Some Ideas for LA-CCRS Discussions

Mark Pottenger


Humans build models—mentally and physically. All languages incorporate models of reality, and affect thoughts framed in them.

Language can aid thinking, or stop it. Language aids thinking when it provides structure(s) needed to think about something. Language stops thinking when having a label for something ends the process of thinking about it. “What is that?” “That is a ____.” Getting a label in response to a question doesn’t necessarily stop thinking, but an awful lot of inquiries stop at that point. Placeholder labels are an especially interesting example of this dichotomy. Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Spiritual DNA are all placeholder labels.

Dark Matter is a label from modern cosmology for the unknown/unobserved material that must exist in the universe to reconcile current observations. There isn’t enough observed visible matter to create the gravitational attraction needed to explain the observed motions of stars and galaxies, so cosmologists say there must be unobserved (dark) matter present to reconcile the observed motions with gravitational equations that are believed to be universal. The nature of the unobserved matter has been the focus of years of theoretical and observational effort, and is still a very active field of research.

Dark Energy is a label from modern cosmology for the unknown/unobserved energy (fields) that must exist in the universe to reconcile current observations. There isn’t enough observed visible matter and energy to explain the observed rate of expansion of the universe. The nature of this energy is another focus of years of theoretical and observational effort.

Spiritual DNA is a label used for years in LA-CCRS for the unknown inner essence that explains aspects of human nature that are not explained by physical DNA and behaviorist psychology. When people express creativity or originality or independence or self-direction or other thoughts and behaviors outside the bounds explained by a physical and behaviorist model, we can describe it as a manifestation of their Spiritual DNA. This is a label formed by analogy—we know people have inborn potentials like those explained by physical DNA, but we know nothing about the actual nature or mechanism of creation of these potentials.

The stop or aid thinking aspect of these linguistic placeholders shows up when anyone asking a question gets one of these labels as an answer. If having a name/label is considered a complete answer, thinking on the question stops there. If the questioner looks deeper than having a label, whole realms of additional questions can open up.

DNA is a good example of an answer that can be a stopping point but doesn’t have to be. If reading that DNA is a molecule of heredity doesn’t satisfy your curiosity, there are vast realms of knowledge you can venture to from DNA. Working backward in history, proteins and other body components were guessed at as mechanisms of heredity before DNA was identified, the concept of genes as units of heredity was formulated, and if you explore the history more than a couple hundred years back you run into a lot of thinking that reads as pretty weird mistakes when viewed with modern knowledge. Working up in scale with a multi-cellular organism, DNA forms genes and regulatory markers and other sequences, which are collected in chromosomes (23 pairs in humans, plus some in mitochondria in the cell body) making up a genome (over 3 billion base pairs with very roughly 20,000 protein-coding genes for humans), which are gathered in a cell nucleus, which is in a cell, which is part of an organ or other body structure, which (with the addition of microbiomes of many microorganisms with their own DNA and RNA) collectively make up the body of a living organism, which interacts with other organisms in an ecosystem, which is a region on a planet, which is part of a solar system, which is part of a galaxy, which is part of a cluster, which is part of the physical universe. Working down, DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid, which is in double-helix structures composed of base pairs of nucleotides, all of which are molecules that assemble based on rules of chemistry, which can be traced to rules of physics governing atoms, which come from subatomic particles & forces, which are described by quantum mechanics and the Standard Model of particle physics. Working sideways, the DNA double-helix is packed and unpacked, regulated by promoting and suppressing signals, tagged with chemicals that modify expression, unzipped into single helices for transcription, copied to more DNA for cell reproduction, and copied to RNA to produce proteins and other forms of RNA that act in cellular metabolism. The copying mechanisms is fairly good, but definitely not perfect, which leads to mutations.

