Cognition – Imagination – Improving Imagination

by pre., Friday, June 6th, 2008.

Imagine for a moment that your imagination was better than it currently is. What kinds of things are you able to do with your new improved imaginative powers? Can you see yourself able to see yourself more clearly because of that improvement? Will improving your imagination increase your understanding of how your understanding would be improved?

Your understanding of the world is based deeply in your imagination. It allows you to model the world, and to change that model’s details, the particulars, and see the consequences. It makes questions like “should I buy this sandwich?” meaningful because it enables to you compare two worlds, one where you have a sandwich but you don’t have a pound, and one where you don’t have a sandwich but at least you still have your money. You can imagine living in both of those worlds and see which you prefer.

It lets you combine ideas in your mind, and thus invent new ones. Imagine combining wheels and baskets: You just ‘invented’ the shopping trolley. Imagination is at the heart of invention, of planning, of thinking.

Imagination helps us see possible solutions to problems, as your imagination improves so does your understanding of obstacles, and ability to create solutions, to generate new ideas.

A first-rate imagination enables you to project yourself into a detailed world, which in turn enables you to describe it vividly, to enrapture those listening to you and capture their imaginations, help them to see what you can see, it’s infectious and mind-changing.

Improving Your Imagination

When you want to improve your abilities, the most obvious thing you can do to do so is to practice that ability. Spend ten minutes a day doing it, and pretty much whatever “it” is, you’ll find you’ve improved, you’re better at it.

So how do you practice using your imagination? By imagining things! By seeing what would happen if the world were slightly different. By concentrating on the details in your vision of that world, seeing them colourful and bright and loud and animated. Describing them to yourself in exciting, evocative language. By imagining solutions to problems in that world, thinking up new experiments to try in it.

You can also use this world to plant suggestions to yourself, help your brain understand and focus on the relevent parts of the act of imagination, help it to see what should be growing.

This Month’s mp3

We give an example of this kind of imagination-improving meditation in this month’s mp3 file. It encourages you to relax, get into as suggestible a state as you can, before vividly imaging yourself sliding out of your body so that you can see yourself lying back, relaxing.

Next it suggests that you improve your imagination by imagining yourself literally operating on your brain. Think up a way to open the top of your skull, and then watch yourself doing that. Imagine a way to locate the imagination areas of your brain and watch yourself doing that. Then think up a way to encourage those parts of your brain to grow, before vividly and animatedly watching that happen before you. Finally, imagining yourself closing up the wound and sliding back into your own body to feel the warm glowing growth of your imagination. To try and imagine how it feels to have that improved imagination.

Each time you try the meditation, think up new tools, new methods, new techniques for doing each of the tasks involved in growing that brain, remember that if you can imagine how it feels to have improved your imagination, you just have to practice feeling like that in order to have actually done it.

Congition – Imagination – Restrictions

by pre., Friday, June 13th, 2008.

“Zen and the art of motor cycle maintainence contains this short story on a failure of imagination:

He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred-word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say.

He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer: “Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.” It was a stroke of insight.

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. “You’re not looking!” he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. “I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”

Every writer, artist and worker has suffered to some degree from “blank page syndrome“. Not having any idea where to start. You’ll have looked at some problem and just been at a loss for any way to begin a solution at all. You’ll have wanted to talk to someone but been drowned in awkward silence, finding it impossible to know what to say. You’ll have been unable to think of a gift for someone. When faced with too many possibilities your mind can find it hard to find a pattern to focus on. Something in inspire.

When you listened to our mp3 file last week, you will have found it very easy to know what to visualise, and fairly easy to pick the tools and methods you used to improve your imagination. Yet if we’d simply said “Visualise something imaginative” you’d have been much more likely to just freeze.

Solutions beginning with “P”

The difference between the two particulars is, of course, that in the primary one we have added almost completely arbitrary restrictions. Narrowed down part of the pattern, limited the possibilities into something we can use to prompt our imaginations.

Primarily: You are inspired by limitations.

When you find yourself stuck for lack of ideas, add arbitrary conditions. Don’t just think of something to say to that person, think of something beginning with the word Pancake. Don’t just try and draw a picture, draw a picture of something pink. When trying to think of an example, think of one beginning with the letter “P”.

Chose your own letter, your own restriction, though. Obviously. You don’t want to be drowning in Pee.

You should start, gradually, to find different ways to tell stories to your brain about how and why your imagination is growing. Slowly expand the restrictions in this month’s mp3. Imagine different scenarios, situations, be as creative as you can be. Learn how to cope easily with wider and wider selections of options in front of you to gradually reduce the “Blank Page Effect” in yourself.

And in the mean time, if you get stuck, just pile in a few more arbitrary preconditions.

Cognition – Imagination – Try New Things

by pre., Friday, June 20th, 2008.

