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Category Archive for 'Mind'

Juggling with the Mind

“I would like to be able to download the ability to juggle. There’s nothing more boring than learning to juggle.”1 That’s artificial intelligence scientist Marvin Minsky, talking about a new AI project at MIT. He points to the fact that his iPhone can download thousands of applications, instantly allowing it to perform with new capacities. Why not do the same with the brain?

Minsky believes that we can separate the ability to juggle from the internal transformations that take place while learning to juggle. Knowledge, in the Cartesian style, is seen as something “pure,” removed from subjective participation and the involvement of our body/mind.

Scientists who claim to be at the forefront of human progress are still entangled in paradigms hundreds of years old.  Given Minsky’s vision, even inner knowledge can be represented digitally and downloaded to our neurophysiology, just as we do with a computer application. Kurzweil and others forecast such a future.

Here is Aldous Huxley’s view:

Some artists have practised the kind of self-naughting which is the indispensable pre-condition of the unitive knowledge of the divine Ground. Fra Angelico, for example, prepared himself for his work by means of prayer and meditation; and from the foreground extract from Chuang Tzu we see how essentially religious (and not merely professional) was the Taoist craftman’s approach to his art. Here we may remark in passing that mechanization is incompatible with inspiration. The artisan could do and often did do a thoroughly bad job. But if, like Ch’ing, the chief carpenter, he cared for his art and were ready to do what was necessary to make himself docile to inspiration, he could and sometimes did do a job so good that is seemed “as though as supernatural execution.” Among the many and enormous advantages of efficient automatic machinery is this: it is completely fool-proof. But every gain has to be paid for. The automatic machine is fool-proof; but just because it is fool-proof it is also grace-proof. The man who tends such a machine is impervious to every form of aesthetic inspiration, whether of human or of genuinely spiritual origin. “Industry without art is brutality.” But actually Ruskin maligns the brutes. The industrious bird or insect is inspired, when it works, by the infallible animal grace of instinct – by Tao as it manifests itself on the level immediately above the physiological.” 2

When we don’t feel “presence” in our actions or value our activities as media for our growth, we move toward automating everything that can be automated, including activities which expand our soul’s capacities. In Zen monasteries, even the most repetitive tasks—like cleaning the rice—are used as a path for awareness. But the contemporary ego wants goals – and wants to reach them fast.

1Chandler, D.L. “Rethinking artificial intelligence”.  MITnews.  http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2009/ai-overview-1207.html

2Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, New York: Harper & Row, 1945, p. 171.

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Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing: the denial of gender and the escape into the rational mind

Ada King, countess of Lovelace (1815–52), was a brilliant English mathematician. She is often called the first programmer in history. She wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, even foreseeing the scope of algorithms to process data beyond numerical calculations, which no one had yet begun to conceive. A programming language named Ada has been developed in her honor.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron. He and his social entourage were disappointed with her gender and he soon separated from both her mother and England. Byron died when Ada was nine.

Ada’s mother arranged the girl’s life to avoid any contact with either her father or his attitude toward life. She considered Lord Byron insane and, worrying her daughter might share it, educated Ada in mathematics from a very early age, even through prolonged health problems constrained the girl to bedrest. Ada Lovelace died at 36 from uterine cancer and requested to burial next to Lord Byron, finally joining the father she never knew.

Alan Turing (1912–54), English mathematician and cryptoanalyst, had enormous influence on computer science. His Turing machine incorporated important advances in the formalization of algorithms and computability. Turing conceived the Turing Test which defined a “thinking machine” as one that fooled a person into believing s/he was having a conversation through a keyboard with a human being in a remote location. During the Second World War his cryptoanalysis was fundamental in breaking the German ciphers, contributing to the defeat of Nazism.

In his era, homosexuality in England was subject to criminal prosecution. In 1952, after admitting to having sex with a young man, Turing was given the choice between incarceration or a treatment with female hormones (“to reduce the libido”). How absurd that after helping save his country from Nazism, it treated him as a criminal. In 1954, Turing died of poisoning. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the British government for the way he was treated.

Jaron Lanier, in “One Half a Manifesto,” commented on the tragic death of Turing in these terms:

Turing died in an apparent suicide brought on by his having developed breasts as a result of enduring a hormonal regimen intended to reverse his homosexuality. It was during this tragic final period of his life that he argued passionately for machine sentience, and I have wondered whether he was engaging in a highly original new form of psychological escape and denial; running away from sexuality and mortality by becoming a computer.

I think the denial is deeper than the sexuality issue: It has to do with the denial of anything but the “pure” Cartesian mind, including the body and sensuousness. With both pillars of contemporary IT we see how a denial of sexual identity, the sensuous and non-rational world shaped their lives. Lovelace’s gender was rejected by her father, while her mother pushed her toward a purely rational life. The law repressed Alan Turing’s homosexuality, as he likely did himself.

The mind is regarded as the most important human feature and the identification with it is so deep that we want to reproduce it on machines, becoming creators in our turn. We even have developed a test to ascertain the “intelligence” of a machine.

Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964 created Eliza, an interactive program that simulated a Rogerian psychotherapist. Weizenbaum himself was surprised and concerned to see that users were taking its words seriously. While the mind can surely be simulated, this tell us nothing about what’s going on inside. However it does underscore how much the mind can be fooled and how we can actually behave mechanistically.

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Technology “Does“ Us

Birds build their nests instinctively and many animals “know” how to hunt or find food, but human beings have a very simple set of instincts, such as those for suction and for grabbing. Everything else comes from a process of learning, which is very much an embodied process. As Alliance for Childhood writes in Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood:

In kindergarten, therefore, an emphasis on play and social skills – not premature pressure to master reading and arithmetic – seems most likely to prepare children for later academic success. Researchers have documented how much young children learn intuitively through their bodies, and how this lays a critical foundation for later conscious comprehension of the world. The child’s first experience of geometric relationships and physics, for example, is literally a visceral one.

