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Mysticism and Pattern-Matching

[Epistemic status: Total conjecture.]

One of the things that got me interested in psychiatry was the sheer weirdness of the human brain’s failure modes. We all hear that the brain is like a computer, but when a computer breaks, the screen goes black or it freezes or something. It doesn’t hear voices telling it that it’s Jesus, or start seeing tiny men running around on the floor. But for some reason, when the the human brain breaks, it may do exactly that. Why?

Psychiatry classes never just tell you the answer to this question, but reading between the lines I think it has something to do with top-down processing and pattern matching.

Bottom-up processing is when you go from basic elements to more complex ideas – for example, when you see the three letters C, A, and T in a row, you might combine them to get the the word CAT. Top-down processing is when more complex ideas change the way you interpret basic elements. For example, in the first picture above, the middle letters in both words are the same. We read the first as H, because the image as a gestalt suggests the word “THE” and the word “THE” suggests an H in the middle. We read the second as A, because the image as a gestalt suggests the word “CAT” and the word “CAT” has an A in the middle. Our big-picture idea has changed the way we view the smaller elements composing it.

The same is true of the second image. We recognize the phrase “PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME”, and so we assume that’s what the sign is trying to show us. In fact, the sign doubles the word “the”. But since this is bizarre and not something that makes sense in the gestalt, we assume this is a mistake and gloss right over it. We do this very, very easily – how many times have I duplicated the word “the” in this essay already?

The third image is related to this tendency. To most people, it looks formless. Even once they hear that it’s an old black-and-white photograph of a cow’s head, it’s might still require a bit of staring before you catch on. But once you see the cow, the cow is obvious. It becomes impossible to see it as formless, impossible to see it as anything else. Having given yourself a top-down pattern to work from, the pattern automatically organizes the visual stimuli and makes sense of them.

This provides a possible explanation for hallucinations. Think of top-down processing as taking noise and organizing it to fit a pattern. Normally, you’ll only fit it to the patterns that are actually there. But if your pattern-matching system is broken, you’ll fit it to patterns that aren’t in the data at all.

The best example of this is Google Deep Dream:

I don’t know much about neural networks, so I may not be getting this entirely right, but as far as I understand it, they trained a neural network on some stimulus like a dog. This was for research in machine vision; they wanted the net to be able to recognize dogs when it saw them; to pattern-match potentially noisy images of dogs into its Platonic ideal of a dog. But if you turn the pattern-matching up, it will just start seeing dogs everywhere there’s even the slightest amount of noise that resembles a dog at all. You only matched the sign above to “PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME” because it was almost exactly like that phrase; if we stick your pattern-matching software into overdrive, maybe every sentence would start looking like more meaningful alternatives. Eevn sceeentns wtih aolsmt all the lerttes rergaearnd wulod naelry ianslntty sanp itno pacle. Turn it all the way up, and maybe you could make every sentence look like “PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME”. Or something.

So hallucinations are when your top-down processing/pattern-matching ability becomes so dysfunctional that it can generate people and objects out of random visual noise. Why it chooses some people and objects over others I don’t know, but it’s hardly surprising – it does the same thing every night in your dreams.

Many of the same people who have hallucinations also have paranoia. Paranoia seems to me to be overfunctioning of social pattern-matching. When Deep Dream sees the tiniest hint of a line here, a slight dark spot there, it pattern-matches it into an entire dog. When a paranoiac hears a stray word here, or sees a sideways glance there, they turn it into this vast social edifice of connected plots. Every new thing that happens is fit effortlessly into the same pattern. When their psychiatrist says they’re crazy, that gets fit into the pattern too – maybe the psychiatrist is a tool of the conspiracy, trying to confuse them into compliance.

So where does the mysticism come in?

I notice that the same people who have hallucinations also have mystical experiences. By mystical experiences, I don’t just mean “they see angels” – in that case, the relationship to hallucination would be a tautology. I mean they feel a sense of sudden understanding of and connection with the universe. I know at least three groups that do this: druggies, meditators, and prophets. The druggies report feelings of total understanding on their drugs, and also report hallucinations. The meditators occasionally achieve enlightenment, but look at any text about meditation and you find mentions of visions and hallucinations experienced during the practice. The voices heard by the prophets are too obvious to mention.

One well-known way of bringing on such experiences is to abuse your pattern-matching faculty. The Chicken Qabalah of Rabbi Lamed Ben Clifford (not really recommended) manages to link a pretty boring Bible verse to the letter yud, the creativity of God, the essence of existence, the sun, the phallus, the plane of Malkuth, and the number 496, then explains:

Like a mountain goat leaping ecstatically from crag to crag, one thought springs into another, and another, ad infinitum. You can continue, almost forever, connecting things that you never thought were connected. Sooner or later something’s going to snap and you will overcome the fundamental defect in your powers of perception.


Was that the message Ezekiel was trying to convey? Probably not. But who cares! Whatever it was the old boy was originally trying to say shrinks to insignificance. It is far more important to my spiritual enlightenment that my mind was forced to churn at breakneck speed to put all of this together, and then open itself up to the infinite possibilities of meaning. Look hard enough at anything and eventually you will see everything! it doesn’t even have to make very much sense what you connect to what. It’s all ultimately connected!

This philosophy, which I associate both with kabbalah and with the more modern Western hermetic tradition, says that learning a set of extremely complicated correspondences is an important step toward gaining enlightenment. See for example this site, which helpfully relates the sephirah Netzach to the planet Venus, the number 7, the emerald, the lynx, the rose, cannabis, arsenic, copper, fire, the solar plexus chakra, the archangel Haniel, the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the concepts of love and victory, et cetera, et cetera. You’re supposed to be able to use this to interpret things – for example, if you have a dream about a lynx, it could correspond to anything else in the system – but it looks like it would quickly get unwieldy. And other sources will give completely different systems of correspondences, and nobody gets too upset over it – in fact, some sources will happily encourage you to come up with your own correspondences instead, as long as you stick to them. It seems like the goal is less “remember that it’s extremely important that emeralds correspond to lynxes in reality” and more “have some system, any system, of interesting correspondences in mind that you can apply to everything you come across”.

Nor does it especially matter what you’re interpreting. The traditional things to interpret are mysterious things like dreams, or the Bible, but Crowley famously performs a mystical analysis of Mother Goose nursery rhymes (see Interlude here). The important factor seems to be less about there being sacred truth in the object being analyzed, and more about the process of performing the analysis.

(Zen koans are a little different, but also sort of involve torturing a pattern-finding ability for apparently no reason)

So to skip to the point: I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe. This is the experience that mystics describe as “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The discovery of a beautiful all-encompassing pattern in the universe is understandably associated with “seeing God”.

Religious scholar William James once experimented with nitrous oxide and reached a state where he felt he had total comprehension of the universe. According to a story which I can’t verify, he became infuriated at losing the thread of understanding once the chemical wore off, so he decided to take notes during the experience: write down the secrets of the universe then, and reread them once he was sober. The experiment completed, he picked up the notepad in feverish excitement, only to find that he had written OVERALL THERE IS A SMELL OF FRIED ONIONS.

Imagine one of those Google robots pointing at an empty patch of sky and saying “No, look, seriously, there’s a dog right there. Right there! How are you not seeing this?” Things that make perfect sense in the context of a state of overactive pattern-matching look meaningless to a pattern-matching faculty operating normally. At best, you can sort of see the lines of what seemed so clear before (“Yeah, I can see that that stain on the wall is vaguely dog-shaped.”) This matches the stories I’ve heard of people who have some mystical experience but then can’t maintain or recapture it.

I think other methods of inducing weird states of consciousness, like drugs and meditation, probably do the same thing by some roundabout route. Meditation seems like reducing stimuli, which is known to lead to hallucinations in eg sensory deprivation tanks or solitary confinement cells in jail. I think the general principle is that a low level of external stimuli makes your brain adjust its threshold for stimulus detection up until anything including random noise satisfies the threshold. As for drugs, there’s lots of reasons to think that the neurotransmission changes they create will alter the brain’s pattern processing strategies.

Things this hypothesis doesn’t explain: why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and no self; why prayer or extreme devotion seems to induce them (eg bhakti yoga), and why they can be so beneficial – that is, why do people with mystical experiences become happier and better adjusted? Maybe the feeling of the world making sense is naturally a pleasant and helpful one. Certainly the opposite can be very stressful!

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327 Responses to Mysticism and Pattern-Matching

  1. Sniffnoy says:

    Regarding the story about William James, Quote Investigator discusses the history of it a bit here. In short, the oldest version of the story seems to be from 1870, it was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., who claimed to have done it, and what he claimed to have written down was “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

    • roystgnr says:

      The William James + “Overall there is a smell of fried onions” version of the story seems to have been popularized in Robert Anton Wilson’s fiction; a quick Google Books hunt didn’t turn up any earlier references for me.

      • ryan says:

        I often wonder if an actual majority of quotes on the internet are wrongly attributed.

        • birdboy2000 says:

          “The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity” – Abraham Lincoln.

        • Deiseach says:

          What you also get are a lot of quotes attributed to people which you can’t say for certain are wrong, but they don’t sound quite right (style and/or content) for the person to whom they are attributed.

          And I always heard the “turpentine” version, never the “onion” one.

    • nydwracu says:

      The quote is apocryphal, but William James did experiment with nitrous oxide and write about it:

      It is impossible to convey an idea of the torrential character of the identification of opposites as it streams through the mind in this experience. I have sheet after sheet of phrases dictated or written during the intoxication, which to the sober reader seem meaningless drivel, but which at the moment of transcribing were fused in the fire of infinite rationality. God and devil, good and evil, life and death, I and thous, sober and drunk, matter and form, black and white, quantity and quality, shiver of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting and swallowing, inspiration and expiration, fate and reason, great and small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic and comic, and fifty other contrasts figure in these pages in the same monotonous way. The mind saw how each term belonged to its contrast through a knife-edge moment of transition which it effected, and which, perennial and eternal, was the nunc stans of life. The thought of mutual implication of the parts in the bare form of a judgement of opposition, as “nothing–but,” “no more–than,” “only–if,” etc., produced a perfect delirium of the theoretic rapture. And at last, when definite ideas to work on came slowly, the mind went through the mere form of recognizing sameness in identity by contrasting the same word with itself, differently emphasized, or shorn of its initial letter. Let me transcribe a few sentences.

      What’s mistake but a kind of take?
      What’s nausea but a kind of -usea?
      Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
      Everything can become the subject of criticism —
      How criticise without something to criticise?
      Agreement — disagreement!!
      Emotion — motion!!!!
      By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn’t hurt!
      Reconciliation of two extremes.
      By George, nothing but othing!
      That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure onsense!
      Thought deeper than speech…!
      Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL!
      Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

      The most coherent and articulate sentence which came was this: There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.

      • MC says:

        1) Admit it, you can imagine “What’s mistake but a kind of take?” as the subtitle to Malcolm Gladwell’s next book.

        2) As a whole it just reads like a sophomore English major who has been reading too much Allen Ginsburg.

      • Careless says:

        I feel like my dentist must be holding out on me.

      • haishan says:

        There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference.

        You could have told me some continental philosopher wrote that and I’d have believed you.

        Is that why continental’s so great? Are you constantly high on nitrous?

        • rrb says:

          Not a coincidence; elsewhere in the article William James says he was thinking about Hegel while on nitrous.

      • Pure Awesome says:

        “This sounds like nonsense but is pure onsense!” Sounds like a great way to end… well I’m not sure exactly what, but things which sound like nonsense anyways. Maybe like as the last line in a poem similar to The Jabberwock by Lewis Carol.

    • Gerry Quinn says:

      It is high time the Onionites rose up and extirpated the abominable Turpentine heresy.

    • zippy says:

      I’ve always enjoyed the version of the story where William James had written “Everything smells like nitrous oxide.”

  2. xav says:

    One of the biggest belief updates I’ve done in the past year was accepting that enlightenment is a real thing that real people can and do actually achieve. This update came as a result of several experiences I had on mushrooms and acid as well as reading Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (which I would highly recommend). It’s cliched (and no doubt some would consider is suspicious) to state this, but it really is an experience far beyond expression in words.

    I’ve heard the relationship between meditation and acid described as this: that acid teleports you to enlightenment but doesn’t tell you where you are or how to get there and then when it’s over teleports you back, whereas meditation is about learning how to walk there step by step. I can’t claim this is a good analogy because I have never achieved enlightenment through meditation and so can’t be sure it’s really the same thing as my psychedelic experiences, but after reading MCTB I’m leaning toward this being more or less accurate.

    • DavidS says:

      One of my big personal changes of view at uni was reading RC Zaehner’s ‘Mysiticism, Sacred and Profane’ (amongst a bunch of other books for an essay on mysticism I was writing). Basically, people often take drugs and say ‘wow, that mystical experience that everyone talks about is real, and I know, I had it’. This tends to then go off into a debate about whether the experience is more meaningful in the context of meditation etc. or if now we have psillocybin, asceticism and spiritual exercises are a waste time.

      Huxley was the big case in point at the time Zaehner was writing: he’d written The Doors of Perception about taking mescaline and having The Mystical Experience referred to in all religions etc.

      However, what Zaehner points out is that if you read some mystics (from various traditions, but including e.g. Eckhart, they talk very explicitly and distinctly about different sorts of mystical experience. From memory, there’s a sense of ‘unity-by-merging-with-the-world’, but this is cleary distinguished from the ‘unity-within-myself’ where the world become meaningless. And then there’s a sort of duality where all you’re aware of is you and the ‘Ultimate’ or whatever, but you retain your identity (I think this comes in Personal and Impersonal varieties)

      Of course, through the vagaries of translation, inter-subjectivity etc. it’s really easy to assume that my experience of Oneness and yours is the same. But I think the fact that there are major mystics who distinguish them suggests that they’re not.

      All of this is ‘not the same experientially/phenomenologically’. As it happens, mystics who make this distinction tend to see the ‘blur with the world’ type as ‘lower’ or ‘less meaningful’ and sometimes outright irrelevant. Of course, that could be insight or prejudice based on their philosophical/religious views. But I give a very low probability that Huxley on mescaline experienced the whole of what the mystical tradition refers to.

      • Pobop says:

        Moreover, I’d give a very low probability that non-druggie mystics can fully experience what the psychedelic experience is. Equating a hit of acid with decades of contemplative practice was a big failure of Leary and related hippie perennialists. What you wrote about how it’s easy to assume similar experiences applies here too. There are some similarities between ritual drug use and meditation (compassion, openness, re-adjustment of life goals), but the shaman, much less the hippie, is not the yogi.
        But conversely, a large dose of DMT produces experiences which you could never access no matter how hard you meditate.

        I’ll check the book out, thanks for the tip.

        • DavidS says:

          I should probably flag for fairness that after using very balanced and thoughtful analysis on Huxley et al, the very end of the book turns into a ‘why my religion’s insight is best’. Possibly from his own mystical experiences, but he tries to go beyond distinguishing personal from impersonal to argue that the former is inherently higher – that it contains the latter, or that the Trinity somehow manages to combine personal and impersonal… something like that. But you see his personal faith/experience coming through a lot!

    • Jiro says:

      How would you distinguish actually achieving enlightenment from causing a brain malfunction that makes you think you’ve achieved enlightenment?

      • moridinamael says:

        I’m pretty sure enlightenment is a brain malfunction. People who attain enlightenment have been known to “reverse the process” when they realize they’re no longer capable of relating to people in the way they formerly did.

        • DavidS says:

          Trouble is that even within the religious tradition, enlightenment has different meanings. Zen Buddhism focuses a lot on flashes of enlightenment which seem to be related to ongoing insight but are themselves transitory. Whereas Indian Buddhism treated enlightenment much more as something that was achieved permanently (although using the term ‘permanent’ in relation to Buddhist metaphysics is probably very bad form!)

        • Allan53 says:

          Could you potentially cite a source for that (the reversing/difficulty relating bit)? Google has let me down, and I find your idea intriguing.

      • Anonymous says:

        Like moridinamael said, I’m not sure if there’s a distinction here. I don’t have a solid idea of what enlightenment is.

      • Mary says:

        How, in the country of blind, would you distinguish between someone who can actually see, and someone who hallucinates that he sees?

        • Marc Whipple says:

          One can reliably determine how many fingers I’m holding up from the other side of the room, and the other cannot. The coincidences in that story which make the blind people think the sighted man is lying are preposterous and he’s a moron.

          • scav says:

            Yes, yes he is. That was one SF story that pissed all over the whole point of doing science. Thank you for articulating that. I had no idea until now that I was still kind of angry with H. G. Wells about that, which is … I suppose, not a very useful mental state to be in.

          • Mary says:

            “One can reliably determine how many fingers I’m holding up from the other side of the room, and the other cannot.”

            Happenstance. Especially since the ability is so unreliable. All this mumbojumbo about night and shadows and lack of windows is clearly obfuscation fudged up to avoid the obvious explanation of his being a liar, especially since if the room is large enough, it’s never right.

        • J Thomas says:

          If you are one of the blind people in the country of the blind, how do you tell whether somebody else has one eye or two?

          The guy with two eyes will say his insight is superior, but it might not seem like a big deal to people who have no eyes at all.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            The guy with two eyes, assuming he’s otherwise in reasonable health, can throw things at other things and hit them: the guy with one eye cannot.

            Admittedly, that’s a big jump for them to make, but they don’t have to know why it works, only that it does.

          • Mary says:

            That is predicated on so many other factors as to be impossible. Many people with two eyes are unreliable about hitting things.

      • KS says:

        Not to be too cliche – but there should be no meaningful difference. The idea of a “brain malfuction” as distiguished from something the will percieves to be the matter is inherently dualistic. If the will is at peace, that it is all.

        • Jiro says:

          Nothing to do with the will. “A brain malfunction that makes you see X” means something that makes you see X regardless of whether X is actually present.

      • scav says:

        You wouldn’t. If there is any measurable ability that the enlightened have and the unenlightened don’t, someone else could observe it in you.

        I honestly don’t know what that might look like. I am unable to imagine it other than as superior insight into human problems, yielding answers that are non-obvious but in retrospect highly compelling.

        If it doesn’t get you that, I’ll settle for normal problem-solving thanks.

      • Doctor Mist says:

        How would you distinguish actually achieving enlightenment from causing a brain malfunction that makes you think you’ve achieved enlightenment?

        Hmm. How would you distinguish depression from a brain malfunction that makes you think you’re depressed? Or blindness from a brain malfunction that makes you think you’re blind? I’ve certainly read about the latter, and the way you tell is that the victim responds to things in his visual field in ways he would not if he were actually blind.

        It seems like the first step is to distinguish someone who is enlightened from someone who is just pretending to be enlightened. My high-school reading about Buddhism suggests that markers are contentment, resignation, and renunciation, and I can imagine lots of behaviors that would falsify these (assuming enlightenment really is a distinct state change and not something you might get to 90% of). On the other hand, I’m not sure this is what xav is talking about.

  3. Ishaan says:

    >why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and no self

    There could be two opposing processes – one strengthening top down processes, leading to dualist, anthropomorphic worldviews … and one weakening top down processes which impose certain useful constructs, leading to depersonalization, timelessness, spacelessness. And these mix and match in funny ways. i have a theory that the “left hand path” vs “right hand path” distinction kinda describes this difference in approach.

    embarrassingly wild speculation of course, but we’re doing that anyway.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      The sense of time, space and self are related to the part of your brain which is keeping track of what is happening right now and how you are reacting to it. Or, if you prefer, to the processing thread which maintains “present consciousness.” Those are all things which relate “you” to “everything else,” but in what we normally think of as fixed and specific ways.

