To follow this blog by email, give your address here...

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Creating/Discovering New States of Mind

Just some quasi-random musings that went through my head yesterday…

Our society puts a fair bit of energy, these days, into creating new technologies and discovering new scientific facts.

But we don’t put hardly any effort at all into creating/discovering new states of mind.

I think maybe we should – and at the end of this odd, long, rambling blog post I’m going to suggest a specific type of new mind-state that I think is well worth trying to create/discover: one synthesizing spiritual mindfulness and intense scientific creativity.

On Old and New States of Consciousness

First, bear with me while I spend a few paragraphs framing the issue…

When I read Stcherbatsky’s book Buddhist Logic years ago, I was struck by the careful analysis of 128 states of consciousness. Allan Combs’ book The Radiance of Being provides a simpler, smaller conceptual analysis of states of consciousness, with similar foundations. These and other similar endeavors are very worthy – but how can we really know that the scope of all possible varieties of human consciousness-state has been thoroughly explored?

All sorts of amazing new states of consciousness will become possible once the human brain has been enhanced with technology – brain-computer interfacing, genetic engineering, mind uploading, etc. Advanced AGI systems may enjoy states of consciousness far beyond human comprehension. However, it seems quite possible that ordinary human brains may be capable of many states of consciousness not yet explored.

The individual human mind is not all that individual – so the states of mind accessible to an individual may depend to some extent on the culture in which they exist. The catalogue of states of mind available in medieval India when Buddhist logic was invented, may include some states that are extremely hard for modern people to get into, and may omit some states of which modern people are capable.

The Perceived Conflict Between Scientific and Spiritual Mind-States

I’ve often wondered whether there’s some intrinsic conflict between the states of mind labeled “spiritual enlightenment”, and the states of mind consistent with profound scientific discovery.

Great scientific creation often seems to involve a lot of struggle and persistence – along with long stretches of beautiful “flow” experience. Great scientific work seems to involve a lot of very hard thinking and analysis, whereas enlightenment is generally described as involving “stopping all thought.”

Personally, I find it a lot easier to be mindful (in the Zen sense) while walking through the park, washing the dishes, lying in bed, or building a chair -- than while analyzing genomic data, working out the details of a new AI algorithm, writing a novel, or debugging complex software code. Subjectively, this feels to me like it’s because being mindful requires a bit of mental effort at first – to actively pay attention to what my mind and body are doing. Once the effort is done, then mindfulness can flow along effortlessly for a while. But then I may drift away from it, and that little jump of effort is needed to become mindful again. This dynamic of mindfulness drifting and returning, or almost drifting but then not actually drifting after all, seems not to function properly when I’m doing something highly cognitively intensive. When I’m doing the highly intensive thing, I get deeply “into” the process, which puts me in a wonderful flow state for a while – but then when the flow state ends, I’m not necessarily in a quasi-enlightened mindful state. I may be elated, or I may be exhausted, or I may be frustrated. I can then try to be mindful of my elation, exhaustion or frustration – but this is then a moderately substantial effort; and definitely my degree of mindfulness is lower than if I hadn’t bothered to do the cognitively intensive thing.

Now, it might just be that I’m not a particularly enlightened guy. Indeed, I have never claimed to be! I do have my moments of spiritual purity and cosmic blissful wisdom and all that -- but then I also have some pretty boring routine moments, and also moments of being totally un-mindfully overcome with various kinds of positive or negative emotion. However, observing other humans around me, I note that the same dichotomy I feel in my mind occurs in the outside world. I know some enlightened minds, and I know some productive, brilliant artists and scientists – but I don’t know anyone in the intersection. Maybe someone of this nature does exist; but if they do, they’re an awfully rare bird.

You could argue that, since being a spiritual genius is rare and being a scientific genius is rare, it’s not surprising that few people lie in the intersection! But I’m not just talking about genius. I’m talking about passion. Who has true devoted passion for spiritual enlightenment, and also true devoted passion for doing revolutionary science? Most people I know, if they like either, pursue one as a central goal and the other as a sort of sideline.

I don’t particularly want to be this way myself – I’d like to pursue both simultaneously, without feeling any conflict between the two. But in practical life I do feel a conflict, and I tend to choose science and art most of the time. Yes, from the enlightened view, the dichotomy and the conflict are just constructs of my mind. And when I’m in certain states of mind, I feel that way – that dichotomy and all the rest feel bogus and mildly amusing. But when I’m in those states of mind, I’m not doing my best art or science! Similarly, thinking about playing the piano, it clear that my best music has been played in states of heightened emotion – not states of enlightened emptiness.