A study published in Nature by the University of California at Santa Cruz’s researchers demonstrated that while animals learn a new task involving motor learning, new connections begin to form between brain cells almost immediately and they become consolidated in a permanent way in the brain. We all know that when we learn something involving the body, as in driving a bicycle, this knowledge stays with us.

On the evolutionary route, we first see the muscles appearing, and then motor functions, as consequences of living in a certain habitat, and later the associated neuro-physiological functions. The motor activity acts on the brain which in turn acts back on the body allowing a more perfected action. The opposability of the thumb and the erect position of human beings came millions of years before the further development of the brain. It was the work that altered the brain, and not vice versa, as Engels perceived what has been later confirmed by fossils (see Genesi dell’uomo-industria for a longer explanation in Italian).

The hand especially, with its subtle movements, shaped our nervous systems more than any other motor activity of the body. The “technologies” of body movements and of manual labor shaped and developed our brains since primitive times. In mutual feedback, our brains shaped our tools in growing complexity until we arrived at contemporary tools which interact almost exclusively with our minds.

In an experiment, researchers used magnetic scanners to read the brain activity of taxi drivers while they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets. Through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning, they obtained detailed brain images of 20 taxi drivers as they delivered customers to their destinations. Different brain regions were activated as they were planning their routes, spotting familiar landmarks, or thinking about their customers. The BBC article says that:

Their brains even “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information needed to find their way around London’s labyrinth of streets…earlier studies had shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – a region of the brain that plays an important role in navigation.

Technologies which interact primarily with our minds have an immediate effect on our neurophysiology. Gary Small writes in Ibrain:

Functional MRI studies of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-six years who average fourteen hours a week playing video games have found that computer games depicting violent scenes activate the amygdala. It is perhaps no accident that many autistic individuals, with their small amygdalas and poor eye contact, are almost compulsively drawn to and mesmerized by television, videos, and computer games (p. 73).

The amygdala is an almond-shaped part of the brain located in the temporal region, considered part of the limbic system, where our emotional reactions take place. It modulates our reactions to threats as well. It could be considered a part of the ancient reptile brain, connected to survival, fear, and aggression.

Other experiments demonstrated that only five days of searching with Google by computer-naive subjects were enough to change their neural circuits, in particular, activating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain has an important role in our short-term memory and in the integration of sensory and mnemonic information.

Whether we use IT which interact primarily with our minds or mechanical technologies mainly through our bodies, they affect our body/mind even in permanent ways.

In astrological symbolism, the planet Uranus is associated with the hand, with technology, and with the nervous system in its capacity to transmit information. The symbolical–analogical knowledge of Uranus seems to connect all pieces together in a whole. The human nervous system developed from the subtle movements allowed by the human hand, which in turn developed tools and technology.

Technology, even in our hi-tech era, is still something which keeps a connection, though faint, to our hand. The only body movements we do when we use hi-tech tools are by our hands and fingers, through the mouse, the keyboard or a touch screen. Research published in 2009 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) demonstrated that hand gestures activate the same brain region of language (the inferior frontal and posterior temporal areas), something which any gesticulating Italian can easily agree with.

Ritual gestures (i.e. of the hands) have always been connected with the activation of inner states of the mind. Hinduism’s mudras are a whole discipline of spiritual gestures formed by the hands and fingers. Ancient disciplines such as the tea ceremony or tai-chi which involve many gestures are visible arts as much as an inner development.

The wider neural connections are between the hand and the brain. Handwriting itself, with its subtle and highly personalized movements, can even give a glimpse of our personality through graphology.

What happens when we use technologies which interact almost exclusively with our minds with no or mininal involvement of the body, apart from the obvious cardio-vascular and obesity risks in sitting for a long time in front of a screen?

We’ve seen that even pure IT in terms of searching with Google’s mold our brains, but is the activation of certain areas of the brain the whole story about the potential of human evolution? Can  it be that our cognitive capacities are as much in our brains and nervous systems as much as in every organ and cell of our bodies, and perhaps even beyond our bodies? Consciousness itself cannot be inferred by neuroimaging, much less locate wisdom or ethics.

As a culture, we didn’t investigate what happens when we substitute all manual with mental labor, which tends to have direct contact between our minds and the instrument. For instance, if London’s taxi drivers develop a part of the brain according to their navigational efforts through London’s streets, what happens when we rely on GPS for our navigation? As a personal anecdote, one of my acquaintances drove his car from the south to the north of Italy. When I asked him which route he took and whether he passed one town I named or another, he answered that he didn’t notice because he just followed GPS indications. Is there a possibility the same brain areas atrophy which become developed in taxi drivers?

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The depth and limits of words

In my opinion, words are the best “technology” for becoming aware of inner states and communicating them. Words are worth a thousand images. They can be like bridges to our inner world. The Net, for different reasons, discourages prolonged reading and introspection, directing our (scattered) attention toward external inputs only.

Words can bring us a long way toward the expansion of our awareness: however, they are slippery and can’t bring one up to the most elevated levels of consciousness. Furthermore, when words are communicated, they are heavily influenced by the interpretations we superimpose on them, by our cultural beliefs and our individual neuroticisms and conditionings.

