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07 Feb Mindfulness

Attention SwitchImagine being able to flip a switch and get quantitative and qualitative improvements to your intelligence. Mindfulness, in the form of directing your attention or focus can induce changes in the structure and function of the brain. When I was in school, I learned that taking notes helped me not only focus better on what I was being taught, but it also helped me remember more.  Top-Down control is conscious, willful use of your senses and your active listening faculties (in the broadest possible sense) to control how your brain is wired and rewired. The intensity and purposefulness with which you focus your attention could lay down new neural circuits that enhance your intelligence. Ignorance is endemic but curable, as is excellence.

Understanding Context Cross-Reference
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Section 7 #21

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Table of Context

The Mind and Perception

In the first three sections of Understanding Context, we examined the brain, taking a few small side trips into other parts of the anatomy. In “Harmonic Convergence of Light”, I broached the possibility of a mechanical mind.

Brain Interface

I know of no new scientific evidence suggesting any kind of mental “dark  matter”. So let’s see how some others describe a mind that encompasses more than the brain.

Aristotle’s Software

Aristotle at Stageira

If the mind is not the brain, then what is it? Scientists have long grappled with this mind/brain dualism. In the third book of his treatise On the Soul , Aristotle describes a mind that is separate from the brain, that only comes into existence after it begins to function: “Thus that in the soul which is called mind (by mind I mean that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is, before it thinks, not any real thing. For this reason it cannot reasonably be regarded as blended with the body: if so, it would acquire some quality, e.g. warmth or cold, or even have an organ like the sensitive faculty: as it is, it has none.” (Aristotle, On the Soul, Book III, Chapter 4)

Among the other attributes discussed in this blog, the intelligent machine should certainly have a soul – well, maybe not a soul in the spiritual sense, but at least a sense of self, self-consciousness, and the ability to be aroused more than Gogol’s roster of servants. Might context become the soul of the machine?

Modeling Dualism

The dualism question permeating the mind/brain argument may seem irrelevant. The simple way out would be to ignore the whole argument since the subject is rife with doubts and low on explanations. The overall model of cognition, however, has much to gain from the dualist philosophy of considering both the mind and the brain. Were we confined to a neuromorphic model, we could well miss essential components of thought.

We believe a model of the mind can contain components drawn from the whole person: the brain, skin, heart, pancreas, salivary glands, reproductive organs, and all the rest. If there is a spirit, that may be part of the mind, too. “The trouble with brains, it seems, is that when you look in them, you discover that there’s nobody home. No part of the brain is the thinker or the feeler that does the feeling, and the whole brain appears to be no better a candidate for that very special role. This is a slippery topic. Do brains think? Do eyes see? Or do people see with their eyes and think with their brains?” (Dennett, 1991, p. 29).

Mindfulness and Meta-Awareness

Focus

Mindfulness at its best is, in messy human society, an enlightened state. Mindful people are non-judgmental: they suspend judgement until they have lived a moment long enough to digest and become aware or conscious of the deep phenomena of the moment, despite the superficial impressions. This is an advanced state of perception that takes in deep context. Meta-awareness is our ability to place ourselves in the context of the moment and attend to our own sense, or judgement of the situation. But flipping the switch to “meta-awareness” is not a thing I can do continually. Willful attention is a limited capacity resource in that we can be “spent” through trying too hard to focus on too much. We must choose the targets of our focus wisely. Mindfulness may be dulled by negative stress. Over time, we may become bound by habits of mind, diminishing our ability to perceive, making us immune rather than open to newness. Mindfulness may also be tainted by affective or affectively charged  meaning, twisting a situation to relate it to self or past experiences.

Mindfulness in humans is very complex but we use it all the time to optimize our learning and every day activity. Just as physical activity can help develop or damage the body. Brain activity can help develop or damage the brain. Better focus helps us achieve more effective functioning vis-à-vis a very complex world. This deeper context would be invaluable for information systems. Systems that know where they fit in geographic space, for example using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, are more mindful than those that don’t. But a GPS can only approach human competence in one narrow area. As more and more contextual awareness elements are added, machines come closer to the mark of mindfulness.

I am preparing an upcoming post on proprioception and introception as extensions of our cognitive ability to gether input and use it to be more mindful of self and our surroundings, further expanding our native intelligence.

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