The Things (2010)

In this short story, Peter Watts re-envisions the 1982 SF movie The Thing, from the point of view of the alien entity. As in his novel Blindsight, Mr. Watts shows an interest in neuroscience and the nature of consciousness. Maybe this subgenre could be called NSF – Neuroscience Fiction.

As an aside, there was a 1951 movie entitled The Thing from Another World, with a similar plot (alien creature discovered) and polar setting (but Arctic rather than Antarctic); the 1982 move was a re-make of this earlier movie. And yet another movie version, apparently a prequel, is due for release in mid-October this year.

As another aside, 1982 was the same year that the great SF movie Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, was released.

Dream To Forget

As a second-year medical student, in the neuroscience course, I was assigned an article by Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, entitled The Function of Dream Sleep. If I recall correctly, the premise of their theory was that the function of REM sleep is to forget spurious memories, to make room for more relevant memories. If they’re right, then it follows that one shouldn’t try to remember their dreams. (Unfortunately, trying to remember your dreams and recording them in a dream journal is an important tool for achieving lucid dreaming.)

This morning in Science Daily there’s an article about daydreaming to forget. In this article, daydreaming seems to be presented as “mind wandering”; this seems to me to be the result of losing one’s mental vigilance and being distracted, rather than the result of a conscious decision to fantasize. I wonder whether the authors of the 2010 paper referenced the 1983 paper by Crick and Mitchison, and I wonder how the two theories — REM sleep causing forgetting, daydreaming causing forgetting — relate to one another. I’ll have to obtain the paper and find out.

If you like the topic of dreams, I’d suggest you see the movie Inception!

The Dry Cleaning Effect and Remembering Yourself

‘Dry Cleaning Effect’ Explained By Forgetful Researcher.

In a nutshell, the rigid striatum is the autopilot, the flexible hippocampus is for (spatial) learning. Vow to yourself that the next time you see, e.g., a red bird, that you’ll say the word “parsimonious.” It seems technically easy to do. But do you think you can actually do it? Or will you forget?

Maybe meditation is about training yourself to minimize use of the striatum and maximize use of the hippocampus. Even if you’re doing some menial chore that you’ve done hundreds of times before, remain engaged to the task at hand. I think this is what some people mean by the phrase live in the moment, or by one of the current New Age buzzwords, mindfulness.

Don’t fly on autopilot; operate manually and maintain focused attention. It is difficult!

I think this is related to turning off that incessant internal dialogue we’ve all got running in our minds like a ticker tape.

In his book In Search of the Miraculous (6 MB File; top of p. 121), P.D. Ouspensky, a student of the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, wrote:

Then again I went out of the house. I walked on the left side of the Nevsky up to the Gostinoy Dvor intending to go to the Oflitzerskaya. Then I had changed my mind as it was getting late. I had taken an izvostchik and was driving to the Kavalergardskaya to my printers. And on the way while driving along the Tavricheskaya I began to feel a strange uneasiness, as though I had forgotten something — And suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten to remember myself.

I think that Ouspensky had in mind this difficult cognitive task. He had vowed to “remember himself” as long as he could, but then fell back into the zombie-like autopilot thought mode. Although he was physiologically conscious while walking about St. Petersburg (even “changing his mind” at one point on where he wanted to go), in a sense he was only an automaton running on autopilot, a robot run by his striatum. And then his hippocampus kicked in, and he “woke up” and remembered to “remember himself.”

There seem to be two usages of the word to remember. One usage (striatal?) appears to be somewhat static, like recalling some piece of information that you have memorized by rote, e.g. the year in which some great historical event happened, or the colors of the rainbow. The other usage (hippocampal?) is more dynamic, as in having to remember to do something, like stop by the dry cleaners on the way to work. Of course, it is this second meaning that the “Dry Cleaning Effect” article is about, and it may be related to the kind that Ouspensky was talking about, too.

Published in: on 19 January 2009 at 1:48 am  Comments (3)  
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A Taxonomy of Meditation

I once dug up a paper by James Moffett, philosopher of education, teacher of teachers, entitled Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation (College English, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Mar., 1982), pp. 231-246). In this paper, Mr. Moffett suggested that meditation is good for writers. He argued that the “inner speech” or “internal monologue” that continuously goes through our mind like a ticker tape provides raw material for writing, and that writers would benefit from learning to harness that inner speech.

