then we can focus on the particulars of these feelings. What makes a feeling meaningful? Why should anything feel meaningful at all? Could animals and/or artificial agents come to experience meaning? These questions and more abound, so much so that one should (rightly) wonder whether we could adequately address them. The alternative of course is to pare this all down–maybe instead of meaning, we can study belief in causality. Or we can look into trust in narrative, such as openness to fantasy. Then there’s the behavioral end. We could investigate whether people who report meaning in life are more socially connected, able to focus, eat well–and so on. This line of research could go on and on, but I’m concerned that in pursuing this, we’d be compromising our overall goals, in the interest of producing digestible bits of well-grounded research. It’s not enough to find correlations between reports of meaning and different variables–we should understand the nature of the feeling. By doing this, we may be able to bridge the gap between our material flourishing and the (presumed) lack of mental flourishing, without requiring costly changes to our material situations. In short, we could target affordable, straightforward interventions that wirehead–that is, to shortcut–the meaning-making process.
12 — I have a friend who studies the hedonic treadmill. His research claims that we need more money per person every year if we want to maintain similar levels of satisfaction and happiness. I don’t fully agree with his methodology but even if he’s only a little right, we still need a solution for consumption outstripping our hedonic rewards.
13 — Based on the following definition, “Wireheading is a term associated with fictional or futuristic applications of brain stimulation reward, the act of directly triggering the brain’s reward center by electrical stimulation of an inserted wire, for the purpose of ‘short-circuiting’ the brain’s normal reward process and artificially inducing pleasure”.
A simple example of wireheading is as follows: imagine we have some 1000 terminally ill children who want to meet Shaquille O’Neal. We could spend $10,000 per child (who knows what the actual going rate is!) flying out and accommodating Mr O’Neal ($10,000,000). Alternatively, we could rent something like Google’s Project Starline, cutting out the flying and accommodating. The experience would be experientially quite similar to the real thing yet would cost far less to execute, thereby benefiting far more children than would ever have been possible before. That’s one angle–directly simulating the stimulus. Another angle is to consider whether what these kids really want is to shake hands with a retired basketball star. Maybe they actually just want someone they respect to give them warm attention at apparent cost to themselves, to feel special and important to someone they think is special and important. In that case, we could imagine making the wish come true through having them meet a less expensive human, like their past teacher or a local hero, human or animal. Or even less directly, maybe they don’t really need any kind of experience like that. Maybe all they really want is to be appreciated by the people they are close to. All of these are potential solutions but some of these cost more than others and some of these address the fundamental phenomenology more or less effectively and enduringly. The point is this: The Make-a-Wish children here have a fundamental interest–to be appreciated, etc.–and this interest can be met in any number of ways, some of which dramatically shortcut and undercut the most elaborate ways. I believe that meaning-making can be similarly shortcutted–in other words, wireheaded.
14 — Or something even better–who knows what the future holds? Maybe we can make an AI O’Neal and therefore make O’Neal a right, not a privilege.
Though meaning-making is a fundamental aspect of experience, certain kinds of contexts lend themselves to meaning-making as a more active strategy. As hinted at before, extremely stressful events tend to produce the need to reflect and contextualize the experience, often consciously, over some period of time. When I get rear-ended on the freeway, even if insurance covers everything and I come out physically unscathed, I nevertheless find myself compulsively reflecting on the experience for days, months, and even years. Some of this reflection can be attributed to a sage impulse to learn–had been just a little farther from the car in front of me, I might have been able to use that space to my advantage and avoid a collision, legal fault be damned. But–crucially–this is not the extent of my reflection. I will likely feel an inexorable pull towards the construction of a more personal narrative framing. Never liked my car anyway–that’s what it gets for the rattling sounds it often graces me with! Other driver was a cute old lady–I hope she’s okay with it. I can tell she was just as rattled as my car. It’s just a car anyhow! And so on. We do not merely learn from our stressful experiences–we build them into our personal worlds. We fit them into a greater whole. PiMS (Pivotal Mental States, as you’ll recall) like this come in different shapes and sizes–what’s shared is the overall arc (taken from the paper):
Leaning into the accident example, our chronic stress might be a background condition of financial worries–our car is falling apart and we can’t afford to fix it. Our acute stress is what we feel as our car is rear-ended and we deal with the fallout. A PiMS results and we use our powers of meaning-making to reckon that the accident was anything but–it was divine intervention! The insurance companies ended up agreeing to pay us a generous sum, enough for a new old car, with a little cash to spare. We wind up better than we started.
Alternatively, the acute stress is too much! We develop PTSD and a fear of cars and roads–we endlessly ruminate on the accident, desperately trying to make sense of it. Why us?!
Though these examples are a little contrived, they are not completely contrived. The PiMS in the middle has the power to precipitate complex and dynamic changes over long timescales, where a more commonplace stimulus-response loop does not. PiMS are identified by the following:
1. Elevated cortical plasticity
2. Enhanced rate of associative learning
3. Elevated capacity to mediate psychological transformation
For my meaning-making purposes, I’m interested in 3 (1 is just a physical correlate and 2 is just an aspect of 3): psychological transformation. The transformation I’d be looking for would of course be positive in nature. But let’s leave PiMS to the side for a second.
