Saturday, June 30, 2012

Global Workspace Theory and the Future Evolution of Consciousness, Part Two (Conscious Access and the Declarative Transition)

This is the second part of a multi-part post (originally intended to be two parts) on Bernard Baars' Global Workspace Theory and the future evolution of consciousness (Part One is here). In Part One, I outlined the basic ideas of GWT, suggesting that it may be the cognitive model that is closest to being integral while still being able explain the actual brain circuitry involved in creating self-awareness, the sense of an individual identity, the development of consciousness through stages, the ability of introspection to revise brain wiring, and the presence of multiple states of consciousness.

In this post, I want to establish more foundation for a paper that seeks to explain how our consciousness will evolve in the future - The Future Evolution of Consciousness by John Stewart (ECCO Working paper, 2006-10, version 1: November 24, 2006). His work assumes some specialized knowledge of cognitive developmental theory, so this post will attempt to provide a little more solid foundation for the ideas that will come up in the next posts.

In order to really grasp the model Stewart offers, it might help to revisit one of the ideas of Global Workspace Theory, particularly how the process of being conscious allows us to direct the "spotlight" in the theater of mind.

The Conscious Access Hypothesis

This was an idea that was mentioned in the first post - "consciousness facilitates widespread access between otherwise independent brain functions" (Baars, 2002, The Conscious Access Hypothesis: Origins and Recent Evidence, Trends in Cognitive Science, 6:2).

Let's start with this idea - to me it is central to the rest of the argument.

One of the foundations for GWT is the existence of working memory (WM), which is generally defined as rehearsable immediate memory, and it includes inner speech and visual memory. Baddeley (1992), one of the first researchers to define working memory as an aspect on the modular brain model in 1974 (although Karl Pribram was one of the group that coined the term in the 1960s), defined working memory in this way:
Working memory has been found to require the simultaneous storage and processing of information. It can be divided into the following three subcomponents: (i) the central executive, which is assumed to be an attentional-controlling system, is important in skills such as chess playing and is particularly susceptible to the effects of Alzheimer's disease; and two slave systems, namely (ii) the visuospatial sketch pad, which manipulates visual images and (iii) the phonological loop, which stores and rehearses speech-based information and is necessary for the acquisition of both native and second-language vocabulary. (Baddeley, 1992, Working Memory; Science, 255:5044)
Neuroscience research (often based on patients with brain lesions) finds that there are several brain regions involved in working memory, including the frontal cortex, parietal cortex, anterior cingulate, and parts of the basal ganglia.

The conscious elements of WM (input, rehearsal, and recall are all available to awareness and can be reported as conscious events, meeting the criteria for operational consciousness), are widely distributed throughout a variety of neural networks, which is consistent with Baars conscious access hypothesis (CHA).

Importantly, however, working memory can only hold about seven discreet objects at a time, and this falls to four if there is not time for rehearsal.
The seven plus or minus two limit applies to visual objects, words, numbers, colours, musical notes, and any other set of unrelated elements. It drops even below seven when we cannot rehearse the items, down to about four. In a brain of 100 billion neurons, this upper limit on working memory is fantastically small. A cheap calculator can store more numbers than a human being, in immediate memory. Why, over two billion years of biological evolution, has the brain not evolved a bigger capacity to hold numbers? (Baars, 1997, In the Theatre of Consciousness: Global Workspace Theory,A Rigorous Scientific Theory of Consciousness; Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4)
The mind seems ill-designed to remember anything more than a local phone number. Even more interesting is that we can only focus on one dense input stream of information at a time. Studies on multitasking have confirmed that when we multitask we are not doing any of the tasks well. For most people, conscious involvement with one stream of information will disrupt any other stream on which the person was focused. Working memory imposes strict limitations on the contents of consciousness.

Complex behaviors that have become routine acts, however, do not encounter this limitation - they are performed outside the conscious workspace, where the brain is massively parallel and speedy in its processing capabilities, and where multiple objects/skills/actions can be processed simultaneously. In fact, much of our sensory processing - which likely dominated consciousness when we were infants, is handled by these unconscious systems, unless we direct our awareness to those sensory channels.

This aspect of the brain allows that when we become proficient at a complex skill through assembly, rehearsal, and learning (the creation of neural circuitry encoded for this skill or behavior), that initially took all of our concentration, we now can perform it accurately and quickly with minimal conscious attention (Bargh and Chartrand, 1997, The unbearable automaticity of being; American Psychologist, 54:7).

There have been many books of late that cover this topic in detail, including Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, Leonard Mlodinow's, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, David Eagleman's Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and Michael Gazzaniga's Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.

This "procedural" knowledge (Kahneman's Type 1 thinking) is what allows us to drive to the grocery store or to work while thinking about some personal issue or getting caught up in a radio show discussion and then not remember any of the drive we just completed. It is a learned skill that takes little or no conscious attention. But if road traffic is terrible or there is an accident and we have to find another route, then we must deal with the drive in our workspace, which leaves us unable to get so deeply involved in the radio show.

The flip-side of this, however, is that we can create access to any part of the brain using consciousness (as the chart above shows). And this unique ability (a recent evolutionary adaptation?) is what provides us with the ability to influence - and increase - our level of cognitive development, our level of consciousness, an idea that was considered impossible (outside of some spiritual traditions) until the last decade or two.
To gain control over alpha waves in the cortex we merely sound a tone or turn on a light when alpha is detected in the EEG, and shortly the subject will be able to increase the amount of alpha at will. To control a single spinal motor neuron we merely pick up its electrical activity and play it back over headphones; in a half-hour subjects have been able to play drumrolls on their single motor neurons! (Baars, 1997)
The control of brain waves is an interesting and seemingly mind-boggling skill, and it has been a part of many studies on the ability of advanced meditators to control brain waves (see Lutz, Greischar, Rawlings, Ricard, and Davidson, 2004). As additional proof of this phenomenon, here is Ken Wilber, a very experienced meditation practitioner, stopping his brain waves:

This idea of conscious access to what are generally considered inaccessible parts of the brain is an important element of GWT, and it is crucial to the idea of evolving consciousness that we will examine in future posts.

