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How Meditation Deconstructs Predictive Processing
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 -
First: I have a new website. !!
My initial plan was to spend a lot of time meticulously designing a really cool, clean, fantastic new website that would provide a new home for the essays, podcast, and other elements of my self reproduced in the digital scene.
But I quickly realized this would take a long time, & I’m eager to get out of the restrictive, antiquated skin that is my Squarespace site. So, instead, I’m following the ethos of ‘working with the garage door up’, & publishing a minimally viable version of the new site, that I can now iterate & improve upon.
The website lives at the same old URL: musingmind.org, but has a new skin. I’m always open to any feedback, ideas, schemes, & plots. I’ve enjoyed looking into the world of personal websites & essay/podcast portfolios (collecting some examples I dig in this thread). If you have any favorites, send ‘em my way!
Second, I was interviewed on the “Meta-Ideological Podcast”. I mostly rambled about economic policy stuff, but Ryan & Nate are thoughtful hosts, & I appreciated getting to talk with them. The conversation is on Youtube, or in podcast form here.
Okay, onto the Good stuff.
Unifying Meditation & Predictive Processing
This is the most interesting paper from the meditation + cognitive science realm I’ve read in a long time.
Ruben Laukkonen & Heleen Slagter offer a theory that takes a stab at unifying the ‘deconstructive process’ of meditation with the predictive processing view of cognition.
I’ve written a bunch, & spent a whole podcast conversation, exploring what predictive processing is, in terms of the mind. In brief, according to this view, cognition is a system that seeks to reduce prediction error. It does so because we’re driven by the free-energy principle, which states that “self-organizing biological agents resist a tendency to disorder, & therefore minimize the entropy of their sensory states.”
One way to reduce the entropy of sensory states is to generate internal models of the world - just like we do every night in dreams - that we can use for the purposes of planning & prediction. If your internal model of the world can predict what’s going on ‘out there’, outside our skulls, then things are nice & orderly, which also bodes well for your survival.
This paper asks a simple, perennially interesting question: why does meditation produce novel conscious states? Why does sitting quietly & doing nothing produce phenomenological experiences that can be existentially jarring, ineffable, mystical, or otherwise significant?
They adopt the popular framing of meditation as a process that deconstructs our ordinary experience, thereby leaving us sort of like a peeled onion in the middle of a freeway. We sit amidst experience, stripped of our usual layers. We thus feel things differently, abnormally.
I’d like to summarize their model, at considerably greater length than a newsletter may usually entail, because it’s Really Good. If you’re at all interested in this stuff, I highly recommend you read the whole paper.
From many to (n)one
A good starting point might be their claim that what is ordinarily called “the present moment” is anything but. Given the predictive processing view of cognition, “past experience is a pervasive factor underlying all mental activity.” The ways in which my cognition interprets the many incoming sensory stimuli in any given moment are profoundly shaped by past experiences. I’m not experiencing the raw stimuli of the present, but instead, my cognition’s learned, warped, biased, or maybe even skilled predictive models of what these stimuli entail.
The authors claim that what meditation does is actually bring practitioners into the real present moment, rather than the fabrication of it we usually experience.
“Our main contention is that…meditation gradually bring the practitioner more and more into the present moment, thereby progressively abating hierarchically (i.e., temporally) deep predictive processing in the brain. We contend that this not only reduces temporally extended processes, such as episodic future thinking and decision making, but can also explain more unusual kinds of experiences reported by meditators, including loss of self-other distinction and the cessation of time as in non-dual awareness…if awareness rests in the here and now, all conceptualization including the sense of agency should also dissipate, which ultimately is said to reveal a “pure awareness” that contains no phenomenological model of either self or world.”
A key element of their theory is the bizarre claim that meditation ‘prunes the counterfactual tree’.
One thing predictive processing does is thicken the counterfactual tree. It allows us to imagine scenarios other than what has occurred, is occurring, or might occur in the future. The more we engage in these imaginations of alternate possibilities, the thicker the counterfactual tree. The deeper we get into meditative states, the more it prunes the counterfactual tree, thereby reducing the degrees of abstraction between our experience & the actual present moment.
“This perhaps uniquely human ability (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007) to project into the distant past and future is the creative force behind the complex counterfactual trees that make up higher cognition. It may be humanities greatest asset in the service of survival (Bulley et al., 2016), but it may also underlie much of human suffering as it allows us to think about what is not happening (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010).”
Now, to establish a spectrum for the ‘depth’ of meditation, they focus on three styles, given in ascending order of meditative depth: Focused Attention (FA), Open Monitoring (OM), and Non-Dual (ND).
Focused Attention Meditation
A practitioner may begin a meditation session using a FA method, focusing on the breath. The breath becomes their singular object of attention, maybe for 10 minutes.
“…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).”
By ‘up-weighting’ the significance (expected precision) for one particular sensory input (the breath), the system down-weights other predictions, “and this in turn may reduce the subjective realness of distracting thoughts and feelings and provide a first step towards dereification necessary for more advanced practices.”