Robert Anton Wilson describes The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon, in which the amount of time it takes for society to double their current level of knowledge has been shrinking at an exponential rate. The entire range of human thought has been doubling increasingly quickly since before the time of Jesus. Raymond Kurzweil takes a more rigorous approach and calls the effect Accelerating Change. He researches, maps and graphs a whole range of human knowledge measures and finds they make straight lines on logarithmic graphs. Exponential growth! What’s do you imagine drives this incredible process?

Human imagination allows us to combine ideas, and since each combination produces a new idea, every act of doing so increases the pool of ideas available for combination.

Every tool we invent allows us to modify all the other tools we have invented. And here what works on a societal level also works on an individual level. Every idea you have gives you a larger pool of ideas to call on when you’re trying to solve a problem.

In order to have the greatest pool of ideas available to you, the largest range of mental tools, and thus be as imaginative as you can you will start saying “Yes” more when asked to do new things. Seek novelty for it’s own sake. Do things differently just to catch yourself off guard.

As you do so, you’ll also be literally encouraging your brain to grow. Just last month the NY times reported research which suggested you should aquire new habbits because studies indicate doing novel things literally keeps your brain from rotting:

It turns out that unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy, which may result in dementia, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.

Convincing yourself to try new things

It’s very easy to get trapped into your normal routine, the rut of your day to day existence. It’s comfortable there, but that very comfort may be letting your brain rot. What can you do to make it more likely you’ll try something new?

Simply reading this article and so knowing that doing new things is important to you may give you a slight edge. But allowing that suggestion to sink deeper into your unconscious can’t be a bad idea. Try a five minute meditation, allow yourself to drift into an emotional state, then just tell yourself you’ll do new things, and think about the last new thing you did. Concentration on those things will help you spot opportunities to practice the novel, and pay more attention to them when you do.

Finally, if you can’t do something new, do something old in a new way! Try it left-handed. Try it upside down. Try it with one arm behind your back. The more variety your life has, the more food your imagination has, your brain will begin to burn with new ideas, which give you new things to do. Pretty soon you’ll be doubling your own knowledge every few years too!

Cognition – Imagination – Distraction Activity

by pre., Friday, June 27th, 2008.

Anecdotes about great artistic, philosophical and scientific discoveries coming to people as they sleep abound. Paul McCartney is said to have dreamed up the tune for “Yesterday”, Shelly to have been asleep when Frankenstein’s Monster came to mind, a snake eating it’s own tail was the dream-prompt that lead to the discovery of the structure of the benzine ring. You’ll find dozens more if you search. You can probably even pick some from your own life.

While most of our useful imaginative ideas come to us while awake, as we’re actively searching for them, some of the most creative, the most magnificently imaginative ideas (and the most stupid of course) come to us in our dreams.

While you are searching for an idea, you are setting up conditions in your mind, training it to recognise a solution to that idea. Your senses and experience, thoughts and ideas, are all being scanned for things which match those criteria. Constantly. And when they come across something which will work, you get that little ping of epiphany, the buzz of new inspiration.

Dreams, of course, provide some of the strangest and most unlikely sense input patters you’re ever likely to ‘see’. It’s no surprise that some of the strangest and most unlikely new ideas are inspired by those conditions.

The base effect though, that constant looking out for a neural pattern, happens while you are awake too. As we mentioned previously when discussing how restrictions can fire the imagination, a blank page can be the most inspiration sapping stimulus you could have. There’s nothing in a blank page which will be recognised by that idea-matching system.

This mechanism means that a more or less random stimulus can push your pattern matching equipment into prompting an idea, and the effect is visible in many familiar experiences. You’ll have struggled yourself to remember some forgotten thing that “pops into your head” later, when something (possibly subconsciously) reminds you of it. The perfect come-back to that witty remark occurs to you days later when you see a prompt in the washing up bowl.

When trying to build something, inventors have described how it can be useful to wonder around a hardware store, looking at the things they’re selling, wondering which will best match the needs of the particular new thing they’re building. That wide range of tools and materials gives the prompt to understand a problem more deeply, to see a solution which will fit the desired criteria.

Artists also find inspiration in the most mundane things as well as in the transcendent. Almost anything in the world can prompt an new imaginative combination. You never know from where your best ideas will come.

Improving Your Imagination

If you have a difficult problem, or a vexing issue, if you’re looking to exercise your growing imagination, perhaps the first thing you should try is to sleep on it. Many of our fundamental mental processes only really happen while we sleep. Memories are sorted, stored, refreshed. New facts assimilated into our world knowledge. Free association and dreams can help us to find new solutions.

While awake, performing distraction activities can help. Keep your problem in mind, certainly, think of it often to keep your pattern matching tuned to solutions for that problem, but seek inspiration elsewhere. If you’ve been thinking for some time and come up with nothing, you’re likely going around in circles. It will take time for your ideas to ferment, to grow relevent connections, and you can speed up that process by concentrating on something else. Let your mind fill with other, even completely unrelated patterns. The solution to your problem will be found by inspiration in the world more often than by deep thought.

