Only the POM A piece of my mind for the peace of yours

Perchance to Ignorance

Friday, July 14th, 2017

Nick Mystic, after going shark jumping with this gem:

The ‘idea’ is that the universe plays ‘the enlightened one’ in a slightly different way to how it plays most humans... The question is, whether the universe is, through the guru, speaking more of how the universe is actually doing its doing.

...demonstrated his ignorance of how Systems 1 and 2 work with this silly nonsense:

I’ve been messing-around again with the `moments between sleep and awake(ness)... The obvious thing is still obvious … Awake means I have ‘rational’ thoughts, but asleep means my thinks have gone all silly... In our normal speak, I would say that sleep is when Sys1. no longer kicks-in, but thinking about it … I’m not sure that is the correct answer... Why do thoughts go silly in sleep~?

Your System 1 never stops kicking-in. That's the whole point: it's a system that is automatic, continuous, and happens without any conscious effort or recognition. As part of the wider Everything Else system, System 1 might be doing less work, just as your heart rate slows when sleeping, but it's always there doing its thing. There's a very good chance that it's the System 1 that's creating your dreams to keep your System 2 busy (entertained/distracted) while the wider Everything Else performs routine maintenance on your body.

It's your System 2 that goes into sleep mode. All your conscious thought activity (reasoning), which ONLY happens in System 2, goes to sleep and it passively observes the dreams like passenger watching a movie on a long-haul flight. This is why you barely remember your dreams when you wake up - there's no conscious thought involved to help you remember them.

After all this time, you'd think Nick would understand the fundamental differences between the two Systems - even if sleep is a puzzling topic. The fact he doesn't know the basics is disappointing, to say the least.

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EnLIEtenment is a Carrot

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

Like Heaven and Paradise, Enlightenment is a fictional destination designed to keep the gullible faithful going back to the well in the misguided expectation that one day, they too, might be worthy enough to arrive at a hallowed destination.

Ancient accounts of a dude who spent his days sitting under a tree are no more credible than the religious accounts of bronze-age goat herders. The modern Indian guru is no more credible than someone who plays a guru on YouTube and no more reliable than the Arch Bishop of Canterbury or The Pope.

As with many fictitious religious and spiritual concepts, a reliable definition of enlightenment is almost as elusive as the thing itself. Nobody seems to know what Enlightenment is, exactly; which allows any old fool to put forth a definition that suits the story they are selling.

Anybody selling these religious or spiritual ideas, and who presents themselves as an authority or guru, is obviously a fraud; either because they don't know what they're talking about, or they understand what they're talking about, and therefore know it's all bullsh*t.

The reason these concepts are bad for POM is that they can never deliver on the promises. Disappointment is the only guaranteed outcome. Doubt always raises its head.

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There are (still) only two things

Monday, July 10th, 2017

It's useful to have a purpose in mind when learning about any subject. Having a goal allows you to focus on the relevant information and can help you avoid getting bogged down in the minutia or technical data that isn't useful to you. I learned to write code, build a bike, rewire my house, etc. by having a reason for doing those things other than mere curiosity. I didn't learn any of this stuff as part of a structured course; which would've covered a lot of information I wouldn't need to know.

From a POM perspective, my interest in learning about the brain is to understand why I do the things I do and why other people act the way they do. For this goal, the brain is the obvious starting point, but what I'm trying to do does not require the same level of knowledge as that of a brain surgeon or evolutionary biologist. What I need from this is a model or general understanding that's easy to understand, is accurate, and is backed up by science.

Until now, my understanding of human behaviour has been profoundly brain centric and based on a dual-process theory model. Although I have previously acknowledged the endocrine system in my posts, I have tended to model and understand human behaviour exclusively using the different systems of the brain (automatic/controlled, old/new, fast/slow, System 1/System 2 etc.). As models go, this has worked extremely well for me.