Open Monitoring Meditation
Next, the practitioner enters the OM phase. They may lift their attention from the singular object, the breath, and ‘open’ attention to impartially monitor the entire landscape of awareness, like a microphone sitting in the center of the universe, listening to everything at once & nothing in particular. The down-weighting of predictions achieved in the FA phase is maintained, relaxing the usual grip our mental models have on experience.
“Although oscillation between FA and OM may often occur during practice, unlike the directed focus of FA, OM treats all arising signals non-preferentially (e.g., a thought, an emotion, or a sensation). Thus, from a predictive processing perspective, any content of experience is assigned equal precision, and consequently low precision in relative terms. Crucially, the goal of OM is not to stop experiences from arising. Instead, one reduces ‘grasping’ by quickly letting arising experiences (predictions) go without confirmation, by maintaining a restful but alert state of non-judgmental observing. Thus, OM continues to reduce the precision and temporal span of predictions arising in experience.”
They continue: “Thus, in OM, awareness of the background of experience further comes to the foreground, as one develops the ability to rest in a stable sense of ‘pure’ experiencing.”
Both FA and OM states retain some degree of mental construction: the duality between the observer, and that which they are observing. The duality of subject and object.
It’s been suggested that this subject-object duality is something that arises out of the predictive process. But with enough ‘meditative depth’, and enough down-weighting of the predictive models that underpin ordinary cognition, it’s possible that awareness precedes the predictive process entirely. If awareness is unmodulated by predictive processes, then the subject-object distinction does not arise. There is only the true present moment, experienced, for once, without the lens of past experiences and future expectations. There is only this.
It’s kind of like a sensory soup, where everything just liquifies and melts together, so that no boundaries remain. “It is against this awareness that all cognition is said to arise.”
The authors have a wonderful way of saying this:
“Thus, one way to understand the nature of non-dual practice is as follows: creating the conditions that reduce ordinary cognition that normally ‘hides’ non-dual awareness.”
Putting Everything Together
Ok, now we can piece together their model
Their basic claim:
“…meditation gradually flattens the predictive hierarchy or ‘prunes the counterfactual tree’, by bringing the meditator into the here and now…Thus, meditative depth is defined by the extent that the organism is not constructing temporally thick predictions.”
Or, put a little more technically:
“Another way to characterize this process is as follows: FA employs regular (conditional) attention to an object of sensing, OM employs bare (unconditional) attention, and ND practice employs reflexive awareness that permits the non-dual witnessing of the subject-object dichotomy and finally pure or non-dual awareness by releasing attention altogether.”
So what? Even if you aren’t a meditation nerd who finds these ideas intrinsically fascinating, this theory has some really intriguing implications.
For example, since this frames meditation as a practice that deconstructs predictive hierarchies and liberates awareness from their grasp, meditation studies may “reveal what predictions are evolutionary or phylogenetically constrained in human beings, and what structures of experience are amendable to change.” There may be certain “stubborn predictions” that cannot be deconstructed, no matter the meditative depth. But meditation should, presumably, be able to reveal the boundary that separates these predictions from all the others that shape our experience.
Their theory also provides a mechanism of action to explain how it is that altered states experienced during meditation practice lead to altered traits that persist afterwards, as durable changes to baseline cognition. By undermining the precision weighting of particular (if not all) predictive models, meditation may induce greater plasticity to replace maladaptive predictive models with better ones.
By ‘pruning the counterfactual tree’, meditation does not reduce the counterfactual capacity of baseline cognition. Quite the opposite, we get better at imagining counterfactuals, as meditation progressively liberates cognition from ingrained patterns, allowing for greater flexibility:
“…we propose that meditation may increase the counterfactual richness of processing outside of formal meditation by weakening ingrained prediction loops during meditation. The broadscale loosening of beliefs may permit more flexible and multidimensional processing.”
A good place to end is with Thrangu Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist who appears to have known how this all works for a long time:
“The senses perceive the object, which then the mental consciousness instantly conceptualizes in a manner conditioned by all of our past experience, and superimposes this conceptualized version back onto the originally neutral data of our senses—all of this occurring so fast that we don’t even notice the process, and are only left in the end with the mind’s conceptual version of things that we take to be reality.” (Thrangu, 2011)
Inequalities of Hedonic Baselines
‘Variance in hedonic baselines’ is a really interesting way to frame inequalities of baseline “good-feels”:
Hedonic baselines likely have much to do with heritable traits, but to what degree can social institutions affect hedonic baselines?
As I ask in my latest essay, Acid Capitalism, to what degree might a ‘platform against precarity’ and a recommitment to economic democracy redesign the landscapes of everyday life, so as to have a psychoactive impact on the general patterns of consciousness that emerge from them, with a bias towards higher degrees of mental autonomy?
If you’re interested in discussing any of these themes, you can join the Discord! You’ll get the benefit of hearing from a growing gang of folks who have their own angles on these ideas. If you do join, be sure to introduce yourself & your interests in the #introductions channel!
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Until next time,