Much of the communication industry – the Net included – is based on the rationale that more communication equals more understanding which equals a better world.  This comes from the assumption that ideas, concepts, meanings and feelings can be expressed and transferred by language. This is what has been called “the conduit metaphor” by Michael J. Reddy. According to the conduit metaphor:

Ideas are objects that you can put into words, so that language is seen as a container for ideas, and you send ideas over a conduit, a channel of communication to someone else who then extracts the ideas from the words… One entailment of the conduit metaphor is that the meaning, the ideas, can be extracted and can exist independently of people. Moreover, that in communication, when communication occurs, what happens is that somebody extracts the same object, the same idea, from the language that the speaker put into it. So the conduit metaphor suggests that meaning is a thing and that the hearer pulls out the same meaning from the words and that it can exist independently of beings who understand words (George Lakoff, interviewed by Iain A. Boal, “The Conduit Metaphor,” in James Brook and Iain A. Boal, eds., Resisting the Virtual Life, San Francisco: City Lights, 1995, p. 115).

The reality is that for the conduit metaphor to work we would need to share a very wide set of attributes: the same language, the same interpretation of words, a compatible level of culture, a similar background, a similar kind of sensitivity. So similar that perhaps the real point of communicating by words is actually to get closer to our self-understanding.

The conduit metaphor is what makes us write in blogs and social networks, thinking our message can be sent and “uploaded” to other human beings and will reach them in the way we intended. We don’t actually know about how this message will be interpreted, then we become surprised when there are misunderstandings and when wars get ignited.

The fathers of the digital revolution believed in the power of electronic communication and feedback as a tool for expanding participation and even consciousness. The origins of the conduit metaphor lie in the belief that we can separate information from the person who receives it. We consider “pure” information as something we can separate from the “noise” of our interpretations and feelings. It is the Cartesian dream of separating pure thoughts from the person in his wholeness, misplacing knowledge and information for the transformation of human qualities for the better.

As far as day-to-day work is concerned, language is useful, but you cannot move into the deeper realms with it, because these realms are nonverbal. Language is just a game…The meaning of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel is that the moment you speak, you are divided. The story is not that people began to speak different languages but, that they began to speak at all. The moment you speak, there is confusion. The moment you utter something, you are divided. Only silence is one. (Osho, The Psychology of the Esoteric, Cologne: Rebel Publishing House, pp. 57 and 60).

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Not Knowing

Edge asked The Edge Annual Question 2010 to 170 scientists, philosophers, artists and authors. This year question was “How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think“? Interesting question with several intesting answers as well as some which looked like “Oh no, my literary agent wants me to answer another question, let’s just write something down”.

Among the ones who grabbed my attention was Anthony Aguirre’s (Associate Professor of Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz) answer “The Enemy of Insight?” which reverberates with my reflections on knowledge and the inner mechanisms which insights are based on.

A passages from Anthony Aguirre’s answer:

I, like most of my colleagues, spend a lot of time connected to the Internet. It is a central tool in my research life. Yet when I think of what I do that is most valuable — to me at least — it is the occasional generation of genuine creative insights into the world. And looking at some of those insights, I realized that essentially none of them have happened in connection with the Internet…
I’ve come think that it is important to cultivate a ‘don’t know’ mind: one that perceives a real and interesting enigma, and is willing to dwell in that perplexity and confusion. A sense of playful delight in that confusion, and a willingness to make mistakes — many mistakes — while floundering about, is a key part of what makes insight possible for me. And the Internet? The Internet does not like this sort of mind. The Internet wants us to know, and it wants us to know RIGHT NOW: its essential structure is to produce knowing on demand. I don’t just worry that the Internet goads us to trade understanding for information (it surely does), but that it makes us too accustomed to to instant informational gratification. Its bright light deprives us of spending any time in the fertile mystery of the dark.

The attitude of not-knowing is been shared by good science and by spiritual researchers as well, two worlds who usually tend te be considered far apart. Descartes itself is his Discourse on the Method started his philosophical investigation with a not-knowing attitude which made him find his first principle of the philosophy “I think, therefore I am”.

Let’s see what the spiritual teachers say about not-knowing. Sri Aurobindo said, regarding the enlightened mind: “One is in an unutterable state of truth without understanding anything about it – simply, it is.” (Satprem. Sri Aurobindo, or the Adventure of Consciousness. Harper & Row. New York. 1974.)

Nisargadatta Maharaj:

When consciousness mixes with itself, that is samadhi. When one doesn’t know anything – and doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know anything – that is samadhi. (Nisargadatta Maharaj. Prior to Consciousness. Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. Acorn Press. Durham. 1985. p. 6)

Then Osho:

This is the the ultimate paradox of mysticism: with not-knowing you can reach knowing and through knowing yiu lose it. Not-knowing is superior to any knowledge. Universities make you learned but when you enter the Buddhafield of a spiritual Master you enter in an anti-university. In the university you harvest more and more knowledge, information and you accumulate. In the anti-university of a Master you unlearn more and more… until the moment you don’t know anything anymore. (Osho. Theologia Mystica. Rebel Publishing House. 1983)

And Almaas:

Why am I here? Where am I going? We need to see how honest we can be with ourselves when trying to answer these questions. These two questions are related; that is, most people think they are here because there is a goal, they want to go somewhere. Where do you want to go? You probably think you know; do you? Do you think I know where you should go? If you think I know, can I tell you? And if I tell you, will you follow? Can you follow? These are questions that you cannot answer with your mind. These are questions that should remain questions. Do not try to simply answer them mentally. These questions are like a flame. If you answer them with your mind, you will put out the flame, because the mind doesn’t, the mind can’t know the answers to these questions. When you answer them with your mind and you think you know, the question is gone. When you believe you have answered such questions, the flame is gone and there is no more enquiry. (A.H. Almaas. Being and the Meaning of Life (Diamond Heart Book Three). Diamond Books. Berkeley. 1990. p. 1)

Even neurophysiologically a stage of not-knowing is needed for getting the “Eureka effect”. Being in the unknown is uncomfortable for the mind, our ego identifies mostly with what we know. Knowing reassures us too.

