13. Buddhism and Theory Of Mind

March 22nd 2020, Sunday

Dear Blog,

I need to have consistency with my meditation practice. I only do it when I am feeling low. I need to practice it every day in order to see things more clearly. If you only do it when you are feeling bad then it is only a form of stress relief. It won’t help you that much.

I’ve been reading a lovely book called Why Buddhism Is True, not really religious at all but is more a blend of evolution theory, psychology, and the principles in Buddhism. Practical and illuminating. I think it offers some insight into our minds that I previously never thought before. He mentions a theory of mind called the “modules” model, or rather, our “sebselves”. Each module generates its own thoughts, competing for control and for our attention. There are roughly 7 modules, according to Kendrik and Griskevicius who came up with the concept.

  1. self- protection
  2. mate attraction
  3. mate retention
  4. affiliation (making and keeping friends)
  5. kin care
  6. social status
  7. disease avoidance

Since we just talked about Westworld yesterday I found the following analogy quite appropriate for the occasion.

if you built a robot whose brain worked like the human brain, and then asked computer scientists to describe its workings, they’d say that its brain consists of lots of partly overlapping modules, and modules within modules, and the robot’s circumstances determine which modules are, for the moment, running the show. These computer scientists would have trouble pointing to a part of the robot’s programming and saying, “This part is the robot itself.”

—Robert Wright. “Why Buddhism is True.”

It’s a kind of reduction model of self-identity but in a different way. Buddhism theory of the self is a kind of a reductionist approach. Each individual part is not you, therefore when they are put together they are just parts putting together in a specific way, still not “you”. But the point here is that these modules are not hierarchical like different departments in a company. It’s really hard to draw the line. For example, when I am in the mate acquisition mode, my social status mode might also be activated, since higher status usually makes attracting mate easier. This somehow explains how I felt when I am around Vance. My feelings for him activated the mate attraction module. I could feel how I physically change my behavior, pattern of speech and eye contact when I am talking to him. Sometimes because of the meditation practice, I would be aware of myself doing it, but I cannot stop it. It is like how I am already in a flirtatious mode, and the only goal is for him to notice me, to become friends with me, to be closer to me. No matter how much I keep telling myself, stop it, it’s not healthy, he is straight and nothing will come off of it, I still cannot stop. It felt like another identity had taken over. If we continue with the robot analogy since Westworld is amazing,

The closest thing to a self would be the algorithm that determines which circumstances put which modules in charge. And that algorithm can’t be what we mean by the “conscious self” in humans—the CEO self—because humans don’t consciously decide to go into romantic mode or fearful mode.

I love this so much I cannot begin to tell you. These modules tend to be triggered by emotions or feelings, and once triggered, your conscious mind won’t be aware that this module is in charge. You might notice it more when you meditate, how your mind keeps wandering. One would assume that it’s like watching your trains of thoughts pass by the station and leave without getting attached but in reality,

My typical experience is more like getting on the train and then, after it’s left the station and is picking up speed, realizing I don’t want to be on it and jumping off.

I really felt that during last night’s meditation. Many times I jumped on a train without realizing that I was doing it. The point is,

“The conscious self doesn’t create thoughts; it receives them.”

And we are so good at receiving them. Taking things for granted. Investing our energy into the characters of a movie, only to realize they are just pixels flickering on a screen, that we don’t have to engage with our drama at all.

I used to see Buddhism as this passive thing that encourages you to want less and stay less engaged with the world. But if you uncover the principles behind it and adapt them to your daily life, they can actually bring you a lot of clarity. You need to see towards which end are you doing your current work. Do not be a slave to your emotions.

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