5 Haiku on Consciousness


thoughts form & float,
reflections of a gliding bird
over murky pools.



sleeping deeply,
universe? where art thou?
do you rest too?



within my dreams,
i feel the familiar,
but see the strange.



images gel,
but seeking sense in them
sends them hiding.



next car rolls fore,
i yank the parking brake,
halting false back drift.

5 Books About the Mental Side of Yoga


5.) Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi: This book, which is presented in Q&A format, explores Sri Ramana’s approach to Jñāna yoga, and explains atma-vichara, the exercise of self-enquiry that Ramana proposed was the key to self-realization.

 

4.) Supernormal by Dean Radin: Okay, this is an unconventional choice for the list but bear with me. (I mostly included it because I like to have an under-the-radar entry in these lists, and this seems like one that could have been missed readers of works on yoga.) Radin is a paranormal researcher who, in this case, has investigated the topic of siddhi, which are the controversial powers that Patanjali discusses in the third section of The Yoga Sutras, but which many deny are real.

 

3.) Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Satyananda Saraswati: This is the Bihar School of Yoga guide to meditation, and it covers both yogic meditation methods and those from other disciplines (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Western / scientific [e.g. biofeedback], etc.) By “meditation,” here I mean more than dhyana. This book uses the word in a broader and more colloquial sense that includes some practices that are normally considered pratyahara (withdrawal of senses) or dharana (concentration.)

 

2.) Yoga Nidra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati:  Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) is a sustained hypnogogic state — i.e. the state of mind on the edge between wakefulness and falling into sleep. It is used both as an intense relaxation exercise as well as to access the subconscious to plant seeds therein.

 

1.) Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: (Sutras by Patanjali with commentary by B.K.S. Iyengar): This isn’t — strictly speaking — only about the mental side of yoga, but, in the Sutras, Patanjali makes clear that yoga is a tool to advance mental calm and clarity. There are many translations and commentaries available. Commentaries are useful because the 196 sutras are extremely sparse. Iyengar’s book is probably one of the most approachable translation / commentaries for a modern reader.

5 Myths & Misconceptions About Hypnosis

 

In a continuing effort to plumb the depths of the human mind, I’ve begun to learn about hypnosis through lessons, books, the practice of self-hypnosis, as well as via internet sources (yeah, dangerous, I know, but I try to be cautious.)

 

It turns out that there’s a lot to learn, in part, because there are so many misconceptions about what hypnosis is and how it works. Many of these incorrect ideas result from the fact that most people’s experience with hypnosis comes from watching stage hypnotists. I don’t want to suggest stage hypnotists are a disreputable lot, but seeing a show (particularly on the television) is likely to give one many a wrong impression of hypnosis because: a.) one may miss the fact that there is screening process going on (often carried out in an entertaining and interactive fashion so as to be part of the show and including innocent elements like calling for volunteers) to get a very select group on stage who are highly susceptible to hypnotic trance  — and probably more gregarious / free-spirited than average. b.) stage hypnotists (and less reputable therapeutic hypnotists) will occasionally say things that are… strictly speaking… untrue. This isn’t [necessarily] to be conniving or underhanded, but instead to prime subjects to be less resistant and skeptical. c.) what makes for an impressive show isn’t what makes for the most effective hypnotic induction / deepening for the average person (which tends to be a rather dull and drawn out affair.)

 

5.) A hypnotic trance is an unattentive and zombified state of mind. In a hypnotic trance, one is extremely relaxed physically, but one’s mind is highly focused on one particular stimuli (often this is the hypnotist’s voice but it might be awareness of breath, bodily sensation, imagery, or it might involve systematically cycling through a number of different sensory inputs at the hypnotist’s suggestion.) A common example used to help an individual understand what hypnosis will be like is the condition of being zoned out while driving, arriving with no recollection of the past ten miles because one’s mind was focused elsewhere.

 

The fact that memory can be impaired (not unlike when one is falling asleep or sleeping) and that suggestion of selective impairment (e.g. forgetting one’s name or a particular number or letter) is a common stage trick, makes people think that the subject has mentally flown the coup.

 

4.) Every person can be readily hypnotized. There’s a sense in which this may be true, and that’s that everybody seems to fall into a trance now and again. Remember, it’s just like zoning out when one is driving. But what most people are thinking of with this myth is more along the lines that any hypnotist worth his/her salt can drop any random person into a deep trance with the snap of a finger and the word “sleep.” However, the science suggests a bell-shaped curve with a lower 15 %-ish who are extremely hard (if not impossible) to induce into a hypnotic trance and a higher 15%-ish who are a piece of cake to hypnotize. The rest fall in the meaty middle, and can be hypnotized but with greater effort and with lower levels of suggestibility. So when a person says, “Oh, I don’t think I could be hypnotized at all,” the odds are against them.  On the other hand, contrary to Hollywood hypnotism and the wishes of Sidney Gottlieb, anyone can resist hypnosis if they decide to — and, sometimes, if they just can’t help themselves.

