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Meditation Deconstructs the Predictive Mind
Might we deconstruct our minds, & reconstruct social housing?
Mind Matters is a newsletter written by Oshan Jarow, exploring post-neoliberal economic possibilities, contemplative philosophy, consciousness, & some bountiful absurdities of being alive. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans!
A few days ago, I published a podcast conversation that I’ve been excited about for a long time now. I spoke with Ruben Laukkonen about his recent paper on meditation & predictive processing.
The paper, coauthored with Heleen Slagter, presents a unifying theory of meditation and cognitive science. As he puts it, meditation begins to ‘make sense’ when viewed through the lens of predictive processing.
I’ll expand on this below. You can listen to the episode here.
Meditation & Predictive Processing
Meditation is a way of creating conditions that induce the predictive mind to lose interest in the contents of consciousness.
When the predictive mind is no longer interested - that is, ascribes less precision weighting to the sensory phenomenon passing through its gaze, and thereby deems them less ‘important’ - some really interesting things happen.
A Quick Run Down of What Happens When You Meditate, According to Predictive Processing
The heart of my conversation with Ruben is the model presented in his & Heleen’s recent paper. The model looks at three stages of meditative depth, starting when one first sits down on the cushion, and finishing when even the most basic structure of subject/object duality dissolves, and one merges into the ebullient, frothing unity that is reality.
To understand why this model is so cool, we need to understand the term “precision weighting”. In predictive processing, the brain has expectations about the precision of its predictions. If it ascribes high precision weighting to some class of sensory phenomenon, the brain will be particularly attuned to that category of experience. It will deem any sensations of this category important, and they will claim more attention.
So, the model:
Phase 1: Focused Attention (FA)
Focused attention meditation is one way to describe a group of common meditation practices, such as focusing on your breath, or chanting a mantra, or focusing on the sensations in the left corner of your nostril as the breath washes over it.
From the paper:
“From a predictive processing perspective, we propose that FA meditation increases the precision-weighting of one source of present moment sensory experience, and thereby reduces the frequency of mental processes that rely on deep temporal models. By confining experience as much as possible to one prediction (e.g., breath sensations), FA automatically encourages less habitual ‘grasping’ of other predictions (such as thoughts), and reduces their appearance (as their relative precision-weighting is diminished).”
In phase 1, the brain raises its precision weighting of one source of experience, that source being the object of meditation. If I begin by focusing on my breath, I am literally shifting my predictive mind’s precision balance such that all sensations related to the breath become of increasing interest, and arise more clearly in attention.
Consequently, all other categories of experience have reduced precision weighting, and become less interesting to the mind. They fade from attention.
Phase 2: Open Monitoring
Say I’ve been focusing on my breath for 20 minutes. Most of my precision weighting is all hung on the breath, and drawn away from all other types of experience. In phase 2, the meditator withdraws their focus from the breath, instead focusing on nothing at all.
From the paper:
“Next, OM meditation withdraws selective attention [such as focusing on the breath] in favor of a broad scale dereification from the contents of experience. Such non-judgmental experiencing, we have proposed, equates to a reduction in the relative expected precision of all contents of experience, resulting in non-reactive awareness of whatever rises in experience…from a predictive processing perspective, any content of experience is assigned equal precision, and consequently low precision in relative terms.”
The interesting bit is that since precision weighting ascribed to all sensations other than the breath were down-regulated, now that you’ve released the breath from attention, the entire system of precision weighting is lessened. The predictive mind doesn’t see the things happening in consciousness as important enough to collapse attention onto, so the contents of the mind simply arise & fall, a process you can now observe from a somewhat detached vantage point.
They call this detachment process dereification: “the ability to discover that all of one’s experience is a process rather than a true reflection of reality.”
Phase 3: Non-Duality
Still, in open monitoring, there is the sensation that one is the ‘subject’ who is doing the experiencing. We feel ourselves to be the gravitational center of our consciousness. This ‘bare selfhood’ is sometimes called the ‘experiencing self’, and is closely associated with the brain’s Salience Network.
We have empirical evidence to substantiate the first two phases, but non-duality is more slippery. I wont spend much time on it here, but here’s a snip from the paper:
“…since all mental experiences are constructed through a process of abstraction away from the here and now, then if one were truly to be in the present moment—i.e., not constructing models with temporal thickness—then something akin to a non-dual experience would logically arise. That is, any mental activity that relies on active inference should disappear, including activity related to self-awareness and time.”
In sum, meditation progressively deconstructs the predictive hierarchy. But as Ruben points out in our conversation, there’s nothing inherently good about deconstruction*. The system might just put itself back together again the same way. Or worse. And so to complement deconstructive practices like meditation, or substances like psychedelics, we need to talk about the frameworks that guide us to reconstruct.
*Now, I’m not sure deconstruction isn’t inherently good in this context. If you take the ‘neural annealing’ model, deconstructing a system and letting it put itself back together again in the same configuration can still yield benefits. The deconstructed state may allow for cleansing of accumulated stressors (free energy), and ultimately render the reconstructed system more plastic and flexible.
But the sentiment of needing to value frameworks to guide healthy reconstruction is wonderfully important (as I wrote about in a previous newsletter in relation to consciousness ethics), and led us to explore education and economics.
Decay is Actually Dispersal
“Where do atoms go when they decay?” is not a question I’d asked myself until a few weeks ago.
I’m familiar with the common notion of a body decomposing, its parts disbanding, re-joining the broader environment as raw material for new structures of matter. It just never really occurred to me that decay is not destruction, it’s dispersal. Literally, during beta decay (the most common of types, I’m told by the internet), particles are “immediately ejected from the nucleus and completely out of the atom.” Decay is the dissolution of structure, not the degradation of matter.
In a sense, then, decay is flux; creativity in motion.
The Dawn of Luxury Social Housing
According to David Graeber and David Wengrow, conventional narratives of civilization go something like this: the larger a society, the more hierarchical it must become. It was inevitable, as the agricultural revolution gave rise to dense urban societies, that these societies would develop structures of hierarchy and domination, because that’s the law of how societies scale. Today, we live in a world of bureaucracies, hierarchies, and structural domination because we live in such a large society. Because scale naturally and inevitably gives rise to hierarchy.
This implies something about archeological evidence: when we look at large societies, the more they develop urban density, the more hierarchical they should become.
For a long time, we were told the evidence corroborates all this. But Graeber & Wengrow’s new book, The Dawn of Everything, says otherwise.
A fun example is Teotihuacan. For centuries, Teotihuacan appeared to conform to the conventional narrative. It grew, and grew, reaching perhaps 100,000 inhabitants. Peasant dwellings clustered around beautiful pyramids and temples (which indicate wealthy classes).
But then, something odd appears to have happened, right around AD 300. Temples were looted & destroyed, and none appear to ever have been built again.
“In fact, the entire trajectory of Teotihuacan’s political development seems to have gone off on a remarkable tangent. Instead of building palaces and elite quarters, the citizens embarked on a remarkable project of urban renewal, supplying high-quality apartments for nearly all the city’s population, regardless of wealth or status.”
Instead of building status symbols for the wealthy, Teotihuacan appears to have built a massive network of…luxury social housing, for every inhabitant of the city.
“Even the more modest apartments show signs of a comfortable lifestyle, with access to imported goods and a staple diet of corn tortillas, eggs, turkey and rabbit meat, and the milk-hued drink known as pulque.”
In other words, scale need not foreclose on radical changes to the course of civilizational development. We can trade in highly concentrated wealth for more egalitarian projects of social housing.
History is ours for the making.
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Until next time,