Meditation & Predictive Processing

Ruben Laukkonen
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Guest Introduction.

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.

We cover:

  • Predictive processing, meditation, and counterfactual depth
  • How meditation affects precision weighting, leading to changes in phenomenology
  • How deconstructive practices like meditation need guiding frameworks to support reconstruction
  • The differences between meditation and psychedelics
  • How social institutions, like education, might change if we value things like cognitive flexibility


Time map.

Part 1: Setting the Scene

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

Part 2: Overview of the Model

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.

Part 3: Implications

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 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.

Links from the conversation.

Ruben & Heleen's paper on meditation & predictive processing

Ruben's website

Ruben's article, What Is the Present Moment?

Ruben's recommendations for reading: Rob Burbea's Seeing that Frees, Thomas Metzinger's body of work (try this essay, or this book, or if you're really daring, this book)

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