In Stewart's paper, he provides his own version how the conscious access hypothesis works in GWT as it relates to holding something in consciousness:
It is evident that being conscious of an event goes hand in hand with the availability of the event to other resources—if we are conscious of something, we are able to give it attention, think about it, introspect in relation to it, talk about it, feel in relation to it, mull over it, and act on it. When we are conscious of something, the experience is available for other resources to operate on. If we are not conscious of something, the experience is not available to other resources.
When we meditate on an image or a koan, try to solve a problem, or work out a personal decision in our heads - all of these processes require us to hold objects of awareness in the workspace that is working memory. Baars had relied initially on experimental evidence that suggested an image held in conscious awareness triggers access to a variety of other neural circuits, but it was not until his work with Gerald Edelman - and Edelman's Dynamic Core model - that there was empirical evidence.
The concept of a Dynamic Core provides a mechanism for Global Workspace events by reentrantly projecting neural signals throughout the cortex. The distributed neural activity that underlies conscious contents simultaneously projects one-way neural signals throughout the cortex. Such directed propagation of activity among widely dispersed large populations of cortical neurons is reflected in event-related potentials.
Long-distance propagation of functional brain signals has been known for many years in the context of such potentials (Steriade, 2006). These observations suggest that the concept of a Global Workspace is compatible with the notion that a brief pattern of activity in the Dynamic Core with a specific content, e.g., a particular mental image, momentarily activates numerous cortical areas. (Edelman, Gally, and Baars, 2011, Biology of consciousness; Frontiers in Consciousness Research, 2:4)
And just to clarify, here is an article by Edelman and Tononi, (1998, Consciousness and Complexity; Science, 282:1846), that lays out their model of the Dynamic Core:
We suggest the following:
1) A group of neurons can contribute directly to conscious experience only if it is part of a distributed functional cluster that achieves high integration in hundreds of milliseconds.
2) To sustain conscious experience, it is essential that this functional cluster be highly differentiated, as indicated by high values of complexity.
We propose that a large cluster of neuronal groups that together constitute, on a time scale of hundreds of milliseconds, a unified neural process of high complexity be termed the “dynamic core,” in order to emphasize both its integration and its constantly changing activity patterns. The dynamic core is a functional cluster: its participating neuronal groups are much more strongly interactive among themselves than with the rest of the brain. The dynamic core must also have high complexity: its global activity patterns must be selected within less than a second out of a very large repertoire.
In essence, this model - or the integration of these two models - explains how the objects of consciousness gain access to and associate with memories, images, thoughts, perceptions, and sensations that otherwise were not directly available to consciousness (more on a related topic will come up later in this discussion).

With that foundation, we can now turn to the early parts of John Stewart's paper.

The Future Evolution of Consciousness

Here is the abstract:
What potential exists for improvements in the functioning of consciousness? The paper addresses this issue using global workspace theory. According to this model, the prime function of consciousness is to develop novel adaptive responses. Consciousness does this by putting together new combinations of knowledge, skills and other disparate resources that are recruited from throughout the brain. The paper’s search for potential improvements in the functioning of consciousness draws on studies of the shift during human development from the use of implicit knowledge to the use of explicit (declarative) knowledge. These studies show that the ability of consciousness to adapt a particular domain improves significantly as the transition to the use of declarative knowledge occurs in that domain. However, this potential for consciousness to enhance adaptability has not yet been realised to any extent in relation to consciousness itself. The paper assesses the potential for adaptability to be improved by the conscious adaptation of key processes that constitute consciousness. A number of sources (including the practices of religious and contemplative traditions) are drawn on to investigate how this potential might be realised.
These are the essential points:
  • A shift during human development from using implicit knowledge to using explicit, declarative knowledge - The Declarative Transition - is essential to higher order cognition
  • When consciousness adapts to a particular domain, it improves significantly as the transition to the use of declarative knowledge occurs in that domain
  • The ability of consciousness to enhance adaptability remains to be fully realized in relation to consciousness itself (NOTE: I disagree, see below, on advanced meditators)
  • Adaptability potentially can be improved by consciously adapting key processes that constitute consciousness (self-awareness, introspection, and mindfulness)
Here is one more statement from Stewart (and two questions) to set the scene a little more clearly:
Consciousness operates in the main at the growing tip of behaviour where new responses are created. 


To what extent could the way in which consciousness operates be changed to enhance the adaptability of humans? Could the significant contribution made by conscious processes to our adaptability be improved further by modifying the way consciousness functions?

Ken Wilber always used to speak about integral being the "frothy edge" of consciousness evolution, and it seems he had the right idea (although Stewart is a reader of Wilber, so he may be channeling Wilber's language about the "growing tip," another Wilber term).

Let's begin with The Declarative Transition as the first step in answering these questions.

There are two basic forms of knowledge, procedural knowledge and declarative knowledge. Procedural knowledge is generally implicit skill knowledge (often embodied), for example how to ride a bicycle, how to construct a sentence, or how to break the ice at a cocktail party - these are embodied skills, the details of which are not readily accessible to consciousness, nor are they easily explained verbally. Acquiring this knowledge generally takes multiple trials, although single-trial learning is not unknown. This knowledge is often skill-specific - it does not adapt well to use in other purposes (knowing how to ride a bike offers little useful carry-over to learning how to hit a baseball). (Ten Berge and Van Hezewijk, 1999; Procedural and Declarative Knowledge: An Evolutionary Perspective; Theory & Psychology, Vol. 9:5).

Declarative knowledge, however, is explicit, not skill-specific, and readily available to verbal consciousness. Broadbent (1989, Lasting representations and temporary processes; in Varieties of memory and consciousness: Essays in honor of Endel Tulving) identifies declarative knowledge as symbolic knowledge, while Tulving (1985, How many memory systems are there? American Psychologist, 40:4) divides declarative knowledge into semantic and episodic, although he really defines episodic knowledge (or memory) as a sub-type of semantic knowledge (or memory), which is then a sub-type of procedural knowledge (or memory). For the purposes of working with knowledge more specifically, Ten Berge and Van Hezewijk combine semantic and episodic in the form of declarative knowledge.

One important ability declarative knowledge allows is that we can store associations, store information as either true or false, verbalize any of this at will, and perform "operations" on any piece of knowledge we possess. This is the form of knowledge we associate with thinking, deliberating, and theorizing.

Interestingly, declarative knowledge can be changed or altered as we acquire new knowledge, which may be one possible definition of learning - as well as being altered each time it is brought into the workspace. (This is also the reason first-person, eye-witness testimony is notoriously unreliable.) Additionally, declarative knowledge is not available to consciousness unless it is recalled through questions or other forms of targeted recall. Moreover, we can't explain how we recall the information, the process of recall is not available to consciousness.

Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1992, Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science) developed some of the original theoretical work in this field, seeking to explain how children acquire knowledge and then learn to manipulate it - a model she named representational redescription (RR). Her model falls somewhere in between Jean Piaget's constructivism and Jerry Fodor's nativism, including elements from both.
It involves a cyclical process by which information already present in the organism's independently functioning, special-purpose representations, is made progressively available, via redescriptive processes, to other parts of the cognitive system. In other words, representational redescription is a process by which implicit information in the mind subsequently becomes explicit knowledge to the mind, first within a domain and then sometimes across domains.
She describes her RR model as a phase model and not a stage model:
[T]he RR model is a phase model, as opposed to a stage model. Stage models such as Piaget's are age-related and involve fundamental changes across the entire cognitive system. Representational redescription, by contrast, is hypothesized to occur recurrently within microdomains throughout development, as well as in adulthood for some kinds of new learning.
She presents two distinct phase series by which information is encountered and internalized as part of the learning process. The first model looks at the three phases of development within a microdomain.
1. Representational adjunctions - A data driven focus on information from the external environment. Once stabilized, the new representations are added to the existing collection without any linkage or interaction. This stage is complete when the new representation reaches the level of "behavioral mastery," meaning that this specific representation is used correctly in practice.