So whenever we have an itch to know anything we can search for it on google and quench our thirsts. However, this way, as Almaas say, “the flame is gone” and good meals sometimes require a slow long cooking, better if on flames rather than electricity.

But Google works hard for avoiding any darkness and delays in his answers, wanting to “help” computers understand language.

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You Can Tell What Somebody is Like by the Company They Keep

At the end of September 2009, an experiment done at MIT on social network analysis could identify which students are gay just by considering the data available on their Facebook pages. Through analyzing their online friends and the connections between them they could infer their gender preferences with a degree of accuracy. This raises more questions about online privacy.

I wrote in Google, Privacy and the Need to be Seen that we are apt at showing ourselves online in trying to fulfill the natural human need for mirroring, to be seen and understood, which probably hasn’t been actualized in the proper way at the proper time in our lives. Also, our skills for self-recognition and inner mirroring is becoming weaker and weaker because of the growing pressure from external inputs, mostly by the Net. No time for reflection and no empty space.

Social network analysis can infer much more about us than our sexual preferences. The ordinary mind in itself, as most spiritual teachers say, is quite mechanical in its behavior. Joining this mechanistic nature of the mind with the amount of available data which most people spontaneously show on the Net is such that a well-written software could guess many of our ideas, opinions, tastes and, most important for marketers, which products we’ll be willing to buy.

Psychoanalysis, neuro-linguistic programming and any other science of the inner being knows well that our beliefs and ideas are for the most part created by the conditioning acquired during our lives, especially in childhood.

Marketers have a special aptitude for cataloging people on the basis of their personalities, attitudes, lifestyles and preferences. But they aren’t interested in understanding the roots of those attitudes or in going beyond them. More than anything else, marketers are interested in the conditionings which have been created through a compensation for an undeveloped inner quality.

For instance, we might “need” some sort of external appearance (goods, clothes, gadgets, make-up, muscles or a slim figure) to compensate for a weak sense of self-worth, or we could need to connect frequently with people online because we aren’t able to keep in touch with our inner self and for the lack of authentic real-life relationships, thus needing computers, connections, smartphones and such gizmos.

Marketers, as well as psychoanalysts or spiritual teachers, are interested in knowing us and our conditionings, but the former are interested in making them stronger, reinforcing our “needs” instead of liberating us from them.

The understanding of marketers of the human soul is quite superficial since they don’t really need to go into the depths of people’s souls to exploit their weaknesses commercially, as much as a pusher doesn’t need to know the reasons why his client needs drugs.

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Close, Closer, Closest to the Screen

Everybody can remember when, as a child, our parents told us not to get too close to the TV. That was “close.” Then the personal computer came and we got closer. Even closer with laptops. Then we went closest with smartphones.

The information which appears on a screen almost compels us in following it with our eyes. Giving attention to visual novelties activates the ancient neurophysiological system which rewards us with a pleasurable dopamine release. In ancient times, paying attention to a visual stimulus gave more chances for survival, so it was rewarded in pleasurable ways. Since any visual novelty was potentially a predator or a prey, our neurophysiological system developed reward systems to give us more chances of survival.

One of the causes of the Internet, videogames and in general addiction to electronic gadgets, could be this need to follow the many external visual stimuli. What happens on the screen brings our attention to what’s going on, thus activating our reward system based on dopamine.

Even though we look at many inputs in fast sequence, our field of vision and the movements of the eyes are very limited, and in many cases we end up staring blankly at the screen. Many years ago, an artist friend of mine, knowing I was spending much time on a computer, gave me a small painting depicting a landscape where the eye could relax in an unfocused way. Very kind and useful, but I didn’t really use it since the pressures of the external inputs were stronger.

This act of staring brings both a limited eye movement and the slowing down of the frequency of blinking. When we spend many hours every day staring at a screen, something is probably going to change on a neurophysiological level.

We know that moving the eyes in different directions can improve memory and the communications between the brain hemispheres. The article of the British Psychological Society says:

One hundred and two participants listened to 150 words, organized into 10 themes (e.g. types of vehicle), read by a male voice. Next, 34 of these participants moved their eyes left and right in time with a horizontal target for 30 seconds (saccadic eye movements); 34 participants moved their eyes up and down in time with a vertical target; the remaining participants stared straight ahead, focussed on a stationary target.
After the eye movements, all the participants listened to a mixture of words: 40 they’d heard before, 40 completely unrelated new words, and 10 words that were new but which matched one of the original themes. In each case the participants had to say which words they’d heard before, and which were new.
The participants who’d performed sideways eye movements performed better in all respects than the others: they correctly recognised more of the old words as old, and more of the new words as new. Crucially, they were fooled less often by the new words whose meaning matched one of the original themes – that is they correctly recognised more of them as new. This is important because mistakenly identifying one of these ‘lures’ as an old word is taken as a laboratory measure of false memory.

Eye movements improve creativity as well as the resolution of problems. Science Blogs describe eye-tracking research by Grant and Spivey (2003). They showed that people solved a medical problem spontaneously without any hints when they looked at a picture depicting a human body through moving the eyes in and out of the pictured body. This is called “embodied cognition,” meaning that some parts of the body reflect an internal mental process externally.