 

3.) Dumb people can’t be hypnotized and smart people are more hypnotically susceptible. I see this a lot on YouTube videos and books by hypnotists, and it sounds good. However, when I looked at the peer-reviewed academic publications, I saw something else. Scholars studying what personality traits correlated with hypnotic susceptibility found no such relationship for intelligence and ease of entering a hypnotic trance.

 

I don’t think hypnotists are lying for the sake of duplicity. First of all, many are probably parroting a line that they heard, that confirmed their beliefs / wishes, and that they never thought to investigate. Others are just trying to make a hard job easier. Think about it, if you tell your audience that dumb people can’t be hypnotized, and that the smartest people are the most easily hypnotized, people are going to be more eager to appear hypnotizable and will be less resistant. People don’t like to look unintelligent, especially in front of huge groups of strangers.

 

If you’re interested in knowing what personality trait is the most strongly correlated to hypnotic susceptibility (of the limited set that’s been studied so far,) it’s absorption — i.e. the proclivity to get deeply absorbed in a task. So, if you know a person who consistently has to have his or her name called half a dozen times to pull them out of a zone, there’s a good chance that person would make an awesome hypnotic subject. (Note: we all get that way now and again, we’re talking about someone who is consistently / frequently prone to that state.)

 

2.) A hypnotist can make a subject do anything he wants. People get this idea from movies and from only hearing half the story of expensive (but largely ineffective) programs like America’s MK Ultra and Soviet Psychotronics. The consensus view is that a hypnotist can get the average subject to do something that they wouldn’t do without suggestion as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do. So you might get an average person to raise their hand, because it’s not embarrassing, painful, or dangerous — and so they won’t be reticent to do it. Squawking like a chicken? Only if the person is the kind who doesn’t mind hamming it up. Murdering someone Manchurian Candidate-style? That’s pure fiction.

 

I heard a hypnotist say that gregarious people are more hypnotizable. In accordance with the scholarly findings mentioned in item 3, I suspect it’s more accurate to say that a stage hypnotist wants a subject who is both hypnotically susceptible and gregarious. That’s where selecting for people who are outgoing and who don’t object to hamming it up comes in. I don’t know that its true that outgoing folk are inherently more prone to reach a trance state, but they’ll be more fun to watch on stage because they are likely to follow suggestions to do more flamboyant deeds. Of course, studies of personality traits and hypnotic susceptibility don’t usually involve stage hypnosis, so maybe it is true that people who are more gregarious are more prone to trance (or, probably more accurately, less resistant to it) in that particular environment.

 

1.) Hypnosis involves a hypnotist taking over the mind of a subject. There’s a common refrain that one hears from hypnotists and that’s that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. One’s mind remains one’s mind throughout, even if one is more prone to accept suggestions. The confusion arises from the fact that we hear hypnotists making suggestions and see the subject following said suggestions, even when they involve activities we wouldn’t want to (and probably wouldn’t) do. This looks like the subject is under the command of the hypnotist, but they call them “suggestions” for a reason. For reasons that still aren’t entirely understood, people are more prone to respond positively to suggestion while in the hypnotic trance state.

 

Here’s a video on the science of hypnosis:

BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False MemoryThe Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Julia Shaw is a psychologist who conducted research into whether (and how) false memories could be “planted” in a person’s mind – and not just any memories, but memories of having committed a crime that one actually didn’t. That research is fascinating, and I think it’s tremendously valuable given the disparity between how accurate people believe their memories are and how fallible they are in practice. This disparity has played a major role in many a miscarriage of justice with eye-witnesses historically being considered the gold standard of evidence in criminal trials. Of course, I’m also a bit uneasy about people learning the recipe for an optimal process of generating false memories as it has the taint of being MK Ultra-level nefarious. (Though it should be pointed out that subjects must be active – if unwitting – participants in creating these false memories, so “planting” memories is an oversimplification.) This book discusses Shaw’s research, but it’s more of an overview of science’s understanding of the limits of memory and how those limits conflict with our beliefs – at least about one’s own memory [we often recognize how fallible other people’s memories are.]