Recently, however, I've been reading more about what scientists are calling "the second brain": the gut, or microbiome, home to 100 million neurons outside of the brain that exerts a profound influence on our behaviour. What has struck me most is that the process of digestion existed before brains evolved and is therefore not a secondary actor - as the name 'second brain' might suggest, but a primary influencer of behaviour.

Given my own struggles resisting cravings for junk food (albeit vegan junk food) despite knowing (in my brain) of the harmful effects, I can attest to the validity of the idea that actors outside of the brain have a profound influence on our behaviour. I've stood in the supermarket aisle looking at a tube of Pringles and consciously said to myself "I don't need this - walk away" while my arm takes on a life of its own and reaches out for the potato chips.

It seems obvious, now, that the entire nervous and endocrine systems with their neurotransmitters and hormones cannot be sidelined from the model I am using. Every cell or gland in the body that acts upon, or secretes hormones, or contains neurotransmitters, directly influences our behaviour regardless of what's happening locally within the brain and this counts as relevant information for our understanding of human (and animal) behaviour.

I am, however, reluctant to complicate my existing model with multiple new systems even if it improves the model's technical accuracy. After giving this problem a lot of thought, I have concluded that expanding the brain-centric model to cover the entire body, requires expanding the scopes of both the old System 1 and newer System 2.

My updated model still contains just two things. That is to say that, within the human body, there are two discernable systems.

The Conscious System (the 'I' function)

The Conscious System is a slightly expanded understanding of the old System 2 part of the dual-process model and shares its limitations.

This system initially evolved to handle language processing and every thought or idea you ever had, and the voice in your head, all happened in this area of the brain (within the neocortex). In fact, everything you have ever been aware of occurred here because self-awareness/consciousness is a byproduct of this system; although it wasn't always that way.

The primary role of this system is rooted in language and is (probably) to find the words the old brain (System 1) requires - i.e. to act as a living dictionary/thesaurus.

For example, the old brain, which is just one part of a wider nervous system, would hear the word 'elephant' and pass this sound to the early Conscious System (not yet conscious) to translate that sound into a picture of an elephant.

Another example: if you stub your toe, you might blurt out "f**king hell!" without consciously thinking to do so. So it's not just the pictures or sounds this system translates but also the feelings and emotions. Simply put: it translates into words (language) everything the old brain (System 1) throws at it.

In both of these examples, this system is only acting as a translator. It is not creating the words; it is merely retrieving the appropriate ones. In this context, the words come automatically without any conscious thought behind them. Far from being slow (a characteristic of using this system for non-language reasoning), the retrievals and translations are instant and automatic.

Translation is all that's needed if languages only comprised of simple sounds, but human language evolved from simple sounds to words to basic sentences and then more complex grammar structures. The added complexity of just adding verbs and adjectives dictates the necessity of additional processing power the old brain (System 1) doesn't have: reasoning and decision making - the ability to go beyond translating into creating; to make a sentence that did not exist until you created it.

(To recap: the old brain/System 1 is a reactionary machine that responds to circumstances based on past experiences - there is no thinking/reasoning/decision making in the old brain. There is no 'I' or consciousness in the old brain.)

Think about this for a moment. We are translating when we look at an object and say, "apple", "ball", "cat", "dog" etc. But, to say "I'm going to throw the ball for the dog to chase to distract him from the cat that is climbing the apple tree" requires reasoning and decision making; something that is needed whenever we think forward in time.

Therefore, complex languages and reasoning are inter-dependent. You cannot reason without complex languages, and you cannot have complex languages without reasoning. At some point in the long evolution of the human brain, the language function of the brain evolved the ability to reason. Whether language drove the development of reasoning, or reasoning drove the development of language doesn't matter. All we need to know is they evolved together, and they co-exist in the neocortex.

Reasoning (which we also call thinking) leads to the most significant part of the human experience: self-awareness and consciousness. We became aware of ourselves through reasoning, and this self-awareness became what we call commonly call consciousness.