Mutations are changes to DNA. A mutation can be as small as a change to a single nucleotide or as large as duplication of multiple chromosomes, and many gradations between those extremes. The impact on the cell with the DNA change can vary from no detectable effects to cell death. The impact on the organism can vary from no detectable effects to death of the organism. Mutations occur all the time, so the cells in anyone’s body are actually a genetic mosaic, with cells descended from each non-fatal mutation having their own variant of the genome the organism started with. Only mutations to germ-line cells (eggs and sperm and the cells that produce them) can be inherited—all other mutations only affect the (somatic) cells in the body that descend from the mutated cell. Mutations that affect proteins are more likely than not to cause harm. The term mutant in popular usage is extremely distorted from the underlying science—I believe this arose from 20th Century fascination with and fear of radiation, possibly amplified by comic books, science fiction, and popularized science. 20th Century science fiction and comic books are full of mutants that are fully functional radically altered organisms produced in a single generation (or even through somatic-cell changes). The reality of mutations is that more are harmful or neutral than are beneficial, and a radical change in phenotype usually requires a whole set of mutations working together. The normal time-scale for mutations to produce a radically different phenotype is millions of years during which many separate mutations accumulate and are subjected to natural selection.

To return to the Spiritual DNA placeholder label now that I have said a bit about physical DNA, Spiritual DNA could turn out to be physical DNA. Current mainstream Western science doesn’t study spiritual psychology because physicalistic science doesn’t work well with subjective experiences, including mystical/spiritual experiences (see my Spiritual Science essay). If/when science breaks the bounds of physicalism, it may become possible to identify parts of the human genome related to creativity, originality, and even spirituality. If that happens, the label Spiritual DNA would still be appropriate, but the meaning would shift from an unknown spiritual substance to physical DNA that helps explain people’s spiritual potentials.

For many years I have used the image of knowledge as a balloon, the surface of which is where the known touches the unknown, so the more you know the more you become aware you don’t know. As the above paragraphs demonstrate, the knowledge inside the balloon of what we know forms networks of connected concepts. If you explore deeply enough and follow enough connections, any fact can lead to almost any other fact.

LA-CCRS classes have for many years used a philosophical/psychological model that refers to three realities:

First reality is the to-from daily-life world of external causes.

Second reality adds awareness and possible development of internal causation.

Third reality adds awareness and possible experiences of the infinite/universal.

Even though our wording refers to realities, this is understood to be a linguistic convenience or shorthand for ways people experience their worlds, not actually separate physical/spiritual worlds/universes. All the individually experienced realities actually occur in a single underlying physical/spiritual world/universe, the nature of which is best approximated by the description of the personal third reality. We acknowledge that our understanding of the underlying real world is still very incomplete, and that many more realities may be described as better understanding develops.

A vacation experience from years ago can be used in an analogy. We were driving toward Sedona, AZ for dinner one day near sunset during a thunderstorm. We saw the Sun setting in one direction, a double rainbow in the opposite direction, and intermittent lightning flashes, all against a background of the beautiful red-rock formations in the Sedona area. My analogy compares that stormy drive to an underlying third reality world. First reality would be like experiencing that drive with a blindfold and earplugs—having no awareness of the grandeur of the experience, just passively riding along in the car. Second reality would remove the earplugs, to have a little awareness from hearing the thunder. Personal third reality would also remove the blindfold, to be able to enjoy all the sights and sounds.

LA-CCRS has never (that I recall) claimed to explain why human experience as we know it is primarily first reality in a third-reality world, but we accept that that appears to be the current nature of human life. The vast majority of humans are raised by first-reality cultures to experience first-reality (behaviorist psychology) lives reacting to a powerful external world. (The beliefs we accept throughout our lives supply the blinders that restrict the realities we experience.) A subset find their way to self-development (humanistic psychology) and spend some of their time in second reality, where they can exert some control on their actions in, reactions to, and interactions with the world. An even smaller subset have mystical / numinous / transcendent / universal / spiritual experiences in third reality. Given the numbering, we tend to talk about progressing from first to second to third reality, but it isn’t necessarily a sequential progression in that order. People don’t have to go through second reality to experience third reality—in fact, some mystical traditions don’t include second reality at all—they just work with first and third realities.