Guided Meditation File 5 – Cognition – Imagination
Backing Music “Ambient Voyager” By Zero Page
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Cognition – Intuition – What Is Intuition?

by pre., Friday, February 6th, 2009.

At the Transcendence Institute we often describe a thorough gut-level understanding by using the analogy of catching a ball. In order to learn to catch a ball you don’t go and study the equations which govern the parabolic arc under which the ball will fly, or the science behind the air pressure which drives the winds which may affect it’s course. Learning these things will certainly increase your understanding of how a ball moves, and if you intend to build a robot that catches balls it’s probably your first step, but they will not help you actually catch that ball.

This gut-level understanding is called Intuition. When you intuitively know something you don’t necessarily know how you know it, if you try to explain you’ll likely just be confabulating. A great deal of your understanding is intuitive understanding and even that which is explicit understanding that you can explain exactly is grounded in and based on a more intuitive foundation.

Examples: How to move your arm, how to recognise an apple, how catch a ball, how to talk, how to walk, how to run, skip and jump. If asked to demonstrate a fiendishly difficult task like winking an eye you’ll be able to do it but if asked to describe how to wink an eye you’ll likely be lost at sea. Even if you’re not you’ll probably just start talking about things like signalling your face to contract certain muscle groups in the right pattern, without any real clue how to describe those particular patterns.

Explicit understanding is different. If you explain your explicit understanding to someone, they too will have that understanding. If you give someone your granny’s cookie recipe, they’ll be able to make it as well as you can. However even this recipe, the explicit understanding, is just a tower of intuitive understanding. It relies not only on your knowing how to break an egg into a bowl, but also how to recognise an egg, how to pick it up, what will happen when you smash it against the bowl.

How Intuition Works

Firstly, in a way much more complicated than the gloss we’re about to put over it. The best explicit understanding in the world of these issues still glosses over much, and we only have time here to gloss over most of that gloss.

We have previously mentioned Hebbian Learning, a model of how neurons feeding their outputs into each others inputs can be trained to recognise patterns. To replicate them. To signal how strongly they are recognising a pattern. It’s a strict mathematical model, you don’t need anything other than maths to build a Hebbian network. Making a Hebbian network run is not an intuitive hand-waving affair like teaching a cookie recipe. We have an explicit understanding of the way these abstract neurons interact. We can build machines which work this way and they appear to work in similar ways to at least some of the neural clusters in our brains.

When repeatedly exposed to the same pattern on inputs, this type of network will begin to predict the rest of the pattern. If you wire it into a pitch recognition system and play a tune to it over and over again it’ll fairly quickly start to recognise that tune, even pre-empt it. Furthermore it can learn other tunes, and finish off whichever one you start to play.

We humans who designed these networks have a very good explicit understanding of exactly what each neuron does, and a fairly good understanding of how the whole group of them interact. We know why the network can finish off our pattern. The network itself, however, has no explicit understanding at all. It’s just a mathematical model.

Now consider: The model manages to complete the pattern, so it must ‘know’ in some sense what the rest of that pattern is. Without any understanding of it’s existence, without any understanding of it’s mechanism, without any understanding of what a pattern is or the mathematical rules which is follows, it still ‘knows’ what the rest of that pattern is well enough to complete it.

This, then, is intuition. And there’s millions of examples in your head. You have a neural network which recognises a door. You have one which recognises your front door. You have an uncountable number of these intuitions and you got them all by exposure to enough patterns to be able to classify and predict them.


So how does this roughly-Hebbian pattern recognition system come into your consciousness? How can you tell if you have one and what it’s telling you?

There are two famous optical illusions which give a big clue here. The first is the Necker Cube, an ambiguous rendering of a wire-frame cube which could be facing forwards or backwards, and the second is known as Rubin’s Vase, in which you see either a picture of a vase or else of two faces in profile, so close their noses are almost touching.

When looking at these illusions, how is the fact of “Forwards” or “Face” or else “Backwards” or “Vase” transmitted to your consciousness?

The answer is that they become part of your consciousness. You don’t look at the cube and have some number change on a heads-up display like a Terminator robot. You don’t see lines literally flash around the faces with a “Face Recognised” pop-up window in your visual system. The two intuitive systems in conflict as you stare at those images fight it out, one or the other wins the battle and suppresses the alternative and you’re whole visual scene readjusts to reflect the change.

Remember, as we discussed last week, your consciousness is essentially your intuitive understanding of yourself, your Hebbian Learning systems focused on learning patterns like “How do I feel today” or “Am I happy”?

You are, at all times, making thousands upon thousands of intuitive judgements. Classifying and predicting your environment and your own body’s sensations and even your own state of mind. Right now you’re intuitively recognising many letters every second, and many words based on those letters, and many possible sentences of which you narrow down (hopefully) the one written. You’re recognising and classifying your thoughts about these sentences, fitting the concepts into your current knowledge, and you’re barely conscious of any of it.

