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Episode 13: Buddhism and Parasitic Processing

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Last time Professor Vervaeke offered a cognitive-scientific exploration of higher states of consciousness, awakening experiences, and mystical experiences that bring about transformation. We understood this at the psychological, information processing level, and at the neurological level. We also understood why and how HSC (Higher States of Consciousness) helps us get an 'optimal grip' on the world in a way that enhances problem-solving abilities.

Read my blogpost on Episode 12 here. In this episode, Professor Vervaeke talks about the Interpretation Crisis in Buddhism, why it might be useful to look at the Buddha's Truths as Provocations, Patristic Processing, Marc Lewis's Model of Addiction, and the Eightfold Path.

After the Buddha is awakened he understands the world, not just intellectually but in a participatory, existential fashion. He experiences sati; a deep remembering of the 'being' mode and is able to see through his modal confusion. From this state, the Buddha gave his four pronouncements.

Before we get into what the four pronouncements are, it's important to understand

why interpretations of Buddhism (especially by the West) could be problematic. Stephen Batchelor points this out as an 'interpretation crisis' in a series of his books on Buddhism. He suggests that there are two general approaches that people take when they try and interpret Buddism (or any culture or history they have not personally been a part of/had first-hand experience of). The first is that one can only understand Buddhism within a tradition. This makes sense because wisdom and self-transcendence are not a matter of alternate beliefs as much as they are about a transformation in one's perspectival and participatory knowing. The problem here is that because this view depends on one's experience of the tradition, it is biased and therefore myopic and too subjective. The alternative, more objective route is to study the already existing texts written about the tradition, at a distance, without engaging in any of the practices. The argument, in this case, is that it allows one to critically reflect on a tradition through an objective lens. This is reminiscent of the problem that Socrates faced; the 'within a tradition' approach is about transformative relevance, while the 'outside the tradition' approach is an attempt to get at the truth. Just as in the Socratic project, Buddhism is about both these things; it's about transformatively relevant truth. This involves transcending both these ways of interpreting Buddhism. Batchelor, in his book 'Buddhism without Beliefs' argues that part of the reason we haven't been able to grasp Buddhism fully is that we often reduce Buddhism to a set of beliefs. Unfortunately, we have gotten so used to reducing transformational processes to belief possessions that it's hard to now break out of that framework. Think about how, for example, we often use 'belief' as synonymous with 'faith'. The problem with belief systems, namely ideologies, is that they attempt to create meaning but fall short. This is because most of our meaning-making machinery, as we've already discussed, does not occur at a propositional level. Instead, Batchelor proposes that we need to look at Buddhism existentially. Keeping this in mind, let's look at the four propositions that the Buddha made in a way that can help us afford the transformation we've been talking about. The point is not to believe them, but the point is to get them to help us re-enact the Buddha's enlightenment. Vervaeke suggests we frame them as the Four Ennobling Provocations (rather than 'truths') because it reflects the idea of encouraging change. Through this view, we can get closer to the original meaning of Buddha's ideas about enlightenment and awakening experiences.

The First Truth

The first truth is often spoken about as 'all is suffering' or 'all of life is suffering'. This cannot be taken literally. For one, 'suffering' is a comparative word and cannot be applied to everything. It would be like saying 'everything is tall', which doesn't make sense because things are tall only relative to other things being shorter. Also, what does 'suffering' even really mean? Over the years we've reduced it in a way that has overlooked its original meaning. 'To suffer' originally meant to undergo or to lose agency. So the Buddha is not just talking about an unpleasant, painful experience. It cannot be interpreted as 'everything is painful' because again, pain is relative. Instead what he means is we are always threatened by dukkha; a potential loss of freedom. Even most of Buddha's metaphors are not pain metaphors but rather entrapment metaphors; they're about being fettered, losing one's freedom or agency. He would famously say "just like wherever you dip into the ocean it has one taste: the taste of salt... in the same way, no matter where you dip into my teaching, it has one taste: the taste of freedom". So, what he seems to be conveying through most of his teachings is that our lives are constantly threatened by the possibility of losing our agency or freedom.

A closer look at Dukhha

“The Flood,” 2017. By Jeff Wigman.
“The Flood,” 2017. By Jeff Wigman.

