A Train Without Rails

One way to really waste your time is reading on and on about mindfulness. And there is surely no end of long long long books books books offering a thousand lifetimes’ worth of answers about mindfulness. Complex, marketable, secular answers. Let’s set those answers and those long books on the shelf for now. When I was 18 years old, a scientist in Madison posed a question in the first half of a brief article. That question was Are questionnaire-based self-reports of mindfulness valid?

Now I’m 25 years old. Unresolved is ‘the questionnaire question’, but absolutely certain to me this morning was my own mindlessness. Here’s a small sample of the day’s distractions, brought to you from first-semester chemistry (via self report…validity to be determined):

 

11:15am Distracted by goal-flavored thoughts about writing a memoir of high quality, visualizing the steps associated with such a venture
11:15:30am Writing-thoughts bubbling up to account for the possibility or inevitability of memoir-thoughts
11:19am Anger-thoughts about institutional life, hot heated word-thoughts offering critiques of abusive power structures and their creations, which stemmed from thoughts about writing
11:24am What’s the best way to steal a lot of stuff from Whole Foods?
11:26am Anger-Argue thoughts about my old job, and the gross inability of my former boss to do her job (or live her live generally)

 

My intent for that 15-minute period was to simply write those thoughts that were most distracting for me. So when I noticed that my attention was unstable even for a moment, or that my mind’s eye had been occluded by some material other than coursework, I wrote down that material non-judgmentally and as it presented itself. It can be hugely valuable to understand and observe our consciousness without responding to or agreeing/disagreeing with it.

Do you have a wobbly attention span? Are you seeking more FOCUS? Go back to the shelf, pick up those conversations about secular mindfulness, and have some Mental Training™ today!

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pictures, shapes and patterns <3

 

“Synesthesia” was a word that had never entered my vocabulary (or perhaps even my eyes or ears) before age 16. But the first time that the concept encroached on my consciousness it felt immediately familiar, to the point of utter, unquestioned normalcy. My sister was sitting next to me on the couch explaining that her friend at school had a bizarre tendency – an automatic habit of associating letters or numbers with colors, and quickly rattling off the sequence of colors associated with names or other words. I was struck (But Casey, you’re just blue-blue-red-green-yellow!) and a quick Wikipedia search showed both of us that I definitely had synesthesia.

2 or 3 years later during my freshman year in college I stumbled upon this documentary. If you’ve never seen it you really should- Daniel Tammet is a remarkable human being and a living window into the world of the brain. And he seems really nice too! I’d actually seen this film once in my early high school years and nearly forgotten about it. I watched this scene with Tammet’s magical description of his synesthesia on the very same day that I declared my neuroscience studies major at Macalester. It’s been 7 years and watching this still sends shivers up and down and back up my spine.

(and 7 years later, the example photo on the Wikipedia page – to roughly demonstrate the experience to non-synesthetes – is still the same! check it out below)

580px-Synesthesia.svg.png

getting the ball rolling

or, How to Turn Gloomy Nothingness into Motivation**

  1. Focus
  2. Set a sleep schedule. Stick to the sleep schedule.
  3. If all seems lost, do 100 jumping jacks and 10 push-ups
  4. Eat. Eat well.
  5. Write, but don’t write aimlessly. Don’t. Write. Aimlessly. This is not time to let loose with the pen & paper (or keyboard), or to journal about your fucking feelings, or to think up how you haven’t thought up anything yet. This is time to get regular. Write at scheduled times each day: within a few minutes after waking up, after meals, before bed.There are two genres of writing you must commit to in order to go from a state of gloomy nothingness to one of healthy motivation.5a) Write down the time you wake up (to the minute: e.g. what time exactly you stand up), what you eat/drink/ingest/intoxicate yourself with, what medications you take, and the forms of exercise you get. Writing these down each day will give you the first clear and undeniable suggestion of any bullshit you’ve been allowing yourself to get up to: sleeping in, enjoying 4 boxes of Milk Duds for breakfast several days a week, etc.
    5b) Write about your most extreme moods and prevalent thoughts. Don’t write whatever the fuck you want about them, though: don’t write aimlessly. When you write about your most extreme moods and prevalent thoughts do so in a detached way, with your intent being only to offer a memorable record to a future version of you who will be reading your day’s notes. Write about how the mood or thought came on, the content of your conscious awareness during that time, and any other relevant information. Then stop writing. Though unrewarding in the moment and tedious (combined with the genre you’ve already mastered in part 5a it will seem like you are just churning out streams of data) this style of bookkeeping will eventually form a long list of your experiences during your shittiest moments.You now have 2 small books about yourself. The first small book (writing style described in 5a), for those of us who frequently stray from our regular schedule and needs, can offer a simple and brutally honest assessment of one’s daily habits, and therefore the first steps on a route to a more motivated state of being. But when all systems are go and the vehicle is still stuck, meaning that one’s lifestyle is relatively clean but one’s outlook is still relatively filthy, the second small book (writing style described in 5b) becomes more valuable. This description of extreme experiences will offer the second, third, fourth, and fifth steps on a route towards a more specific understanding of the barriers to a more motivated state of being.