Then Mr. Moffett gives a taxonomy of meditation. I adapt his figure below (hmm, I may need to re-capture the figure to make the text a little clearer; I don’t know how to make those arrows in HTML):

Moffett's Five Categories of Meditation

Moffett's Five Categories of Meditation

In his book How to Meditate, psychologist Lawrence LeShan gives two systems for classifying meditation practices (Chapter 6 of the book). In the first classification system, there are two types of meditative practice: structured and unstructured. In structured meditation, one’s meditative practice is precisely defined. LeShan gives as an example a simple breath counting exercise, wherein one counts one’s breath up to four and then starts over; any time you notice your thoughts straying from the exercise, you gently but firmly bring them back into line. In unstructured meditation, one allows one’s thoughts to wander on some selected topic, and merely observes thoughts, feelings, and memories one has on that particular topic; in essence, it is developing a thought chain on the topic. Thus, there are two components: (1) the topic itself, and (2) one’s feelings about it. LeShan warns that it is not just lazily musing or daydreaming about some topic, but instead involves an active act of will. LeShan’s structured meditation seems to map to Moffett’s “focusing inner speech” category; on the other hand, LeShan’s unstructured meditation seems most like Moffett’s “witnessing inner speech” category, but restricted to a particular topic.

LeShan’s second classification system divides up meditative practices into three classes: inner, middle, and outer ways. In the inner way (a.k.a. the way of expression, or the way of surrender), you just observe your own stream of consciousness; this seems to be the same as Moffett’s “witnessing inner speech” category. In the middle way (the way of emptiness), one strives towards an emptiness of the mind. It is not a trance-like, drowsy, or “spaced out” state of mind, but exactly the opposite: an alert mind with no conscious thought. This seems to be the same as Moffett’s “suspending inner speech” class. LeShan states that in the Byzantine desert Christian mystical schools, i.e. the Hesychast tradition of Mount Athos, it is known as “the way of the man with a silent mind”; and he warns that this is a difficult way, fraught with hard work and certain “traps” which he doesn’t specify (I once wrote him a letter asking him to elaborate, even going so far as to enclose a S.A.S.E., but unfortunately I got no response). In the outer way (a.k.a. the way of forms), one focuses on some externality such as an object, word, image, or event, and explore it actively with the eyes in as nonverbal a way as possible. This doesn’t seem to fit easily into Moffett’s classification system; an externality is involved, so on the one hand it seems like “focusing inner speech”, but it is to be done in a nonverbal way, which on the other hand sounds like “suspending inner speech”.

I found the bit about the middle way very interesting, because it sounded extremely familiar: I believe I’ve been practicing this method since high school, without realizing it was “meditation”. To me, it was just a challenging mental exercise, a sort of fun game. It is very difficult to maintain your mind in an alert, awake state, but clear of any verbal content for prolonged periods; try it and you’ll see. An interesting exercise is to take a walk and pay attention to the things you see as you’re walking, but maintain your mind in a nonverbal state. You see a car coming at an intersection, and you don’t cross the street because you don’t want to be hit; but don’t allow the words “car” or “accident”, e.g., to pass through your mind.

Maintain inner silence: very difficult.

One thing that I have learned is that it is possible to suspend inner speech, but in a way that you’re not really alert; you’re more “spaced out,” which is exactly the opposite of what you want. I was stuck in this dead end for about a year before I realized that it was probably the wrong thing to do. Perhaps this is one of those middle way “traps” that LeShan hinted at.

Just this past year (2008), a scientific paper by Lutz et al. from the University of Wisconsin appeared, entitled Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation (Lutz A et al., Trends Cogn Sci. 2008 Apr;12(4):163-9). Lutz recognizes that there are different meditative practices, and stresses the importance of distinguishing between them. He writes:

The term ‘meditation’ refers to a broad variety of practices, ranging from techniques designed to promote relaxation to exercises performed with a more far-reaching goal, such as a heightened sense of well-being. It is thus essential to be specific about the type of meditation practice under investigation. Failure to make such distinctions would be akin to the use of the word ‘sport’ to refer to all sports as if they were essentially the same.

(I heartily agree; if a group of scientists are going to study something, they need to make sure that they’re talking about the same thing.) Lutz then proposes a binary classification of meditative practices. Lutz calls the first type of meditation focused attention (FA), which maps readily to Moffett’s “focusing inner speech” and to LeShan’s “inner way”. The second meditation type in Lutz’s system is open monitoring (OM), which seems to be the same as Moffett’s “suspending inner speech” and LeShan’s “middle way.”

I think an interesting study for somebody (Lutz?) to do would be an fMRI study with the following conditions: baseline condition in which subjects are allowed to engage in the inner dialogue, then different sorts of meditation (e.g., FA vs. OM, or inner vs. middle vs. outer ways, or Moffett’s classes). Then do a 1-way ANOVA with planned comparisons, making sure to do a correction for multiple comparisons.