The book consists of ten chapters. Chapter one dives into to one of the most common occurrences of false memory, and that’s the claim by some people that they remember events from their infancy – if not their own birth. Shaw presents the evidence for why such memories aren’t possible. This sets up the whole subject nicely because one must ask how so many people can claim to remember events that are physiologically impossible for them to have remembered, and to frequently be right about most key details. No one is suggesting that such people are liars (not all – or even most — of them, anyway.)

Imagine a school-age child hearing a story about his or her life as a baby. Hearing said story triggers a visualization in this child’s mind, and that visualization might well be filed away in memory, but when that memory is recalled the person in question may not realize she is recalling her imagined image of a story and not the actual event itself. Herein lies the crux of false memory: 1.) anything one visualizes in detail might potentially be stored away and become undifferentiated from the experiencing of an event; 2.) when we recall a memory we are recalling the last time we remembered it and not the event directly, and this can lead to a disparity between the memory and the actual event as it gets tied up with what’s going on in one’s mind at the time.

Chapter two explores perception, and how flawed perceptions may become flawed or tarnished memories. Just as memory isn’t the direct recording of events that we often feel it is, perception isn’t a direct replication of the world but rather a model generated in the brain. Therefore, the limitations and inaccuracies of the mental model are the first line of deviation of memory from reality. Chapter three describes how the brain’s physiology and evolutionary biology produce limitations to our ability to remember – limitations in spite of which we could thrive in the world in which we evolved.

Chapter four begins a series of chapters that take on specific objections that will arise to the ideas about false memory presented in the early chapters. This chapter counters an anticipated objection about people who seem to have perfect memories. In other words, a reader might admit that most people’s memories are crap (and even that his own memory isn’t infallible,) but what about the people with Las Vegas stage shows or the Asperger savant who knows every phone number in the Manhattan White Pages? Surely, these rare cases disprove the general idea of how memory works. Shaw shows that none of these people have perfect memory. Some have spectacular autobiographical memory (memory for their own life events) and others are exceedingly skilled at using mnemonic devices to remember any facts, but they all have limits. There’s also a discussion of how an unusually perfect autobiographical memory is often more of a curse than a blessing. We forget for good reason.

Chapter five examines another common memory fallacy, which is that one can remember best by getting the middleman of the consciousness mind out of the way and feeding data directly into the subconscious. In other words, it takes on subliminal learning. You may be familiar with the idea from ads suggesting that you can learn French in a couple of weeks without cracking a book just by playing audio tracks in one’s sleep and letting oneself learn effortlessly. Like every program that promises growth without effort, this one is debunked. Studies suggest that if one sleeps during such nights, one won’t learn, and if one learns, one isn’t actually sleeping. In other words, learning requires one’s attention.

I will say, the book fell off the rails for me a bit during this chapter. As I wrote in a recent blog post about psychological concepts that even psychologists repeatedly get wrong, Shaw denies the existence of hypnotic trance state as an altered state of consciousness. However, it becomes clear she isn’t arguing against the scientific perspective of what hypnosis is (a physically relaxed but highly mentally attentive state) and is rather denying the misconceived popular notion that seems to involve a person (possibly wearing a glittery cape) taking control of another person’s mind and making them into a zombified drone. She writes in an odd, round-about fashion on this subject as well as the topic of brainwashing – for which she offers her own value-laden definition. I’m not so sure that she didn’t understand hypnosis as much as she wanted to make sure her work was thoroughly distanced from hypnosis and brainwashing. It seems just seems strange and a bit dubious that a scholar studying false memory wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar with the literature on suggestibility and the states of mind most associated with it, i.e. hypnosis. I can only imagine the hoops she had to go through to get her research design through an IRB. (IRB’s are review boards that make determinations about whether a research project is – among other things – ethically defensible. After a series of famous — and ethically questionable — studies by the likes of Stanley Milgram, Ewen Cameron, and Timothy Leary, to name a few, psychology has come under great scrutiny.)

Chapter six asks whywe believe our memories are so awesome despite all evidence to the contrary. This comes down to why most of us unjustifiably judge ourselves superior in most regards. As is true of drivers, almost every person thinks she is better than average in the realm of memory. This is important because it’s not so much that our memory is fallible that leads to problems but that it’s fallible while we think it’s perfect. Chapter seven challenges the belief that there are certain events that are indelibly etched into our brains such as (depending upon age) the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. Such memories were once considered “flash bulb” memories, perfect renderings of societally traumatic events carved into our synapses. However, once these memories started to be put to the test, it was found that the details — vis-à-vis where one was and what one was doing at the time — are often wrong.

