Monday, February 26, 2024

The "enjunkification" of our online lives

I want to pass on two articles I've poured over several times, that describe the increasing "complexification" or "enjunkification" of our online lives. The first is "The Year Millennials Aged Out of the Internet" by Millenial writer Max Reed. Here are some clips from the article. 

Something is changing about the internet, and I am not the only person to have noticed. Everywhere I turned online this year, someone was mourning: Amazon is “making itself worse” (as New York magazine moaned); Google Search is a “bloated and overmonetized” tragedy (as The Atlantic lamented); “social media is doomed to die,” (as the tech news website The Verge proclaimed); even TikTok is becoming enjunkified (to bowdlerize an inventive coinage of the sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow, republished in Wired). But the main complaint I have heard was put best, and most bluntly, in The New Yorker: “The Internet Isn’t Fun Anymore.”

The heaviest users and most engaged American audience on the internet are no longer millennials but our successors in Generation Z. If the internet is no longer fun for millennials, it may simply be because it’s not our internet anymore. It belongs to zoomers now...zoomers, and the adolescents in Generation Alpha nipping at their generational heels, still seem to be having plenty of fun online. Even if I find it all inscrutable and a bit irritating, the creative expression and exuberant sociality that made the internet so fun to me a decade ago are booming among 20-somethings on TikTok, Instagram, Discord, Twitch and even X.

...even if you’re jealous of zoomers and their Discord chats and TikTok memes, consider that the combined inevitability of enjunkification and cognitive decline means that their internet will die, too, and Generation Alpha will have its own era of inscrutable memes and alienating influencers. And then the zoomers can join millennials in feeling what boomers have felt for decades: annoyed and uncomfortable at the computer.

The second article I mention is Jon Caramanica's:  "Have We Reached the End of TikTok’s Infinite Scroll?" Again, a few clips:

The app once offered seemingly endless chances to be charmed by music, dances, personalities and products. But in only a few short years, its promise of kismet is evaporating...increasingly in recent months, scrolling the feed has come to resemble fumbling in the junk drawer: navigating a collection of abandoned desires, who-put-that-here fluff and things that take up awkward space in a way that blocks access to what you’re actually looking for.
This has happened before, of course — the moment when Twitter turned from good-faith salon to sinister outrage derby, or when Instagram, and its army of influencers, learned to homogenize joy and beauty...the malaise that has begun to suffuse TikTok feels systemic, market-driven and also potentially existential, suggesting the end of a flourishing era and the precipice of a wasteland period.
It’s an unfortunate result of the confluence of a few crucial factors. Most glaring is the arrival of TikTok’s shopping platform, which has turned even small creators into spokespeople and the for-you page of recommendations into an unruly bazaar...The effect of seeing all of these quasi-ads — QVC in your pocket — is soul-deadening...The speed and volume of the shift has been startling. Over time, Instagram became glutted with sponsored content and buy links, but its shopping interface never derailed the overall experience of the app. TikTok Shop has done that in just a few months, spoiling a tremendous amount of good will in the process.


 

 

Friday, February 23, 2024

Using caffeine to induce flow states

I pass on this link to an article in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews (open access) and show the Highlights and Abstract of the article below.  One of the coauthors, Steven Kotler, who is executive director at the "Flow Research Collective" was mentioned in my previous 2019 Mind Blog post "A Schism in Flow-land? Flow Genome Project vs. Flow Research Collective."  It was the last in a series of critical posts that started in 2017. While I agree from my personal experience that caffeine (as well other common stimulants) can induce more immersion in and focus on a task, I find find the text, which has a bloated unselective bibliography, to be mind-numbing gibble-gabble, just as were the writing efforts I was reviewing in 2017-2019,  However,  the authors do offer a recitation that some will find useful of "psychological and biological effects of caffeine that, conceptually, enhance flow" - whatever that means.

Highlights

-Caffeine promotes motivation (‘wanting’) and lowers effort aversion, thus facilitating flow.
-Caffeine boosts flow by increasing parasympathetic high frequency heart rate variability.
-Striatal endocannabinoid modulation by caffeine improves stress tolerance and flow.
-Chronic caffeine alters network activity, resulting in greater alertness and flow.
-Caffeine re-wires the dopamine reward system in ADHD for better attention and flow.

 Abstract

Flow is an intrinsically rewarding state characterised by positive affect and total task absorption. Because cognitive and physical performance are optimal in flow, chemical means to facilitate this state are appealing. Caffeine, a non-selective adenosine receptor antagonist, has been emphasized as a potential flow-inducer. Thus, we review the psychological and biological effects of caffeine that, conceptually, enhance flow. Caffeine may facilitate flow through various effects, including: i) upregulation of dopamine D1/D2 receptor affinity in reward-associated brain areas, leading to greater energetic arousal and ‘wanting’; ii) protection of dopaminergic neurons; iii) increases in norepinephrine release and alertness, which offset sleep-deprivation and hypoarousal; iv) heightening of parasympathetic high frequency heart rate variability, resulting in improved cortical stress appraisal, v) modification of striatal endocannabinoid-CB1 receptor-signalling, leading to enhanced stress tolerance; and vi) changes in brain network activity in favour of executive function and flow. We also discuss the application of caffeine to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and caveats. We hope to inspire studies assessing the use of caffeine to induce flow.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

AI makes our humanity matter more than ever.

I want to pass on this link to an NYTimes Opinion Guest essay by Aneesh Raman, a work force expert at LinkedIn,  and

Minouche Shafik, who is now the president of Columbia University, said: “In the past, jobs were about muscles. Now they’re about brains, but in the future, they’ll be about the heart.”

The knowledge economy that we have lived in for decades emerged out of a goods economy that we lived in for millenniums, fueled by agriculture and manufacturing. Today the knowledge economy is giving way to a relationship economy, in which people skills and social abilities are going to become even more core to success than ever before. That possibility is not just cause for new thinking when it comes to work force training. It is also cause for greater imagination when it comes to what is possible for us as humans not simply as individuals and organizations but as a species.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Comparing how generative AI and living organisms generate meaning suggests future direction for AI development

I want to pass on this open source opinion article in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by Karl Friston, Andy Clark, and other prominent figures who study generative models of sentient behavior in living organisms.  (They suggest a future direction for AI development that is very similar to the vision described in the previous MindBlog post, which described a recent article by Venkatesh Rao.) Here are the highlights and abstract of the article.

Highlights

  • Generative artificial intelligence (AI) systems, such as large language models (LLMs), have achieved remarkable performance in various tasks such as text and image generation.
  • We discuss the foundations of generative AI systems by comparing them with our current understanding of living organisms, when seen as active inference systems.
  • Both generative AI and active inference are based on generative models, but they acquire and use them in fundamentally different ways.
  • Living organisms and active inference agents learn their generative models by engaging in purposive interactions with the environment and by predicting these interactions. This provides them with a core understanding and a sense of mattering, upon which their subsequent knowledge is grounded.
  • Future generative AI systems might follow the same (biomimetic) approach – and learn the affordances implicit in embodied engagement with the world before – or instead of – being trained passively.

