I really appreciate this newsletter. I wish we had something similar from China.
I think there's a lot of great points and habits of thinking here. My intuition is that it's really hard to marshall resources in this space, SENS has done this, and they seem pretty open to feedback (I think Jim is great). The next exploratory step in getting this to happen might be as a proposal to SENS.
I really like the meditation/enlightenment frame for poking at these concepts. You might enjoy my Neuroscience of Meditation piece; here's an excerpt:
Finally, we may be able to usefully describe the Buddhist jhanas through a combination of CSHW and neural annealing. Essentially, Buddha noted that as one follows the meditative path and eliminates unwholesome mental states, they will experience various trance-like states of deep mental unification he called ‘jhanas’. These are seen as progressive steps to full enlightenment- the first few jhanas focus on joy, and after these are attained one can move to jhanas which revolve around contentment and feelings of infinity, and finally full cessation of suffering. Importantly, these experiences are not seen as ‘mere signposts’ on the path, but active processes which are causally involved in the purification of the mind — in the original Pāli, the root of ‘jhana’ can refer to both ‘meditate’ and ‘burn up’, e.g. to destroy the mental defilements holding one back from serenity and insight.
A ‘modern’ approach here might be to identify the various jhanas as natural resonant modes of the brain– i.e., different jhanas would map to different harmonic configurations, each with a different phenomenological texture, but all high in consonance/harmony. If this is true, we should be able to do neat things like identify which jhana a meditator is experiencing from their CSHW data, or reconstruct Buddhism’s list of jhanas from first principles based on the math of which brain harmonics can be combined in a way that produces high consonance/harmony. Perhaps we could even find a novel, unexplored jhana or two, pleasant configurations of brain harmonics that even most experienced meditators have never experienced.
But if we add neural annealing to this model, we can start to understand how experiencing the various jhanas may actively sculpt the mind. At its most basic, meditation offers a context for people to sit with their thoughts and maybe do some work on themselves, and get some practice ‘getting out of their own way’. Basically removing the ‘defilements’ which clutter up their brain harmonics, much like removing a clamp from a bell or shaking a mouse out of a trombone. Once these ‘resonance impediments’ are removed, and energy is added to the system (through effortful meditation), brains will naturally start to self-organize toward the simpler resonant configurations, the first jhanas. But importantly, highly-resonant states are also high-energy states- i.e., the very definition of resonance is that energy travels in a periodic pattern that reinforces itself, instead of dissipating in destructive interference. So if you get a brain into a highly-resonant state (a jhana) and keep it there, this will also start a neural annealing process, basically purifying itself (and making it easier and easier to enter into that particular resonant state- “harmonic recanalization”) more or less automatically.
With this in mind, we might separate Buddha’s path to enlightenment into two stages: first, one attempts to remove the psychological conditions which prevent them from attaining a minimum level of ‘whole-brain resonance’; mostly, this will involve trying to meditate, experiencing a problem in doing so, fixing the problem, trying to meditate again. Rinse, repeat- possibly for years. But in the second stage, once enough of these conditions are gone and resonant momentum can accumulate, they can start ‘climbing the jhanas,’ mostly just entering meditative flow and letting the math of Laplacian eigenmodes and neural annealing slowly shape their mind into something that resonates in purer and purer ways, until at the end it becomes something which can only support harmony, something which simply has no resources that can be used to sustain dissonance.
 What precisely is happening as one climbs the various jhanas? Resonance in chaotic systems is inherently unstable, and so if the first jhana is “a minimum level of whole-brain resonance” we should expect many perturbations and failures in maintaining this pleasant state as unpredicted sense-data, chaotic internal feedback loops, and evolved defenses against ‘psychological wireheading‘ knock the system around. Each additional jhana, then, may be thought of as a widening of the set of factors being stabilized, or using a higher-dimensional or further-optimized implicit model of wave dynamics to compensate for more sources of turbulence. This optimization process might separate into discrete steps or strategies (jhanas), each with their own particular phenomenology, depending on what kind of turbulence it’s best at stabilizing. I expect we’ll find that earlier jhanas are characterized by seeking particular narrow resonant configurations that work; later jhanas flip the script and are characterized by seeking out the remaining distortions in the ‘web of phenomenology’, the problem states that don’t resonate, in order to investigate and release them.
(More in the post itself)
Of course, the challenge here is: if this is a good theory of how the brain works, of how meditation works, of what enlightenment, is -- can we use it to build something cool? Something that actually helps people, that you couldn't have built without these insights?
Thanks for so clearly putting your thoughts down. Honestly, I liked your comment on my LW crosspost of Neural Annealing so that I added it to the end of the post on my blog.
Briefly, I wanted to note a key section of NA where I talk about "a continuum of CSHWs with scale-free functional roles", which depending on definitions may or may not be the same thing as CSHWs being fractal:
Last year in A Future for Neuroscience, I shared the frame that we could split CSHWs into high-frequency and low-frequency types, and perhaps say something about how they might serve different purposes in the Bayesian brain:
The mathematics of signal propagation and the nature of emotionsHigh frequency harmonics will tend to stop at the boundaries of brain regions, and thus will be used more for fine-grained and very local information processing; low frequency harmonics will tend to travel longer distances, much as low frequency sounds travel better through walls. This paints a possible, and I think useful, picture of what emotions fundamentally are: semi-discrete conditional bundles of low(ish) frequency brain harmonics that essentially act as Bayesian priors for our limbic system. Change the harmonics, change the priors and thus the behavior. Panksepp’s seven core drives (play, panic/grief, fear, rage, seeking, lust, care) might be a decent first-pass approximation for the attractors in this system.
I would now add this roughly implies a continuum of CSHWs, with scale-free functional roles:
These waves shade into each other – a ‘low-frequency thought’ shades into a ‘high-frequency emotion’, a ‘low-frequency emotion’ shades into somatic information. As we go further up in frequencies, these waves become more localized.
Right-- one question that Milan Griffes asked me was, "how can you tell if you should trust your aesthetic?"
Presumably integration practices should make it more trustworthy, but would be nice to have a good heuristic for when it's trustworthy (and when pushing with meditation/psychedelics might be safe) vs untrustworthy (and they would be a bad idea).
CSHWs offer pretty compelling Schelling points for the brain to self-organize around, and there's a *lot* of information in a dynamic power distribution among harmonic modes. We might distinguish CSHW-the-framework from CSHW-the-fMRI-method.
Agreed! The current version of CSHW depends on fairly high-tesla fMRI, which is somewhat new. Possibly there will be ways to adapt the concept to EEG, although this will take pretty advanced modeling and a lot of validation.
The real answer though might be it's only now that we're starting to clearly see the limits of the functional localization paradigm of neuroscience, and the need for something like CSHW. I'm reminded of this paper: https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005268
Selen evidently got a huge amount of pushback from 'old guard skeptics' on her framework, and almost didn't survive this professionally. So I might point to political/factional factors.
Hi Donald- author of opentheory.net here. Really appreciate the thoughtful comment. A few quick notes: