How Human Are Meditators?

Someday we may be able to create brain emulations (ems), and someday later we may understand them sufficiently to allow substantial modifications to them. Many have expressed concern that competition for efficient em workers might then turn ems into inhuman creatures of little moral worth. This might happen via reductions of brain systems, features, and activities that are distinctly human but that contribute less to work effectiveness. For example Scott Alexander fears loss of moral value due to “a very powerful ability to focus the brain on the task at hand” and ems “neurologically incapable of having their minds drift off while on the job”.

A plausible candidate for em brain reduction to reduce mind drift is the default mode network:

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future.… becomes activated within an order of a fraction of a second after participants finish a task. … deactivate during external goal-oriented tasks such as visual attention or cognitive working memory tasks. … The brain’s energy consumption is increased by less than 5% of its baseline energy consumption while performing a focused mental task. … The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

In our book The Elephant in the Brain, we say that key tasks for our distant ancestors were tracking how others saw them, watching for ways others might accuse them of norm violations, and managing stories of their motives and plans to help them defend against such accusations. The difficulty of this task was a big reason humans had such big brains. So it made sense to design our brains to work on such tasks in spare moments. However, if ems could be productive workers even with a reduced capacity for managing their social image, it might make sense to design ems to spend a lot less time and energy ruminating on their image.

Interestingly, many who seek personal insight and spiritual enlightenment try hard to reduce the influence of this key default mode network. Here is Sam Harris from his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Psychologists and neuroscientist now acknowledge that the human mind tends to wander. .. Subjects reported being lost in thought 46.9 percent of the time. .. People are consistently less happy when their minds wander, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. … The wandering mind has been correlated with activity in the … “default mode” or “resting state” network (DMN). .. Activity in the DMN decreases when subjects concentrate on tasks of the sort employed in most neuroimaging experiments.

The DMN has also been linked with our capacity for “self-representation.” … [it] is more engaged when we make such judgements of relevance about ourselves, as opposed to making them about other people. It also tends to be more active when we evaluate a scene from a first person point of view. … Generally speaking, to pay attention outwardly reduces activity in the [DMN], while thinking about oneself increases it. …

Mindfulness and loving-kindness mediation also decrease activity in the DMN – and the effect is most pronounced among experienced meditators. … Expert meditators … judge the intensity of an unpleasant stimulus the same but find it to be less unpleasant. They also show reduced activity in regions associated with anxiety while anticipanting the onsite of pain. … Mindfulness reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of noxious stimuli. …

There is an enormous difference between being hostage to one’s thoughts and being freely and nonjudgmentally aware of life in the present. To make this shift is to interrupt the process of rumination and reactivity that often keep us so desperately at odds with ourselves and with other people. … Meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. … The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self. (pp.119-123)

I see a big conflict here. On the one hand, many are concerned that competition could destroy moral value by cutting away distinctively human features of em brains, and the default net seems a prime candidate for cutting. On the other hand, many see meditation as a key to spiritual insight, one of the highest human callings, and a key task in meditation is cutting the influence of the default net. Ems with a reduced default net could more easily focus, be mindful, see the illusion of the self, and feel more at peace and less anxious about their social image. So which is it, do such ems achieve our highest spiritual ideals, or are they empty shells mostly devoid of human value? Can’t be both, right?

By the way, I was reading Harris because he and I will record a podcast Feb 21 in Denver.

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  • lump1

    Great post, looking forward to the Harris podcast. I guess I’m one of the people who has “expressed concern that competition for efficient em workers might then turn ems into inhuman creatures of little moral worth.” However, there are different ways to motivate that worry. Mine is not the worry that we will slice away ems’ humanity by some emulated neuro-modification. Actually, I’m rather comforted by that thought. If, like in Peter Watts’s Blindsight, the most efficient cognizer completely lacks consciousness, then such ems cannot suffer or dread annihilation.