Chapter eight discusses how media and social media mold memories. One element of this is group-think. One’s memories may be molded through manipulation of the fact that people will readily believe that which is consistent with their beliefs while denying that which is inconsistent – regardless of facts and evidence. This chapter also takes on how social media influences memory as a distraction and because of so-called digital amnesia in which people remember less because they figure they can look it up at any time in the vastness of the internet.

Chapter nine proposes that even one’s most traumatic memories aren’t necessarily accurate, and – in fact – might be more likely to be fallacious. This may be the most important chapter of the book because it shows how a confluence of factors (namely, bad questioning tactics and peer / societal pressure) can result in the inadvertent planting of false memories. The chapter focuses on a series of Satanic ritual sexual abuse cases, a number of which were eventually disproved. So eager to build a case to bring believed wrong-doers to justice, law enforcement officers sometimes inadvertently pressured children into making up stories under the guise of trying to get them to open up, stories that sometimes became false memories.

Chapter ten shifts gears to consider what one can do about the issue of faulty memory – in other words how one can avoid being manipulated through exploitation of the limitations of one’s own memory. This is valuable information and not just for legal purposes but for life in general.

The book has a few graphics as necessary throughout the book and has end-notes to provide sources and elaboration on comments in the text.

I found this book to be immensely valuable as food-for-thought. The author presents many fascinating stories and the results of intriguing research studies, all in a readable package. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of the limits of human memory, how these limits can be manipulated, and how that manipulation can impact the criminal justice process.

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5 Myths of the Mind

 

I wrote a post a while back about six persistent brain myths that has some overlapping relevance to this one.

5.) A person is a unitary actor (the spherical cow of social sciences.) When I was a graduate student studying International Relations, a popular theoretical assumption was that nations were “unitary actors.” This meant that no matter how schizophrenic a government (and a nation’s civic institutions) might appear, they ultimately always pursued a national interest via a solitary hand. Like physicists assuming spherical cows, this makes life easier — even if it bears little resemblance to reality.

The full extent of the folly of the rational unitary actor assumption became apparent when I discovered that an individual isn’t even a unitary actor systematically pursuing its best interest. An individual is a collection of impulses, thoughts, feelings, etc. that seems like its under the command of a central authority only because that “central authority” [our conscious mind housed in our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] is really good at forming post-hoc rationalizations and making up stories that let us feel unitary. The reader may think I’m just talking about some slim segment of the population with a multiple personality disorder, but no. I’m talking about anyone who has ever agonized over whether or not they should have an ice cream treat or take the healthy route. At the end of an internal battle that ends with the levers of action being operated by parts of your nervous system beyond your conscious control, you walk away with your conscious mind building a nice story that explains how it chose to either treat its taste buds or take it easy on its pancreas by keeping insulin production stable.

To consider how the conscious and subconscious mind can be on two entirely different pages on a subject, we’re going to veer into controversial and provocative territory. [So be warned, and if you’re sensitive about sexuality and particularly coercive sexual fantasy, you may want to skip down to the next paragraph.] Across a series of studies, an average of 40% of subjects (generally, or maybe exclusively women) admitted they’d had a fantasy about being raped. Many readers will react with incredulity, perhaps suggesting that there must be something wrong with such a person. However, obviously numbers like that aren’t describing a lunatic fringe. The next response one might here is, “Why doesn’t a person with a rape fantasy know how horrible and decidedly unsexy rape is?” If you’re following my gist, you know the answer is that said person knows very well. Consciously, she is aware that rape is violent and horrific, and moreover she probably even knows that it’s about commanding power rather than sexual desire for the rapist. This knowledge doesn’t undermine the fantasy [unless, perhaps, she really forces herself to think about it intensely] because the arousal is driven by a more visceral part of the mind that FEELS that the act is about the rapist being overwhelmed with sexual attraction even though the person KNOWS that that’s not the case.

[Note: I do realize that it might theoretically be possible that a much more complex collection consisting of many individuals and organizations might behave in a more unitary fashion than an individual. That is, even though a nation his made up of many non-unitary actors, perhaps the nature of the game forces it to behave in a unitary fashion. I don’t buy it. I’ve been reading a great example in a biography by Ingrid Carlberg about Raoul Wallenberg where both the Soviets (who had Wallenberg in custody but wouldn’t admit it) and the Swedes (who didn’t know whether Wallenberg was alive and sent mixed signals) were befuddled by varying actors sending mixed messages and collectively behaving ineffectively. It’s hard to come away thinking that Stalin and his Ministers had a rational and unified decision process. Instead, it seems like a perfect storm of incompetency and incorrect assumptions resulted in an outcome that wasn’t ideal for any of the parties.]

