Last summer I blogged about using the method of loci to memorize a Buddhist lecture on art.
This past Tuesday, Lam Wong and I attend Dr. Paul R. Fleischman’s lecture at UBC on the “The Universal Features of Meditation”. We were asked to turn off our devices and refrain from using recording devices of any kind. I had brought pen and paper, but wasn’t sure whether they were taking mindfulness so far that I shouldn’t even take notes…
I applied the method of loci once again. Luckily, Dr. Fleischman gave a truly excellent talk in content and in style. He spoke slowly, so I was able to store about 30 of his points in various places in two different houses, my home being too small for the talk. As he was speaking, I was able to review the images I planted. (Mnemonics are not enough, one needs to practice the content. Reviewing is a form of practice.)
On the way back, Lam, our friends and I had an expansive chat about the talk.
One of the interesting questions that came up in our conversation was “What is meditation”? Dr. Fleischman had presented a homeostatic view of meditation: i.e., that meditation is a way to achieve mental homeostasis. (Can you guess what kind of a mnemonic I used for homeostatic?) That’s an intriguing idea for many reasons that I won’t explore here. In specifying meditation, and other mental concepts, it’s important to distinguish between the essential features and the consequences or implementation of the features. (This is something I discussed in a section on conceptual analysis in Cognitive Productivity.) Do you feel that the homeostatic concept gets to the essence of meditation? It’s a bit hard given that I haven’t outlined his theory.
In a 2013 paper on the cognitive shuffle, I presented a different concept of meditation. The ‘universal feature’ of meditation in that paper is deliberate mental activity. But I left the purpose of the activity unspecified. Activities have several different purposes, so it’s a bit tricky to tie the purpose to the activity in the definition of a mental concept. (What if the person does exactly the same thing for a different purpose?) And so I didn’t specify self-regulation as the aim of meditation, though that qualification wouldn’t be a stretch.
Clearly, Fleischman is wrong on that count: meditation is not a form of homeostasis but a form of self-regulation. Homeostasis is a biological concept that implies automaticity. Meditation in contrast is a very deliberate process. Fleischman explicitly said that meditation is not a form of control or regulation, therefore it cannot be homeostasis.
Indeed, many in the meditation community are uncomfortable with the concept of control and regulation being part of the concept of meditation. I have argued elsewhere that they are wrong about that. Assuming that meditation is not a self-control process seems to me to reflect a lack of appreciation of the core of cognitive science, which is Artificial Intelligence; in particular, they probably haven’t tried to model executive processes, including what in my Ph.D. thesis I called “meta-management”. Furthermore, scientifically, homeostasis is understood in terms of control systems (in humans, those are not just quantitative control systems, but also qualitative control). So, if you’re going to characterize meditation scientifically, then you’re going to have to admit that meditation is a process of control. The facts that what is being controlled is a process of observation, and that meditators are supposed to have acceptance of distraction, do not mean meditation is not control.
(The concept of “the observing self” used in acceptance and commitment therapy, as described for example in The Happiness Trap, is similarly problematic. Russ Harris , according to my notes [this may be a paraphrase], wrote “[The observing self] is there from birth to death, unchanging, undammageable, unimprovable.” Heraclitus was right: “life is flux.”)
Dr. Fleischman’s might be right to suppose that meditation restores equilibrium (though this requires fleshing out), but it does not do so in the automatic way that is typical of all other forms of homeostasis.
Dr. Fleischman took several questions that we, the audience, had written to him right after the talk. My question was: In the last 50 years, in your opinion, what has been the most interesting innovation in meditation practice? Unfortunately, he didn’t take my question. Maybe my handwriting was illegible.
I asked the question because I think it is important. Meditation is a technique. It’s a tool that was developed before cognitive science. Research on meditation should not merely be concerned with the effects of meditation. Nor should we focus too much on the underlying neural activity involved in meditation. Meditation is a mental process. If we are to study meditation scientifically, we need to better understand it in information processing terms. This means we need to relate meditation to mental models of goal processing in autonomous agents. Clearly, meditation is a meta-management activity. So it needs to be understood in terms of a mental architecture. The information processing research should drive neural research. It should also drive innovations in meditation.