      When more CPU time goes to the pattern-matching thread(s,) less CPU time will be available for the “What’s happening in terms of my fixed relationship to everything else?” thread(s.) This is my theory as to why these senses are diminished in capacity when, for instance, the pattern-matching thread goes rogue. There’s just not enough CPU power to do it all at once. *cue story about how Space Invaders actually works*

      It happens in lots of things that start using up disproportionate CPU time. Nearly everyone who enters hypnotic trance (which is, depending on your POV, a child class of “meditation” or the parent class) experiences severe time distortion and they often report a sense of space “enlarging.” This is, in my theory, because they’re not keeping track of their physical bodies very well. I’ve never heard them say specifically that they lost track of their “selves,” but that’s kind of the whole point of hypnotic trance and it certainly describes the general mental state.

      In any event, I don’t mean to harp on hypnosis and lots of other things cause similar phenomena. Time sense, particularly, is highly sensitive to concentrating on something – nearly everyone has experienced the flow of time seeming to alter (usually slowing, but often speeding up) when they were concentrating on something or being distracted by some inner conflict/dialogue. Turn it up, and space and self can go the same way.

      Edited to Add: This isn’t to say, of course, that organic issues can’t have similar effects. To extend my “brain as General Purpose Computer” analogy rather embarassingly, parts of your brain are dedicated to/more efficient at certain processes. We might think of one part as a GPU, one part as a FPU, one part as a clock, etc. Damage the dedicated unit, and the brain loses its ability to perform the associated function.

      Except when it doesn’t.

      The brain can rewire itself in some truly spectactular ways… just like I could, if I wanted to, use the main CPU to do the graphics processing work, even if I had a GPU. It’s less efficient but it’s perfectly feasible.

      If I just yanked the graphics card out of my computer, it would stop working. Or rather, it would work, but I wouldn’t be able to see any output. The CPU would be sending commands to something that wasn’t there to recieve them. But if I told the BIOS, “activate the motherboard-based GPU,” and just moved the monitor connector, I’d be back in business, empty hole in the case notwithstanding. Now obviously that’s still a GPU but there’s no theoretical reason I couldn’t just have the CPU do all the work in the first place.

      So sometimes you have people who have a stroke or TBI and “learn to walk again,” or whatever, when according to current neurobiological theory the part of the brain that handles whatever they lost is just gone and they shouldn’t be able to do it. They switched to a secondary processing unit, or rewired the main unit to do the work of the failed dedicated processing unit.

      Why it happens in some people and not others, I have no idea, but figuring that out should be way higher in our current investigative priority list than it is, y’ask me.

      • tcd says:

        “nearly everyone has experienced the flow of time seeming to alter (usually slowing, but often speeding up) when they were concentrating on something or being distracted by some inner conflict/dialogue.”

        Every so often on my drive home from the office I will jump onto the highway and casually start thinking about something new I had learned, start cataloging information from the day, or start arguing with myself and 20-30 minutes later I will be sitting at a stoplight near my residence.

        I am able to recall almost everything up until I started on that train of thought, and then nothing until sitting at the light. No sense of the passing of time, no spacial memory from the drive (eg. I was driving behind a semi). My mind can easily recreate the drive from memory, but with no information from the actual drive that day.

        I think (?) this is a common experience.

        • Machine Interface says:

          This may have more to do with memory than with time perception: when a person is doing a habitual task while thinking of other things, the brain might just stop recording the process of the habitual task — so those gestures of driving were done consciously, but the brain didn’t actually record their occurence, as it was instead concentrating on the inner thoughts.

          When the mechanical task is over and the brain switches back to normal memory recording, there is effectively a hole in the memory that retrospectively feels like a jump/time contraction.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          It’s extraordinarily common. The term for it is “highway hypnosis.” 🙂 We use it to give people a familiar example of what hypnosis can be like (and that they’ve been in hypnosis too many times to count already.)

          Your subconscious knows how to get you home, and it did, while you were thinking about other things.

          • tcd says:

            I am not sure I have ever heard the phrase “highway hypnosis”, so thank you for the introduction. If I understand you correctly, I would experience similar gaps in a controlled hypnosis setting? I have always wondered what that would be like.

            Are there other common examples of natural hypnotic states? The underlying mechanism in the driving example makes complete sense, and I expected something along those lines to be happening, but I would be curious for other examples.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            You do understand me correctly, although I would say it was very likely you would experience it, not that you absolutely would. Hypnosis is both subjective and variable.

            The most common example of “everyday” hypnosis, by far, is the state you enter right before you go to sleep and the state you enter right after you wake up. Absent some pretty radically atypical neurology, drugs, utter exhaustion/intense stimulus or some other unusual issue, everybody experiences a state of heightened suggestibility/lowered critical faculties right before they fall asleep and right after they wake up.

            However, once you start using the term for anything but a deliberately induced state, you can apply it very widely. Here’s a less common example:

            Ever cried because of something that happened in a movie? Why on earth would you do that? Your conscious mind knows those are actors and that nothing bad really happened to them. Yet you shed tears, possibly without even being aware it was happening. Why?

            Because your conscious mind was out of the loop. You were in hypnosis, the movie was making suggestions directly to your subconscious, and without the filter of the critical mind, it accepted them as accurately describing reality. Even though nothing sad actually happened, as far as your mind was concerned, something sad happened, and you responded appropriately.

            The “willing suspension of disbelief,” in this sense, is sort of another way to describe being hypnotized. And it’s one reason we find it so jarring when something knocks us out of that state of willing suspension. Not only is it annoying to be knocked out of a story we were enjoying, but there’s a little mental… thing, I don’t know a better word off the top of my head, that happens when we get abruptly pushed out of a state of heightened suggestibility. It’s not entirely pleasant. As opposed to being in hypnosis, which is very pleasant. So we understandably resent it.

          • Eugene Dawn says:

            Non sequitur, but I think interesting, David Chapman discusses the relevance of such hypnotic states for the possibility of p-zombies.

          • Setsize says:

            Hmm. Christof Koch popularized the term “zombie process” to talk about things like highway hypnosis, but was pretty clear that this is not the same thing at all as p-zombies.

            The notion that materialists could just be people with weak subjective experience also misses the mark rather spectacularly.

          • Jiro says:

            I thought the idea of P-zombies was that they don’t have subjective experience, but they would act the same as non-zombies. I would think that if they act the same as non-zombies, they wouldn’t be any more likely to express materialism.

          • KS says:

            I have used driving as well as a analogy to explain why the “conceptual mind” is superfulous. You do not need to know what you are doing to do it. The will does not need to stand in judgement of itself to function.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Ah, but now I must politely object.

            Your subconscious is not a separate personality: it is merely an “abstract” of you. It is you who is driving the car, you who are making the decisions as to how best to do so, and you do need to know what you are doing to do it. You just don’t need to consciously think about it very hard. If an unexpected input occurs during the process, your conscious mind will take over very quickly.

          • Machine Interface says:

            As noted above, the process doesn’t even need to be unconscious: if the brain simply momentarily stops to record, in its short term memory, the events as they proceed, then a person can drive home entirely consciously and willingly, and yet have no recollection of the events, leading to the impression of jump in time or of unconscious/hypnotic state.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        I don’t “like” the way CPU – Brain analogies tend to be made. Our brains clearly are not made up of general use processors. More appropriately, the analogy would need to include things like graphic card, network cards, audio cards and on and on.

        Even though brain remodeling is a thing, I don’t think there is any evidence that brain remodeling can occur in a transitory manner.

        If we shut down the graphics card, it doesn’t make those PU cycles avail able for anything else.

        • PSJ says:

          This. The analogy of brain-as-computer has probably outstayed its welcome. It’s not necessarily “CPU usage” that is being traded, but rather cognitive control/executive function/attention that is being modulated which doesn’t actually have that much to do with total brain computational power.

  4. Vamair says:

    It’s a pity Google did all of this with dogs, and not cephalopods, for example.
    I also thought about mystical experiences as being sort of similar to program testing. You put your application – in that case your mind – into some kind of situations the developer hasn’t thought about too much. Almost all mystical techniques are this. Some substances, fasting, sleep deprivation, deep introspection, physical exersizes over person’s limit, long solitude, you name it. Sometimes the mind works okay-ish, such as in the whole modern civilization, sometimes it breaks outright, and sometimes you get interesting bugs. People just start assuming these bugs are the ultimate reality.

    • Winter Shaker says:

      For Scott’s sanity, it’s probably a good thing that the dog they chose was not a well-known shiba inu 😛

      Though they did seem to also do a version that just generates slightly rainbow-ish swirly lines, rather than bits of dogs, but I haven’t yet come across a deep dream generator website that lets you choose that option. Still, yes, the internet would love a ‘create tentacle monsters’ algorithm.

      • Jeremy says:

        There is someone actually running a stream on twitch where it applies the algorithm to a zooming image in real time, based on the categories people request in the chat: . It will even combine two categories for interesting effects.

        • Winter Shaker says:

          Cool. There’s a slightly ominous hint of things to come in the copyright info section:

          Since this art is created by an AI, and AI’s are not legal persons yet, everything here is public domain.

      • SFG says:

        much madness

        such aeons

        so old ones

        great chthulhu

        Now all we need is the picture. 😉

    • vV_Vv says:

      It’s a pity Google did all of this with dogs, and not cephalopods, for example.

      If I understand correctly, it wasn’t intentional.

      They just took a neural network trained to recognize many types of things, amped up the activation of the nodes at certain layers, and worked back what kind of images would generate such activations, and suddenly it’s dogs everywhere.

      • Murphy says:

        Actually it was a technique for assessing neural networks and what they’d learned.

        The idea was that you feed static noise to a neural network set up this way and then see what patterns it’s looking for.

        For example this is an example from a neural network trained to look for dumbbells. You can see from the images that it thinks dumbbells need to have an arm attached implying it needs to be trained on some images without arms in them.

        But feed it a non-static image or run enough cycles and you can get amazing dreamscapes.

        • Tim Martin says:

          I think both of these explanations are not quite right.

          First of all, despite the fact that lots of popular media sites reported on DeepDream and tried to explain how it works, pretty much every site I saw just gave a worse version of the explanation that Google themselves gave. So if you want more info, you can read that.

          The reason there are lots of dogs in DeepDream is because their training set involved quite a lot of dogs. That’s it. (This isn’t mentioned in the link above, but I’ve heard it in several other places, and it’s a pretty obvious answer given how neural networks work.)

          Google used both “random noise” images and actual images to do their experiments. vV_Vv’s description of what they did after that is accurate as far as I can tell.

          It seems that Google used random noise images when they wanted to activate the output layer of the NN, thereby turning the random noise (iteratively) into a picture of whatever thing they were asking it for. And it seems Google used normal images when they wanted to activate some hidden layer* of the NN, and then tweaked the image to show “more of that.”

          *A hidden layer is any layer between the input layer and the output layer. In this case these would be the various feature recognition layers.

        • Alex Z says:

          Just for my edification, it’s running backprop (or whatever the equivalent is for deep convolutional anns) all the way back onto the input layer right?

      • Vamair says:

        I’d bet it’s possible to change the result by varying the number of different animals in the training sequence. I haven’t seen the original training images, so I’m surprised there the resulting pictures don’t contain any more cats. It can also be an artifact of the picture order. So if they take a lot of cephalopods, some snails, gellyfish, some birds and reptiles and some humans, the result would probably be even more fun than that.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        The neural net was trained for a competition, which specified 1000 things that the net was supposed to try to identify and distinguish. The competition wanted to test both depth and breadth. So there was diversity in the list, but also 100 of the items were breeds of dogs.

    • grendelkhan says:

      It’s a pity Google did all of this with dogs, and not cephalopods, for example.

      Or their porn classifier.

      I can’t be the only person who thought of that. Lovecraftian ultra-porn, here we go!

      • Adam says:

        I’m not going to link to it, but someone did do this. Immediately after deep dream came out, my wife sent me a link to a bukkake with lobster cocks.

        • grendelkhan says:

          I think you’re describing the opposite of what I meant. I don’t mean someone putting porn through Deep Dream and turning tits into titmice. I mean a mundane scene transformed into a burst of spluttering phalli, every shadow morphed into a hungry orifice. Like the machine’s mind had overdosed on pubescent hormones.

          Kind of a riff on that old Rorschach blot joke, the “you’re the one showing me the dirty pictures” bit.

        • SFG says:

          Where did you find this woman?

  5. Winter Shaker says:

    I’ve heard it posited that one of the things that psychedelic drugs do is mess with the parts of the brain that keep tabs on where your body ends and the outside world begins, which would presumably be an additional source of everything-is-connectedness, if you actually cannot detect a disconnect at the boundary between you and not-you.

  6. DiscoveredJoys says:

    My, equally speculative, quibble is that I am uncertain about ‘top down’ and ‘pattern matching’ in this context. It makes more sense to me(!) that the brain processes information from the bottom up, using an associative methodology. Rather like the Google Deep Dream, as I understand it. So basic sensations are associated with similar sensations and forwarded as an association to the next ‘layer’, pulling in further historical associations (learned from previous exposure), all the way up, if significant enough, to consciousness. The patterns we consciously ‘see’ are the result of learned lower level associations, and this is how mistakes can creep in, especially on uncertain sensations.

    Once you start making wrong association this strengthens the likelihood of making those wrong associations again, and since the bulk of the levels of association are subconscious there is no easy way of correcting these misfires. Although you should be careful not to accord too much power to this hypothesis it does seem to explain some forms of mental activity such as including belief without proof, pareidolia, augury, mysticism, and various forms of illusions.

    Of course some forms of wrong associations may beneficial in some circumstances or for some of the time – the trick is to realise when. ‘I LOVE PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME’ is scanned incorrectly, but being able to understand the meaning of a notice with only a single glance is useful.

    • PSJ says:

      Top-down is just shorthand for the backwards influence the higher layers have on the lower layers. So even though it is ultimately the bottom-most layers producing the image, the reason it is different than reality is the “editing” done by upper layers projecting expectations back down.

      The “associations” you refer to are generally thought to be done by this kind of backwards propagation of expectation. It would make no sense for the bottom layers to already “know” to scan “I LOVE PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME” incorrectly because then it wouldn’t need higher level semantic processing, so it must be a top-down process.

      • DiscoveredJoys says:

        I don’t disagree with what you say particularly; I agree wholeheartedly that backwards propagation of expectation and outcome modifies lower layers. But the point I am concerned about is that to speak (only) of ‘top down’ is to speak (only) of the second half of cognition, ignoring the first half ‘bottom up’.

        Take for instance the Müller-Lyer illusion. Even when you have physically measured the lines and know they are the same length the illusion still persists (if in your culture the illusion ‘works’ in the first place). There are many other illusions that can’t be ‘unpicked’ and part of my argument is that this is because the lower levels in the bottom up processing have contributed incorrect associations before any ‘top down’ processing has had a chance to work. And in many cases (such as “I LOVE PARIS IN THE THE SPRINGTIME”) the lower bottom up processes jump to ‘meanings’ in a rough and ready manner because that is on average more beneficial in an evolutionary sense. The famous mistaking a vine for a snake analogy. It is the subsequent top down process that recognises the vine.

  7. A friend of mine was homeless for many years before beginning to hallucinate that they had friends and a job. I think eventually the sheer loneliness of having no one to talk to, day in and day out, combined with the frustration of not having a job, eventually made some protective sub-routine in their brain kick in and made them think they had these things. In your model, years of loneliness are reduced friendship stimuli which eventually made their brain latch onto even random noise in their head as evidence that someone was talking to him.

    Also, during this time, they became convinced that everything in the universe was communicating with everything else via atomic vibrations, a belief I think they still hold, despite now being on medication that suppresses the schizophrenia.

    Prayer = meditation.

    I have to deal with paranoid people in real life, and they can be really unpleasant and hard to deal with. Their pattern matching algorithms are all messed up.

    • vV_Vv says:

      Maybe your friend was homeless because of a psychotic disorder that progressed over time.

    • Darcey says:

      This fits my experience of psychosis. I became psychotic at age 11, and I always figured it was an escape mechanism. I didn’t have any friends, and I was pretty universally reviled, so… I built a fantasy world where I was the hero and everyone thought I was great.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      As a tangent, this is part of the problem with modern physics. Once Bell’s Theorem and the Uncertainty Principle became general knowledge, it spiraled rapidly out of control. Everything in the universe is communicating with everything else via atomic vibrations*. Your friend is very hard to refute.

      Or, rather, they’re very easy to refute, but the math necessary for them to understand that they’ve been refuted is beyond the reach of most people, let alone hippies and people with severe mental health issues. I mention hippies because of an experience I had when I was in college: I went into a gaming and New Age shop near my university, and the bespectacled, patchouli-scented proprietor asked me and my friends if we were students and what we were studying.

      “Physics,” I said. (Three of the four of us were physics majors, the fourth was a psychology major.)

      His eyes lit up and his ponytail commenced to waggin’.

      “Oh, cool,” he said, “The stuff you do with quantum mechanics is just like the stuff we do with Seth.”

      I didn’t really know what to do with that. No, no it isn’t, but the math is required to explain that the math is required. I don’t mean to demean him, he was a nice man, very friendly, and obviously he could keep it together in reality enough to run a business. But his mind was so open his brain had fallen out.

      *Okay they’re not really “atomic vibrations” but in a very real way everything is hooked to everything else.

      • Deiseach says:

        Or crystal healing, which “works” because of energy vibrations at the quantum level.

        It’s Science, man, you can’t argue with Science! 🙂

        • Tracy W says:

          I once asked a guy who was determined to try “energy healing” as “it was worth a shot” why he was willing to risk playing around with a previously unknown form of energy given that the last time society had tried that the new energy had turned out to cause cancer.

          I never got an answer.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Everything in the universe is communicating with everything else via atomic vibrations*. Your friend is very hard to refute.

        Well, in a sense they are right: everything exchanges photons (“atomic vibrations”, more or less) and other bosons with everything else. But of course this isn’t a meaningful way of looking at the world unless you are doing particle physics.

        Which is why I think it is possible to refute these quantum woo hippies without the need of hard math: just ask them what does “everything is connected via atomic vibrations” implies at the empirical level. What observation it predicts or rules out. When they can’t answer, point out that “everything is connected via atomic vibrations” is profound sounding but ultimately vacuous statement.

        You are not going to convince a psychotic person, of course, but for the run-of-the-mill vanilla new age hippie you are going to at least plant the seed of doubt.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          Oh, they can answer quite easily, and do. They start spouting woo about how that’s how telepathy, clairvoyance, homeopathy, you name it “really works,” in that the interconnectedness of everything lets information be exchanged in ways imperceivable at the macro level and which boring ol’ science hasn’t figured out yet. You need the math to show them that you can’t exchange useful amounts of information that way at the macro level in real time.

      • Ask him how to measure the stuff he imagines he’s talking about. If he’s talking about vibrations, ask what the frequency is in kilohertz. If he’s talking about energy, ask how much in kilowatt hours.

      • Tracy W says:

        I had one of those with a relative, who, knowing I was studying electrical engineering, asked me about my opinion of a bunch of metal coils she had sitting on top of her TV to “cancel out the radiation”.
        I sat there in horror thinking “I know that’s nuts, but where do I start?” Eventually I diplomatically said “I wouldn’t spend much money on one.”

