Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meditation, Neuroscience, Observability and Controllability

I wrote a comment here on the C4chaos blog, about some talks that Shinzen Young gave on enlightenment, meditation and neuroscience.

I think it's a great thing that neuroscientists study meditation and that experience, and correlate it with what is observed.

However, as I note there, I'm deeply skeptical of claims such as:

However, the kind of thing that I have in mind would require and exceedingly precise kind of biofeedback where we knew exactly what kind we were dealing with, we knew the necessary and sufficient physiological correlates of enlightenment itself, and then we could use biofeedback to train those correlates more efficiently. Now, having said that much, please do not think that I am so naive as to think that that in it of itself is going to bring a person into enlightenment. However, I would strongly suspect that it could cut the time required to a tenth. There’ll be all sorts of other ancillary trainings and learnings and life experiences that would have to go around that. You’re not just gonna hook somebody up to a machine and just because their physiology emulates enlightenment think that they’re gonna get enlightened. But boy, it could sure make my job a lot easier, if we could do stuff like this. And that’s what I’m looking towards from practical point of view. Why?

...Only a small number of people participate in the meditation endeavor. Not elitist because meditators don’t want to spread it. Meditators do their best to spread it. But it’s too hard, it takes too much time, people aren’t interested, it doesn’t seem relevant. If we had a way of bringing deep experiences more easily, then we could reach a significant portion of the population, and we could start to make a change on this planet.

Besides what I wrote there (expectations regarding meditation, etc.) I would raise yellow flags of caution as both a Buddhist and a systems engineer with expertise in communication theory, information theory, signal processing and control theory.

First, let's put out front where the technology is: you can do all kinds of things with devices now to emulate feelings in the brain, and even perform simple control functions such as moving a mouse on a screen and what-not. But, there's notions of controllability and observability that, when applied to the fact that our brains are "to go" obviate the need for such devices.

Even if such a device, in meditation could speed up the experience of emptiness or sammadhi, the fact is all that's kind of irrelevant if you aren't applying this moment to moment in everyday life. You'd need to be able to observe the ensemble of mental states during the day (which, even in restricted areas of the brain is not trivial in the near future), and then you'd have to have some control mechanism to put it where it's "supposed" to be. And point is, it's "supposed" to be where it already is.

We sit on a cushion to get off the cushion, and actually expressing sunyata moment to moment in our interaction with our fellow beings and our environment is where the rubber really meets the road.

Because of what I said above, I'm not sure we can do this, and if we can...then...could not we be able to, just as well, convert a whole segment of society into paranoid, delusional, enraged teabaggers? How could you stop folks from doing that, as long as they thought there was something in it for them? Hell, people are already doing that with crude means because they think there's something in it for them. Which, I suppose makes a counter argument for creating neuropsychological techniques to "walk people back" from paranoia, delusion, and rage. But I suspect that's a different brain app than a Nirvana app.

To me, as a technologist, we always have to view technology as a double edged sword. Technology is never wholly on the side of bodhisattvas or the enraged and fearful (or angels and demons, if you prefer). It's neutral. So we need to be careful.

So, yeah, let's study how the brain functions in sammadhi, for sure. But as someone wrote about Masters and Johnson's sex research, ultimately that's not the point, except that in the case of sammadhi and kensho (見性), the feeling isn't the point either.


Anonymous said...


Duff said...

We'll also likely see even more destructive cults form. Imagine if James Arthur Ray learned how to create samadhi in his followers and link it to buying more workshops from him.