    It is extremely important for depressed people to become Writers of these two documents and to also review their writings daily.  These ever-growing documents will give you your one and only chance to more simply articulate your patterns of being and find the weak points at which to strike remaining controllable causes of your depressed mood. Should you choose to sit there and word-vomit with your writing during a depressive phase that is up to you. As for me, the mere sight and smell of my acidic unfiltered feelings spilling onto the floor, only to dry out and be-revisited over and over, doesn’t do much good. You can make your writing fun and creative in other ways: keep a journal for writing type 5a, and a separate journal for writing type 5b. Type them up into cute .pdfs and see if the extreme moods correlate with any lifestyle habits. Go buy yourself a trophy when you discover the basics. Use a special pen to write about your gloomy thoughts. Throw some stickers on that shit. Whatever floats your boat.

  6. Laugh ten times a day. No subject is off limits, just get yourself an ab workout via the giggles.
  7. Chill
  8. Meditate with supervision. Real-life human supervision.
  9. You’ve gotten this far and still feel shitty, so let me ask you this: have you told anyone that your ball has stopped rolling? Find someone to give you a push.

 

**the suggested application of these tactics comes with the assumption that you are under regular supervision and treatment by a competent psychiatric care professional who can write prescriptions. if you aren’t doing that there’s a good reason you still feel shitty.

The Barbara Schneider Foundation – a brief summary

Most of the world, connected tightly by digital devices, fiber-optics, and touchscreens, is well aware that we have a problem with use of force by law enforcement. In fact it is not uncommon for the average person in the United States to be acquainted with someone who has been the victim of brutal and outdated forms of police training and often times also to have been a victim themselves. This is especially true for people of color, persons with brain diseases, individuals who do not conform to gender-binary norms – and if you’re several or all of these things, life in America is feudal. And it’s all over the news – every day there are videos of more shootings, more police officers being released despite having blood on their hands. You know it sucks. Everyone knows it sucks – not least of all the police themselves.

But despite the huge public awareness of the problem, there is very little discussion or awareness of possible solutions. Why is that? Certainly, for many people, the mistake is to assume that there are no solutions to the use of force problem or to police brutality. This is actually quite understandable. Why should the average citizen, who is pretty much voiceless and without any influence over the police, be expected to understand how to stop police-related killings?  In our western world the preference of media entities and of lawmakers is to stagnate any real progress in the realm of public safety or social equality, and subsequently tragedies continue to occur and the police continue to have suboptimal training. The police themselves (with the exception of some groups) have, without adequate education or funding or support, been absolutely unable to be the nation’s emergency psychiatrists, even though they are generally expected to be. But thanks to the federal and state governments there is no money or space for individuals with sickness, and the cycle of death and pain continues. The natural tendency of individuals at the level of the community, then, is to be upset – the media can make a lot more money by perpetuating and dramatizing that problem rather than helping to solve it. Those who remain unaware that this is a systemic issue of a lack of training continue to be upset with one another, and upset at the police, when disaster strikes again and again. It makes sense, even though it’s terrible. So it’s not surprising that the problem persists overall.

