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.

The I* signifier,  (from a recent 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.

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…..

…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.  

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.

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.

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.

Mulling over how little of my self (I*, it)  experience is spent outside of my linguistic narrative self thread.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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?

Some rambling on "Selves" and “Purpose”

Self, purpose, and tribal mentality as Darwinian adaptations (or…Why why aren’t we all enlightened?)

MindBlog passes on a note: on the relief of not being yourself

Points on having a self and free will.

I am not my problem

The non-duality industry as a panacea for the anxieties of our times?

Enlightenment, Habituation, and Renewal - Or, Mindfulness as the opiate of the thinking classes?

A quick MindBlog riff on what a self is….

MindBlog paragraphs bloviating on the nature of the self ask Google Bard and Chat GPT 4 for help

A MindBlog paragraph on non-dual awareness massaged by Bard and ChatGPT-4

Constructing Self and World  

Anthropic Claude's version of my writing on the Mind - a condensation of my ideas  

A Materialist's Credo

How our genes support our illusory selves - the "Baldwin effect"




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 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 😀.
    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’


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.


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.