Much modern science builds models in a materialist/physicalist framework and speaks of brain and mind almost interchangeably, or doesn’t mention mind at all. This section will discuss the brain.

One model of the brain that has gained considerable support and popularity in recent years (and makes a lot of sense) describes two fundamentally different brain systems (see Thinking, Fast and Slow). System 1 is fast and parallel-processing, and evolutionarily older. System 2 is slow and single-processing, and evolutionarily newer. System 1 uses heuristics and is subject to biases (including anchoring, availability, substitution, optimism, loss aversion, framing, sunk-cost, overconfidence, etc.). System 2 is more rigorous, but has more limited capacity. System 1 is mostly unconscious / subconscious / preconscious, the home of trained habits and reflexes (knee-jerk responses). System 2 is conscious. System 2 tires more easily than System 1, and has trouble focusing on or paying conscious attention to more than one thing at a time, so our thoughts / actions / reactions are often pure products of System 1. System 2 can override System 1 output, but often doesn’t. Some word problems are good at demonstrating this: they are set up so a quick, heuristic (System 1) answer will be wrong and a correct answer requires more conscious (System 2) logic. More than half of people presented with these problems give the wrong (System 1) answer. I don’t recall the exact percentages, and I’m pretty sure they vary with the structure of each problem, but they clearly show how much humans don’t think consciously. Another way to demonstrate this is with priming: present information that primes (predisposes) System 1 to jump to a certain answer when a question is asked.

Some brain activation timing experiments were widely reported several years ago, partly because they seemed to cast doubt on free will by showing that brain signals leading to movements occurred before people said they made the conscious decision to move. A more complete description of the experiments than was generally reported shows that the experiments demonstrate System 1 and System 2. The impulse to move starts in System 1, but System 2 can override it.

The psychology of decisions also shows System 1 and System 2, with fast heuristics and knee-jerk reactions moderated by more limited conscious deliberations. One Great Course lists the possible roles of System 2 in deciding as approval, override, neglect, influenced, informed, or solo operation. With approval, System 2 just approves the decision coming out of System 1. With override, System 2 blocks and replaces the decision coming out of System 1. With neglect, System 2 doesn’t pay any attention to the decision coming out of System 1, so it takes effect. When influenced, System 2 makes a decision partly based on that coming out of System 1 (including any biases in the System 1 processing). When informed, System 2 makes a decision with information from System 1 as one of its inputs. With solo operation, System 2 make a decision without using System 1.

Anchoring, one of the biases listed above, occurs any time System 1 is led to think about a number before making a decision involving numbers. That influenced number serves as an anchor point for the decision processing. The initial stimulus number doesn’t even have to be from or related to the decision to cause anchoring. Anchoring is widely used in selling by including a very high-priced item in lists of options. Even if nobody is expected to buy the high-priced item, listing it influences price decisions. Complaints about moving goalposts in arguments are referring to one form of anchoring.

The availability or familiarity bias is that familiar things are easier to think of (repeated exposure increases fluency & familiarity) and therefore more liked and believed to be more common. This is a deep and dangerous vulnerability in human thinking, since it is one of the mechanisms through which people come to believe repeated lies.

We have strong wiring to pay attention to surprises, and some studies have shown connections between surprise and pleasure. This makes evolutionary sense, since a surprise shows a predictive failure in our model of reality. Likelihood of survival (and therefore contributing to the future gene pool) is increased by paying close attention to any such failures and fixing our model of reality as quickly as possible.

There are many more heuristics and biases in our System 1 thinking. Among other things, they can serve as filters to resist change and keep people in their personal bubbles of reality. Once a set of ideas and habits has been trained into System 1, contradictory ideas and habits are much less likely to be accepted. People self-censor their input by their choices of media (even web searches bias the results they show based on past search history), and if they are exposed to contradictory ideas, those ideas are likely to be dismissed.

