Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mindfulness, Attention, the Quantum Brain, Synthetic Experience, and Memory Based Reenactments

This post is based on a book that I finished at the beginning of this week: The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz. I mentioned a few things about this book in previous posts on neuroplasticity or some other related stuff. But now that I have finished it I realize what he is saying is much broader than I had understood halfway or even 3/4 of the way through. His full argument hinges on the incorporation of quantum physics into an understanding of the brain and the mind. He proposes that based on the rules of quantum physics it is possible to use Buddhist mindfulness techniques to alter neurological pathways in the brain. He works with OCD patients. With OCD patients there is a clearly identifiable neural circuit that is overactive and causing the desire to check, wash, etc. So it is a good opportunity to show how self-directed mindfulness techniques can alter the physical brain.

So I'll do this in three steps. First I'll talk about mindfulness. Then I'll talk about attention is the key factor in both mindfulness and quantum physics. Then I'll talk about how quantum physics explains how it is that mindfulness techniques could change the brain.

Mindfulness. Something I have been thinking about for a little while now. Something I find elusive when I try to write about. But here goes. Schwartz describes it as a state of mind where you are aware of your thoughts, but you don't pursue them, you acknowledge them and you let them pass. Much like you let your breath come and go. He describes it as mental note taking, you check off each thought that comes and you let it go. He also uses the idea of the 'impartial spectator.' When you are mindful you are able to view yourself, your thoughts, and others from a somewhat removed point of view. E.M. Cioran says wisdom is 'non-action as first impulse.' And I think that is in line with these other ideas. You are primarily existing as a calm observer of your reality.

Schwartz, however, has his OCD patients follow a slightly more elaborate/complex mindfulness technique. Four R's. Reattribute, Refocus, Relabel, Revalue. He admits it sounds a little bit like shtick. Something kinda BS someone might try to sell. But the basic ideas seem sound when put in context with mindfulness and quantum physics. You reattribute OCD impulses to a dysfunctional brain circuit, you refocus your attention elsewhere, you relabel behavior, you revalue behavior. I forget the nuance. He describes it better. But these steps have their nuance.

The key factor in all of this mindfulness training is attention. You have got to pay attention. You need to be looking at and thinking about your own thoughts and surroundings. You need to pay attention.

He talks a lot about William James's work from the end of the 19th beginning of the 20th century. James was concerned that materialist science was forcing us to regard the brain as deterministic, and the will as epiphenomenal (an experience that is produced by brain chemistry alone). But James believed that we did have something like will, or mental force. And he thought that it manifested itself primarily through attention. Our thoughts pretty much always just come to us. We do not actively create them. BUT we can direct our thoughts so that we maintain focus on a certain thought for longer than it would have stayed in our minds otherwise. So James believed that we did posses mental force, and that it manifested itself in attention. That we could hold something in mind on purpose.

This Jives with mindfulness and with quantum physics. In mindfulness the key factor is attention. You are paying attention to your thoughts. You are acknowledging them and letting them pass so you can pay attention to what happens next. Always paying attention to right now. With Schwartz's OCD treatment attention gets taken to another level where patients redefine, redirect their thoughts, it is a little bit more about self-directed neuroplasticity. The type of attention is much more specific and has a specific goal of redirection.

Attention is also the key factor in quantum physics.

So, let me delve into how attention is the key in quantum physics, how the brain exists in the quantum world, and how we might use specific types of attention (i.e. going off Schwartz's OCD model) to attain self-directed neuroplasticity in different ways. I am thinking primarily about attention to history, to fiction, and to others, that would be involved in changing the brain so as to promote intuition.

Once I get past quantum physics and attention (measurement, discontinuity of movement, non-locality, quantum zeno effect), and I turn to specific types of attention (historical, fictitious, empathetic), It is going to be mostly wild speculation. We will see what happens when I get there.

So, my understanding of quantum physics so far. The crucial thing is that matter exists simultaneously as waves and particles. This was discovered when some physicists tried to emit a single photon of light, single particle. They can measure that, so they release a single photon and measure it as it goes along a certain path through a single rectangular slit. Only thing is that they notice when they pass this small amount of light through two slits simultaneously the photon behaves as a wave. It passes through the slits as a wave and curls and forms circles like a wave would, then reforming as proton to arrive at the other end.

The question, how can things exist simultaneously as particles and waves? From what I am reading, the observation of a wave collapses it into a definite particle. Before something is observed it exists as a wave of possible positions, but the observation of it forces it to form as a particle in a definite location. The particle can form along any area that the wave covers, but before it is observed it only exists as a wave of possibilities. The observation of a wave is what forces it to become a particle in one of the possible locations. So conscious observation brings possible realities into concrete existence. Consciousness is the key factor.