I think the difficulty of maintaining a mindful mind-state and scientifically intensely creative mind-state, is deeply tied with the conflict between modern scientific culture and some older cultures like those of ancient India or China, that were more spiritually focused. The enlightened master was one of the ideals of India and China; and the great scientist or artist is one of the ideals of the modern world. The differences in ideals reflect more thoroughgoing cultural differences.

You could say that both the great scientist and the enlightened master are exaggerations, and the right thing is to be more balanced – a little bit scientific, a little bit spiritual. Maybe, as someone said to me recently, an enlightened master is like an Arnold Schwarzenegger of the spirit – hyper-developed beyond what is natural or useful (except in contexts like the Mr. Universe contest where being at the extreme is useful in itself!). And maybe great super-scientists are unnecessarily and unhealthily obsessive, and science would progress OK without them, albeit a little more slowly. But something in me rebels against this kind of conclusion. Maybe it’s just that I’m an unbalanced individual – reeling back and forth endlessly between being excessively scientific and excessively spiritual, instead of remaining calmly in the middle where I belong -- but maybe there’s more to it than that.

A New Scientific/Spiritual Mind-State?

What if, instead of being frustrated at the apparent contradiction between the mind-states of spiritual enlightenment /mindfulness and intense scientific creativity, we took it as a multidimensional challenge: to create a new state of mind, synergizing both of these aspects?

The ancient Indians and Chinese didn’t include this sort of mind-state in their catalogue, but they didn’t have science or modern art … they had a very different culture.

Can we discover a new, intrinsically mindful way of doing science and art? Without sacrificing the intensity or the creativity?

What if we pursued the discovery/creation of new states of mind as avidly as we pursue the creation of new machines or chemical compounds? What if there were huge multinational organizations devoted to mind-state discovery, alongside our chemical and pharmaceutical and computer engineering firms?

Zum: A Thought-Experiment

To make the above idea a little more concrete, let’s imagine a specific social structure designed to produce a synergetically scientific-spiritual state of mind. Imagine an agile software development team – a group of software developers working closely together on a project – that was also, simultaneously, a “zendo” or “dojo” or whatever you want to call it … a group of people gathered together in the interest of their own enlightenment. That is, they were simultaneously trying to get stuff done together, and to help each other maintain a state of mindfulness and individual & collective spiritual awareness.

I can’t think of a good name for this kind of combination, so I’m going to call it a “Zum”, because that word currently has no English meaning, and it reminds me of Zen and scrum (the latter a term from agile software development), and I like the letter “Z.”

I have heard of a new type of Vipassana meditation, in which a group of people sit together and while they meditate, verbalize their feelings as they pass through – “cold”, “breathing”, “warm”, “stomach”, etc. One can imagine a Zum engaging in this kind of discussion at appropriate moments, in the midst of technical discussions or collaborative work. Would hearing others describe their state like this interrupt thought in an unacceptable way? Possibly. Or would people learn to flow with it, as I flow with the music I listen to as I work?

What would a Zum be like? Would it help to have a couple enlightened masters hanging around? – maybe sitting there and meditating, or playing ping pong? That would produce a rather different vibe than a usual software development lab!

The key ingredient of the Zum is the attitude and motivation of the individuals involved. They would need to be dedicated both to producing great software together, and to helping each other remain mindful and joyful as much as possible.

One thing that might come out of this is, simply, a kind of balance, where the team does reasonably good work and is also rather happy. This certainly wouldn’t be a disaster. Maybe they’d even be a bit more effective than an average team due to a diminished incidence of personality conflicts and fewer stress-induced errors.

Another possibility is that, if this sort of experiment were tried in a variety of different styles and places, eventually a new state of mind would evolve – one bypassing the dichotomy of spiritual mindfulness versus intensely creative science or art production.

Solo Zum?

But do we really need a Zum? Organizing groups of people in novel configurations involves considerable practical difficulty. Why not become a one-person Zum? Experiment with different ways of practicing intense scientific creation and mindfulness at the same time – maybe you’ll come up with something new. Try to describe your internal methodology so others can follow in your footsteps. This sort of experimentation is every bit as valid and important as scientific experimentation, or personal experimentation with smart drugs. The human brain is far more flexible than we normally realize, it’s hard to say what may be possible even without technological brain modification.

Heh... well I'm really not sure how much any of that means, but it was an amusing train of thought! Now, it's time to pick up my daughter from school, and then get back to work.... I will be trying to be as cosmically aware as possible while my work proceeds ;O ;-) ... and probably not succeeding all that well !! So it goes... bring on the brain chips please...