But there are solutions. Despite the fact that your local and state government have absolutely no time, money, or compassion for the individuals suffering at its own hand from mental illness, drug abuse, or personal crisis, there are a handful of individuals within that system who have helped to make some progress. And above and beyond that there are truly miraculous grassroots efforts to improve circumstances for individuals in crisis who have to face off with police – these are tiny groups of advanced trainers who teach law enforcement officials and police how to better handle these situations peacefully. Larger still is the contribution of individuals – doctors, nurses, social workers, advocates, community organizers, families, friends, clergy, artists – the burden continues to remain on medically unskilled persons to bear the emotional weight of their troubled loved ones. Out of these massive support networks, and the associated tragedies, a number of groups have emerged to offer the world’s most advanced training in crisis intervention. Various survivors of police encounters, police trainers and officers themselves, and other healthcare, emergency medicine, and psychiatric experts are the meat and bones of these entities, who are few in number but great in power. With great pleasure I am describing to you groups like Minnesota’s own Barbara Schneider Foundation – a nonprofit that focuses on the CIT model of crisis intervention.

I have spent some time speaking, teaching, and consulting with this group in particular about my own experiences. This past January I also wrote their director a brief proposal  that articulated my understanding of the work BSF is accomplishing and my small vision for how it might be improved. In summary it is my opinion from experience and academic training that the brain sciences (and particularly the areas of affective neuroscience, developmental neuroscience, and psychiatry) will in coming years offer a revolutionary and unparalleled set of solutions and strategies for communities and nations to address the issues of brain disease, extreme personal crises, and the psychiatric stability of the public. The World Health Organization is of the opinion that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disability on earth. I would rather not cite statistics on how many persons with mental illness are killed by police every year – just go read about it yourself. The brain is the source of these mysterious issues, and it is through an accumulated world history of powerful, personal, and sometimes tragic anecdotes, combined with new and nearly mystical insights into our own existence through the study of the nervous system, that will begin to alleviate the suffering of so many. This must start with basic empirical research at the level of how mental health crises emerge in the brain, in the moment, and in the world – hence, ‘3 levels of the mental health crisis.’

enjoy. this is a very rough draft; judge accordingly.

BSF PROPOSAL

-iv

Contemplative Cops: Using Meditation in Law Enforcement

Should law enforcement officers engage in on-the-job meditation practices as a regular part of training or workflow? Might the use of certain contemplative exercises such as mindfulness training enhance the ability of police officers to perform their job safely (or recover afterwards)? Or, more simply: would meditating be good for cops? Should the police meditate? This note is written in response to a few online publications about this question that briefly describe the increasing osmosis between law enforcement and intentional, secular meditation practice. Only several online pieces from the early 2000s will be discussed [rather than the history/subject matters of police practice & contemplative practice in general]. If anyone doubts that exploring all possible strategies to reduce police violence is important, let’s just step into the comment area. Before initiating or joining any critical conversation about something as subjective as meditation (or something as serious as law enforcement) we might want to take a few things into consideration.

First, as your author, I am not [& never have been] ordained or certified as a meditation teacher — nor as a law enforcement officer. This places me in a position of relative inexperience when it comes to the following topics, and I encourage any and all from these communities to provide input (or contact me at iandoyleolson@gmail.com). My relevant expertise will be mentioned below but it is not of primary importance for our conversation anyway.

Second, both law enforcement and meditation are kind of hard to talk about with any truth or accuracy. This is because law enforcement and meditation are both quite common and and varied – they happen all over the place, and in a lot of different ways. This piece of writing you are looking at is coming from someone with no experience as a police officer and no authority on meditation. This means that we will fail in covering the breadth and scope of both of these practices…oh well.

Third, the observations to come are not meant to be judgmental or laden with approval/disapproval – they are simply observations. Those individuals working in both the meditation & law enforcement communities have my support, & it is from a place of interest that I enter the discussion about them.

Why would the police meditate? (We’re talking about on-the-job meditation – not any personal practice at home.) There have been a few internet publications about this recently [see list below]. There are at least some of us who are of the opinion that when it comes to police and law enforcement, the United States is in a crisis. This crisis, as described by Buddhist dharma teacher and former police officer Cheri Maples, is characterized by “[an] unnecessary use of force, racial profiling, militarization of police departments, lack of trust between communities and police departments, lack of strategies to address trauma and emotional health of police officers, unconscious and unspoken organizational agreements in police culture, and a lack of informal safety nets for people across the country….” All of these issues warrant immediate and honest speculation on how to improve our state of affairs. And for the past several years, especially in the midwestern United States, the quest for solutions has been a hot topic. Among existing thoughts on how to reform police practices is the idea of introducing and/or standardizing traditional mental and emotional training techniques for law enforcement.