Abstract

Prominent accounts of sentient behavior depict brains as generative models of organismic interaction with the world, evincing intriguing similarities with current advances in generative artificial intelligence (AI). However, because they contend with the control of purposive, life-sustaining sensorimotor interactions, the generative models of living organisms are inextricably anchored to the body and world. Unlike the passive models learned by generative AI systems, they must capture and control the sensory consequences of action. This allows embodied agents to intervene upon their worlds in ways that constantly put their best models to the test, thus providing a solid bedrock that is – we argue – essential to the development of genuine understanding. We review the resulting implications and consider future directions for generative AI.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Gemini 1.5: Unlocking multimodal understanding across millions of tokens of context

I pass on the PDF of an article from the Gemini Team at Google. Here's the abstract describing a "working memory" system vastly greater than our own, that can hold 10 million tokens  (a 'token' is roughly 0.75 words):

In this report, we present the latest model of the Gemini family, Gemini 1.5 Pro, a highly compute-efficient multimodal mixture-of-experts model capable of recalling and reasoning over fine-grained information from millions of tokens of context, including multiple long documents and hours of video and audio. Gemini 1.5 Pro achieves near-perfect recall on long-context retrieval tasks across modalities, improves the state-of-the-art in long-document QA, long-video QA and long-context ASR, and matches or surpasses Gemini 1.0 Ultra’s state-of-the-art performance across a broad set of benchmarks. Studying the limits of Gemini 1.5 Pro’s long-context ability, we find continued improvement in next-token prediction and near-perfect retrieval (>99%) up to at least 10M tokens, a generational leap over existing models such as Claude 2.1 (200k) and GPT-4 Turbo (128k). Finally, we highlight surprising new capabilities of large language models at the frontier; when given a grammar manual for Kalamang, a language with fewer than 200 speakers worldwide, the model learns to translate English to Kalamang at a similar level to a person learning from the same content.

Friday, February 16, 2024

An agent-based vision for scaling modern AI - Why current efforts are misguided.

I pass on my edited clips from Venkatesh Rao’s most recent newsletter - substantially shortening its length and inserting a few definitions of techo-nerd-speak acronyms he uses in brackets [  ].  He suggests interesting analogies between the future evolution of Ai and the evolutionary course taken by biological organisms:

…specific understandings of embodiment, boundary intelligence, temporality, and personhood, and their engineering implications, taken together, point to an agent-based vision of how to scale AI that I’ve started calling Massed Muddler Intelligence or MMI, that doesn’t look much like anything I’ve heard discussed.


…right now there’s only one option: monolithic scaling. Larger and larger models trained on larger and larger piles of compute and data…monolithic scaling is doomed. It is headed towards technical failure at a certain scale we are fast approaching


What sort of AI, in an engineering sense, should we attempt to build, in the same sense as one might ask, how should we attempt to build 2,500 foot skyscrapers? With brick and mortar or reinforced concrete? The answer is clearly reinforced concrete. Brick and mortar construction simply does not scale to those heights


…If we build AI datacenters that are 10x or 100x the scale of todays and train GPT-style models on them …problems of data movement and memory management at scale that are already cripplingly hard will become insurmountable…current monolithic approaches to scaling AI are the equivalent of brick-and-mortar construction and fundamentally doomed…We need the equivalent of a reinforced concrete beam for AI…A distributed agent-based vision of modern AI is the scaling solution we need.

Scaling Precedents from Biology

There’s a precedent here in biology. Biological intelligence scales better with more agent-like organisms. For example: humans build organizations that are smarter than any individual, if you measure by complexity of outcomes, and also smarter than the scaling achieved by less agentic eusocial organisms…ants, bees, and sheep cannot build complex planet-scale civilizations. It takes much more sophisticated agent-like units to do that.

Agents are AIs that can make up independent intentions and pursue them in the real world, in real time, in a society of similarly capable agents (ie in a condition of mutualism), without being prompted. They don’t sit around outside of time, reacting to “prompts” with oracular authority…as in sociobiology, sustainably scalable AI agents will necessarily have the ability to govern and influence other agents (human or AI) in turn, through the same symmetric mechanisms that are used to govern and influence them…If you want to scale AI sustainably, governance and influence cannot be one way street from some privileged agents (humans) to other less privileged agents (AIs)….

If you want complexity and scaling, you cannot govern and influence a sophisticated agent without opening yourself up to being governed and influenced back. The reasoning here is similar to why liberal democracies generally scale human intelligence far better than autocracies. The MMI vision I’m going to outline could be considered “liberal democracy for mixed human-AI agent systems.” Rather than the autocratic idea of “alignment” associated with “AGI,” MMIs will call for something like the emergent mutualist harmony that characterizes functional liberal democracies. You don’t need an “alignment” theory. You need social contract theory.

The Road to Muddledom

Agents, and the distributed multiagent systems (MAS) that represent the corresponding scaling model, obviously aren’t a new idea in AI…MAS were often built as light architectural extensions of early object-oriented non-AI systems… none of this machinery works or is even particularly relevant for the problem of scaling modern AI, where the core source of computational intelligence is a large-X-model with fundamentally inscrutable input-output behavior. This is a new, oozy kind of intelligence we are building with for the first time. ..We’re in new regimes, dealing with fundamentally new building materials and aiming for new scales (orders of magnitude larger than anything imagined in the 1990s).

Muddling Doctrines

How do you build muddler agents? I don’t have a blueprint obviously, but here are four loose architectural doctrines, based on the four heterodoxies I noted at the start of this essay (see links there): embodiment, boundary intelligence, temporality, and personhood.

Embodiment matters: The physical form factor AI takes is highly relevant to to its nature, behavior, and scaling potential.

Boundary intelligence matters. Past a threshold, intelligence is a function of the management of boundaries across which data flows, not the sophistication of the interiors where it is processed.

Temporality matters: The kind of time experienced by an AI matters for how it can scale sustainably.

Personhood matters: The attributes of an AI that enable humans and AIs to relate to each other as persons (I-you), rather than things (I-it), are necessary elements to being able to construct coherent scalably composable agents at all.


The first three principles require that AI computation involve real atoms, live in real time, and deal with the second law of thermodynamics

The fourth heterodoxy turns personhood …into a load-bearing architectural element in getting to scaled AI via muddler agents. You cannot have scaled AI without agency, and you cannot have a scalable sort of agency without personhood.