Your intuition is already sophisticated beyond our understanding, refined and useful for getting through your life to an extraordinary degree. However you, quite rightly, still question it. Not usually when you’re wondering if that bad scrawl is a letter 0 or a number 6, more often when you’re assessing much more abstract and unquantifiable things: Am I being followed? Is this a dangerous situation? Does he fancy me?

Next week we’ll discuss why you tend to only be conscious of these more abstract things, and later go on to discuss how to listen more closely to your intuition, and assess it’s reasonableness.

Cognition – Intuition – Intuition Heirarchy

by pre., Friday, February 13th, 2009.

You have seen that your brain’s pattern-matching skill is both awesome and mostly unconscious. We will now delve a little deeper about exactly how many simple pattern matching systems can be combined and used to form groupings which themselves can be examined with your intuition system. In short, how a hierarchical chain of pattern matching units increases both the complexity of patterns which can be matched, and the reliability of the systems doing the matching.

Example Hierarchy

We will examine a fairly simple and easy to understand example: That of reading this article. As your eyes scan over the words in this paragraph, they succade from one group of letters to the next, pausing and glimpsing briefly each group of four or five letters. Your eyes do this many times each second and yet you’re barely aware of them moving at all. Each succade pauses long enough for your retinal rods and cones to respond to the pattern of light which makes up those few letters in the detailed area of your retina, roughly a syllable’s worth. Some patches of your retina (the ones focused on the white page) get more light than others (the ones focused on the black characters), and thus they are more electrochemically excited than others.

A pattern matching system in your visual processing centres examine these differing excitation levels and looks for patterns in the differences between them. Neurologists have studied this first level well and understand it in great depth, practically drawing circuit diagrams of the neurons of many animals. Some clusters of neurons look for lines, others for patches of colour, others for boundaries. This, we could say, is the first intuition processed: Recognising the patterns in the light hitting your retina and turning it into information which describes and reflects how lines and shapes are orientated compared to your eye.

More deeply into your mind, more clusters of neurons examine those lines and shapes. After much hard work learning to do so, many repitions of a teacher pointing at a letter and verbalising a sound, your brain begins to notice patterns in those lines and shapes. They begin to recognise individual letters. You learn to recognise the “r” in “recognise”, and see it as different from the “d” in different.

As you learn to read, after many many hours of practice, your brain begins to learn to recognise the patterns in the order of those letters. It develops in intuition that some permeations represent words like “represent”, and thus you eventually learn to read whole words.

By the time you started reading you will have already spent a few years teaching other parts of your brain how to intuitively recognise the way words fit into patterns based on a grammar. Human beings are much more naturally talented at this than reading. In leaning language you’ll have already started to recognise words and associate each word with real life things, actions or superlatives.

Now none of these pattern recognition systems, these intuitions, are 100% infallible. Indeed, each level is fairly error prone. The visual field is a noisy place, changes in lighting and the angle of your head as you read are constantly altering the pattern of light falling on your retina. The lines and shapes built in your mind from them are often mistaken and wrong. You suffer from visual illusions of all kinds. The actual words written are prone to human error; spelling mistakes ill formed and irregular grammar.

However, the hierarchy itself can perform error correction functions, the data being received and transmitted at each stage can help the stages above and below because these too are part of the pattern that you learn to intuitively recognise.

For example, if you look at the first letter in the word “Ant” written in scrawly handwriting or partially obscured by a light reflection, your visual system may find it hard to tell the down-sloped line on the right hand side of that letter. Perhaps it mistakenly signals that it can see an up-sloping line. Instead of /-\, the letter A, it signals /-/.

Now your letter recognition system will fail to recognise anything. This is not a letter. But like Hebbian networks, your intuitive learning system gives more information than this. It settles into the closest learned pattern. It doesn’t say, “That’s not a letter” it says “That’s a bit like the letter A”. Now that your line-recognition system knows it’s supposed to be a letter A, it can correct itself and turn that up-slope signal into the down-slope signal it now expects. In other words, the letter recognition system is sending signals back down a layer to the line recognition system, correcting it’s mistaken interpretation.

Likewise, if the line recognition systems saw two vertical lines rather than sloping lines, |-| instead of /-\ then the letter recognition systems would think they saw a letter H. However the word recognition network would think this unlikely. There is no word “Hnt”. Though this does resemble “Ant”. That information can be sent back down the hierarchy to suggest a letter A. In turn that suggests the upward then downward sloping lines. Like seeing the Rubins Cube flip over, your visual system will interpret all the information is has available, not just the lines but the fact these lines are expected to fit a shape which fits a letter which fits a word which fits a sentence. All these things can change the result, can change what you actually see. This is why optical illusions are so powerful. They actually influence the signals that your low-level neurons are sending. They actually change what you see!