You, that mysterious thing that experiences your life, you the person reading these words, you that you might identify as a soul within your physical body, are the self-aware part of the reasoning function of the language processing area of the brain.

Language > reasoning (thinking) > self-awareness (consciousness/I).

Bear in mind that although I'm describing this particular part of the brain as the reasoning function, it evolved to make decisions about language. It didn't evolve to do mathematics, for example; which is why the famous 17 x 23 example from Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is so difficult for our reasoning brain to compute; and why we don't engage in reasoning (thinking) anywhere near as much we might expect.

Using the reasoning function to do anything other than language processing is difficult, slow and often stressful. In fact, when we try to do something else with it, we often convert the task into words (language) to help us perform it. For example, we don't remember a telephone number by taking a mental picture/photograph of the complete number; we repeat the individual digits as words in our head (seven, five, six, three, zero, nine, etc.). When we do arithmetic, we do a similar thing. If we didn't have the ability to write things down, also using language (to offset some of the load from our reasoning function), our reasoning ability would be significantly impaired.

It's also worth noting that the combination of having language and being self-aware allows us to create words. Reasoning (thinking) makes it possible to make decisions, solve problems, predict the future and make plans; something the old brain simply cannot do, because there is no thinking taking place in the old brain. Therefore, it is a mistake to claim that ALL our words, and ALL human behaviour, is purely reactionary and a result of circumstance. Your consciousness uses the reasoning function to create and is not merely a passive observer. It has a limited capacity to influence your behaviour, but the impact can be profound.

To summarise: one of the two systems in the human body that affect behaviour is the self-aware part of the reasoning function of the language processing area of the brain, and we commonly call this system 'consciousness' or 'I'. It is not a special gift; it doesn't have divine, cosmic or spiritual properties; it is a byproduct of the reasoning function. When the brain dies, consciousness dies along with it. Everything you experience happens in this system. You are this system. As a self-aware, conscious human being, you can use this system to perform reasoning, planning and problem-solving.

Everything Else System

The other system is comprised of everything else. That is to say, every organ, cell, and gland of the body that can function automatically and without thought, including the nervous and endocrine systems are part of this system. The old brain/System 1 is just one part of the wider 'everything else'. The gut, its microbiome and its 100 million neurons are also part of this system.

The key characteristics of the Everything Else System are that it's automatic, dominant, and self-sufficient. It is the primary (but not exclusive) driver of all human behaviour. It is a reactionary machine that is driven by circumstance, previous experience, DNA, genes, and hormones, etc. - everything other than reasoning (thinking). THERE IS NO REASONING (THINKING), NOT EVEN SUBCONSCIOUSLY, IN THE EVERYTHING ELSE SYSTEM - IT IS ONLY REACTING.

Free Will

Our capacity for free will, or rather, the ability of our Conscious System to exercise its influence (willpower) over the Everything Else System is limited to the point of being practically non-existent. The extent to which we can use our conscious will is subject to how aligned both systems are and how much we can find alignment in the Everything Else System.

If both systems are aligned and want to eat a tube of Pringles, it will happen. If the Everything Else system seeks to eat a tube of Pringles, it will almost certainly happen. If the Conscious System objects, it's probably going to happen anyway unless it can find a way to change the will of the Everything Else system.

What usually happens is we adapt our Conscious System, through creative reasoning, to align it with the desires of the Everything Else. ("It's okay to eat these Pringles today because I'll start my diet on Monday")

From a POM perspective, understanding the Conscious and Everything Else systems is useful because once we recognise that our behaviour is driven primarily by something other than rational thinking and that it is almost impossible to do anything other than what we do, we can forgive ourselves (and others) for our behaviour. That, in itself, is incredibly powerful for relieving anger, stress, regret and anxiety. Silly concepts that often trip us up, such as good and evil, selflessness and selfishness, etc. can all be considered normal human behaviours without the need to apply judgements to them.

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