Renaissance through Letting Our Minds Have Some Peace

annotations on books about giving the mind room to operate, consciousness theory, and technological self-control

Describing the books will overwhelm the one podcast episode I want to talk about. So, first, Roger Penrose, as interpreted through my limited understanding of his interview with Lex Fridman, basically says that the current edge of science probably can't explain human consciousness. That a new version of science may be necessary to describe it. There came a time when Newtonian physics were found deficient. Einstein's theory of relativity solved the issues. Ground breaking scientists, then, found relativity deficient at the quantum level. So, quantum mechanics emerged and people like Richard Feynman equipped scientists with tools to describe that, too. I mention him because I just love listening to his old lectures, so he stands prominent to me, though there are many, many other scientists who even Feynman himself had to sort of chase through their work prior to making his own discoveries. I mention Einstein because I'm like everybody and everybody knows of him. The Nobel Prize winners for quantum theory were Niels Bohr and Max Planck, who I don't know much about, and I've already digressed.

Right, Penrose. In my mind, what Penrose was saying is that we probably need a new science if we're to have a chance at explaining human consciousness. He mentions the concept out there of trying to develop a unified theory of physics, that finds the avenue whereby relativity and the quantum level can be explained together. A conjoined twins picture, perhaps? But that idea doesn't much appeal to Penrose for reasons I can't understand. There's also talk about microtubules in human cells, probably brain and nerve cells in particular. Perhaps all I can offer is my intuitive hunch in support of Penrose's credibility on such matters.


I did pass a course called electromagnetic waves but there was one day I made an excuse to the professor about having broken up with my girlfriend. But I passed. I wanna say with a B+, not an A or anything. One of about a third of electrical engineers at my college, then, who passed. I wanna say I did quadradic equations just fine. I have such embarrassing moments to remember about my relationship with first year roommate, also an engineering student, who was far more cool to me than I was to him. Sorry. In the second year, though, midway through differential equations the earth widened beneath me and I sank into and out of being. I remember seeing my former roommate a few times after the metamorphosis and I was nicer and he never expressed any hard feelings. So that's nice.

But the leading scientists Penrose summarizes in the interview, it's like they suspect figuring out human consciousness is the final step before knowing everything, because that well could be what it requires to even begin unifying physics. How do they know it's not just another thing that gets explained by a specialized branch that amounts to just another broadening of the series (not to disparage these monumental achievements). And, if it is the last step to knowing everything, then consciousness may well never be understood in our lives here in the universe we live in, not that I would discourage the attempt or doubt the outcome if there were a breakthrough. The scientific breakthroughs of the past have had far reaching benefits and another breakthrough may well do the same, perhaps even on a whole other order.

Even right now the easy but powerful generalization important to take from the search to understand human consciousness is the realization that human consciousness is important, and knowing about it will help us to live better. As Dr. Nutt can confirm, the brain is also very important as the controller of the mind. This means we need some familiarity with neuroscience, too, in order to psychologically and emotionally navigate so many options in our lives in how we use our time and resources, very much including our relationships with computers and mobile technology and what we access with them.

 

Yes, consciousness is like other words and their referents (the actual whatever a word refers to). It's like other words in that it shows up as a Wikipedia page. It could need drastic expansion in related pages if humans knew its full scientific description. Consciousness is special. It is to be cherished.

Human consciousness is not a solid thing, perhaps, and if it is, then perhaps there's something else called existence or soul or spirit or . . .. There are great unknowns about the brain, the mind, and the human self.

 

Nonetheless, a great deal is know and it's very useful, practical knowledge. I recently wrote a blog post about the value and benefits of sustained focus. That post draws substantially from a few texts I have my nose in, which I'll annotate below for anyone interested. If you made it all the way down here, though, you're my champion. And so I beg your pardon that this is a work in progress. I'm going to sort of rough this in and then I may update again in a days or weeks.