Imagine a wheel that is off-center on its axis. Since the axle is not properly centered, as the wheel turns/moves, it destroys itself. Dukkha refers to self-destructiveness. The idea here is that one's sense of agency is lost through self-destructive processes. Understanding the first truth as a provocation involves understanding that one's life is existentially threatened by a capacity of self-destructive, self-deceptive behavior.

To understand this a little better let's look at Verveake and Ferraro's work on specific cognitive patterns that are involved in this kind of behavior. Their core argument is that the very processes that make us so adaptively intelligent also make us vulnerable to self-deceptive self-destructive behavior.

Parasitic Processing and Negative Feedback Loops

When we encounter an event that is painful or that we interpret as bad, our brain tries to predict the probability of a similar event happening again. This is part of our adaptive machinery as it ensures that future threat is reduced. Of course, if our brain were to try and track and calculate the probability of every bad event happening, we would go insane; there are always an indefinitely large set of variables interacting in an indefinitely large number of ways. To make things easier, we often make use of heuristics; shortcuts that help us cut through and zero in on relevant information. One of the most common heuristics is the representativeness heuristic, which involves judging an event by how prototypical and salient it is. This often interacts with the availability heuristic, which involves judging how probable an event is by how easily you can remember similar events that have occurred or how easily you can imagine another event like this happening. When we are in an emotionally charged state, encoding specificity is often triggered. This is because our brain does not just store the facts, but also stores the participatory knowing associated with the memory; it also stores the state you're in. So if you're in a bad state it is much harder to remember times when you have been happy and much easier to recall the times when you have felt bad in a similar way. In this manner, the representativeness and availability heuristic interact with encoding specificity to create a negative feedback loop. To make matters worse, we also often fall prey to confirmation bias (an otherwise adaptive strategy) in this state. This involves only accepting information that supports current beliefs (that are likely very negative and self-defeating in this case.

It is hard to get out of this state because it happens automatically, in a self-organizing fashion. This function is again, highly adaptive, as if these parts of our cognition weren't inherently self-organizing we would spend excess time and energy in trying to think about and remember things. The problem here is that recalling all the similar bad events and regarding negative events as highly probable makes us more anxious. This makes us lose our cognitive flexibility and our framing of things becomes narrow and rigid which reduces our ability to solve problems. This leads to more mistakes, which reinforces the anxiety and the cycle continues. If this process of parasitic processing occurs often it could make people fatalistic, making them believe that they're doomed as they might even interpret neutral events as bad/wrong. In this manner, the very heuristics/shortcuts that make us so intelligently adaptive because of how they zero in on relevant information in this complex world, are the very things that make us vulnerable to self-deception, self-destructive behavior. In his first provocation, the Buddha is trying to tell us that all our life is threatened by dukkha. Applying this being becoming aware of how our very own adaptive cognition and deceive us. Professor Vervaeke calls this process of self-deceptive, self-destruction behavior "Parasitic Processing" because as many studies on depression reveal, it's almost like a parasite takes your life away from you. Think of a time you have been in a negative loop. It's often very hard to get out of because even if you try to 'go outside the square' (referring to the 9 dot problem') so to speak, the system re-organizes itself around your attempted intervention. And so the very machinery by which we adapt is often the very thing that tries to destroy us. This is a perennial threat, no matter what the situation/domain. Marc Lewis has been deeply influential to the Parasitic Processing model and to the idea of it being a dynamical processing, self-organizing system. As one of the foremost neuroscientists studying addiction and as someone who has been through addiction himself, he believes that the standard model of addiction is deeply flawed. The Standard Model of Addiction

The standard model indicates that addiction primarily involves a biophysical chemical dependency, and when the chemical is removed we get an overwhelming compulsion to have to seek out the chemical. If we don't get the chemical, we suffer, it becomes a 'need', like when one is starving and needs food. However, this model is false. Firstly, people can get addicted to processes that have no biochemical basis, like gambling for example. Secondly, if this model stands true, why does research indicate that most people spontaneously give up their addiction in their thirties? How would this model justify that? We only tend to focus on the people who remain addicted and therefore come to believe that addiction is an overwhelming compulsion. However, if you actually track people, many of them spontaneously just stop being addicted.