2. Internal representations - The child's representations of knowledge within a given microdomain are given precedence over new incoming data. By focusing on the internal representations over external information, there can be new errors or inconsistencies. An example of this might be a very young child who learns that a large Great Dane is a dog, so when he sees a horse for the first time, the large four-legged animal must also be a dog. This is viewed by Karmiloff-Smith as a behavior mistake, not of the representational system.

3. Reconciliation - Internal representations and external data are reconciled, creating a balance between the needs for internal and external control: "In the case of language, for example, a new mapping is made between input and output representations in order to restore correct usage."

These three phases are reiterated with the acquisition of each new data representation. So, then, how are these internal representations formatted so that they can sustain this reiterative process? Karmiloff-Smith argues for a series of four (at least) hierarchical levels at which knowledge is represented and represented:
I have termed them Implicit (I), Explicit-1 (El), Explicit-2 (E2), and Explicit-3 (E3). These different forms of representation do not constitute age-related stages of developmental change. Rather, they are parts of a reiterative cycle that occurs again and again within different microdomains and throughout the developmental span.
Level I representations take the form of procedures (remember that procedural knowledge is non-verbal) for making sense of and responding to data in the external world. She identifies a series of restrictions (constraints) that operate on the representational adjunctions that arise at this level:
  • Information is encoded in procedural form.
  • The procedure-like encodings are sequentially specified.
  • New representations are independently stored.
  • Level-I representations are bracketed, and hence no intra-domain or inter-domain representational links can yet be formed.
She adds this important clarification:
A procedure as a whole is available as data to other operators; however, its component parts are not. It takes developmental time and representational redescription (see discussion of level El below) for component parts to become accessible to potential intra-domain links, a process which ultimately leads (see discussion of levels E2 and E3) to inter-representational flexibility and creative problem-solving capacities. But at this first level, the potential representational links and the information embedded in procedures remain implicit.
Following the acquisition of level I representations, in the form of implicit procedures, levels El, E2, and E3 comprise a "reiterative process of representational redescription."

Here are some brief descriptions of each phase of the encoding process:
Level-El representations are the results of redescription, into a new compressed format, of the procedurally encoded representations at level I. The redescriptions are abstractions in a higher-level language, and unlike level-I representations they are not bracketed (that is, the component parts are open to potential intra-domain and inter-domain representational links). 

The El representations are reduced descriptions that lose many of the details of the procedurally encoded information. ... The redescribed representation is, on the one hand, simpler and less special purpose but, on the other, more cognitively flexible (because it is transportable to other goals). Unlike perceptual representations, conceptual redescriptions are productive; they make possible the invention of new terms.
According to Karmiloff-Smith, the original level-I representations are not impacted by the E1 phase - they remain intact in the brain and remain available for use in goals that require this type of implicit skill. The E1 representations are then available for use where more explicit knowledge is necessary. She is careful to stress, however, that although the E1 representations are available for cognitive processing, they are not available for conscious access or verbal representation.

[NOTE: This is probably much more detail than necessary for understanding the paper by Stewart, but it feels important to establish that there are very fine processes involved in knowledge acquisition, and that the shift from procedural knowledge to declarative knowledge is not completed in one swift move.]

On the E2 phase:
At level E2, it is hypothesized, representations are available to conscious access but not to verbal report (which is possible only at level E3). Although for some theorists consciousness is reduced to verbal reportability, the RR model claims that E2 representations are accessible to consciousness but that they are in a similar representational code as the El representations of which they are redescriptions. Thus, for example, El spatial representations are recoded into consciously accessible E2 spatial representations. We often draw diagrams of problems we cannot verbalize. The end result of these various redescriptions is the existence in the mind of multiple representations of similar knowledge at different levels of detail and explicitness.
And last, the E3 phase, which is roughly equivalent to declarative knowledge:
At level E3, knowledge is recoded into a cross-system code. This common format is hypothesized to be close enough to natural language for easy translation into statable, communicable form. It is possible that some knowledge learned directly in linguistic form is immediately stored at level E3.23 Children learn a lot from verbal interaction with others. However, knowledge may be stored in linguistic code but not yet be linked to similar knowledge stored in other codes. Often linguistic knowledge (e.g., a mathematical principle governing subtraction) does not constrain nonlinguistic knowledge (e.g., an algorithm used for actually doing subtraction24) until both have been redescribed into a similar format so that inter-representational constraints can operate.
And one final clarification from Karmiloff-Smith on her RR model:
Before I conclude my account of the RR model, it is important to draw a distinction between the process of representational redescription and the ways in which it might be realized in a model. The process involves recoding information that is stored in one representational format or code into a different one. Thus, a spatial representation might be recoded into linguistic format, or a proprioceptive representation into spatial format. Each redescription, or re-representation, is a more condensed or compressed version of the previous level. We have just seen that the RR model postulates at least four hierarchically organized levels at which the process of representational redescription occurs.
For those interested in a cybernetic learning model based in cognitive neuroscience, this book by Karmiloff-Smith, Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science, is still considered a classic, despite being published in 1992.

In Stewart's model, the Declarative Transition is the move from Level-I implicit/procedural knowledge through the E1, E2, and E3 phases which constitute the transformation of implicit procedural knowledge to explicit declarative knowledge. Once a skill or process reaches the stage of declarative knowledge, it is rarely called into consciousness unless it is targeted directly by some cue, such as a question or when someone else seeks an explanation.

We know, now, after years of studying these brain functions, that the more often a memory, skill, or piece of knowledge is recalled and rehearsed, the more strong wired it becomes in the brain. The old cliche is that "practice makes perfect" - but the reality is that practice makes permanent.

When a particular skill or procedure has been revised and expanded using declarative knowledge, it becomes automatic and unconscious again through a process of proceduralization. Stewart summarizes the high-level processing made possible by the proceduralization of declarative memory as unconscious schema:
In any particular domain in which a declarative transition unfolds, the serial process of declarative modelling progressively build a range of new resources and other expert processors, including cognitive skills. Once these processors have been built and proceduralized, they perform their specialist functions without loading consciousness—their outputs alone enter consciousness, without the declarative knowledge that went into their construction. The outputs are known intuitively (i.e. they are not experienced as the result of sequences of thought), and complex situations are understood at a glance (Reber 1989). As noted by Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1987), a person who achieves behavioural mastery in a particular field is able to solve difficult problems just by giving them attention—consciousness recruits the solutions directly from the relevant specialist processors.
In the next installment, we will look at the process of "evolutionary declarative transitions," as well as additional neuroscience foundations for the evolution of consciousness.

Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D. - Brain & Mind Introductory Lecture Series

This is the complete Brain & Mind Introductory Lecture Series by Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D., more than four hours of basic brain and mind science over six individual episodes (see below for details). 

Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D. - Brain & Mind Introductory Lecture Series

  • Brain Mind Lecture 1: Lobes of the Brain, Limbic System, Language, Aphasia, Consciousness, Agnosia, Denial of Blindness, Unconscious Mind
  • Brain Mind Lecture 2: Visual & Auditory Midbrain & Brainstem, Language, the Left Hemisphere
  • Brain Mind Lecture 3: Frontal Lobes: Lobotomy Catatonia Mania Depression Obsessions Compulsions Perseveration Confabulation Aphasia
  • Brain Mind Lecture 4: Parietal Lobes: Body Image, Phantom Limbs, Phantom Limb Pain, Apraxia, Agnosia, Language
  • Brain Mind Lecture 5: The Temporal Lobes, and Introductory Overview: Schizophrenia, Memory, Aphasia, Amnesia, Hallucinations, Depression
  • Brain Mind Lecture 6: Limbic System, Introductory Overview: Amygdala, Hypothalamus, Hippocampus, Hallucinations, Memory, Emotion, Sexuality, Amnesia, Flashbacks, PTSD

Michel Bauwens - The Next Buddha Will Be a Collective

I think I have seen this article before, a long while back, but it's good to see it posted at Reality Sandwich where it will get some wider exposure. Bauwens is advocating a communal or relational spirituality, which seems like a logical extension on the P2P philosophy, which includes "distributed networks" as a foundational idea.

I am in total agreement with a more relational view of spiritual evolution, contra the highly individualistic focus of the mainstream integral crowd. Clearly, both paths are useful and necessary, but integral has focused nearly all of their marketing on the individual path.

The Next Buddha Will Be a Collective


Spiritual expression, and the religious organizational formats in which context it will take place, is always embedded in a social structure. For example, we could say that the tribal forms of religion, such as animism and shamanism, do not have elaborate hierarchical structures as they arose in societal structures that had fairly egalitarian kinship based relations. But the great organized religions, which arose in hierarchically-based societies, have intricate hierarchical structures, monological conceptions of truth, and expectations of obedience from its members. The Protestant Reformation and its offshoots took on the many democratic aspects which corresponded to the rise of a new urban class under merchant and industrial capitalism, and the many offshoots of the new age movements have clearly adopted contemporary capitalist practices of paid workshops, trainings, etc ... (i.e. taking the form of spiritual experience as a consumable commodity).

In this essay, we will claim that contemporary society is evolving towards a dominance of distributed networks, with peer to peer based social relations, and that this will affect spiritual expression in fundamental ways.

To organize our thoughts, we will use a triarchical division of organizational forms, and a quaternary structure of human relations. Human organizational formats can be laid out as network structures, outlining the relationships between the members of a community. A common network format is the hierarchical one, where relations and actions are initiated from the center. It is graphically represented by a star form, but also often represented as a pyramidal structure. A second very common network format is the decentralized network, where agents actions and relations are constrained by prior hubs. In decentralized networks power has devolved to different groups or entities, which have to find a balance together, and agents generally belong to the different decentralized groups, which represent their interests in some way. Finally, we have distributed networks, which are graphically represented by the same hub and spoke graphic, but contain a crucial differentiating characteristic. In distributed networks, though there are indeed hubs, i.e. nodes with a higher density of connections, these hubs remain voluntary. Think of the difference between taking a plane that is going to go to the destination via a hub airport, and you have no choice but stay in the place, whose flight path has been decided by someone else, and the much greater freedom that you have in a car, where you can still pass through that big city hub if you want, and many people do, but you can also go around it, the choice is yours.

Our first contention is that distributed networks are becoming a dominant format of human technological and organizational frameworks. Think about the internet and the web as point to point or end to end networks. Think about the emerging micro media practices such as wiki's and blogging, which allow many human agents to express themselves by bypassing former decentralized mass media. Think of the team-based organized project groups increasingly being used in the worksphere. In a distributed network, the peers are free to connect and to act, and the organizational characteristics are emerging from the choices of the individuals. The second framework we are using is the quaternary relational typology proposed by the anthropologist Alan Page Fiske, who describes this extensively in his landmark treatise, the "Structures of Social Life."

According to Fiske, there are four main ways that humans can relate to each other, and this typology is valid across different cultures and epochs, as an underlying grammar. Cultures and civilizations will choose different combinations, but one format may be dominant.

Equality matching is the logic of the gift economy, which was the dominant format of the tribal era. According to this logic, the one that gives obtains prestige, and the one that receives feels an obligation to return the favour, in one way or another, so that the equality of the relationship could be maintained. Tribal cultures have elaborate ritualized and festive mechanisms, organized around the notion of reciprocity and symmetry, to allow this process to happen. The second relational logic is Authority Ranking, and corresponds to the just as important human need to compare. This ranking may be the result of birth, of force or coercion, of nomination by a prior hierarchy, of credentials, even of merit. Authority Ranking is the main logic of the imperial and tributary hierarchies (such as the feudal system) which dominated human society before the advent of capitalism and parliamentary democracy. The strong protects and provides for the safety of the weak, who in exchange, pay a tribute. These societies were moved by the concept of a life debt, from the human to the divine order sustaining it, and from the mass of the living to the representatives of that divine order, who required tribute in order to extinguish that debt. The organizing principle is one of centrality (represented by kingship) and redistribution of the resources by a hierarchy. The third format is Market Pricing, based on the neutral exchange of comparable values. This is the logic of the capitalist market system, and the impersonal relations on which its economic system is based.

Finally, there is the logic of Communal Shareholding, which is based on generalized or non-reciprocal exchange. In this form of human relations, members collectively and voluntarily contribute to a common resource, in exchange for the free usage of that resource. Examples are the medieval agricultural commons, the mutualities of the labour movement, and the theoretical notion of communism used by Marx (but of course not the hierarchical Authority Ranking practice of regimes abusively using this nomenclature). There is of course a relationship between the organizational triarchy and the quaternary relational grammar. The tribal era was based on small kinship based distributed networks, which had little relationship to each other; the imperial and feudal regimes use the hierarchical formats, and capitalist societies used mostly decentralized political structures (the balance of power of democratic governance) and competition between firms. In contrast, the current social structures are increasingly moving towards manyfold affinity based distributed networks, interconnected on a global scale. 