I was watching some youtube interviews with Amit Goswami, a quantum theorist, and he thinks that consciousness is more fundamental to the universe than matter. That many quantum phenomenon cannot be explained by the materialistic laws of traditional physics. His examples were discontinuity of movement and non-locality.

Discontinuity of movement describes how certain subatomic particles move. I really don't understand the evidence for this very well. An electron can be in one spot, it will be in one orbit, then it will appear in a completely different orbit, completely different location, without traversing the space in between. It literally disappears and reappears in a different spot.

This is somewhat related to non-locality. Material science holds that any molecules that affect one another must be within the same physical area. They must be close so that light or waves or energy of some sort can affect each other. Molecular interaction must be local. But quantum physics disagrees. It seems that certain molecules can become entangled and will respond to on another across large distances by means of non-material forces. Two good examples of this. First is an experiment explained by Goswami in which two ordinary people meditated in a room together for 20 minutes. Then they were separated and placed in separate chambers that were sealed so that no electromagnetic activity could penetrate the walls. When one of the subjects was shown a video they monitored the brain activity that corresponded with his seeing colors. As soon as one was shown the video, the other subject experienced identical brain activity, as if they had seen the video. He said it has been replicated 3 times in different labs. He called it a quantum transfer potential. These people's meditative connection was enough to transfer brain activity non-locally, there was no possible electromagnetic connection, no material connection, between their brains. Goswami basically says that consciousness is the fundamental thing about all existence, and so consciousness was the non-material thing that made this non-local transfer possible.

Non-locality and entanglement have also been tested on the subatomic level. When two subatomic particles collide they become entangled, meaning that a measurement of one of them immediately predicts the measurement of the other. The collision does something that aligns their poles, or something, I forget. But anyways, so they have collided particles, gotten them entangled, then separated them up to 11 kilometers, and then tested them. Measuring one simultaneously affects the other one. Non-locality essentially implies that something happening on this end of the universe can affect something on the other end of the universe. They are working on using non-local particles to create communication systems that don't need radio or satellite waves or whatever.

Okay, so consciousness collapses waves of possibilities into actual existing particles, subatomic movement is discontinuous, particles become entangled, and they act non-locally.

Last quantum thing before the brain, the quantum Zeno effect. When observing a molecular system that has the potential of transforming, it is possible to slow or stop the transformation of the system by repeatedly observing it. The example I read was like a single molecule of ammonia. It has 3 parts of one element and 1 of another. The three always form a triangle, but the one can either be on the top or the bottom of it, and it transforms at random. By repeatedly observing it over and over in a small amount of time the transformation can be stopped. The idea is that observation prevents it from existing as a wave that would allow it to transform. It is forced to materialize as an actuality over and over, and it is more likely to stay in that form when consciousness has forced it to manifest over and over.

So, Schwartz claims that because the brain is made up of quantum particles, it is subject to many of these laws regarding observation, transformation, etc. In particular, Schwartz believes that we can use Buddhist mindfulness techniques to pay attention to our thoughts, we can force our brain to bring certain possible brain states into being on a more regular basis than others. The brain is filled with ions that determine whether or not a synapse fires. They exist as waves that contains the possibilities of firing and not firing. By paying attention we can direct consciousness at certain parts of the brain, certain ideas, and bring them into reality more attention via laws of quantum physics.

With OCD patients, for example, when they feel a compulsion, and they redirect their attention to a healthier habit like gardening or something, then their act of attention is able to redirect the brains neural circuitry. When they do this on a regular basis, Schwartz claims that patients can take advantage of the quantum Zeno effect. They are redirecting their thoughts towards healthier expression, and their mental force is acting on those parts of the brain responsible (which are subject to quantum laws, especially ions that are responsible for synapse firing), and by repeatedly directing consciousness on their own brains they force those parts of the brain to collapse into realities (as opposed to staying quantum possibilities, which would facilitate the brain switching to different thoughts). Paying attention causes your mind to avoid brain chatter (which I guess has something to do with quantum physics) and brings a definite and intended brain state into being on a more regular basis. Through repeated application these brain states can become the default state of a brain.

So the mind has the ability to alter brain chemistry because the quantum particles in our brain respond to consciousness. And when we consciously redirect our thoughts towards certain things, we force our brain to realize those possibilities.

