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Mindfulness Machines: what I’m doing during this whole here PhD business

Courtesy of Hexeosis.com, where every hex is an osis

Theory[1] of Everything[2]

Highest level

The world is getting objectively[3] better for humans[4]. 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[5]. There may be a disconnect between material flourishing and mental flourishing. Can we bridge this gap?

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[11] 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.

Wireheading meaning-making

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):

  • Rhythmic
  • Sustained
  • Wordless
  • Repeated
  • Immersive
  • Social[16]

Key concepts


  • Entrainment
  • Hypnosis
  • Stress
  • Sensorial stimulation (particularly visual/auditory/tactile)
  • Pivotal Mental States (PiMS)
  • Default Mode Network
  • Predictive Processing/Bayesian Brain
  • Neural Annealing
  • Psychedelics/5-HT2A/C


  • Attention
  • Flow states
  • Stimulus-response
  • Happiness
  • Logotherapy
  • Psychotherapy/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Depression/Anxiety/PTSD/Psychosis/Schizophrenia/Addiction
  • Meditation (mindful or otherwise)
  • Mystical Experiences (such as in Mystical Experience Questionnaire)
  • Awe
  • Compassion
  • Embodiment
  • Interpersonality (i.e., shared experiences)
  • Openness to experience


  • Existentialism (Ratcliffe, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Sartre)
  • Nihilism (Nietzsche)
  • Reductive Materialism
  • Meaning
  • Capital T truth (William James)
  • Absurdity (Camus)
  • Self
  • Consciousness/experience
  • Resilience
  • Enlightenment, puruṣārtha, ikigai, dao (also fits into anthro)
  • Anthropology
  • Religion/Rituals
  • Psychedelics
  • Narrative/fantasy
  • Music/rhythm
  • Virtual/Augmented Reality



Wherein we discuss the most dangerous animal and the universe in her head.

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Joshua Clingo

Hello, this is me. So who is me? Me is a Cognitive Scientist who happens to like writing. I study meaning in life, happiness, and so on and so forth, forever.