There are also hypotheses which say that the communication between the cerebral hemispheres is improved by moving the eyes in different directions and that could be a support to psychological therapy.
So we know that rotating the eyes leads to an improvement of memory, an increase of creativity, and a greater exchange of information between the brain hemispheres. Information overload, little movement of the eyes, and decreased creative and memory capacities join in mutual feedback. In this respect, I sometimes practice a light neurophysiological exercise by rotating the ocular globes in each direction for several minutes.

I also noted that maintaining the gaze on a near object for a long period of time decreased my ability to see things in a wide perspective and to observe the correlation between information distant from each other. I tend to see details but less the broader perspective. I find it fundamental to take the gaze to a distance in moments of reflection, in a relaxed and unfocused mode. Everywhere I am I tend to stay on high floors with a wide view. Further, keeping the visual focus always at the same distance and at the same angle diminishes the blinking, symbolically bringing fixation of even a thought.

If this fixation is bad enough for adults, it can be even worse for children. There’s strong pressure in prematurely developing the intellectual aspects of children, but much research has demonstrated that children learn mainly through their bodies and how that will give them academic success later. So give your child an early exposure to computers and you’ll most probably make him dumber instead of more intelligent and creative.

Furthermore, close contact with a screen at an early age could even interfere with some neurophysiological development. Alliance for Childhood published Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (College Park, 2001). On page 22, they write:

Infants and toddlers develop their visual-spatial awareness first through cross-movements in space, such as crawling, and then by gradually fine-tuning their hand-eye coordinations, until their eyes become adept not only at following their hands, but at leading their hands in finer and finer motions. Finally, after many integrated experiences of seeing, touching, and moving their hands and the rest of their bodies in three-dimensional space, young children develop an appreciation of visual forms as real objects, and the capacity to visualize objects without actually seeing them. Too much time spent in passively looking at two-dimensional representations of objects on a computer screen – or a television set – may interfere with this developing capacity.

Then, at page 23:

Grade school children need even more frequent breaks from close computer work than adults do. That’s because their muscular and nervous systems are still developing. It’s not until about the age of 11 or 12 that their capacity to balance and coordinate the movement and the focusing of both eyes together is fully mature.

At that age most kids in Western countries were already familiar with screens for years through videogames, gadgets and computers. First, we give them screens to “enhance” their minds, then we give them Ritalin to “fix” them neurophysiologically.

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The Digitally Divided Self

There’s an unusual but apparent alliance between two philosophies which are barely aware of and rarely come into contact each other, which conjure against the physical reality and the body. The first “philosophy” is represented by what have variously been called Cyberspace, Technopoly, Cyburbia and other names.

I prefer to define it as “The Digitalization of Reality,” wherein more and more human activities are being translated into bytes. Work, communication, media, entertainment, friends, dating, sexuality, culture, shopping, politics and causes are among the growing number of human needs that have gone digital.

While the Internet was something which earlier we mostly visited, now we are inhabiting the virtual worlds full-time and engineer them according to our mental projections. The Cartesian dream of a mind without a body has almost been fulfilled (even though in his old age Descartes, in Passions of the Soul, affirmed that “the soul is jointly united to all the parts of the body”).

This separation has a long history of Western thought starting from the Judeo-Christian separation between body and soul up to people like the transhumanist Hans Moravec, the artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky, or the singularity guru Raymond Kurzweil who want to download the biological human mind to a safer mechanical medium in order to achieve nothing less than immortality.

(more…)

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Reading as Contemplation versus Reading as Compulsion

In the middle of Twitter-mania and the push toward writing and reading fast, updated and short-lived information, it is good to be reminded about different ways of reading by two spiritual teachers from two very different paths. One is from Carlo Maria Martini.

The Christian tradition developed lectio divina (divine reading), a method in four steps: “lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio” (reading, reflecting, oration, meditation). Those successions are the products of theological and anthropological reflections on the way the believer approaches God’s word, in order to assimilate them and transform them in real life, in action. (Carlo Maria Martini, Lectio Divina e Pastorale: A Cura di Salvatore A. Panimolle, Ascolto della Parola e Preghiera, La “Lectio Divina”, Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1987, p. 217).

The second is from the Indian mystic Osho.

To read is to know a certain art. It is to get into deep sympathy. It is to get into a sort of participation. It is a great experiment in meditation. But if you read the Gita the same way as you read novels you will miss it. It has layers and layers of depth. Hence, path – every day once has to repeat. It is not a repetition; if you know how to repeat it, it is not a repetition. If you don’t know, then it is a repetition.
Just try it for three months. Read the same book – you can choose any small book – every day. And don’t bring your yesterday to read it: just again fresh as the sun rises in the morning – again fresh as flowers come this morning, again fresh. Just open the Gita again, excited, thrilled. Again read it, again sing it, and see. It reveals a new meaning to you.
It has nothing to do with yesterday and all the yesterdays when you were reading it. It gives you a certain significance today, this moment, but if you bring your yesterdays with you, then you will not be able to read the new meaning. Your mind is always full of meaning. You think you already know. You think you have been reading this book again and again – so what is the point? Then you can go on reading it like a mechanical thing and you can go on thinking a thousand and one other thoughts. Then it is futile. Then it is just boring. Then you will not be rejuvenated by it. You will become dull. (Osho, The Search: Talks on the Ten Bulls of Zen, Rebel Publishing House, 1977, p. 122).

I wonder if the compulsive search for the latest news/messages and for an unending flow of information could be a reflection on the mental level of the everlasting freshness experienced by an enlightened soul. Such a condition re-creates itself anew at every moment, keeping the mind free from the burdens of the past.

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Does the Internet Really Broaden Minds?