 

4.) Everyone can be hypnotized via instant induction and then commanded to do anything that’s asked of them.  Hypnosis is among the most misunderstood activities around. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that hypnosis is a favorite device in movies and fiction, and people draw information from these fictitious sources. The “Now You See Me” movies (see above) offer many such displays of a person being instantaneously hypnotized against his will even when the person is an expert himself, and made to do things against his interests. Misconception also flowers when people hear real or fictitious accounts of Cold War programs like America’s MK Ultra or the Soviet’s psychotronics. The lesson to be taken away from those expensive and morally-dubious programs is that it may be possible to break a person’s mind, but you can’t force someone to do something they abhor while programming them to forget all about it afterwards.

Another reason for the misunderstanding, is that there’s a disreputable group of stage hypnotists and others who love to spread these ideas because it’s more intriguing if people think they can do it to anyone at any time than if they understand that their subjects have been carefully selected to be among the more readily prone to achieve trance states and to be responsive to suggestion. It’s true that most people are hypnotizable and will respond to suggestions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do.) But highly hypnotizable individuals are only about 15% of the population, and there’s another 15% at the other end that are virtually impossible to hypnotize. The video below has more detail on the science.

 

3.) One has no access to one’s subconscious mind. The conscious mind is like the loudmouthed drunk who swears he invented the potato chip bag clip, the envelope-wetting sponge, and Velcro. That is, it’s hard to hear over the din of incessant yapping, and since the conscious mind claims credit for everything, it’s easy to be fooled that there’s nothing else to listen to in the mind. However, if you can knock the drunk out, you start to become aware of what the subconscious has to say. Those who don’t meditate may be aware of subconscious imagery as they are falling to sleep (the hypnogogic state), as they are waking up (the hypnopompic state), or sometimes even during dreams (i.e. so-called lucid dreams or dream yoga.) Those who do meditate will be well aware of images that spontaneously form and fade in the meditative mind, and which can give rise to conscious thoughts if left unchecked.

 

2.) Memory is a recording of life events.  I’ve been reading Julia Shaw’s “The Memory Illusion” recently. It’s a fascinating look at false memories. There are many famous cases of false memory, but what is most interesting is Shaw’s success in planting false memories of criminal activity. “Planting” isn’t the best term to describe this. It’s more about getting the subject to visualize events such that they create the false memory. While I stand by what I said about the myths of hypnosis, there have been a number of cases of false memories being implanted while an individual was in a hypnotic trance, and so one shouldn’t disregard the power of hypnosis altogether.  The fact of the matter is that what we remember isn’t the occurrence of the event itself, but the last remembrance of said event. This means that there’s a great deal of room for memory degradation over time, and for a false transcript of events to form in the mind.

 

1.) Emotions get in the way of good decision making. I just posted a review of Antonio Damasio’s book “Decartes’ Error,” which examines this subject in great detail. Damasio found that patients who had damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion often became victims of paralysis by analysis. That is, without emotion to give them a kick, they can’t make decisions. Reason doesn’t always provide a clear answer because the world is filled with uncertainty. When there’s not enough information, we still need to make decisions, and this is accomplished by emotional “gut instincts.”

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations on Consciousness ed. by Susan Blackmore

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be HumanConversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Blackmore gathers together interviews from a veritable who’s who of consciousness experts from neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, psychology, and physics. While the interviews are in part tailored to tap into the special insights of the given expert, a consistent series of questions is asked of each of the interviewees. Each expert is asked what they think is challenging about consciousness, what they think about the feasibility of philosopher’s zombies (a popular thought experiment about an individual who seems to behave like an ordinary human but who has no conscious experience), what they think about the existence of free will, what happens to consciousness after death, and what got them interested in the subject. This makes it easy for the reader to see not just differences in thinking across disciplines, but also different schools of thought within disciplines. There’s enough variety to make for intriguing reading. There is also a mix between individuals who have experience with meditation (e.g. the interviewer) and those who don’t, and so it’s interesting to compare views of those with such insight to those who study consciousness entirely abstractly.