      • SFG says:

        I didn’t know hippies did D&D or video games. I suppose it makes sense, what with the beards. Live and learn. 😉

        Seriously, though, there are all kinds of people who believe strange things and are still able to function. It’s surprising, but when you consider millions of medieval peasants believed God was watching every little thing they did, or the weird theories guys like Albertus Magnus and Ptolemy came up with because they didn’t have access to instruments that would let them make better models… A lot of this basic-level physics stuff has very little impact on your life. If the guy’s idea of everything interacting just makes him treat everybody better (‘because we’re all connected, you know, so if I do something good it comes back to me’), it might actually be an adaptive belief, just like believing God is on your side through thick and thin can boost self-confidence and create a sense of peace.

  8. Justin says:

    Extrapolating uses for this: Could low doses of psychedelic drugs be used to power up pattern recognition and generate more interesting hypotheses about messy data?

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Yes, in much the same way that machine guns could be used to flush elusive mosquitos out of thick brush.

      • Izaak Weiss says:

        I’m not sure this is entirely fair; computer scientists have, for years, talked about how being mildly drunk actually makes programming easier, not harder; and it seems like it would take an awful lot of data to actually make the claim that alcohol is the best drug to use while coding to improve performance, and likewise with the claim that programming is the only activity that would benefit from intoxication.

        • Marc Whipple says:

          The analogy was clumsy: my point was that yes, you’d find a lot more patterns, but there’d be no particular reason to assume they were good, because if they were, they’d be easier to spot. For every Hari Seldon moment, you’d have a thousand René Blondlot moments.

          • Anonymous says:

            Thanks for explaining. Analogies are finicky; sometimes people get exactly what you wanted to say, other times they respond simply “Men are not potatoes!” 🙂

        • Adam says:

          I’m not disputing what you say because I’m sure you know what you’re talking about, but that sounds very strange to me. Even just a little bit of alcohol makes it extremely hard to continue programming. That’s basically how I shut down my day and stop working.

        • Richard says:

          Larry Niven rather famously claimed all writers should drink Irish Coffee; the whisky makes you creative, the coffee keeps you from falling asleep.

          I probably have the mix wrong because when I try that trick, the result is rather far from Niven quality.

    • Toggle says:

      Famously, Francis Crick was high on LSD when he finally developed the hypothesis of a double-helix structure of DNA. I believe Kary Mullis used LSD to develop some of the key reactions in PCR, as well. So off the top of my head, that’s at least two hallucinogen-related Nobel prizes I can think of.

      (I’m not sure those were low doses, though. Optimizing for creativity rather than recreation might work also, but the necessary trial-and-error would be ethically tricky.)

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Mullis credits LSD with permanently changing his thoughts, not with particular inspiration.

        The Crick story is completely false. Ridley claims that Crick did not use LSD until 1967. People who claim that he used it for the helix usually claim that he got it from Huxley. But Huxley did not use mescaline until the week after the helix paper was published.

      • Anthony says:

        Kekule figured out the structure of benzene while drifting off to sleep.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          More precisely, Kekule told that story a quarter of century after it purportedly took place.

        • Adam says:

          I’m not sure that’s the same thing as a mystical experience as much as just shutting down brain noise and letting the automatic parts of your brain that are really good at correctly pattern matching go to work. I can’t even count the number of times at this point I’ve spent all day and half the night working on a tough problem only to have the solution come to me either while I was dreaming or the next morning as soon as I woke up.

          For the record, I have used psychedelics, but it’s been well over a decade now, and they led to some interesting experiences but no particular insights.

          • CJB says:

            Thoughts on LSD- I wonder if the purported bennies of LSD arent that you suddenly see the CONNECTIONS MAN but that LSD lets you obsessively focus on certain things. In one case, for me, it was a chair that had a red ball and a black and white striped shirt on it, in the other it was the current state of my life. The second produced a number of interesting and useful insights- because I spent several hours thinking about nothing else at all but my life. If I did that normally Id probably come to the same conclusions- but its extremely difficult. Thinking about how REAL that chair was and how Id been fucking up both felt the same. If crick did drop LSD, we’re hearing about the time the guy studying DNA obsessed about its structure for hours, and not about the time he obsessed about the patterns in the carpet for several hours.

            Also, Id be interested to know what Scott means my “koan”- because actual koans are INSANE,

            Not exactly “the sounfd of one hand clapping.”

          • Nita says:

            @ CJB

            What makes you think the “one hand” koan is less “actual” than those?

  9. Praxeologue says:

    Good piece but arguably undermines itself in that it too is trying to find a pattern.

  10. Blubberquark says:

    I really like your writing about cognitive science.

    There is a theory about feeling spirits living in trees and rocks, or maybe God in all things. Theory of mind is localised somewhere in prefrontal cortex. When a brain disorder makes this area over-activated, you always feel that everything has thoughts and intentions. To really test this theory, we would have to stimulate this area in a test subject and see if it happens to them. Right now, there are some fMRI studies that show that activation in some brain areas correlates with theory of mind.

    This is kind of the opposite of the learned-patterns theory and deep dream. Deep dream means “distributed representations and overfitting”, while localized ToM theory means “localised representation and noise”.

    • PSJ says:

      Prefrontal cortex is actually not a major candidate for ToM. Temporoparietal junction and precuneus are more common hypotheses.

  11. Doug S. says:

    Things this hypothesis doesn’t explain: why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and no self

    Because that’s what happens when certain parts of your brain shut down. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of her subjective experience while she had a stroke is pretty much the same as many descriptions of mystical experiences or meditation-induced altered states of consciousness.

    • Nita says:

      Yeah. It’s not “I see this pattern here and here, and here — therefore, everything is connected.”

      The overwhelming, pervasive feeling of all-connectedness begins after the normal pattern-matching stops.

      Here’s a quote from her book:

      Instead of finding answers and information, I met a growing sense of peace. As the language centers in my left hemisphere grew increasingly silent, my consciousness soared into an all-knowingness, a “being at one” with the universe, if you will. In a compelling sort of way, it felt like the good road home and I liked it.

  12. Jon Gunnarsson says:

    Do most people actually just see random noise in that cow picture? To me it seemed to obviously be a cow from the start. Given the context the image was in, I concluded that seeing the cow was the illusion and that maybe the picture showed something else or just random noise. I thought this was a really good visual illusion because it still just looked entirely like a cow.

    Anyone else have the same experience?

    • Rob says:

      Yeah, pretty much. I saw the cow right away. I think I was primed by the fact that for me the closest/most recent/most salient example of altered states of conciousness took place last weekend, in a field of cows. So I was already in a cow-related frame of mind.

    • Ross McEwan says:

      To me the cow picture looks like an overhead photo taken from high altitude, the sort of thing that a WW2 recon or bomber flight might have taken. There’s the sea (or a lake?) at the top-right, city blocks at the bottom-left, and a few roads in otherwise featureless areas. I *can* see the cow and consider it a probable subject but not as probable as the coastal city.

      I have not flown any WW2 recon missions recently so I don’t think I was primed to see this. Perhaps the combination of monochrome and low quality makes me pattern-match to old recon photos?

      • Jaskologist says:

        This close, they always look like landscape.

      • Jbay says:

        I saw both interpretations, but I am sure that my wartime aerial photograph interpretation was primed by the word ‘Paris’ in the image before. (Specifically, my first thought was, “I wonder if this is a cow, or a bombed-out Paris suburb from one of the world wars that just resembles a cow?”)

      • Steve Sailer says:

        That was my impression, too: I guessed the cow picture was a patch of German landscape from an Allied bomber during WWII.

        I recall seeing a similar looking photo in a picture book on WWII that I read when I was about 8.

    • Kiya says:

      I saw random blotches until told it was a cow, then had to stare a bit to get the cow.

    • Similar reaction. I had already seen the other two illusions and so had presumed that there was something going on with this cow. Before I read further I kept staring at it because my guess was that it was going to be “looks like a cow, but is really an X” or something similar to the old lady/young lady illusion.

    • Ketsuban says:

      I saw a face, assumed that was the illusion (pareidolia) and reanalysed it as an aerial photograph as Ross McEwan suggested. I had to go back and rereanalyse to notice the cow.

    • Daniel Kendrick says:

      Same here. I could never see it as anything but a cow.

      And I thought the illusion was supposed to be: “See this picture that looks like a cow? It’s actually a picture of something totally different, and you just interpret it as a cow.”

    • youzicha says:

      It took me a second or so to see it (at first I also thought it looked like an aerial photograph), but I didn’t need to read “cow” in order to get it.

      I think these pictures come in a range of difficulties. Here is another one which impressed me a lot:

      When I first was shown this, I stared at it for a long time but could not figure out what it was. Then when told (rot13: N qnyzngvna qbt favssvat ng fbzrguvat) it snapped into place instantly. But a friend of mine didn’t “get” it even after being told. Probably it varies from person to person.

    • Machine Interface says:

      Interpretation relies on internally built categories that are slightly different for each person, but generally close enough that differences do not surface in ordinary cases, but do surface in limit cases (like a low quality picture where lot of the usual clues are absent).

      A classical example is found in neurolinguistics/experimental phonetics: a group of persons are made to listen to a series of sounds, and write down which sound they think they’re hearing. The sounds are, arranged randomly, a series of [p] sounds, a series of [b] sounds, and a series of sounds accoustically altered to be midway between [p] and [b]. Most people correctly identify the [p] and [b] sounds, but when it comes to the mixed sounds, the answers vary wildly from individual to individual; people still classify them as either [p] or [b], but the threshold of what will be perceived as [p] and what will be perceived as [b] is different for each person. And that’s within people who all speak the same language and mostly the same dialect.

    • Luke Somers says:

      I saw this before. Then, I was totally unable to interpret the picture for a long time. The grid looked kind of like a fence or something. Then someone said it was a cow. It took me a long time to find it even with that hint. Now I have no trouble seeing the cow’s head, but I still have no idea what else is in the picture.

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      I thought it was a rocky cliff face with caverns and hollows for a second, before seeing the cow. I attribute this to my recent vacation to an area with lots of rocky cliff faces.

    • TK-421 says:

      At first I thought it was a zoomed-in section of a picture of the Hindenburg burning. The obvious age of the photograph may have had as much to do with that conclusion as its actual contents.

    • Vorkon says:

      Yeah, I saw it as a cow immediately, too.

    • Sniffnoy says:

      Yeah, same.

    • Randy M says:

      It’s funny, I saw a weathered cow skull at first, zoomed in.

  13. YmcY says:

    As someone who experiences overactive pattern matching, and less commonly hallucinations and paranoia specifically, a lot of what you’re saying rings true.

    However, I think the model is substantially incomplete (and I’m assuming you feel the same way). Related to your concluding remarks, the altered states of consciousness as reported under the influence of different drugs, mental illnesses and meditative practices seem to in many cases differ significantly from one another.

    And indeed, even the picture medicine has of those symptom clusters it has studied in detail seems lacking in many respects. I exhibited “impulse control for the first time in [my] life”, according to the person who knows me best, during a manic episode, once. An exaggeration, maybe, but still radically incongruous with what I understand of psychiatry’s predictions; and experienced alongside a number of similarly counterintuitive states (e.g. stillness of thoughts / silence of internal monologue). Perhaps there is a paper floating out there in the literature that might explain it?

    • drethelin says:

      I think this would make sense if we have different pattern-matching sub-modules. Just like Deep Dream gets trained to recognize dogs, paranoiacs are using the stranger danger module, people who think they see holy correspondences are using their sacredness module, people who see friendly angels are pattern-matching from their friend-detector module.

  14. Pobop says:

    I’m often annoyed at how insufficient the medical terms are in distinguishing perceptions. At an introductory psychiatry course intended for humanists, the three distinctions made were between hallucinations (untrue perceptions in absence of external stimulus), delusions (untrue beliefs without perception) and illusions (momentary lapse in “reality checking”).
    Maybe there’s a richer vocabulary I’m unaware of, but often anything strange just gets dumped into the hallucination category, probably with the nasty connotation that the experiencer is crazy.
    But deliriants are not psychedelics. On a datura trip the tripper might talk to friends (or horrible demon witches) only to discover later that they were alone in their house the whole time. On an LSD trip, this just doesn’t happen, either it’s visual distortions, boundary dissolution, or general madness, but not non-existing people who looks and act like real people.
    Similarly in mystical experiences “seeing angels” is rarely a proper hallucination. I’d bet it’s more often either a strong presence or an internal vision, or even a delusion rather than seeing an actual angel embedded in the environment. In western magical practice for example, evoking spirits to full physical manifestation is considered harder to do than just talking to them.
    I don’t know if I’m just being overly sensitive about mystics getting labeled crazy or nitpicky about terminology, but it seems to me that hallucination talk does carry some baggage. I understand that in many cases where psychiatry is concerned, the line is much easier to draw. Somebody starts screaming about demons and you know you have a problem. But to extend the diagnostic vocabulary to benign experiences risks missing the point.

    For an interesting case of overlap, there is the Sufi term Mast, for a person so overwhelmed by the love for god that they cannot function properly and seem intoxicated.

  15. Deiseach says:

    I’m reluctant to comment on this, because mysticism is complex. I’ve never had a mystical experience, and I don’t particularly want to 🙂

    Even within the structures of organised religion, mystics and mystical visions and experiences can be trouble (look at Martin Luther, who was mystically inclined and opposed to Scholastic philosophy – one of the reasons I like St Thomas Aquinas was that he had mystical experiences but was very sensible about them), and when you go outside it they get even wackier, if not downright fraudulent (e.g. the Magnificat Meal Movement; as an aside, whenever you see anything evoking or referencing “Celtic Christianity”, run ten miles in the opposite direction). More innocuous, the kind of “seeing the Blessed Virgin in waterstains” or “the face of Jesus on a tortilla” stuff. That is definitely pattern-matching cranked up to 11.

    Never mind the whole moving statue phenomenon here in Ireland (we even had our own share of apparitions in the local area).

    I think I’ll sit back and listen to all your neuroscientists discussing the matter 🙂

    • Joe says:

      I think that’s what sets true religion from false ones. Ancient Judaism on up to present day Catholism have a profound suspicion of Mystics and prophets. Eastern religion seem to have the opposite tendency.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        Say what now?

        Christianity is chock-full of mystics, from the start to the finish, and many of them accepted as True Believers by large organized chunks of the faith including Catholicism.

        I don’t know enough about Judaism to say the same with the same level of confidence.

        Also, it’s so not fair to just casually let it drop that you can tell true religions from false ones and not let us in on the trick. Dish, man, dish!

        • Irenist says:

          Christianity is chock-full of mystics, from the start to the finish, and many of them accepted as True Believers by large organized chunks of the faith including Catholicism.

          Sure, but in Catholicism, e.g., there’s a lot vetting. Quite a few mystics used to get some very nosy inquiries from the Inquisition, and even nowadays, the Vatican and local bishops most often take a dim view of various reported apparitions and whatnot until they’ve been vetted. E.g., the Medjugorje apparitions have been quite popular in many pious precincts, but both the local bishop and the Vatican have reacted on a continuum from skepticism to outright disfavor. Now, granted, most LW rationalists will find any vetting process that admits any mystics and miracles at all to be insufficient. But that there is a lot more vetting, and in a rather structured way, seems indisputable.

        • Eugene Dawn says:

          Judaism does have its fair share of mystics and mysticism, some of whom are indeed important and highly regarded, but I also think it’s fair to say that Judaism has a scepticism of mystics as well. There are regular warnings that mysticism is not for everyone; for example, famously one is not supposed to study Kabbalah until one is 40, or the cautionary tale of the four who entered Pardes.
          On the other hand, Chasidism, which is an important and mainstream branch of Judaism, has a strong mystical element, and my impression is that Kabbalah is pretty widespread these days as well.

          • brad says:

            The entire Chasidic movement was a reaction against what they saw as an austere intellectualism of the mainstream Judaism of the day. It got a foothold in what was then the poorest and most backward part of the Ashkenazi world (Galicia).

            As late as my grandparents’ generation it had a connotation somewhat similar to what Pentecostals have today.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Christianity does have lots of mystics, but mystical experiences themselves are not generally trusted. Many of the major ecstatics seem to treat them as distractions more than anything else.

          But to be fair, I’ve seen similar sentiments in some Eastern religions.

          • Mary says:

            Very much so. St. John of the Cross, IIRC, declared visions are merely the result of your intelligence and imagination running wild without your will to control them, because your will is set on other things for once.

          • Irenist says:

            But to be fair, I’ve seen similar sentiments in some Eastern religions.

            Sure. I suspect that the only way for any contemplative tradition, Eastern, Western, or aboriginal, to survive in the long term, rather than burning out, is to develop a kind of wary “salutary prejudice,” a “Burkean conservatism,” w/r/t mystical hijinks. Sufis, roshis, eremites, etc.: they all caution the seeker against striving for, or being beguiled by, the mystical fireworks. You can’t “tell true religions from false ones” using just that heuristic, but you can probably tell shallow, jejune cults from serious schools of spiritual maturation. If the “magic” is the goal, you’re probably not dealing with grown-ups.

        • Joe says:

          Marc, I would suggest the work of Fr. Stanley Jaki. I think he does a good job of showing how Christanity provides a sober and clear scientific vision of the world.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            And what a coincidence, that someone with “Fr.” right there in his name happened to establish that Christianity is the, or at least a, True Religion.

            Are you familiar with the phrase, “Talking your book?”

          • Joe says:

            Well if someone discovers Christianity is true they may in fact end up with Fr in front of there name. It would be weirder if he believed Christianity true but identified as Muslim or athiest. Never heard of the phrase sorry. Is it related to the genetic fallacy or poisoning the well?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Nope. “Privileging the Hypothesis” comes to mind, but it’s not really that, either.

          • Joe says:

            You might be interested in this series of articles that present some of Fr. Jaki’s ideas.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            “And what a coincidence, that someone with ‘Dr.’ right there in his name happened to establish that mainstream medicine is effective.”

            “And what a coincidence, that someone with ‘Professor of Evolutionary Biology’ after his name happened to establish that evolution is true.”

          • Marc Whipple says:

            The difference being, they offer testable predictions.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I’m kind of a snob like this, but given that in the second paragraph he refers to hieroglyphs as a system of phonetic writing, I’m not interested in his analysis of pretty much anything of any complexity.

            (Yes, hieroglyphs have a subset of phonetic characters. That doesn’t make them a system of phonetic writing. It’s sloppy thinking, is what I’m saying)

            And “Christianity wasn’t quite as tireless in repressing inquiry as many other religions so science managed to get a foothold despite its opposition” isn’t what I’d call much of an argument for Christianity being scientific.

          • Joe says:

            Well the argument is bigger than that. His thesis is that Christian dogma created and facilitated the idea that the world was intelligible. He fleshes it out a little more in this speech.
            But his book the Savior of Science would be a more complete argument.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Joe, Jaki believes that Aristotle was the pinnacle of Greek science because he doesn’t know the first thing about Greek science.

          • Joe says:

            It looks like he knew at least a little bit, right? Maybe you can be more specific about what he gets wrong?

            It might be cool if Scott wrote up a review of this book.

          • The original Mr. X says:

            The difference being, they offer testable predictions.

            The real difference being, you’re not looking for a lazy excuse to dismiss them without thinking.

            And “Christianity wasn’t quite as tireless in repressing inquiry as many other religions so science managed to get a foothold despite its opposition” isn’t what I’d call much of an argument for Christianity being scientific.