Ever since the Internet came into our lives it has been regarded as the medium supposed to stimulate a positive meeting between cultures and to ease the spread of information neglected by the traditional media. While it is true that everybody can set up a blog or a website with a small technical and financial investment and share their writings, music or videos for the whole world, it seems that the big media are even bigger on the Net and that the understanding between cultures didn’t improve much even 15 years after the mass diffusion of the Internet.

If we look at the academic level, the Economist published an article titled “Great minds think (too much) alike” where research by James Evans, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, is introduced, whose work has been published in Science. The conclusion of his work says that, “as more journals become available online, fewer articles are being cited in the reference lists of the research papers published within them. Moreover, those articles that do get a mention tend to have been recently published themselves. Far from growing longer, the long tail is being docked.” The long tail is a term coined by Chris Anderson in 2004 to define the niche markets which the Web can approach, where unique products take an important commercial value.

Evans discovered instead that the great variety of papers available on the Net, far from widening the range of quoted sources, actually gave privilege to the ones already well known and even more to the most recent ones, probably the easiest to find searching in Google.

On the commercial level, New Scientist published the article “Online shopping and the Harry Potter effect” writing that “big sellers have never been bigger… Andrew Bud from the cellphone software company mBlox have analysed a year’s worth of downloads from a well-known internet music store. They found that of the 13 million tracks available, 52,000 – just 0.4 per cent – accounted for 80 per cent of downloads”.

New Scientist explains the phenomenon as, “easy digital replication and efficient communication through cellphones, email and social networking sites encourage fast-moving, fast-changing fads. The result is a homogenisation of tastes that boosts the chances of popular things becoming blockbusters, making the already successful even more successful.”

This has been confirmed experimentally by Duncan Watts, a sociologist at Columbia University, New York.

Together with his colleagues Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds, he tested the effect of communication and peer approval on the musical tastes of 14,000 teenage volunteers recruited online (Science, vol. 311, p. 854;). A set of 48 songs was made available to all the volunteers, who could download whichever songs they wanted. The researchers split the volunteers into eight groups; in some, group members could see what their peers were downloading, but in others they had no such knowledge. In the socially connected groups, the winner took all: popular songs became more popular, unpopular songs more unpopular. This effect was much less pronounced in the socially isolated groups.

Watts thinks that information overload makes us more dependent on other people’s opinions to find out what we like. Then New Scientist asks, “why, when we have so much information at our fingertips, are we so concerned with what our peers like? Don’t we trust our own judgement?”

In another article, a psychologist finds Wikipedians grumpy and close-minded. In a psychological test, Wikipedians, as expected, “were more comfortable online than in the real world” but they, surprisingly, scored low even on agreeableness and openness.

During an Italian conference dedicated to music on the Net, one boy asked the speaker, “We can download the complete discography of any artist, but the problem is: What do we like?” An interesting question, which gives the real point of the matter.

Choices are connected with our personality; choices are bridges between our inner view and an external event. We can make the right choices for ourselves only when we can listen to ourselves deep enough to access the essence of our personality and join it to the outer life. But in order to do that we need both a solid personality which we are aware of and, some quiet and empty time to look into ourselves instead of following just external inputs. Both states are quite hard to access in online life.

We tend to believe that information can construct our personality and give us an individuality. We identify ourselves mostly with what we know, with our thoughts and beliefs, in another world with what fills our mind. But those aspects are as fragile and unreal as the financial derivatives market. The ideas and beliefs which fill our minds are essentially the products of our familiar and cultural conditionings, which give the ego the illusion of being “somebody” with its unique peculiarities.

Information, detached from experience, detached from a felt inner view and detached from an ethical background, mostly reinforces our conditionings instead of opening our minds to new areas. Neil Postman, in Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993, p. 63), wrote:

Information is dangerous when it has no place to go, when there is no theory to which it applies, no pattern in which it fits, when there is no higher purpose that it serves.

The mind’s main job and hobby is to separate, to discriminate, and to judge. It gives us a powerful way to read and act on reality which gave science and technology the strongest roles in our culture. Unless mind is subordinated to a broader (we could say spiritual) awareness, is non-inclusive by nature. In this view it is not surprising to know that online, we tend to stay in our territory with what is already known and accepted by our minds. Our social connections online can surely broaden minds too but mostly, as happens with other media, they promote uniformization.

Actually, we experience the paradox of both uniformization and the explosion of differences; Lee Siegel expressed this paradox as one “must sound more like everyone else than anyone else is able to sound like everyone else” (Against the Machine, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008, p. 73).

The source of this apparently contradictory phenomenon is in the ego itself, which does need to be recognized and accepted by people but at the same time feel different from anyone else in order to prove its specialness. Commercially, we are presented with millions of choices to let us think we are unique but then people tend to choose what is known or anyway what is known by somebody we want to be connected with and recognized by, much as teenagers are dependent on the peer group’s opinions.

When we are presented with millions of commercial options and we choose one we delude ourselves in thinking we are recognizing ourselves and building a part of our individuality. The market, as the Situationists had already seen in the 1950s, first takes away our real needs of connection and authenticity, then illudes us in giving what we need, but in a pale reflection of the real, making us always thirsty for a ‘real’ which will never come.

The variety expressed on the Web is well developed and important and will expand even more, but it seems that the force toward variety turned back into concentration of sources of information, as Nicholar Carr said in an interview for The Sun magazine.

It was once believed that the Web was essentially centrifugal: that it pushed people away from big, central sources of information to millions of small, independent sources scattered throughout the network. But it turns out that centripetal forces – forces that draw us back to the big power centers – are also strong on the Web. Big sites have big advantages, and they seem to get stronger over time. The Net’s Wild West days are coming to an end. The trend now is more toward the consolidation of traffic and power than toward their diffusion.