A healthy amount of the existing chatter in this conversation comes in from the angle of affective neuroscience. Affective neuroscience is the multidisciplinary study of the nervous system in the context of mood, emotion, and affective processing. One of the pioneers in this field who has publicly offered thoughts about police work is the research psychologist Richard J Davidson, a Harvard-trained buddy of the Dalai Lama who does most of his brain research in Madison, Wisconsin. Richie is a righteous dude who gave me the chance to chat with him when I was 19 – not too long after I had some experiences at the hands of the Madison Police Department that were not ideal. A year later, just as my own personal Zazen practice was deepening, he let me volunteer in his laboratory in Madison. I am grateful both for his input on my experiences and career at that time, and for my current opportunity to reciprocate.

Because a lot of Davidson’s work has focused on the neurophysiology of mental illness, well-being, and other emotional states, it seems clear why he might be interested in the neural correlates of (and effective steps towards) compassionate police work. Not only do police officers deal with homelessness, mental illness, and behavioral crises on the job – they also go home with personal trauma. This is notwithstanding the myriad instances of police brutality in the news, including some shootings in Madison and some unfortunate practices in Dane County Jail. Mediating stress, fear, anxiety, and panic responses under pressure are certainly complex issues at the level of media social discourse, but also at the level of the central nervous system – Dr. Davidson seems to be interested in connecting the two. He is already helping to get the police to meditate. According to a 2015 article in the Atlantic he has been helping the police in Madison, Wisconsin to either learn some contemplative practices or to connect them with someone who can. (I’ve reached out to the handful of officers that I know in the MPD to see what they think about it – updates to come.)

This seems like a great idea to me…generally speaking. But what are the specifics? What benefit(s) to police tactics or police work overall might be found in sitting practice? As much as I love both topics I wonder why the MPD first chose to talk to Richie: in other words, I am skeptical about the immediate intersectionality between police practices and high-level neuroscience research. Certainly as a prominent researcher of meditation (and a personal meditator himself) Richie likely some great insights about how the practice works, as well as great connections in terms of teachers. But is he really the best (or only) individual to be providing such practices or consultation to the police? With no information about the program in place at the Madison Police Department I can’t say much. But my academic familiarity with Richie’s research, experiences in his lab, encounters with the Madison police, EMT training, my personal Zen practice, and role as a law enforcement instructor for the Barbara Schneider Foundation have given me a thought or two: I have some initial doubts about the application of “mindfulness” to law enforcement. My opinion is that the types of mindfulness practices – at least those being explored at the Center for Healthy Minds (previously the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds), where Davidson is in charge – are likely beneficial for the emotional stability of police officers, but perhaps less relevant during actual fieldwork or crisis intervention.  Elsewhere there are similar programs – a quick Google search shows that meditation programs are appearing in a variety of police departments. A mindfulness program in Oregon has been implemented for several years now, and some initial results and data shared at a conference in April 2014. There’s also some similar stuff happening in India. As a certified EMT and supporter of technology I have wondered about the possible efficacy of some type of an App for blending these skill sets – a mindfulness trainer for law enforcement and EMS that could fit in one’s pocket. Maybe that will be the subject of further research and another brief piece. Time will tell how these law enforcement/meditation programs play out and it is my modest prediction that the futures of neuroscience research, public interest, police work, and federal/municipal/private funding may continue to overlap in a big way.

