Mind Matters

Neural Theory of Everything, NIT, What's to Be Done?

Hello humans,

In the coming months, I have podcast conversations lined up so far with Michael Brooks and Maja Göpel - really looking forward to these.

Michael spoke to the Both/And podcast about integrating politics and spirituality, and I look forward to carrying that conversation forward, exploring exactly what policies might emerge from this partnership between contemplatives and economists.

Dr. Göpel published a book - The Great Mindshift: How a New Economic Paradigm and Sustainability Transformations go Hand in Hand - on exactly the idea I explored in my recent essay, the relationship between policy change and paradigm change

Beyond that, let’s dig right in.

Neural Annealing: A Neural Theory of Everything

I’m reading a really long, insanely interesting paper written by Michael Johnson of the Qualia Research Institute: Neural Annealing: Toward a Neural Theory of Everything.

The heart of the paper is the metaphor of annealing applied to consciousness and the brain.

Annealing is a process in which one heats a metal to a point of heightened plasticity. Heating metals past a particular temperature relieves internal stressors and renders the metal more workable, easier to reconfigure.

Johnson suggests that neural annealing is the primary way the brain processes experience and updates its structure:

“And I’d suggest that this is the core dynamic of how the brain updates its structure…entering high-energy states (i.e., intense emotional states which take some time to ‘process’) is how the brain releases structural stress and adapts to new developments. This process needs to happen on a regular basis to support healthy function, and if it doesn’t, psychological health degrades— In particular, mental flexibility & emotional vibrancy go down — analogous to a drop in a metal’s ‘ductility’.”

With enough energy input, the brain enters a high-energy state in which it anneals - it releases internal stressors acquired throughout lower-energy functioning, and self-organizes into new equilibria.

What kind of energy input? Johnson calls the requisite energy “semantically neutral energy”, meaning energy that doesn’t strongly associate with any specific cognitive process. In other words, input that doesn’t fall into our existing maps of the world, our existing shortcuts to thinking:

Using meditation as an example, he describes the process:

“So we can think of intermediate-to-advanced (‘successful flow-state’) meditation as a reheating process, whereby the brain enters a more plastic and neutral state, releases pent-up structural stresses, and recrystallizes into a more balanced, neutral configuration as it cools. Iterated many times, this will drive an evolutionary process and will produce a very different brain, one which is more unified & anti-fragile, less distorted toward intentionality, and in general structurally optimized against stress.”

But this isn’t a plea for meditation, he identifies at least 3 methods for building up semantically neutral energy:

  1. Meditation

  2. Psychedelics

  3. Music

He also envisions ‘hybrid approaches’:

“Hybrid approaches also exist: e.g. exercise, dance, sex, tantric practices, EMDR, and breath work are essentially combinations of the rhythmic portion of music and the sensory portion of meditation. The fact that psychedelics reliably enhance the potency of each and every one of these practices is not a coincidence, but due to shared mechanism.”

Now here’s where things start to get really relevant, beyond the fringes of neuroscience. He goes on to speculate that failure to anneal frequently enough, especially in young and adolescent brains, leads to forms of depression.

The paragraph below reminds me of Richard Tarnas’ paper on how our cultural lacks rites of passage rituals (that often induced similar high-energy brain states). I know this is long, but it merits being quoted at length:

As we sit on the cusp of legalizing psychedelics in therapeutic, and at some point, recreational contexts, I wonder what kinds of healthy annealing rituals we can integrate into culture.

Annual psychedelic sessions for adolescents, like a ‘summer vacation’ for the mind? Who knows, but this will be an exciting space.

I’m only halfway through the paper, so we’ll leave this here for now. Check it out.

Is Poverty Necessary? Cost of Poverty Level Negative Income Tax

After reading Marilynne Robinson’s essay, Is Poverty Necessary, I looked around to find how much, exactly, it might cost to eliminate poverty this year. The answer was unsettlingly low.

Below is a table from a 2015 paper in The Journal of Poverty. It reports that ending poverty via negative income tax (NIT) in 2004 (adjusted for 2007 dollars) ranges anywhere from $112 billion - $635 billion, depending on the guaranteed income level and benefit phaseout rate.

A poverty level NIT ensures that nobody in the economy earns less than the poverty level. Anyone earning below the poverty line would receive a payment that brings them up to the level. Anyone earning above the line pays a tax that funds those payments (there are far more nuanced mechanics to make the details work, but that’s the basic idea).