In summary, meditative practices seem to be concerned with practicing and exercising the ability to control one’s attention: to simply be aware of it, and to direct and focus it. Control of inner speech seems to be distinct but closely related. I think it is no accident that Lutz’s scientific paper has the word attention in its title.

P.S.: I suppose I should have used the plural and entitled this TaxonomIES of Meditation, since I have discussed more than one system of classification. But A Taxonomy of Meditation sounded better!

P.P.S.: Interestingly, a paper by H.S. Kim entitled We talk, therefore we think? presents evidence that Asian Americans don’t use inner speech for thinking as much as European Americans. And from the abstract of a paper by Pagnoni et al. entitled “Thinking about not-thinking”: neural correlates of conceptual processing during Zen meditation, we read:

While behavioral performance did not differ between groups, Zen practitioners displayed a reduced duration of the neural response linked to conceptual processing in regions of the default network, suggesting that meditative training may foster the ability to control the automatic cascade of semantic associations triggered by a stimulus and, by extension, to voluntarily regulate the flow of spontaneous mentation.

Regulating the flow of spontaneous mentation sounds like regulating the flow of a thought chain.

P.P.P.S.: Has it ever occurred to you that suspending inner speech might be useful in the case of an alien invasion? Suppose telepathic space aliens invaded the Earth and were able to track down humans by listening for their thoughts. If you were able to keep your mind silent, you might be able to evade the aliens! 🙂

Along the same lines, I recall a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Stalking Luke Skywalker with a drawn light saber, Darth Vader mocks him, saying, “Your thoughts betray you.” This indicates to me that Luke hadn’t yet learned how to suspend inner speech! Maybe Yoda didn’t have time to get to that lesson.

Whence Consciousness?

Do Subatomic Particles Have Free Will?

Seems to me a more satisfying hypothesis of where consciousness comes from. Better than the currently fashionable thinking that it is an epiphenomenon arising from highly complex interactions between neurons, which for me is deeply unsatisfying, mere hand-waving, not better than an appeal to magic. Sure, a highly complex neural network might result in behavior that simulates consciousness, might even pass the Turing Test, but I doubt that the resulting system would actually be conscious. I think it would instead be a Philosophical Zombie.

Boiling water will spontaneously form ordered columns moving up and down, from bottom to surface and back. This is a classic example of self-organization, where something new arises spontaneously from the collective actions of a group of simple units. But does this mean that if we boil the water in a special way (e.g., boil it at superheated temperatures, or boil it for a very long time, or boil it very quickly) or boil special water (heavy water?), then the water will spontaneously develop consciousness? Sure, it’s possible, but I doubt it.

Maybe I am too dour and skeptical and should just buy into the neural network hypothesis?

Addendum (6/29/09): Conway’s Proof Of The Free Will Theorem: “If there exist experimenters with (some) free will, then elementary particles also have (some) free will.” The Free Will Theorem (PDF file); see also The Strong Free Will Theorem (PDF file). Via MetaFilter. Apparently, the term “free will” may be too politically charged for some: “If you don’t like the term Free Will, call it Free Whim – this is the Free Whim Theorem”.

I am currently reading a 1989 paper by Colin McGinn entitled Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem? (Mind, New Series, Vol. 98, No. 391 (Jul., 1989), pp. 349-366). In the second footnote, Dr. McGinn writes:

I would also classify panpsychism as a constructive solution, since it attempts to explain consciousness in terms of properties of the brain that are as natural as consciousness itself. Attributing specks of proto-consciousness to the constituents of matter is not supernatural in the way postulating immaterial substances or divine interventions is; it is merely extravagant. I shall here be assuming that panpsychism, like all other extant constructive solutions, is inadequate as an answer to the mind-body problem — as (of course) are the supernatural ‘solutions’. I am speaking to those who still feel perplexed (almost everyone, I would think, at least in their heart).

The term panpsychism is new to me. But it sounds akin to what Conway and Kochen claim to have proven. I wonder whether Dr. McGinn is still alive, and knows about Conway and Kochen’s work. Hmm, Wikipedia says that Dr. McGinn accepted a position at the University of Miami in 2006.

Researchers develop method to transmit brain images to computer screen

OK, come on, this is cool.

I’m intrigued by the suggestion that the method could potentially be extended to provide images of dreams. Suppose you tell somebody to imagine a fictional scene or object, e.g. a pink elephant with wings. Would the technology show what the subject is only imagining in his/her head?

Here’s a post on MetaFilter with more links, including example images. I think they’re surprisingly clear.

Published in: on 12 December 2008 at 9:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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