Great stuff, if that makes sense. But one of the things that I find most fascinating/compelling for my ideas in general, is the power of the imagination to invoke the qualities of experience that cause neural rewiring. The best examples: when piano players brains are monitored, playing a piano part and their imagination of playing that piano part is no different neurologically. When they are running through the piano routine in their head they activate all the same areas or memory and motor skills that they use in the actual performance. There are some other examples. But the general lesson is clear: mental reenactments have the potential to be as potent, neurologically, as the actual events.

This interests me in three ways in particular. In terms of historical study and what is called the 'historical imagination,' and its capacity for generating synthetic experience. Second, it makes me think about fiction and its ability to provide synthetic experience. Last it makes me curious about the general utility of simulation theory of mind, and how to cultivate a simulative perspective, which may actually resemble something called the quantum mind or self.

So the historical imagination. Collingwood talks about the historical imagination and how it exists as a specific form of thought. When we think about the past we can gain access to forms of thought and experience that were lost, or are new to us, or can be useful. He called the process of historical thinking 'reenactment,' implying that when we read a thought or experience expressed in the past we can only understand it by engaging in a historically accurate internal simulation of that thought or experience.

This is very similar to a book I am reading right now by Alvin Goldman called Simulating Minds which is proposing a tentative simulation of mind theory. The major claim is that our ability to attribute mind states to others depends on the ability to internally simulate the thoughts, feelings, and goals of other people. In other words, we understand people largely by simulating their thoughts of feelings for ourselves. Collingwood maintains this exact same idea in relation to the nature of historical thought. Historical understanding can only be accomplished through a successful reenactment of past thought or experience. Interestingly, Goldman has an idea that resembles Collingwood's version of the historical imagination, but it is much more general. He calls it the enactment-imagination, E-imagination. This term is addressing imagination as something that brings an experience back to life for you. You imagine being in pain, standing on a beach, being hungry, being happy, being sad. We can imagine all of those feelings and, according to Goldman, when we imagine pain or happiness we are producing a sort of quasi-pain or happiness within us. The E-imagination is about simulation. Historical thinking is a subset of the E-imagination, the reenactment-imagination. E-imagination also encompasses the exploration of hypothetical future events, or fictitious events I suppose.

I am giving a short note to the E-imagination and fiction. The rest of this will be primarily about E-imagination and synthetic experience. Fiction can also be a source of synthetic experience. Surreal or fantastic novels in particular seem like a pretty interesting source for synthetic experiences. If you can get into a novel and really for what the others are feeling, engage the E-imagination on a strange novel, your mind, and your brain, must be changing in interesting ways to deal with it. But onward to other things

Goldman is actually arguing for a hybrid of simulation theory and theory-theory. theory-theory argues that humans understand other individuals based on naive or tacit psychological theories that exist in our brain. Basically, our brings contain implicit theoretical understandings of other people's behavior and minds, and relies on these to ascribe mental states to others.

I had been throwing around the terms intuitive theory, or innate theory for the last year and half. I had learned about historical reenactment via Clausewitz. His ideas were very similar to Collingwood, but he believed theory should be brought into the process of historical reenactment. Believing the historical record to be inadequate, Clausewitz believed historical case study could be augmented by a theory that would facilitate intelligent surmise about certain factors that were beyond the historical record (such as accidents, emotions and thoughts of decision makers, etc.). So, for Clausewitz, history relies on simulation of past thought, and theory is a tool that helps you understand the thoughts and actions of others.

The most important part of this process for him is that theoretical reenactment of past situations should provide a synthetic experience for the reenactor. It should change the way his mind works. By imagining and simulating past decisions made by intelligent historical figures, you expose your mind to this quality and type of thought, and thereby give your mind a synthetic experience that will facilitate your own intuitive decision making in the future. As the piano playing example showed, the imagination of a physical and mental process is neurologically identical to the actual performance of that process. So when politicians need political experience but can't get it yet, they can study history and engage in simulations of past political thought and experience. This will improve their sense of what political decision making is all about, and will help them make better decisions in the future, both because they have an understanding of history, and because historical study can produce a synthetic experience that fosters creative thinking.

As does the simulation involved in fiction. The key thing in ALL OF THIS is that simulating the thoughts of others can inspire creative thinking. Your mind can entertain and bring to life many other intelligent minds. You can read books and simulate the thoughts of anyone from anywhere who thought about anything. That is exciting. And if you can manage to convert reading about experience into a sort of synthetic experience, then your ability to make intuitive decisions can't help but get better. More knowledge of human experience, greater ability to move through your own experience.