The inputs to each pattern recognition unit in your brain include the outputs of layers below and above. Your brain is not only looking for a pattern, but a pattern in a given context.

You can see how this reduces error and pulls the signal from the noise.

Of course this hierarchy of intuition doesn’t just apply to reading the word “Ant”. It applies to all your intuitions from knowing how to catch our proverbial ball through to playing a guitar or feeling slightly nervous around dogs.


As this example makes clear, most intuition is entirely subconscious. As you’re reading these words you aren’t usually aware of your eyes succading across the page, of the lines and shapes that form the letters, of the letters which make up each word, even of the words themselves. You’re usually just aware of the meaning of the sentences.

In general, we’re more aware of higher level intuitions than lower level ones.

As a result, when people talk about their intuition, about being intuitive, they are usually not talking about how well they recognise letters or fit words into a gramitical structure in order to understand them. They are usually talking about high level intuitions, near the top of this intuitive hierarchy. Things like trust and nervousness and seeing the deep implications of social interactions. These higher level intuitions are just as difficult to describe and explain as lower level ones. An ‘intuitive’ person can usually no more explain how they know that a given person is sleeping around, or that some other person is lying, or that this particular alley way is dangerous in the dark and should be avoided, than they can explain how they recognise the angle between two straight lines. Generally they’ll say “I just know” or confabulate some excuse, or simply ask you to call it an intuition. They can’t usually tell you which lower-level pattern matchings were generating this partial pattern which, when completed, and given the other surrounding patterns in the hierarchy, imply distrust or infidelity or violence.

There’s no doubt that evolution has primed your intuitions to be more likely to learn some things than others. To more easily learn to fear snakes than fluffy bunnies. To more easily learn to trust smiles than frowns. Your intuitions certainly also work slightly differently for pattern matching sounds than landscapes, physics is learned differently than sociology. It’s important to notice though that all these intuitions, especially your higher level more conscious intuition, is a learned response. Like all learned responses, it can be trained, practised, altered and improved or reduced as required.

Next week we’ll look into ways to improve your awareness of these higher level intuitions, how to pay better attention to the patterns which your need to use to train your brain on in order to improve your intuition.

Cognition – Intuition – Becoming More Intuitive

by pre., Friday, February 20th, 2009.

Last week we described how simple Hebbian-like learning networks are arranged hierarchically in your brain to recognise and categorise patterns. Points of light in your retina are grouped into shapes and lines and colours, these groups and patterns recognised to show form and recognise objects or letters. These can be further grouped and matched to previous experiences to judge further details, words and individuals and moods etc. We noted that people are in general only really aware, really conscious, of the higher level intuitions, those that let us know (often without really knowing how we know) about trust or fear or motivation. It’s these higher level pattern recognition systems which are usually referred to when someone mentions their intuition.

Improving Your Intuition

Your intuitions have doubtless been honed by millions of years of evolution to learn some things more easily than others: To fear snakes and spiders more quickly than you fear rabbits and kittens, or likewise to learn quickly that large-headed infants are cuter than spiky cacti etc. However your intuitions still need to actually learn and like all learned responses, they can be honed and improved by practice and experience. Particularly if paying full attention and giving your full focus to the process of forming that intuition. Our meditation next week is designed to help you do just this.

Of course it’s difficult to practice using your intuition for anything other than meditating while you are practising a ten minute meditation. Intuitions are formed out in the real world, from acting and living and experiencing life all around you. However, you can bring that world into your meditation through memory (re-visualisation) and through imagination (pre-visualisation). Our meditation will do this, it will encourage you to remember or project a situation in which your intuition is working well and to pay attention to and focus on that visualisation.

By listening to and thinking-along-with the mediation you will also be encouraged to pay attention to your intuition in life, to think about it more often during the normal waking world and thus to spend more time honing and developing it during the time when you’re not listening to our meditation.

How it works

You’ll be asked to imagine or remember some time when your intuition was particularly strong. To focus on all the details that you remember (or project) of that situation, the colours and shapes of the relevent objects in your environment, the feelings and associations produced by those objects, the way your brain responded to those stimuli. As many of the details as you can think of for it’s these details which have fed up through the hierarchy of intuitions into the most conscious and pertinent higher levels.

You’ll do this for most of the meditation. Trying to get your mind into the same state it was in when you had that intuition, then you’ll be asked to examine why you felt that way, to look inwards at your own mind, apply your intuitive learning systems to your own intuition.

By doing this you’ll be able to contemplate the state of your mind at the time your intuition was at it’s best. This will help you to learn (again, in a catch-a-ball way rather than a book-learning way) exactly how your intuition works and that in turn will enable your mind to automatically adjust to improve it’s accuracy, relevance and self-understanding.


