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◷ 14 min read - Jul 29, 2010

Thoughts on Living Systems, Cognition and Meditation

I have recently read the book "The Embodied Mind - Cognitive Science and Human Experience", written by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, published in 1991. This book is about bringing the science and experience of being an embodied, embedded human mind closer together. These are thoughts on the topic of that book.

The words embodied and embedded are used frequently throughout the book. Embodied in the context of the book means that our bodies shape our minds and that the two depend on one another. Embedded means that we, as embodied minds, live in an environment which also shapes our bodies and minds and, therefore, should not be neglected when exploring human cognition. The authors summarize how cognitive science and biology came to see our mind during the 20th century and formulate a next step in that development, one that has been embraced by the scientific community if I interpret current research correctly. Their approach, which they call enactive, describes cognition as perceptually guided action. In essence, this approach describes the foundation of cognition to be a circle of embodied perception and action with reference to an environment. Perception, according to the authors, is based largely on the history of the embodied mind in question (and its ancestors for that matter). An illustrative example from the book is that when we see with our eyes, only about 20 percent of input to our visual cortex comes from the eye itself, the rest stems from inside the brain. This perception is transformed into bodily action - interaction with the environment - which in turn is again perceived and so brings us full circle.

So much for the theory, the other part of the book is about human experience. In their book, the authors introduce the reader to the Buddhist practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation and the reader learns to appreciate the similarities between this practice and the aforementioned theory. Modern science and the tradition of mindfulness/awareness meditation seem to converge and might ultimately transform humanity for the better.

Where Am I?

The book makes clear that there is no Self, no ego, no 'I' to be found in the human body. With this bold statement, the authors are well in line with today's research in cognitive science and neuroscience. It has long been clear that if there was a thing inside us that constituted the ego, then it would have to be located inside the brain. In the brain, however, no such region has been found with modern imaging technologies such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). It is conceivable that our sense of 'I' develops through a circle of perception and bodily action with respect to our worlds and that this ego is an emergent property of embodied, embedded neural networks. There are wide ranging consequences of this view, including the possibility of developing artificial brains that exhibit human characteristics, as I have described in a more scientific way in my paper (German) Selbstwahrnehmung auf dem Weg von natürlichen in künstliche Organismen ("Self-awareness on its way from natural into artificial organisms").

The discovery of the non-existence of a Self in our brains poses a fundamental problem as it directly opposes our everyday experience. Worse than that, many people believe in a soul that carries their personality or ego and transcends their body in one way or another. They are now forced to either ignore the findings of science by telling that science is fallible and that their beliefs are true, because they know them to be, or, worse yet, to declare modern science to be evil, and actively fight technological advancement.

The authors found that there is hope yet, because the Buddhist practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation has come to the same conclusion as cognititve science that there is no Self and that there never was one to begin with. Meditators experience this lack of Self directly through self-observation of body and mind. Once this lack of Self is experienced, as with all other things, it loses its power and the fear of losing a Self due to science (or death for that matter) ceases. Instead they are said to develop love and compassion for all beings, because, after all, they have the same problems.

Breaking Down an Organism

An organism is but a system with certain properties (response to stimuli, reproduction, growth/development, homeostasis). I will at first flat-out ignore these properties and introduce them when (if) they are needed. As a system, an organism is a perceptual unity of interrelated objects that can, by definition, only exist embedded into a perceptual background that gives rise to its unity. This background is called the environment of the organism. I would like to stress the importance of human perception here: While the perception of form and thus systems as described above, obviously is evolutionary viable, one can conceive of beings without a notion of form. This definition is based solely on human perception. This might ultimately seem of little consequence, since the whole discussion revolves around human perception, but let's keep our minds open, shall we?

Enfolding a Universe...

The book came with a remarkable sentence which I found to not only summarize several main points of the authors but also carry a spiritual connotation in line with their argumentation. I have built this blog entry around that quote for it provides a great structure to build on. Here goes the quote:

"Organism and environment enfold into each other and unfold from one another in the fundamental circularity that is life itself." (p. 217)

Now to the first part, "enfold into each other". How is it possible for a unity that by definition is surrounded by what is not part of it to enfold its environment? At first, I thought it plainly means that organism and environment were interlocked, interdependent as the context of the book suggests. But translating (being German and all) carefully, I came to understand that the meaning of "enfold" cannot be bent to imply this. There is another possible meaning to it, one that fits into the domain of Zen (a Japanese adoption/interpretation of mindfulness/awareness meditation), and that will lead us back to a notion of interdependence too.