Our choices about information can come from our depth if we allow ourselves to sense our very depth. The more we swallow information the less we are able to make real choices. We can’t make real choices because we don’t listen to ourselves; and we don’t listen to ourselves because the capacity of our inner attentional muscles is never exercised and it becomes weak by attending only external inputs mostly of short bits of information with no broad view. When we can’t approach our inner self or when the very habit of looking inside becomes weakened, we can only consign our choices to the mass or perhaps just to the faster website. In this way we identity more with the contents of information poured into our minds and less with our essential qualities.

One of the mantras of the Internet is that there aren’t barriers of social status, religion, country, ideology. This is true of our possibility to access any kind of information on the Net, but the more we identity ourselves with our mind’s contents, the more we erect defenses against extraneous information which would shake our mind’s structures and therefore our very identity. The real broadening of the mind can happen when we don’t identify with our mind’s beliefs and ideas, but with our felt inner qualities which are being supported by the observation of our mind’s processes and by the acceptance of the emptiness of our mind.

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After a Few Months on Facebook

After a series of resistances to Facebook I experimented with the social network in the last few months. The first resistance was about presenting a “self” of mine, the same for all people in my friends’ list. This created some perplexity for me. I like the variety of human beings and have always mixed with people of the most variety: adventurers, hippies, artists, travelers, therapists, entrepreneurs, scholars, rich, poor and creative mixes of those natures. My self, being composed of a mix of different personalities, tends to show different facets of my nature where these can find correspondence. Inevitably, this creates more intimate and personalized relationships but at the same time they are limited by a subset of our personality.

With Facebook and the public profile which widely embraces our personality, I was afraid of not being recognized “for what I am” by some individuals. It reminded me of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, the latest novel and a masterpiece of Luigi Pirandello. Basically we are “One,” but for the majority of people we are not “No One,” while in front of the multitude of people who know us, we are “One Hundred Thousand.” We are a different person in the eyes of each person. Without going to the spiritual level where we can say that actually all of us are “nobody” and “everything” at the same time, remaining on the levels of the personality construction and object relationships, Facebook is an interesting experiment.

On the Net we are often anonymous in many spheres: in our Web surfing, in social networks and in forums, we mostly use identities which do not identify us precisely. Facebook is an attempt to reunify the various personalities and to give a center of consciousness to the fragmentation of the online personality. It is an attempt to overcome – even though limited to the digital area – the various object relationships. Facebook can represent an evolution of the adolescent search of one’s own personality, a stage when there are attempts to give ourselves an identity through experimenting with life and people and often hiding behind anonymity.

So, here I am with my “real me” on Facebook, the same in front of everybody, unifying the pieces of my history and therefore the pieces of my psyche. What will it be like, this public “me”? As a lowest common multiple where my relationships and human qualities can be creatively expanded through sharing with friends, or will it be as a highest common factor where only the common qualites will be kept, the ones which most people can accept? It seemed to me sometimes the former at other times the latter.

When in the offline community human relationships are evermore distant and formalized, where almost the whole territory has been turned into a cement jungle, where non-commercial places for meeting are becoming rare, where the time for real meetings itself becomes absorbed more and more by technological gadgets, Facebook has arrived to the rescue for helping us to find again the sense of belonging and to keep in touch in contact with people.

The first thing which struck me was that Facebook proposed to me to update my status writing in the third person: “Ivo…,” which I could have completed with “has gone to the beach,” “has had lunch with friends,” “is writing an article,” etc. We write this way in the perspective of others, to be seen and read. The third person has a double function. From the one hand to present oneself in the third person supports the inner observation. The very fact of presenting oneself from the point of view of others helps the awareness of ourselves. On the other hand, speaking in the third person can feed the ego even further, maybe for the very fact that in speaking of ourselves we are feeding an attention which is not that of inner observation, but that of the ravenous ego to be seen and recognized.

After a couple of months the initial proposal became, “What’s on your mind?” Facebook is giving more importance to the “Twitter-like” functions, stimulating the flow of daily messages almost in real time. The way of meditation is to let the thoughts pass by, not becoming attached to them. After years of working on myself, one of the few things I have learnt is that the mind excretes thoughts continuously, that the vast majority of them are not interesting and most of them do not even belong to us. Most thoughts present themselves in the form of conditionings and repeating others’ words and thoughts, with few variations on the theme. Now that I start to attach less to my thoughts, letting them flow with a certain indifference, here comes Facebook which elevates them to the “news of the day” ranking. Well…

Anyway, I played around a bit with Facebook, wrote some notes, gave links and uploaded photos of my travels. Once I was on a tropical island, taking pictures and thinking of how I would have presented them on Facebook. Instead of living the situation totally, I was thinking of how to picture it and how to present it inside a media, moving away from the direct experience on many levels. Even the mind which interferes is a part of the totality of experience and I accept it with great pleasure, but when it exaggerates, I put it aside in a corner.

I remember when I was a child and when something interesting was happening, sometimes the adults would tell me, “Oh…think of when you’ll tell this to your friends (or at home).” It used to make me mad because it got me out of the flow, whether I was playing or watching a show. For many years I did not take pictures of my trips and in some way if I have started doing it since the last few years, it is also due to the pressure of sharing them through the Internet.

Every time I connect to Facebook I browse the flow of my friends’ updates. There are those who write several notes in a day, those who seldom write, there are funny or serious appeals, a female friend of mine writes, “Something is dying inside….”If she writes it in a public way it is a desire for sharing, but it is strange to see this message running with dozens of other signals mostly ordinary and often banal. I know something about this friend’s life; it wouldn’t be appropriate to reply in public for asking further details but at the same time I would not want to use Facebook as a platform email for sending a personal message. In this manner we enter Facebook for continuing a talk which can happen much more easily through ordinary email. I choose not to send any comment or message in Facebook, reserving myself for communication with her in other ways (by Internet, through IM or email because we live in different nations). I also ask myself if I am avoiding deeper contact, being in my turn taken over by the avalanche of superficiality.