In a paper on the cognitive shuffle, I explained that the cognitive shuffle is an innovation in meditation. I’m not claiming that it’s the most interesting one to have emerged in the last 50 years. But it is one, and it would be helpful for researchers to compile a taxonomy of innovative meditation techniques based on a computational ontology. (Compare Sloman’s “Towards a Grammar of Emotions”).
Dr. Fleischman said he meditates 15 hours a week. He also said we shouldn’t feel guilty about meditating too little. Some is better than none; I concur.
One of the goals of meditation research should be to develop and test productive meditation techniques –that are effective and efficient–based on cogent models of mental architecture.
Now let’s consider meditation in relation to mind wandering. Mind wandering is now normally thought to involve the “default network” as opposed to the central executive. They’re supposedly different modes. But here is an interesting question. If meditation is deliberate mentation (and the vipassana folk deny that), should we consider deliberate mind wandering as a form of meditation? The cognitive shuffle is a form of deliberate mind wandering. Mind wandering and supervisory control are not incompatible. (I am disagreeing here with many on the subject.) Neuroscientists will need to investigate how this is possible.
In addressing these questions about meditation, we need to not fall into an “essentialist trap” . “What is” questions are not very meaningful. There is a certain arbitrariness to the use of terms even in science. Scientists stipulate meanings for terms. They are not as frequently free as mathematicians to choose an arbitrary term. Science has, largely implicit and rarely taught, rules for choosing and defining terms. (Because this is rarely taught, psychologists often choose terms that make it difficult to understand their meanings. I suppose other disciplines have this problem too.) But scientific concepts drift as science progresses. (This is a topic that I discuss in a chapter of my next book that deals with evaluating knowledge resources. You can also read about it in the Stanovich’s chapter on essentialism, referenced below.)
Personally, I’m content to accept deliberate mind wandering as a form of meditation. As Marvin Minsky illustrated in Emotion Machine, meta-management is not unitary. It has multiple levels. Moreover, scientific theories often allow for interesting special cases. A good theory is general and can accommodate special cases.
I deliberately drifted above from talking about the concept of meditation to talking about theories. Scientific concepts never exist in isolation. They are only helpful if they are embedded in a theory. E, m and c in E=mc2 are each, in isolation, relatively meaningless. Even that equation, by itself, is not sufficiently helpful. Their value is as part of a general theory and research programme.
Speaking of wandering, let’s get back to the method of loci enhanced with elaborative recall practice. At the end of the talk, I quickly jotted down some of the main ideas. On my way back from Lam’s house, I called my friend to discuss the talk. I was able to recite to her about 25 of the c. 30 points I had mentally recorded. The next day, I transcribed some of these points in an OmniOutliner meta-doc for future reference, and will continue to reflect on the lecture. The system is not particularly demanding, yet it prolongs the pleasure and multiplies the benefits of an enlightening evening.
Beaudoin, L. P. (2013). The possibility of super-somnolent mentation: A new information-processing approach to sleep-onset acceleration and insomnia exemplified by serial diverse imagining. Cognitive Productivity Research Project, Simon Fraser University. http://summit.sfu.ca/item/12143
Beaudoin, L. P. (2015), Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. BC: CogZest.
Fleischman, P. R. (1995) “Why I Sit”. Retrieved from http://www.fudomouth.net
Fleischman, P. R. (2015). A practical and spiritual path: An introduction to vipassana meditation. Retrieved from https://store.pariyatti.org
Harris, R. (2007). The happiness trap. Auckland, New Zealand: Exisle Publishing.
Minsky, M. L. (2006). The emotion machine: Commonsense thinking, artificial intelligence, and the future of the human mind. Hew York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
Sloman, A. (1982) Towards a Grammar of Emotions, in _New Universities Quarterly, 36,_3, pp. 230-238.
Stanovich, K. E. (2010). How to think straight about psychology (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.
- Fixed a typo , now reads “haven’t outlined his thesis”.
- Added additional text on meditation not being homeostasis because. Added parenthetical remark about The Happiness Trap.
- Fixed a typo: underlining → underlying