Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mindfulness and Simulation Theory

So I just finished reading Guy Claxton’s 2006 article “Mindfulness, Learning and The Brain.” I find it quite fascinating for a number of reasons. But the thing that popped out the most was the way that he framed mindfulness as a logical extension of simulation theory of mind. More interestingly, Claxton never actually makes explicit reference to simulation theory of mind. But based on the language he uses the connection is undeniable.

I did find his major metaphors to be a little bit sloppy or inadequate though. But he did a decent job of talking about mindfulness, which can be very difficult to talk about.

The general idea is that we often find our own reality to be totally engrossing. It is as if we are watching our lives and we are directly facing a computer screen in which we are making decisions, ‘clicking, tapping’, as he says. We are directly in front of the ‘screen’ of our lives and we are working hard to make decisions. But he then talks about a second ‘screen’. What if we don’t have to experience ourselves simply as the first person engaging in the decisions of life? What if we can have a perspective in which we are watching ourselves making those decisions? We are not the first screen guy, rapidly working and making decisions, but we can take the perspective of a second screen guy who is watching the first screen guy make decisions.

We can have a semi-removed perspective in which we are no longer immersed in our own experience, but are observing our own experience from a distance of sorts. Claxton then explains how this logic of screen guy 1 and screen guy 2 implies that we are neither of these screen guys. We do not have a concrete identity. This lines up with lots of Buddhist ideas.

He then goes on to explain how this possibility for mindfulness may have developed evolutionarily. He draws on Nicholas Humphrey's and Richard Dawkins’ claims about social living to explain how individuals would need to learn to predict one another. This is where his argument drifts into simulation theory of mind. Basically, the idea is that living in social communities our ancestors would have learned how to predict how each other were thinking. This depends on the ability to 1. build models of other people and 2. to then assume the perspective of those people in order to understand how it is that they are feeling. This ability to assume a different perspective, Claxton speculates, might make mindfulness possible. When we are taking a removed, mindful perspective on ourselves we are utilizing this ability to push ourselves beyond our own view and into the view of others. This is why Claxton warns that when being mindful we need to be careful that we aren’t simply taking the perspective of another person that is judgmental, or a person from our past.

He suggests that this is why the non-judgmental attitude of therapists can be so important. He says that they allow us to build a model of another person who is not judging us or being harsh. At later times we can then utilize that non-judgmental model of perception to gain an adequate view of ourselves. This is all so clearly in line with simulation theory of mind.

It does, however, imply some interesting things. To me it seems like if simulation is based on models then there is a bit of tension between simulation theory and theory-theory. I suppose it confirms Goldman’s claim that what we really possess is a simulation-theory hybrid in which processes of simulation are aided by our tacit theoretical mental models. All that stuff is so fascinating. But I’m pleased to see how much Claxton is in line with simulation theory, and with how much mindfulness can be connected to it. Also, I am pleased because he confirms or corroborates much of what I was writing about like an hour ago in my post on privacy and simulation. He has some lines that are like what I was talking about when I said something about a loop of imaginative simulations of people. We are imagining other people’s views on us, and are thus using our model of another person to imagine their model of us. Interesting stuff.

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