On this episode, I'm joined by Ruben Laukkonen to describe his new model that makes sense of what meditation does to the mind, through the lens of predictive processing.
Ruben is a post-doc cognitive scientist at the University of Amsterdam, a contemplative with experience in traditions like Advaita and Therevada, has consulted for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, and writes on topics ranging from education, artificial intelligence, to psychedelics.
13:15 - Birds eye view of the paper
15:15 - What is the difference between 'the sensory present' and the 'real, un-abstracted present'?
"Even if we think just about our visual field, you can't experience curvature, or distance, you can't experience any kind of differentiation between objects, unless you project the past onto them."
21:30: Overview of predictive processing & the free energy principle
25:00: What is counterfactual depth, and what does the metaphor of meditation 'pruning the counterfactual tree' mean?
"Counterfactualizing is really the imaginative realm of human experience."
28:40 - How we 'predict ourselves into existence', and relation between the depth of counterfactual thinking and the weight of selfhood
36:30 - 40:00 - Phase 1
Phase 1, or focused attention, is marked by upping the precision weighting assigned to one particular object of meditation, like the breath, or a mantra, which down-regulated the precision weighting assigned to all other sensory experiences. This 'tunes out' everything but the breath by modulating the predictive system such that it doesn't see other phenomenon as important, doesn't ascribe them salience, and thus, they're less likely to be perceived and to grasp attention
40:10 - 47:30 - Phase 2
In focused attention meditation, we've traded one abstraction for another, trading thinking for sensing. In the open monitoring stage, we begin to "draw back the preferential nature of awareness" altogether.
This means the precision weighting that was concentrated on the breath is now released altogether, such that no sensory phenomenon are perceived as high importance by the predictive mind, and thus they lose their salience, their 'stickiness'. This deepens when Ruben calls 'de-reification' from the predictive mind.
48:45 - 58:00 - Phase 3
Nondualistic meditations are about creating the conditions that enable the mind to let go of its habitual, predictive tendencies.
1:00:01: What 'quieting the mind' actually means, from a predictive processing point of view
1:04:50 - Although nondual awareness is a highly unusual state of consciousness to consciously experience, it's the foundation of all consciousness, and thus, always present, available to anyone and everyone.
1:09:00 - In terms of predictive processing, what is the point of meditation? Why meditate? While the 'state' of meditation is one of reduced abstraction, the enduring 'traits' of meditation actually improve abstract processing, reducing the sway of biases, allowing for a more flexible, creative, rich counterfactual capacity.
"Part of what makes our habits our habits is that we assign them high precision...so by shifting precision weighting around [through deconstructive practices like meditation], we are, by definition, loosening the tendency of the system to engage in its usual habitual responding."
1:16:20 - How do psychedelics differ from meditation in the way they affect the mind?
Where psychedelics loosen cognitive patterns and allow for new kinds of experience, new kinds of predictions, meditation is more about dampening the prediction system altogether.
1:37:40 - What would a society that deeply internalized the implications or Ruben's research look like? What would we do differently today? Ruben gets into education. "VUKA" and education under increasing uncertainty and complexity.
Disclaimer: this is an AI-generated transcript that I have *not* cleaned up. Read at your own risk. And if you'd like to support the production of better transcripts, consider supporting the podcast as a patreon supporter. Thanks!
All right, Ruben, welcome to the Music Mind podcast. I am incredibly grateful that you've taken the time to join me here today.
Ruben Laukkonen 0:04:52
It's such a pleasure to be here.
Oshan Jarow 0:04:55
So our main focus today is exploring a paper and a set of ideas that you have co-authored recently with Helene Slatter, which brings together meditation and predictive processing in a way that I find really sheds light on both. It offers kind of novel ways to understand what meditation does to the mind, kind of using the conceptual framework and language of predictive processing, which is now a pretty well-established collection of ideas in cognitive science and maybe more generally, right? And there's this relationship between constructive tendencies of the predictive mind, like counterfactual thinking, which we'll get into, and deconstructive practices like meditation, maybe not limited to it, and how we might think about the sorts of balances and harmonies that can be struck between these kind of opposing forces, construction and deconstruction. But before getting into all of that, I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to these sorts of questions, because it's clear that you're at home in both the scientific paradigm, you're a postdoctoral fellow studying cognitive science, as well as the contemplative paradigm. You have a background in traditions like Advaita, Theravada, and so on. So by way of an introduction, I wanted to ask you whether you began in one tradition and later got into the other, right? Were you a big meditator who was kind of later drawn to science? Were you a scientist who made his way into meditation? And kind of how you experienced the relationship between these two domains in your own life?
Ruben Laukkonen 0:06:31
Yeah, for me, it was really in parallel. Right from the beginning, I think, if I think back, maybe it was even first I had this realization about the importance of science and thinking rigorously about things. I think I was about 16 when I had this sort of insight that it was important to measure things really carefully and to systematically investigate things and replicate and run experiments and so on. And it was only, I suppose, a bit later that I had some experiences that led me down a contemplative path. And I think that kicked in when I was about 18, 19 years old. But from that point, which is still pretty early on, it was like the two were feeding into each other all the way through. I mean, both are absolutely necessary in the sense that one of them, contemplative work meditation gives us models and a better understanding through direct experience of our phenomenology and how to understand first person experience. And then the science allows us to see what might replicate across individuals and our socially shared reality. And I think insights from one are necessary to have new ideas in the other. And I think they feed each other in this way. And so I think they've been kind of working in parallel, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in disharmony. And there's an interesting ongoing dance happening for me between these two ways of looking at life.
Oshan Jarow 0:08:22
Yeah. Yeah. There's a famous quote. I came across this one a while ago, and I saw that you actually shared it on your Twitter recently. It's a Charles Darwin quote. And it's this passage where he says how he used to be so enamored, kind of so enthralled by poetry and music when he was young. But as he spent decades kind of engaging in analytical inquiry and that sort of scientific mentality, he found that he kind of lost that right brain poetic contemplative capacity to say, just bathe in the beauty of things. And I wonder if this at all resonates with your own experience or maybe your own fears, right? I'm assuming that since you shared it, you have some relationship to this concern about maybe over indexing oneself in the scientific and analytic domain and that almost kind of squeezing out or grinding away our capacity for this other kind of contemplative mode of being. And certainly it can be a little of each. You mentioned how they're kind of complementary. But I thought it was interesting. And it's always to go back to that Darwinian idea of how spending too much time in one or the other kind of on this theme of balance that I think will come up a lot today, one tends to affect the other.
Ruben Laukkonen 0:09:34
I think this really gets at the heart of the disharmony aspect between these two. Certainly in my own experience, I do still in a way worry about this and sometimes struggle to find the balance because if I've actually just kind of gone through this process in the last couple of weeks, I had the paper deadline. So I spent like two weeks doing nothing but being abstract basically, totally engaged in conceptual work and highly theoretical work as well. And in a way, it's an analytical meditation. So I wouldn't say that it's totally contrary to contemplative practice because I think we can think of science as a kind of analytical meditation. But I don't think we ever want to do too much of any kind of meditation. And so what I do find anyway when I do, let's say this kind of scientific meditation for too long, is I end up feeling a little bit detached and a little bit disembodied and a little bit less, well, really able to enjoy what's happening in the present moment. And so I have developed quite specific personal kind of strategies to deal with this where I know that sometimes I have to go through these periods where I'm really engaged in the abstract in the thought realm and I'm doing this kind of work. And then I really have to put a day or two aside, not have to, but feel that it's really helpful to de-abstract. And then I focus on a kind of embodiment practices or meditation where I really encourage a kind of inner silence and inner state of being and particularly giving attention to emotions and activity in the body. And so I sort of visualize myself as occasionally kind of climbing up the abstraction hierarchy and doing science. And then after that, I have to climb the ladder or the mountain rather back down to earth really and life. And yeah, to kind of bring the color back and the juiciness back to existing.
