Feb 22, 2019

All the Serotonin You Ever Need

You can engineer your inner mental world to produce more of the neurochemicals you want. This is what enlightened people have managed to do.

What are "tranquility," "equanimity," and "mindfulness" if not a cocktail of serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and other chemicals? — in combination with particular neural structures, of course. One without the other doesn't produce the whole effect.

Let's take serotonin as an example. Serotonin levels depend largely on the amount of respect you receive. Let's unpack this logically and find the hidden opportunity to switch on the inner fountain of serotonin in each of us.

Let's suppose you were a programmer tasked with programming serotonin-like pathways into a robot to get it to think and behave like a human. Your thinking might go like this:

Hm... I need to get this robot to evaluate respect and disrespect that is directed towards it. On a purely sensory level there are no signals that directly correspond to respect, so we're taking about a higher-order level of information processing. Much higher, actually. 
But the outside world itself is also an abstraction to the mental processing of the robot. The robot first has to be able to discern different entities or actors and keep them separate from itself, which is also a higher-order level of information processing. It has to then be able to perceive how much and what kind of respect these entities give each other, and compare that with what they give the robot. 
So what we actually want is a comparison mechanism on top of an entity separation mechanism and a 'respect signal identification' mechanism... 
But that's not quite enough to make it humanlike, because any negative outcome from a comparison would immediately send the robot into a permanent downward spiral where they behave as if they had less serotonin, receive less respect as a result, and then have even less serotonin. 
What we're missing here is a self-image. The self-image will be a kind of story or narrative constructed by the robot indicating how much respect it should be receiving based on past experience. Now the robot can compare how much respect it is receiving to how much it is supposed to receive based on the narrative of the self-image. 
This way, if the robot generally receives little respect, it can get used to it and be 'satisfied' enough with the situation to continue functioning with a low, but not too low, level of serotonin. Or, if it typically receives lots of respect, it can habituate to that respect and remain vigilant to possible threats to its status by not generating far too much serotonin.

So now we're already talking about four high-level processes:

1. entity separation, i.e. "I am not You, Him, or It."
2. respect signal identification, e.g. "She quickly looked away as soon as I opened my mouth."
3. comparison, e.g. "He smiled at her 5 times but never smiled at me."
4. self-image, e.g. "He should have smiled at me because... "

Notice that spiritual paths leading to enlightenment, union with the divine, or whatever else you want to call it reprogram these processes on a deep level. That's how they "trick" the body into producing neurochemicals when there is no "objective" (haha) basis for doing so.

Let's look at how these four processes can be undercut:

Vipassana, or "Insight" meditation teaches you to become aware of the lowest possible levels of sensory processing, undercutting process #2. You realize that "respect" is a complete mental fabrication based on multiple layers of interpretation. Cognitive-behavioral therapy and other modalities may be able to produce similar insights.

Disidentification with the false self, the "self-image," is an almost inevitable result of any genuine spiritual practice, undercutting process #4. If "I" is simply "awareness" or "aliveness" apart from all mental-emotional content, then that "I" is entirely immune to the vagaries of life.

Insight into "no-self," typically considered the foundational insight necessary for enlightenment, totally undercuts process #1. If my "I" is "awareness" and your "I" is also awareness — and the same awareness as "my" awareness, — and if I really believe that (not just as an interesting intellectual concept), then this whole idea of individuals exchanging signals of respect becomes an amusing game of appearances.

All this spiritual awakening, however, doesn't stop physiological systems from functioning. The body obviously continues to produce and depend on neurochemicals. However, the deep mental processing that tells the body how much serotonin to produce will have changed.

Here's what that processing might look like:

I am in me, I am in you and in everything. I give my "self" attention, which is the same as respect. Status and hierarchy are games of form which have no lasting significance. Today you have one status, tomorrow another. The status my physical form currently enjoys has nothing to do with me. I am awareness observing this game and acknowledging all awareness. Nothing can harm that awareness. I am invulnerable and invincible.

Some readers may be able to entertain these thoughts in their intellect. But for the nuerochemical systems to actually respond to them and start spitting out all the serotonin you ever need, you'd actually have to believe and accept this way of thinking on the deepest possible level. If you feel like, "well, those statements are interesting, but they're really not true, and I don't want to trick myself into believing things that are false," then you're clearly not there yet.

4 comments:

Ibrahim Tencer said...

>Some readers may be able to entertain these thoughts in their intellect. But for the nuerochemical systems to actually respond to them and start spitting out all the serotonin you ever need, you'd actually have to believe and accept this way of thinking on the deepest possible level. If you feel like, "well, those statements are interesting, but they're really not true, and I don't want to trick myself into believing things that are false," then you're clearly not there yet.

But isn't that what you've done here? If you think spiritual awakening is just a way to "trick" yourself (or your brain) then you've got it backwards. All this stuff about serotonin and brain signals is the real illusion.

Ричард said...

>> If you think spiritual awakening is just a way to "trick" yourself (or your brain) then you've got it backwards.

Or could it be the other way around? Using the plausibility of brain chemicals and the prospect of greater well-being to goad the mind into allowing awakening?

Ibrahim Tencer said...

Well, you can try it and let me know how it goes. :)

I don't know anyone who has truly awoken without it also having a deep impact on their worldview. It's not just about feeling good.

Ричард said...

I agree with you. But awakeness comes in at least as many varieties as there are types (in addition to facets and degrees), so let's not discount varieties that look surprisingly like "just feeling really good" simply because we both place such high value on philosophy / worldview.

This isn't the place to share experiences, but there may be a time and place for that. I myself am in a certain process. This post is a collection of some insights I've had, not necessarily a description of the process itself.