Read the whole article.

Big Think - Morals and Molecules: A Q&A with Paul Zak

From Big Think, here is a brief interview with Paul Zak, author of The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity. About the book:

The Moral Molecule: The Science Of What Makes Us Good Or Evil. Is morality universal? Why are men less faithful than women? Why do some businesses succeed while others collapse? If we have a natural impulse to empathise and care for each other, why are there psychopaths? Neuroscientist and economist Paul Zak has spent 10 years researching to answer these questions and discover the chemical driver of our behaviour. His research has led him from a 'vampire' wedding in Devon to the jungle of Papua New Guinea and from the US military to a Buddhist monastary. Detective story, adventure and scientific discovery rolled into one, The Moral Molecule is a brilliant read: compulsively entertaining and potentially life-changing.
  • 'Paul Zak tells the remarkable story of how he discovered and explored the biochemistry of sympathy, love and trust with the narrative skill of a novelist. Philosophy, economics and biology have rarely been so entertaining.' - Matt Ridley, author of Genome 
  • 'An ancient mammalian molecule prods us to bond with others. Paul Zak offers a most engaging account of this important discovery, bound to overthrow traditional thinking about human behavior, including economics and morality.' - Frans de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy 
  • 'Paul Zak's investigations into the best things in life are inspired, rigorous, and tremendous fun. We need more daring economists like him.' - Tyler Cowen, author of The Great Stagnation and the forthcoming An Economist Gets Lunch
There a lot of "extras" at the site for the book, including a Connection Quotient self-test.

Morals and Molecules: A Q&A with Paul Zak

ZakI interviewed Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, for the first time two years ago.  We met for a coffee at Neuroscience 2010, the largest neuroscience conference in the world—and before I could ask a single question, he told me, “I’m going to hug you when we’re done.  I hug everybody—it’s the best way to release oxytocin.”  He was true to his word.  Zak’s scientific quest is to understand what makes people trust one another.  Since our first meeting, that particular line of questioning has resulted in some unique research as well as his new book about oxytocin, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity.

Q:  What inspired you to write The Moral Molecule?
Paul Zak:  There were two motivations.  The first part was that we learned in the 1990’s that personal trust is a strong predictor of what countries will be rich or poor.  High-trust countries tend to grow much more rapidly than low trust countries.  Trust really is a kind of economic lubricant, resulting in a government sector that works well, a social sector that works well and an economy that also works well.  And it occurred to me that no one really understood why anyone ever trusts anybody else.  It seemed like a really important question to answer.

The second, and perhaps more honest motivation, was that I was raised Catholic and was taught that only Catholics could be good, moral people.  And I listened to people say things like that and thought, “That doesn’t sound right to me.  What about Gandhi?  What about Buddha?”  And it made me very interested in where morality comes from.  And that’s what eventually led me to oxytocin.

Q:  You refer to oxytocin as the “moral” molecule.  But some research suggests that this neurochemical has a dark side. 
Paul Zak:  I’m sorry but oxytocin does not have a dark side.  The few papers published about this were horrendous.  There really is no darker side to oxytocin.  You can certainly find different behaviors but there is no evidence from those few papers that oxytocin has any impact on that.  Too many papers have been written very hyperbolically.  Well-established oxytocin researchers know better.

Q:  Some oxytocin research has been linked to aggression in animals.  Do you disagree with that work as well?
Paul Zak: The only link really is controlled aggression, where animals are supporting or protecting their offspring.  And there’s not really a downside to that.  And even when we talk about maternal aggression, these behaviors are not just about oxytocin.  There’s more involved than that.  But, as a reproductive hormone, if oxytocin is associated with care for offspring, you’d expect that care also means protecting your offspring. Not a dark side.

Q:  That brings up a great point.  You put a lot of emphasis on the power of oxytocin but this is a neurochemical that works closely with a variety of other molecules.  Why emphasize oxytocin above all the others?
Paul Zak:  Of course behavior is more complicated than a single neurochemical.  But, having said that, but what’s been missing from our understanding of human behavior is what motivates us to engage in all these social and moral behaviors.  The negative behaviors are very interesting in the laboratory, because they are so obvious and you get a huge response—things like fear and aggression.  The kind of motivators for good behavior, calm and a sense of trust, for example, weren’t so well defined.  It was the missing element to understanding how people navigated a sea of strangers every day, not just with aggression but by trusting and being social.  Oxytocin was the missing part of that puzzle.

Q:  What do you think is the most important thing that most people should know about oxytocin?
Paul Zak:  We are designed by evolution to be moral creatures.  That means we work hard to sustain ourselves as a social group.  Oxytocin actually helps us create the kind of world that we want to live in—a world that is more trusting, more loving and more moral.  So I think oxytocin gives individuals the power to create the lives they want.  Loving, happy and connected lives.  And that’s pretty powerful stuff, I think.

Brain Science Podcast - Disgust with Rachel Herz (BSP 86) w/ Ginger Campbell, MD

An interesting episode of the Brain Science Podcast from Dr. Ginger Campbell. She speaks with Rachel Herz this week on the topic of disgust - she is the author of That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion.

By the way, Dr. Campbell's new book (Kindle only, $2.99) is now available at Amazon: Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty (Brain Talk: Conversations with Neuroscientists).

Disgust with Rachel Herz (BSP 86)

Friday, June 29, 2012

Open Culture Offers Surreal Friday with Films by Dali and Buñuel

Cool stuff - I love surrealism.

Make Friday Surreal With Two Vintage Films by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel

June 29th, 2012

While studying at the University of Madrid in the late 1910s, a young Luis Buñuel befriended an even younger Salvador Dalí. The first fruit of their association, a short film called Un Chien Andalou, appeared a decade later, in 1929, and quickly achieved the international renown it still has today. Several elements had to fall into place to bring this cinematic dream — or cinematic nightmare, or, most accurately, something nebulously in-between — into reality. First, Buñuel gained experience in the medium by assistant-directing on major silent-era European films like Mauprat, La chute de la maison Usher, and La Sirène des Tropiques. Then, Buñuel dreamt of the simultaneous image of a cloud slicing through the moon and a razor slicing through an eye. Then, Dalí dreamt of a human hand covered in ants. With those two visuals in place, they proceeded to collaborate on the rest of the film, working under the principle that “no idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation of any kind would be accepted.”