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, (Part 1 of 3: Chapters 1-5)

I get the impression some people check their phones frequently throughout the day or stay on them for hours. But I don't feel the same way Hari does at the start of his book where he somewhat oversimplifies homogeneity in Western society so that it's sort of stereotyping modern society. But I forgive that because if he had tried to provide all the nuance that may deserve, the book would have gotten bogged down in that, instead of doing what it needs to do.

It's a modern addendum to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. At least, I see a relationship there. What I remember most from Postman, Hari also says. That the medium of communication shapes the message. Hari has a neat section that describes the message inherent in various mediums. He would say a Tweet, for example, sends the message that something worth saying can be said in X number of characters. His analysis is only a beginning on that particular venture, but the more powerful premise behind Hari's book is that we too frequently shift what we're thinking about and focused on. And we pay a huge price for that. I'm not a self-help reader, but I do like good insight I can apply on my own terms and I think this book fits that perfectly.

For the most part, each chapter describes a cause of focal atrophy or interruption and how that impacts humanity, usually speaking of the individual level and mostly adults, but there's one chapter on kids. However, Hari does also discuss the roles of society, corporations, and media in shaping our circumstances and making any given lifestyle easier or harder particular individuals. It's not a work of cynicism. Hari works out tools, tips, and solutions.

 

I'm of the idea I'd like to live the best life I can. I don't want injustice, war, skewed finance, inflated currency, etc. But there are two reasons I won't check the social media or the news every few hours. First, I'm not going to waste my one go at this life gawking at a dumpster fire. That, right there, is enough reason. But, then, there's a second! By confining and 

 

So, briefly, just one of the things that seems central is to recognize the dichotomy. On one side of the coin, a person is unkind to themselves if they think they're treating stress when they're addicted to unnecessarily juggling texts, conversations, books, TV, etc.. On on the other side of the coin, those who do that most may well be those in the upper poor though the middle-middle socioeconomic class. If held on a global scale and taken as a general principle, money affords ease and practical implementation of a wider and wider range of choices the more money a person has.

Put the simplest way: It costs money to make the monkey dance, the monkey a person pays to distract them from themselves in some cases. But, then, I was listening to particular celebrity. This person has a lot of fame, money, money, clout, cultural capital, love from throngs of people, probably political connections, the pro side (of the pro/con list of being a celebrity) goes on. I don't have to tell you those are merely my presumptions as a non-famous person. Yet, it seemed clear to me by the celebrity's mannerisms, their speaking, that they were all present at that interview.

 

If money makes people multi-task faster, then why wasn't that celebrity jumping out of his seat doing 15,000 things like our dear, dear pal who experienced the other side of the celebrity spectrum during his Violent Torpedo of Truth tour. Now I'm spit-balling there, but I think that makes sense to say that money provides choices between taking in a rapid stream and frequently changing the channel, so to speak in our mind. Or a wealthy person can go away to a private island and sit with needs cared for only when called.

Nor am I writing to the person in intense danger, wherever they are and from any class.

So, no, I'm not imagining I have any advice for the unfortunate who wish to distract themselves but cannot afford or access such distraction. That's not my target audience. But anyone else who will listen among those who are utilizing their wealth to purchase a constant stream of distraction and willing indulge in it to excess and their own detriment.

I'm writing to someone more in a broad middle, I imagine, like me, about the sorts of choices necessary. Bottom line, Hari says we have to find some space and time in life where we can really focus on one thing and not multi-task. I talk more about his process in the blog post and I'm planning to come back with more on this book when I can.

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, (Part 2 of 3: Chapters 6-7)

This is where Hari moves into how computing, the internet, and media function in our lives, especially common apps and internet services like Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail, etc. It is important what he notes about companies deliberately designing websites to capture a user's attention and not let it go. And when a user does escape these "tools," it's often not for long, which is hardly an escape. He says the tech, itself, is not the problem. It's the business model and resultant designs.