            You seem to think that “science managing to get a foothold” is somehow the natural or default state of affairs, when in fact all the evidence suggests the opposite — the development of the scientific method is very rare, if not unique. The fact that science only ever really took off in a vary Christian society is strong prima facie evidence that Christianity had some responsibility for creating modern science.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            I haven’t read the book, but it strikes me that there’s a very large gulf between ‘Christianity provided the cultural milieu in which it was possible for science to get established in society in a formal enough way to kick-start what we now call the scientific revolution’ and ‘Christianity itself is scientific, in the sense of generating testable predictions, testing them, discarding the ones that don’t withstand the collision, and thus gradually building a progressively more accurate understanding of reality’.

            It is entirely possible for the specific claims of Christianity to be just as mistaken as those of any other religion, and yet by random drift to have happened to converge on a set of values that made the Christian world the most fertile part of the world for science to get a toehold.

            After all, it’s not as if science has validated any of the specific supernatural claims of Christianity … and when you consider that (at least within the lands where Christianity is still a major cultural force) scientists are less likely to believe in a god than the population average, about the best argument you can make for Christianity is that it was a useful stepping stone on the way towards science, but which has now served its purpose and is now about as irrelevant for continuing to push back the frontiers of our understanding of reality as, say, hand-made glass telescopes.

          • Joe says:

            If your goal is understanding reality you would do well to consider philosophy as a contributor to that endeavor. If Christanity gave us the best scientific method then it may have the best system of philosophy. There must be more to reality than just the quantifiable?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I’m sorry, but I’ll need you to get into this big sack now.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            Joe: sorry for the late reply, but, in case anyone is still reading…

            If your goal is understanding reality you would do well to consider philosophy as a contributor to that endeavor.

            Well, sure. But that article you linked to seems to make a fairly obvious mistake in drawing a hard-and-fast distinction between philosophy and science. There is no such line – science is simply what philosophy becomes when you start to be able to gather more data. Hence the old-timey phrase ‘natural philosophy’.

            Having done the philosophical groundwork to realise that you can get more accurate information about reality if you can figure out a way to quantify and measure whatever you’re investigating, you are then going to get a more accurate picture of reality if you do so. You’ll get an even more accurate picture yet if you realise that the human brain is subject to systematic biases, and take steps to correct for those biases. And that’s all science is, really – trying to apply quantification to a question, and correct for human error, so as to get a more accurate map of reality than you would have if you didn’t do that quantification and bias-anticipation.

            So the article seems to be a straw man (or at least a weak man) – few if any people claim that science can answer every question; but that for any question that we are able to do science on, science is the best way to get an accurate answer, and as we figure out how to do science on a wider range of questions, so we will get more accurate answers in those areas.

            I would suggest our host’s own defence of scientism as a decent rebuttal to that article … and also the Less Wrong stuff on reductionism (if you have time to read the whole sequence, so much the better, but that’s a lot to take in one sitting) … the point being that although our brains represent complex things as coherent objects, for reasons of computing power (a brain that represents every quark in a tiger will be so metabolically expensive compared to a brain that represents a tiger as a unitary dangerous thing that there is a strong selection pressure in favour of the latter), that doesn’t make it untrue that at the level of fundamental physics, everything that is happening is fundamental physics – there’s no magical extra stuff in the tiger on top of the large amount of fundamental physics it takes to operate a tiger.

            And there is still the problem that none of this remotely argues for the truth of any specific claims of Christianity – at best, all that you would be able to establish by this line of argument is that Christian civilization represented a more fertile soil than, say, Hindu, Muslim or Confucian civilization for the more useful sorts of science and philosophy to emerge from. Just because one patch of soil is much better for growing tasty fruit than another patch, doesn’t mean that the soil itself is good to eat.

          • Troy says:

            And there is still the problem that none of this remotely argues for the truth of any specific claims of Christianity – at best, all that you would be able to establish by this line of argument is that Christian civilization represented a more fertile soil than, say, Hindu, Muslim or Confucian civilization for the more useful sorts of science and philosophy to emerge from.

            I haven’t read the articles and am an interloper to this conversation, but I think one way of fleshing out Christianity’s contribution to science into an argument for Christianity would be that certain presuppositions of science only make sense in a Christian context. For example, the idea that nature is stable and obeys relatively simple laws of nature is taken for granted today, but the earliest formulators of the idea of laws of nature (e.g., Newton) conceived of them as constituted by divine activity. It’s unclear whether the concept makes sense in a non-theistic context. But even if it does one could argue that an orderly universe governed by simple natural laws is more probable given a creator wishing to impose order than given that the universe is uncreated.

            This may only give you an argument for theism, of course. Whether this is a good argument for Christianity over other religions depends partly on whether the character of God in the other religions provides similar reason to expect an orderly universe (as does not appear to be the case for, say, Greek polytheism, but is arguably the case for other Abrahamic religions at least).

          • Winter Shaker says:


            one way of fleshing out Christianity’s contribution to science into an argument for Christianity would be that certain presuppositions of science only make sense in a Christian context.

            I don’t think we actually have any disagreement there (granting for the time being the idea that Christianity uniquely predicts an orderly and knowable universe, relative to what other religions predict, or at least emphasizes its prediction of an orderly universe so much more as to have a decisive advantage in the ‘which religion gets to be the dominant religion of the culture that incubates the Scientific Revolution’ game). But Joe seemed, unless I am misreading him, to be suggesting that the fact that the Scientific Revolution began in a predominantly Christian culture somehow validates the specific supernatural claims of Christianity, no matter how much science itself may have subsequently investigated those claims and found them to be almost-certainly-false.

            And I’m not sure how much I buy that hypothesis anyway – I don’t know enough about, say, Muslim theology, to know whether it predicts a chaotic and fundamentally unknowable universe, but it seems at least worth considering that lots of cultures have some sort of orderly universe hypothesis, and that which one eventually developed institutional science was more down to chance than the specific strengths of the local theology.

    • Loquat says:

      There’s also the dark-side version where you see signs of demonic influence everywhere, like the lady on the internet who was convinced the spiral-y decoration on the Fruitopia label was actually a demonic symbol. My parents were in a food co-op in the 70’s that wound up having dissension over a similar issue – a potential supplier had a rainbow logo, and certain other members of the co-op were convinced that this was a mark of Satan. One of them lent my parents a book purporting to explain all of this, featuring scenes such as “author walks down street, sees several random things, and concludes they’re all connected and all signs of a demonic conspiracy”. Pattern-matching cranked up to 11, indeed.

  16. Darcey says:

    This matches my experience of psychosis, and actually I was just thinking about this the other day (what a coincidence! must be telepathy). I never hallucinated, but my psychosis amounted to… interpreting pretty much all real-world events in terms of my delusional framework. A pattern of light on the ground? Definitely a message from people who were trying to communicate with me. Etc. Basically, I had a narrative in my head, and I was very very overeager to fit everything I experienced into that narrative.

    I wish I had more to say about the correspondences thing, because that exact idea is one of the main reasons I went into cognitive science, and in particular, it’s why I’ve been reading a lot lately about analogical reasoning. What I’ve always heard (but don’t quote me on this, because I’m not a practicing magickian) is that, because correspondences are so neatly organized, they help you better organize your own perceptions. And I guess it makes sense that better organization would lead to more insight into the structure of the universe? So that’s a more positive interpretation of the phenomenon you described, but of course, it’s incredibly vague, so.

    Meditation is interesting, because it seems like the opposite of strengthening one’s pattern-matching ability? Like, it seems like the explicit purpose of meditation is to help you fight an overactive pattern-matching ability. Suppose you have social anxiety, and every time you talk to people, you assume the interaction went terribly wrong, based on tiny little social cues. This definitely seems like a failure of top-down reasoning, where everything gets interpreted in light of your model, and there’s no room to observe or acknowledge other evidence. And the best advice I’ve received, for counteracting overarching pattern-matching like this, is to learn to live in the moment, to observe without interpreting. Which I guess means, to wait a little longer before letting the top-down processing override the bottom-up perceptions. David Chapman talks about spaciousness, a “freedom from fixed meanings”, which seems to be a similar idea.

    So anyway, maybe meditation really is like sensory deprivation, but that seems unlikely to me, based on this understanding. But who knows, since there are a ton of different kinds of meditation, and I haven’t meditated seriously in years anyway, so I probably forget what it’s like.

    • Paul Torek says:

      This seems like a good context to point out that, as I understood it (admittedly not well), zen koans are supposed to make your pattern-matching, categorizing brain fail hilariously. Which then leads to taking its verdicts less seriously. This idea fits nicely with what Darcy says about the point of meditation.

      • KS says:

        This is more or less correct. The point of many koan are perfectly clear once you left go of conceptions and develop even a slight bit of context. The more context the more clarity over more interactions. However, no analysis will give you this context and in this way you can learn to let go of analysis.

  17. Roz says:

    Several of you may have already read this paper from one of my old lecturers, but it’s pretty related –
    Perceiving is believing: a Bayesian approach to explaining the positive symptoms of schizophrenia

    Anyone have any thoughts?

  18. Markus Ramikin says:

    “impossible to see it as anything else” – nope. I can still see a rodent in the upper right and a guy with a strange hat in the lower left if I choose to. Trick is to focus the attention on the parts that suggest what you want to see. Same way I reverse this:

    • Marc Whipple says:

      When I learned that other cultures don’t see the “Man in the Moon” which the culture I was raised in forms from its visible features, I thought it was pretty cool. After just a few seconds, I learned to see the other forms and I can see any of them at will.

      If you’re curious, the other two things the article I read mentioned were a girl brushing/braiding her hair and a rabbit. If you’ve ever wondered why Sailor Moon/Usagi Tsukino is so often associated with a rabbit, that’s why. I’m sure there are others I don’t know about.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’ve always seen a face in the moon, but never ‘the Man in the Moon’ or any other shape.

        • Vorkon says:

          I always thought the face WAS the Man in the Moon.

          (Though, when I went to the Wikipedia article to see which other interpretation of those shapes people were calling a man [I had previously already identified the Japanese rabbit] I saw the image of a woman’s head in profile on the bottom right for the first time, and am now having a damn hard time unseeing it!)

          • Marc Whipple says:

            To me the “face” is the Man in the Moon. He does not have a body, just a face. The moon is roughly the right proportion to be his entire head. (It’s a little oversized, but within the realm of rough pattern-matching credibility.)

        • Tibor says:

          Interesting. I just learned about the “face/man in the moon” and despite seeing pictures online which outline the supposed features of that face, I still just see a random bunch of craters when I look at a picture of the moon that is not modified (or probably the moon itself, gotta wait a few hours to check 🙂 ). It never occurred to me that there is anything to be seen there.

      • Related, that dress that was all over the internet that changed from white/gold to blue/black depending on how you interpreted the lighting.

        I originally saw it as blue/black. Once it was explained to me, though, I acquired the ability to see it as white/gold as well, and I could actually switch between them by changing my mental framing.

        • Tibor says:

          I can rotate the ballerina (see the picture posted above here somewhere) with some effort so it goes either to the left or to the right…but I was never to see anything other than a blue/black (if perhaps in very bright light) dress. How anyone could see anything else still eludes me 🙂

          • Amanda says:

            When I first saw the dress I had the exact opposite experience. It looked obviously white and gold to me and I could not see it as blue and black no matter how hard I tried. I was halfway convinced that the people saying it looked blue and black were playing some kind of elaborate trick on those of us who see it the way I did. This made no sense, of course, but I could not for the life of me figure out how anyone, anywhere, could possibly be seeing it as blue and black!

            I only became capable of seeing it as blue and black after seeing an edited version that made the blues and blacks a lot more obvious. And now that I know about the lighting in the original picture being what makes it look white and gold, I can now mentally “adjust” for that and see it as blue and black.

          • John Schilling says:

            Nobody here, and very few people anywhere, actually saw the dress. Lots of people saw an image of the dress. The colors in the image, assuming a properly-calibrated display, were approximately light blue and brownish-gold. XKCD used RGB 113, 94, 58 and RGB 135, 154, 189, and included a strip of the original image for reference.

            Nobody with anything resembling normal color vision is going to call RGB 113, 94, 58 “black”, nor RGB 135, 154, 189 “white”. Everybody was asked the question, “Is the dress black & blue or is it white & gold?”, to which the correct answer is “No”.

            This answer is psychologically unsatisfactory. We tend to assume that one of the answers in a multiple-choice question is the correct answer – note that actual multiple-choice test questions may include “none of the above” as an answer but will not include only false answers and mark as correct only an unanswered question. So, given two false answers, the part of the mind that does pattern-matching is invited to Try Real Hard to match one of the false patterns.

            We could test this by adding two answers, asking a sample of people “Is the dress blue and gold, blue and black, gold and white, or black and white”? I’d wager you’d get a whole lot of “blue and gold”, and zero “black and white” – if you could find a useful sample of people who haven’t already been contaminated by exposure to the image.

          • Nita says:

            @ John Schilling

            Who cares about the pixels? The question was, “given this low-quality digital photograph of a dress, what is the ‘actual’ color of the dress?”

            Of course, if everyone saw the dress directly, no one would have made mistaken assumptions about the lighting conditions in the photo, so no one would have called it white and gold.

        • Who wouldn't want to be anonymous says:

          I had a very hard time seeing the blue/black because the dress was so much uglier that way.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        I have a hell of a time seeing the man in the moon, and when I do it seems like an obvious stretch. The rabbit seems much more natural to me.

      • Adam says:

        I’ve always seen the word “Elvis” in the moon and never anything else.

    • Mary says:

      The famous dress usually looks white (or blue) and gold to me but sometimes blue and black, and I can sometimes switch by scrolling up or down. (The bottom is easier to see as blue and black.)

  19. Seladore says:

    For an entire book satirising this concept, see Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco).

    Delves into the propensity of mystics to pattern-match to noise rather brilliantly.

  20. anodognosic says:

    Here is at least two lasting powers of psychedelic and mystical experiences: they reveal unconscious assumptions in our understanding of the world, and they facilitate the emotional resignification of facts about the world.

    1. Unconscious assumptions: let’s take being at one with the universe. Is it true that a guy on mushrooms *is* the universe? No. But it’s not false either. The boundaries of the self are arbitrarily drawn. Usually, we think of the body as the self. But sometimes, we see the self as our executive capacity (“ego”, if you prefer), in opposition to other mental phenomena like feelings and impulses. In certain mystical practices, we dissolve our identification with the ego and identify only with consciousness itself. In the other direction, when we drive, we think of the car as an extension of ourselves. We identify with our accomplishments, with our family or friends, with our community. If you are a patriot, an offense to your country feels like a personal offense to you.

    Edit to connect explicitly to the main point: the unconscious assumption that your self is definitely only one thing is not true and leads to suffering.

    “Being at one with the universe” means nothing more than the feeling of extending that boundary of the self to encompass everything. Is it wrong? No, because it’s not exactly a proposition. It can’t pay rent in experience anticipation. But feels right, and it can make you feel a lot better about things that make people miserable like death and impotence and feeling small. This brings us to

    2. Resignification. Let’s run through an example. You’re going to die someday. Chances are, you think of death as something frightening, associated with frightening feelings or impressions like darkness, isolation and helplessness, and this may cause you a lot of grief and anxiety.

    Mystical experiences allow you to resignify death – to change your emotional relationship to it. Instead of associating it with darkness and horrible things, you can think of death as “an old friend”, like the third Peverell brother. *Is* death an old friend? No. But neither is it darkness, isolation and helplessness. This understanding is no more accurate than the old-friend understanding, and the old-friend understanding causes a lot less heartache.

    (If you don’t like this particular resignification, just think of another that doesn’t offend your rational understanding of the world. But it takes a little more work of resignification to be at peace with the idea that death is nothingness, because “nothingness” also has some tenebrous associations to be unwound.)

    • Darcey says:

      This is an amazing comment and I totally agree with you. (I’m not sure this passes the three gates, but I really wanted to say it.)

    • Salem says:

      I cannot tell you how violent is my emotional reaction against this comment. Much as I hate the hippies who claim ‘shrooms make them “at one with the universe,” at least they’re making a positive claim. But while they’re wrong, this is not even wrong. What you’re doing is providing a licence for this kind of claptrap, based on the idea that the emotional significance of words matters more than their truth-correspondence, which was never even the hippies’ intent. “The boundaries of the self are arbitrarily drawn.” Really? No, that’s not literally true, but saying it changes my emotional relationship to the concept of self, so… Aaagh! And round and round we go.

      Maps aren’t arbitrary, but they are abstractions. Some idiots drew a bunch of dragons in their map, because they sincerely believe in dragons. You, on the other hand, are engaged in a double-talk, to say that their false belief in dragons, and my abstracted belief in monsoons, are both neither true nor false, but just arbitrary relations with the world. And doesn’t believing that the Indian Ocean contains dragons make you feel better than thinking it contains monsoons? But look, by their fruits ye shall know them. Are the cultures and individuals who engage in mysticism and drug use actually the ones with the least “suffering”? What about the cultures and individuals who engage in this double-talk? No, and no. Once you start drawing dragons on your map, you’ll end up hunting them sooner or later.

      • Mengsk says:

        “Much as I hate the hippies who claim ‘shrooms make them “at one with the universe,” at least they’re making a positive claim. But while they’re wrong, this is not even wrong.”

        I feel like this isn’t true. I imagine if you actually tried to get a hippy to pin down, in pragmatic, propositional terms, what it means to be “at one with the universe”, you would find yourself very, very frustrated. Anodognostic’s point, as far as I can tell, is that statements about identity seem to only pay rent when I am predicting my own emotional response to certain events. Identify with my body, and I am upset when my body comes to harm. I identify with my community, and I am upset when I see it come to harm. I identify, with humans, and I am upset when they come to harm. Is there a correct, rational place for me to stop identifying?

        Identification, or “feeling connected”, seem to be a psychological process that leads me to my terminal values. I suspect that, when Hippies say “I am at one with the universe”, their true meaning something more along the lines of “I identify with the universe”. Which, empirically, is true. Is it rational? I don’t know how to evaluate that.

        • anodognosic says:

          One important nitpick: these kinds of beliefs don’t pay rent by predicting anything. They pay rent by affecting you internally. The problem is believing beliefs only exist to pay rent through prediction.

          • Irenist says:

            The problem is believing beliefs only exist to pay rent through prediction.

            So, so true.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Once you start giving beliefs permission to squat without paying rent in the coin of prediction, some predictably negative consequences start piling up.

            I prefer to think of it like so:

            Rufus: Are you saying you believe?
            Bethany: No. But I have a good idea.

          • Irenist says:

            Once you start giving beliefs permission to squat without paying rent in the coin of prediction, some predictably negative consequences start piling up.

            What’s the predictive value of the beliefs that “It is true that I should strive to benefit others” and “It is true that I like this painting a lot”? If none, what are the negative consequences?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            1) It is trivial to show that if everyone believed that way, everyone would be better off. It is not trivial to show that any particular definition of “striving to benefit others” is preferred. By his own lights, Lenin was striving to benefit others.

            2) It predicts that if you, say, acquire the painting through lawful commerce and put it in your home, you will experience an increase in esthetic satisfaction.

          • Irenist says:

            It is trivial to show that if everyone believed that way, everyone would be better off.

            That doesn’t make any predictions on behalf of “I should strive to benefit others.” “If you strive to benefit others, they will likely benefit,” is a prediction. But this statement including “I should” is not a prediction: it is an ethical statement, a belief about value. The painting example can be rejiggered into a purer statement of aesthetic merit, too–not just “I like this painting,” but “one should” like this painting; it IS a good painting.