As we go up the scale of biological complexity, we get much programmable and flexible forms of communication and coordination. … we can start to distinguish individuals by their stable “personalities” (informationally, the identifiable signature of personhood). We go from army ants marching in death spirals to murmurations of starlings to formations of geese to wolf packs maneuvering tactically in pincer movements… to humans whose most sophisticated coordination patterns are so complex merely deciphering them stresses our intelligence to the limit.

Biology doesn’t scale to larger animals by making very large unicellular creatures. Instead it shifts to a multi-cellular strategy. Then it goes further: from simple reproduction of “mass produced” cells to specialized cells forming differentiated structures (tissues) via ontogeny (and later, in some mammals, through neoteny). Agents that scale well have to be complex and variegated agents internally, to achieve highly expressive and varied behaviors externally. But they must also present simplified facades — personas — to each other to enable the scaling and coordination.

Setting aside questions of philosophy (identity, consciousness),  personhood is a scaling strategy. Personhood is the behavioral equivalent of a cell. “Persons” are stable behavioral units that can compose in “multicellular” ways because they communicate differently than simpler agents with weak or non-existent personal boundaries, and low-agency organisms like plants and insects.

When we form and perform “personas,” we offer a harder interface around our squishy interior psyches that composes well with the interfaces of other persons for scaling purposes. A personhood performance is something like a composability API [application programmers interface] for intelligence scaling.

Beyond Training Determinism

…Right now AIs experience most of their “time” during training, and then effectively enter a kind of stasis. …They requiring versioned “updates” to get caught up again…GPT4 can’t simply grow or evolve its way to GPT5 by living life and learning from it. It needs to go through the human-assisted birth/death (or regeneration perhaps) singularity of a whole new training effort. And it’s not obvious how to automate this bottleneck in either a Darwinian or Lamarckian way.

…For all their power, modern AIs are still not able to live in real time and keep up with reality without human assistance outside of extremely controlled and stable environments…As far as temporality is concerned, we are in a “training determinism” regime that is very un-agentic and corresponds to genetic determinism in biology.What makes agents agents is that they live in real time, in a feedback loop with external reality unfolding at its actual pace of evolution.

Muddling Through vs. Godding Through

Lindblom’s paper identifies two patterns of agentic behavior, “root” (or rational-comprehensive) and “branch” (or successive limited comparisons), and argues that in complicated messy circumstances requiring coordinated action at scale, the way actually effective humans operate is the branch method, which looks like “muddling through” but gradually gets there, where the root method fails entirely. Complex here is things humans typically do in larger groups, like designing and implementing complex governance policies or undertaking complex engineering projects. The threshold for “complex” is roughly where explicit coordination protocols become necessary scaffolding. This often coincides with the threshold where reality gets too big to hold in one human head.

The root method attempts to fight limitations with brute, monolithic force. It aims to absorb all the relevant information regarding the circumstances a priori (analogous to training determinism), and discover the globally optimal solution through “rational” and “comprehensive” thinking. If the branch method is “muddling through,” we might say that the root, or rational-comprehensive approach, is an attempt to “god through.”…Lindblom’s thesis is basically that muddling through eats godding through for lunch.

To put it much more bluntly: Godding through doesn’t work at all beyond small scales and it’s not because the brains are too small. Reasoning backwards from complex goals in the context of an existing complex system evolving in real time doesn’t work. You have to discover forwards (not reason forwards) by muddling.

..in thinking about humans, it is obvious that Lindblom was right…Even where godding through apparently prevails through brute force up to some scale, the costs are very high, and often those who pay the costs don’t survive to complain…Fear of Big Blundering Gods is the essential worry of traditional AI safety theology, but as I’ve been arguing since 2012 (see Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet), this is not an issue because these BBGs will collapse under their own weight long before they get big enough for such collapses to be exceptionally, existentially dangerous.

This worry is similar to the worry that a 2,500 foot brick-and-mortar building might collapse and kill everybody in the city…It’s not a problem because you can’t build a brick-and-mortar building to that height. You need reinforced concrete. And that gets you into entirely different sorts of safety concerns.

Protocols for Massed Muddling

How do you go from individual agents (AI or human) muddling through to masses of them muddling through together? What are the protocols of massed muddling? These are also the protocols of AI scaling towards MMIs (Massed Muddler Intelligences)

When you put a lot of them together using a mix of hard coordination protocols (including virtual-economic ones) and softer cultural protocols, you get a massed muddler intelligence, or MMI. Market economies and liberal democracies are loose, low-bandwidth examples of MMIs that use humans and mostly non-AI computers to scale muddler intelligence. The challenge now is to build far denser, higher bandwidth ones using modern AI agents.

I suspect at the scales we are talking about, we will have something that looks more like a market economy than like the internal command-economy structure of the human body. Both feature a lot of hierarchical structure and differentiation, but the former is much less planned, and more a result of emergent patterns of agglomeration around environmental circumstances (think how the large metros that anchor the global economy form around the natural geography of the planet, rather than how major organ systems of the human body are put together).

While I suspect MMIs will partly emerge via choreographed ontogenic roadmaps from a clump of “stem cells” (is that perhaps what LxMs [large language models] are??), the way market economies emerge from nationalist industrial policies, overall the emergent intelligences will be masses of muddling rather than coherent artificial leviathans. Scaling “plans” will help launch, but not determine the nature of MMIs or their internal operating protocols at scale. Just like tax breaks and tariffs might help launch a market economy but not determine the sophistication of the economy that emerges or the transactional patterns that coordinate it. This also answers the regulation question: Regulating modern AI MMIs will look like economic regulation, not technology regulation.

How the agentic nature of the individual muddler agent building block is preserved and protected is the critical piece of the puzzle, just as individual economic rights (such as property rights, contracting regimes) are the critical piece in the design of “free” markets.

Muddling produces a shell of behavioral uncertainty around what a muddler agent will do, and how it will react to new information, that creates an outward pressure on the compressive forces created by the dense aggregation required for scaling. This is something like the electron degeneracy pressure that resists the collapse of stars under their own gravity. Or how the individualist streak in even the most dedicated communist human resists the collapse of even the most powerful cults into pure hive minds. Or how exit/voice dynamics resist the compression forces of unaccountable organizational management.

…the fundamental intentional tendency of individual agents, on which all other tendencies, autonomous or not, socially influencable or not, rest…[is]  body envelope integrity.

…This is a familiar concern for biological organisms. Defending against your body being violently penetrated is probably the foundation of our entire personality. It’s the foundation of our personal safety priorities — don’t get stabbed, shot, bitten, clawed or raped. All politics and economics is an extension of envelope integrity preservation instincts. For example, strictures against theft (especially identity theft) are about protecting the body envelope integrity of your economic body. Habeas corpus is the bedrock of modern political systems for a reason. Your physical body is your political body…if you don’t have body envelope integrity you have nothing.