    What scares me is that on some level, those horrible human experiences actually enhance productivity. If this is so, then in the hypercompetitive world, they will not only be retained but amplified. Suppose that at the peak of em capacity to do job x are three almost equally capable person-templates. It might not be the small difference in capability that justifies one of these templates as being the source of most of the running copies. It might just be about which one is willing to work harder and endure more hardship in order to survive. That may very well be the person who most intensely fears non-existence. That fear, if intense enough, might allow this person to forego any human gratification, simply from the recognition that if it slacks off a little bit, it will be replaced by another worker and cease to exist.

    I think there is pretty good evidence that the dread of death is common to all higher animals, and that it clearly serves an evolutionary role. Animals more indifferent to the prospect of dying do so at marginally higher rates. Ones who dread it intensely struggle harder to avoid it. Death is omnipresent in the em world in a way it never was in the animal world even in the most Malthusian circumstances: You die simply when another em comes to exist in the world who is better at your job. Dreading this fate is bound to make you up your game a bit. Thus selecting for maximum productivity would ipso facto select for the disposition to fear death to the point of being willing to endure anything to survive. (This mechanic would also select for positive emotions, like loving the work you do, but not exclusively. Basically, since I think that strongly-felt emotions accompany persons of peak productivity, they will not be subtracted in em minds. Also, dread of death is also bound to be computationally simple to emulate; its CPU overhead will certainly be smaller than its power to motivate.)

  • Jesse Rotenberg

    Your consideration of the conflict which may be at play is of pertinent interest to me. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of struggling with bipolar depression recently, and what has been the most tortuous aspect of it has been that I feel trapped, stuck with the DMN. I bounce around my wandering thoughts without surcease. Where you note a normal amount of wandering thoughts may be around 50%, to me it is more like 90%. The inability to actually achieve steady-state focus has been the driver of my negative thoughts.

    On this alone (and I acknowledge I present a very biased mindset right now), I wouldn’t place too much worry that hyper-focus and clear-mind would lead to loss of our collective self.

  • This leads me to wonder how much hypocrisy there is in people’s beliefs about ems’ moral value and how much they value tranquility. I value tranquility a lot and expect most em lives to have pressures that would encourage tranquility so their existences seem fine to me, but I wonder how many people hold diverging opinions on these two positions and what their justification for how such divergence is consistent with their views.

  • Sid

    One point is that even the most experienced meditator would be nothing compared to an em when it comes to quieting networks that lead to sense of self. Also, quieting the DMN is not uniformly positive.

    See for a careful treatment.

  • Joe Teicher

    So ems are hypothetical very advanced computer software. Why would anyone want computer software to have moral worth? Isn’t it convenient that we can do whatever we want with our software now without worrying that we are killing it or hurting its feelings?
    It seems like removing the moral worth would be an important step in making ems commercially viable.

  • arch1

    These two things could both be true. It could simply be that a little DMN-reduction (a “few moments” once or several times a day, say) is helpful and leaves one’s human-ness intact, but as DMN activity approaches zero for a fraction of time approaching 100%, the ’empty shell’-ness effect gets more and more pronounced. Too much of a good thing.

    • arch1

      Ah, I think Sid was making basically the same point.

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  • > “Upon his death man must leave everything behind … and depart forever from the world he has known. He must of necessity go to that foul land of death, a fact which makes death the most sorrowful of all events. … Some foreign doctrines, however, teach that death should not be regarded as profoundly sorrowful. … These are all gross deceptions contrary to human sentiment and fundamental truths. Not to be happy over happy events, not to be saddened by sorrowful events, not to show surprise at astonishing events, in a word, to consider it proper not to be moved by whatever happens, are all foreign types of deception and falsehood. They are contrary to human nature and extremely repugnant to me.”

    Motoori Norinaga; or one fun story from _Zen Flesh, Zen Bones_:

    > Unsho kept the precepts scrupulously, & Tanzan did as he pleased. One day Unsho visited Tanzan, who was drinking. “Won’t you have a drink?” “I never drink!” “One who does not drink is not even human.” “Then what am I?” “A Buddha.”