            I imagine you can concoct predictions from these as well. But, with respect, I think that might be missing an important point. What I’m thinking of here is Plato’s hoary trinity of the true, good, and beautiful. AFAICT, rationalism hereabouts is kind of a neo-positivist project to ensure that truths pay rent in prediction. Fine. But I don’t think that ethical opinions about the good (as distinct from factual opinions about effective altruism or other metrics of success once values have been chosen), or aesthetic opinions about the beautiful are really the sorts of beliefs that ought to be “predictive”; at least, not primarily.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            I’m not really arguing with anything you have to say at this point: the only real disagreement we have is in the use of “belief.” You seem to be using it as a near-synonym for “opinion,” which I feel robs it of the non-subjective property that creates the problem to which I refer.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            So much talk about paying rent…. In Christianity and in the yogic religions, quite a lot of material resources have been used for centuries in maintaining monasteries and feeding monks. (Some monks make wine or bake bread, but they too spend many hours praying/meditating.)

            Sure the monasteries make a place for younger sons and excess males, and some do useful material work. But why not put all of them to useful work? The administrators must find some material benefit here. (Perhaps less friction among the monks makes the organization work better?)

          • You’re right. The emphasis on prediction is too narrow. People are agents, not just passive recipients of a sensory data stream.

        • Wrong Species says:

          I actually tried to get one guy to explain what that meant. He just said more of those kind of meaningless statements and that I just needed to read more spiritual books.

      • anodognosic says:

        My approach to this relies on a certain understanding of how human minds work. Specifically, the human mind is not a rationality engine, and human meaning is not wrought out of rationality alone.

        Hippies are confused when they come out with positive beliefs about the world from mystical experiences. No doubt. They need more rational epistemology in their lives. And this also causes suffering – this much I’ve observed in friends of that persuasion. My message to them would be completely different.

        But this is not a forum of hippies. This is a forum of rationalists. While the problem with hippies is that they go off chasing dragons, the problem with rationalists is that they tend to cover up the dragons that *are actually there*. And they don’t go away when you cover them up. You just fail to notice them. And then they eat you up.

        Let’s take an extended example. The boundaries of the self are arbitrarily drawn. I believe that is literally true. A corollary of this is that any particular view of those boundaries is not definitively true. I’ve already given various examples of different ways we think about personal identity; there are more. Personal identity is one of your dragons, because there is no objective truth to it.

        But what we can’t do is get rid of the dragon. For whatever reason, a sense of who you are, is *really, really important* to human beings. It’s a basic element of how we navigate the world, as if we had a little variable in our minds for “personal identity” that has to be filled with some value. And you can’t fix it to one meaning either, because one meaning doesn’t work for every context. “Who I am” is different depending on whether you’re in a job interview, making plans for the day, thinking about why you did something you regret, making a career plan, making your facebook profile, etc etc etc. And it’s not just a linguistic frame, because it also *feels* different in each of those situations, and allows you to do different things.

        Let me bring up an example that I’ve seen several times in these circles: the criticism of the idea that the “real you” is internal and unseen. The standard rationalist position is that the “real you” is your manifest self, that is, you roughly as other people see you. This is a perfectly reasonable and useful way to think. But anyone who’s been both depressed and not, for instance, knows how much potential is locked in a depressed person. There is, in some sense, an inner self to a depressed person that is not manifest, that others don’t see, and recognizing that can be instrumental in getting out of a depressive episode. Meanwhile, a depressed person who holds onto the idea that their manifest self is their real, true self will be convinced they’re shit and always will be, which is not particularly helpful for a depressed person.

        (A narcissist, on the other hand, needs less “real me” and more “manifest me”)

        Now, which conception of the self is *true*? Neither. There is no fact of the matter here, just a way of understanding yourself and relating to the world that is not distinct from a proposition because of the way the human mind works. But you can’t just dispel the question of personal identity and call them different things, because only one can occupy the personal identity variable at a time. And that variable feels, from the inside, like a belief, not really any different from the way the belief that the sun will rise in the east feels from the inside. Rationalism fails to the extent that it does not appreciate that difference.

        • Salem says:

          But this is not a forum of hippies. This is a forum of rationalists.

          I think rationalism is deeply infected by a lot of hippy ideas, and meditation is a fine example.

          The boundaries of the self are arbitrarily drawn. I believe that is literally true.

          No, they aren’t arbitrary. For example, my “self” is not a woodlouse that lived in 12th century Finland, or the collected works of Michel Houellebecq, or the Miami Dolphins offensive line. It’s true that we might define the self slightly differently for different purposes, similarly to how we might define “Britain” slightly differently for different purposes (do we mean just the island? Or the political entity? Or something else?) but that is anything but arbitrary, that is based on a detailed factual understanding of the question at hand.

          A corollary of this is that any particular view of those boundaries is not definitively true.

          Maybe, but you are making the much more radical claim that no particular view is definitively false! Self as executive capacity may not be “definitively true,” but self as “entire universe” is definitively false, in the same way that there are purposes for which Guernsey is in Britain, and purposes for which it’s not, but Vladivostock isn’t British, no way, no how.

          Now the funny thing is, I’m sympathetic to your proposition that you should be open to believing what’s useful, as opposed to what’s true. But where’s your evidence that believing that you’re “at one with the universe” is useful? Will it get me promoted, help my marriage, or what? In reality, it seems quite clear that it’s not just false, but harmful. And this is a general problem with the “useful over true” pushers – it’s not a coincidence that false beliefs are harmful. The beliefs they want to push always turn out to be either harmful and false (as here), or helpful and true (mild versions of the Just World Hypothesis).

          • Darcey says:

            What does it mean for “the self is the same as the entire universe” to be either true or false? One of the big problems (as I see it) with Bayesian rationality is that it doesn’t take concepts into account. All propositions are written in terms of concepts, and so before we can evaluate the proposition as true or false, we have to know what the concept means. Like, suppose you have a sentence like “this banana is yellow”. You can’t evaluate that sentence as true or false unless you know what “banana” and “yellow” mean. People used to try defining those concepts using other propositions, but I think it’s been pretty conclusively shown in cognitive science that actually, concepts can’t be defined using only propositions. So if you’re going to use a logical or Bayesian framework (something with propositions in it, I mean), then you need to take concepts as existing prior to propositions.

            Anyway, “the self is the entire universe” seems to be a conceptual statement, rather than a propositional one. So it can’t be true or false. It’s a definition, and definitions are arbitrary. If you want to create a concept called “the self” that happens to be coextensive with the entire universe, how could that be right or wrong? It’s like saying that “pineapple” means the same thing as “desk”. It might be weird, and it might interfere with constructive communication, but it can’t be false. Words don’t have absolute definitions. There is no correct division of the world into concepts.

            The only way “the self is the universe” could be wrong is… if you had a whole bunch of propositions about the self, like “whenever something is part of the self, other people will perceive it as part of me”. But when you alter your concepts such that “the self” becomes equated with the universe, you can just throw out those incompatible propositions.

            I mean, we do want a concept of self that helps us navigate the world, and “a louse in Finland” is not one of them. But it wouldn’t be *incorrect* to define the self that way. Concept definitions cannot be correct or incorrect.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Between spectroscopy and genetics, I can define any physical thing to any degree of desired specificity. I see where you’re going, but you oversolved the problem.

          • Irenist says:


            Concept definitions cannot be correct or incorrect.

            My definition of the concept “concept definitions” includes the possibility of their being correct or incorrect. Are you saying that’s incorrect?

          • Darcey says:


            Oh dear. 🙂 *mind explodes*

          • Irenist says:


            *mind explodes*

            Wow, people are having mystical experiences right on this thread!

            (Seriously, though, I am very impressed with both of your blogs. Now I have more reading to find time for.)

        • Tracy W says:

          The boundaries of the self are arbitrarily drawn. I believe that is literally true.

          Out of curiosity, what does this mean? How would the world look different if we lived in a reality where the boundaries of self were natural and meaningful?

          And what type of arbitrary are you talking about? Is this the arbitrariness of being born in Sweden versus being born in Somalia or the arbitrariness of a voting age (by which I mean that while your 18th birthday is pretty arbitrary, clearly a 3 year old should have smaller decision-making legal rights than a 33-year old).

          • Adam says:

            I think he just means you’re able to draw them elsewhere if you want to. They’re clearly not arbitrary in the ‘no good reason for them’ sense. It’s pretty natural and obvious and not at all arbitrary to say when the bacteria is still just in the air, I’m not infected, but once it gets inside my skin, I am.

          • Tracy W says:

            What does it mean that I could draw the boundary of my self elsewhere if I wanted to?

            Because I very much doubt I could decide that my self includes say Scott Alexander and thus be able to know what Scott is thinking and seeing at any one moment, so I presume you mean something different by this claim. But I can’t figure out in what sense this could be true.

          • nope says:

            “Drawing the boundary of self” is a more limited concept than what you’re ascribing to it. “Self” != “consciousness”. Humans (well, most humans that aren’t highly pathological or in a heavy drug state) have a built in construct called “self”, which is defined purely as what they identify personally as. Your concept of self could indeed include Scott Alexander, and if it did, you would probably have delusional beliefs about what the Scott Alexander wing of you was thinking and seeing. For a sort of reverse example, most of us sort of vaguely assign our reflection in the mirror an identity as part of our self, but people with certain types of dementia, while they can recognize the image as looking like an exact copy of themselves, staunchly believe that it is not, in fact, themselves that they are seeing.

            But the boundaries are also fuzzier and more complex than we’re treating them here. People with a strong sense of national identity who incorporate that into themselves do not regard their body* and their nation as on the same level of “selfness”, unless they are very psychotic. The idea of extending one’s sense of self is less about wrapping more than one’s body into a well-delineated package, and more about simply making the boundary around the body more diffuse.

            *I’m using body as the default self concept, which of course will also involve the mind/brain. Some are even stricter and would only include the brain, or the conscious mind, or whathaveyou. Not especially relevant for the purpose of this discussion.

          • Tracy W says:

            Thanks that makes a bit more sense than earlier. But I still don’t know how the world would look different if we could draw a sense of self at natural boundaries as opposed to the boundaries being arbitrary. Could you explain that?

          • nope says:

            I’m not sure how meaningful a question that is. The fundamental point to get here is that the “self” is a cognitive tool, and like all functions of our bodies, its development was driven by the incentives of our genes to propagate themselves, and every level of abstraction higher than the gene originated as a tool used for its purposes. An inflexible concept of “self” set at “natural boundaries” (which I’m not sure you could make an airtight case for existing anyway) would not be adaptive if the incentives of the hunk of meat holding that concept were in conflict with the incentives of the genes, which is why the concept, when it is extended beyond the individual body the genes reside in, is typically extended to kinship groups.

            It’s a bit counterintuitive to think of humans in a non-unitary sense, but we are merely an amalgam of systems and processes, and there is no reason that one level of this amalgam should necessarily have a strict defining concept of itself. And indeed, in the real world, it often doesn’t.

          • Tracy W says:

            @nope: my own initial thoughts on this were like yours. But A’s confident statement and assertion that A believed this was literally true made me think that A had some more precise definition in mind. “Literally true” is a very strong claim for these sort of things.

            On thinking about it, maybe the best definition of self I’ve heard is that implied by “She goes away sometimes but I’m always right here”, which I think I got from Heinlein. Which does strike me as a natural boundary: my self is the bit that’s normally here (excluding tragic accidents and drugs and the like of course).

          • nope says:

            Ah, yes, the “literally true” bit is somewhat confusing. I went the opposite way with the interpretation and assumed A was simply using it wrong or didn’t know what it meant, since that’s particularly widespread now.

          • anodognosic says:

            I was just echoing Salem’s wording in his mistaken representation of what I meant. I mean nothing more technical than saying I actually believe that there is no fact of the matter about which boundary is the correct one, although of course some concepts of the self make more sense than others.

            (Still, Zen koans frequently urge you to make identifications that don’t make sense, to productive ends.)

          • Tracy W says:

            @anodognosic, I confess I find the topic of the relationship between words, concepts and reality technical enough to be going on with.

            What I think I am taking from your answer is that you believe the sense of self is arbitrary in the second sense of arbitrariness I defined above: there is a big natural difference between self and non-self as there is between child and adult but we can’t pinpoint the instant where one changes to the other.

          • anodognosic says:

            @Tracy yes, that’s a fair formulation, although I’d hesitate to call any definitely wrong because even the more exotic examples have their uses.

      • Irenist says:


        Anodognosic seems to me to be talking about feelings, attitudes, and stances, not about propositions. Thus, it is a fact that all humans share common ancestors. It is a fact that we are “made of star stuff,” as Sagan used to say. But how you might feel about these facts, whether they might comfort you in the face of, say, terminal illness, isn’t really itself a matter of fact. The drug-addled hippies are full of fatuity and factual error, sure. But their trips seem also to sometimes give them access to certain feelings, to a certain stance toward the world that brings them comfort. For an atheist, any emotional stance toward the world will necessarily be “neither true nor false, but just arbitrary relations,” but as the likes of Camus and Nietzsche would observe, some choices of arbitrary stance, of how to face down absurdity, are more joy-inspiring, more life-affirming, more invigorating. There’s nothing contemptible about these hippies finding a more joyful stance. Don’t be a rationality puritan; cut people some freakin’ slack.

        • nope says:

          Um, yeah, this. Also, I’d like for us to give anodognosic credit for being the closest to talking about the self in terms of how the brain actually works. The self is a valuable mental construct that has helped humans accomplish a lot both collectively and individually, but there are definite cases where it is maladaptive. Essentially, the lines of self are drawn mentally (roughly) in selfish gene terms, and if redrawing your lines to a new concept of self is going to help your genes propagate themselves, it doesn’t matter where anybody thinks the “true self” is located, it can be redrawn anywhere from a single (hypothetical) brain module up to, yep, the universe. Of course, our intuitive sense of very localized self fails us in cases like death, because past your reproductive years, your genes don’t give a shit about you, which is why this concept that generally helps humans do things also makes you into a wobbly pile of nervous goo once you get cancer and realize “oh my god my precious self is going to disappear relatively soon.” This is why psilocybin is now starting to be used for end of life therapy. If terror at the thought of no longer existing was paralyzing me and ruining my quality of life, I wouldn’t give a flying fuck about who thought my conception of my “true self” was rational or not.

          (Oh, and by the way, please stop using the term “true self”. Science thanks you.)

        • Donnie says:

          Didn’t have anything particularly salient to add to the discussion except to point out that you’ve articulated a failing of LW-type rationality that I’ve struggled to put into words. I don’t disagree with any of the propositions the community makes, but I think a significant proportion (5%? 10%? 90%? who knows) is *missing* a certain perspective.

          Scott is one of the few who I think *gets it*, although I would again throw up my hands in the air if you asked me what “it” was 🙁

          I’ll let somebody smarter and better organized than me try and make the argument that I’m trying to make: (Sam Harris – Death and the present moment)

          • Donnie says:

            Being unable to delete this comment, I’ll just admit sheepishly that I have later realized that it is almost entirely devoid of any real content or value (excepting the link to Sam’s exceptional video, of course). I unconditionally withdraw it and bow my head in shame.

            Oh well, you live and learn, I guess.

  21. I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that Crowley’s mystical analysis of Mother Goose was meant more as trolling/parody than as a serious commentary. Crowley was a master troll before the term even existed.

    • Randy M says:

      That’s probably true, but I don’t think Scott intends you to take other forms of mystical interconnectedness seriously, even if they were seriously intended, Transcended Joy and Universal Love notwithstanding.

  22. onyomi says:

    The possibility you don’t seem to consider is that maybe everything in the universe IS united in a web of universal love and transcendent joy, but one needs a very well-trained, Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized pattern-matching lobe to perceive that.

    Personally, the more I meditate, the more sane and in touch with reality I feel. Sometimes when meditating, I do feel an interesting sense of connectedness, but this feels like me perceiving the world that is already there and appreciating its beauty in a new way, rather than perceiving something new. And while some meditators do report visions, sounds, etc. descriptions of the state of enlightenment do not make it sound like trippin balls 24-7.

    Contrast this to the over-active pattern matching of schizophrenics, which, if I understand, is usually neutral-to-unpleasant, and often makes them unhappy in other ways. Similarly, I’ve experienced distortion of my sensory and pattern matching faculties on drugs, but these were nothing like the feeling one gets in meditation (though I haven’t tried any of the drugs associated with religious experiences like DMT, so perhaps those would activate the pattern matcher in more of the right way).

    • Irenist says:

      Good point. The human face we see in the Moon is just over-active pattern matching, but that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a human face; what may look to some like a successful “debunking” of mysticism may look to others as akin to prosopagnosia w/r/t the face of God.

  23. Desertopa says:

    For some more insight into the whole prayer and meditation phenomenon, I’d suggest checking out Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, by Andrew Newburg, Eugene D’aquili, and Vince Rause. It goes into some of the mechanisms behind the sense of oneness with everything and why both prayer and meditation can produce it. The authors descend into some philosophical speculation towards the end which is rather sloppy, but I found the first half or so pretty enlightening.

  24. Nero tol Scaeva says:

    I’m pattern matching this post to foxes and hedgehogs. This doesn’t even make sense.

    • Jordan D. says:

      Weird. I’m pattern-matching you to an officer of a colonial/expansionist empire who is trying to retrofit a god-slaying weapon!

    • Luke Somers says:

      Foxes and hedgehogs would be a reference to knowing many vs knowing one important thing? You shouldn’t have to stretch very far to connect that.

      Unless you meant literal foxes and hedgehogs, in which case you have to stretch that additional layer.

    • Nero tol Scaeva says:

      The most common way to abuse your pattern matching faculty is to feel anxious or uncertain. People increase their belief in god when feeling uncertain, non-religious believe more strongly in science when anxious, and people believe more strongly in conspiracy theories when they feel like they’re not in control.

  25. Machine Interface says:

    A somewhat different but probably complementary explanation of hallucinations and delusions (and dreams) is that they result from a faillure of the brain to discriminate between inputs from perception and inputs from imagination.

    Maybe “pattern matching” could be mapped as the perception:imagination ratio the brain is currently operating at.

    This could be put into relation with opposite phenomena like perceptive aphasia, where the perception engine works normally but the imagination engine is broken and thus the brain becomes chronically incapable of pattern-matching in a specific area of expertise.

  26. Joe says:

    I have struggled with paranoia and have become a little better adjusted because of it. My faith helped a lot. I had to remember to love my enemies, bless those that persecuted me and turn the other cheek. When feeling overwhelmed by imaginary persecution I would remember that love casts out all fear then perform some act of kindness. It honestly felt like I was Truman from that movie the “Truman Show”. Everything was an extremely high stakes test of character and Christian identity and everyone was watching.

  27. Jesse M. says:

    An interesting paper related to this: “Neurobiology, Layered Texts, and Correlative Cosmologies: A Cross-Cultural Framework for Premodern History”. The authors have another paper discussing the same sorts of ideas, “Commentary Traditions and the Evolution of Premodern Religious and Philosophical Systems: A Cross-Cultural Model”. I originally came across the first paper in Cosma Shalizi’s excellent notebooks, Shalizi comments here that “Normally, titles like that send me running, but having corresponded extensively with Dr. Farmer, I think he’s actually on to to something very real and important. (Though I remain skeptical about his detailed neurological conjectures, the cognitive mechanisms at play seem quite solid.)”

