The Tyrant Inside Your Mind
by Christopher G. Moore
History records many examples of some person, tribe or nation taking an advantage based on better information than their rivals. Whether it is war, economic activity, love and romance or career the competitive edge leading to victory is enjoyed by those who possess the ability to extract and use information to increase the probability of their predicted outcomes. Use the word probability, forecasting, and prediction and thoughts start to wander, your mind has trouble gaining traction. Why is that?
It takes a good story to grab and hold our attention. And it takes a special, brilliant story for us to remember it tomorrow. Every day you hear and tell hundreds of stories. Those tiny assembled bundled vignettes we consume like Swiss chocolate, filled with a rich confection of character, situation, conflict, weirdness, turning point, and surprise. Stories are addictive. We feel slightly guilty when we read tracts of wisdom, knowledge, philosophy, and mathematics, which mainly lack a personal story. There’s the key. A great story is about me. It’s about you. It has an emotional kick like mule. Without the mule’s kick, the abstract story is marooned in a dark, empty pasture left pretty much on its own.
Information disparities are nothing new. Huge differences are reflected in competitive stories based on various grades of complexity of information. Insider trading in the stock market allows someone like the C.E.0. who has access to better information and that private information allows him a way to profit on selling or buying shares. It is also outlawed. We believe that insiders should not be able to use information at the expense of others with less information. It is an issue of fairness and justice. Catching the insider is another matter for another essay. It is enough to say that under the current political climate, official government institutions have transferred to insiders a lot of flexibility in which to exploit the use of their information.
Governments work hard and spend a huge amount of resources to shape, control, classify and protect information and define the bounds for the stories that can be told from information. Any time you read about a government suppressing a newspaper publisher, journalist, activist, intellectual or author you can be sure they are trying to banish a better story from their audience. Censorship laws were tailored to edit out stories that portray the elite as stupid, corrupt, inept, cruel or greedy. In medieval times you could be burnt at the stake for telling a story the Church called a heresy. You get the idea. Most of the world, and for most of our history, the powerful have enjoyed a virtual monopoly over story telling, and any storyteller that doesn’t work for them is in mortal danger.
Social media has destroyed that old analogue monopoly. The reality of the changed story telling landscape has yet to fully filter through the consciousness of the old political establishment. Agents of chaos like Donald Trump told a better story to enough people who voted him into the White House. They didn’t vote for him. It was referendum on his stories, which had slightly better appeal than those of Hilary’s. Even the diehard supporter knows that Trump is an asshole (a term of art applied to someone whose stories you dislike) in the opinion of those who are on the Left but it doesn’t matter. Trump throws punch after punch, one story after another, and each blow landing an incredible emotional uppercut that knocks his Trumpeters silly as they experience a chemical rush that only a heroin addict could fully appreciate. If America were truly the third world, the dictator in charge would have thrown him in prison, confiscated his wealth and censored and publicly burnt all of his stories.
The real story is buried under the headlines. We need to take a step back and look at the larger context. The story is not a standalone event. In the big picture the story is entangled in a network of several interacting variables: information, biotechnology, machine learning and mind hacking. What I want to know is how such variables interact, shift over seconds, or hours or days. Is there some pattern at work? If there is, that’s a story. The way events change is the essence of all story telling. Once you have an advantage in figuring out how the big data changes, you start to find a new way to tell a far more complex, flexible and unstable set of stories. When the data comes up with what appears to be crazy stuff, it is a short step to redefining the role of storyteller to include crazy storytellers like Trump. The more insane and extreme the story, the more you get the idea that these new stories are working far better than the other ones. They’ve gone viral on the Internet to disrupt political, cultural and economic institution built on the infrastructure of stories that are increasingly irrelevant.
The reality of our modern world of information storage, access and analysis is that someone who hires a team of researchers may discover more accurate, up to date, reliable and detailed information, which allows them to connect dots; to find otherwise hidden patterns. That’s not insider information; that, instead, is superior large data, some of it propriety, some public information, some worthless gossip, misrepresentations and lies mixed together until the final product is not unlike a subprime mortgage. Superior information is buried under layers and layers of data, and it takes effort to work through the equivalent of the bad mortgages before finding the undervalued AAA rated corporate bond. Anyone with a research team and resources to investigate could have found much of the same superior information if they had wished to do so. People have become extremely rich mining this tsunami of big data, looking for patterns and letting algorithms tell the story. It turns out that algorithms are much better at finding hidden, lucrative stories than 9 to 5 human beings with obligations to pick up kids from school or to collect the laundry.