Next week, before finally presenting this month’s Guided Meditation, we’ll discuss the pitfalls of intuitive thinking. The mistakes it can make, the false-positive patterns it can recognise and ways that you can de-program yourself to remove these false-positive pattern recognitions.

Cognition – Intuition – Stereotypes

by pre., Friday, February 27th, 2009.

You have learned how repetition, practice and exposure to a pattern can build recognition systems in your brain, and that we call these ‘intuitions’. Of course, sometimes you can find yourself exposed to false correlation. For example if you happen to come across a really obnoxious and horrible guy who happens to have a certain set of facial expressions, you may come to associate those facial expressions with obnoxiousness, just through seeing those expressions and that guy together lots of times. Then some other guy with similar facial expressions but who’s perfectly nice comes into your life and every time you’re around him you get a creepy feeling that he’s horrible.

It doesn’t always even take many repetitions, especially if a strong emotional response is involved. If you’re bitten by the first dog you ever come across you may well find a fear of dogs develops almost instantly in just one exposure since the intense fear and pain of the bite can cause the Long Term Potentiation to set quick and hard. Just a single exposure builds this pattern of association and you can find yourself saddled with a phobia, for the rest of time without treatment.

These problems are quite enough you would think, but on top of this the human species is a deeply verbal species. Just by the power of words we can evoke experiences in each other’s head. You don’t even need to actually be exposed to an object in reality at all to find you’ve built intuitions about that object just from the words and attitudes of those around you. Just from constant association between an object and negative emotional responses when talking about an object, person or group you can find you’ve built up prejudices against or for those objects without even directly experiencing them. If you see enough plane crashes on TV then your first experience on a plane may fill you with debilitating fear. Often the strongest racists are people who’ve never met a person in the ethnic group they revile, let alone known one well. They pick up the associations through the language and behaviour of those around them, most of whom may not have met the relevent people either.

All these things, these systems for building intuitions, build up stereotypes in your mind.

The word “Stereotype” will have no doubt fired negative associations in your mind already. The word is most often used in connection with false relationships, with over-broad generalisations, with racism and classism, snobbery and religious intolerance. The truth is though that all thinking is stereotypical thinking. When you think “All mice are mammals”, or “All guitars are string instruments” or “All books have pages” you’re using the facts you know about an object’s membership of a group to conclude facts about the object itself. Those three examples were of true stereotypes, which are a useful and logical way to think about the world. At least until you get your first eBook, with no pages at all.

However, as your stereotype of the word stereotype will have already implied to you, often your intuitive stereotypes are not true. It’s not true that all people with certain features are horrible. It’s not true that all dogs should inspire fear. Just about any racist statement you care to make simply doesn’t hold water.

Stereotypical thinking is good and useful when the stereotypes are true but false and very misleading when they are false.

Recognising False Intuitions

There is no easy way to know when your intuition about something is right or wrong. The very brain that you are using to judge the intuition is, by definition, a brain which will agree that the intuition is true. However, you will sometimes notice that two contradictory intuitions have formed in your head. Or you may be able to use logic and reason to conclude that some belief that you have formed is untrue or unproductive. Or your trusted friends may convince you that you are mistaken.

Often that very acknowledgement of that contradiction, logical impossibility or convincing argument will be enough to erase the false intuition from your mind. However some false intuitions may be more stubborn. Particularly phobias or strong dislikes can be difficult to shift simply by acknowledging them. You could know that spiders are mostly completely harmless, but this alone may not stop the fear from forming when you find one in the bath with you.

Removing Bad Stereotypes

The meditation we are about to introduce is designed to help you improve your intuitions, but often the most useful improvement you can make is to remove an old irrelevant or untrue intuition rather than building or improving a new one. Often the best way to increase your confidence of your intuitions is to reduce their rate of error.

The following meditation can be used to try and remove false intuitions as well as to improve good ones. It will ask you to remember, or imagine, some time when you felt an intuition strongly which turned out to be correct. If you’re attempting to remove an untrue intuition, instead think of exceptions to your rule. If you’re afraid of spiders, remember (or imagine) times when you dealt with spiders harmlessly. If you’re afraid of the dark or distrust foreigners, try to think of nice things which happen in the dark, or trusted yet foreign friends. If you tend to suffer from unthinking deference to authority, recall times you trusted that authority figure, be they a doctor or a politician or a policeman, and they turned out to be lying to you, seeking their own advantage or just plain dumb and wrong.

As you examine your state of mind when you were in that situation, turn DOWN the volume of your intuition rather than turning it UP.

This Month’s Meditation

Our meditation this month will help you to improve your intuitions, to build pattern recognition systems which will help you operate in the world more effectively, and to increase your confidence and trust of those intuitions.

You’ll be asked to think of, or imagine, some time when you were particularly astute, when you noticed some fact before all your friends or acquaintances. When you were perhaps doubtful of your own experience but turned out to be wrong. You’ll recall that event in as much detail as possible, really powerfully re-activating the neurons involved in that experience and so increasing the Long Term Potentiation between them. Strengthening the network, improving both the pattern recognition system itself and your confidence in it.