I have a regular exercise routine that requires tracking both times and counts of repetitions. I could use a timer of some kind, but that would require a lot of timer handling for all the repetitions. As an example of compensating for the limits of System 2 conscious processing, what I do instead is count time verbally (subvocalizing one-thousand-one style approximations of seconds) and count repetitions with my fingers (extending a finger for each repetition). This lets me handle two kinds of counting at the same time with limited conscious System 2 resources by taking advantage of separate brain regions (speaking & manipulating fingers).

We frequently speak of brain wiring and circuits, but need to keep in mind that the actual physical nature of the brain is quite different from electric wires, circuits, and computers. Be careful not to let an analogy limit your thinking when it channels it.

The brain is definitely a “Use it or lose it” organ. There is pruning during growth—unconnected neurons die. Adult neurogenesis, which for a long time was not believed to happen at all, happens in limited areas in the brain. It has been shown that more new cells survive if there is new learning going on. Also, physical exercise increases neurogenesis, and depression impairs it.

Brain training is the subject of a lot of research and a lot of hype. There is good evidence for near transfer (training improving abilities closely related to the nature of the training), but so far there is only iffy evidence for far transfer (training improving general intelligence & skills).

The brain processes sensations (input from sensory cells) into perceptions (subjective experiences). Our actual sensory systems are fairly low-resolution by the standards of modern technology, but the brain is so good at filling in blanks that we rarely realize it. The blind spot gives an example of filling in: there is no visual input from the back of each eye where the optic nerve attaches, yet we have to make a deliberate effort to be aware of a hole in our visual field. The eyes constantly move so the blind spots point toward different parts of our field of view, and the optical processing system in the brain interpolates to fill in blanks. In fact, the brain’s visual system breaks down visual input by detecting specific lines, edges, colors, motions, etc., then builds a model (including differences between left & right inputs) that we experience as seeing. Each sensory system does its own processing, then the results of all the processed sensations are integrated and reconciled to produce our subjective perceptions. Amazing as this system is, it is also quite fallible, as shown by many illusions.

The Astronomy Picture of the Day web site is a nice example or metaphor of sensations and perceptions. With the exceptions of pictures of features or activities on Earth, almost all astronomical pictures are outside the capabilities of unaided human eyes and what we see is produced by instruments developed over centuries. For many of the pictures, just looking without reading the captions will miss most of the meaning (like unprocessed sensations). Many of the pictures are the results of processing (combined results of images from multiple filters, combined multiple exposures, enhanced colors, false colors for data outside the human visual spectrum, and many other forms of manipulation), yet without the captions there is rarely anything about the images themselves to hint how far they are from simple naked-eye images. Beyond the image manipulations, the captions also describe physical features and scientific significance that are almost never obvious just from looking at the pretty (or not) pictures. The physical details (size, distance, composition, etc.) and scientific import come from bringing a huge amount of other knowledge to bear to fit the images into a model of reality. Browse through the APOD site archives and you will find many examples.

Messier objects are an interesting subset of things that appear regularly on APOD, since they demonstrate how different meanings can be attached to the same objects. Messier was a comet-hunting astronomer a couple centuries ago who made a list of fuzzy objects in the sky that were not comets (to keep from having to re-check every time he spotted one of them again). That list has since become a list for finding many favorite sights for amateur astronomers. One man’s visual nuisances became many people’s sought-after sights.

At least one course I’ve listened to says that the left brain includes an “interpreter” that makes up explanatory stories and can confabulate to fill in for missing sensations / facts / memories. This sounds to me like a good label for the last step of the complex process of building a model of the world while converting sensations to perceptions. It is easy to see why science and other human endeavors build models, since our ability to perceive a world is a form of model building.

At least one course I’ve listened to mentioned an experiencing self and a remembering self. This is a tantalizing distinction, but I haven’t heard or read enough to say much about it.