This is easiest to appreciate in one very visceral and vivid form of MMIs: distributed robot systems. Robots, like biological organisms, have an actual physical body envelope (though unlike biological organisms they can have high-bandwidth near-field telepathy). They must preserve the integrity of that envelope as a first order of business … But robot MMIs are not the only possible form factor. We can think of purely software agents that live in an AI datacenter, and maintain boundaries and personhood envelopes that are primarily informational rather than physical. The same fundamental drive applies. The integrity of the (virtual) body envelope is the first concern.

This is why embodiment is an axiomatic concern. The nature of the integrity problem depends on the nature of the embodiment. A robot can run away from danger. A software muddler agent in a shared memory space within a large datacenter must rely on memory protection, encryption, and other non-spatial affordances of computing environments.

Personhood is the emergent result of successfully solving the body-envelope-integrity problem over time, allowing an agent to present a coherent and hard mask model to other agents even in unpredictable environments. This is not about putting a smiley-faced RLHF [Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback]. mask on a shoggoth interior to superficially “align” it. This is about offering a predictable API for other agents to reliably interface with, so scaled structures in time and social space don’t collapse.  [They have] hardness - the property or quality that allows agents with soft and squishy interiors to offer hard and unyielding interfaces to other agents, allowing for coordination at scale.

…We can go back to the analogy to reinforced concrete. MMIs are fundamentally built out of composite materials that combine the constituent simple materials in very deliberate ways to achieve particular properties. Reinforced concrete achieves this by combining rebar and cement in particular geometries. The result is a flexible language of differentiated forms (not just cuboidal beams) with a defined grammar.

MMIs will achieve this by combining embodiment, boundary management, temporality, and personhood elements in very deliberate ways, to create a similar language of differentiated forms that interact with a defined grammar.

And then we can have a whole new culture war about whether that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

How long has humanity been at war with itself?

I would like to point MindBlog readers to an article by Deborah Barsky with the title of this post. The following clip provides relevant links to the Human Bridges project of the Independent Media Institute. 

Deborah Barsky is a writing fellow for the Human Bridges project of the Independent Media Institute, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, and an associate professor at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, with the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). She is the author of Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Monday, February 12, 2024

The Art of Doing Nothing

Deep into the Juniper/Cedar pollen allergy season in Austin TX, I'm being frustrated that I have so little energy to do things. It's as if my batteries can not muster more than a 10% charge. I try to tell myself that it's OK to 'just be", to do nothing, and have not been very successful at this.  So, I enjoyed  stumbling upon a  recent Guardian article, "The art of doing nothing: have the Dutch found the answer to burnout culture?," whose URL I pass on to MindBlog readers.  It describes the concept of 'niken,' or the Dutch art of doing nothing. It has  has ameliorated my concern over how little I have been getting done, and references a 2019 NYTimes article, "The Case for Doing Nothing" that went viral when it was first published.  Letting go of always finding problems that need to be solved let's one face  a question posed by the meditation guru Loch Kelly: "What is there when there are no problems to be solved?" Variants of this question have been addressed in a thread of numerous MindBlog posts that I have now largely drawn to a close.

Friday, February 09, 2024

Bodily maps of musical sensations across cultures

Interesting work from Putkinen et al. (open source):  

Significance

Music is inherently linked with the body. Here, we investigated how music's emotional and structural aspects influence bodily sensations and whether these sensations are consistent across cultures. Bodily sensations evoked by music varied depending on its emotional qualities, and the music-induced bodily sensations and emotions were consistent across the tested cultures. Musical features also influenced the emotional experiences and bodily sensations consistently across cultures. These findings show that bodily feelings contribute to the elicitation and differentiation of music-induced emotions and suggest similar embodiment of music-induced emotions in geographically distant cultures. Music-induced emotions may transcend cultural boundaries due to cross-culturally shared links between musical features, bodily sensations, and emotions.
Abstract
Emotions, bodily sensations and movement are integral parts of musical experiences. Yet, it remains unknown i) whether emotional connotations and structural features of music elicit discrete bodily sensations and ii) whether these sensations are culturally consistent. We addressed these questions in a cross-cultural study with Western (European and North American, n = 903) and East Asian (Chinese, n = 1035). We precented participants with silhouettes of human bodies and asked them to indicate the bodily regions whose activity they felt changing while listening to Western and Asian musical pieces with varying emotional and acoustic qualities. The resulting bodily sensation maps (BSMs) varied as a function of the emotional qualities of the songs, particularly in the limb, chest, and head regions. Music-induced emotions and corresponding BSMs were replicable across Western and East Asian subjects. The BSMs clustered similarly across cultures, and cluster structures were similar for BSMs and self-reports of emotional experience. The acoustic and structural features of music were consistently associated with the emotion ratings and music-induced bodily sensations across cultures. These results highlight the importance of subjective bodily experience in music-induced emotions and demonstrate consistent associations between musical features, music-induced emotions, and bodily sensations across distant cultures.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Historical Myths as Culturally Evolved Technologies for Coalitional Recruitment

I pass on to MindBlog readers the abstract of a recent Behavioral and Brain Science article by Sijilmassi et al. titled "‘Our Roots Run Deep’: Historical Myths as Culturally Evolved Technologies for Coalitional Recruitment."  Motivated readers can obtain a PDF of the article from me. 

One of the most remarkable manifestations of social cohesion in large-scale entities is the belief in a shared, distinct and ancestral past. Human communities around the world take pride in their ancestral roots, commemorate their long history of shared experiences, and celebrate the distinctiveness of their historical trajectory. Why do humans put so much effort into celebrating a long-gone past? Integrating insights from evolutionary psychology, social psychology, evolutionary anthropology, political science, cultural history and political economy, we show that the cultural success of historical myths is driven by a specific adaptive challenge for humans: the need to recruit coalitional support to engage in large scale collective action and prevail in conflicts. By showcasing a long history of cooperation and shared experiences, these myths serve as super-stimuli, activating specific features of social cognition and drawing attention to cues of fitness interdependence. In this account, historical myths can spread within a population without requiring group-level selection, as long as individuals have a vested interest in their propagation and strong psychological motivations to create them. Finally, this framework explains, not only the design-features of historical myths, but also important patterns in their cross-cultural prevalence, inter-individual distribution, and particular content.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Functional human brain tissue produced by layering different neuronal types with 3D bioprinting

A very important advance by Su-Chun Zhang and collaborators at the University of Wisconsin that moves studies of nerve cells connecting in nutrient dishes from two to three dimensions:  

Highlights

  • Functional human neural tissues assembled by 3D bioprinting
  • Neural circuits formed between defined neural subtypes
  • Functional connections established between cortical-striatal tissues
  • Printed tissues for modeling neural network impairment

Summary

Probing how human neural networks operate is hindered by the lack of reliable human neural tissues amenable to the dynamic functional assessment of neural circuits. We developed a 3D bioprinting platform to assemble tissues with defined human neural cell types in a desired dimension using a commercial bioprinter. The printed neuronal progenitors differentiate into neurons and form functional neural circuits within and between tissue layers with specificity within weeks, evidenced by the cortical-to-striatal projection, spontaneous synaptic currents, and synaptic response to neuronal excitation. Printed astrocyte progenitors develop into mature astrocytes with elaborated processes and form functional neuron-astrocyte networks, indicated by calcium flux and glutamate uptake in response to neuronal excitation under physiological and pathological conditions. These designed human neural tissues will likely be useful for understanding the wiring of human neural networks, modeling pathological processes, and serving as platforms for drug testing.
 