Finding a way to fund even the most expensive version, a $635 billion dollar program is not difficult with enough political will. Not to mention the existing welfare programs that would fold into this program, offsetting much of the cost.

Using the $215.2 billion annual surplus from Gabriel Zucman & Emmanuel Saez’s proposed tax plan - which fully funds healthcare for all, lowers taxes on 95% of the income distribution, and raises them on the wealthy - the lower versions of NIT could already be fully funded:

This merits repeating:

By implementing a progressive tax plan that lowers taxes for 95% of citizens, the US could eliminate domestic poverty and provide healthcare for all.

This doesn’t mean I think we should implement NIT, or the proposed tax plan. But it does mean we should shift the frame of the discourse:

The question isn’t *whether* we can end poverty - we can - but rather, *how* to do so. Ending poverty is a policy design question, rather than a waiting game for nebulous outcomes of economic growth.

This should be one of the largest national discourses: what policy will we use to end poverty?

During my podcast conversation with Karl Widerquist, we explored why we might prefer Universal Basic Income to NIT:

Two Good Universal Basic Income Critiques

While we’re at it, I read two strong critiques of Basic Income recently, both coming from far-left perspectives. Both converge on the basic idea: ‘an affordable UBI is inadequate, and an adequate UBI is unaffordable.’

Daniel Zamora’s critique in Jacobin Magazine worries that a high-level UBI would unravel the distributed system of division of labor, where society is a system in which all individuals contribute to collective production:

“A ‘utopian’ UBI, by contrast, simply assumes that in a society liberated from the work imperative, the spontaneous aggregation of individual desires would yield a division of labor conducive to a properly functioning society; that the desires of individuals newly freed to choose what they wish to do would spontaneously yield a perfectly functional division of labor. But this expectation is assumed rather than demonstrated.”

Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea of a policy that leads to a radical restructuring, and perhaps reduction, of the system of collective production that undergirds modern life. I agree that industries would probably collapse and businesses would be rendered unviable. We’re drowning in goods and services we don’t need. A UBI could afford people enough security to transition out of redundant industries that pursue nothing more than paychecks.

One fear I do retain is whether a large-scale reduction in collective production would wind up diminishing the tax revenues that fund UBI in the first place, so that we destroy the system that provides jobs and incomes, and slowly descend into some kind of dystopia as the UBI funding erodes.

Zamora concludes, “That’s why a universal job guarantee and a reduction in work hours still represent the most important objectives for any left politics”.

The second critique, by Anna Coote (of The New Economics Foundation), looks towards Universal Basic Services (UBS):

“Far more compelling than UBI is ‘UBS’, or the idea of ‘universal basic services’ currently being developed by economists at London University’s Global Prosperity Institute. Their goal is ‘public services that enable every citizen to live a larger life’ by ensuring access to security, opportunity and participation. This means reaching beyond education and health services, to provide transport, access to information, shelter and food ‘all of which are generally considered to be essential to full participation in a modern, developed economy.’”

All these critiques use the same narrative structure:

1) What’s the point(s) of UBI?

2) Is UBI the best way of achieving said point(s)?

I have a 15,000 word essay in the works on this…more on that soon.

What Is to Be Done?

I’m adding a new section to my website, and I hope others might join me. It’s titled What Is to Be Done?

It has two sections:

  1. Policies (the collective)

  2. Technologies of the Self (the individual)

Taken together, they are an ever-evolving list of responses to that question that arises when imagining a better world: but what can we actually do?

The Policies page gathers structural things to be done. For me, these are mostly taxes, services, laws, and structural ideas to help design the socioeconomic paradigm emerging out of the dried husk of neoliberalism.

The Technologies page is geared towards individuals. It’s an inventory of techniques, or an ecology of practices. From contemplative practice, diet & exercise, to learning languages.

Both pages are ‘alive’, meaning I will constantly update them, add to them, delete from them, as I continue exploring. I also plan on integrating these into my podcast conversations, aggregating various experts’ own ideas regarding what should be done.

The more people doing this, the easier it becomes to identify trends, so if you create your own, share it with me, and we’ll find a way to link them all up.

Visit my 'What Is to Be Done" Page

That’s It!

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Carry on!
~ Oshan