Before the development of modern brain imaging technologies (fMRI, CT, PET, MEG, EEG, etc.), one of the most productive ways to learn details of brain structures and functions was to study problems. Both observing effects of brain damage and looking for brain damage linked to observed behaviors have been used for years. Agnosia is a term for a family of problems processing sensory data, including faces, written words, spoken words, motions, sounds, touches, etc. Amnesia is a label for memory problems caused by damage or trauma: retrograde amnesia is trouble retrieving memories from before the damage, and anterograde amnesia is trouble forming new memories after the damage. Epilepsy involves seizures. Scientists still study these and many other forms of brain damage, but the advent of brain imaging has allowed much more study of healthy brains.

Memory is not a single, simple thing. There is a major division between short-term or working memory and long-term memory. Within those divisions, there are several kinds of memory, with the exact lists depending on the authorities you read. The components I list here are from models I’ve encountered. Short-term memory includes a central executive, a phonological loop (consisting of an articulatory loop and an acoustic store), an episodic buffer, and a visuospatial scratchpad. A commonly quoted limitation of short-term memory is that it can only handle an average of 7 chunks (plus or minus individual variations) of information at a time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clear statement about whether that limit applies across all the components or is per component. Long-term memory includes declarative (episodic [events] and semantic [facts]), nondeclarative (implicit [unstated rules and regularities], procedural [habits], and classical conditioning), and prospective [remembering a planned future action or expected future event]. Memory is at least partly state-dependent—it is easier to retrieve memories when our environment and psychological state are similar to our environment and state when the memories were created than when our environment and state are more different.

Human memory is not at all like memory in modern digital devices. Digital memory is exact and unchanging—you can repeatedly retrieve exactly what you stored. Human brains handle memories by establishing and reinforcing connections between neurons. Any single memory might involve connections between cells in several parts of the brain. Each time a memory is accessed, there is also some rewriting or reinforcing of the connections involved. This can be a source of unreliable memories. If, due to priming or some other association, a memory retrieval includes cells and information not originally part of the memory, that retrieval can make the add-on a part of the memory for the next retrieval. Researchers have demonstrated that it is easy to create false memories.

Most people remember some things better than others: things we’ve thought about more deeply, things we find interesting, things connected to other knowledge, visual/spatial over verbal, and things we’ve tested. Imagination uses most of the same brain circuitry as memory—in fact, some scientists have suggested that the evolution of our memory systems is as much due to the need for imagination as the need for memory.

Evolution is extremely good at repurposing things—finding new uses or functions for old structures. The brain is a great example of some results of that process. Many functions in the brain involve networks of activity, often in regions all over the brain. Many brain circuits serve similar functions for multiple functional networks. Brain regions that help process sensations (stimulation of sensory cells) into perceptions (subjective results of brain processing) are also used to process memories, to dream, and to imagine. Visual perception, visual memory, visual dreams, and visual imagination will all use the same visual circuits in the brain. The same applies to auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic, proprioceptive, and any other kind of perception, memory, dream, and imagination. This reuse is also behind the problem of psychological stress—imagining a stressor activates the same parts of the brain as perceiving that stressor.

Some researchers describe a peak/end rule for rating (and remembering) experiences. Most of the evaluation of an experience or memory is based on the peak (most intense part) and the end, with much less weight given to the rest of the experience or memory. The end part of this is why a happy or sad ending strongly affects a reader’s reaction to, rating of, and memory of a book or story. Years ago I described a trilogy I read as good for 1,000 pages, then disappointing for the last 100 pages, and the disappointing ending definitely weighed strongly in my memory of the trilogy. For many years my genre of choice in reading fiction was F&SF (fantasy & science fiction), but over several decades the proportion of optimistic stories went down. I still read a lot of F&SF, but these days I read more in the romance genre, which includes an optimistic ending as a defining characteristic.

Sleep is important, and modern society leads to many of us not getting as much as we need. Sleep is important enough that researchers find it in almost any organism with a recognizable brain.