 


Friday, February 02, 2024

Towards a Metaphysics of Worlds

I have a splitting headache from having just watched a 27 minute long YouTube rapid fire lecture by Venkatesh Rao, given last November at the Autonomous Worlds Assembly in Istanbul (part of DevConnect, a major Ethereum ecosystem event).  His latest newsletter “Towards a Metaphysics of Worlds” gives adds some notes and context, and gives a link  to its slides. As Rao notes:

“This may seem like a glimpse into a very obscure and nerdy subculture for many (most?) of you, but I think something very important and interesting is brewing in this scene and more people should know about it.”

I would suggest that you to skip the YouTube lecture and cherry pick your way through his slides.  Some are very simple and quite striking, clearly presenting interesting ideas about the epistomology, ontology, and definitions of worlds.  Here is Slide 11, where what Rao means by "Worlds" is made more clear:

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Thoughts on having a self - Deric's MindBlog as WebLog - January 2024

In the spirit of the original personal WebLogs of the 1990s that morphed into Blogs that enjoyed a golden era in the 2000s, I am offering readers a trial version of a putative series of posts containing selected and edited free standing clips from my personal  ‘mind journal’ - which is a subset of paragraphs taken from the larger personal journal that I have been maintaining for over 25 years.  Most of these paragraphs suggest perspectives on how our minds work, some are on random topics. I hope these perspectives might not seem too alien to readers, and possibly be found useful by a few.  Below are some mind journal paragraphs from January 2024.

1/2/24
The I* signifier,  (from a recent community.wakingup.com discussion) might be a good minimal token for expressing the space or process from which the present moment’s version of a self or I can appear. During moments of renewal or recharge,  when awareness first intuits this process, there can be an intense brief sense of naïveté, openness and joy - excitement at the prospect of novelty, experiencing new things. For original mind no activity is off the table.

1/3/2024
Has my timing been right a second time?

In the early 1990s I decided that the cream had been skimmed with respect to discovering the basic molecular steps that turn photons of light into a nerve signal in our eyes. Some of the steps were revealed by experiments in my laboratory. I decided to switch my attention to studying how our minds work, not in direct laboratory experiments, but through studying, writing about, and lecturing on the work of others.

Moving from the early to mid 2020s I’m feeling a second ‘the cream has been skimmed’ sentiment with respect to the biology of mind:  There is a general understanding and acknowledgement by the scientific and educated lay community that our illusory predictive selves are generated by impersonal neuronal nerve nets. There is no 'hard problem of consciousness’ - it is an illusion like everything else in our heads - and the main function of counter theories (explanations at the level of quantum physics, etc.) is to sustain the continued academic employment of those espousing them.

I feel like my 2022 UT Forum lecture, “New Perspectives on how our Minds Work” may have been a last hurrah with respect to studying the Biology of Mind, just as the 1996 Brain and Behavioral Sciences article was a last hurrah in my vision research career.

It is feeling like it's time to let go, to move on…perhaps to art, music, AI, studying the emergence of trans-human forms…..

1/3/24
…if other people choose behaviors that will lead to their demise there is little one can do, even with physical restraint and medication, to compel them to choose otherwise. They are performing a version of their I or self that is self destructive, and that they are unable to escape. 

Some are able to escape to feel redemption in surrender to a higher power, being ‘saved by the Lord’ or a secular equivalent such as non-dual awareness. Both are defined by yielding ultimate agency to something other than the experienced I or self - allowing a return to feeling the sense of security and repose of the newborn infant feeling loving care. As that infant begins to develop an I or ego it loses awareness of how much of its well-being depends on powers beyond its control and generates an illusory sense of agency.  

1/4/24
A general rule is to see people as they are, not as you want them to be. However, if you treat people as you want or expect them to be, not as they are, sometimes they might begin to slowly conform to your expectations.  This would be the basis of the effectiveness of Gandhi’s advice to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

1/8/24 When attention is at bay, the gremlins will play, letting one’s disposition and temperament be molded more by outside input and less by internal reflection. The ending slide of several of my talks is the simple phrase “pay attention.”  The ability to do that is a good assay of biological aging and a predictor of longevity.

1/9/24
Attention doesn’t have to be ‘at tension.’ Priors that have pre-tensed muscles for the most probable action to be taken can sometimes be let go.

1/10/24
Now that I know that I can go to the engine room and reboot the Deric-OS with relative ease, there is no compelling reason to emphasize remaining there. What is needed is an appropriate balance between the brain’s attentional and default mode (mind wandering or rumination) systems,  just as with sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems. Going to extremes interferes with remaining gently attentive to one’s states of arousal, valence, and agency (A/V/A) and in touch with value, purpose, and meaning (V/P/M).

The point of paying attention is not to be in some sort of constant blissful or calm state, but rather just to be a normal creature. This journal is a useful present centered tool that modulates appropriate function by enhancing recall of the recent past and projected future.

There wants to be a spontaneous dance between intentional and mind wandering modes in the present moment. That way, one might manage to break the pattern of having a morning high energy caffeine fueled attentional focusing, which with the fading of the chemistry turns into an overly aimless mind wandering in the afternoon. Perhaps, if both could be kept in check, one might have a more seamless moving through a day, particularly as one’s energy begins to wane towards its end.  

1/14/24 Trying to describe the 'new platform' (Deric-OS, self center of gravity, I*, where experienced self is coming from) doing frequent resets to zero in the midst of change that toggle the system to problem solving, matching input to appropriate output, like a learning newborn. Short circuiting blips of arousal or fear that are irrelevant, but still able to run from a lion attack. Going with the computer metaphor, ‘processing platform’ as a candidate for a bit of language that describes what is indescribable in words.

1/17/24
Mulling over how little of my self (I*, it)  experience is spent outside of my linguistic narrative self thread.
 
1/18/24
Arousal/Valence/Agency (real/real/imagined) are the deep structure of the whole show, and well being occurs to the extent that the sliders are the the direction of low/high/high.

1/19/24
Construing oneself as kind and caring caretaker of family and friends yields value, purpose, and meaning (V/P/M), and integrates it with the machine room viscera.. And, the kindness and positivity of the caretaker role nudges the valence part of A/V/A towards being more positive. This supports being a caring presence that observes, listens, asks questions. Wishing the best for others, while letting their experiences and issues be their own.