In the second half you’ll continue to visualise and relive that experience, but vary some irrelevant details. Details which make no part of the pattern, details which are just distracting and unhelpful. Thereby you’ll be ensuring that only the relevent parts of that intuition are built up rather than, say, associating the colour of the carpet with your intuition rather than the salient details.

Guided Meditation File 13 – Cognition Intuition
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Cognition – Reason – Reason

by pre., Friday, November 6th, 2009.

This month’s topic is “Reason”, perhaps the congnitive power that most differentiates the human animal from the rest of the species on the globe. If there’s one thing that people do which other animals fail to do, one thing that differentiates and transcends us most from the animal horde, it’s the human being’s power of reason.

Oh, sure, other animals do some amount of reasoning. A crow may figure out that it can bend a wire into a hook to retrieve something from deep within a glass, a chimp may use the powers of reason to tempt termites from their home to use them as a tasty snack, but these things are remarkable precisely because they are so rare. No animal seems to have such a good understanding of it’s environment, the way the world works, that they can as a matter of course plan and plot and build tools and devices to further their goals in quite the same way that human beings across the spectrum of intelligence do as part of their normal regular every-day existence.

The seat of reason in human beings is, it’s thought, in the prefrontal cortex. It’s this area that allows you to pause and think before you act, to plan complex cognitive behaviours, aid in decision making and orchestrate your thoughts and actions. It’s where problem solving happens, and no other species alive on the planet has one even half as big as yours. The transcendental evolutionary path human beings have taken over the few million years since we split from the rest of the primates has, in a very real sense, been one focused on extending that prefrontal cortex, enlarging it and thus giving you massively increased powers of reason. It allows you to learn from experience, and to reason about what you have learned.

Eliezer Yudkowsky descirbes reason as the utimate super power, saying that “The user of this ability contains a smaller, imperfect echo of the entire universe, enabling them to search out paths through probability to any desired future.

When you use your powers of reason, you are experimenting in your model of the universe, this allows you to try many different approaches to solving a problem without lifting a finger, you can know without even trying which solutions may work, which certainly won’t. You can formulate a plan, devise a strategy, generally figure out how to proceed without having to rely on pre-built instincts and impulses.

Reason is truly a super-power which most of the animal kingdom lacks entirely, and only homo sapiens has really mastered.

Learning to use this super power more effectively should, we can reason, help even more.

Symbolic Nature

The “echo of the entire universe” which Eliezer mentions is, of course, not a physical universe somehow mirrored in your brain. Your mind does not manipulate real things to plot and scheme a solution to some problem. When you pull up a chair to stand on in order to reach a high shelf you haven’t manipulated an actual chair in order to devise your strategy. The echo of the universe which is held within your skull is a virtual universe, a symbolic universe. Your plan was hatched not by experimenting with a chair, but by understanding what a chair is, and how it behaves. The chair in your mind is not physical but symbolic. It’s a model of a chair.

Which brings us to the first requirement for useful reasoning: your model must be accurate. If your model of a chair indicates that stepping on it will cause it to collapse, you will not see that you are able to use it to gain the height needed to reach that shelf. If your model of a wire indicates it can’t be bent then it will not occur to you to try and fashion a hook with it. In order for reason to be at it’s most reasonable, you need to understand how things work, to have a good representation of the universe in your head, for your echo of reality to be founded in truth.

How can your mind best do this? It requires several mental skills, many of which we have already been improving:

The basic reasoning skills


In order to build a good model of a wire, or a chair, or a friend, or a political system, you must be able to remember your encounters with them. In order to hold a representation of the universe in your mind you must be able to remember it. All reasoning is based on symbols, and those symbols have to be remembered, their existence, their meaning, their functions and properties all have to be stored in the synapses of your mind somehow.


It’s not enough just to remember though, you must also be able to classify objects. There’s no point remembering that a chair you encountered as a child was able to support your weight and so increase your reach if that chair is back at your childhood home. You need to be able to tell that all chairs have this ability, these functions. You need to be able to assign those properties not to one specific wire or chair but to all objects in that class. Only then will your model of the universe be general enough to reason with.


You need to not only be able to classify objects, but also to know which properties of those objects are common to all instances and which are specific to an individual object. You need to be able to extrapolate those properties from one instance of a class to the other examples of that class which share those properties. You need to be able to figure out which chairs are tall enough to reach that shelf, which wires are both bendy enough and solid enough to build a hook.


When an instance of a class of things is not available, it’s useful to be able to spot things which are analogous to that class. If there are no chairs, perhaps a box will do? Or a table? The power of analogy is an incredibly important part of the reasoning process. When is one thing enough like another thing to be used for the same functions?