One of the things that happens during sleep is memory consolidation. One course said nondeclarative/procedural memories are consolidated more in REM sleep and declarative memories are consolidated more in slow-wave sleep. A different course said declarative memories (facts) are consolidated more in early sleep (REM & slow-wave non-REM), that REM sleep reduces emotional impact while it consolidates emotional memories, and that procedural memories (skills/habits) are consolidated more in later sleep (in REM & shallower non-REM). This is a field where more research is needed to settle the details.

Another feature of sleep, completely unknown even a decade ago, is brain rinsing. During sleep, spacing between cells changes from the waking state and cerebrospinal fluid plus the lymph system is more able to flow through the brain and carry away waste. There are strong hints that lack of sleep may contribute to dementia because of reduced waste disposal.

One feature of the way Zip Dobyns practiced and taught astrology was making clear that all character traits can have neutral or good & bad / helpful & harmful / productive & destructive / positive & negative forms of expression. As a simple example, strong Pisces can express as mysticism or alcoholism. This basic truth isn’t limited to the psychological model of astrology. Most things in the world can have good or neutral or bad manifestations.

Human imagination is a powerful capability. It allows us to create new worlds beyond what we can model based on our sensory experiences. Language has allowed us to share these worlds, first orally in stories & sagas, then with written books. All sharing of these worlds through words requires the imagination of the listeners. Visual arts, including painting and sculpture, allow creators to convey images (sensations/perceptions) as well as words, and plays, TV shows, and movies can convey even more. Virtual Reality (VR) introduces a new variation on the theme by adding sensory perception of imagined/created worlds in a more immersive and interactive form than imagining something you read or viewing a movie.

As a reader of fantasy & science fiction for decades, I have enjoyed some of the fruits of imagination. F&SF has let me visit many worlds and universes in my imagination. F&SF with a mystical background or basis can be especially interesting for anyone like me with both strong practical and strong mystical sides. I encountered the idea of deities formed from individuals of two genders in a fantasy series long before I encountered it in a history course. One label I use for a personality type in daily life came from an SF book: a ruiner is an individual whose every impulse is bad for other individuals, societies, environments, even worlds—pretty much the opposite of an enlightened being.

In a sense, the entire scientific and technological basis of modern civilization depends on our ability to imagine. Humans have literally constructed a lot of the reality we now live in (cities). Only a tiny percentage of the world’s population still lives in physical environments that resemble those our ancestors lived in before the last few thousand years. As for cultural environments, those are also massively different now from our evolutionary history.

Our modern culture is active 24/7. Unpacking that statement pulls out a 24-hour clock (arbitrarily dividing up the natural day-night cycle), a 7-day week (arbitrarily grouping days), and artificial lighting (to be able to be active all night), just to list the most obvious things. Race/ethnicity is a cultural concept. Nationalities and religions are cultural/historical constructs. When we are considered an adult, responsible enough to drive, to vote, to enlist in the military, to marry, is defined by our culture and its laws. The concept of a “teenager” is quite modern—someone now assigned to that pigeonhole would have been an adult in most cultures a few hundred years ago. Marriage is a religious / cultural construct, with a huge number of laws affecting it and affected by it.

The human-created nature of so much of modern human life leads some people to think (or at least act as if they think) that ALL aspects of reality are subject to human control. Such thinking ignores the underlying reality the human manipulations start from. The 24-hour day starts with the day-night cycle of the Earth’s rotation, which human activity does not manipulate. Cities are built on natural terrain, so if they are build in flood plains they will get flooded when the weather floods those plains, if they are built on unprotected shorelines the will be subject to tides and storm surges, if they are built on fault lines they can expect earthquakes, if they are built near active volcanoes they can expect eruptions, etc. Industry and modern energy generation have changed the greenhouse gas percentages in the atmosphere, leading to a rapid rise in average global temperatures, which is leading to a world full of consequences. Ignoring underlying realities is the flip (dark) side of imagination—trying to deny reality instead of working to improve it.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Pottenger

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