 

As I said in Part 1, above, this isn't the part I need to obsess about, personally, though I have a general interest. I forget my phone in a drawer for good parts of the day and I'll go days, sometimes, without checking the news. That's not a social media or tech fast, either. I'm just living and enjoying life at that pace, at least these past few months. And as I said in the "Transformation" section of my blog post, I held out on buying a smart phone till 2020 and I've never been all that popular, online or in-person, which probably limits the power social media has over me.

Nonetheless, Hari cites a 2015 study that finds 60% of Facebook users didn't even know what an algorithm is, let alone their roles in what they see online. He also confirms what a Facebook whistleblower, Fances Haugen, said about fb's algorithm favoring negative, divicive content. It's not that media companies want us to read negative news, they just do that because of humans' "negativity bias." Hari cites an NYU study that found that each word that elicit outrange added to a Tweet would increase retweets by 20%. Thus, Hari fills the reader in on the basics and reminds us that over- or misuse of the internet isn't entire the fault of users.

Two of the folks Hari interviews, Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin, are Edward Snowden types of figures in what they have to say about the insides of tech giants they used to work in or near. As far as I know, though, neither has had to flee the country because of their messages. Perhaps that's because they are talking about corporations, rather than sharing information directly about the US government. Or, maybe the powerful people who could combat them have figured out not enough people are listening for it to be worth it. But those are merely my thoughts on how slow the spread is of information that could help humanity get a grip on our use of tech.

Harris was into magic, which relies on knowing how the human brain works so that the magician can misdirect an audience's attention wherever they wish with one hand, while the other hand does the trick is necessary to create the illusion. That's the crucial "turn" phase of the pledge, turn, and prestige in a slight of hand trick. Harris says this helped him wrap his mind around his career, essentially keeping eyeballs glued to screens.

Like McDonald's designs food the body will crave over and over, tech companies learn the blind spots, weaknesses, and methods of our minds so they can design apps that prey on those vulnerabilities to prolong our scrolling and clicking, selling us more ads. Hari, himself, says it sounds like some awful dystopian conspiracy, as if it could only be fictional, but, no, that it's quite real. And I'm inclined to think that by how jig is up and that most people are at least aware they're being manipulated, though many may not offer systematic or well informed resistance.

Hari points to six causes and effects of typical use of social media and other internet services. The first isn't surprising, whatsoever. Rather, it's a cliché often pointed out, that rewards systems, like likes and heart emojis, are key drivers because of how the brain responds. The second is the main point of the earlier chapters, that these specially designed streams of information get us switching the target of our focus more often and more quickly.

 

The third? You're targeted. A frequently used social media platform creates what Harris would call a virtual "voodoo" doll they keep revising to be more and more like who you seem to be based on your online interactions. This, then, can be used to increase the potency of what the company feeds you.

Four through six are all about angst, anger, and outrange. Because algorithms often favor content that will incite users (since it's better at holding their attention), users often come away from social media with a heightened sense of anger. I think that's in addition to the stress caused by frequent switching. And either, or probably the combination, encourage users to respond and think about topics in reactionary ways, rather than promoting empathy or consideration of nuance.

Furthermore, affected users tend to see others as angry, whether they are or not.

The overall effect is a polarized society on edge, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hari does briefly mention cases where social media brought people together or cases where activists achieved a lot of good with it. He compares it to a GPS that takes you to the right destination the first time you use it, and the wrong place every time after that.

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, (Part 3 of 3: Chapters 8-14)

At first it would seem Nir Eyal presents as another Snowden type figure who worked for big tech until the realizations that led him to call for its reformation. However, Hari writes that Eyal believes "if we are going to overcome this process of becoming hooked on our apps and devices, we have to develop individual skills to resist the part inside of us that succumbs to these distractions." While Hari provides insights, ideas, and tools related to a lifestyle change when it comes to a person's relationship with the internet, this is where he begins, in earnest, setting the foundation for solutions and treatments and where they should come from. He learns good tricks and tips from Eyal, but doesn't agree it should be all on the user to make the internet less obnoxious.