Some would argue that since no two events in spacetime are the same as each other, all reasoning must be by analogy. This collision of two billiard balls isn’t quite the same as that one, they’re in different places with different velocities at different times, but they’re analogous to each other. All thinking is analogy, comparing like with like, capturing what they have in common.


The language, the symbols, the model of the world in which you operate contains a thing called “Boolean logic”. You understand what is meant by the words “And”, “Or” and “Not”. These things, these logical operations, these symbolic connectors, are abstractions. They are not items, physical objects which are present in the universe for you to observe. Yet the rules of logic are undeniably a part of the world that your internal echo reflects. It really is true that if there are two people in a field, there must be at least one person in that field. It sounds trivial, it is trivial, but it’s worth noting that the world really does work that way. And so should your model of it. If your proposed solution to a problem defies logic, it will never work. You can use logic to rule out whole areas of solutions which can not possibly work. Improving your logic improves your model because the world really does operate that way.


If you observe that there is a chair available, you can infer several things about that chair by knowing what properties other things in the same class have. A chair will have a part which is higher off the ground than other parts. It will be solid enough to support your weight. Being able to infer the physical properties of an object just by knowing it’s symbol is invalueable

Stepping out of the system

These mental skills, and likely others like them, combine to allow you to represent the entire universe symbolically in the firing patterns and connections of neural cells in your brain. It is a fantastic feat. It is worth noting that the powers of reason allow us to do things that a being which only reacts reflexively, which doesn’t have such a model, cannot. To model impossible worlds.

Douglas Hofstadter, in Gödel, Escher, Bach, shows us how reasoning is about more than any of these things, it’s the combination of all of them. He says “Logic is done inside a system while reason is done outside the system by such methods as skipping steps, working backward, drawing diagrams, looking at examples, or seeing what happens if you change the rules of the system.“.

He suggests that reason is about understanding and modelling not just a world governed by logic, but logic itself. To go further even than that, and model the system which can model logic. The further up this tree of understanding and re-representing the universe you climb, the better your reason will be.

Many of the best lines of reasoning have this property, they take a step back and analyse not just the problem at hand, but the reason the problem exists, the world in which it’s formed. If you can find some way to solve whole classes of problems then this cached result can be used over and over again when other examples of the same difficulty arise. You only had to figure out how to stand on a chair once, and that result gives you a new tool for all future similar problems

The Meditation

Over the next few weeks we’ll look more deeply into some ways to practice and improve your reasoning ability. We’ll finish with a lucid dream which will encourage you to examine your reasoning abilities, to improve each of the skills mentioned above, and more, by introspection on your internal representation of the universe, the echo of the world which you experience as you dream.

Cognition – Reason – Brain Training

by pre., Friday, November 13th, 2009.

Last week we briefly listed some of the basic mental skills on which reason is based. Improving any one of those skills will likely lead to better reasoning abilities. The obvious question is then, how do you improve those skills?


If you’ve been reading the entire course, you won’t be surprised to find that our answer is practice. In order to improve your memory, you need to practice memorising. In order to become better at categorisation, you need to categorise things. In order to extrapolate more efficiently, you need to extrapolate more often. In order to become better at analogous thinking, you need to do it more. In order to improve your logic, you need to practise your logic skills. In order to get better at inference, you need to infer more often.

To really radically improve your reasoning skills, you need to practice all these sub-skills, and you need to practice reasoning itself.


Perhaps the best way to do this is to study. You know, like you did in school. Read and think and learn as much as you can. Go audit some classes at your local university. Turn on the Open University TV shows. Find out what’s on special offer at the Teaching Company and download some lectures. Maybe even go back to school!

Read a book!

If the Open University isn’t showing anything right now, turn off the TV and read a book.

The more you learn, the more you investigate and study the world around you, the better your reasoning skills will become. The Buddhist monks may think they can achieve enlightenment and transcendence by meditating in a cave, no doubt some amount of meditation is useful, but to really practice your reasoning you’ll need to get out of your cave and explore the world, though experience of course and also through learning about other’s experiences and thoughts.

The species has come as far as it has, has become as enlightened as it has, through the transfer of knowledge from one being to the next, the cumulative gathering of the salient experience of millions of people is gathered at your local library. Use it! To not do so is to be wilfully ignorant. Hardly a transcended trait.

Brain Training

Many of the subskills listed last week can be practised with the help of modern machinery, it’s even fun and entertaining to play the various brain training games now on offer.

There have even been some preliminary scientific results suggest that they work, both for school kids and the more elderly.

These studies are just preliminary though. While there’s every reason to believe practising these skills will improve your ability at the skills practised, it may be that these skills are less transferable to life outside the game than we imagine. More work is needed.

We hope that our guided meditation, our lucid dream, this month will help to improve your motivation to do these things, to seek out new experiences and learn as much as you can. For the dream word can only teach you about your dream world. You can practice logic and memory while you sleep, but true grounded reason is only found in waking reality.