Yuval Harari author of Homo Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Centuryhas spoken in innumerable YouTube videos and written books about how human beings process their information through story-telling and by sharing stories. To know our species, is to understand the mechanism in our culture, economic and political systems which assemble, package and distribute information as seductive (and often addictive) narratives. Once packaged, the underlying information and the source disappears behind the unfolding of personalities, events, happenings and denouement. Most people don’t remember the author or the book, newspaper, or blog title. But they remember a feeling that the story engaged them.
What role do stories play? Why are stories important in all cultures around the world? To start with, stories, ancient and modern, define who we are, our loyalties and associations, construct our identity and explain our dreams, hopes, and purpose of living. Our stories making apparatus convert descriptions of events, behavior, happenings and observations into our psychological digestive system, which feeds on feelings, desires and emotions. We gorge on the right stories. Anyone with a Netflix account understands the missing weekends binging on watching seasons of House of CardsorStranger Things. Something in us grows obese in the process. We hate ourselves for going back to the buffet one more time for more carbs and sugar. We ask ourselves, why we can’t stop from watching just one more episodes. Who figured out that like one peanut or potato chip we are doomed to finish the bag no matter what size it is.
Our memories are programmed to remember stories with emotional impact and forget the banal fact that leaves not a ripple on our emotional pond. We get that sugar rush. It is the emotional richness of the story that hooks us. Forget about the quality of the information. Facts don’t emotionally touch us. They don’t lay a finger on chemical drips that drive our passions. Facts are exchanging a greeting kiss with your sister. To make memorable stories, ones that are repeatable, and teachable, has been a difficult business. Like handicraft objects, individually made stories require experience, training, the right material, and a marketplace. Technology optimizes the whole process. Without his reality show and Twitter, Trump would have been another local New York character whose stories blended into the setting like a hooker in Hell’s Kitchen.
The point is in the past we all shared life in a low-information, localized and tribally identifiable landscapes. The past story-telling complex has gone high-information, global and artificially enhanced with algorithms that continue to evolve. In other words, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The next leap forward is coming from a deeper understanding of how the brain works. The workings of the mind have remained elusive. But our knowledge from neuroscience has begun to radically change our understanding about brain function.
The technical ability to hack minds with huge numbers of new stories tailored to match individual profiles, personalities, attitudes and beliefs can be structured to deliver a strong, visceral appeal. The political and commercial elites have discovered a common motive: get what you want by hacking brains with stories that have the impact of a cult—you convert someone to your brand or ideas. Until the 2016 presidential elections, most people were only vaguely aware that a large number of stories were designed to hook junkies. By all accounts, the Russian trolls had an impact on the election results. But that, my friends, is another hotly disputed story.
Russian, Chinese, English American, and you could keep on adding nationalities until you cover most places, have produced or found ways to hire and retain skilled generation of hackers. This global digital crew, like trained special forces, has access to the most advanced technology and science, had the mandate to manufacture and use social media to spread millions of stories specifically designed to trigger the kind of emotions that make them memorable. Whenever you read something and experience fear as an emotional reaction, remember you’ve hacked. It comes packaged with emotive, attention-grabbing images, lurid headlines, sexy captions, or provocative quotes. Like an addict you take the fix. It feels oh so good. That high. Who would have guessed someone could see things just like you and feel the rage, the anger, the frustration, or the sweetness of Schadenfreude?
Mind hacking in the past was called advertising. It was more art than science. The science has created enough big data that a battery of analysts can find patterns to exploit for political, personal or economic advantage. They track you through the devices you use and they know exactly what to serve up at your buffet. Story gluttony is killing liberal democracy. Voters filled to the gills with thousands of stories have gone into a manic-depressive comatose state. We are fat and flabby storytellers stuffed with powerful stories designed from your meta data which had hijacked your brain. If it had been your car, you’d have called the cops. But your brain convinces you that this story that pulls your eyes out of your head into the La La Land of your screen just feels sooo good, so right, so up my alley. Bang. You’ve been hacked. Emptied another plate of boiled prawns. Tasted well, right? Let’s pause here for a moment. Free will is a story we once believed in. For many, the free will story is bullshit (the technical name for a story fallen out of fashion thanks to some large grant that studied rats). Free will has become devalued as a kind of childlike fantasy. What is the new story that replaces free will? That’s a work in progress.
The rough draft of the replacement is our brains are highly hackable. It’s not a moral lesson. A widely shared and accepted story not only makes sense of the world, it creates the social and cultural glue that gets people to vote, buy the same brand of perfume and slit the throat of a neighboring tribe. We have reached a moment, when the realization seeps into the mass cultural system that a group of elites have programmed in us for the purpose of reaping enormous gains, drum roll, curtains open and Trump or someone like him emerges. He tells a story edited by his Id. He promises to liberate them from these greedy, selfish hackers. He promises to make them “Great Again.” That means to tell them the old stories about greatness. The buffet is open. People hit that table and pile their plates high.
In my earlier essay titled Story-telling wars, I covered the battle between the scientific based story and the anecdotal story, based on a personal experience, gossip, myth, and rumor. Many people are asking why this is even a close contest and, perhaps more discouraging, why science is losing the story-telling battle and its audience is in retreat. And those fleeing the science battleground are the story-telling elite of intellectuals, scholars, scientists, and specialized experts.
Our Cognitive Shopping Mall
Imagine the way you navigate reality as visiting your favorite shopping mall. One of those urban multi-floor malls with large department stores anchoring each floor and in between dozens of specialty stores selling guitars, handbags, sweets, sports equipment, electronic gear, cameras, speaker systems and the like. When you are a child you stop and stare at the things displayed in the window of each store, you go inside, look around, take stuff down, examine it, figure out how it works, compare the brands, the colors, the touch, the feel. You lose yourself in the novel experience of something you’ve never seen before. Time slows down as you spend a whole summer in one corner of one little store in this vast complex.
By the time you reach middle age, you no longer stop, pause and look at the window displays in each store. In fact, you pretty stick to your favorite two floors; they have everything you need. You speed along these two floors because you have a specific destination in mind, a particular purpose and mission to accomplish. In fact, you find as you get order, the number of destinations continues to reduce as do the number of floors at the shopping mall you visit. By the time you are 60 years old the diversity of the shopping experience is no longer part of your experience.
What about all the many other floors in the mall? They’ve been looted, gone out of business, or shutdown. You no longer have any access to them and don’t even notice they aren’t available. You trundle along to your favorite coffee shop, restaurant, pick up a few items in the food mall or pharmacy and you are out the same exit door you always use and take the same route home. Your choices, attitudes and behavior are highly predictable. Don’t take offense. Everyone is in a version of your cognitive shopping mall and if you could step inside, you’d find yourself pretty much at home. We live at a moment of time, where third-parties know your shopping mall routine better than you. They track you, what grabs your attention, what makes you reach for your wallet, and what makes you happy, sad, angry, frustrated or lustful. Your desires are being shopped to the third-parties for economic and political gain. Like millions of other shoppers, you’ve been hacked as to what goes into your shopping cart.
The shopping mall experience stretched from the time you are a child through old age maps the way your brain slowly eliminates the small side-roads, and carries your thoughts and memories down a well-trodden floor of shops that you like and know. Where you feel at home. Comfortable. Your brain has been carefully programmed. Your lifetime of personal shopping preferences and priorities seem to belong to your ‘self’ but in fact you’ve uploaded them mostly without noticing. The information, advertising, biasing and manipulation business is built on psychological techniques that know who you think you are. That’s powerful information.
Once they have your specific profile of desires, dreams, likes, approvals, friends, enemies, affiliations, messages are tailored specifically to lure your attention, invite you in to their shop and before you know it, you find that you indeed like the wares they are selling. So many floors in the infinite shopping mall, and so many shops on every floor makes this a challenge. But you make it easy because you are a creature of habit who can be counted on to visit one or two floor and a couple of shops on each one. Creative effort must be made to stop your automatic-pilot dash through your routine floor plan of thought and action.
Your brain is a bit like that shopping mall. As you get older, the network of activity is narrowed and the other parts of your brain, like the unvisited floors at the shopping mall, are no longer accessible. Next time you visit a shopping mall, rather than glide through on automatic pilot, take a tour of all the other floors and shops. Explore like a child explores with a sense of wonder and amazement. The question is, when it comes to networking structure of our brain, whether we can find a workaround? Our adult brain also has many disused, closed down networks. Can we open those brain networks and expand the way we sense the world? Or are we stuck on the one or two floors of our mental shopping mall?
Three recent books take into the cognitive shopping mall where we can poke around and figure out how it is built, operated, maintained and your place in the scheme of things. These books open up the discussion of stories told by science about the way our brains process reality, or more pointedly, how our brains shop through the zillions of thoughts, images, memories, feelings and emotions, giving us the illusion of being in control of what we put into the shopping and move on to the cashier.
These books are Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time; Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things, and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. It is not enough to say we are story-tellers; it disguises a deeper issue of understanding just how our sensory processing and brain work to acquire, store, recall and process information. We are at the beginning of understanding but have a considerable way to go before unraveling the mystery of how we come to perceive and act in the world.
The Physics of Stories
Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time is a story about the nature of time. The language of that story is embedded in high order mathematics. The difficulty and complexity of the math restricts the audience to those who are fluent in the abstract symbols of mathematics.
Rovelli is like the best of medieval scholars who translate this highly specialized language into the vernacular so that ordinary mortals can have access to the story the math tells. Like John Allen Paulos’s A Numerate Life, Rovelli opens a strangely elegant, mysterious and unpredictable swirl of story threads into a finely woven fabric. I have no illusions that I can check the mathematics against Rovelli’s story to see if they align. Like a medieval peasant, I must go on faith that the translation is accurate.
The story he tells about entropy may be the most accessible one that I’ve seen. In Rovelli’s view all events, happening and occurrence move from an ordered to less ordered state. Stories are subject to the same physics of entropy as are butterflies, stars, rocks, hamburgers, and kisses. Over time, every event breaks down into a more chaotic, random, disordered fashion. The essence of the entropy story goes like this.
Consider this quote I selected by Jorge Luis Borges: “Reality is not always probable, or likely.” This form of the story is in a low entropy state. Low or high, you may be thinking, it looks normal to me. That’s our common perception because those words don’t suddenly jump off the page and rearrange themselves. The words don’t look anything like events or happenings. They look more like a painting or a piano. Most of objects and things made of bits of information appear solid and ordered to us. The quote isn’t a cloud moving across the sky.
The next step is to print out the Borges’ quote. Take a pair of scissors and cut out each word as a separate item. Put each slip one word each in a box. Then pull out one piece of paper at a time and write down the sequence of the words: “Is not likely reality always or probable.” The quote has gone from low entropy to a higher order of entropy. It is disordered. Like a broken egg remains recognizable for what it was even though it no longer is an egg. While we can still see the “eggyness” in the shattered egg we no longer perceive it in the same way. With the cut up Borges quote, randomly reassembled and no longer intelligible as a Borges quote, we understand the words but don’t understand their meaning as a group of words.
The third step is to cut each of the individual letters of the quote into separate pieces and put them in the box, pull them out and write down the letters in the sequence in which you removed them from the box. You might have something resembling this: “n s l e p o a t y b e l l….” The entropy has increased. The letters are no longer intelligible as words nor do they provide any hint as to meaning. You would never think of them as part of a famous quote.
For the final step, you cut up each letter into twenty pieces and drop them into the box. What you pull out is a no longer recognizable as written language. Entropy has increased again as the disorder and chaos tears the fabric of the individual pixels of each letter. At this stage, we recognize the truth of Borges’ quote. Reality isn’t all that probable or likely. It all depends on the state of entropy. Everything degrades into disorder including information.
There is a further point. I chose one quote from millions of possible quotes narrowing down my choice by concepts linking reality, order, and probability. By picking the Borges quote, I have chosen one variable among millions. As a result you as a reader don’t interact with the other possible quotes I didn’t choose. They don’t register with you. And you don’t register with them. The entropic state of millions of sentences and phrases are far less ordered than a pack of 52 playing cards. There are many more possibilities to order sentences, phrases and quotations than is possibilities in ordering a single deck of playing cards.