We could discuss Un Chien Andalou‘s rationally inexplicable images, but wouldn’t that defeat the purpose? The moon, the eye, the hand, the ants, the cyclist in the nun’s habit — these nonsensical but enduring images must be seen, and you can do that free on YouTube. But at sixteen minutes, the movie will only whet your aesthetic appetite for Buñuel and Dalí’s particular flavor of flamboyantly nonsensical, grimly satirical imagery. Luckily, you can follow it up with 1930′s L’Age d’Or, which began as another Buñuel-Dalí joint venture until the two suddenly went their separate ways after writing the script. Buñuel took over, crafting a wryly savage five-part critique of the Roman Catholic Church. Buñuel and Dalí had prepared themselves for shock-induced physical violence at the premiere of Un Chien Andalou, only to find that the crowd had heartily approved. But L’Age d’Or drew enough fire for both pictures and then some, getting banned in France and eventually withdrawn from distribution until re-emerging in 1979. Now you can watch it whenever you like on the internet, suggesting that the controversy has evaporated — yet the images remain as surreal a way as any to begin your weekend.

You will find these surreal films listed in our collection of 500 Free Movies Online.

Related content:

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Why We are Always Learning to Move: The Science and Engineering of Adaptive Brains

This is some geeky neuroscience stuff, but it is geared toward the general public, so I hope it feels accessible and not too esoteric - it's really interesting stuff, especially for people interested in embodiment. The perspective here, which is implicit in this video, is a good example of human beings as complex adaptive systems.

Why We are Always Learning to Move: The Science and Engineering of Adaptive Brains
The ability to flexibly and adaptively integrate information from a variety of sources is a fundamental feature of brain function, from higher cognition to sensory and motor processing. Philip N. Sabes, UCSF Associate Professor of Physiology, explores what the underlying neural mechanisms are for movement.

Series: "UCSF Osher Mini Medical School for the Public" [6/2012]

Bruce Sterling - A Universe of Self-Replicating Code

This is a cool article from Wired Magazine by Bruce Sterling. He's making fun of an article on Edge by George Dyson on A Universe of Self-Replicating Code. Here is a passage from the article at Edge:

Many of these things we read about in the front page of the newspaper every day, about what's proper or improper, or ethical or unethical, really concern this issue of autonomous self-replicating codes. What happens if you subscribe to a service and then as part of that service, unbeknownst to you, a piece of self-replicating code inhabits your machine, and it goes out and does something else? Who is responsible for that? And we're in an increasingly gray zone as to where that's going.

The most virulent codes, of course, are parasitic, just as viruses are. They're codes that go out and do things, particularly codes that go out and gather money. Which is essentially what these things like cookies do. They are small strings of code that go out and gather valuable bits of information, and they come back and sell it to somebody. It's a very interesting situation. You would have thought this was inconceivable 20 or 30 years ago. Yet, you probably wouldn't have to go … well, we're in New York, not San Francisco, but in San Francisco, you wouldn't have to go five blocks to find five or 10 companies whose income is based on exactly that premise. And doing very well at it.

Sterling is not kind to this, but he is entertaining . . . .

Universe of Self-Replicating Code

*I don’t entirely enjoy coming across all crackerbarrel-metaphysician on the ‘ol’ blog here, but, you know, maybe the cosmos is constructed of self-replicating code.

*That could be, right? That’s a modish notion, I’ve seen people approach it from different angles, but I find nowadays that it makes me uneasy. Probably because we’ve got so much code around in these times, and it’s so un-Platonic and so merely-physical. Cosmic code? Really-really? I’d almost rather face a universe made of “statements,” than a universe made of “code.”

*Do we really wanna go here? What if it’s all object-oriented ontological code? We’re about a sneeze away from some awesome metaphysical-coding mash-up there, aren’t we? Wouldn’t we have modern philosophers walking around stating that the ontologically mysterious rocks cry because the Dysonian code says so? And wouldn’t these people, like, properly belong under sedation, or something?

“Very few people are looking at this digital universe in an objective way. Danny Hillis is one of the few people who is. His comment, made exactly 30 years ago in 1982, was that “memory locations are just wires turned sideways in time”. That’s just so profound. That should be engraved on the wall.”
(((That’s some great stuff in the link there, that is. That’s about as good as cosmological code gets. That’s the Dysonian creme de la code. You can’t ask for better. However, if people are gonna get all Bishop Berkeley with the cosmological coding there, then I’m gonna get all Dr Johnson today. See this big ugly rock?)))

(((That’s Vesta, a native of our solar system, and it’s like, a huge dead rock. If the universe is cosmic coding, well, most of your beloved code is expressing that dead rock, okay? Not biology, viruses, strings, cellularity, cool coder stuff, but huge, inert rock. That’s not “self-replicating,” it’s a cosmic rock.)))

(((We got, like, a machine we made that took this computer-colorized picture of this rock with a bunch of code, and then that machine flies away. This primeval, entirely lump of cosmic rock returns to its multibillion-year history of completely inconsequential debris-blasted rockiness. That’s “cosmic,” while your Mac iPad screen there isn’t “cosmic.” So: if there’s “cosmic code,” job one is to explain why the code is 99.999999% about the likes of that stuff, while all the exciting out-there whiz-bang stuff that most interests visionary coding-dudes is entirely irrelevant, and even, rather, well, self-glamorizing.)))

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Open Culture - Allen Ginsberg Reads His Classic Beat Poem, Howl

This video was posted at Open Culture back on June 6, in celebration of Allen Ginsberg's birthday. This video is from 1975, and you can read the text online, it is available here. By this point, Ginsberg was a famous and polished performer, but he had been studying with Chogyma Trungpa Rinpoche as well, who urged him to be more spontaneous and free in his readings.

There is also a link to an audio file from a reading at Reed College in 1956, a very liberal arts school in the Portland (OR) suburbs (where Gary Snyder did his undergraduate study, I believe). Needless to say, this was revolutionary at the time, considering that publication by City Lights Books had been banned on obscenity grounds. NSFW.

Allen Ginsberg Reads His Classic Beat Poem, Howl

The poet Allen Ginsberg would have celebrated a birthday today, his 86th. We didn’t want the day to slip by without mentioning his 1955 poem, Howl. The controversial poem became his best known work, and it now occupies a central place in the Beat literary canon, standing right alongside Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Ginsberg first read the poem aloud on October 7, 1955, to a crowd of about 150 at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. (James Franco reenacted that moment in the 2010 film simply called Howl.) From what I know, that famous reading wasn’t captured for posterity. So today we give you Ginsberg reading Howl in 1975. You can access the 27 minute reading in different formats above and below. It’s also listed in the Poetry section of our Free Audio Books collection. An online version of the text appears here. Finally, here’s a bonus, the earliest known recording of Howl — February 1956 at Reed College. The poem is, needless to say, NSFW.

Compassion and the Shadow by John Stanley & David Loy

This article is from Ecological Buddhism, a cool blog focused on "A Buddhist Response to Global Warming." Here is a key quote:
Today they have become institutionalized: our economic system institutionalizes greed, militarism is institutionalized ill will and our powerful media mega-corporations institutionalize delusion. They are the main ways our collective shadow operates today.