1/19/24 The pre-linguistic animal platform as experienced center of gravity with language bits that rise from the simmering caldron to enable connections with other humans experienced as ephemeral transient wisps or vapors, with the real biological creature being the vastly larger originating presence, the creature's experienced place of rest and residence.

1/20/24
A grandiose fantasy: The Imperial Poobah, secure in its belief in itself as master of the random, the surfer of uncertainty. Ready to face the  “There be dragons there” description sometimes written on unexplored areas depicted on ancient maps of the world.

1/21/24 There is so little to provide a sustaining narrative in the current social and geopolitical context that expanding awareness towards its interoceptive, prelinguistic, gestural and prosodic animal state becomes more appealing and sustaining, along with letting awareness focus on potential remedies rather than further detailed descriptions of dysfunctions. Being active in pursuing small sanities.

1/23/24
Mulling over the calm and equanimity offered by impersonality, being 'it', the animal, just resting, watching. Also able to be kind and caring in response to input from others, offering sympathy, empathy, and accepting that one might influence but can not  compel fixes to problems that are not one’s own.

1/27/24
Mulling over how I continue to spew out chunks of ideas, presenting them in the flow of the present moment, from which they then recede to become part of a largely lost and unrecognized archive, still accessible in principle by searches - but I frequently have difficulty finding them. My golden bonbons of the moment, finding their resting place among their previous instances. Think of Andrew Sullivan’s once prominent blog ‘The Daily Dish,’ mostly unknown to the present. It doesn’t matter. One still keeps banging out the material.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Mind blog’s first 18 years - what next? A space for discussions among MindBlog readers?

This is post number 5,537 of Deric's MindBlog, which will soon be celebrating its 18th birthday.  I started this blog on Feb. 6, 2006, in the middle of the golden age of Blogging, with a post titled “Dangerous Ideas.”  In the late 2000s the rise of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram shifted audiences towards shorter more engaging posts, and after 2010 multimedia platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok became popular. Max Read laments the increasing effort required to deal with the info sphere as millennials have ‘aged out’ and members of generation Z have become more eager early adopters of  ChatGPT than their elders.  The current digital landscape emphasizes content monetization, influencer marketing, and multi-platform presence, but here still  remains a vital role for niche blogs such as this one, where readers can find specialized content beyond the mainstream social media noise. 

I recently received an email from a MindBlog reader in Germany who lamented that MindBlog received very few comments from readers. I have  received numerous emails over the years from silent but loyal readers who express gratitude for effort I put into the blog, but there have been only a few extended discussion threads, such as those of anti-aging compounds and life optimization snake oil .

My German reader made the interesting suggestion that I consider initiating a platform for direct interactions and deeper engagement among MindBlog readers, perhaps a live video and text platform that might include both experts and educated laypeople outside the scientific community. This would be relatively easy for me to set up if sufficient interest is shown, so I invite readers interested in this prospect to email me at mdbownds@wisc.edu

Friday, January 26, 2024

Tolerance of uncertainly as a key to resilience.

As a followup to the previous post on The Neurobiology of Stress I want to point to Maggie Jackson's opinion piece in the NYTimes titled  "How to Thrive in an Uncertain World."  A few clips:

...a wave of new scientific discoveries reveals that learning to lean into uncertainty in times of rapid change is a promising antidote to mental distress, not a royal road to angst, as many of us assume...Studies of the pandemic era offer a starting illustration of the links between uncertainty and flourishing. Ohio State researchers have found that adults who scored high on a measure of “intolerance of uncertainty” were more likely to struggle with stress and anxiety during the pandemic....a British study found. In contrast, those who struggle less with uncertainty were more likely to accept the realities of the situation.

Tolerating and even delighting in uncertainty doesn’t merely help us to accept life’s unpredictability; it also readies us to learn and adapt. Each day, the brain uses honed mental models about how the world works, which are used to process a shifting environment. When we meet something unexpected, a neural “prediction error” signals a mismatch between what we assumed would occur and what our senses tell us. Yet our uneasy sense of not knowing triggers a host of beneficial neural changes, including heightened attention, bolstered working memory and sensitivity to new information. The brain is preparing to update our knowledge of the world. Uncertainty offers the opportunity for life to go in different directions...and that is exciting..

The article continues to describe several experiments showing that generalized anxiety disorder can be relieved by therapy sessions that focus on reducing aversion to uncertainty by introducing it in small doses.


Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Neurobiology of Stress: Vulnerability, Resilience, and Major Depression

A valuable trove of open source articles is provided in the Special Feature section of the Dec. 5 issue of PNAS with an introductory article by Akil and Nestler with the title of this post.  The special feature:

...explores the consequences of the broad-scale increase in psychological stress and the evidence that we are facing a second pandemic of depression, anxiety, and other stress-related disorders. The authors of this feature describe challenges faced and scientific advances being made, spanning animal models to human translation, to illustrate new tools and techniques currently being deployed in understanding the biology of stress and resilience and the interplay between genetic and environmental variables.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Titles and URLs for key MindBlog posts on selves

I pass on a chronological list of titles and URLs of MindBlog posts assembled in preparation for a video chat with a European MindBlog reader:

An "Apostle's Creed" for the humanistic scientific materialist?
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2006/03/apostles-creed-for-humanistic.html

Some rambling on "Selves" and “Purpose”
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2007/10/some-rambling-on-selves-and-purpose.html

Self, purpose, and tribal mentality as Darwinian adaptations (or…Why why aren’t we all enlightened?)
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2020/05/self-purpose-and-tribal-mentality-as.html

MindBlog passes on a note: on the relief of not being yourself
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2020/03/mindblog-passes-on-note-on-relief-of.html

Points on having a self and free will.
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2021/03/points-on-having-self-and-free-will.html

I am not my problem
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2022/06/i-am-not-my-problem.html

The non-duality industry as a panacea for the anxieties of our times?         https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2022/11/the-non-duality-industry-as-panacea-for.html

Enlightenment, Habituation, and Renewal - Or, Mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes?
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/01/enlightenment-habituation-and-renewal.html

A quick MindBlog riff on what a self is….
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/01/a-quick-mindblog-riff-on-what-self-is.html

MindBlog paragraphs bloviating on the nature of the self ask Google Bard and Chat GPT 4 for help
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/05/mindblog-paragraphs-bloviating-on.html

A MindBlog paragraph on non-dual awareness massaged by Bard and ChatGPT-4
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/07/a-mindblog-paragraph-on-non-dual.html

Constructing Self and World
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/09/constructing-self-and-world.html  

Anthropic Claude's version of my writing on the Mind - a condensation of my ideas
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/10/anthropic-claudes-version-of-my-writing.html  

A Materialist's Credo
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/10/a-materialists-credo.html

How our genes support our illusory selves - the "Baldwin effect"
https://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2023/11/how-our-genes-support-our-illusory.html











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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

If psychedelics heal, how do they do it?