The fact we can acquire and communicate information is a statement of the nature of the higher entropy world we live in. Our window on reality is narrow, blurred and messy; what we see through a smudge of foggy glass is unstable, impermanent and interacting with forces and fields beyond our understanding or comprehension. We aren’t conscious of the unfolding disorder of all the information around us. We see stability and order. That is an illusion because of our parochial sense of time passing. When we come across disorder it is likely the story is told in terms of chaos and change. Change like surprise is linked to our emotions. Those emotions are triggered in the presence of disordering events or occurrences. We assume, wrongly in Rovelli’s view, that our scientific stories are true about nature of disorder being a universal feature of reality in the universe.
Our stories are archival images (enhanced by sound, touch, taste and smell) from our past, collecting and storing out memories about things, events and happenings. Our brain remembers a particular configuration in relationship to other things and events, and we remember a snapshot as a particularentropic state of reality. That’s the way it was, we say. Others may have different memories or different interpretations of the same entropic state. That’s the conflict that defines as human. Our memories don’t always align and we get into fights as to who is right and who is crazy. We fight over what that previous state was and how it’s changed in the present and what that means for the future.
To us our stories and memories persist in much the same stable state and deliver the past state to the present moment. That approach is based on a mistake—that tomorrow the events of today are unaltered from the day before. In fact, our stories about yesterday like all other events and happenings gradually unravel with the passage of time. We are inside a reality that appears coherent and ordered like with the Borges quote or an ordered, un-shuffled deck of playing cards. We started out with a particularconfiguration and relationship with other events in the past, but the past isalwaysbeing shuffled, rearranged, disordered like a deck of ordered cards. We attribute meaning to the pattern of cards or order of words by reference to a particular ordering. Rovelli’s point is that ordering is only one of many possible orderings, most of which we are unaware exist. It is the particular order that has changed and we describe that disordering entropy.
As to why we experience entropy, Rovelli’s answer is located in the way our reality of things, objects, and people emerges. It depends on our perspective as well. Seeing a cloud from a distance isn’t the same sensory experience as walking inside a thick fog. Rovelli asks when does the cloud lose its ‘cloudness’ and transition into fog? Where is the border? All events have a variation of this problem. We don’t live long enough to witness the transition for long-term events like a mountain eroding into dust. We occupy a particular set of variable that includes a time variable in our macroscopic state. There is no reason to believe our universe offers up only one macro state in the configuration we experience it. We are blind to innumerable microscopic states in the universe. The macroscopic state where we live in, much like our solar system and galaxy, is not the exclusive or unique or exceptional state we are accustoming to believing in.
We interact with a small fraction of the possible variables in our localized part of the universe. “The idea that a well-defined now[my emphasis] exists throughout the universe is an illusion, an illegitimate extrapolation of our own experience.” Our brain never evolved as a system equipped to explore the multitudes of the microscopic or macroscopic states in the universe. Nothing in our evolutionary past prepared us biologically for such wide spectrum sensing system networks. The brains self-confined network translates us a version of reality edited by the ‘self.’ My sense of self works tirelessly like a Sherpa leading me up and down the mountain of reality. I don’t question the path. I follow it. Like most other people, I trust myself. But is this trust in myself misplaced? Rovelli concludes, “The low initial entropy of the universe might be due to the particular way in which we—the physical system that we are a part of—interact with it. We are attuned to a very particular subset of aspects of the universe, and it thisthat is oriented in time.” Time may turn out to be a peculiar perspective that this human sense of self has evolved in order to describe its reality in this tiny corner the universe.
What is the mechanism that explains how the brain functions? Rovelli provides the physics, but if we are going to understand the limitations of our senses, we need to explore the limits on our biology. We didn’t choose the brain structure we were born with. Nor were we equipped with an independent form of intelligence to decode and map the complex electro-chemical network of the brain atop a biologically wired body. We are left stranded in our macroscopic state seeking to use the brain as a measuring tool to measure itself. In the past few years, scientists have taken a new look at the role of psychedelics in brain functioning.