Oshan Jarow 0:11:58
Yeah, that sounds about right. And we'll get very much, I'm glad you set up this metaphor of kind of moving away and coming back because I think we're going to riff on that theme a lot. So let's dive into your paper. And the structure of it is very clean. After the introduction, you have a section where you describe predictive processing, followed by a section kind of describing meditation and the types or styles that you're using in the study. And then you kind of formally present your theory, which brings them together. And I think we can do a similar thing here. By way of the introduction, I'll just read a quote from the paper that I think gives the gist and then I'll see if you'd like to add anything. And then regarding predictive processing, we don't need to dwell too long there. I've discussed this on the podcast before, specifically with Chris Lethaby, so we can assume a decent familiarity on the part of the audience with that framework. And honestly, the same with meditation. Most listeners here will have enough experience with meditation to get the basic idea. And this all kind of lets us get into the really fun part of exploring how they can be brought together.
So a bird's eye view of your theory. Early in the paper, this is a mildly abridged quote you write, in this paper, we argue that this new understanding of the brain as a predictive organ coincides well with meditation, which aims at deconstructing the mind from within in order to allow one to experience things anew, no longer wholly determined by acquired mental habits. Our main contention is that focused attention, open monitoring and non-dual meditation, those three styles of meditation you mentioned, gradually bring the practitioner more and more into the present moment, thereby progressively abating hierarchically, i.e. temporally deep predictive processing in the brain. So maybe in a dangerously reductive sense, I could say that your paper establishes a sort of spectrum where on one end is the pure present moment, and as one moves towards the other end of the spectrum, you accumulate more and more layers of abstraction, of conceptualization, and these almost serve as a buffer between awareness and the present. And you make this really wonderfully surprising observation at first, but then it's obvious in retrospect that what we ordinarily take to be the present moment is actually not. It's way off base, and that the present moment that, for example, a guided meditation from Headspace or some mainstream commercial app describes to you, where you feel your breath moving up and down, you hear the gentle wisps of rustling leaves outside or the texture of your shirt fabric on your shoulder. All these experiences that we often hear painted as indications of the present moment to bring you back are actually signaling that we're still abstracting ourselves away from what you would consider the actual present moment. So I thought we could start here by asking you what the difference is between this conventional present moment that we're used to hearing about and what you mean when you write about the present moment.
Ruben Laukkonen 0:15:09
Well, that's beautifully summarized. Yeah, indeed, I think the colloquial kind of understanding of the present moment that most meditation teachers used to start with, and I think rightly so, is our sensory experience. And so that indeed often is the breath or it might be the inner sound of a mantra or any kind of sensory experience in the body. And we say that pay attention to the present moment and guide people towards their sensory experience. But of course, not only really from the predictive processing standpoint, but from the just basic assumptions of neuroscience, we know that sensory experience is determined by past experience. So any perceptual or sensory experience we're having, where it's impossible to have that without projecting the past onto it. So even if we think of just about our visual field, you can't experience curvature or distance or any kind of differentiation between objects unless you project the past onto them. And to make that clear, I mean, what's hitting the retina or the sounds that you're hearing, the vibrations, these are indistinct. I mean, there's pure light, there's pure sound, and it's organized in certain kinds of regularities. And it's from those regularities, from ultimately the electrical signals that reach the brain that we are somehow able to derive a meaningful perception.
So perception and sensory experience is by definition created through the lens of past experience. And therefore it is an interpretation. It's already a construction based on the past. Now that's one reason that what we colloquially perhaps think of as the present moment, I wouldn't say that's what they think of as the present moment. When you speak to contemplatives who have been doing this for a long time or really Buddhist teachers, I don't think they make that claim. I think people mostly know that ultimately where the process is going is deeper than that. So that's one reason that that sensory experience isn't truly the present moment. But even just even built into having a sensory experience is also the self that's observing the sensory experience. So there's another construction there. Then there's also the fact that there's the attention guided towards something. So there's also the guiding of the attention by some inner sense of agency. So all of this is still non-present moment. This is all a construction based on past habits, basically, and requires some sort of integration of information over time. So in that sense, it's not really the present moment, but there is still something really cool about this ideal of the present moment because it can kind of get deeper. So you can think of this sensory present moment as a kind of stepping stone towards a deeper and deeper present moment that goes even beyond sensory experience, goes even beyond the observer of the sensory experience and even beyond the construction of guided attention. And this is at the heart of many, many deep practices in many different traditions that then kind of try to release the habits of the mind all the way to come to rest even beyond the construction of our sensory experience or making that sensory experience not the focus of the practice.
Oshan Jarow 0:19:14
Yeah. Yeah. I love the way you described this. You have an article up on the Science of Mindfulness website titled, What is the Present Moment? And there you write, time, or rather the organization of regularities in time is the very currency of construction within the brain. Without molding the present based on the past, there simply is nothing meaningful to experience. These jolts of electricity that climb your nervous system are empty of meaning without the brain and the body's capacity to regurgitate its own meaning. And I really like the distinction you just introduced between the sensory present moment and then this deeper present moment and one as a stepping stone towards the other because getting to the sensory present moment is relatively easy enough with instruction. For example, I'll go back to Headspace. If you have an app that is instructing you to direct your attention towards the immediate sensory environment, mostly we can do that almost on command. But getting beneath that to this deeper present moment is not so simple. You can't just consciously decide to do that and then do it. It generally requires serious training and practice because this kind of requires going against the way we've evolved and been wired to perceive over thousands of years. And we can imagine this. I mean, being in what we would consider the deeper present, which I think we'll unpack a little bit over this conversation, would not be the most adaptive or fit for survival state over the past thousands of years of our species for sure. And maybe it's dangerous in that sense, but it's also a recipe for changing the way we understand all other moments of experience as, as you've mentioned, as these constructions away from the present. That once you've gone down into that depth, you come back with a bit of sight that I think casts a different light on all the other ways that we've previously interpreted what the present is or can be. But we can take that and we can move right into predictive processing. Take our first stop here. As I mentioned before, we can assume a basic familiarity, it being a framework that says the brain generates these internal models of the world. And that may sound implausible until you remember that every dream you have at night is a demonstration of how good at internally generating convincing world models the brain really is. And that brains are driven to minimize the prediction error in their models. So they use stimuli from the outside world and kind of cross-check their models.
But you spend a good amount of time in your paper talking about Carl Fristin's work, who was instrumental in developing this whole framework. But he adds this further dimension, which is his free energy principle. And this I haven't discussed on the podcast yet, and I would like to because Fristin's free energy principle comes up in almost every interesting theory of consciousness I've seen today. But it's kind of slippery. I've had a little trouble kind of wrapping my head around it. So here's a quote from your paper that introduces Fristin's work on free energy, and then we can kind of build from that. What does the brain do? What is the basic imperative of a living organism? Evolution and gene selection theory were able to provide answers to core questions at the level of biology, explaining how life can emerge and adapt over time through natural selection. However, a unifying account of life within the living has yet to take hold. Humans in their relatively short lifespans also change, adapt, behave, think, and feel, and seem to possess some inner imperative to survive beyond procreation. What is at the heart of this compulsion? According to the free energy principle, Carl Fristin 2010, the basic imperative is not pleasure-seeking or any kind of simple reinforcement scheme. The imperative is to maintain a boundary between oneself and the world, or in other words, to resist the second law of thermodynamics, i.e. the tendency for isolated systems, including the human organism, to become more entropic over time. If an organism loses its boundaries, it becomes more entropic as the Constitution and the world becomes as its constitution, and the world become increasingly inseparable. In order to avoid the dissolution of its boundaries, what the organism does is make predictions across many timescales to produce autopoetic actions that minimize the tendency towards entropy. This ensures the organism continuously revisits the limited set of states conducive for its survival. The usual story goes something like the predictive processing framework ultimately says that organisms are driven to reduce prediction error. If you go beneath that, it's because it's good for survival.
The better that I can plan and predict using my internal models, the easier it'll be for me to survive. But the free energy principle puts a bit of a spin on this, or it goes even a level deeper. Rather than saying we're driven by this kind of intrinsic or even genetic imperative for survival for its own sake, it says we're driven to survive because that helps maintain a boundary between ourselves and the world to resist entropy. Another idea that's part of this predictive world, and also a really core part of your theory, is this idea of counterfactual depth. You offer this wonderful metaphor where what meditation does is it prunes the counterfactual tree of the predictive mind. So let's start with what a counterfactual is, first of all, what it has to do with predictive processing, and maybe we can work our way towards what it would mean for meditation to prune the counterfactual tree.