When I learned about Clausewitz and Collingwood I had no idea about simulation theory of mind or anything like that. So I was just fascinated by this idea that historical understanding involved the subjective simulation of other people's thoughts. I also was fascinated by the idea of empathy, and that somehow I was engaging in something that resembled a reenactment, but it happened so effortlessly, so naturally. To look at someone is to empathize with them.

But one major question popped up to me. If Clausewitz says historical reenactment depends on a body of theory to surmise with, how is my surmising (my empathizing) facilitated so naturally? Do I have an intuitive or innate theory of emotions that allows me to understand others? Goldman warns against a loose definition of the word theory, but does admit that the idea of a tacit theory seems probable. So, I seem to think that my ability to empathize is possible because of a tacit theory of emotions that I possess. My mind has an understanding of other people's emotions, and that is how I can instantaneously simulate, and thus understand, someone's feelings when I see their facial expressions, or body language or words or whatever.
I like this simulation theory hybrid idea. Tacit theory facilitates simulation.

One idea that I had was of a self-conscious effort to refine my tacit theory of emotion and morality through a sort of mental reenactment. I had this idea last summer when I was reading Foucault's lectures on the hermeneutics of the subject. He described an ancient Roman practice that involved a daily mental reenactment of the days events with the aim of picking out instances in which you should have behaved differently than you did. So you use your memory to think about the events of the day and think 'oh I shouldn't have been so hard on so and so. I should have said this instead.' This process of personal reflection sounds a lot like Clausewitz, the reenactment of your own past experience and the theoretical/hypothetical exploration of possible alternatives. This process is probably supported by a sort of tacit theory, a naive understanding of how I and other people think, and what constitutes a good moral view. The interesting thing for me is that this process could also be used to refine the very tacit theory that underlies it. When we engage in critical reflection on the day we engage in a mental simulation/reenactment of the day that is supported by a tacit theory that allows explorations of the hypothetical. When we explore these hypotheticals, we are simulating how we think we should have behaved in that moment. Thus we are probably using all the same neurons that would have been required to act more compassionately, or whatever, at the time. So, this memory based reenactment is meant as a sort of practice, it makes us more likely to act a certain way in the future based on when hypothetical experiences we have explored/synthesized.

So this synthetic experience would probably work its way into the unconscious workings of our mind. If you are doing it properly (a la Clausewitz), then synthetic experience becomes a complete part of your intuitive decision making ability. So in the future when you are merely intuitively having a conversation your moral theory will guide you in the direction that you have focused on in your daily reenactments. So, this daily memory reenactments are a process in which we imagine alternative courses of action using tacit theory, and simulate and focus on a preferred course of action, making that type of action a greater possibility in the future (quantum laws?). But the major point is that these memory reenactments are supported by a tacit theory, but the process itself refines that tacit theory and implants it further in our intuitive mind.

I am not sure where else to go with this. Wrap it up.

So, this took some turns. Buddhist mindfulness is a state of semi-objective attention to your own thoughts and actions. In quantum physics attention is also the key factor, in that it forces waves of possibility to collapse into a definite reality. They are connected in that when we pay attention to certain forms of thought over another, we are causing quantum particles in our brain to become more likely to fire. We direct conscious attention towards desirable thoughts so that the quantum particles will be more likely to do what we want (quantum Zeno). While Schwartz was concerned with OCD, I am concerned, like Goldman, with how placing attention on imagined situations can be useful in terms of modifying the brain. Particularly, fiction, the historical imagination, and the personal/memory imagination. Fiction and history are both great sources of synthetic experience. Fiction is likely supported by a tacit theory of life. Historical reenactment/simulation is in some cases supported by an explicit theory, others by tacit. Memory based reenactment of our own experience, however, must be supported by a tacit theory.

The most fascinating thing is that the memory based reenactments refine the tacit theory that we are using the produce them. We pay attention to certain types of thought, we imagine and explore more desirable courses of action. In doing this we activate all of the neurons responsible for behaving that way at the time. Based on quantum laws we can say that we are bringing those preferred courses of action closer to reality by focusing on them. So memory based reenactment, in light of quantum laws and simulation of mind theory, can do three things: 1. it allows us to explore hypothetical courses of action that would be desirable; 2. it allows to refine the tacit theory that we require for much simulation; and 3. it allows us to focus attention on forms of thought (and thus parts of the brain) that we find desirable, forcing them to become reality on a more regular basis (based on quantum ideas).

This is weird speculation. I had this idea on memory based reenactments a while ago. Seems strange, all these quantum connections, and the tacit theory connections. I'll finish Simulating Minds, then I'll probably have a deeper view of this simulation stuff. That'll be good, it is my main thing.

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