How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan is one such examination and it delivers a powerful message that goes to the nature of self, identity, and memory. Pollan details his own personal journey in the world of psychedelics. He also provides a good historical account as to the banning of psychedelics during America’s culture wars in the 60s. Finally, he reviews current clinical studies and the state of current science on psychedelic drugs. What gives the book credibility is the author’s initial skepticism of psychedelics. Like most people of his generation (Pollan was 60 years old when he wrote the book), he’d been raised alongside the official propaganda, demonizing psychedelics. These attacks (early examples of fake news) were launched against the counter-culture of the 60s. Psychedelics were doomed by association with public advocates like Timothy O’Leary seen as supporting recreational use and the promise that such drugs had to challenge authority.
Pollan’s field research and numerous interviews with scientist, policy-makers, and experts shows how he personally was able to overcome the negative official stories by unearthing the mounting clinical evidence of significant the mental health benefits to patients who took the drug is a controlled setting. Multiple clinical studies have shown a high rate of success in treating patients who had sought but failed to find relief from available medical treatments. Psychedelics as medical treatment have shown to reduce or eliminate suffering caused by addiction, obsessive-compulsive behavior, PSTD and depression.
Brain Tyranny: The Default Mode Network
What is our brain doing when on psychedelics?
Neuroscience researchers shared their story with Pollan about the default mode network of the brain. You are going to be hearing a lot more in the future about the Default Mode Network. In the image below, you can find this network.
This part of our brain structure is the location where the self is constructed. Like a strategic fortress under the authority of a tyrant, it selects what sensory inputs get attention, what information is processed from memory, what images receive attention and are processed and what is screened out or ignored. The Default Mode Network like all good tyrants values order, harmony and consistency. Psychedelics perform something like a coup d’état and send the tyrant into temporary exile. What happens when the dictator is overthrown in the brain? First the story-telling self is shutdown.
Without the “self” challenging thoughts, memories and feelings on a couple of expressways, with the Default Mode Network closed down, the brain opens up thousands, if not millions, on small, windy roads. In other words, the brain’s entropy increases. It enters a more disordered mental state without the self to impose order. Our minds open to new patterns and images and the gatekeeper is asleep. The self is nowhere insight.
Exactly what is this Default Mode Network? When you aren’t focused on something external to you or you have nothing to engage your attention, your mind doesn’t stop. The default mode network kicks in and you are transported inside a “daydream, ruminate, travel in time, reflect and worry.” Emotion and memory are inhibited. Sensory input from the external world is threaded through the default mode. The function is to keep order in the system. Its task is to maintain a low state of entropy. Here is the node that contains your autobiographical story, the one you tell to yourself and share with others. Your self is contained in that that story.
The role undertaken by the default mode network is to keep our personal story coherent, orderly and stable. The inconsistent, rebellious, messy bits are edited out. Any contradictory thoughts, images or feelings are ignored or revised. Memories are edited to fit the script that the Default Mode Network uses. A lot is at stake. After all, this is the birthplace of the ‘me’ that defines who you are. It is the location in your brain place your identity is assembled and defended. You spend much of your lifetime in the Default Mode network. It feels comfortable. It is habitual and fits like an old pair of shoes. Yet, as Pollan says, this is highly deceptive, “it is less a window on reality than the product of our imagination—a kind of controlled hallucination.”
Once the Default Mode Network has been disabled, unbounded by the walls of self, the brain is free to merge images, sounds, and smells into a large totality erases the line between subject and object. Some have likened the experience as similar to a key message in Buddhism where one is released from individuality and separateness through meditation. One of the people interviewed by Pollan described this mental space, “If it were possible to temporarily experience another person’s mental state, my guess is that it would feel more like a psychedelic state than a ‘normal’ state, because of its massive disparity with whatever mental state is habitual to you.”
Entropy is drawn on by Pollan to explain the ordering in various brain states. In this context, low-entropy is “rigid thinking; addiction; obsessive-compulsive disorder; depression; anesthesia, and finally coma.” High-entropy is “early psychosis; magical thinking; and divergent or creative thinking.” A person whose brain is wired at either extreme of the spectrum suffers from either too much or too little order. Psychedelics doesn’t promise a Goldilocks principle of the porridge just right, not too cold or too hot.
The clinical research indicates benefits result to those who suffer from an excess of order in brain function. Psychedelics free the brain to enter a state of disorder. An overly ordered brain might reformulate its attitude toward authority, state officials and state policies. Such a fear is cited as having been prevalent amongst the political class in the 60s. People’s brains hacked through official propaganda risked an awakening. As the Vietnam War had created the basis for young people to challenge the authorities, psychedelics was a potential weapon to undermine the state. Psychedelics were banned. Labs closed. Clinical studies abandoned. Funding and grants eliminated.