Ruben Laukkonen 0:24:58
Yeah, so we can think of a counterfactual as anything that's counter to what is. So there are certain facts, you could say, of our present moment experience, and this is what we could say is, well, again, that's not really present moment, but there's not really counterfactualizing with sensory experience. There's already an interpretation there that the system has made, and that gives us our senses. And from there, we have this incredible capacity, especially as humans and from many other organisms as well, to then consider possibilities that are not. So you can consider anything that, any step away from to next moments in time is already a counterfactual because that is a counter to the fact of what is happening. So I can imagine a future scenario thanks to counterfactualizing about possibilities, and I can think of many different possibilities. I can think of possibilities just one second from now, and as I extend that tree even further into the future, the possibilities get more and more vast. So if I think of just the next moment in time, there's probably not so many counterfactuals that arise there. But as soon as I go higher into the abstract world of the mind and the future, the possibilities get faster and faster, and of course, harder and harder to predict as well. So you can see, or maybe you can, as you think further and further away from what is the here and now, the counterfactual tree goes greater and greater in the possibilities that could be imagined. The possibilities for the next moment and tomorrow are in a way limited, but as I think further and further into the future, the counterfactual possibilities get greater and greater, and I can think of possibilities that could happen to myself, but also to you and other people. And so counterfactualizing is really the imaginative realm of human experience. That's what also allows us to create works of art, I would say. It's what allows us to come up with a fiction story. It's probably what makes us human in many ways.
Oshan Jarow 0:27:33
CB That sounds very similar to Yuval Noah Harari when his first book Sapiens came out. I remember one of the distinctive ideas that I kept seeing taken from it was the idea, I think he called it the cognitive revolution, the thing that made our species our species was this capacity for fictions such as corporations, such as gods, these kind of intersubjective fictions. And maybe we're not talking about intersubjectivity here, but thinking about counterfactuals in this way, that makes a lot of sense. And they also play a really interesting role in an idea that you mentioned in your paper, and I've seen it elsewhere, like Thomas Metzinger's work, where basically we experience the self as a thing that exists, that we are, because when our predictive models imagine the future and they model, for example, our organism reaching for a glass of water or jumping out of the way of a barreling car, they imagine that there is an agent, that there is someone there who is doing the reaching or the jumping, the cause of the actions being modeled. And that prediction that a self exists who is doing that basically solidifies such that when we're in the present experiencing the thing that was predicted, we experience that agency, that self that was imagined to be the cause of the action. Maybe in simpler terms, we predict ourselves into existence and counterfactual depth here provides a really interesting layer, an additional layer to understanding that process, I think, because of counterfactual depth, it's the layers of the counterfactually modeled worlds that exist within our minds that kind of gives rise to this persistent and singular sense of selfhood. And if you follow that logic out, the more counterfactuals that we hold in mind, the more scenarios of ourselves or others as agents that we hold in mind, literally the higher the quantity, the more selves that we are predicting. It's almost like counterfactuals are a multiverse in our minds and the more layers, the more different universes being modeled, they all get stacked on top of each other. And then in this present universe, we experience the weight of that stack almost as the thickness or the solidity of our selfhood.
Ruben Laukkonen 0:29:54
Sounds exhausting, huh? It does. And this is exactly it, right? And just one small nuance to add there, indeed, the existence of the self is itself already indeed a kind of counterfactual. So to even predict a behavior, to behave, the system needs to make an inference of itself in that next moment in time in order to be able to deal with it properly. So the very currency of action is having a self because it takes a model of the body to be able to model the next action in time. And I really like this picture that you build from there because let's imagine that we started with this simple model of our own body because it's the thing that's so immediate to our experience. And then there's, of course, the bodies and the actions and our relationships to other people and then that sort of expands infinitely to include all kinds of complexities and complex relationships and emotional reactions. And this creates an enormously intricate web that the system has to constantly keep active.
And that has to be really resource intensive to constantly be predicting this complex landscape of selves and everything else for most of the day that we are awake. And so kind of the promise of some of these meditation techniques and what we discuss in the paper is that this enormous tree of counterfactual existence that we build and then maintain throughout most of our waking life, that there's the possibility that we can learn techniques that allow us to, in a way, at will, drop this counterfactual tree to drop this heavy burden that is to constantly model ourselves in reality and to have breaks from that, have windows of silence where the system can consciously recuperate and not just during sleep, which as you rightly noted, sleep is also often a very active process and I think this is also something that many meditators report that as meditative depth increases and certainly this happens on retreats, also the sleep gets lighter and there's less activity during the sleep and so then sleep also becomes a more restful experience because now, whatever processes the sleep is engaged in, because of course, there's important purposes for sleep and probably a lot of that is to do with dealing with all the counterfactuals that we've been creating and maintaining during the day to put them all in their places and perhaps prune our models and so on. All of that gets a bit of a rest as well if we can consciously be abstract, let's say.
Oshan Jarow 0:33:06
That's really interesting. This is a tangent but it's an interesting point. Your point about meditators on retreat and the sleep getting more restful, a guest of this podcast in the past, Eric Howell, who's a neuroscientist, pretty recently published a paper called The Overfitting Brain where he gives a theory for the purpose of dreams and on his theory, the purpose of dreams are essentially to guard against overfitting of the predictive system. So if you have an artificial neural network, one of the kind of persistent problems we're seeing is you necessarily train them on data, you feed them data and they get overtrained to the particularities of that data set and so they're subject to biases and the way you guard against that is you inject noise, random data. And so Howell suggests that the point of dreams is to essentially inject noise into our conscious experience to guard against overfitting from our biased subset of experience in life. And if you take that and you mix it with what you just said, it makes sense because as we're going to explore very soon, one of your theories is that meditation essentially helps us disengage from all of this predictive modeling. As you mentioned, we kind of cut down that counterfactual tree and so it makes sense that if that persists in sleep, if you're reducing the kind of predictive activity, you would experience it the same way, right? You would kind of have less overfitting, you would have less of this process ongoing because the entire predictive system is slightly down-regulated. But anyway, putting that aside, you mentioned meditation here and I want to pick this up. We've covered predictive processing. So let's take a moment and put this all together.
The question I think that I want to ask is broadly, right, what is it that meditation does to the mind when we understand it through this predictive framework? And let's take this step by step because you do this in a really nice way in the paper. Your model looks at three techniques or really stages of meditation. We can describe them as one, two, and three. You have names for them. They're focused attention is first, followed by open monitoring, followed by non-duality. And you describe how each stage has particular ways, particular things that are happening in the predictive mind. So let's start when we first sit down on the meditation cushion and maybe we begin by focusing our attention on the breath. What's going on there? And then we can move into, as we settle into a middle depth of meditation, what's going on and then we'll move into non-duality. But in that first stage, what's going on in the brain?
Ruben Laukkonen 0:35:40
So I want to acknowledge that there's many, many meditation techniques there that exist and they're all going to have slightly different effects on the brain. And we're narrowing in on three here that try to give us a good picture of what we call deconstructive practices. So that's still a rather narrow set of meditations. But just with that caveat in mind, when we begin meditation, we can imagine that what most people bring to the cushion is a pretty active mind. And so this is a mind where there's a lot of thought activity happening. And so from the predictive processing perspective, this is a system that's engaging in a lot of deeply hierarchical and abstract processing, abstract predictive processing, because thinking is, yeah, more or less the epitome of abstraction, really. So most people spend a lot of their day in a state of a lot of thinking. And we can think of this as the top of the tree in the predictive processing hierarchy. And so when somebody sits, often the first technique that is offered to them, certainly in the Buddhist traditions, is to pay attention to one part of usually sensory experience. So this might be the breath, for example, and we'll just take that as an example, but it applies to more or less any other object of meditation. And the instruction at this point is simply to take hold with the attention, this object, so for example, the breath, to guide the attention to the breath. And then whenever these automatic predictions in the form of thoughts arise and capture attention, we turn attention again back to the specific object, which is the breath. And so what this is doing from a predictive processing standpoint is basically increasing the precision, or we can simply say, let's call that just the importance of the breath compared to thinking. Now in this hierarchy of abstraction, any kind of sensory experience is an earlier stage in the construction hierarchy. So we're bringing it down the tree, we're trimming a few of those branches, so to speak, and coming into a state that although is not the present moment, as we discussed earlier, it's closer to the present moment.
