Sunday, September 21, 2014

Training the mind - 8

Sweet or sour, the choices
When five fingers unite
Time resets these flavors
Unfettered by the mind’s instant recoil

Only a few people have succeeded in climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen. The first to do it solo and without oxygen was Reinhold Messner in 1980. On reaching the summit without oxygen, his thoughts were: "In my state of spiritual abstraction, I no longer belong to myself and to my eyesight. I am nothing more than a single narrow gasping lung, floating over the mists and summits." It is remarkable he was able to think, let alone express such profound thoughts at that oxygen depleted altitude. At heights above 25,000 ft., called the “death zone”, experienced climbers, even with supplemental oxygen expend great effort over 10-12 hours to traverse a single mile. Our physiology is most suited for terrestrial life close to sea level. From this perspective, humanity is an extremely reclusive member of the cosmos. Sheltered by the sky and dependent on air, we can only go where the lungs are fed oxygen.

The three places where we journey alone and in silence is birth, death and into the mind. The first two, we don’t really have a choice about when, where and under what circumstances. The mind is a place that may be kept open, yet remains invisible both to us and the world. Through spoken and written words, one may give away secrets that lurk in one’s minds, but no man or machine can read another’s mind. Everyone has been endowed with the gift of expression. Whether or not our expression is eloquent, we all like to share our ideas with the world. Ideas are usually derived from the choices we make about how we relate to our prior experiences. Every experience may be graded on a spectrum that ranges from being palatable or unpalatable. A lot of what is experienced is quickly assimilated into one of these two categories with nothing more than a cursory examination. We then move on to the next one, and on and on it goes. The mind is great at archiving every single experience we have, even if we have not developed the conscious ability to tap into this potential wealth of wisdom. This is what Einstein had to say about getting new ideas, some of which later became groundbreaking revelations of physics, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience".

Increasingly, more and more data is being stored in the “cloud”. Mankind has had cloud storage ever since the thinking mind evolved. These newer “clouds”, as opposed to the “age-old cloud storage” in the mind, have a physical correlate in the vast server farms which house data.  Nowadays, security concerns are paramount regarding data security. Cloud storage of data has made it all the more complicated. When it comes to data storage in the mind the concern is not about data being stolen. Let alone hackers or thieves, we ourselves have a great deal of difficulty finding and retrieving experiences that reside in the unconscious mind. The best form of security for the mind is conscious awareness of it. Many sensory experiences are being brought in through the doors of the mind everyday. We let them enter without examining whether they are good for us in the long run. The “customs agent at the border” or the ability to decide what is good or bad for us and the world is not used as often as it should be. Once we let go of this decision making power, all the guards in the mind abandon their posts and the gates of the mind are thrown wide open. Eventually, we lose control over the mind and the mind starts to control us.

The conscious awareness or mindfulness is an active process. In deep sleep, there is passive awareness of nothingness. Deep sleep provides the physical body a much needed break from an otherwise restless mind. However it does nothing to refine and develop the potential that exists in the mind. Recall is better when learning is interactive. Potential problems that may arise in the future may be dealt with more easily if we can put things in context at that time. Anticipation of the future is one part of this process. The other part is awareness of the present. Additionally, contextual comparison of the present with the past is much easier if we supplement our memory with mindfulness. One key component of mindfulness is observation without interpretation. Bank notes, whether new or old carry the same monetary value that is printed on them. To one who practices active awareness of the mind by observing and not interpreting thoughts, the value of the past and the future as it relates to the present is the same. We either like or dislike aspects of the past and the present or what may unfold in the future. As a result of this, we enhance or degrade the value of our experiences. Objectively, a an experience may have little bearing in the long run. But adding a strong subjective emotional component, may turn a trivial experience into a life altering one. Sometimes, some of the most seemingly bitter experiences have the greatest teaching value if we are able to overcome its emotional aspect.

All humans born to date have gone through or will go through the stages of infancy, childhood, adulthood and old age. In every stage the body has freedom to move about. A child’s movements are limber, which then becomes progressively more restricted as age advances. One cannot transcend time and transform the body back to that of an infant. The physical body in this sense has freedom of movement in space, not in time. The mind on the other hand, has the freedom to jump from the present back into the past and also imagine a future. It does not have hands or feet but very cleverly tricks its owner into lending the physical body for sensory enjoyment. Gradually, it becomes the master of body but it cannot travel without the body. In this sense it is limited by space and not time. The question then is, who is the enjoyer? Is it the body, the mind or something else?

Similar to the endless circle of birth, life and death that all of humanity goes through, we go through on a daily basis, the cycles of wakefulness, dreams and deep sleep. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter is expressed mathematically as Pi. This ratio is constant, whether the circle is a small pinhead, diameter of the earth or as big as the universe (assuming it is circular). The value of Pi has been computed to over a 12 trillion digits and counting. It is unending just like the circle of life which expands with each passing generation. When compared to the age of the universe, our lifetime may be compared to an instant of time in the course of a day. This complicated drama of our life plays out in the relatively very short period of time. When one is in a hurry to catch a train, all other thoughts are put aside and the most pressing issue at hand, missing the train comes to the fore. Similarly, when it comes to doing something important and worthwhile, thinking about how short life is may help in avoiding procrastination. Assuming one sleeps for 8 hours every day, a third of our lives are spent sleeping. Another third is utilized for acquiring an education or working for living. That leaves us with little time for enjoyment of life and contemplating deeper thoughts.