We are at a different point in history. Or are we? Pollan believes that the diversity of mental life can’t exist alongside the rigid, fixed mind, observing that “the more possibilities the mind has at its disposal, the more creative its solutions will be.” Also, the more flexible, diverse, and open brain may be able to detect stories that are hacking attacks with the intention of taking over the emotional reaction machinery that defends the self.
As Rovelli explains there is no one preferred meaning of time, Pollan makes clear that there is no one preferred mental state shared by everyone. The question is what price we pay for the order and selfhood that the adult Default Mode Network imposes on us? There is no simple answer to the question. More clinical research, study and evaluation will be needed before benefits and dangers can be better understood.
The Role of Homeostasis: Body and Brain
Antonio Damasio is a materialist. There is no mystical or magical thinking when it comes to the brain. We are in the dark about much of the brain’s operating systems within the human body. There are two choices to deal with the dark. Use what little light you have to inch ahead, careful not to overstate what you’ve found or what it means. The main principle followed by Damasio and other materialists is to caution against turning to some cosmic orb to display the answer, which will invariably be some variation on Douglas Adam’s 42.
In Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things, he guides us through the chemistry and biology of the human species. In Rovelli’s world we are a complex event closer in duration to a kiss than to a mountain. In Damasio’s world, the body and brain are one, unified entity. While our lungs, liver, heart, kidneys have local and specialized functions, and appear to be separate things, in fact they are part of one combined inseparable event in a certain homeostasis state.
Our brain’s primary function is the translation of states of feelings as the body encounters through experience the outside world. Are we hot, cold, fearful, angry or frustrated? The brain constructs stories around each of these states. Though our sense of ‘self’ plays the starring role in these stories, it is actually the feelings that are writing the script. This circles back to the biological system that is hacked. There is more than one way to hack a brain. By disrupting the homeostasis of the person, you have an opening to return the homeostasis condition by: buying a product or service, voting for a political candidate, believing that a drug, an idea, a religion or an identity implant cures the problem.
He recognizes that the brain and body are submerged and must survive inside of a world of stories. We attach our sense of well being to some of these stories while turning away from other stories.
Damasio observed, “The narrative arises from the circumstances of organism with certain brain specifications as they interact with the world around, and the world of their past memories, and the world of their interior.” We store images in the upper brain stem, hypothalamus, amygdala, basal forebrain, and insular and cingulate cortices.”
How do we assemble a story from such a large, scattered set of images? Damasio shares common ground with Pollan and Rovelli on the Default Mode Network. Here the brain integrates experience and decides the ordering of the images (like ordering a pack of cards) and coordinating the images so they work to move the subjectivity process flawlessly into a unified, coherent story. That image librarian resides as part of the tyranny located in the Default Mode Network.
Damasio contributes valuable information that illustrates how our thoughts, intelligence and creativity are interconnected with our feelings. And what does he mean by feelings: The body is a life regulation machine that gives a constant stream of data about the condition of its various parts, systems, organs, and networks in a state of homeostasis. When our homeostasis is out of whack we feel it and those feelings are processed in the brain. You step outside your room and into the street without a jacket to feel a cold, strong wind against your skin send a signal your brain processes. The feeling of coldness instructs your ‘self’ as to options: return inside for a sweater or jacket or brave the cold until you find a taxi.
By illuminating the nature that forms the mechanism of the brain adds a dimension to our understanding of its role in monitoring our homeostasis system, and how the feedback—the entropy of the system—is expressed in feelings. Our feelings, in other words, tell us stories about the state and condition of our body. Like all animals, the nervous system and brain evolved to ensure survival. In our species, we understand that what seems solid and ordered is in transition to a higher, less ordered state. The ultimate result is death as a threshold is crossed where the homeostasis erodes and parts of the system fail until the system no longer functions.