Our sensory experience is less hierarchically deep and therefore closer to the present moment. It's less abstract than our thinking mind. So we're one level less abstract. And we also talk about this as a move from the narrative self, so that part of our self, our autobiographical self that can really project right to the beginning of our, well, close to our birth and into the future, this autobiographical sense of self that we have, we're kind of slowing that process down and coming into the experiencing self, which is the embodied experience of being who you are and whatever senses are arising. So that's one level of abstraction that we've decreased from the narrative to the experiencing by doing this gradual and often initially challenging work of stopping the automatic tendency to think, basically, to engage in self-centered, usually self-centered ruminations. So that's what we would say is the stage of focused attention, this movement from the narrative self to the experiencing self. And then the next stage after one establishes some stability, let's say, in the experiencing self and is able to, with some level of effortlessness, maintain attention, or even if one is quite deep in concentration or tranquility or mental serenity, then one can begin to engage in another level of practice where the goal then is to de-reify even from the sensory experience.
And so this is where one engages in a broad category of practices that we've called open monitoring or that many of the contemplative scientists call open monitoring. And this includes, for example, vipassana practice from Buddhism. And so here, because what's kind of happened in this initial focused attention stage is that we've traded one abstraction for another. We've traded one highly abstract part of our mind, which is thinking, for another abstraction, which is sensing. But now we're still assigning, the system is still assigning particular importance, let's say, to sensory experience. But this is, as we've discussed earlier, still an abstraction and is still a form of conceptualization. So even the breath in this sense is a sensory experience and therefore an abstraction. And there's still a lot going on there, for example, the one who is paying attention to the breath and the attention. So then what vipassana practice or open monitoring begins to do is to draw back the preferential nature of awareness. So basically, this is allowing the system to take a step back from preferring any sensory experience to opening up to the whole field of sensory experience. So in predictive processing terms, this means that no particular part of any experience that is arising in our current experience, we can call that the present moment for now, is given any more importance than any other. And therefore, in relatively speaking, is assigned less importance.
And instead, what one emphasizes is a kind of, well, unconditional observation of whatever's arising in experience and sensory experience, but also usually thoughts are still arising, though hopefully the focused attention practice reduced the extent to which these thinking episodes really take us for a longer ride. So then through this open monitoring practice, there's also of course, progression within each of these techniques, but there's several really important things that happen. One is, as I mentioned, this de-reification from sensory experience, the tendency to take it as real, and to identify it as oneself or even important to oneself and instead engaging in this unconditional observation. So there's this sense of releasing any kind of preference. And with that, as there is this cultivation of an unconditional ability to observe, also we propose, and this is also what's claimed in the meditation traditions, arises the possibility for insight to occur. So this is a practice that's really emphasized as important compared to FA because it allows the system and the observer to gain a better understanding of what is, well, what is the nature of their mind? What is happening there? Because in our normal waking consciousness, whatever arises, we sort of take it for granted to be real and we kind of run with it. But now we have this opportunity to observe what arises from a more distant vantage point. And so then by observing these things for the first time, the system in a kind of meta way, because the system is made up of models of models of models, we do a lot of modeling of our own models in this metacognitive sense. And so through this vipassana, open monitoring, open awareness kinds of practices, the system can learn about itself. And it can see the patterns that are arising. It can see what is triggering it into episodes of suffering, of mood swings, of strong emotions, which kinds of narratives continue to pop up and take us for rides. And so through this process, it can learn about itself in this sort of almost psychotherapeutic way, but it can also then gain these kinds of more fundamental insights into the very nature of the kinds of things that are arising. So that's the more fundamental kinds of insights described in Buddhism.
Then, of course, for example, the fact that all of this is arising by itself, that there's no kind of inherent agency, there's no self within the phenomena that are arising, they're happening automatically and that they're impermanent. Not everything that arises doesn't stick for long. It also goes away and that arising phenomena and our attachment to them, our grasping to them, our tendency to assign them importance cause suffering. So impermanence, suffering and not self. So these are also these more fundamental insights that I think make a lot of logical sense if the system is observing, is getting a better model of automatically arising predictive processing, basically. And predictive processing, the fact is that from that perspective, all that arises is a construction. It's constantly changing depending on our experiences and it doesn't have any kind of essential self in the sense that it is just a predictive process derived from past experience. So that's the kind of open monitoring if I can say in this short period. But then even in the open monitoring and the past practices, there are still built in certain models, right? There is still a subject observing an object. There is still some level of self that's engaging or observing the sensory and thinking processes.
Oshan Jarow 0:47:34
Is this still the experiencing self, right, that's the terminology they call it?
Ruben Laukkonen 0:47:41
And so there's many different ways I think that the system can go then to go a bit deeper than that. And we can talk about different practices from different traditions because I think there are many actually and we focus on non-dual practices that are particularly important, for example, in the Mahayana traditions, so Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, but I think are also really at the heart of Advaita Vedanta or so-called non-dual traditions from Hinduism. And so basically in these practices, what one aims to do is basically relax even the fundamental habit of engaging in a dualistic observation. Because again, even in this experiencing self format, as we sort of discussed at the beginning of the podcast is that is built in a sense of self, perhaps very subtle at this point and deeper Vipassana practice. But as long as there is a sense of observing what's arising experience, there's still also the observer and there is still some guiding of attention. And there's also some, Vipassana allows the attention to be captured by something in order to gain insight into it. So it sort of permits this processing to take place. And it's really important because I think these kinds of practices do a lot of work in transforming the system to, well, perhaps be more resilient or compassionate, have a better understanding of how the mind works. But still to push the mind or allow the mind to rest the mind even more deeply because this observation is still a doing, then these non-dual practices come in. And there in a way, things get a little bit, the meditation instruction gets a little bit tricky because now what you're really asking the meditator to do is to do nothing in the most deepest way.
But if one engages in trying to do nothing, then this is another form of doing that the system engages in. And so this is for the predictive processing and there's still a self trying to do nothing. And so to encourage this deep kind of relaxation or deep kind of letting go, words like awareness are used to suggest the recognition or the discovery of awareness and awareness that's already there, something that's already here. It's the very core ground foundation from which this whole act of meditation is taking place. The very act of meditation, the very sense that one is meditating with some goals, with some intentionality, with some hope of fixing the system of healing or to be happier or to get from A to B in any sense whatsoever needs to be released because all of these are predictions away from the here and now, the true here and now. So from the perspective of this non-duality, this unconditioned, this ground, this non-inferential space where the system is not projecting the past, the whole narrative of meditation of a path of a meditator of attention of insights, the whole drama is just an inference still, it's still just an abstraction and it's an abstraction that we can't choose in the ordinary sense to let go of. It somehow has to happen. And so this is where from a, I suppose from a teaching meditation perspective, things get awfully paradoxical because you're trying to give an instruction to do something that one cannot do, the system has to somehow let go. And so different traditions have different techniques to try to make that happen. Some rely on this sort of direct pointing out from a teacher to a student. This is one way that's used often.
Well I think in a way by all the traditions but very explicitly with Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra, but I think it also happens within Zen and I think it also happens within Advaita Vedanta that this teacher-student relationship is really important, that there's a kind of component of transmission there where the teacher can, through their own understanding of how to enter this space, create the possibility for the student to, or highlight to the student where they're stuck, where they're still predicting themselves, where they're still caught to allow that prediction to let go, to put it in those terms. And then there's more sitting practices like within Zen there's Shinkhanthasa which is the practice of just sitting or the kind of, just basically getting the, allowing the system to be in such a stillness and using the posture and the context really to kind of create the conditions. I mean I think of these meditations kind of just trying to create the conditions for the system to let go of its habitual tendency of prediction without falling asleep basically. Yeah, because I mean this is more my own speculation but I think what usually happens with people, it's a speculation but it's also I think from my own meditation experience that what happens is as soon as the system starts to de-abstract, where it starts to stop engaging in habitual thinking, it basically just falls asleep. So as soon as the ego structure, our constant predicting of ourselves starts to relax, we basically zonk out because we're just tired of constantly doing that and we're not able to maintain awareness but then by engaging in this posture, being very upright and keeping the arousal level balanced, we train the system to basically maintain the consciousness while allowing the rest of the system to go to sleep. And I think something like Shinkhanthasa is a really nice expression of that because it seems to me from the outside and from my own practice in Zen is that you're basically just setting the conditions for the system to turn off by itself while maintaining awareness, while keeping the system conscious. That's one way. Those are a few ways. So directly pointing – so working directly with the teacher, setting up the conditions and then another way I think that is really effective actually is self-inquiry sorts of practices and this is – well, this is practice in Zen where they use kowans but they also – I mean, a classic kowan is who am I, of course, and this is also the primary inquiry from the Advaita traditions.