I won’t list all the authors, but they include: David Chalmers (who famously coined the term the “hard problem” of consciousness, which is one of the most widely discussed ideas in the book), Francis Crick (of DNA fame who later shifted focus), Daniel Dennett (a well-known philosopher), V.S. Ramachandran (a neuroscientist famous for work on phantom limbs and behavioral neurology), and Roger Penrose (a physicist who believes that quantum mechanics may prove crucial to figuring out consciousness.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an Introduction by Blackmore and then the 20 or 21 interviews (one “chapter” is a married couple – Pat and Paul Churchland — whose insights are presented together.) The only back matter is a glossary, which is quite in-depth and which helps to clarify the many confusing concepts from various disciplines. There are a few cartoon drawings that lighten the tone, but serve no essential purpose.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. It’s quite old at this point – having come out in 2005 – but since consciousness is so intractable, it’s not like any of the questions have been cleared up. (If it were a book on AI, I’d probably say it was worthless at this point, but not this book.) I’d recommend it for anyone looking to understand the lay of the land with regards thinking about consciousness.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Spread Mind by Riccardo Manzotti

The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are OneThe Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One by Riccardo Manzotti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Manzotti puts forth a bold and intriguing hypothesis that one’s mental experience is the physical world and not a model or representation of the world. Unfortunately, his book doesn’t make a compelling case for “The Spread Mind” (as he calls it) over its competition. Consciousness is one of those still dim corners of our world that isn’t yet fully understood by anyone, and this has spurred many competing ideas ranging from: a.) it being illusory; b.) it being purely a construct of a complex brain; c.) it hinging on some quantum mechanical action not yet understood; d.) panpsychic (all-pervading consciousness) arguments that may or may not resonate traditional Indian / Eastern conceptions; and e.) this idea that consciousness is identical with the physical world of which one is conscious.

However, for simplicity’s sake, one can contrast Manzotti’s idea with the most widely accepted view offered by science, which is that our brains construct mental models of the world often based on [but not identical to] sensory information they take in. (If my statement isn’t clear, you can check out neuroscientist Anil Seth’s TED Talk on “how our brains hallucinate reality,” which is as diametrically opposed to Manzotti’s hypothesis as one gets – and which, unfortunately for Manzotti, also makes a more cogent argument.)

At first blush, Manzotti’s idea might look appealing. It does, after all, simplify the picture. It eliminates the middle-man of mental models and seemingly solves the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem is how to reconcile how the body (wet, physical, objectively observable matter) relates to mind (intangible, subjective, ephemeral thoughts and feelings,) — if it does. Descartes famously suggested that mind and body were simply two separate things (i.e. dualism), and while that notion has remained popular with homo religiosis it’s all but dead in the world of science. However, there is no one monism that has unambiguously replaced Cartesian dualism. The most popular variant among those who study the brain is that some action in / across neurons creates a series mental imagery, internal monologuing, and emotional sensations that make up our mental experience. The mechanism by which this could happen is still not understood, but it’s an inherently hard problem to peer into because on can’t observe mind states directly and the best tool for studying it – i.e. functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is only a couple decades old (and it’s still looking at brain blood flow and not consciousness, itself.) [I defend that this mechanism isn’t yet explained because one of Manzotti’s points seems to be: neuroscience hasn’t yet explained how neurons produced mental experience so just believe in my hypothesis which offers not even a hint of a mechanism by which it could work.] Manzotti’s is also a physical monist argument, but one that denies the mind is anything more than our experience of the physical world. In other words, there is a spoon, but there’s no mind separate of it.

So, what’s the problem? The reader may have already thought of some challenges confronting Manzotti’s hypothesis, and many of the most common ones the author refutes in the middle portion of the book. Dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, and even memory (certainly false memories, which we know are a wide-spread phenomenon) should utterly destroy the Spread Mind, given the simple definition we’ve given so far. After all, if your mental experience consists entirely of the physical objects that you are exposed to, then how does one explain the doughnut-shaped, sprinkle-breathing dragon that you hallucinated when you did ayahuasca on your trip to Iquitos? OK, you say you’re not such a wild child? Alright, how do you explain your detailed remembrance of putting that water bill into the mailbox, but then finding it under the seat of your car after you got a late notice from the water utility? If our mental experience is identical to the physical objects we experience, mentally experiencing things that don’t exist or events that never happened should never occur.

Manzotti elaborates upon Spread Mind to fend off these crippling attacks to his “theory.” (I use quotes because a theory is usually defined as “a well-substantiated explanation of a phenomenon” and it doesn’t seem to me there’s much in the way of substantiation of this idea.) There are two main prongs to his defense, one of which is unproven but soundly stated and consistent with the thinking of many physicists. The other defense seems to simply be a post-hoc rationalization used to make his “theory” work. Even though these ideas are presented in the opposite order in the book, I’ll deal with the first one I mentioned first because it’s relatively simple to cover. That’s the idea that past and present all exist always and at the same time. That may seem like an out-there idea because we can only ever be in touch with a moment we think of as the present and everything else is memory or fantasy /forecasts. However, it’s not exactly a rogue notion in science, especially once one starts thinking about making sense of Einsteinian Relativity. So, without this idea, if Spread Mind was correct, we could never have that fond memory of Mr. Fluffers, the pet we had in first grade who died decades ago. If our mental experience is Mr. Fluffers and not our mental model of Mr. Fluffers, we can’t have such an experience so long after he passed away. But if all time exist simultaneously, then one can conceive of how such a remembrance could happen. The only thing special about the present in Manzotti’s conception is that it’s the time during which we can interact with objects that also exist in the same time. This may or may not prove to be true. If it proves false it will kill Spread Mind, but if proves true the theory still has many questions to answer to prove itself worthy.