Still, I was interested in Eyal's tips and tricks in that they do not require waiting for big internet companies to restructure their websites and apps. Turning off notifications while working on a project, planning one's day rather than passively turning to many hours over to whatever internet algorithms feed us.

Hari, though, is concerned people who take too much of the blame for internet misuse. Instead, we're tempted, led, and pushed to the slaughter by design and the stress.

 

Regarding the design part, Hari says companies aren't going to willingly do away with profitable tactics like infitite scroll or prioritizing divicive content (or whatever keeps an individual looking). They also have their own dubious research and refutations about the harms of their projects. Hari also doesn't think the government is going to rush to the rescue with regulation either. He does overview past successes in changing how the masses do things by way of a social movement, that would perhaps prompt action on the parts of companies and or the regulatory bodies.

We can't very well ignore bills or take every day off from work. Life is stressful. But when Hari talks about the role of stress, I think he's including things that really could be different. The healthcare system (costs, insurance) etc. in the US causes tremendous stress, for example, but there are other ways to structure healthcare that might make life easier, healthier, and less stressful for a lot of people. Those sorts of things can pile up to push someone into a continual stress state, where they're not able to stay focused on something or to focus deeply, especially on matters that aren't critical right at the present moment, I would think. I would also thing stress would drive people to try pacifying themselves with streams of goodies from social media, streaming services, and the like of those. And, yet, those don't relieve stress.

After concluding we've got a lot riding against us, Hari says we've got to at least try, probably both individually and collectively (via social media?!). Perhaps, as inspiration, he discusses places like Auckland, which have communally, he says, slowed things down. He also talks about companies who have gone to either a four day workweek or who have shortened the workday to six hours.

The the remaining chapters, Hari talks about factors like diet and pollution (12), how we should respond to ADHD (the disorder or the diagnosis)(13), and psychological and physical limitations placed on (he says "confinement of") children. 

 

Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, and How to Win at College by Cal Newport

I heard in an interview with the author his description of deep work, and it sounds like what Johann Hari--and perhaps those he sought the knowledge of on the matter--call a flow state. And what makes it possible, among other things, is periods, when possible, of sustained focus on one train of thought and theatre or context. But, I'll add here that Hari says we also need time where rampant input is unlikely, like a walk on a beach with few others in sight, and during those times, to let our minds wander. That there needs to be time for both of those to self-actualize, create, lead, see.

Rewire Your Brain by John, B. Arden, Ph. D.

Which connects, I think, to Dr. Nutt's work. I got Nutt Uncut, and I'm sure the author agrees with Dan Reeder, who sings, "The mind is different from the brain" (acapella, mind you). And that's really, possibly, the most fascinating area here, in some ways. According to him, in interviews with him, the ultimate understanding one takes is that the brain isn't our mind. Rather—and Aldous Huxley said something like this—the brain controls the mind. It's an operation center, but our mind is either an aspect of the brain unknown, as of yet, to science. Or, the mind is something altogether different than the brain. I've listened to some discussions on emergence. The PBS program Closer to the Truth, seems pretty legit when the host interviews experts on the relationship between the brain and mind. Warren Brown seems to almost be in an altered state as he tries to explain that relationship, as he understands it. But, the show also interviewed folks of the opposite view, that once the brain is fully understood, so, too, consciousness will be. Perhaps, perhaps. But, all that would mean to me, is that, then, the soul is a separate secret. But, if Penrose and my interpretation of him are correct, that the mind needs an altogether new branch of science to explain, then it's possible we'd never explain it. And, so, it could be or relate with the soul, perhaps, and I have no certainty in that, whatsoever. I only suppose it's possible given our ignorance about the soul and the essence of human life.

 

I say all this being among those who believe, religiously, that there is a Creator with attributes different from those of the creation. And that the soul, comprehending or describing it, perhaps as scientists are won't to do, is a secret with the Creator. So if it turns out we can't understand human consciousness, then, perhaps, that's part of that secret. Or, perhaps, we find out a theory with some level of evidence and reliability, and nothing disproves it . . . in that case, it would be on to the next thing, but, eventually, if the Creator granted the prerequisite knowledge, the scientific iterations would reach an end point, though the researchers may remain unaware they'd reached the outer limits.