If we think of Ramana Maharshi or Sri Nisargadatta, who am I in this sort of questioning of the self and this fundamental assumption of an observer is questioned. And through having this inquiry that kind of basically points attention to the very basic or most fundamental construction which is an assumption based in all of our experience which is this sense of I, which is a sense of observer. This is the kind of root of the tree of counterfactualizing if you imagine it that way. By pointing attention constantly at this root, the rest of counterfactual cognition doesn't really have the opportunity to sprout because it all rests on the assumption of a self, of a constructed self, of a predicted self and from there, we can begin this – yeah, we can counterfactualize. We can think of ourselves in future scenarios. We can think of our interactions with others. We can think of our body as a complete system but it all begins with this observer and so by pointing the system back at itself, back at the root of that tree, the rest of counterfactualizing doesn't have the opportunity to sprout and again, you're creating the conditions for that model to perhaps momentarily let go. So, this is a story from the top of the abstraction hierarchy to the ground.
Oshan Jarow 0:57:35
Thank you so much for that. It was wonderful. You're right. From the top, the top kind of tips of the tree branches of the counterfactual tree all the way down to the roots and I highly recommend for anyone listening hearing that guide you just gave us and putting it in conversation with the section of the paper where you guide us through it together. It's such a wonderful pair. Thank you for that and it brings up so much but I think the first thing I want to point out which you mentioned a little bit earlier on is that one way to think about what meditation is doing, the mechanism of action, the thing that it is acting upon, at least one of the things, is changing what they call the precision weighting. You call this the importance which literally refers to the way that the predictive system kind of ranks among all the trillions of phenomena that are present and sensory experiences present in any given moment. It has to have a ranking system to decide what should I pay attention to out of this mass because you can never consciously attend to all of these things at once. It's developed these kind of heuristics it uses. It assigns precision weighting to different kinds of stimuli to decide how important one is.
When we step down onto the cushion, we sit down and as you mentioned, we take the example of focusing on the breath, what the mind is doing is training itself to shift as much precision weighting as it can onto all the stimuli that are associated with the breath. In so doing, this kind of has a backdoor effect of down regulating, of reducing the precision weighting that is ascribed or the importance or the salience that is ascribed to all other types of sensory experience, all other categories. Your mind begins to single out and focus in and hone in on this one place. As you mentioned really nicely, one of the virtues of using something like the breath or a mantra is that if we go back to the time horizon of the counterfactual tree, these things are in the sensory present. What that means is that we're not thinking about something that's three hours from now or three months from now. By focusing in on the sensory present, as you mentioned, we cut off a lot of the counterfactual tree that promotes the abstraction and brings us out. We're bringing ourselves into that sensory present. All of your precision weighting is transferring itself, focusing on those experiences. As you deepen into that practice, as you continue to shift more and more precision weighting there, and therefore away from other phenomena, the next move that you do to step into open and monitoring is you essentially pull the rug out, or in this case, you pull the breath out.
You leave nothing left for the precision weighting to hang onto. There's no particular thing that your mind, your predictive system, is focusing itself on. In a way, you can imagine some beautiful visuals here. You can imagine if it was all honed in one very tight beam of light on the breath, it just shatters into these fragments that spread all over. They're diffused throughout the landscape of awareness. It's just open monitoring. I thought the way you described that movement was really helpful. But then you pointed out, again, we might not be focusing on anything in particular, but there are still these structural components of how we think these vestiges of the predictive habits, this subject-object duality, the experiencing self, and these remain. That's a whole complicated terrain of, as you also really helpfully pointed out, ways of moving from there into what we might call non-duality. But I do think, though, up in these higher levels of the model, they do help us talk about something like, for example, the platitude that meditation quiets the mind in a bit more precise way. By precision weighting giving significance to all sensory phenomena, and as that decreases, it's not like anything less is happening in your mind. There aren't necessarily fewer thoughts occurring or anything like that. It's just that the mind is less interested in noticing them. It ascribes less significance, which allows this broader terrain to open up. But it's not that there's an actual lessening of mental activity, at least in the upper levels. I can't speak for below. But this all reminds me of William James, the American psychologist. He has this great quote, very famous, where he says something like, our normal waking consciousness is just one type, and all around it, famously, he says, parted by the filmyest of screens.
There are all these other kinds of consciousness. And that all we have to do is figure out and apply what he calls the requisite stimulus, and then poof, the film is broken, and we fall into them. And the inverse of that I find really interesting. It's that if you never discover the requisite stimulus, or you never enact it or practice it, then there is a way or a configuration of consciousness that it can feel that you won't experience. The way that you described meditation and precision waiting here strikes me as a way of pointing towards a particular configuration of consciousness with a very distinctive phenomenology, very different from our ordinary state, that quite likely, the majority of the human species going way back may not have experienced what it's like, because the requisite stimulus, like meditation, but I'm sure there are other triggers as well here, has not been applied. And you have in your paper, you have a paragraph where you describe this kind of non-grasping state of the mind that emerges, and I'd like to read it here. He wrote that, non-judgmental experiencing could be said to be the natural state of the system at a lower level of the hierarchy. We therefore propose that as the frequency and temporal span of predictions, such as thoughts, emotions, sensations, decreases, then a hierarchically lower level of the predictive hierarchy experiencing prior to evaluation of experiencing dominates. This state is different from focused attention since no experience is given preferential precision waiting, and thus attention becomes bare rather than object-oriented.
How frequent do you imagine this sort of consciousness has been across the history of the human species? Is this an incredibly non-ordinary state that maybe contemplatives have discovered and maybe spontaneously to a few people across the species? Or are there a plethora of other ways that we kind of trigger and affect the predictive system this way? How kind of uncommon do you imagine this kind of thing to be?
Ruben Laukkonen 1:04:29
My answer might surprise you about this. I think it's actually really common. As we sort of state in that quote, it's the natural state of the system when it's not engaging in evaluation. It's not engaging in any kind of preferential cognition. I think we all have experiences like that. And I think the system is constantly – because this hierarchy is constantly being constructed and reconstructed. So, another way you could say that in each moment, albeit too briefly for us to notice, there is a moment where we are non-evaluative before we are evaluative. So, it's like we're always evaluative also at a deeper level. We're non-evaluative and at a deeper level, we don't even exist in the way that we think we do. So, the predictive hierarchy, it seems like we have to go on this journey down it and deconstructing but now a bit more from the contemplative perspective but also from the predictive perspective. It's all happening now. This whole abstraction story, including all the evaluation and all the selfing, it's all happening now. Every level of that predictive hierarchy is present. So, I think it can happen in a situation – I think people also fall into, let's say, even just the non-evaluative aspect of this when – and I think this is why people like a lot of these things that they take on for hobbies. I don't know what it might be. It might be surfing or it might be any kind of sport or playing music or even a good conversation.
There's aspects of our predictive processing machinery that become certainly less evaluative, less judgmental. I think these are all kinds of tastes of that kind of state. But the difference, I suppose, is with meditation that one kind of consciously inhabits the state, inhabits it with a kind of awareness that it's inhabiting it at the same time. So maybe this is kind of unique. Also, even in those initial moments when we wake up from a nap or a long night of sleep, I think there's moments there where we can sometimes catch ourselves in a state of non-judgment, of just being, of just relaxing. Or after a long day of work or a strong session of exercise or something where we just take a – we just rest. I think the system can come into a state of non-evaluative presence. But there's a sense in which that is just recognized with more clarity through, I think, these practices and with more agency. And so the system, through actively inhabiting these states, it's like it learns to be able to traverse the predictive hierarchy with more efficiency and with more clarity. And the inner models of those states also become more refined by making them a more sustained part of our lived experience.