I pass on from a recent issue of PNAS this informative "News Feature" article by Carolyn Beans (open source).  It discusses studies trying to determine the brain mechanisms by which therapeutically effective psychedelics such as MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, commonly known as ecstacy), psilocybin, and LSD have their effect.  They all act on serotonin receptors.  

Monday, January 08, 2024

The Importance of Not Being Earnest

I pass on some of the paragraphs from Rao's latest piece to archive them  for myself here on MindBlog, and to make them available to other readers:

For my purposes, I will define earnestness as being helplessly locked into a single way of looking at what you’re doing, unaware of other ways.

I suspect there are only a few known and culturally familiar modes of being non-earnest…I think they are humor, irony, and surrealism. I’d guess humor is at least as old as civilization and possibly as old as life. Irony proper seems like an outgrowth of early modern conditions. Surrealism is the newest and youngest mode, barely a century old. I think this potted history is fun, but I won’t insist upon it. Maybe there are more modes, and maybe they appeared in a different sequence, or were all always-already present.

Here’s the core of my argument: the more complex the circumstances, the more dangerous it is to inhabit them from a single perspective; ie earnestly. The only really good reason to do so is when dealing with small children or deeply traumatized adults who both need some earnestness in their environment to feel safe.

The importance of non-earnestness is evident even in the “simple” task of chopping vegetables. If you’re doing that for more than 15 minutes, you’ll likely get bored, and start to get sloppy and careless. Creative multi-modal engagement with chopping vegetables — seeing shapes perhaps, or noting colors and textures with an artist’s eye — keeps you mindfully absorbed for longer, more robustly.

In your brain there are two basic modes — mind wandering, sustained by the default-mode network, and focus, sustained by the task-positive network — and my assertion is that they should work together like a clock escapement, unfolding as little micro-fugues of fancy that depart from and return to a base literal mode, and trace out a kind of strange-attractor orbit around the nominal behavior. Something like this is visible at even more basic levels: A healthy heart exhibits high HRV (heart-rate variability). Fitness trackers use HRV as the primary indicator of cardiovascular health. Low variability is a mark of poor health or disease.

Now apply that same principle to complex, large-scale systems and problems. Can you afford to be on-the-nose earnest in thinking about them? Are humor, irony, and surrealism optional extras?

The more complex the circumstances, the more dangerous it is to act in ways that are entailed by only a single perspective. Such action is fragile and degenerate. Robust action contains multitudes. It contains obliquities that harbor strategic depth. It contains tempo variations that encode unsuspected depths of adjacent informational richness.

Action must be richer than thought, because phenomenology is always richer than any single theorization. Earnestness — action confined to the imagination of one theory of itself — is behavioral impoverishment. Non-earnestness is proof of richness. Proof of life.

There is more than one way of looking at complex systems, and action within a complex system must make sense in more than one way. There must be more than one categorical scheme through which an unfactored reality can be viewed and justified.

I think we’re currently caught between the retreat of irony and the advent of surrealism.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that the last decade has been marked by a broad and intense backlash against irony, the dominant mode of non-earnestness between 1989-2010 or so (I think humor dominated the 70s and 80s). Now, after a transient decade of various sorts of unstable forays into deadening collective earnestness, it feels like we’re shifting en masse to a dominantly surreal mode.

I’ve decided to approach 2024 with a surreal orientation. I don’t quite know what the hell that means yet, but I plan to fuck around and find out.

Humor would be nice to have in what’s already shaping up to a joyless year, and irony will provide, as it always does, some solace in the darkest, most joyless depths of it. But the workhorse modality is going to be surrealism. Beat-by-beat, breath-by-breath, the creativity of our responses to the year is going to be shaped by our ability to repeatedly escape into the adjacent impossible, and from that vantage point spot the germs of new possibilities. You cannot jailbreak the future from tyranny of the past without stepping outside of both.

It is hard to escape the thought that we are going to be unsurprisingly unlucky as a planet in 2024, with few and uncertain bright prospects to alleviate the general gloom. We are going to end up with a cognitively compromised geriatric as US President by December. We are going to let two bloody wars grind on. We are going to see weaponized AI compound myriad miseries.

If there is serendipity —surprising luck — to be found in 2024, it will be found and nurtured at the micro level. By people who understand what it means to chop vegetables non-earnestly, and escape the tyranny of the real with every breath and stroke. By people who are not too scared of life to stubbornly resist the temptations of humor, irony, and surrealism in service of the idiot gods of authenticity and earnestness.



Friday, January 05, 2024

Capturing non-dual reality in language

For my own future reference and for MindBlog readers interested in my previous MindBlog posts on non-duality,  I want to pass on the start of a discussion thread in the Waking Up Community at WakingUp.com written by Rish Magal, London, U.K, on the subject of capturing nondual reality in language. One of the discussants makes reference to the Laukkonen and Slagter article whose ideas were referenced in my recent lecture on New Perspectives on how our Minds Work.  


From Rish Magal,   London, UK

Prompted by a really great discussion in another thread, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try and express some important nondual insights in English. Comments and responses would be very much appreciated 😀.
Disclaimers:
    1    Despite being a very long post (sorry!), this is only a very very rough outline. I’m cutting lots of corners, and it would take a book to explain and defend all these ideas.
    2    I needed to stretch some of our normal concepts. This is not surprising, since our concepts are integral to a misguided way of looking at the world. I’ve tried to explain the stretching, but I might not have succeeded to your satisfaction!
    3    This is only one attempt to describe nondual reality. I’m not claiming it’s The One True Way. The purpose of the exercise is to explore whether it’s possible to capture the essence of nondual reality. If this version looks at all promising, other versions are surely possible too.


I’ll label each step, in case anyone wants to respond to an individual piece.

A) What we call a “self” is a useful fiction. Humans use it to plan their interactions with each other, to hold each other accountable, to organise their own behaviour … and a host of other purposes.

B) The fictional “self” is created by the human brain, acting in concert with other human brains. From cognitive science comes the idea that the self is part of a predictive model used by the brain (e.g. Anil Seth). From philosophy comes the idea that a self is a ‘Centre of Narrative Gravity’ (Dan Dennett). Perhaps both of these can be accurate together.

C) From psychology, we know that the human brain does not understand itself very well at all. It has very limited understanding of its own reasons for acting (Michael Gazzaniga). In fact it can easily be mistaken about whether it has even acted at all (Daniel Wagner).

D) There is no ‘Free Will’ or responsibility for actions. (Sam Harris makes a strong case on this, but there are several ways to argue for this conclusion.) Causal chains move through human bodies in the same way that they move through billiard balls. There’s no agency in a human brain, much less a “self”.