For a background to enfold into a thing on that background all that is needed is a change of perspective. Inside becomes outside depending on how you look at it. For illustration, take a look at the following video.

This is a parallax canvas, i.e. the edges wrap around. I'm drawing black discs of increasing sizes. When the disc overlaps the edges of the canvas, I drag the canvas from the top right corner to the center. Notice how at some point your perception switches, and the black disc is no longer an object to you, but rather the background of a new white object.

With that experience in mind, what of the inside without an outside and vice versa? If there was no form to make out, there could be no environment this form is embedded into and if there was no environment, how could you possibly perceive a form at all? There would be only emptiness. Therefore, the inside and outside are interdependent, not one can exist without the other. We can directly transform this understanding to embrace the fact that an organism (the perceptually closed form) and its environment define/give rise to each other's existence from this existential point of view.

An additional interpretation is the reciprocal "part of" relationship between a living system and its environment. Clearly, an organism is part of its environment. It lives in it and interacts with it. Now consider the fact that the organism is made of components from this environment and that every time it eats, part of its environment becomes part of the organism itself. From that point of view, an organism is but its environment, as acknowledged in the saying "ashes to ashes, dust to dust".

...and Unfolding it Again

"Two things unfolding from one another" carries the connotation of mutual development, of interdependence. Such development is based on interaction. I would thus like to shift the focus away from the duality of system and environment to the interaction between the two. For interaction to exist, there must be action. For action to exist, there must be a reason to act. For a reason to act, there must be a fundamental imbalance. Now what might that be in our case? Ever get hungry? I know I do. For a living system to reproduce, grow and maintain homeostasis, it needs energy. So there we have our fundamental imbalance and thus a reason for any organism to act.

When an organism interacts with an environment throughout time, the interaction shapes or even defines both the organism and the environment. The interaction therefore lays a trajectory for future interactions between system and environment, recursively defining itself. System and environment "coevolve" (in terms of biology) or "arise co-dependently" (in terms of Buddhist teachings), or in the words of the authors: "they share a history of structural coupling".

Here is an example of such a trajectory. When sources of energy are sparse, those organisms that can sense and evaluate their environment have a noticeable advantage over those that cannot, and will, in time, become a majority and constitute the evolutionary trajectory of the development of sensorimotor systems that ultimately led to you (hello *wave*). Necessary for this to happen is an element we refer to as randomness or fate. New ways of being must be able to come into existence by forces that are (currently) of too high complexity for us to understand them, of unknown or maybe even not to be known origin. Cosmic background radiation? Quantum fluctuations? Take your pick. Given the possibility of mutation to occur without apparent reason, new trajectories can be founded and pursued if viable.

Life as Circularity

Life is linear, is it not? We are born, we live, we die - it does not get more linear than that. Since I have been talking about Buddhist meditation practice, I feel that I have to add that I am not going to discuss any religious beliefs about what happens after you die (reincarnation vs eternal life etc) in this article. My discussion is based solely on research and experience of embodied, embedded minds as described in "The Embodied Mind". If you were to take away embeddedness or embodiment, you would change the topic entirely, for here the mind is considered to arise co-dependently with the body rather than apart from it, meaning that if the body dies, so does the mind.

Seeing life as a "fundamental circularity" requires a different understanding of life. Life does not begin when a specific living being is born and does not end when it dies. There is a history which led to this being's existence and a future it inevitably shapes. Therefore, life can be seen as encompassing all living beings at any given moment. It comes into existence through a spiral of interaction of living beings and their environments through time. By influencing its environment, a living being influences the future of all things and thus the future of life itself, completing the circle.