Oshan Jarow 1:08:09
Right. I mean, that leads directly into actually where I wanted to go next, which is we've looked at how meditation progressively deconstructs the predictive mind, and we experience consciousness at lower and lower levels of the predictive hierarchy. I think you're absolutely right and put it wonderfully how this is always happening, it is always ongoing, whether we see it or not. And these things are fascinating to anyone who is interested in these sort of things. But someone who isn't a meditator or isn't intrinsically interested in seeing these, talking about these different states of consciousness that might be lying around, maybe they're plenty happy with their default state of consciousness or whatever state they have constructed through a life of doing so, you still offer what I found a very compelling way to think about a benefit of meditation, a role for it. The question of why should I meditate has an interesting answer, I think, in your paper. Your claim is that the state of meditation is one where the counterfactual tree is pruned, but the enduring trait of meditation, the lasting effect that persists beyond the time you're practicing, is that it actually improves the quality of our counterfactual cognition. That even though what meditation does is reduce abstractions in the moment, it ultimately makes us better at abstracting, as strange as that might be. You write that counterfactual pruning is, quote, what allows the system to then embody a more flexible and variable or more rich set of counterfactuals post meditation by down weighting the precision of ingrained habits of mentation. Put simply, the state of meditation decreases counterfactual processing, but the enduring result or trait of meditation may permit a more flexible and rich counterfactual processing in daily life. And this to me was such a wonderful point, and I wanted to ask if you could expand on this at all, how it is that pruning leads to more flexibility and richness.
Ruben Laukkonen 1:10:12
Another really nice question. This may also lead into more constructive practices in meditation as well, which I think are particularly important in, indeed, this reconstructing our predictions and our models and ourselves really in ways that are more productive. But I think a good place to start in describing this is in precision, which you described so well. Part of what makes our habits our habits is that we assign them high precision. That's what makes it an ingrained habit that the system inherently assigns high confidence and reality correspondence to and then takes it to be real, essentially, and proliferates it. So by shifting our precision weighting around, we are by definition loosening the tendency of the system to engage in its usual habitual responding. By silencing the system, by taking a particular posture, by reassigning precision, by the abstracting, we are literally re-weighting our precision landscape. And ideally, the idea is to be open and non-judgmental and therefore re-weight our precision in a very egalitarian sort of way. And so this, presumably, if we have two rigid models, we're too stuck in particular habits, ought to naturally release some of those tendencies and therefore permit indeed a more flexible way to respond to the world. So that's one way. The other way is, I think, through insight.
And so if the system is, I think, one, this may be oversimplifying a little bit, but basically by deconstructing and reconstructing the system in this way, the system also gains a better understanding of how the system works. So the meta models that govern the self and the other models are sort of top-down understanding of how our own perception, emotional life, thinking, and behavior, how all of these come about and how they relate to each other and how they affect our sense of self. If the system gains a better understanding of those processes, it's also able to regulate them better. And this also may permit a better functioning in everyday life. And then there's maybe not the final way, but another way that happens in most meditation traditions, that they also involve reconstructive practices or constructive practices. And these are just as important. And these practices include, for instance, compassion or loving kindness, meta-meditations, and also in the more tantric practices like deity meditations or devotional practices or prayer or all of these kinds of things that aim instead to then recreate the models and ourselves in a way that's more productive and perhaps more wholesome. And so, this is another way that the system by... But this is very difficult to do without some level of deconstruction, right? So it's really hard to... If we're still assigning really high precision to our usual sense of self and to our habits and all of our ordinary kind of counterfactualizing and thinking, it's really hard to suddenly just replace these with another set of counterfactuals. And they might not really get so deep because that counterfactual tree involves, of course, our whole body and all the emotions there and then as well as our thoughts.
But if we just try to go from our narrative self to reconstructing a new narrative self without engaging our embodied experience and the emotions and the lower levels of this predictive processing hierarchy, then it doesn't lead to the deeper change. So I think there needs to be this sort of dance or balance between deconstructive and reconstructive practices. And now some meditations aim to do both at the same time. So some forms of Jhana practices, for instance, in Buddhism, use loving kindness as the very object of meditation. And by having that the object of meditation while keeping an open scope of awareness, there's some deconstruction can happen. But at the same time, there's this constant returning of the system to this sense of loving kindness or compassion, which then is simultaneously relinquishing or moving the precision-weighting away from that narrative, but at the same time replacing it with these other kinds of mind states and other kinds of predictions.
Oshan Jarow 1:15:36
Yeah, I love this theme, this balance between deconstruction and reconstruction that strikes me as so important across so many domains. And you're mentioning and you're pointing out different practices, different approaches, which I think is wonderful. And it leads me into the question, I would love to hear if and how you think that psychedelics differ from meditation. I don't know how familiar you are. I don't know if this is an area of research you're interested in, but whether they differ in terms of how they affect the predictive mind because I think that we very often, we have grouped meditation and psychedelics and maybe spontaneous mystical experiences, your Emerson's transparent eyeball, into the same basket. And that makes sense, I get that. But as we get better at empirical measures, at brain imaging, at just refining our vocabulary, as we learn more in the field, I think we can start to disaggregate this a little bit. And your paper certainly does by focusing on meditation where there's been a lot of stuff on psychedelics as well. So, do you see any areas where meditation and psychedelics diverge in terms of how they affect the predictive mind?
Ruben Laukkonen 1:16:50
Yeah, I definitely do. In fact, the sort of pre-print, pre-publication version of this paper had a section comparing meditation and psychedelics and specifically ego dissolution under meditation and psychedelics. And psychedelic research is something I am very interested in and we have one paper under review about psychedelics. Where to begin there? So, similar experiences, and I really agree with the way you've sensed into the field or the broader social consciousness that there is this sense of lumping them together and thinking that there's something similar going on, that they have similar aims and the same kind of experiences can happen. While I think the same kind of experiences can happen, that I think on psychedelics, for example, there is the potential for, let's say, non-dual experiences to rise to potentially have insights into emptiness or insights into impermanent suffering and not self. I think they are probably more rare than most people think. I think what's more likely going on with psychedelics, and I'm sort of drawing on Kaha, Harris's and Friston's entropic brain theory of psychedelics here, where it's proposed that, yeah, psychedelics basically have this entropy inducing effect on the brain in the sense that they relax the rigidity of our models. So, it's also called the relaxed beliefs under psychedelics models and particularly the idea that they relax our high level beliefs, the higher levels of this predictive processing hierarchy.
By relaxing those, then the usual kind of dictatorship that those high level models have over our low level experiences is relinquished and then you get this anarchic input and anything can kind of happen. And that's why we can get these transformative experiences. It's why people can experience what seems like almost changes to their personality or they can have mystical experiences, they can hallucinate. The idea is that all of these are accounted for by relaxing our high level beliefs. So, I see psychedelics as offering an enormous potential and we can also talk about the intersection of psychedelics and meditation as joint practices or complementary activities. But I think more of what happens in psychedelics is to do with the models shifting and causing non-ordinary experiences, non-ordinary states of consciousness that is more to do with the blurring of the boundaries of our new ordinary models leading to new predictions and strange predictions.
And also, if you take for instance the sense of merging with our surroundings, right? The sense that we're suddenly interconnected to everything which is such an amazing and wonderful insight to have and experience to have the sense that our self is interconnected with everything. This makes a lot of sense if our models are relaxed and our self model is relaxed and our separation that we usually infer between our self and the outside world is relaxed and now we start to see these things melt into one another and this can be a blissful experience to have. But this is a little bit different. You can probably already tell for example from the disappearance, the very absence of selfing altogether, the very absence of sensory categorization, of reification. And it's also kind of missing this component of clear unconditional awareness that is emphasized also in the middle stages of meditation and the vipassana and the open monitoring sort of practices. So there's a difference here where I think not always but there is probably a conflating of the selfless or ego dissolution experiences that are described in meditation, I mean in psychedelics with especially non-duality emptiness and these kinds of discoveries that are spoken about in, I would say Buddhism specifically. I think there are cases where psychedelics lead to those kinds of discoveries if one knows where to look but I think it's rare. I think it's fairly unusual that the psychedelic experiences naturally start to go into the terrain of Buddhist insights specifically and also then the more cross-tradition sort of non-dual experiences that we've been discussing.