Indeed. If this does not change, we will be destroyed by our institutionalized shadow.

EDITORIAL: Compassion and the Shadow
by John Stanley & David Loy

Time & Tide by Vic Nicholas
We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger. And we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man ... far too little. His psyche should be studied -- because we are the origin of all coming evil.
~ C.G. Jung

Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.
~ The Dalai Lama

Humans are wired for empathy, love and cooperation. Because we are psychological animals, however, one recurring factor undermines many of our actions. Our "shadow," as C.G. Jung called the repressed (hidden and often projected) aspect of the personality, tends to assume a life of its own because it is composed of the parts of myself I don't acknowledge and therefore can't integrate into my conscious life. What makes this shadow even more problematic is that it isn't only an individual matter. Our shadows can fuse together, as often happens in wartime, for example, when the enemy comes to symbolize everything evil and despicable about our human nature.

Cognitive neuroscience has discovered that the human brain possesses mirror neurons that automatically enable us to share and enact the experiences of others. Looking at someone else eat a juicy piece of fruit on a hot day, I "virtually" experience those flavours and textures, as well as the refreshment of the person eating it. Looking at television footage of tsunami survivors stirs a deep emotional identification with their devastated choices. Mirror neurons are one of the main drivers of empathy, an automated response over which we have limited control. We may choose or fail to act on empathy, but except for a small percentage of us -- those we call psychopaths -- nobody is immune to another's situation. It has even been suggested that mirror neurons may save the human species because they might inspire an emerging pattern of compassionate response to the on-going global cascade of extreme weather disasters, high-tech accidents and geophysical events such as earthquakes.

On our digitally connected planet, we now easily share information without geographical limitation through the Internet, mobile phones and other social media tools. As climate chaos disasters unfold, we might witness a sustained rise in collective compassion, leading to genuine international cooperation and unity of the human species. The invigoration of democracy and social justice in the Middle East might be an early example of this trend.

But there's also our shadow. Neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran points out that humans are sometimes called the "Machiavellian primate" because of our ability to "read minds" in order to predict other peoples' behaviour and then outsmart them. Indeed, apes and humans may be so good at reading others' intentions because we share a specialized brain module that helps us understand others' motivations and anticipate their behaviour. Does that give us insight into how our "mental environment" has become a vast network of infotainment empires (such as the aptly named News Corporation) focused on collective manipulation? And how did mass advertising become the greatest unregulated social engineering experiment in human history?

The Buddha said little about evil per se but he had a lot to say about the three "roots of evil": greed, ill will and delusion. Today they have become institutionalized: our economic system institutionalizes greed, militarism is institutionalized ill will and our powerful media mega-corporations institutionalize delusion. They are the main ways our collective shadow operates today.

We cannot yet know whether the wave of natural disasters that has begun to change the face of the Earth will drive us to a social tipping point that prioritizes collective compassion. Could it unify the environmental and social justice movements? Primatologist Frans de Waal asks why natural selection designed our brains so that we are so much in tune with our fellow beings as to feel distress and pleasure along with them. If exploitation of others were all that matters, evolution would never have gotten into the empathy business.

We have choices to make. High-tech social manipulation is failing humanity. It restricts us to an economic model based on perpetual growth -- essentially a global Ponzi scheme that robs our children and grandchildren in order to feed its pathological greed. To look clearly and deeply at this collective shadow requires the inner focus, courage and strength of sustained meditation. It is a spiritual task that Buddhists and others can no longer avoid.

The shadow can overwhelm us when the conscious mind is shocked or confused. This can happen collectively, providing the context for "disaster capitalism" as described by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Jung referred to the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, stating that if Jekyll (the conscious personality) fails to identify the shadow, it will become its slave -- subject to compulsions it cannot understand, its capacity to act paralyzed. In just such a manner, surely, do we collectively ignore the loudly ringing alarm bells of climate science, population biology, oceanography and resource depletion.

Nowadays, contemplative practices are needed to clarify our values, so that we may communicate them effectively. Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is the only thing left that can make a human future possible. As the Dalai Lama points out, such love is not a mere luxury. It is fundamental to the continued survival of our species.

August 2011

Documentary - Our World: Bone Diggers - The Lost Predator

This is more entertaining than anything else, but it's cool enough to share. I did not know there had been predatory marsupials - it's hard to image a kangaroo hunting me down. This film changes my understanding.

Our World : Bone Diggers - The Lost Predator

Australia is known for its cute marsupials, the koala, the kangaroo and the wombat among others. Very few people are aware that there was once a marsupial that was a deadly "creep up and get ya" predator that was more ferocious than a sabre tooth tiger. It was Thylacoleo Carnifex -- the Marsupial Lion Australia's lost predator.

The Nullarbor Plain is a remote treeless desert resting between the Great Australian Bight and the Great Sandy Desert. It is hard, stony country...flat and featureless.

In May of 2002 an group of cavers, in an Indiana Jones style operation, discovered three caves, which had never been entered by man. The entrance to one of the caves was mere shoulder-width, vertical tube that rapidly expanded to cathedral proportions. In the first cave their head torches illuminated a sight that caused scientific wonderment and a world-wide media frenzy.

At the far end of a side tunnel the cavers discovered the pristine and complete skeleton of the fabled marsupial lion, Thylacoleo. It lay there as if it had died only a year ago. The skeleton was bleach white against the red earth and not a speck of dust on it. Their immediate reaction was to take a photo and get out - their main concern was to preserve the site for scientific analysis.

The photo of Thylacoleo and the cave coordinates ended up on the desk of Dr John Long, vertebrate palaeontologist a world renowned Bone Digger with the Western Australian Museum. Within a matter of weeks funding and an expedition to recover the remains had been arranged. It would prove a journey full of surprises both during the expedition and later as the remains were studied. The first surprise to take John and his team by surprise was the age of the remains. He was sure the skeleton could only be about 40,000 years old -- several dating techniques later and a shattering date of at least 500,000 years suddenly propelled the find into mega-star status.

Bone Diggers - Mystery of a Lost Predator is the amazing story of the dangerous recovery mission and how the remains of the marsupial lion allowed science a unique opportunity to reconstruct the beast and it's behaviour.

From recreating its brain to morphological analysis, the life and form of Thylacoleo began to take shape - this is science at its best!

A co-production between Storyteller Media and the Western Australian Museum

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Upaya Dharma Podcasts - Shinzan Palma: The Wisdom in Doing Nothing

Another cool dharma podcast from Upaya Zen Center - and this is one I need to learn for myself. I have a hard time with doing nothing. Giving over a whole day to uninterrupted meditation would be excruciating for me - there is so much to read and so much to write. And at the same time, I can see how valuable it would be for me to do this from time to time.