On a side note, if you are interested in Buddhism, you will be familiar with the concept of Karma (or Kamma in Pali) which, according to Buddhist teachings, is said to be the one thing that survives the death of a living being. I believe this circularity of life is what Karma is about. A living being, born as the result of all past Karma (read: actions and their results) of all beings before its existence, actively shapes the world during its life-span, thereby influencing all life to come. The parts about being reborn as a "lesser" being when you do wrong, as well as the parts about good or bad things happening to you depending on whether you do good or bad things yourself, I believe to be an incentive for people to behave cooperatively and reassurance for those who believe they are doing good deeds and yet never seem to receive anything good in return. We can easily spot such incentives and wishful thinking in our very own culture as well.

In addition to this view of life as a circularity, when we look at life more closely, we are able to see living systems constantly exchanging substances with their environment through skin, respiration, digestion or similar system boundaries. These substances wander through an organism, then through the environment, until they maybe become part of yet another living being, completing another circle. From this point of view, life is but a process of moving particles around in a strangely organized fashion.

Putting the Pieces Back Together

Let us first combine enfolding and unfolding to be a spiral of interactions in time. I have discussed how organism end environment enfold into each other when one changes one's perspective as to what is inside (organism) and what is outside (environment) as well seeing how organism and environment are made of the same substances. When we add the dimension of time, we form histories of structural coupling in which organism and environment unfold from another in a developmental sense.

If you are a critical reader, you might have asked yourself why I separated enfolding and unfolding at all. I did so because of the developmental connotation of "unfolding". I wanted to make use of the double sense of the word to make a point which was not possible when leaving it as one phrase. This is because the term "enfolding" somewhat limits the possibilities of "unfolding" to be the antonym of "enfolding" which would, in my opinion, not do justice to the quote in the context of the book.

If we add to this the "fundamental circularity that is life", we end up with a nice mixture in which one life is a process of all life, in which the inside is the outside and where everything is groundless and in constant flow, except for time, which brings me to a point of criticism.

What About Time?

In all the talk about co-dependent arising and groundlessness, the authors never seemed to question time itself. Everything arises and ceases in time, but what of time itself? How come things happen one after another? We can perceive events to occur in sequence or in parallel and therefore reason about cause, effect and uncertainty. But what is it that binds a moment to another and cause to effect? Is this for man to understand?

Following the book's line of argumentation, time should itself arise co-dependently. It seems conceivable to me that time came into existence together with space. Time and space correlate in a way similar to how system and environment do. Without space one could not experience time at all and without time one could not experience space. Of course this does not prove space to be co-dependently arisen with time but it sure is worth a thought or two.

A Journey to the Origin

This paragraph is about a curious thing I came across. If we clearly see that everything came into being in a spiral through spacetime, woven into what we now perceive, then what would we find if we unraveled this cord backwards through time to its beginning?

Let me illustrate that. You can either twist two cords, in which case there are two loose ends on both sides or you can twist a single cord to have a sling on one end and two loose ends on the other. If system and environment were two cords then one could exist without the other in the beginning, which contradicts logic and our observations. So our only options seems to be that we understand these two to ultimately be one and the same thing.

There are many such dualisms where one thing cannot be explained without the other. In fact, this thought is rather old and has e.g. been symbolized in form of the "yin-yang symbol".

In Conclusion

It sure was an interesting experience, reading about the marriage between cognitive science and Buddhist mindfulness/awareness meditation. The more science advances, especially cognitive science and neuroscience, the more human experience will be questioned. Concepts of free will and ego will eventually be abandoned by science, further driving the wedge between science and human experience.

I think it to be an important step in human evolution to gain more profound insight into human experience in addition to scientific research. Such insight cannot be obtained through third-party analysis, but must be gained through direct experience of oneself as the embodied, embedded mind that one is. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness/awareness meditation is, according to the authors, a way to close the gap between science and experience. I would like to suggest to everyone to give it a try for themselves as I see it as yet another catalyst to further the well-being and advancement of humanity and as a way to the liberation from suffering that we seem to strive for so desperately. There are various techniques, I recommend that you read up on them and have a good look at the people practicing. If they look and talk like esoteric nuts, they probably are. Please do not get Buddhist mindfulness/awareness meditation confused with Buddhism. As with all other major religions, Buddhism is full of folklore, gods, demons and mysticism, so stay alert.

Thank you for reading.