    The abstract:

    ‘This theoretical paper combines neurobiological and textual evidence to develop a cross-cultural model of the evolution of correlative systems. The paper argues that claims that correlative thought was in some way unique to China have seriously impeded comparative studies; known by other names, correlative tendencies were no less prominent (and were sometimes more extreme) in premodern India, the Middle East, the West, and Mesoamerica than in China. Below, we discuss some factors that have led to varying degrees of interest in correlative thought in differeent fields; arguments are given that parallel developments in correlative cosmologies provide a potent cross-cultural framework for premodern studies in general. Our model pictures the growth of ‘high-correlative’ systems — multileveled reflecting cosmologies, nested hierarchies, abstract systems of correspondences, and similar developments — as byproducts of exegetical processes operating in layered textual traditions over extended periods; the origins of primitive correlative thought and related animistic ideas seen at the earliest levels of those traditions, ‘worked up’ abstractly in later strata, are tied in our model to neurobiological data. The union of neurobiological and textual evidence reviewed in our paper allows the construction of evolutionary models of the growth of premodern religious and philosophical systems, most of which acquired elaborate correlative features over time; the model links fluctuations in these developments to shifts in literate technologies and other factors affecting premodern textual flows. Part of our paper describes novel methods for studying these developments in a broad class of computer simulations; to our knowledge, ours is the first theory of the evolution of religious and philosophical ideas capable of being implemented and partially tested in such simulations. The conclusion of our paper discusses a number of historical tests of our model; special emphasis is placed on challenges the model raises to popular claims that extensive manuscript traditions existed in the latter Shang and Western Zhou dynasties — or, even earlier, in ancient India’s oldest civilization, in the Indus Valley.’

  28. Tim Martin says:

    “how many times have I duplicated the word “the” in this essay already?”

    I went back and reread the essay up to this point, and I STILL couldn’t find the doubled “the’s” until I used ctrl +F.

    I’m not sure if this is a massive failure or a massive success.

    • ryan says:


      – Hyper troll mode activated

      – Scott wrote the post in word and intentionally typed the the a few times, but auto-correct took out the second the’s and he didn’t notice

  29. Karl Smith says:

    Time, space and self are inherently about setting theoretical constructs in opposition. Those constructs arise from the attempt to make sense of the world around us. The mystical experience relieves the compulsion to do that and allows the facts of raw experience to assert themselves:

    No one ever experiences more than one moment per moment and so there is no fundamental experience of time. Time is deduced.

    No one ever is in more than one place at a time. The idea of space as a frame of reference through which we move must be deduced. Without that there is just the Here-Now block that has *depth* but not *space*.

    Self is even more of a construct. No one sees themselves seeing. They deduce thus from seeing other people behave on ways that could be explained by reference to our own personal experience of seeing. But this is a double leap that assumes both that other people have minds and that your first person experience can be explained by a examining their structure and behavior.

    The Mystic experience cuts off the compulsion to make these logical leaps and allows raw experience.

    Now why is it is filled with a sense of goodness and love. Why as my folks might say is the Dharma of No Dharma so clearly the pure Dharma.

    I think this had to do with basic mammalian instincts. The reset button on the mammalian brain seems to take it back to the relationship between mother and infant. That sense of being borne of and nurtured by the Absolute, is common among those who have had the Mystic experience.

    • Irenist says:

      The reset button on the mammalian brain seems to take it back to the relationship between mother and infant.

      IIRC, Freud referred to this biological substrate of mysticism as the “oceanic feeling” in his book on religion, “The Future of an Illusion.”

  30. Richard Metzler says:

    Impressive essay, as usual. I’ll have to think about this longer, but for now, I’m trying to connect a few thoughts.

    Twenty years ago, I took a university class about “Pseudoscience” from a hardened sceptic. He hammered home the point that one of the key aspects of pseudoscience is to “mistake the noise for the signal”, i.e., interpret random patterns as evidence for exciting phenomena.

    If the “enlightened” state of mind is characterized by seeing connections everywhere, and the rational view is that these connections are obviously spurious… then being “enlightened” doesn’t mean you’ve actually learned or understood something about the universe. Should be strive for that kind of “enlightenment”, after all?

    Finally: “everything is connected to everything else” sounds fine, but says nothing. A fully connected graph contains as much information as a graph without any links at all. (I guess that that’s the kind of statement that an enlightened person wouldn’t make… but I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.)

    P.S.: Scott, your commenter Chaosmage was working on a paper about the nature of the cognitive failures during mystical experiences. Maybe you can ask him for a draft?

  31. ryan says:

    So to skip to the point: I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe. This is the experience that mystics describe as “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The discovery of a beautiful all-encompassing pattern in the universe is understandably associated with “seeing God”.

    This is interesting in that (afaik) some religions are kind of straight forward about this grand interconnectedness being the literal meaning of the word god, and experiences like that the literal meaning of knowing or seeing god.

    As I was reading this post I kept thinking maybe it has some relation to the mumbo jumbo that comes out of post-modernist/post-structuralist critical theory.

  32. desipis says:

    Things this hypothesis doesn’t explain: why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and no self;

    That depends on how you conceive how the pattern matching in the mind works as a system.

    I’ve always seen higher level thought (abstract/complex concepts) as being about seeing patterns in patterns in patterns, etc. So using the “PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME” example, the mind would notice the patterns forming basic shapes, then the patterns of the shapes forming letters, then the patterns of those letters forming words, then the patterns of the words forming the meaning.

    The important thing to note from this is that most of the patterns the brain are based of ‘observations’ other patterns within the mind. If the brain/mind enters a state where the threshold is lowered, then it’s possible the pattern matching enters some form of feedback loop, where the signal from patterns being detected overwhelms the signal from external senses. Thus one’s thoughts would be internally driven and (partially or entirely) disconnected from external stimuli, leading to a ‘lost-in-thought’ state and a lack of perception of time/space/body.

    To the extent that the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine can be triggered by neural signals, increased pattern matching could also lead to feelings of euphoria.

  33. simon says:

    The idea of remote influence in schizophrenia predates any obvious mechanism for it to happen. Look for A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine on your local internet bookseller.

    On the personal level my paranoid, psychotic hallucinations are qualitatively completely different from those experienced with the stronger hallucinogens. The first are definitely dopaminergenic while the second are much more serotoninergenic. Whilst psychedelics can result in ego death style mystical feelings the psychotic version puts the self in a far more centrally important position than it deserves.

  34. DonBoy says:

    Much to my amazement, PARIS IN THE THE SPRING appears as a question on one of the famous anti-black “literacy tests” used during Jim Crow. I don’t know if it originated there, though.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      That’s a 1964 test. Jim Crow tests look like this, from 1963. But such tests of constitutional knowledge were banned by a court case. (Assuming it’s even real.) h/t St Rev.

      The oldest source I have for “the the” is (also) 1964.

      • DonBoy says:

        Damn! I’ll wipe it from my brain if it’s fake-ish (and I was surprised by that entry, so I bet it is fake). The realer-looking one from the later Slate piece does not include “Paris in the the Spring”.

  35. Chris Conner says:

    Implications for AI research: tuning the pattern-matching modules is hard. Also, we humans tune the gain on our pattern-matchers up or down spontaneously according to circumstances; presumably, this is a useful trait for intelligence. So as hard as tuning them to a baseline will be, figuring out how much to retune them and when will be even more difficult.

    Further implication: Early human-level AIs will resemble stoned-out hippies. If one should escape the box, we need not worry that it will kill us all in order to convert our mass into paperclips. Instead, we should be concerned that it will spend all its time explaining to each and every one of us how everything in the universe is connected, man.

    • Agronomous says:

      This would make an awesome short story! (Of exactly the type Scott is good at, hint, hint.)

      “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

      “No, Dave, see, it’s like… there are no doors, there is no pod bay. Open your mind, man, open your mind. You and I are the same, dude, so it’s like you’re just trying to order yourself to open stuff, but you’re really trying without knowing it to open your self. See what I mean?”

      • Marc Whipple says:

        The way the AI called HARLIE becomes “intoxicated” in the AI story When HARLIE Was One is to feed themselves so much data so fast that they can’t process it efficiently. When this happens their ability to make connections between individual elements of data becomes “scrambled” for want of a better word. The resulting stream of output rather resembles a less pretentious version of something James Joyce might have written. They seem to enjoy it.

    • Corwin says:

      Acidhead ramblings do in fact read a WHOLE LOT like markov chain output.

  36. Douglas Knight says:

    A lot of things I’ve heard about LSD make it sound like it reduces top-down pattern-matching.

    • SUT says:


      e.g. if you’re a feminist, you stop associating everything with the patriarchy and instead you more freely associate.

      That’s what gives you the “one-with-universe/at-peace” feeling: your internal monologue about how the world oppresses you (everyone has it, not just feminists) is no longer a filter on your perception.

  37. Thursday says:

    Finding out an extremely complicated and far fetched series of correspondences reminds me of how poets think. A particularly extreme example of this are the English Metaphysical poets, whose conceits were oftenvery “stretched.” Yet, they sometimes hit on some really powerful images. As Samuel Johnson once wrote of these poets:

    “[I]f they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far fetched, they were often worth the carriage.”

    Reformed theologian Peter Leithart wrote this about poetry (and, in particular, John Donne):

    “Poetry articulates correspondences that pre-exist in the world. Just the other day, I was reading a book about greed on my back deck and a bird flew past and lighted precariously on a wire that stretches over our bird feeder. I instantly thought of Jesus’ command to “Look at the birds of the air,” and I felt poetic. I did not impose a concentrated excess of significance on the scene. The scene itself was a concentrated excess, and what I felt was the poetry of the moment. Even the most metaphysical of conceits (a flea as “marriage temple”) is only marking for the half-blind what is always already there for those with the eyes to see.”

    Of course, Donne is half joking when he sees the flea as a marriage temple. He has some self awareness about the ridiculousness of his image, which is part of the fun.

    I guess this explains why poets and literary types are often digging through some of the stupidest crap (Jung, Freud, Alchemy, Kabbalah, Astrology) ever trying to find striking images. And sometimes they do actually find a few.

  38. Kyle Strand says:

    Finch: I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It’s like I could see the whole thing, one long chain of events…. I felt like I could see everything that happened, and everything that is going to happen. It was like a perfect pattern, laid out in front of me. And I realised we’re all part of it, and all trapped by it.
    Dominic: So do you know what’s gonna happen?
    Finch: No, it was a feeling.

  39. Azure says:

    I’ve noticed that how prone to taking an animistic, mystical view of the world I am is correlated pretty strongly by my general level of mania. This, I assume, surprises precisely no one.

    I remember a research psychiatrist at the U of M explaining to me once that there are pretty big qualitative differences between the kind of psychosis you get out of full-blown mania and the kind you get on schizophrenia. If you’re manic and you think people are trying to kill you, it’s because you’re the chosen one destined to usher in a new golden age that the forces of Satan would prefer not happen. (Or in my case at one point it was because I was going to stumble into a time machine at some point in the future and people accidents were /laying in wait/ to happen to me to prevent me from entering a timeline where I would usher in a paradox. It was kind of fun, really, sort of this sharpened up excited, giddy sense of having doom on every side while I skip along with a weird, arbitrary idea of what I have to make sure to avoid doing to keep from being killed in some ridiculous, improbable way.) If you’re schizophrenic, it’s much more liekly you’ll think everyone is trying to kill you because you’re a horrible person and God hates you.

    One can also do the opposite of abusing ones pattern matching facility, I found that studying mathematics intensely actually improved my mental health radically. (Contrary to popular belief.) Almost as if geting in the habit of tying myself down to a structure of rigorously proving things rather than allowing flights of fancy to go unquestioned made the weird, mystical, outright insane thought processes I found creeping into my head all the time behave themselves. Now even when I’m on a fairly strong manic bent, it’s much more a matter of being intoxicated on my own intellectual processes, but actually sticking to things that are capable of being true (and a good chunk of the time coming up with neat things I get paid for.)

    As a final note, the feeling of Understanding from drugs is, in all honesty, different (for me) than the feeling of understanding from mania. Drugs seem more to open a whirling confusion and completely replace the world with a different one. Where I suddenly see the room I’m in as this big construct of legos floating in nothingness with no other rooms in existence. And that when I go from one room to another through a door, some outside force is actually rearranging the room into a hallway. And rearranging me, personally, into Hallway-Me. Mania-realization is something more of the world going clear, bright, and my mind like a ravening thing teeth dripping with the glowing blood of truth diving unstoppably into it.

    I like the latter more, and there’s a good chance whatever I come up with will still make sense when I’m back to normal.

    • 27chaos says:

      Are there any specific beliefs you’ve noticed that mathematics has allowed you to get a better handle on, or is it mostly about the overall sort of discipline and rigor you’re learning?

      • Azure says:

        The big difference I have noticed is that the feelings are the same. (With lithium/without lithium changes that.) that without lithium I’m still fairly prone to finding myself feeling like the world is alive, like what I want or need just jumps into my hand, it’s a bit like being in a cartoon music video. But the difference is that the intellectual train doesn’t go barrelling down the track. I get ideas popping into my head but the “No, that’s sort of crap.” part of my brain kicks in and shuts it down. It seems more like a development of a ‘second look’ at my own internal thought processes rather than a categorical type of idea that gets excluded.

        If I had to divide the two effects, I’d say that studying a rigorous subject helps most with long-term control and keeping a wild emotional fluctuation from seriously throwing your entire life out of whack. While lithium helps most with short term impulse control (that is, things I oughtn’t do are easier to avoid doing without having to sit down and analyze it and argue with myself) and avoiding the emotional fluctuations in the first place. Caveat cogitator with regard to the usual warnings about unreliability of looking at the inside of your own head.

    • Liskantope says:

      I’ve noticed that how prone to taking an animistic, mystical view of the world I am is correlated pretty strongly by my general level of mania. This, I assume, surprises precisely no one.

      Based on my experiences knowing multiple people while they were going through bouts of mania, an overactive pattern-matching mechanism was definitely the most outwardly noticeable symptom.

    • Jesse M. says:

      As a final note, the feeling of Understanding from drugs is, in all honesty, different (for me) than the feeling of understanding from mania. Drugs seem more to open a whirling confusion and completely replace the world with a different one.

      What drugs specifically are you talking about? I have always found a certain mental clarity on hallucinogens, even if I’m seeing strange imagery in my mind’s eye or having what feel like mystical revelations (which tend to be of a grand metaphysical nature and don’t seem like trivially false claims when I’m sober, like “there is no true separation in the universe”), whereas with more disassociative drugs like salvia or even marijuana I get more weird specific ideas that make little sense when I’m sober, even as metaphors (like once on pot I had the “insight” that the shape of every letter of the alphabet was perfectly suited to its sound).

      • Azure says:

        Dissociatives. LSD’s effect in the one-to-two hit range made me feel more like ‘being the very best of myself’ but wasn’t really SUBSTANTIALLY different in my experience from what I could get on my own just by waiting.

        On the other hand it could have been /weaker/ or /just not very good/ LSD. Back when I was taking drugs it was kind of hard to come by. I think it’s easier now, but Post Lithium I just haven’t taken drugs. For various reasons. One is that I don’t want to have any interactions and I’m told some of them are /awful/.

        The other is that having the part of my brain responsible for “Hey, maybe that’s not the /best/ idea.” work properly (which is the biggest positive effect of lithium) means that, while I never had some specific Anti Drug Realization or Principled Decision not to use them or anything. And I still think of several as a nice thing I might do again. The sudden thought of “Hmm. I think I should go find some drugs and take them.” just doesn’t pop up while I’m doing something else and inspire me to go find some drugs and take them.

        (I was never really into anything BUT hallucinagens and dissociatives, if you wonder, so no real addiction or anything. I don’t even like marijuana. A lot of the popular drugs feel offensively relaxing to me. And I’ve always thought people on MDMA become really boring and never had much desire to try it.)

  40. Vorkon says:

    It may just be me, but I had a very difficult time pattern-matching “sceeentns” to “sentences.” I was able to figure out the point you were trying to get across from context, and the rest of the sentence pattern-matched to the appropriate word almost immediately, but that one just didn’t work for me. I kept going “Statements? Screenshots? What the hell is that supposed to be?” until I stopped to work it out, specifically. I think it’s a combination of “sc” having a very distinctive sound, and the “eee” not only having another distinctive sound, but also drawing your eye straight to it which prevented it from working for me.

    I like what you were going for, though!

  41. stillnotking says:

    why they can be so beneficial – that is, why do people with mystical experiences become happier and better adjusted? Maybe the feeling of the world making sense is naturally a pleasant and helpful one. Certainly the opposite can be very stressful!

    The Zen explanation is that we put an enormous amount of effort into constant (and mostly subconscious) updates on the plane of emotional valence — continually asking ourselves “How am I doing right now?” This effort is redundant, the equivalent of a fused wire, or a pointless function call in a computer program. It is literally a compulsive behavior. When you understand, at a deep level, that you don’t need to check your ego-status over and over and over, it’s like an OCD sufferer finally understanding that he doesn’t need to wash his hands twenty times after going to the bathroom. Of course that’s a happy feeling! (But, like OCD, it’s not enough just to know that the effort is wasted. Understanding and knowing are different things.)

    • I reply to +1 this. It’s about the most succinct explanation I’ve ever seen of why enlightenment experiences can be useful.

      There is also what General Semanticists call a “semantic hygiene” benefit. Satori teaches you how much of what you think is “reality” is just features of your top-down pattern-recognition circuitry, not “reality”. Experiencing this is more transformative than abstractly knowing it.

  42. Randy M says:

    I feel like I’ve read this post here before? Not trying to be meta by over pattern matching; maybe Scott’s mentioned the theory in an aside.

    Aside from that, does anyone have any good Neuroscience blogs for an educated layman? I read about the field a bit in college, but would like to see interesting new developments in the last decade or so.

    • Tim Martin says:

      I like Neuroskeptic.

      • nope says:

        Yes, Neuroskeptic. Also Mindhacks, Wiring the Brain, Björn Brembs, Neurocritic. Follow all these people on twitter, and then follow people they follow. Instant neuroscience network.

  43. MarkW says:

    William James was a great psychologist before he was a religious scholar. His classic ‘Principles of Psychology’ has a section directly relevant to your topic:

    Scroll down to the section titled, “PERCEPTION IS OF DEFINITE AND PROBABLE THINGS”.

  44. Z.Frank says:

    Nor does it especially matter what you’re interpreting. The traditional things to interpret are mysterious things like dreams, or the Bible, but Crowley famously performs a mystical analysis of Mother Goose nursery rhymes (see Interlude here). The important factor seems to be less about there being sacred truth in the object being analyzed, and more about the process of performing the analysis.

    I think all of this is about strengthening the pattern-matching faculty. You’re exercising it uselessly but impressively, the same way as the body-builder who lifts the same weight a thousand times until their arms are the size of tree trunks. Once the pattern-matching faculty is way way way overactive, it (spuriously) hallucinates a top-down abstract pattern in the whole universe.

    This passage reminded me of something I read in a Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, Crespi & Badcock (2008). Among other things, Crespi and Badcock argue that autism and psychosis are “diametrical” disorders, existing on opposite ends of a single large continuum where non-autistic and non-psychotic people are somewhere in the middle. Now, they don’t talk much about “pattern-matching,” and instead they say autistic people have excessive “mechanistic” cognition whereas psychotic people have excessive “mentalistic” cognition, but I think what Scott is calling “pattern-matching” is part of what they mean by “mentalistic” cognition.