For example, during WW2, several soldiers in Vietnam got addicted to opioids. We tend to think that certain chemicals are intrinsically addictive. When they returned to the United States, the vast majority of them spontaneously stopped using the drug. This suggests that their addiction had very little to do with a biochemical lock and chemical. Instead, Lewis suggests we should look at it as existential learning. When the soldiers were in Vietnam they had a particular identity (soldier) were in a certain arena (war). They were in a very specific existential mode. When they returned to the United States, they also returned to being a citizen (identity/agency) returned to a peaceful country (arena). Marc Lewis believes that the relationship between the agent in the arena is what is fundamentally being altered in addiction.

The Reciprocal Narrowing Model

Marc Lewis proposed the Reciprocal Narrowing model by which he views addiction as a loss of agency (rather than a disease). As we go about navigating the world, we're always assuming our identity in an interdependent manner. In any particular situation, we are an agent (with a level of agency), operating and interacting in an area (the setting). The relationship between the agent and arena is fundamentally altered in addiction. One starts to lose a little bit of their cognitive flexibility, perhaps due to something like a negative feedback loop/parasitic processing. As one loses cognitive flexibility, the number of options in the world starts to decline. As the number of options starts to decline, they lose more agency and feel less in control. As you (the agent) get more narrow and inflexible in your cognition, the number of options in the world (arena) goes down. These two things reciprocally narrow to a point where you have no options left in terms of who you could be or how the world can be. Addiction involves this kind of participatory, perspectival learning of a loss of agency. Professor Vervaeke pointed out that this may work the other way round too; if there was a spiral downwards into addiction, what about a spiral upwards to enlightenment? Just as addiction involves a reciprocal narrowing, enlightenment would involve a reciprocal opening where one could become more cognitively flexible and opportunities/options in the world (arena) open up. That's anagoge.

So Dukkha involves a loss of agency in this fashion; as parasitic processing is happening within, reciprocal narrowing is happening without. Those two processes are reinforcing each other. And no matter where you turn, this is always threatening. So how do we address this? The point here is you should feel threatened. Because once we realize the first truth as a provocation.. and we realize how close and intimate this threat is then we can start enacting a process of moving towards enlightenment rather than asserting a proposition that is relatively inert.

The Second Truth The standard way of presenting the second truth is 'suffering is caused by desire'. So is desiring enlightenment then a problem? Should you not desire to think about anything? A better way to think about this is: realize that Dukkha can be understood. Dukkha doesn't just happen when you really like something, it happens when you get attached to something. Being attached to something involves a sense of narrowing of yourself and the world. As you get more attached, your agency and options in the world are reduced. When an addict is attached to something it is not about a compulsive bio-chemical desire. Rather, it is better understood as Parasitic Processing that has led to a Reciprocal Narrowing, so that no alternatives other than the substance are available to the person.

The Third Truth

This is commonly known as 'Cessation of Suffering is Attainable'. As a provocation, this is translated as: realize you can recover your agency. Because as mentioned before, if there is a reciprocal narrowing downward, there can also be a reciprocal opening upwards. You can use the same machinery to anagogically ascend out of the cave towards the sun of enlightenment (referring to Plato's cave). So this means we need to realize that our complex and dynamic machinery and its systems can be exapted in a way that reduces our capacity for self-deception.

How? The Budhha offered a psycho technology of practices. One way of dealing with a complex dynamical system that is operating against you is by cultivating a counter-active dynamical system that is operating for you. A system that isn't just limited to the level of your beliefs, but operates at the level of your consciousness. And so The Buddha offered the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path The Eightfold Path is a dynamical system that counteracts parasitic processing and helps us reciprocally opening. It helps us go beyond the egoic self and the everyday world. That’s why it’s represented by an eight-spoked wheel (chakra); a self-organizing system that rolls itself in which each part is interdependent on the other parts. The parts include the right kind of understanding, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The word 'right' here does not refer to righteousness, but rather an optimal grip.

Notice how 'understanding' and 'thinking' are about cognition, 'speech', 'action', and 'livelihood' are about character, and how 'mindfulness' and 'concentration' are about consciousness. The Eightfold Path deals with ethical, existential, and sapiential aspects. It is an attempt to give us a counteractive dynamical system that can deal with parasitic processing, and reverse the reciprocal narrowing until we experience an awakening that takes us beyond the prison of the ego and the everyday world.

In the next episode, we will look at ideas about wisdom and self-transcendence post the Axial Revolution in the West. Eventually, this will be integrated within a current cognitive-scientific worldview.

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