The second, and far less well-supported, defense could actually be divided in two ideas, but I’ll deal with it as a unit for simplicity’s sake. The parts of this defense our: a.) misbelief about our mental experience can happen, somehow [potential mechanisms by which this might occur are not described and that’s a huge problem for the author]; b.) objects we’ve experienced can be reshuffled to make objects appear to be entities that we know do not exist [Again, the mechanism by which this could occur is never explained or even seriously speculated about.] Let me give an example to explain how these defenses work. Say you drop a tab of acid and are having a hallucination of a dragon flying through the sky. Manzotti’s idea is that you are experiencing a reshuffled creature consisting of legs, a serpent, maybe some fire, a backdrop of sky, and you have a misbelief that all these constituent parts are in the present and co-exist together in space and time (as opposed to being disparate objects from varied past times.) This is a very convenient idea for Manzotti’s “theory” but it’s not really clear why we should buy it. In the competing notion that a mental model is built, one can imagine how the mind might construct something that doesn’t exist due to neuronal cross-firing or something like that. (The bigger question, in fact, might be why it doesn’t happen more often.) However, if our experience consists of objects that we’ve shared space-time with at some point, how and why should such weirdness occur? If the author made a compelling attempt to explain how this occurrence is reasonable, one might leave the book thinking his “theory” is – in fact — a theory and give it equal or superior footing to other approaches to consciousness, but as the book mostly offers gratuitous statements telling us to accept this all as a given, it’s not very powerful.

I’d like to get into one crucial example where I think Manzotti’s thinking is flawed in a way that could prove devastating to the Spread Mind. The author admits that an extraordinary hallucination would kill the Spread Mind. He defines an extraordinary hallucination as one consisting of objects that are non-existent in our world. Earlier, I used the example of a dragon which we know doesn’t exist, and we can be reasonably certain never existed. However, Manzotti would say that it’s just a reshuffling of parts like legs and snakes that we do know exist, combined with a misbelief about when these objects exist and that they co-exist in the same time. Manzotti says that there is no evidence that a hallucination that can’t be explained by reshuffling and misbelief ever existed. I have no doubt that if one read accounts of hallucinations; one could come away with that conclusion. However, I think it’s more convincingly explained by the nature of language as a unit of communication (hence necessitating common vocabulary.)

Example: Let’s assume for a minute that I had an extraordinary hallucination, and I decide to document it. I could take one of two approaches. On one hand, I could describe every completely novel element with a new word. I could say I saw a gruzzy-wug which had three separpals and a florgnak and a long and bushy krungleswam. Of course, I’m not communicating at this point because communication requires common vocabulary. Manzotti would likely argue that I’m just reshuffling letters [linguistic objects] to make up non-sense. On the other hand, as soon as I use a common vocabulary and analogy saying such and such is “kind of like a leg, but sort of with a curly-cue spiral and a mouth on top” Manzotti would say, well it’s a reshuffling of a leg and a pig’s tail and a mouth all of which the individual has seen before.

However, an even more devastating oversight is ignoring vast tracks of what most people would consider their mental experience. It’s the penultimate chapter before the book even touches upon emotion, which most would argue is a huge part of mental experience. Throughout most of the book, one is left wondering whether the author thinks of such things as emotion and language as part of consciousness. One imagines Manzotti’s experience of the world is one physical object after the other (mostly red apples with the occasional pink flying elephant – examples he uses ad nauseam) without any conceptual experience. Manzotti does explain that one must revise one’s conception of an object to think in terms of the Spread Mind, and one can see how this might explain language – which has a huge and powerful role in one’s mental experience and which is left unexplored by the book. But while language could arguable be explained as consisting of objects, emotional experience seems hard to fit Manzotti’s hypothesis.