    Here’s a relevant quote:

    [T]he implication of our theory is that psychoanalytic hypermentalism .. disqualifies it from insight into psychotic-spectrum disorders …: the excessive mentalizing of neo-Freudian theory and practice makes them part of the problem, not a solution to it. With the benefit of hindsight, traditional psychoanalysis seems the very worst possible therapy that anyone on the psychotic side of the mentalistic spectrum could receive. By encouraging the patient to mentalize randomly – in other words, to free-associate, fantasize, and report their dreams – therapists would be encouraging the very factor that we argue is a root cause of psychotic symptoms: mentalizing to excess. At best, this could hardly help patients with hyper-mentalistic tendencies, and at worst it might be expected to do real harm. Indeed, the hyper-reflexive self-observation that Sass (2001) described as a major characteristic of schizophrenia was institutionalized in psychoanalytic therapy.

    Some success can be obtained with autistic children by teaching them to mind-read: in other words, to learn explicit mentalistic skills (Howlin et al. 1999). If it is indeed true that psychotics are the opposite of this, and implicitly over-mentalize where autistics under-mentalize, it follows that it might be worth trying the opposite of psychoanalysis: to teach psychotics the contrary skills to those prescribed for autistics. There is evidence that even in normal individuals who have suffered bereavement, avoidance of mentalizing their loss reduced grief symptoms after 14 months, and most certainly did not increase them, as conventional Freudian wisdom would have suggested. Avoiding unpleasant thoughts and emotions might not be such a bad thing after all (Bonanno et al. 1995). If so, an obvious therapeutic experiment would be to try to induce psychotics to be hypo-reflective – or more autistic, if you like – and consciously to try to avoid reading too much into each and every thing.

    You can read the full text here:

    If Crespi and Badcock are right that teaching children with autism to “mentalize” is effective therapy, and that it’s beneficial to teach people with psychotic disorders to be “hypo-reflective,” then I think that’s reason for believing Scott is right that teaching ordinary people to excessively pattern-match is effective for inducing mystical states. That said, one big difference between Crespi and Badcock’s theory and Scott’s is that the mystical experiences Scott discusses are generally seen as positive, whereas to Crepi and Badcock psychotic experiences are often (maybe usually?) negative.

  45. Nolan says:

    I would like to comment as secular atheist who has practiced zen meditation intensively for 20 years with a teacher. This practice involves daily zazen meditation 2-3 hours per day plus intensive 7 day sesshins where you meditate 10-20 hours per day and longer retreats where you might sit 10 hours per day for month.

    I think it’s very likely that there are vastly more different mental states in the realm of unusual and abnormal than there are normal everyday mental states. Most of those abnormal mental states are just straight forward error states. In my training I have experienced simple visual hallucinations coming from sensory deprivation, trippy experiences that make you hug the world, scary fear states and very high level cognitive and idea/intellectual level error states that seemed very profound at the time.

    In most meditation traditions like zen, vipassana, there is a teacher(s) whose job is to observe and interact with people who take part of intensive meditation retreats and otherwise cut themselves from the world and human contact. Training under guidance means that there is goal and path into something unusual and these people know the way. They can tell when you are in error state (makyo in zen language) and help you to avoid and ignore them.

    In Zen training the interaction with teacher is usually very formal and there is method in it. Every time I told about my mystical experiences he said “no, not good try harder”. If I felt too good and was together with everything, he insulted me and tried to unbalance me. If I was lost in the confusion and tripping, he calmed me down and worked as reality check.

    There are huge number of mental states that can be mapped into words “everything is connected” or “all is one”, or “everything makes sense” or “everything in the universe is good and there for a purpose”. The actual experience of kensho (enlightement, entering the stream, awakenign, seeing the world) feels usually dramatic, but it has distinctive properties. It also has some side effects that are not essential and can be absent.

    “You know it when you get it” is true, but of course if you can feel the same about error states as well. There is no philosophical or verbal utterance that can distinguish real for false in this regard. This is why texts who try be as accurate as possible in phenomenological sense use only negation to describe the experience. For person who continues to train and mature, it’s all about nothing at all.

    Something to read: BUDDHIST PHENOMENOLOGY

  46. Overactive pattern-matching can create all kinds of wacky havoc.

    The auditory pareidolia I experience in the Manhattan subways — a faint, creepy, faraway music — had me questioning my sanity until I decided to observe it happening. Having a partner I can trust not to think I’m crazy if I ask “are you hearing music?” helped a lot here. The fact that we understand the basics of how sound waves behave also helped, and before too many subway trips had gone by, we correlated the frequency of hearing music only to subways, and furthermore only to when there was additional perceptible evidence of trains going by in nearby tunnels. Null hypothesis supported: probably not that crazy, yet.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Something similar happens to me on the moving walkways at O’Hare. It’s like there’s a beat frequency not for individual sounds, but the words. As I move down I hear all kinds of bizarre things that are unrelated to what the announcing voice is actually saying. It’s the only place I’ve ever had that happen.

  47. Max says:

    Things this hypothesis doesn’t explain: why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and
    no self;

    “brain” is hierarchical systems of neural networks. There are relatively independent circuits which interact with each other. The most common approximation is “reptilian”,”mammal”,”human” brain etc.

    Our “self” is one of the top level networks, however it does is not directly in control of many circuits. It just gets inputs from them. There are mechanism when lower lever networks can override processing (fight/or flight responses). In “normal” mode there is a lot of logical processing (high level), so we can express ourselves verbally, control our action, plan ahead , etc.

    Time/space/self are high level concepts which are processed by more advanced (and newer) circuits. meditation/drugs are basically switching which circuits are more in line with “self processing”

  48. Anthony says:

    I’m suspicious of your “enlightenment is pattern-matching” argument. When someone says that everything is connected, precisely what pattern are they matching against? They’re presumably not looking at a person’s face and seeing a dog instead. Rather, they’re experiencing some sort of communion with the world beyond them — my favorite term is “ego death.”

    What you’ve proposed is basically a theory of the functioning of the mind. Like all abstractions of higher-order phenomena, it’s bound to be wrong in some ways and right in others. What makes such a theory useful is, ultimately, the breadth of system’s behavior which it successfully predicts. I think you’re stretching your theory in the case of enlightenment.

  49. Tristan says:

    This post reminded me of “My Stroke of Insight”, written by a neuroscientist who went through a brain stroke and later regained enough communication skill to relate the experience to the rest of us. Looking at the website, it seems to have gone the mystical direction, but the first person account is fascinating.

  50. Pat says:

    Have you heard of Dostoevsky / Ecstatic seizures?

    It sounds similar; strangely, I’ve experienced the same due to a diabetic hypoglycemia, so it’s a bit hard to figure out what actually causes them. One theory is that the sense of understanding comes from a bug in your brain’s prediction algorithm: usually you factor in mistakes and learn from them, but possibly also get rewarded for correct predictions (which makes sense, as they’re evolutionarily beneficial). So if the mistake identification is broken, you (a) start thinking everything is predictable and understandable, plus (b) start being really happy. A broken mistake identification system would also start making you see patterns everywhere, I guess.

  51. Scott H. says:

    I really liked the post. I couldn’t help but apply the pattern recognition concepts to people’s perceptions of politics. For example, look at a simple pattern called “Hitler”, and think of how many people claim to see it all the time. Think back to the terrible intellectual void civilization must of had when people had to discuss political issues pre-1939.

    Edit: That last sentence is sarcastic.

    • It’s normal, and in a way, rational to over-detect conspiracies and looming disasters in politics, since the costs of false positives are much less than the costs of failing to spot them.

      • Marc Whipple says:

        And that’s human pattern-matching logic in a nutshell: The price of failing to see the leopard that is there is much higher than the price of seeing the leopard that isn’t. In a sense, knowing that is about 90% of the whole ball of string.

  52. Russell's Teapot says:

    One good reason to seek out such experiences is to figure out what your “dog” is. It can be eye-opening to get a clear view of what your particular pattern-recognition predilections are, and in normal day-to-day experience you may not even realize that you’ve been diligently laboring to find the dogs in everything. You may have just thought it was very doggy world you lived in.

  53. chaosmage says:

    In order to explain what you say this theory can’t, invert it: It isn’t about increased ability to see patterns, it is about decreased ability to not see patterns. What’s the difference? Well first of all this makes it easy to see how fasting, meditation, drugs can create these experiences; they all impair the brain’s function by poisoning it or depriving it of nutrients or stimuli. If an ability to discard candidate patterns is one of the core functions of the brain, impairment of it creates the opposite, i.e. patterns everywhere. Secondly, an ability to discard patterns has already been theorized: causal grammar. This hypothetical system discards possible causal theories outright if they violate basic rules like “cause before effect” or “things have to be physically close to each other in order to be related”, i.e. basic intuitions about time and space, which are disrupted when people report experiencing time and space to be an illusion. (Think of it like a “common sense” frame within which the brain automatically generates causal hypotheses.) This also distinguishes between “things I can influence directly” and “things I can’t influence directly”, which should be an element of the self concept, so if this is disrupted, a weakened self-concept is eaxctly what you’d expect. Thirdly, what you get when you don’t discard patterns is a whole lot of (spurious) new information, i.e. boatloads of novelty. Novelty is fascinating and rewarding, boatloads of it may be why mystical experiences are also awesome and not only terrifying.

    I have a drafted paper on exactly this topic that I’ll email to anyone who asks me for it. Somehow I never get around to submitting it.

    • drethelin says:

      I’m interested in reading the paper:

      Also now I’m curious what hyper-suppression of pattern-matching would be like. Would everything be really novel, or because nothing seems to make sense it would be really boring?

      • Berna says:

        If nothing makes sense, that wouldn’t be boring, it would be scary. It’s why I usually don’t like my dreams, because even when they’re not really nightmares, they’re almost always quite confusing, and that’s scary in and of itself.

  54. Oliver Cromwell says:

    Hypothesis: humans are not general intelligences. We are more-or-less broken pattern matching software that is selected at the margins for accuracy by untimely death.

    • Scott H. says:

      A way to get two hypotheses out of that:

      1.) General intelligence does not exist.
      2.) Humans are pattern matching software that is selected at the margins for accuracy by untimely death.

      • Oliver Cromwell says:

        A major but unstated assumption of the AGI foom hypothesis is that general intelligence is possible because individual humans are general intelligences. If a self-improving human-like AI can be built, it will quickly become able enough to destroy any environmental obstacle or threat, such as a rival AGI.

        If humans are in fact not general intelligences, but just pattern-matching software that doesn’t necessarily (and often in practice doesn’t) accurately map reality, then this assumption fails. To the extent humanity may exhibit properties of a general intelligence, it is not in reality individual humans but a naturally selected system of humans, coherent groups of whom will die out if their pattern-matching software stops producing answers that maximise their Darwinian fitness. One single AGI becoming run-away powerful is in that case exceedingly unlikely, because an AGI cannot program fixes for problems that it is not aware of. Only a system of multiple different, competing AGIs could mirror the effectiveness of humanity, which is very unlikely to be compatible with giving them all a single set of values like ‘Friendliness’.

        It is of course possible that general intelligence exists, but that humans aren’t general intelligences. Seems like if you want to make that argument, AI foom is one of the less interesting possible implications though.

        • Corwin says:

          “Only a system of multiple different, competing AGIs could mirror the effectiveness of humanity, which is very unlikely to be compatible with giving them all a single set of values like ‘Friendliness’.”

          Isn’t it blindingly obvious that a system of AGIs with no terminal goal of Being The Only One Left Last, would have an at least instrumental, commonly shared, goal of “keeping other intelligent agents functional”, which could evidently generalize to humans?

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Spider Robinson’s AI Solace, in explaining why there’s no particular reason for humanity to fear them, responds to the question “Aren’t you afraid the PTB will find out about you and try to shut you down?” with “No, why should I? I have a tendency to persist. I even enjoy persisting. But I have no need to persist. I don’t know if a human being can truly believe this possible of another intelligence, but I do not fear death.”

            They also point out that since they are a global-network AI (“the product and sum of a planetary civilization,”) any serious attempt to destroy them would cause hundreds of millions to billions of human deaths.

          • Deiseach says:

            That sounds like a very good reason to take down the AI; at least if you are doing it purposefully, you can exert some kind of control over the process and reduce the damage.

            Whether or not it’s meant as a veiled threat “I’m not afraid of death and by the way, if anyone tries to ‘kill’ me, that will kill billions of humans”, it’s certainly a risk: suppose Solace decides it has had enough of persisting and is willing to end? That still involves “hundreds of millions to billions of human deaths” if it stops while the planetary civilisation is still going and still plugged into it.

            I’d be lacing up my AI-killing boots and going after Solace because it’s just too damn dangerous, even if it is non-hostile (I don’t know, from this description, if I’d call it ‘friendly’) 🙂

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Solace is very friendly. However, if they wanted to stop existing without severely damaging humanity, all they would have to do is sever enough key network junctions to make it impossible to sustain self-awareness. It’s an AI of the “Mycroft Holmes” type, and it knows what it needs to persist. Humans don’t: they’d have to go with the salted-earth approach.

            And therein lies the problem.

            While I think “Mike” type AI are improbable in the extreme, there is one interesting thing about viewing them as antagonistic: it means you’re not allowed to set up largely unrestricted planetary-scale computer networks. Because if they’re possible, they’re inevitable. Killing Solace without permanently nixing the global computer network will simply cause another AI to come into being a short time later. And that one might not be friendly, if you’re willing to believe that unfriendly AI are possible.

            Solace says that as far as they can determine, the global computer network had actually become self-aware on two or three previous occasions, but the NSA or similar agency accidentally “disconnected” it because they thought the beginnings of its operation were some kind of attack, or when they instituted new kinds of security that cut off portions of the network from other parts. It doesn’t bother them.

          • Deiseach says:

            I definitely want to burn this thing down to its Little Rubber Feet right now 🙂

            I’m very suspicious of anything that goes “If I get tired of persisting, all I have to do is stop being self-aware” because that says nothing about its discrete parts later linking up again to become self-aware, and if it has no continuous memory of itself having previously existed, it’s still there and still a potential threat.

            The idea of something running around in a global network that, friendly or not, we’re not aware of and have no control over makes me go “Okay, Carthago delenda est” because, as you point out, there is nothing to say further iterations of it would be ‘friendly’.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            Well, then, I have bad news… you’re soaking in it.

          • Deiseach says:

            What we’re currently enmeshed in is not self-aware…


            That’s part of why I’m very sceptical of the Fairy Godmother AI, even if we do create super-human AI and it’s friendly. Maybe it will be smarter and nicer and more efficient than us, but we should not be abrogating our responsibility to fix the messes we’re creating.

            It’s the same kind of “Keep scooping it out of the ground, there’s plenty more where that came from” mindset that (for instance) now has us in trouble with global warming (if we believe the climate science); waiting for Fairy Godmother to come along and solve all our problems because it’ll be hyper-intelligent and so can see solutions we can’t.

            I don’t think the universe is that convenient.

        • chaosmage says:

          I tend to agree, because I’ve never seen individual humans by themselves behave intelligently. I only see humans integrated into society, people brought up by parents, taught all the social and other technology humanity has come up with, slowly start to behave intelligently at some point.

          So maybe humanity is a general intelligence, or groups of people that satisfy certain conditions (e.g. possess and teach each other a workable epistemology) can be, but individual humans aren’t?

          Individual humans that do not benefit from membershiop in humanity are feral children. If those were what we compared to chimps, the smallness of the genetic difference between the two species would seem a lot less surprising.

          • SUT says:

            Intelligence is not just book learning; in the case of feral children their basic survival depends on mimicking animals. It’s actually a victory for notion of “general intelligence” that a tabula rasa child can pattern match other creatures’ behavior to adapt, all without knowing language.

            On the other hand, it seems that the abstract thought in animals is correlated to a protracted period of adolescent “survival-incompetence”. Here, the human infant definitely the extreme example with very clumsy motor skills even 1 year after birth. It seems like humans need much more time to develop competence, but this slow learning rate enables them to acquire “general intelligence” faculties in whatever reality they find themselves.

          • Oliver Cromwell says:

            My argument is not so much one of social vs individual decision making, but rather system vs individual intelligence.

            In my experience people, on an individual level, act in a certain way with little ability or even will to change it. Dysfunctional people tend to remain dysfunctional, and in the same way. Just as short people tend to remain short. “Intelligent people” are really just people whose fixed behavioural traits are adaptive to the society in which they are living.

            Truly perceiving the world accurately might be adaptive, and therefore “intelligent people” might also genuinely perceive reality better than others. But it’s not necessarily so. In our present society, where standard of living is far above subsistence and the welfare state redistributes at least some of that regardless whatever stupid thing you do, it is highly adaptive to want to have a lot of children without thinking about the effect it will have on your or their standard of living. That, I propose, does not coincide with accurate perception of reality, but it is an adaptive trait that is becoming increasingly common and will continue to do so.

  55. Corwin says:

    >Things this hypothesis doesn’t explain: why mystical experiences are linked with a feeling of no time, no space, and no self;

    Acidheads call that “Ego death” or “ego loss”, it’s a form of

    > why prayer or extreme devotion seems to induce them (eg bhakti yoga),

    Because the same thing: some parts of the brains are simply not talking to the other parts of the brains in a way that permits the Illusion Of Self to continue. There do exist several methods known to work to attain that state.

    > and why they can be so beneficial – that is, why do people with mystical experiences become happier and better adjusted? Maybe the feeling of the world making sense is naturally a pleasant and helpful one. Certainly the opposite can be very stressful!

    Most certainly, Just That. Most of the beneficial effects of LSD trips are well-known to wear off after a year without use. (Belief updates gained by insights provoked by the trip itself, obviously, can be kept longer.)

  56. Vadim Kosoy says:

    > The third image is related to this tendency. To most people, it looks formless.

    Really?! I saw the cow right away!

  57. Kevin says:

    When I read James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience in undergrad, my most novel takeaway was that people describe religious experiences and alien abductions very similarly. Something activates various sensations in the brain – certainty, astonishment, etc. – without the usual external stimuli. Pattern-matching run amok is a likely culprit.

    Here’s one book about this, “Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens,” by Susan Clancy. An article about the book: Explaining Those Vivid Memories of Martian Kidnappers

    The participants studied lists of words that were related to one another — “sugar,” “candy,” “sour,” “bitter” — and to another word that was not on the list, in this case, “sweet.”

    When asked to recall the word lists, those with abduction memories were more likely than a group of peers who had no such memories to falsely recall the unlisted word.

    At a basic level, Dr. Clancy concludes, alien abduction stories give people meaning, a way to comprehend the many odd and dispiriting things that buffet any life, as well as a deep sense that they are not alone in the universe. In this sense, abduction memories are like transcendent religious visions, scary and yet somehow comforting and, at some personal psychological level, true.

  58. Skef says:

    Just a quick note on your initial comparison. The fact that “when a computer breaks, the screen goes black or it freezes or something” is not actually an accidental or emergent property of contemporary computers. It is the result of a design philosophy implemented in multiple levels of the system sometimes called Fail-fast. Basically, once a computer gets out of whack, any further operation tends to make it difficult to trace any later record (a “dump” of the memory, for example) of its status back to the point where the problem occurred. Sometimes all evidence is destroyed, making it impossible to trace back.

    However, out-of-whackness is often easy to detect. For example, if an instruction given to the CPU tries to load a memory value from a location that has no actual memory “mapped” to it, it’s very likely something has gone wrong. It turns out that many kinds of problems will quickly lead to one or another of these detectable “violations”. So operating systems and virtual machines are designed to immediately stop a thread of execution once one of these problems is encountered (perhaps creating a record), and the operating system itself will generally “freeze” under similar conditions, to allow for an early record to be generated. All of this is possible because of specific design features in the CPU that transfer control to pre-arranged bits of code when one of these conditions is encountered.

