Predictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic Brain

This entry is part 22 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Brain researcher Robert Carhart-Harris and physicist Karl Friston suggest that psychedelics will save humanity. They are, of course, far from the first people to do so. But they’re the first to explain how psychedelics will save humanity using the theory of predictive processing, which was developed in large part by Friston himself. And so with my interest sufficiently piqued, allow me to condense a decade of research on the Entropic Brain Hypothesis into a few paragraphs.

Our brains evolved to model the environment and minimize surprise and uncertainty. Since our environment is complex and dynamic, so are more evolved brains. fMRI allows us to measure brain entropy, how unpredictable is one’s brain state in the future based on its current state. It’s a proxy for a brain’s flexibility and complexity. 

Human brains are more entropic than those of our animal relatives, which in turn have more entropic brains than phylogenetically distant species. But humans have also developed a brain structure that suppresses entropy: the default mode network (DMN). According to Friston, optimal prediction is achieved when the brain is finely poised between order and disorder, rigidity and entropy. The DMN is less developed in children, and is suppressed in REM sleep, the onset of psychosis, and by psychedelics — all the above states are characterized by wandering thoughts, creativity, and magical thinking (hello, Ribbonfarm!) that isn’t strongly constrained by reason and prior experiences.

The DMN is also overactive in people with depression. This manifests in two features of depression: “depressive realism” (a capacity to judge reality more accurately) and rigidity of thought (the mind is stuck in a negative bias that doesn’t respond to changes in the environment). In fact, many other mental disorders can be thought of as disorders of mental rigidity. For example: addiction (the brain is stuck in loops of craving and indulgence), autism, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Psychedelics increase brain entropy and “shake it out” of its rigid habits, allowing it to settle into more salubrious patterns (especially if guided by a good therapist).

There’s another effect that psychedelics cause by inhibiting the DMN — the dissolution of ego and the sense of self. Should we think of self-identity too as a disorder of mental rigidity? Stay tuned.

Making Meaning

This entry is part 16 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Matt Maier talks about the new religion he’s trying to create, and the systematic approach to making meaning he’s developed (talk ends at about the 15:30 mark, and the rest of the video is pitches for the workshop sessions and Q&A)

The Ovaltine Moment

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk Jay Bushman talks about futuristic transmedia storytelling attempts and the moment they tend to fall apart, which he calls the ovaltine moment, when the bubble bursts and the excitement fades into disappointment.


This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Chenoe Hart explores space in VR and AR from an architecture perspective and why there are no easy answers.

Elderblog Sutra: 10

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking about the context in which writing, or any kind of creative work that makes a public appearance, lives (for the author of the work rather than the consumer).

I often make up pseudomath equations to help me see the structure of an interesting question, even if it’s unlikely that there’s any actual interesting mathematical structure there. Here’s my pseudo-math attempt to model the idea of “work in context” (blue) as a convolution of aliveness (green) and general environmental context (brown).

As the blank blue graph suggests, I haven’t actually “solved” this pseudo-math problem to yield an evolving view of work in context, but lemme explain what I’m trying to poke at here.

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Predictable Identities: 21 – Enlightenment

This entry is part 21 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Before talking more about self-identifying, it’s worthwhile to consider why we even think that there is anything to identify  — a “self” that we can attach labels to. This is not a given; many people “…report no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts” This is from a paper on Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences, a sciencey-sounding term for what is normally called “enlightenment”.

Who’s “enlightened”? If you ask them, any and all of:

Whatever do these all have in common? Here’s my Predictable Identities conjecture: the sense of self comes from habitual and repeated thoughts; novel thoughts make the self dissolve.

“Habitual thoughts” means everything from high-level cogitation to low-level processing of stimuli. Kaj Sotala points out that something as simple as the perception of hearing a stick hitting a woodblock is the result of complicated processing that combines several auditory frequencies, your previous experience with wood objects, and mental imagery. This processing usually happens automatically: [hear sound] -> [imagine block]. 

But, with enough concentration, one can break this habit, leaving just the raw sounds to do with as one wishes. The same is true of “habits” like [feel pain] -> [experience suffering] or [see object of desire] -> [experience craving] that are the common focus of the monk’s meditation, or the frameworks of social interaction Valentine writes about

When the part of your brain that monitors itself notices repeated patterns of thought it creates a high-level model called “self” that it can use for prediction. “I” am interpreting the sound as a stick hitting a woodblock. “I” suffer when in pain. “I” think of everything in terms of predictive processing. And “I” will likely continue to do so in the future.

But when a thought or interpretation arises that can’t be predicted from the habits of my mind, there is no reason to assign it to a consistent thinking “self”. The thoughts I’m used to thinking are mine, but the novel ones could be anyone’s or no one’s.

The Other Simulation Hypothesis

This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Tiago talks about Lisa Feldman Barrett’s constructivist theory of emotion and connects it to science fiction and the pleasure activism of adrienne maree brown to posit an “other” simulation hypothesis based on emotional experience. Also check out the post , Pleasure as an Organizing Principle, which Tiago wrote based on this.

The Galactic Numerology Collision

This entry is part 12 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, David Sneider, who made up the Galactic Tick Day tells the bizarre story of how the idea went viral and ended up getting entangled with conspiracy theory subcultures, and draws lessons from the experience.

Mediocratopia: 9

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Mediocratopia

We often conflate quality with excellence, to the point that the term quality mediocrity seems like an oxymoron, and mediocre quality seems like the same thing as poor quality. But quality and excellence are not the same thing, and mediocrity and quality are not mutually exclusive. Excellence is synonymous with quality only under behavioral regimes governed by an optimizing sensibility, operating on a closed and bounded notion of what the kids these days seem to be calling fitness-to-purpose. What does it map to when you’re mediocratizing rather than optimizing? I have an answer: fatness. Or for the kids, fitness-to-purposelessness.

Public domain fat cat caricature. From Trade Union Unity Magazine (September 1925)

Fatness is the systemic condition created by a mediocre response to abundance. In the opener for this blogchain, I linked to a bunch of my older writing about fat thinking, but I didn’t construct a notion of quality out of that attribute. Let’s do that now.

The short version: Fatness is embodied abundance. Or if you like clever lines: Fatness is future-fitness.

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AI And Human Digitization: When Seeing Is Not Believing?

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series Refactor Camp 2019

In this talk, Hao Li, founder of Pinscreen talks about using AI to generate human avatars and how that shapes future realities.