Using Facebook I tend to decrease individual contact. More than communicating I found that I was broadcasting, transmitting to an audience. Almost every day the audience increases, the number of friends expands. The effect is seductive and gratifying for the ego, but it is a different thing to communicate to a public rather than to a single person. With each of them there is a unique story and a unique relationship. Of course, it is possible to send personalized messages by Facebook too but for this purpose a mailer program is better, while the structure of Facebook gives more emphasis to broadcasting. As a mailer I use Eudora, an old software, but still functional and “ecological,” which works even with a slow Internet connection or through a mobile phone connection. Differently, it is almost impossible to open Facebook pages with a connection which is not ADSL to send just a private message.

I have noticed that after about 50 “friends” the flow of messages becomes such that it leads to loss of sense and value. I tend to scroll the messages with the mouse as if they were newspaper items. As when in some countries everybody is hooting on the road, the meaning of the signal gets lost, hearing gets anesthetized and it becomes only a background. McLuhan had noticed how technologies and the media become as much an extension as an amputation of the body/mind’s faculties.

The nature of the mind is such that after some time it erases any interest; through the repetition of the stimulus less attention is given to the same type of input. The mind chases novelties. The same happens to me with the feed of the blog I read. As soon as a blog has been discovered I follow its articles with interest, then tend to look through them quickly. I would not want to “evaporate” my friends’ messages in the same way.

Giving news regarding myself on Facebook makes me become lazier and having an excuse for not contacting people personally. And what about those who aren’t on Facebook? Most of my friends are not on Facebook and sometimes they do not even use the Internet. Since there is a limit to the time which one can dedicate to communications, those inevitably get penalized.

The really important news of my friends, including those who are on Facebook, anyway did not come through Facebook: they reached me by direct contact, on the phone or by email. In any case I’ll play the game of Facebook more, but I could decide to stop at any moment by sending a note to my contacts. Apart from the above-mentioned reason, it would be enough for me not to be connected to a fast Internet line for some time to make me lose the will to wait for minutes for looking through mostly banalities, with all the respect I have for my friends.

Facebook undoubtedly is the best engineered social network site, nevertheless I foresee the fall of its popularity as it has happened with other very popular sites such as Second Life or MySpace. Facebook will be more persistent than the others because it is linked to people we know in real life. But as the mind has constructed the game of Facebook, the mind will dismantle it. The mind loses interest about everything, especially if something remains only on the mental plane. Facebook’s strength consists in being a bridge between the purely mental world and the world of real relationships. In this reciprocal exchange between the virtual and the real on one hand some virtual meetings can be “real-ized” but on the other hand real people can be “virtualized,” reducing them in our psyche to a small icon and a flow of bytes which scroll on the screen. Similarly, various appeals and different causes risk counting in the real world as much as a discussion between prisoners during the air hour.

All of what I have written was without considering the problems connected to privacy – which would be an alarming separate chapter.

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Memory

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Scientists have come close to the possibility of erasing a one-month-old guinea pig’s memories. A protein called α-CaMKII is involved in the storing and regaining of memory.

In particular, researchers increased the levels of this protein at the moment when the guinea pigs remembered the pain consequent to a shock. This increase caused dissipation of the memory connected to the shock, and not just temporarily. The memory seems to be completely lost, as if the fact had never happened. Possible applications of this research are seen in overcoming memories of painful traumas.

Apart from the risk of engineering soldiers who can commit any brutality and forget it chemically, this approach to traumatic memories is a mechanical type without a holistic vision of human beings. The idea is still about having a war against something, as with medicine (“the war against cancer”, against microorganisms, etc.) instead of becoming aware of it.

Memories and traumas enter every cell of the body, and I have an impression that it will probably be possible to inhibit access to a certain memory, but it will not remove its energetic charge in the person. The extreme precision of awareness can act in a way that memories are not removed but are integrated into wider acceptance which becomes part of our experience and growth.

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Gli scienziati si sono avvicinati alla possibilità di cancellare nelle cavie i ricordi di un mese precedente. Una proteina di nome α-CaMKII  è coinvolta nella memorizzazione e nel recupero delle memorie.

In particolare, i ricercatori hanno aumentato i livelli di tale proteina nel momento in cui le cavie ricordavano il dolore conseguente ad uno shock. Questo aumento ha portato alla dissipazione della memoria legata allo shock, non solo temporaneamente. La memoria sembra persa completamente, come se il fatto non fosse mai avvenuto. Le applicazioni possibili di questa ricerca vengono viste nel superamento dei traumi dolorosi.

A parte il rischio di trovarsi con dei soldati che possono compiere qualsiasi efferatezza e dimenticarla chimicamente, questo approccio verso i ricordi traumatici è di nuovo di tipo meccanico/organico senza una visione d’insieme dell’essere. L’idea è ancora quella di fare la guerra a qualcosa, come avviene per la medicina (“la guerra contro il cancro”, contro i microorganismi, ecc…) invece che prenderne consapevolezza.

Il ricordo ed i traumi entrano in tutte le cellule del corpo e la mia impressione è che si potrà forse anche inibire l’accesso ad un certo ricordo, ma questo non toglierà la sua carica energetica nella persona.  L’estrema precisione della consapevolezza può far sì che il ricordo non venga rimosso ma che venga integrato in una accettazione più ampia che lo rende parte della nostra esperienza e crescita.

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