Predictable Identities: 21 – Enlightenment

This entry is part 21 of 26 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.

Predictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic Brain

This entry is part 22 of 26 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.

Predictable Identities: 23 – The Self

This entry is part 23 of 26 in the series Predictable Identities

In reality there are only atoms and the void, but in our mind exists the self. This thing here is part of me, this thing there isn’t. The concept of self serves the same purpose as all others: it makes good predictions. Or perhaps it made good predictions at some point, and got stuck.

Self-identification gets off to a good start. A baby notices that when it wants the toy to move by itself the toy doesn’t budge, but when it wants its hand to move the hand immediately obliges. It begins to identify the body: that which is immediately moveable in the intended way by thought alone.

As a child grows, more and more things are reinforced by the world as part of its identity. This toy is yours, the other one isn’t: one can be grabbed with predictable good consequences, while grabbing the other one will trigger unpredictable retaliation. This essay was written by you and this is your grade for it, go back to your seat. The process is extended to one’s mind: the thoughts and feelings you recognize in your mind are yours, and other people have their own.

It is at the level of thought that the model of the unified self starts to buckle under the strain of contradictions. Careful introspection reveals that your mind comprises a multitude of independent subagents influencing your behavior and emotions in ways that your conscious self can’t access, let alone control. Careful study of societies reveals that our thoughts are shaped by memes, myths, and egregores, cognitive processes that run in vast groups, not individuals. This post was written by my conscious model of the self, a mild anxiety in my stomach, Alberto Albero, and Buddhism. In what sense is it mine?

Once we notice the breakdown of the rigid self as it relates to thought, we can see it in other contexts as well. Roles, blame and praise, personalities — these are merely conventions, as is private property. This even extends to the body: partnered dancers have as much control of their partner’s limbs as their own, while the most control you can exert over your appendix is chopping it off.

None of this means that drawing a circle around some things and calling them “myself” is always wrong. Just that there’s no clear “self” that matches reality in all contexts. This is good news, it means that the self is a thing to be played with.

Predictable Identities 24: Anti-Identity

This entry is part 24 of 26 in the series Predictable Identities

Identity is a set of habits of thought. The very idea of identity is just another habit you picked up. The good news: once you realize that, you can build your own from scratch. The bad news: it will troll you.

Countless clichéd people want to be a writer and start cultivating that identity. They install Scrivener. They read research papers and inspiring novels. They plan how the book’s cover will look. They introduce themselves as a writer. They don’t write much.

There are many diagnoses of this common malaise. The predictable identities one is: adopting X as an identity makes you optimize for being predicted as X, rather than for X itself. If you tell people about the book you’re writing they’ll predict that you’re a writer and will treat you accordingly, reinforcing your identity. If you merely accumulate words in a draft file, they won’t.

If I hear someone identify as a “truth seeker” I know that they’re a devout Christian, devout skeptic, or both (i.e., Jordan Peterson). “Truth seekers” love public debates, they love researching arguments and counterarguments, they love talking about the importance of truth. What they rarely seem to do is actually change their mind about anything — the invisible action that doesn’t reinforce their “truth seeking” identity.

The first step to escaping the trap of identity is to build an identity of fluidity, corrigibility, and small verbs rather than big adjectives.  

—  “Are you a writer?”  

—  “I’ve been writing this blogchain.”   

—  “Will you turn it into a book?”  

—  “Probably not, but I may change my mind.” 

—  “So you’re not really a writer.”

—  “Never said I was.”

It’s hard to go overboard with an identity of breaking-habits and keeping the self small, since your natural inclination will always pull you towards consistency, and others will assign labels to you whether you want to or not. Adopting an anti-identity can get you to a middle ground, and that’s a good place to start.

Predictable Identities 25: External Control

This entry is part 25 of 26 in the series Predictable Identities

My psychiatrist friend deals with a richer slice of New Yorkers, and she describes a common pattern. Her clients recount an abusive relationship or job that is pushing them to the verge of suicide. But they can’t leave, it is the only thing more dreadful than staying. Sometimes they admit the true issue: if I’m not [X], I don’t even know who I am.

Identities can control us. And other people can control our identities, grant them to us and withdraw them. My friend’s clients contemplate death, but the alternative is the death of the story they tell themselves.

Esther Perel describes how identity comes into play in relationships. Historically, marriage used to be about what you do (produce kids and/or feed and clothe them) or what you have (an alliance with the Habsburgs). But modern romance is about being loved for who you really are inside, not trivialities like what you bring to the table. This builds an identity of specialness: soulmate, the missing piece, the only one. As divorce and infidelity are becoming more common than ever they are also more painful, shattering one’s life story along with the relationship.

Not to be outdone by romance, companies also jumped on the identity-producing game. Jobs used to be described in terms of action: “glue together 170 widgets a day”. Now they describe a persona: “leader in the space” / “embodiment of our culture” / “inspiring team member”. You no longer merely work at BigCorpInc; you’re a Googler, Postie, Amazonian.

But these manufactured articles lack the predictive power that imbues identities with potency. Can you tell much about a person from the fact that they’re a Microsoftie? But some identities have predictive associations that were accumulated over centuries. Those who grant and withhold them possess great power, ripe for abuse. 

Yes, we’re going to talk about academia.

Predictable Identities 26: Academic Identity

This entry is part 26 of 26 in the series Predictable Identities

Why do smart kids go to grad school, to be underpaid and overworked for the prime years of their youth in a setting that sextuples their chances of suffering from anxiety and depression?

Scott Alexander posits that academia is like a drug gang: the suffering is worth the 5-10% chance of becoming a kingpin tenured professor. Tenure is pretty great. You get paid six figures to converse with intellectual peers, do research, and have your ideas read by an admiring public. But wait: I get paid six figures, chat with the best shitposters on Twitter during work hours, do research, and you’re reading my blogchain instead of an academic paper. Most people smart enough for a PhD can follow a similar path to corporate sinecure with a much more certain success rate than the academic lottery.

What I’m missing is the identity of an academic. An academic is an intellectual, a truth-seeker and truth-teller, a lifelong learner. Whereas I only do those things, if I feel like it.

An identity gives you permission to do all the above. External permission, such as being allowed in a laboratory if that’s where your interests are pursued. But it’s also about allowing yourself to engage in intellectual pursuits. Or even: being afraid that without the external pressure of people expecting (predicting) novel intellectual output from you, you would not create any.

Consider this tweet:

Who would stay in a job that drives them to anxiety attacks and tearful breakdowns? Only someone who literally put “Scientist” in their name, who made that epithet more painful to lose than their mental health.

The dark irony of this all is: since your identity is in the hands of academic institutions, they exert vast control over you. It could be benign, but it could include demanding that someone betray their actual truth-seeking and truth-telling work if it goes against the institutions interests. The identity is not the thing; sometimes you must choose one over the other.