Again, recall that my interest is in helping people appreciate the positive qualities of their own experiences, somewhat independently of material facts at hand–meaning-making could be one such tool. But how can we get better at meaning-making? Is it learned? If we can in fact get better at it, we ought to be able to develop tools to do so. Viktor Frankl did more than write a beloved book on meaning–he spent the rest of his life establishing a competing form of therapy (competing against Freud, who he respected/constantly argued against), entitled “logotherapy” (from logos–logic). The idea behind logotherapy is that the therapist helps the patient discover ways in which their life is meaningful. Dog died? You could say that’s just what dogs do. But you could just as easily say that Fido’s death was a mercy–he wasn’t moving well and he spent his days in labored breathing. Now he’s gone to the great doghouse in the sky. Though this reframing is not strictly logical, the underlying motivation bears some logic. In William Jamesian fashion, Frankl reckoned that we don’t live in a world of capital T “Truth”–instead, we find that truths are always a matter of context and perspective. If one truth–that Fido is a lifeless corpse–is pitted against another truth–that Fido is now freed from his suffering–it is logical to choose the latter truth over the former if our goal is to live a life full of meaning.
Logotherapy never really took off (blame the branding?) but its spectre cheerfully haunts mainstream psychotherapy today. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is strikingly similar in many ways and has been one of the very few successful tools for treating anxiety and depression. Good as it is, CBT is not all that effective in the long term and is difficult to teach and implement–and is really only accessible to the relative few who avail themselves of Western psychotherapy. But for all its weaknesses, there’s only one other approach that has better results: psychedelic-assisted therapy.
15 — We’re of course ignoring the approaches found in non-clinical wisdom–if I learn to go fishing to manage my melancholy and that works for me, such an intervention will naturally escape the notice of clinical practice, which cannot quite afford to customize treatment to such a degree.
Psilocybin and LSD (and to a lesser extent and for intriguing reasons, DMT and ketamine) have been found to be highly effective at treating depression and anxiety (along with addiction and PTSD). There are many competing ideas for why this is so–but it is so. And intriguingly, as soon as we peep into studies on these substances, we find meaning making a mess all over the lab. Psychedelics reliably produce accounts of meaning–the experiences people have while tripping are often described as life-changing and have been ranked in the vaunted space between the birth of one’s own child and the death of one’s parent. This meaning-making occurs both during the trip and in the days, weeks, and months that follow, often precipitating significant behavioral changes.
It could be that the drugs are just so powerful that they are altering the mind and the experience at hand is just a lightshow, a side-effect of it all. But that’s a minority view and one I doubt will withstand further inquiry. There’s something about the ability to contextualize the experience that enables lasting psychological transformation. Assuming this is true, let’s bring PiMS and wireheading around again. Following these concepts, there could be any number of stimuli that could produce a kind of psychological transformation. We’ve mostly stumbled into psychedelics and while they are really interesting, they have technical and sociological barriers to adoption. And harrowing car accidents and other extreme, negatively valenced stressors are not really conducive to the positive changes we’re looking for. Maybe it’s possible to gather aspects of the psychedelic experience and combine them with other areas where meaning-making en masse is often reported.
Mindfulness meditation, rhythmic drumming, holotropic breathwork, religious rapture, and music festivals all incite reports of meaning-making. Though they differ in exact stimulus and content, the most apparent common thread is rhythm. Other threads include a diminishment of self, a flow state, strong sensorial stimulation, and a silencing of narrative. Most but not all are deeply communal experiences and most are repeated many times. As with psychedelics, we can borrow aspects of these when considering how we might construct our own tools.
All this taken together, we might expect a built-to-spec PiMS device to have the following qualities:
16 — Though meditation and psychedelics are not strictly social (the former is often practiced in extreme social isolation), in practice they are learned and shared in social contexts, through language. Meditators and psychonauts talk.
There may be others or other ways to slice or subdivide these–that’s what a science of PiMS might look into. Again, for my purposes, the point would be to investigate these in order to better understand and explore how people can learn to make meaning, with the end goal of producing more experienced meaning in a world full of untapped, meaningful potential.
And that’s it for the broad strokes! There’s an incredible amount of terrain being covered here at a very superficial level (I apologize for that!).
I’ve also included a sort of concept index, by discipline. Just to get an idea of where I’m going to be turning over the most stones. Here it goes:
- Sensorial stimulation (particularly visual/auditory/tactile)
- Pivotal Mental States (PiMS)
- Default Mode Network
- Predictive Processing/Bayesian Brain
- Neural Annealing
- Flow states
- Psychotherapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
- Meditation (mindful or otherwise)
- Mystical Experiences (such as in Mystical Experience Questionnaire)
- Interpersonality (i.e., shared experiences)
- Openness to experience
- Existentialism (Ratcliffe, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Sartre)
- Nihilism (Nietzsche)
- Reductive Materialism
- Capital T truth (William James)
- Absurdity (Camus)
- Enlightenment, puruṣārtha, ikigai, dao (also fits into anthro)
- Virtual/Augmented Reality