E) Perhaps the biggest flaw in our language is the idea that objects cause events. We reify objects with nouns, and causing with verbs. It would be more accurate to say: reality is a succession of events. But even that is too dualistic. More accurate still: there is simply one continuously unfolding process. Events inside human brains are like tiny ripples in this huge universe-sized sea.

F) By various means*, a human brain can come to Realise** that its habitual way of looking at the world is badly flawed, and can grasp one or more of the preceding points.

G) Such a realisation is usually accompanied by a huge emotional sense of relief, release, and bliss — especially the first few times.

H) A human brain which doesn’t have access to a structure of revised concepts (such as the one outlined here) will struggle to interpret its own experience. It is likely to attach to the emotional content, and try very hard to recapture that.

I) Over the centuries, many human brains which have glimpsed these truths have struggled and failed to express them in language. (Until very recent advances in science, psychology & philosophy, it would have been almost impossible to fill out a plausible account of what's going on.) Over the centuries, it has become common to say that these insights cannot be expressed in language.

J) My first claim is that nondual insights can be expressed in language. These steps are one attempt to do so.

K) *My second claim is that describing nondual reality in language (however imperfectly) can be extremely helpful in triggering a brain to grasp these insights. And help it return to them reliably.

L) **By "Realise" I mean something beyond (but including) understanding and agreeing with a statement. "Realising" means deeply believing it to the point of feeling in my bones that it is true.

As an analogy: I understand and believe that I'm going to die one day. But in terms of my daily activities it doesn't really feel like it's true, and my behaviour is basically indistinguishable from someone who thought he was immortal 😁. If tomorrow a neurologist shows me a scan of a huge tumour in my brain, I will Realise the truth that I am going to die in an entirely different way, and my behaviour is likely to change radically.

Note that I already have all the concepts I need to understand this truth. I think the shift from simple understanding & cognitive assent, to what I'm calling Realisation, is a much more immediate and tangible kind of belief, with much more emotional content. I now feel it to be true, as well as simply agreeing with the statement intellectually. But the content of the belief is the same, and can be expressed in language and concepts.
 
M) In this brain, the experienced shift from understanding to Realising usually produces symptoms like laughter, releasing, euphoria, connectedness, presence, empathy, equanimity. But after many such experiences, their intensity varies (at least in this brain). Importantly (IMO): these feelings/experiences are not the point of meditation. The point is the insights themselves — to realise/recognise the nondual nature of reality.

N) These statements above are not an attempt to capture the experience of realising/recognising them. There’s definitely a limit to the usefulness of words in conveying an experience. When people say that the experience of realisation cannot be captured in language, I would agree (though I think we can say a few things about it). But that’s not the case I’m making here. My case is that statements about nondual reality can be expressed in language, and doing so can be extremely helpful.

O) This list is not meant to be exhaustive. No doubt there are more statements about nondual reality which can be expressed in language, which this brain hasn’t grasped. If “your” brain knows of some, please post about them! Thankswhich can be expressed in language, which this brain hasn’t grasped. If “your” brain knows of some, please post about them! Thanks

Monday, January 01, 2024

On shifting perspectives....

I pass on clips from a piece in the 12/202/23 Wall Street Journal by Carlo Rovelli, the author, most recently, of ‘ White Holes: Inside the Horizon’

Somnium

By Johannes Kepler (1634)

1 Perhaps the greatest conceptual earthquake in the history of civilization was the Copernican Revolution. Prior to Copernicus, there were two realms: the celestial and the terrestrial. Celestial things orbit, terrestrial ones fall. The former are eternal, the latter perishable. Copernicus proposed a different organization of reality, in which the sun is in a class of its own. In another class are the planets, with the Earth being merely one among many. The moon is in yet another class, all by itself. Everything revolves around the sun, but the moon revolves around the Earth. This mad subversion of conventional reason was taken seriously only after Galileo and Kepler convinced humankind that Copernicus was indeed right. “Somnium” (“The Dream”) is the story of an Icelandic boy—Kepler’s alter ego—his witch mother and a daemon. The daemon takes the mother and son up to the moon to survey the universe, showing explicitly that what they usually see from Earth is the perspective from a moving body. Sheer genius.

History

By Elsa Morante (1974)

2 This passionate and intelligent novel is a fresco of Italy during World War II. “La Storia,” its title in Italian, can be translated as “story” or “tale” as well as “history.” Elsa Morante plumbs the complexity of humankind and its troubles, examining the sufferings caused by war. She writes from the view of the everyday people who bear the burden of the horror. This allows her to avoid taking sides and to see the humanity in both. The subtitle of this masterpiece—“a scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years”— captures Morante’s judgment of war, inviting us to a perspective shift on all wars.

Collected Poems of Lenore Kandel

By Lenore Kandel (2012)

3 Lenore Kandel was a wonderful and underrated poet who was part of the Beat-hippie movement in California. The tone of her poems varies widely, from bliss to desperation: “who finked on the angels / who stole the holy grail and hocked it for a jug of wine?” She created a scandal in the late 1960s by writing about sex in a strong, vivid way. Her profoundly anticonformist voice offers a radical shift of perspective by singing the beauty and the sacredness of female desire.

Why Empires Fall

By Peter Heather and John Rapley (2023)

4 As an Italian, I have long been intrigued by the fall of the Roman Empire. Peter Heather and John Rapley summarize the recent historiographic reassessments of the reasons for the fall. Their work also helps in understanding the present. Empires don’t necessarily collapse because they weaken. They fall because their success brings prosperity to a wider part of the world. They fall if they cannot adjust to the consequent rebalancing of power and if they try to stop history with the sheer power of weapons. “The easiest response to sell to home audiences still schooled in colonial history is confrontation,” the authors write. “This has major, potentially ruinous costs, compared to the more realistic but less immediately popular approach of accepting the inevitability of the periphery’s rise and trying to engage with it.”

The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā

By Nāgārjuna (ca. A.D. 150)

5 This major work of the ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna lives on in modern commentaries and translations. Among the best in English is Jay L. Garfield’s “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” (1995). Nāgārjuna’s text was repeatedly recommended to me in relation to my work on the interpretation of quantum theory. I resisted, suspicious of facile and often silly juxtapositions between modern science and Eastern philosophy. Then I read it, and it blew my mind. It does indeed offer a possible philosophical underpinning to relational quantum mechanics, which I consider the best way to understand quantum phenomena. But it offers more: a dizzying and captivating philosophical perspective that renounces any foundation. According to this view, the only way to understand something is through its relation with something else—nothing by itself has an independent reality. In the language of Nāgārjuna, every thing, taken by itself, is “empty,” including emptiness itself. I find this a fascinating intellectual perspective as well as a source of serenity, with its acceptance of our limits and impermanence.