Oshan Jarow 1:22:22
Yeah. Right. Yeah, when you're speaking about them, I had a visual in my mind and actually before I go to the visual, there's two ways of describing that came to me what's going on here, the differences. The formal language would be where psychedelics are said to relax our beliefs or reduce the precision weighting ascribed to our high-level priors which kind of widen the landscape of what our minds essentially allow us to think about, to experience at all in the first place because the kind of constraining priors are lessened, they're not as constrictive whereas meditation as you've described it here simply disengages the predictive process altogether and so certainly there's a similarity to the effect in terms of having an expansion via the kind of psychedelic route or the kinds of awareness that maybe you fall into as you disengage the predictive model but certainly there are differences too and maybe a different way to describe it. I was imagining if we think of the self, if we look at specifically ego dissolution which is a very specific and common area of study in psychedelics, if you imagine the self as a sheet like a white bed sheet, I imagine the psychedelic route to be one whereby you essentially poke so many holes in it, you poke so many holes that eventually it's as if the sheet isn't there, you've kind of relaxed the beliefs, you've relaxed the priors, you have given yourself the capacity to imagine beyond the formal constraints whereas meditation simply kind of pulls the sheet away and so both have this effect of the sheet not quite being there in the way that it was but I don't think that we can erase even the difference in effect that it's caused by the difference of approach.
So I find that such an interesting domain of research and we've been talking about contrasting them like that but certainly as I think you're I know you're aware as well there is a sect of people let's say researchers who find it very interesting myself included to combine the two right so certainly we can point out the differences but let's say you take a bunch of acid and then sit down and meditate for an hour the way that these things can coexist with each other and kind of pile on top when they're in a kind of shared context of practice intentionality it is a really rich area of research that I think the next 20 years are just going to be unthinkably fruitful and I actually wonder you being formally in the space how do you expect the next 20 years to be do you see a big kind of explosion in this stuff happening?
Ruben Laukkonen 1:24:55
Yeah, I think it's sort of inevitable to see this convergence between meditation and psychedelics. I think that's a really exciting way forward in terms of human transformation and in our ability to induce states of high plasticity that allow changes to happen. So I think that there's this enormous potential there but I also have this sort of slight almost concern about it as well because meditation especially intensive retreats is already such a profoundly strong potent psychedelic in itself that destabilizing it can be already really destabilizing already we're seeing a lot of research on the negative effects of potential negative effects of meditation. People going on strong meditation retreats or engaging with it at home as it's getting more and more popular maybe without the necessary guidance or with too much intensity too soon or at any number of factors I mean there's so many ways that this can go wrong but it's clear that this can lead to things like depersonalization, derealization, it can lead to even maybe traumatic experiences severe cases psychosis and this is just meditation.
Because when we look at it from the perspective of predictive processing we've discussed it now, you know, when we tell people be in the here and now, we're actually telling them to do something extremely deep and extremely deconstructive to everything that they've taken to be real and that's something we shouldn't take lightly and perhaps something that already needs a lot of guidance, education and care and the psychedelic renaissance as much as I'm excited about that I think we're going to see I mean we've seen a kind of really negative turn with this what happened in the ever since the 70s basically since we had the first sort of psychedelic wave of research you know that there was a huge exaggeration of the negative effects and we lost the opportunity to do this really important research that we're now doing but although I think the data is really promising under these carefully controlled clinical environments and I'm so in favor and excited about the treatment of depression and anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder and all of these kinds of control based psychopathologies using psychedelics and psilocybin in particular I am concerned about recreational really broad spectrum recreational use of psychedelics and even bit worried about some meditation techniques getting too to prevalent I mean often these were kept to you know the deeper stages of meditation practice even though I personally already talked about them really openly they were kept kind of secret and carefully taught to the student at the right time I think it's kind of too late for that now now we just have to be as transparent as as clear and as careful and wise with all of these practices we can because the information is simply out there there's no way back you know we're way beyond that and that goes also for psychedelics but I do think we need to build into any kind of scientific thinking any kind of recommendation of widespread use and also any kind of goals we have of combining meditation psychedelics this understanding that we're doing something yeah really we're engaging in something really deep when it comes to the system and there's there's all kinds of ethical questions that also come out here because if we're putting the system into a state of let's just say really high plasticity where anything can kind of come out we there's a huge responsibility with the the set setting the kind of concepts that are around the kind of possibilities for new predictive hierarchies to emerge you know how do we know that we're setting up the circumstances in a way that the person reconstructs themselves productively and what is a what is a productive system I mean some right yes some models of psychedelic therapy for example kind of take this neutral stance towards it and some some are more active but certainly when you think about the kinds of ayahuasca ceremonies that people engage in and with with in shamanic context or in some of them even have you know like if you take Santo Daime they have kind of this Christian theology built into them as well the container for the highly plastic experience is going to massively I think determine what kind of individual emerges on the other side and so so there's not this sort of inherent goodness to either meditation or psychedelics I think it's not it's not inherently good to deconstruct it's not inherently good to put the system into a state of high plasticity where high level beliefs are are taken away it highly depends if that's productive on the person the state of their system before they go into it and what kind of context we give for them so I guess this is just a lot of tabulating for the rest of our conversation as well but it is a it's a genuine worry I have because I know firsthand and I know through people I know and I also know from the research that yeah that we're dealing with with really big big changes to society and and tools that can occasion just enormous changes and individuals and and there needs to be yeah I don't know exactly what there needs to be there needs to be some sort of carefulness with this this which otherwise I am so optimistic about and so excited for but right I mean it's very
Oshan Jarow 1:31:27
much been the story of whether you want to call it Western culture whatever we call our shared culture here the story of how we've engaged with meditation and with psychedelics alike has been one of essentially trying to extricate them from the social and cultural context from which they came and were held for thousands of years if psychedelics were talking about indigenous societies we sometimes literally went into for example Mexican communities destroyed those containers took the mushrooms back and have tried to just deal with the thing itself and same with meditation we've gone in and we want to have Buddhism without beliefs right we want to have Buddhism it's not a religion it's a practice it's a and and I I sympathize and I share these sentiments myself I I see the value in them and I find myself persuaded by them a lot but you're so right to point out that what we are doing is stripping these things from the containers that held them and we don't know what we are losing in that process and by diving if we dive headfirst right free I'll take my own example there if we start saying okay everybody take you know X amount of grams of psilocybin and go meditate and we haven't spent a long time years talking about the kinds of containers we need to provide people the support in those really volatile environments to to have a productive a good a wholesome experience rather than a negative one I think you're absolutely right we need to have formal frameworks there and it reminds me of I mentioned this a lot on the podcast maybe every episode now but I think it's that important I mentioned Thomas Metzinger earlier he in one of his books I think was the ego tunnel he closes it with this section that that poses a question you know and it says in this time in this age where we are getting better and better at transforming our own consciousness whether directly through you know mainstreaming meditation and psychedelics or gene editing or no tropics you know all of these different technologies or kind of implicitly through a digital society that has the kind of media landscape and infrastructure that we do or as I talk about all the time having the particular kind of economic institutions we do and the way that kind of has a feedback effect with our cognition as we get better and better at transforming consciousness we still lack at least on his account and I think he's onto something we lack a framework to answer the question what is a good state of consciousness we're engaging in the deconstruction without a kind of what he calls a consciousness ethics a a rubric a way to kind of beyond pure subjective experience you know pure nihilistic whatever I say goes for me how do we have a transpersonal way of talking about a good state of consciousness what is that and I don't think we're well suited to address that question which is alarming because depending what tradition you're coming from in many ways certainly to me this is maybe the most important question that we have in our lives so it's a really interesting blind spot I
Ruben Laukkonen 1:34:20
I think you put this so well we need to know what we're replacing this is replacing the framework with if we're if we're deconstructing a person's framework whether it be through through psychedelic psychotherapy or meditation what what what are we replacing it with and what what do we want to replace that with and at least in these spiritual traditions you know there is a very careful training in in morality in providing a set of values a moral framework and and certainly in Buddhism there's a whole psychology there and and this is certainly where this this is a kind of discipline wide endeavor that's required where we we come together across all the different levels of analysis as you said all the way from economics to to neuroscience to biology to social psychology to start to and and moral psychology to start to build a picture of what is a healthy framework and and I don't think we want one healthy framework I mean we of course still want to make room for pluralism in frameworks as well to to give rise to an exciting and fun fun life but in engaging these kinds of deeply transformative things I think there's a real danger and I see also this happen that people get caught in basically constantly chasing states of high plasticity and deconstruction and this is a kind of meditation sickness in some traditions it's called where we get addicted to being in a state of flux or a state of of absence or a state of new novel experiences and insight and and these are all dangers of these experiences because because we don't think about psychedelics as addictive and we don't think about meditation as as addictive in a physiological sense but but but any experience can become an addiction any experience can become an addiction so