Our homeostasis stories are another way of identifying our entropic condition from birth to death. Our body is ordered in a particular configuration where our sense of self is fine-tuned to maximize its survival. It focuses our awareness on the state of our body. We are largely unconscious of the systems and checkpoints that internally monitor the various bodily functions, tissues, bones and immune systems, and digestive tracts. Alerts to potential problems come to us as feelings expressed in the language of pains or aches. Feelings, in Damasio’s estimate, are an important form of mental experiences. From moment to moment, our brain spins a story of the body’s state. The information registers as feelings, and feelings bubble to the surface as stories. There is a biological feedback loop between body and mind. The event that includes all the particles and fields that we are made of have tangible, physical elements that have a certain order. At some point, the disorder overcomes the homeostasis system and those particles and fields are shuffled.
Changing Our Mental Custodians
We come to understand each day brings new stories and more stories in one day that the average person would have encountered two hundred years ago in a lifetime. We are piled under the weight of millions of stories, into impossible libraries that no one can master. The trend is to finance ever more persuasive story wars based on your personal information. Stories come from scripts written inside the Default Mode Network. That’s you. They’re coming after that you every moment of every day.
As the books by Rovelli, Pollan and Damasio indicate, developments in science are at the vanguard of a new type of story about our species. These stories are leading us to better stories to explain how we are the way we are. They also are warnings about the dark side as brain hacking takes advantage of these new stories to increase its effectiveness and reach. We instinctively sense like a cornered dog. We confront corporations and governments who wish to exploit and influence us for their gain. They now have developed, and continue at an accelerated rate to develop, undreamt powerful tools to work on you with. They can use them to create a new standard model homeostasis mindset. Huxley called the wonder chemical enhancement in Brave New WorldSoma. It may turn out that we didn’t end as victims of suffering but as pleasured, blissed out zombies at the disordered end of the mental spectrum.
When you raise alarms to such a possible future, few will pay attention. One reason is that most people refuse to accept that they aren’t immune from mind hackers. They continue to live in the La La Land of free will where no one can tell them what to believe, think or do. It is hard to convince anyone that they live in a constructed reality where the construction material is from a low, diluted, incomplete and inaccurate information world.
Books like the three reviewed here reinforce the scientific view that most of our decisions and views about reality are wrong. Not because we are careless or stupid. We get things wrong because the tyrant called the Default Mode Network is engineered to create a self we believe is real. Knock out the tyrant, the deception stops, the sleight of hand trickster using our memory and emotion as a way to process information about the world is banished. We discover that consuming a teaspoon from the ocean is not going to tell us much about the ecology of the sea. Of course that dooms to a narrow band any understanding of the nature of things. That may well be our fate. We’ve traveled this far on a lot of bad information and survived. That is no guarantee of long-term survivability. Those who own the superior information may well determine whether you, your children and grandchildren survive.
Our main defense against being overwhelmed by the torrid of information our senses confront from each other and the environment is an ancient one—we withdraw into the grounds of our ego and self. It is from this position that we attack and defends. The high technological and information society means we are out gunned. We largely ignore the new and powerful weapons don’t seem harmful. It is just the opposite. The algorithms that learn to know us seem more like our new best friends. We invite them in to our lives and listen to their recommendations.
The attacks on our cognitive facilities have begun. All those low-information decisions are coming back to haunt us. A handful of mushrooms might surrender the self before it surrenders to the mind hackers. The time is running out as the human event heads to a new ordering or steers to a disordering. Entropy isn’t a friend to your sense of self. Your self sees entropy as an executioner with whom you have an unavoidable appointment. We are prisoner of this self. We know it resides. We know workarounds. And we know something about the way the self has been hacked long before the high tech revolution. We are witnessing a changing of the guard, the introduction of a fully efficient, functional prison management system of the mind. It’s on the horizon. Between here and there, you still have some time to shutdown the tyrant and enter into a space of incredible freedom.
Next time you are tearing through your cognitive shopping mall why not take some time to explore a new floor, a new shop, allow yourself to experience the moment in your pre-hacked brain days as a child you wondered with anticipation and excitement what this thing was for and how it worked.
Christopher G. Moore
Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian novelist and essayist, living in Bangkok, is CrimeMag South East Asia correspondent and the author of the award-winning Vincent Calvino series and a number of literary novels and non-fiction books. His books have been translated into 13 languages. The Christopher G. Moore Foundation is awarding a literary prize for a work of non-fiction, which advances understanding of human rights and freedom of Expression.