-IV

 

sources

(9/30/2015) http://www.thewayofmeditation.com.au/blog/the-current-crisis-in-policing-and-how-buddhist-mindfulness-can-help/

(7/2014) http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/nov/07/india-police-yoga-meditation-police-crime-figures

(4/16/2014) http://www.oregonlive.com/hillsboro/index.ssf/2014/04/hillsboro_cops_meditation_trai.html

(early 2014) https://www.change.org/p/president-of-the-united-states-make-it-mandatory-that-police-officers-meditate

(3/4/2013) http://www.tm.org/blog/people/transcendental-meditation-helps-police-with-ptsd/

(fall 2011) http://www.ntoa.org/massemail/RyanFA11.pdf

(2/15/11) http://www.spiritvoyage.com/blog/index.php/from-police-officer-to-peace-officer-meditation-and-cops

Objective subjectivity: Giulio Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness

this paper was written for Joy Laine’s philosophy of mind class at Macalester College during the fall of 2014. it describes one of the most exciting new theories about consciousness, which comes straight out of my home town of Madison, WI!

Philosophy has offered many interesting opinions and insights about consciousness, but does anybody really know what it is? Humankind’s empirical understanding of the universe and how we arrived here has increased in the last several centuries. Modern science has made some advances in helping us understand fundamental physical laws and neuroscience research is perhaps the next frontier in tackling the mystery of individual selfhood. In our day and age there seems to be a general consensus that private mental phenomena and their associated brain activity are well connected, but it remains an embarrassing mystery how exactly they contribute and relate to one another. Despite plenty of factual information and data about neural correlates of consciousness it remains that without a theoretical knowledge system or ontology our subjective selfhood will continue to be the most intractable phenomenon that anyone has attempted to describe. What objective knowledge system might account for the mystery of our daily consciousness? In some sense the question becomes: how can subjective information be characterized objectively?

            Giulio Tononi is a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has proposed a bold and unique hypothesis about the nature of inner subjectivity. This “integrated information” theory of consciousness draws on Tononi’s sleep research, some thought experiments, and a robust mathematical framework to assert that inner subjectivity consists of quantifiable experiences that are generated by a set of informational relationships in a complex of elements (Tononi, 2008). The scope of this project is impressive, drawing on phenomenology, neuroscience and physics to try to make fundamental claims about consciousness. Tononi has released two accounts of IIT that are worth mentioning. The first is a very technical and scientifically rigorous paper called Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto. This work was published in 2008 and is a patchwork of philosophy, science, and mathematics.

We see in the introduction of his paper some of the problems associated with consciousness research, if there is such a thing:

“How much consciousness is there during sleepwalking or psychomotor seizures? Are newborn babies conscious, and to what extent? Are animals conscious? If so, are some animals more conscious than others? Can they feel pain? Does a bat feel space the same way we do? Can bees experience colors, or merely react to them? Can a conscious artifact be constructed with non-neural ingredients? I believe it is fair to say that no consciousness expert, if there is such a job description, can be confident about the correct answer to such questions. This is a remarkable state of affairs. Just consider comparable questions in physics: Do stars have mass? Do atoms? How many different kinds of atoms and elementary particles are there, and of what are they made? Is energy conserved? And how can it be measured? Or consider biology: What are species, and how do they evolve? How are traits inherited? How do organisms develop? How is energy produced from nutrients? How does echolocation work in bats? How do bees distinguish among colors? And so on. Obviously, we expect satisfactory answers by any competent physicist and biologist.” (Tononi, p. 217)

With all of these mysteries as a starting point Dr. Tononi uses thought experiments to formulate his argument about what consciousness is and how it arises from the natural world. Consider a photodiode. Both a photodiode and a human being are capable of indicating whether or not a nearby screen is lit. What’s the importance of this observation?

“The first problem of consciousness reduces to this: when you distinguish between the screen being on or off, you have the subjective experience of seeing light or dark. The photodiode can also distinguish between the screen being on or off, but presumably it does not have a subjective experience of light and dark. What is the key difference between you and the photodiode?” (Tononi, p. 217)

To Dr. Tononi, the difference is quantity and quality of information. Using a classical definition of information as reduction of uncertainty (and a “logarithmic entropy function”) he suggests that there is at most one bit of information represented in the photodiode at the moment it makes its decision (because there are only two possible states). A simple binary decision informs the photodiode, whereas we know that a rich subjective experience would and does inform the human decision. In other words, we as human beings are able to distinguish between many other possible states besides “light” or “dark” whereas the photodiode can’t. The question is why this is important. Tononi seems to think that it’s obvious that there is more experience contained within the subjective experiences of our day-to-day lives and that the way this information becomes subjectively charged is the means by which it is integrated. Having started by defining consciousness Tononi seems to have subsequently given himself a means to describe how it arises. That is the main argument of Tononi’s manifesto: that integration of information arranged in certain complexes (such as in the human brain) produce consciousness. The paper is very technical. The second notable work by Dr. Tononi about IIT is a book released for general audiences called Phi: A Voyage From The Brain to the Soul. 