The book consists of nine chapters. It has graphics and bibliography as one would expect of a scholarly work

I think most readers will find this book to be repetitive and frustrating in its lack of explanation. It’s not that it’s speculative; it’s that it just bludgeons the reader with gratuitous assertions that we expect will pay off in at least a hint of how the Spread Mind could work, but it never does. (For example, I greatly enjoyed Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” that speculates that our world is a mathematical structure – not that it can be described mathematically but that it fundamentally is mathematical.) Spread Mind is an interesting idea, but I can’t say I’d recommend the book unless one is really interested in knowing all of the varied lines of thinking about consciousness that exist out there. I must say it was a beneficial read because it made me consider some interesting ideas, but nothing in it swayed my thinking.

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POEM: Thought Bubbles

Source: Spiff via Wikipedia

 

Silence the jittery critter.
Ride the dullness down
to where images bubble.

In that blurry dimness
one feels their logic,
but shine the mind’s light
and all sense shatters —
scattering,
dissolving into shadows
without a trace.

Leaving only the dull ache of betrayal
that, as in a dream,
something so absurd and fragile
could feel so wise.

BOOK REVIEW: Sure Ways to Self-Realization by Swami Saraswati

Sure Ways to Self RealizationSure Ways to Self Realization by Satyananda Saraswati
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book is one-stop shopping for the yogic meditator. The first half of the book explores many of the most common yogic practices of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) in step-by-step detail. The second half of the book situates yogic meditation in a global context of meditation by introducing various techniques of meditation and mind science seen around the world. This allows the reader to compare and contrast the yogic approach to that of other systems — be they closely related systems such as Buddhism or Jainism or more remote ones such as hypnosis or moving meditations like dance or the martial arts.

I found this book to be incredibly useful. While there are mountains of books on yoga, there are relatively few that shine a light on the practices of the mind, and among those that do only very few are nonsectarian. Many books look at meditation solely as a spiritual practice and a few others present it exclusively as a secular scientifically grounded practice. This book skillfully bridges between, and does its level best to get the accounts of different systems right. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few oversimplifications or minor misunderstandings here and there, but the good overshadows them by far. It should be noted that even within the domain of yoga, many authors warp concepts such as jnana yoga and tantric yoga to fit their worldview or sect instead of reporting on how practitioners of those systems would see them. This book seemed to me to be much fairer than many in this regard.

The book consists of an Introduction and seven chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss tools and aids used in meditation. The primary difference between the two chapters is that the first looks at traditional aids such as mantra, mandalas, and symbology, and the second discusses more modern scientific aids such as biofeedback, drugs, and sensory deprivation tanks.

Chapter 3 is one of the largest (more than a quarter of the book) and it explores the many yogic meditation techniques, including: antar mouna, japa, ajapa japa, chidakasha dharana, yoga nidra, prana vidya, trataka, nada meditation, jnana yogi meditations, kriya yoga techniques, and tantric techniques. While the later discussion of non-yogic approaches generally includes instructions for basic exercises, the descriptions in this section are much more detailed, and some include variations on the primary practice.

Chapter 4 is about the same length as chapter 3, and it investigates many of the other systems of meditation from around the world. These include religious systems such as those in: Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, various sects of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, the mystical branches of Christianity and Islam (Sufi,) and Native American animist traditions. It also includes secular systems such as hypnosis and autogenic therapy.

Chapter 5 delves into how movement of the body is used as an anchor point in meditation in yoga, on pilgrimage, in Tibetan Buddhism, in Zen Buddhism, in the martial arts, in dance, and in sports. This is where I saw those few of the aforementioned minor oversimplifications and misunderstandings (e.g. referring to all martial arts under the rubric “karate.”) However, I greatly appreciated that the authors included discussion of this important topic, and so I can’t say that there was anything that detracted from my enjoyment of coverage of the topic.

The penultimate chapter is a catch-all for miscellany not covered earlier in the book. It includes meditations for kids (who require a very special approach, I can attest.) It also has a section on meditation on death, which I believe to be an immensely important topic for helping people shed their fear so they can get the most out of their lives. The other two sections are on nature and sensory meditations, respectively. The last chapter is short and discusses samadhi as the goal of meditative practice.

There are only a few graphics in the book, mostly symbology, but there is a glossary and a bibliography.

I would highly recommend this book for yoga practitioners and those who have a broad interest in meditative and mind science practices.

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5 Essential TED Talks on Consciousness

5.) Anil Seth: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality




4.) David Chalmers: How Do You Explain consciousness?





3.) Max Tegmark: Consciousness is a Mathematical Pattern





2.) Antonio Damasio: The Quest to Understand Consciousness





1.) Oliver Sacks: What Hallucination Reveals about Our Minds