Shinzan Palma: 06-23-2012: The Wisdom in Doing Nothing

Speaker: Shinzan Palma

Recorded: Saturday Jun 23, 2012

Episode Description: A daylong silent meditation retreat provides us with the experience of deep periods of uninterrupted meditation. We do sitting and walking meditation throughout the day, one hour of work practice, three informal meals and dharma talk by the teacher in the afternoon. In this dharma talk Shinzan provides motivation and direction for our day.

Bio: Shinzan Jose Manuel Palma was born in Veracruz, Mexico. He has been practicing Zen since 1996. He met his former teacher, Korean Zen Master Samu Sunim in Mexico City and trained under his guidance for 8 years. He did a residential training for 4 years at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto, Canada and was ordained as a novice priest by Samu Sunim in 2004. After leaving Canada, he was invited by Roshi Joan Halifax to come to Upaya in 2006. Shinzan asked Roshi to be her student and he was re-ordained as a Priest in 2007 by Roshi Joan Halifax. Since then, he has been at Upaya practicing with the community. He is now the Head Monk and Tenzo, giving guidance to the residents on Zen training. He became Dharma holder on March, 2010. He has a sincere and strong heart committed to the Dharma.


Martin LeFevre - Experiencing Timeless Being

Martin LeFevre posted this article on timeless being at Ovi Magazine a few days ago - it's an interesting subjective account of his experience.

Experiencing Timeless Being
by Martin LeFevre

Overhanging the gorge are great angular outcroppings of volcanic rock—solid and sharp-edged protrusions from some long-ago eruption of Lassen or some other volcano in the area. 

In many places, the sheer sides of the gorge have huge slabs balanced on top of them--some looking like a giant stonemason had placed them there. Other large formations, with deep fissures where they meet the canyon wall, sit vertically in precarious positions, awaiting the next major earthquake to send them tumbling into the stream below.

Beyond the gorge, gently sloping grasslands ascend to the base of the sheer cliffs that form the perimeter of the canyon. Perched near the precipice under one of the plentiful oaks in the area, I can hear the rushing of the stream at the bottom of the glistening gorge, which stretches for hundreds of meters down and away.

The grasses around me are so dry that they break at the touch, and appear golden from even a meter away. Directly across, beyond the narrow gorge within the relative sanctuary of the large, fan-shaped canyon, are the majestic cliffs, rising hundreds of meters into a cloud-scudded sky.

Big buzzards, masters of the air in their own right, appear as lumbering leviathans next to smaller, more agile woodland hawks that follow in their wake, screeching as they wheel and dive into the trees at the foot of the cliffs.

Psychological time ends, and the mind, anchored in the present, ranges briefly over the past. The people who once lived in this beautiful place come to mind, and to heart. Is something of their essence still here?

Native Americans loved this canyon, and revered it as sacred. They were wiped out, driven off, and assimilated into a dominant culture that thought of the land only in terms of profit. But listening deeply in the meditative state, one seems to hear whispers across the land of their lives. Is it imagination, or actuality?

The undirected mind in meditation is like a laser effortlessly boring through the strata accumulated in content-consciousness—not only from one’s own life, but also from the lives of all previous generations. Through such openings the light of the cosmos pours into one, and one participates, however briefly, in the infinite intelligence beyond thought.

Even for adept meditators, indeed perhaps even for ‘enlightened’ people, the meditative state is not a constant, but a quality of consciousness that one has to ignite each day by making space for undivided attention. Nature is crucial to the process, though a mindful, silent walk through a park in the middle of a city, followed by a half hour’s sitting in one’s residence with the light flooding in as the bustle goes on below, can be sufficient to generate a radical shift in consciousness.

Spiritual knowledge is the easiest thing to fake, but meditative states are much harder to feign. The world is full of followers, and only a few stand alone. Any clever man or woman can put on wisdom robes and pass himself or herself off as an enlightened guru. There’s an entire industry of such charlatans now, willing to sell you their books, DVD’s, retreats, or whatever.

The supposedly enlightened ones mislead people, telling them how they can get from here to there, from this consciousness to the next. Becoming sells, especially with regard to enlightenment, because time is all we know, in one form or another.

But one does not ‘attain’ illumination; one enters that dimension through the back door, quietly and anonymously. There’s nothing to reach as an end; there’s only growth through negation, though that sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Our consciousness is based on time. Not chronological time, but psychological time--becoming this or becoming that. We’re nearly always looking forward to something, or back at our memories.

To some degree looking forward to things is healthy, but when time-based consciousness is all one knows, one is a slave to becoming and memory. That mode prevents one from growing as a human being.

Time is obviously necessary for carrying out tasks, but are time and evolution involved in radical change and revolution in consciousness?
Astronomers continually tell us that when we look out at a distant star or galaxy, we’re seeing it as it was many light years ago, since it took the light from the object a hundred or a thousand or a million light years to reach us. But if you think about it, that is nonsensical. It simply means that every instant of the past is enfolded in the present.

Psychological time is antithetical to transmutation and revolution. Spiritual growth only occurs when time as the past, projected into the future, ends.

It’s therefore a confusion of the highest order to talk about ‘conscious evolution.’ When we are really changing, we aren’t conscious of it until later, and then only fleetingly, like looking in a rear view mirror while driving down the highway.

Though I haven’t completely mastered time within myself, I’ve experienced how timeless consciousness can function in the field of time, but time-based consciousness has no relationship to the timeless.

But if this shift happens spontaneously, does one even know when psychological time stops? Yes, because the mind no longer looks forward or back; it just effortlessly remains with what is.

However long that lasts by the clock, one is forever changed in experiencing timeless being. My question is: why does time-bound consciousness return? 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Buddhist Geeks 259: Mapping the Mindful Brain w/ Judson Brewer

Another great episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast, especially for neuroscience geeks. In this episode, Vince talks with Dr. Judson Brewer of Yale about his work studying the effects of meditation on the brain.

Buddhist Geeks 259: Mapping the Mindful Brain

Episode Description:

BG 259: Mapping the Mindful BrainDr. Judson Brewer is an assistant professor at Yale in psychiatry and a contemplative scientist studying the effects of meditation on the brain. He and his colleagues believe they have found a way to use FMRI to give meditators real time feedback on their mindfulness practice. This feedback has led to increased efficacy and efficiency in mindfulness practice. Since making these discoveries, Brewer has joined the Contemplative Development Mapping Project in hopes of creating a common language between meditation traditions to more easily discern progress in meditation practice.
In this episode, Brewer describes to Vincent Horn how his work in addiction treatment led to these discoveries. They discuss the difficulty in objectively marking progress on the path to awakening, how that led to his participation in the Contemplative Development Mapping Project, and how using FMRI to understand mindfulness practice may eventually affect Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.