A rather unique book, Phi straddles questions of metaphysical anxiety, scientific uncertainty, and philosophy with a clear and vibrant mysticism. It is written in the form of a dreaming Galileo, who encounters scientists and thinkers of the future (some of whom come from our modern day neuroscience laboratories). Step by step these strange time travelers inform Galileo of what has been discovered about the brain and mind in their time. As the dream progresses the reader’s conception of what consciousness fundamentally is becomes guided through the stages of Tononi’s argument and thought experiments that were also present in his manifesto. The difference between the book and his original paper is that subtle narrative reference and free-flowing dialogues carry the book along in lieu of the manifesto’s unintelligible equations and mathematics. One of my personal opinions about the book was that it was enormously creative and that its execution was brilliant. Some of the thought experiments and their descriptions were rambling and unnecessary for the progression of the argument, though.

There are strengths and weaknesses to the theory and much time could be spent on both of them. For convenience I will only mention one of each in this paper. First, let’s consider a unique technological advancement Tononi’s theory has been affiliated with. In medical situations it is common practice to attach electrodes to a patient’s head and measure the electrical activity on their scalp to get some indication of their brain activity. The correct interpretation of this information can offer clues as to whether or not the individual is having any significant brain activity or not. With a higher degree of understanding experts hope to be able to ascertain an exact level of consciousness via this method – with the help of Dr. Tononi’s IIT. This includes scenarios where a family may want to know if a loved one is in a coma or simply paralyzed, or if a surgical patient’s general anesthesia has successfully rendered them unconscious. Even though this is a long-standing practice, much improvement stands to be made in the technology. Tononi and a colleague have created a device that allows them to do this and hope to continue developing it (Lang, 2013).

Of the less believable repercussions of consciousness as integrated information include the possibility that the entire universe has a degree of consciousness. A complex capable of generating sufficient phi (“consciousness”) to register a private, inner “me” feeling certainly happens in our own brains. What else generates a feeling of having a self? One of the mathematical predictions of the current model of IIT suggests that even individual hydrogen atoms have a certain level of consciousness. This seems counter-intuitive: could it really be the case that every single atom is buzzing around with a tiny level of consciousness, and that certain weird configurations of matter are more conscious than others?

Galen Strawson is another current thinker who has written on the possibility of the universe being conscious. He may come to Tononi’s defense on this topic. An essay of his titled Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism offers a rejection of traditional Cartesian opposites that has become rather familiar in our course this semester. The argument for his form of monism – more aptly called his ?-ism (Strawson, 2006) – is long and complex. The realest thing to Strawson is immediate conscious experience, and so whatever we call it – physical or mental – is what exists in his view. He insists repeatedly that to define reality in any particular terms is to simply affix some type of language pattern onto whatever we really know to be real, those being spatio-temporally located events. As long as we are being honest with ourselves, says Strawson, we must accept that consciousness at some level emerges from the universe. So it seems plausible in Strawson’s system to admit that there may be some type of phi value in all microscopic complexes, though a closer read of Tononi’s opinions suggests he himself may not even believe this.

SOURCES

Lang, Joshua. “Awakening.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2013. Web. Nov. 2014. <http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/01/awakening/309188/&gt;

Strawson, Galen. “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism entails Panpsychism.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006. Web. http://www.academia.edu/5488726/Realistic_monism_why_physicalism_entails_panpsychism_Appendix_2006

Tononi, Giulio. “Consciousness as Integrated Information: A Provisional Manifesto.” The Biological Bulletin 215.3 (2008): 216-42. Consciousness as Integrated Information (full text). Bio. Bulletin. Web. <http://www.biolbull.org/content/215/3/216.full&gt;

Tononi, Giulio. Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul. New York: Pantheon, 2012. Print.