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

This is the first of two books of borderline relevance in this bibliography. I anticipate its most salient points will be about AI's effect on our world or culture or thinking, etc. as humans. But, in ways that provide a weirdness, perhaps with some comedic-intellectualism? We'll see! I've also been collecting the sorts of things AI spits out, for example, if tasked with coming up with titles for romantic novels. But when I heard of AI writing news articles, I got interested a bit more in awareness of capabilities or the nature of AI.

I've only started this book and then got distracted, but I'm determined to return to it. It's not only fun, it's also a bit serious, I think, or at least it informs us about how algorithms and ai "think." That's good to know, given their pervasive influence in modern life. And, yet, there's plenty of levity, as well. And intrigue.

A Bright Future by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist

I almost wish to omit this from this list because it's not absolutely central to my agenda, which underlies the topic of this book. Why I'm keeping it here, though, is because one of the main things that needs people to think deeply all across the earth is how we release energy. I'm hesitant to even bring that up here I'm mainly focused, here, on individual lifestyle choices, not the social, economic, and political levels.\

 

National and global inefficiencies and problems require reformation of legislation, institutions, media, technology, and more. Things individual people have very limited control over. In the case of energy supply, for example, a person can consume moderately, choose the most fuel efficient transportation they can afford, and maybe put solar panels on their house. However, however, even the cost of installing solar panels is greatly affected by circumstances that individual consumer typically has no direct control over.

 

And the individual can't force others to make the same choices any more than they can force the methods a state and its utility companies use to power the grid. Energy supply is substantially centralized and hardly democratic. When it comes to solving such big problems, application of the ideas talked about elsewhere on this page may not easily or directly translate to global resolution of any collective issue. Mark Rober seems positive and happy and, meanwhile, he's influenced a lot of people, companies, and even government entities. Individuals do have influence, and I would say the ideas on this page, are foundational to development of awareness and power of expression on the individual level. So, maybe sustained focus, conscientious internet use, etc. can play a role in maximizing an activist's messaging. As well, things catch on as more folks do them. Maybe, one day it will be trendy not to burry out noses in infinite scroll feeds of fascinating tidbits of information algorithms choose for us.

Regarding the book itself, I've only briefly overviewed it. I think it's mainly doing three things: quantifying or describing global energy needs and consequences, while also examining various ways to address any shortages. And, then, thirdly, advocating, and this is the tricky part for me, nuclear energy. I don't have the impression they've been overly coy about hiding where the book goes, but that aspect isn't mentioned on the cover. I'm most skeptical about the agenda of this book, though I am open minded enough to give it an honest look, especially the earlier, background portion.

Update: I still haven't read this book, but I noticed a credible seeming YouTube video that makes the claim safely storing nuclear waste has been solved long ago. In other words, nuclear power isn't as icky bad as it is in the public imagination, or stereotypes therefrom. As for me, I just recall that Fukushima wasn't that long ago. Maybe folks who know can differentiate that disaster. I don't know a lot about the details of the cause or even the impact. All I know is that it was bad and that it involved massive radiation leaks into the environment. And, then, though, I wonder how many oil leaks we've had, and how those compare. These are all things I have little knowledge of, so hopefully I find time for the book.

My more general motive to learn more is just that energy production and consumption are central the state of human civilization.

And there are more books and articles I'm interested in reading or further digesting. This Atlantic article by Derek Thompson, mentions Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. That's the psychologist, apparently, who coined the developed the concept and term flow, which Thompson says is "that gusher of crystal-clear focus that pulls our attention through an achievable challenge. But flow doesn’t come from doing easy things over and over again. It comes from tasks that reside at the edge of our potential." Thus, Thompson concludes by saying, "Don’t be afraid to do hard things." I'm also interested in the brain, mind, and consciousness, and holistic viewpoints that look deeply into relationships, even within human physiology.