Oshan Jarow 1:36:27
all of these things we need to also be be very careful about all right so zooming back out a little bit we actually began zooming out right right before the most obvious if we go back to your model the most obvious kind of so what of your theories as we mentioned was meditation can serve as a deconstructed practice and ultimately within the right frameworks can help raise the flexibility and richness of our cognition when when you think about the way that you've put things in your model and and say your model is upheld by future research we were talking before before recording and you mentioned this is this is a new model it's it's brought things together in a new way and what we're gonna see is people adopted and see if it's replicated and see if it holds what what would a society look like that takes the implications seriously i i know that you've done some work on ai on education you're an advisor to the oecd are there any institutions or policies or strategies for us as a society so moving from individual practice to collective questions that you think your work here might help us think through and ultimately apply right how how would a society that takes us today as its starting point but then deeply internalized the implications of your research here in your model what would we do differently yeah one field of research and just area of
Ruben Laukkonen 1:37:51
life that i've been thinking about a lot is is education is the education system so i've also done some work on you know what the effects are of meditation on on learning and then also on on uncertainty in general so one one way that i think predictive processing is interesting in the field of education is in kind of revealing what kind of world we're living in now so and and then how the human mind has to deal with that and the struggles that come with that so there's this term called vuca and that stands for volatility uncertainty complexity and ambiguity and it's it's a term that i think the u.s army coined after the cold war sometime but it kind of points to the idea that as the world is getting more globalized interconnected and then the advances in technology that we're seeing and the layers of complexity of having this sort of virtual reality thing happening on top of our ordinary reality right is making everything basically more volatile uncertain complex and ambiguous right and and from the if you think about the organism or the brain if if we take fristan and and predictive processing seriously then the very imperative of the system is to reduce uncertainty and now we're being flooded with more uncertainty more vuca than ever and it's constantly getting worse you can kind of and this is speculative but you can see see why we're suffering so much and why we're seeing mental health basically deteriorating and and depression anxiety and stress levels just getting worse and worse because the very thing that the brain is trying to reduce is is increasing out in the world and so this this relates to education directly because it's it's a huge problem for education to know how to prepare children and students for a world that's fundamentally unpredictable we don't know what it's going to look like and what we do know is that it's going to keep on changing right and it's going to get more complex more uncertain and in a way more confusing for the predictive system.
So what do we what do we do in in in schools to to deal with that and and i think it's it's going to be really hard but i think some of the things that come out of of our paper and also another paper i've written you know is is that you know i think contemplative practice needs to be embedded into school i mean giving students some agency over their states of mind like how fundamental is that and and how how liberating what is it to to be willing to put yourself in in uncertainty when you know that you have the strategies and the capacity to return yourself into a state of balance should things get out of whack so this this this permits a kind of inner agency to approach a world that is uncertain and constantly changing if you know that there is there is a home base that there are ways that you can recover a state of balance and ease and simplicity and quiet a place where that complex predictive tree that we talked about right at the beginning is is briefly at least put aside and we can come to rest and to to have ease and to to to train that capacity from a young age i think we almost have a moral imperative to to do that to to to teach kids to have some agency over their own states of consciousness to be able to know that they can find happiness within basically to yeah to use a cliche but also i i think we need to change the way that we teach in the sense that we need to in general imbue children with a sense of agency to to solve problems themselves rather than to be passive in the classroom to get them out of this sort of yeah sitting locked up in classrooms where we're as as information receivers because that information first of all there's no way that teacher can keep up with the information landscape of today so we need to teach students instead to be able to be independent problem solvers to be able to find the information they need to integrate that information and then to to apply it in moral ways and and to behave in moral ways with each other and other people that's a really interesting way
Oshan Jarow 1:42:44
to frame a problem with education there is that the problem with our style now is that it relies on the capacity of the teacher to keep up with the information landscape that they're responsible to teach which is going to get more and more difficult as we move
Ruben Laukkonen 1:42:56
on yeah there's simply no chance there's no chance for the to have that old model where the teacher is the kind of beholder of of all the knowledge in this and they just have to answer all the questions we just need to give up on that model i think all together and this means that the teacher doesn't lose their authority but what they become is kind of a facilitator instead and so instead they play a role where they help the students learn how to find knowledge they help the students to learn how to solve problems and facilitate them in you know becoming agents and and teaching them how to learn rather than what to learn and how to how to transfer how to adapt how to be able to pick up a framework in for one context and then drop that framework for a new context it's this kind of adaptability that is is necessary for an uncertain world and it's not easy it's it's it's it's not going to be easy and and this this adaptability if we're going to continue to live in the kind of cities that we have now it's it's going to need to be content uh complemented with with periods of silence and with periods of respite and really intentional periods of respite i just don't see how someone can live in the kind of cities that i even live in right now being constantly engaged working crazy hours and then spending all their most of the other time socializing and interacting and stay connected to a sense of ease a sense of okayness a sense of inner peace and stability i mean i know i'm not capable of it i know i i need these practices i need this uh ability to step back and find that inner silence in order to then re-engage life in a way that i feel happy and that i'm not sacrificing
Oshan Jarow 1:44:59
myself completely yeah personally too and listen to know um i'm really drawn to this language of flexibility and rigidity within consciousness and in particular for me this is a really nice place to connect cognitive science with questions of something like economic policy i mean there's there's a lot of scattered research at the moment both in social sciences but also at least theoretically in philosophy of mind that suggests certain kinds of experiences can render consciousness itself more rigid less autonomous less um less available for agency and i've been really interested in thinking through how we can use or motivate particular economic policies aimed at reducing the prevalence of something like economic insecurity for example because or motivated by the idea that we can see it as a cause of cognitive rigidity and the flip side of that is that the more secure people are economically at least presumably to a point to a threshold it's probably somewhere where the marginal benefit decreases but the more flexible they can become and if you look at the possibility landscape of their lives certain economic policies can open those landscapes by reducing certain kinds of rigidity that are systematically brought on by certain circumstances or institutions or lack thereof so in in the spirit of moving to something of a closing point here if we imagine a society that is predicated on the value of promoting cognitive flexibility and richness i think that your work here is a wonderful nudge towards helping us think through that both in theory but also enacting it in practice in practice meditative or otherwise and actually you know i'm reminded of someone who wrote me an email recently and i think they'd read an essay of mine or something and the way that they described what resonated with them was the sense of what they called phenomenological urgency right this kind of urgency over what matters existentially being a phenomenological dimension that has been deeply neglected that what it feels like to be alive matters so much and yet has been so systematically not only left behind but many would argue degraded and i'm so heartened by work like yours that draws phenomenology back into the disciplines that it sort of was drained from like science but i'll leave that there and i'll ask if there is anything in there that you wanted to respond to or if you have any lingering ideas overall anything
Ruben Laukkonen 1:47:36
else that you want to add into this mix yeah i i just um i guess i just want to say that when i listen to you talk about these things i i'm just really enthusiastic about what you're doing and how you're thinking about consciousness the mind all the way up to the highest levels of analysis of economics and and really seeing these connections i think it's uh really impressive and i'm really excited to engage in more of your work and to see see how how that all unfolds and i i share certainly i i really resonate with your idea that financial insecurity and the way that we structure society is going to massively impact whether a person is rigid or or more flexible and ultimately we need to find some kind of balance where where the system provides provides the the container for again i think a moral framework of action and and and to contain the the the counterfactualizing that it doesn't go completely unstable and there's there's there's no sort of direction for our flexibility and at the same time not having rigidity that's that's artificial or unnecessary or or harmful in the sense that we want to maximize positive flexibility and minimize negative rigidity and there might be positive rigidity and negative flexibility as well and so that's maybe something that i could add there but i i in general i think this is such a exciting way to look at things and really difficult and requires such a broad capacity to think so it's i'm really happy to have these conversations and excited about
Oshan Jarow 1:49:34
your work yeah likewise uh wonderful ruben thanks so much for for coming on the podcast
Ruben Laukkonen 1:49:40
and i really look forward to following more of your work yeah thank you it's been a pleasure