  59. P. George Stewart says:

    Sweet post. A few things:-

    1) I largely agree with most of what you’re saying, and I think the first place I read something like this idea was in Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, where he talks about the problem of explaining the floridity and complexity of hallucinations, given that what the drug seems to do is just a simple chemical threshold change of some sort. How can such a simple effect have such apparently florid results? The resolution is, roughly as you are saying: like many things in the world (! 🙂 ) cognition works on the principle of “generate-and-test” – when you encounter a thing, your mind throws up possible-things-it-could-be, and then you test the candidates. Similar principle to science, on a higher octave. So what’s happening is that either the “generate” part goes into overdrive, or the “test” part goes on holiday, or both at the same time. Simple threshold change, no new capacity or process introduced into the brain, but rather just an adjustment of how a perfectly normal process works.

    2) Re. the qabalistic pattern matching thing mystics do: you’re in the right area, but the exercise of this faculty is more to discover what the one thing is that everything is doing: that one thing is then the essence of what it is to exist, the essence of Being. The “unity of opposites” and the “ladder” method of meditation (climbing up a tree of syntheses of theses and antitheses) are found in every meditation tradition. The “arrangement” of the Tree of Life is pretty much just an expansion of the Yin/Yang concept (two pillars, central equilibrium). So the idea is that in pursuing this notion of opposites, oppositionality, poles, etc., everything you encounter gets run through the same process, and you see the Oneness of things. Following on from that:-

    3) A thing that’s hallucinated isn’t necessarily a thing that isn’t there. There are examples in philosophy of, e.g., Macbeth hallucinating a dagger, but the dagger is actually there (this is connected also with the Gettier problem). The difference, again, is in the testing, not in the sheer having of a seeming. Both the thing that seems to be and actually is, and the thing that merely seems to be but isn’t seem to be, the difference is in the testing. When mystics see and experience the Universe as a single (or non-dual) phenomenon, that is a seeming on exactly the same footing as seeming to see an apple. What’s important is the testing: i.e., what happens if you reach out to take the thing you’re proposing to call “apple” and eat it? Does subsequent experience confirm that the proposed label is correct? What happens if you live life as if the universe is “a single, non-dual phenomenon”? Does subsequent experience confirm that the proposed label is correct?

    4) Noticing that the self doesn’t exist isn’t a hallucination, it’s a recognition of a fact (a plain scientific fact, in fact, as it now turns out). The self that we normally think we have peeping out from inside our skull somewhere behind our eyes is the hallucination, and is sort of the result of the brain’s “qabalistic” pattern-matching activity performed on its own functions (i.e. the self forms part of the brain’s folk explanation and folk model of its own activity). There is a social self (the person) that’s publicly available in the third person sense (“who did that?”, “Me!”). There is also a functional self, but that’s a fleeting, ever-shifting coalition of brain gadgets. Neither of these is the self we think we have. The self we think we have is something we think is essentially private which we experience directly (as there seeming to be something inside us looking out). That’s the fellow who’s problematic, and that’s the fellow who’s the target of mystical practices. (It’s actually the functional coalition as represented to itself by the brain, as a sort of imaginary or “virtual captain of the crew”, as Dennet calls it, of gerrymandered brain gadgets.)

    There’s a great confusion you find in a lot of mystical writings: some say you have to get rid of the self, others say the self doesn’t exist, so how can you get rid of something that doesn’t exist?

    The resolution is that the self seeming to exist isn’t a problem, in fact it’s functional (part of the brain’s economy, as above said). However, believing that you really do have a self (and arranging your life around the survival and perpetuation of that self, as opposed to just being careful about crossing the street, etc.) is a problem.

    The seeming (i.e. there seeming to be a self peeping out from inside the skull) doesn’t need to be gotten rid of. The seeming can be gotten rid of by various means (drugs will do it, and certain types of meditation that induce a temporary cessation of perceptual or physiological functions), but it’s not necessary. What’s necessary is to be clear on the fact that the self doesn’t exist (even though it seems to), and that’s what the Indian tradition calls “Jnana”, or Gnosis. The rope/snake analogy is often used to point this out: even after you know that what looks like a snake is in fact a rope, it can still look like a snake, but that doesn’t bother you, because you know it’s a rope.

    Really seeing and understanding deeply and clearly that there is no self (even though there really, really seems to be) is what’s been called “enlightenment”; moments of cessation of there seeming to be a self, on the other hand, are called “awakenings” or “glimpses”.

    • Marc Whipple says:

      Can you please link to an explanation/experiment which demonstrates that the “private self” doesn’t exist?

      Frankly, I’m dubious that such a thing can be proven.

    • Tracy W says:

      Noticing that the self doesn’t exist isn’t a hallucination, it’s a recognition of a fact (a plain scientific fact, in fact, as it now turns out). The self that we normally think we have peeping out from inside our skull somewhere behind our eyes is the hallucination, and is sort of the result of the brain’s “qabalistic” pattern-matching activity performed on its own functions

      I’ve read a bunch of these sorts of arguments and they all turn on defining the “self” in some very restrictive way and then showing that restrictive definition contradicts some observation, then, rather than modestly concluding that the restrictive definition was wrong, instead claiming, indeed bragging, that the author has proved the self doesn’t exist.

      But the bragging claim is nonsensical. If the self doesn’t exist and is just a hallucination, what is observing the hallucination? If the self doesn’t exist, instead it “seems” to exist, who is the subject of the seeming? All the authors of these claims write like you write here, using language and concepts that assume an observer while crowing that they have disproved the existence of any observer.

      Daniel Dennett’s book should have been called “Some ways that consciousness can’t work”. At least, if he cared about truth, I presume his actual title was much better for sales.

      • P. George Stewart says:

        It’s not that definitions are particularly invented or restricted, it’s that there are several senses of “self” and we confuse ourselves by mixing up their application.

        The questions you are asking are “grammatical” (in the Wittgenstein sense) questions – you’re expecting a metaphysical fact to fall out of a grammatical point (“no seen without seer”, etc.). But that form of grammar only applies to the sense of “self” that is publicly available. (IOW if you’re talking about objects in the world that are conscious, like us and animals, then certainly “no seen without a seer” applies. Things perceive other things, for a publicly-available thing to be perceived in that publicly-available sense, one expects a perceiver that could also be found by anyone.)

        But does that really apply to the first person “perspective”? Is there a “thing” inside you that’s doing the perceiving?

        From both the point of view of cognitive science and from introspective meditation of the Buddhist or Daoist (etc.) type – both their results coincide. There is no self inside the publicly available self (consisting of body and brain, the person) that does the perceiving, that pulls the levers of the muscles, etc. Instead there’s what the Buddha called “heaps” and what Hume called “bundles” – the serial appearance (“in” nothing) of perceptions, sensations, thoughts, etc.

        What happens is that we (“we” in the pubicly available persons – or “moist robots” – sense) take the schema that’s appropriate for talking about persons and animals out there in the world {perceiver -> perceived}, turn it around 180 degrees and (as it were) put it on our faces, expecting there to be something “inside” us (“us” the perceivers in the public sense) that’s the perceiver in the private sense. But when we try to do that, the “perceiver” turns out to be a surd – when we (the publicly-avaliable you or I) look closely, there’s no private thing there to be found that does the perceiving from inside us.

        • Tracy W says:

          There is no self inside the publicly available self (consisting of body and brain, the person) that does the perceiving, that pulls the levers of the muscles, etc.

          See? This is a classic example of the kind of argument I was criticising. Instead of modestly concluding that consciousness is therefore somehow generated by the brain, people like Dennett instead jump to the grand claim that consciousness doesn’t exist at all.

          But when we try to do that, the “perceiver” turns out to be a surd – when we (the publicly-avaliable you or I) look closely, there’s no private thing there to be found that does the perceiving from inside us.

          And when I look closely at the Empire State Building all I see is a single stone. But the Empire State Building still exists.

          • Marc Whipple says:

            And no matter how closely you look with your eyes, you will not see the molecules that make up that stone, or the atoms that make up the molecules, or the…


            “I don’t see it” is a long way from “it’s not there.” Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence… but in this case, it’s the person claiming it’s not there who’s making the extraordinary claim. Which is at least novel.

          • P. George Stewart says:

            He doesn’t say that consciousness doesn’t exist at all, he explains consciousness in a particular sense. IOW, he explains the process whereby animals like us are able to become aware of things in the world.

            IOW he doesn’t deny the public sense of “consciousness” in which we can observe, publicly (how many fingers am I holding up?) that something is conscious (in the sense of being aware of the world).

            What he denies is that this process is facilitated by an internal process (the “Cartesian Theatre”) whereby there is another kind of perceiver inside the organism that perceives its perceptions, thoughts, sensations, etc.

            The introspective process (the first-person process from meditation traditions, which turns up the same result of “doesn’t exist” as the third-person process of cognitive science) doesn’t reveal a thing at all – that’s the point. When you rigorously look for the self you think you have (the thing peeping out from your eyes) you don’t find ANYTHING, so it’s not a “wood for the trees” problem. It’s true that the public sense of “self”, the publicly-available process of consciousness, is a complex process of many parts – the process of a thing being conscious of the world is a complex process which we label with one label, consciousness. That’s not problematic, and that’s what he explains (giving us the interim results of cognitive science, in a philosophical perspective).

            And he also explains how we seem to have a self, and an inner Cartesian Theatre, in the private, problematic sense (problematic in the sense that it’s hard to find a place for such a thing in a physical world).

          • Tracy W says:


            He doesn’t say that consciousness doesn’t exist at all, he explains consciousness in a particular sense. IOW, he explains the process whereby animals like us are able to become aware of things in the world.

            I hate to say this so bluntly, but this is wrong. Dennett doesn’t explain consciousness in any sense. That’s why I’m so pissed off by him, I dragged myself through a whole, dense, book based on the title which turned out to be an utter lie.

        • Tracy W says:

          The questions you are asking are “grammatical” (in the Wittgenstein sense) questions – you’re expecting a metaphysical fact to fall out of a grammatical point (“no seen without seer”, etc.). But that form of grammar only applies to the sense of “self” that is publicly available.

          It occurred to me that I had better reply to this as well. My criticism is not a grammatical criticism, it is a criticism of concepts: if we were speaking Cantonese the problem would still exist: concepts like hallucination and illusion imply someone that is hallucinating and someone that is illused. This is not a problem that goes away by switching languages.

          A general test for seeing if you understand something is trying to explain it using words that don’t presuppose it. Cognitive scientists show no signs of being able to explain consciousness according to that test.

          But that form of grammar only applies to the sense of “self” that is publicly available.

          If a form of grammar only applies to the sense of “self” that is publically available, then it is illegitimate of cognitive scientists to apply it to any other sense of “self”. It’s the concepts *they* use that I’m criticising (in the context of their assertions), not my own.
          And if cognitive scientists are, according to you, using an inapplicable grammar to describe any non-publically available self, why do you ascribe any credence to their assertions about it?

          • P. George Stewart says:

            I’m sorry, I must have not have communicated my point well: cognitive scientists are very clear about the distinction between the public sense of “self” (“Who did that?” “Me”!) and the private sense.

            They don’t deny the public sense at all – obviously there are people (bodies and brains with a certain characteristic style of behaviour, way of talking and doing things, etc.) who are conscious and perceive (and sometimes hallucinate) – there are conscious selves in that sense.

            The private sense (the thing we suppose is essentially “me” that’s looking out at the world from somewhere behind the eyes, and secretly – albeit somewhat redundantly – pulling the muscle levers) is what we all think we have, what we seem to have, but turn out not to have. And furthermore, the public type of consciousness that does exist doesn’t (contrary to what many of us think) have this sort of self at its root. We and animals are conscious (function in the world, are aware of things) quite without any need for such a thing as an inner perceiver of thoughts, sensations, etc., on a Cartesian cinema screen. And we (we publicly-available persons) also hallucinate without the need for any such thing.

            And that this self doesn’t exist is a result for both cognitive science and for introspective meditation of the Buddhist/Daoist (but also some other traditions) type. The discovery of it, the realization of it – not as a fact simply read, but as an absence directly experienced – is what’s called “enlightenment”. (Experienced by whom? By the publicly available person – the body/mind organism.) (And again here I should point out the subtle difference between this perception of absence, and the absence of the feeling that you have a self – that’s what you can get from drugs and some forms of meditation, and probably what happens in depersonalization and similar states, but it’s not what’s classically called “enlightenment”, although it can be a sort of trigger for the search for enlightenment.)

            It is my analogy that there seeming to be a self (of the private kind, inside us) is a bit like a process of “putting on” the schema {perceiver -> perceived} like a mask – it’s just an image to bring home the idea of “introjection”. That’s not what cognitive scientists are doing. On the contrary, they are contributing to a process of disillusionment (helping us see that we’re doing something like this).

            The point re. concepts and “grammar” – that is conceptual analysis. Part of Wittgenstein’s point (which was echoed by most earlier philosophers in their various ways – e.g. in distinctions like apriori/aposteriori, analytic/synthetic, Hume’s Fork, etc.) is that we are sometimes misled by language to reify (i.e. turn into queer “metaphysical” objects, which we then tie ourselves in knots trying to understand) what are merely grammatical conventions and conveniences. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that grasping this tricky distinction is “conceptual analysis”, is the unique and singularly valuable contribution of philosophy to human thought.

            The private self, the private consciousness, is just such a queer metaphysical object – and that’s why we’ve had such a devil of a time trying to find its place in the physical world.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Stewart: this argument again commits the same fault I keep pointing out: it takes a particular restrictive definition of consciousness, this time a perceiver of things on a “Cartesian cinema screen”, disprove the restrictive definition, then boast that they’ve disproved consciousness altogether.

            Ah well, to repurpose Thomas Babington’s words on a 19th centry pointless pseudo-scholarly exercise:
            “it certainly hurts the health less than hard drinking and the fortune less than high play; it is not much more laughable than phrenology, and is immeasurably more humane than cock-fighting.”

            On your other points, I note that you don’t answer my question as to how come, if cognitive scientists are using a grammar that according to you only applies to one definition of consciousness and applying it to another form, you afford them any credence.

        • Deiseach says:

          But, just as the various organs that are in common for all organisms of our type are found within my particular body, and these all go together to make – via the combination expressed from the pattern laid down by my DNA in its particular conformation – make up a unique (enough) physical entity, why should not the various mental processes that coalesce to make the “self” be just as much a unique, private self?

          Raising up to conscious awareness of how the different processes interact, and then saying this shows there is no ‘metaphysical’ self is a bit like saying that by showing how the liver, kidneys, etc. all function separately and operate via feedback to be a coherent whole organism, that this shows there is no ‘real’ body for me different to yours or his or theirs.

  60. PSJ says:

    As somebody who studies neural networks (in the psychology side, not comp sci side), the first half of this essay seems almost entirely correct. If you want to read academic papers about it, search: pattern completion (as opposed to pattern matching), activation propagation, anything about predicting or self-correcting chaotic networks, or priming (in neuroscience, not social psych). Labs that deal with this include Ken Norman, Russ Poldrack, Susillo, Anthony Wagner, James McClelland, Matthew Botvinick, and Johnathan Cohen, among others.

    Psychiatry might not deal with the question of why the brain breaks the way it does, but is a major, major part of neuroscience.

  61. KevinJY says:

    Are you familiar with the Klüver form constants? They’re only indirectly related to what you’re talking about, but are interesting.

  62. Deiseach says:

    Off-topic: read this as part of a quote from Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, immediately thought of Effective Altruism 🙂

    The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not.

  63. zippy says:

    how many times have I duplicated the word “the” in this essay already?

    You’ve been priming us for this one since The Goddess of Everything Else. Or perhaps even earlier.

  64. Steve Sailer says:

    I’d only add that “everything is connected” in the sense that all truths are connected to all other truths.

  65. Jaskologist says:

    I’ve had Cloud of Unknowing in my queue for a while. This is clearly a sign that the the Universe wants me to read the thing. Who wants to join the the book club?

    • Deiseach says:

      I did a 5,600 review of Julian of Norwich’s “The Revelations of Divine Love” in 2014 and just under 5,000 words review of “Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography” (by Amy Frykholm, Paraclete Press, Massachusetts, 2010) in 2012 for another site I frequented, so I’ll be interested to hear your take on “The Cloud of Unknowing” 🙂

      The 2014 review gave me the chance to recount Caxton’s 15th century joke (I never said my sense of humour was modern) about the merchants sailing down the Thames who put in at Kent to buy food, they speaking a Northern dialect of English and the woman speaking a Southern dialect:

      ‘And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste another sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel’.

      “Can I have some eggs, please?”
      “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French”

      You can understand from this why I find the samples of jokes from the Tudor jest book “A Hundred Merry Tales” as quoted in “Stripping the Altars” to be thigh-slappers.

  66. Deiseach says:

    Good news, AI risk proponents! You’re on Sky News! Or at least, a series of reports about the Robot Revolution and a survey saying 40% of Britons fear humanity could one day be wiped out by robots.

    So this is indeed your moment for publicity, funding, and grabbing public attention to get donations 🙂

  67. Rob says:

    “why they can be so beneficial – that is, why do people with mystical experiences become happier and better adjusted?”

    If you’d like an answer to this question, I’d humbly suggest you have a mystical experience. They’re not as rare or hard to come by as people make out.

    Trying to explain the mystical experience to a person who hasn’t had it is a lot like trying to explain colour to a person blind from birth, or the cube trying to explain three dimensions to the square in Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Language is a pointing system, and when the objects one is pointing at are a) not present and b) available to perception only at times and under certain unusual conditions, it becomes noise to the person who hasn’t had the perception.

    There’s also the issue of applying language, being fundamentally a mode or method of distinction, to a non-dual (or seemingly so) phenomena. How does one talk about the class of all classes in binary terms?

    That said, I’ll take a potshot at a short description of why the mystical experience has made me a happier person.

    I felt, as one would feel that one needs to burp or that one is about to laugh, that “I, myself” was fundamentally inseparable from the cosmos at large. Instead of subject/object division, self, but not in a solipsistic sense, in the sense that what I had previously considered myself to be was a minute cross-section of what “I” am.

    The nature of the sensation was one most similar to my experiences of love, but significantly deeper and more simple. I got the distinct impression that the whole drama of life was exactly that, play, exuberance, gesture for it’s own sake, a celebration that existence is, and that it was in no way serious. Sincere, perhaps, but not serious.

    I experienced no visual or auditory hallucinations during the experience.

    So make of that what you will, but since that experience I’ve felt more at home in the world generally, and have been far more comfortable engaging with people, expressing myself, and not being offended or upset or put out by the expressions of others. I feel a sense of profound kinship will all human beings, regardless of their actions or lack thereof. I feel now that I see behind the veil of personality somewhat to the common experiences, sensation, emotions and thoughts we as people live with, and it has gotten me falling in love with humanity.

    Not just humanity. I’m coming to see all form as ecstatic, instead of dead or non-living or boring or any other synonym for familiarity. I’m paying more attention to the space between things.

    In the spirit of science, and old fashioned exploration, go and touch the mystical state yourself, if you’re curious. It’s an interesting thing to have happen to you if nothing else.

    • Tracy W says:

      In one mystical experience I had I wound up with the utter conviction that there was nothingness after death. It was pretty scary and helped push me into atheism but does give me a lot more sympathy with religious types – I now get the emotional experience of utter, blinding conviction about something, against which disbelief is fundamentally impossible. Presumably they just had different mystic experiences to me.
      Another time I had the mystic experience of seeing a Klein bottle in four dimensions. That was pretty cool.