This blog post was written while repetitively listening to various versions of A Tear for Eddie by Ween. This one is perhaps my favorite, though the studio version is great too.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Musings on future technologies for cognitive enhancement

A former college classmate of my son's, researching a magazine article on cognitive enhancement, just emailed me asking my opinion on future technologies for cognitive enhancement.... Here's the reply I gave him -- not much new information for the well-educated transhumanist reader, but I figured I'd paste it here anyways...

Regarding technologies for cognitive enhancement, present and future..

Firstly, I am not an expert on nootropics, but I can remember seeing various studies indicating potential positive benefits for cognitive aging. The racetams and modafinil come to mind, among many others. Anecdotally I am aware of plenty of folks who say these improve cognitive function, including older folks, but I'm not up on the literature.

I also see a huge future for neural stem cell therapy, and you can find a substantial literature on that online, though I'm not an expert on it. The regulatory issues here become interesting -- I know a number of individuals operating stem cell therapy clinics in Asia and Latin America, that cater substantially to US clients. So far these aren't focusing on neural stem cell therapy but I think that's not far off. The US regulatory environment has become archaic and highly problematic. One can envision a future in which Americans routinely fly to foreign countries for neural stem cell therapy and other medical interventions aimed at maintaining or increasing their intelligence. And the ones who stay home won't be as smart. One hopes that as these technologies mature, the American regulatory infrastructure will eventually mature as well.

I have also heard rumor (from reliable sources) of a device under development by the Chinese government in Beijing, in collaboration with some Western scientists, going by the name of the "head brain instrument" (three Chinese characters). This device uses transcranial magnetic stimulation, and has the dual effects of increasing learning rate, and also increasing susceptibility to suggestion. Interesting. I read an article a few months ago about a different but related device being tested in Australia, using transcranial stimulation to increase creativity. This sort of research seems fascinating and promising. No doubt one could advance even faster and further in this direction using direct brain-computer interfacing, but no one has yet developed an inexpensive and safe method of installing a Neuromancer-style "cranial jack" in the brain, alas. I'm sure the cranial jack is coming, but it's hard to estimate exactly when.

In terms of ongoing and future research, I think that a combination of genomics, experimental evolution and artificial intelligence is fairly shortly going to lead us to a variety of therapies to improve cognitive performance throughout the human lifespan, as well as to extend the healthy human lifespan overall. I'm seeing this now in the work my bioinformatics firm Biomind is doing in collaboration with the biopharma firm Genescient Corp. Genescient has created a set of populations of long-lived fruit flies, which live over 4x as long as control flies, and also display enhanced cognitive capability throughout their lives, including late life. We've gathered gene expression and SNP data from these "superflies" and are using AI technology to analyze the data -- and the results are pretty exciting so far! We've discovered a large number of gene-combinations that are extremely strongly associated with both longevity and neural function, and many of these correspond to likely-looking life-extension and cognitive-enhancement pathways in the human organism. The supplement Stem Cell 100, now on the market, was inspired by this research; but that's just the start ... I think we're going to see a lot of new therapies emerge from this sort of research, including nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, gene therapy, and others.

I'm currently in San Francisco, where I just got finished with 4 days of the Artificial General Intelligence 2011 conference, which was held on Google's campus in Mountain View. Now I'm at the larger AAAI (Association for the Advancement of AI) conference in San Francisco. I think that AI research, as it matures, is going to have a huge effect on cognitive enhancement research among many other areas. Right now my own Biomind team and others are using AI to good effect in bioinformatics -- but the AI tools currently at our disposal are fairly narrow and specialized, albeit with the capability to see pattens that are inaccessible to either unassisted humans or traditional statistical algorithms. As AI gradually moves toward human-level artificial general intelligence, we're going to see a revolutionary impact upon all aspects of biomedical science. Already there's far more biomedical data online than any human mind can ingest or comprehend -- an appropriately constructed and instructed AGI system could make radical advances in cognitive enhancement, life extension and other areas of biomedicine, just based on the data already collected ... in addition to designing new experiments of its own.

Down the road a bit, there's the potential for interesting feedback effects to emerge regarding cognitive enhancement, conceivably resulting in rapid exponential growth. The better science and technology we have, the better cognitive enhancers we can create, and the smarter we get. But the smarter we get, the better the science and technology we can develop. Et cetera, and who knows where (or if) the cycle ends! We live in interesting times, and I suspect in the next few decades they will become dramatically *more* interesting....