A newborn infant is sensitive to warm and cold touch, literally and figuratively. Instinctively, an infant recognizes and enjoys the embrace of the mother. Prior to birth, sounds that penetrate the womb are picked up by the ears of the fetus. After birth, infants enjoy familiar sounds such as the mother’s voice welcoming them into the world. Instinctively preferring familiar sensory stimuli is perhaps a survival mechanism. Novel experiences come to be preferred a little later in childhood. Growing babies are fed bland food at first. Only later on are various flavors introduced into the diet such as sweet, salt, bitter, sour etc. Once exposed to sugar, their sensory discrimination becomes more refined, just like the sugar we consume. After the physical senses are fully developed, instinctual needs turn into selective likes and dislikes at the level of thoughts. If one asks, what is the shape of water? The answer would be that it takes the shape of whatever holding it. A baby’s mind is similar. For as long as it is fed a liquid diet consisting of milk, the baby’s mind is held in the hand’s of its mother and it may be molded easily. Along with starting solid food, the child’s thinking becomes more independent. By the time we become adults, our thinking patterns have already set. The mind at this stage is “solidified” and is not easily molded or transformed. Like a rigid square trying to fit into a round hole, thinking becomes hard to change or adapt to new challenges.

As one grows, the mind transforms into a interpretational tool. The five senses constantly bring in information to the brain. Each of the senses is represented in a discrete area of the brain. Neural impulses from the eyes end up in the visual cortex, from the ears in the auditory cortex, from the nose in the olfactory area of the brain etc. Vision is processed in the back of the brain, smell in the front, touch and taste on top, hearing in the middle. These different areas form a virtual circle around around a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is thought to be the physical gateway to the mind. The electrical energy in the brain is converted into emotional energy in this area of the brain. Here science gets murky and we don’t know what bridges the physical brain with the mind. This emotional energy is triaged by the mind into one or two categories by asking two simple questions. Is the information pleasant or is the information is unpleasant? These are the “angels and demons” guarding the mind. Broadly speaking, experiences we go through may be either sweet or bitter reflecting the metaphorical fight between angels and demons. This inner struggle can never be resolved by feeding one and starving the other. It constantly churns the mind throwing up deep unresolved desires. This process is beneficial to us if this process is watched through the lens of detachment and introspection. If these desires are pursued, then the cycle repeats itself creating more of these angels or demons within. An exercise one can do easily is to sit in a busy place and “watch” the senses at work. Whatever sounds may be picked up by the ear, observe them without interpreting or thinking about them. Whatever the eyes perceive, observe that process without thinking or interpreting them. Similarly, extend this observation to the other senses. After a while, get up walk around and sit down again in the same place and watch the senses at work. This time, work with the mind to see how it interprets these signals. This may help slow down the process of interpretative intake of sensory information and make it more of a conscious process. This brief pause may help further distill sensory input into potential useful or useless information. If practiced regularly, it may help compact and defragment memory, potentially helping in more efficient learning and recall later on.

There is a regular struggle in keeping the mind attentive on the task at hand and from keep the mind from wandering through various thoughts that creep up. Here the “angels” derive pleasure from letting the mind wander through thoughts and the “demons” derive satisfaction from the difficulties one may face in keep the mind attentive. How does one overcome these “angels and demons”? The answer may lie in a concept called metacognition. This term was coined by John Flavell, a developmental psychologist in 1979. It is defined as the awareness of one’s thinking processes. Metacognitive skills have important practical implications. Research has focussed on some subsets of metacognition such as metamemory and metacomprehension. Metamemory (Flavell 1971) refers to the individual ability to manage the intake, storage and retrieval of memory. Formation of memory is both a conscious and unconscious process. If we are able to understand the strategies that we use to store memory unconsciously, perhaps it may enhance our conscious recall of what we have learnt. These strategies may be unique to each individual. Metacomprehension refers to our ability to monitor our understanding of information and recognition of failure to comprehend information. Successful learners are able to monitor and improve their own learning without external feedback.

Metacognition makes one more effective in performing tasks. One form of metacognition is the attitude that one has in approaching a task. A good positive attitude when approaching any task helps us monitor and manipulate our comprehension and memory. It makes us more attentive. When this is done consciously, there is a greater likelihood of better organizing our memory processes and hence increase the power of recall when we need that information in the future. It also may help in cross referencing information derived from other tasks. This process may be thought of as building a good search engine like Google within our own minds. Since there is a lot of information being brought in through the senses, having good metacognitive skills helps us use this knowledge to solve our real life problems more effectively. Those lacking good metacognitive skills tend to overestimate their problem solving ability. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Their research (Dunning and Kruger 1999) was prompted by a case of a Pittsburgh bank robber who robbed banks without a mask or disguise; he had a mistaken belief that rubbing his face with lemon juice would make him invisible to security cameras. Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. The Dunning-Kruger effect probably explains why we don’t learn from our mistakes and keep repeating them. We see this in our individual quest for happiness. There are many things we do everyday with the ultimate goal of enhancing our happiness. Once we acquire something that we desire, the happiness that results has a finite lifespan. We are yet to find “the thing” that brings permanent happiness that is universal to all of mankind. Despite knowing that such a thing does not exist in the world, we keep trying only to be disappointed again and again. The awareness of the need to go deeper into the mind to look for sources of happiness, and be less dependent on the world for getting that is a type of useful metacognitive skill. Without this skill, we laugh when the “angels” are happy and cry when the “demons” are happy. Laughter is a song that brings happiness and, crying is a song that brings disease and despair.

To be continued…