I have long been frustrated with people saying things like “there is no such thing as the self”, “the ego is a delusion”, etc. I finally have a way of explaining what these people are talking about, using the framework of predictive processing.
The reason people speak in this frustrating, confused language is, I think, is that they are indeed experiencing a real thing, but they don’t really understand the computational underpinnings behind the real thing they are experiencing. The predictive processing framework of whole brain activity makes it much easier to explain, in plain language, what the hell people are talking about when they say they ‘have no sense of self’ or that they ‘see the illusory nature of the ego’.
In plain language, you can phrase what they are saying as, “Your sense of self is computed, and your brain doesn’t need to compute that sense of self in most situations.”
Sitting long enough in meditation will change your brain, increasing the resolution with which you can see the processes running in your brain in real time. Once you see your brain’s activity in sufficiently high resolution, it’s possible for you to experience, concretely, “the notion of me is just another process in my brain.”
That realization makes it easier for your brain to relax the ‘ego’ process, and stop computing it automatically. More and more often, in the course of my day, i’ll realize “i’m egoing right now but i don’t need to”. Whenever that happens, it’s like a sigh of relief. My brain lets go of this idea that I exist, and I just enjoy, peacefully, whatever is happening.
You probably weren’t paying attention to your toes just now, were you? Yes your toes are real. Of course they exist, but you don’t need to think about them all the time. Occasionally, they enter your awareness. But most of the time, you basically tune them out. I think you can get to a place where your sense that you exist, and pursue rewards and avoid threats, and some people like you and some people don’t, that this sense is basically like that of your toes – usually irrelevant. And it feels great!
Your Sense of Self is Computed
Close your eyes and wiggle your fingers. You can feel that you have a hand, right? You can feel roughly where all of the fingers are, how hot they are, how cold they are, and whether they are touching anything.
How are you feeling your hand? The obvious answer is ‘through your nerves’. But what kinds of signals are the nerves actually conveying? For example, can your nerves tell you how big your hand is? Or how small it is? Nope. The nerves in your hand are indeed sending signals to your brain. But those signals are not enough to make you feel that you have a hand. Your brain has to compute your hand!
You feel that you have a hand because your brain is computing this belief of yours. Your brain has in it a three-dimensional model of space, as well as a model of the rough shape and size of your hand. Your brain maps the signals from the nerves in your hand, onto the existing model. This “top down prediction” activity is what the predictive processing model of the brain tells us is happening.
Through sitting long enough in meditation, and getting better at relaxing, i’ve had increasing numbers of experiences which map onto what I’ve heard described by many meditation teachers and spiritual leaders as being ‘no self’ or ‘ego loss’. There’s nothing new here; what I think is new – and hopefully helpful to others – is an attempt to explain these experiences using predictive processing.
Once you get that your feelings about yourself, your relative safety and comfort and status and value and worth, etc, that these are all computed, you can start to ask the question ‘what happens if you stop computing your ego?
And the answer is: you have a lot more computational resources, and you’re less likely to trigger self-protecting networks, so you feel better!
Your Don’t Always Need to Compute Yourself
I find my job the most stressful when i’m constantly evaluating everything in terms of whether or not it’ll get me fired or promoted.
I LOVE my job when i get lost in the code, in the abstractions, when my focus is just on the problem itself, and how to solve it.
That sensation (called ‘flow’) is often described as ‘a person being so focused on an activity that their sense of self merges with it’. Predictive processing offers a simple explanation for what flow is: operating with a conceptual map that doesn’t include “you” in it.
You could say that we experience flow when we don’t compute our own egos, because our sense of ‘self’ is not part of the operating conceptual map, which now merely includes the task at hand. Predictive processing also explains why flow feels good and why ego is painful: it’s computationally expensive, and it’s tied to threat responses.
When my coworker Jay asks me “what will happen to the wizzentrap if we stop oblating the dinglehoppers”, if i’ve got “me”, in my current conceptual map, my brain has to update a bunch of details in the model, like:
- Jay wants ME to do something
- If I do what jay wants ME to do, he will like ME more and that makes ME slightly more likely to get promoted
- If I do a bad job of what Jay wants ME to do, he will like ME less and that makes ME slightly more likely to lose my job or not get promoted
- Jay is waiting on ME for an answer and if I don’t respond soon enough HE will think i’m screwing around on the internet and think i’m LAZY and ..
Because our brain’s number one job is survival, I responded to Jay’s question about the wizzentrap with a network meant to protect me from violent predators. It’s silly when you think about it, but it’s really unpleasant when it happens to you.
Ask yourself: are those tiny updates really that necessary? Or is it true that, as long as your decently sociable, most of the time, autopilot is fine, and being self conscious just makes you act weird and edgy?
Without a notion of “me” being part of my operating conceptual map, my brain has more bandwidth to simply answer the question, because it’s not computing slight tweaks to probabilities of distant, hard to predict, low probability, high risk and reward outcomes.
The reality is that as long as I’m putting in a decent amount of effort, i’m very unlikely to lose my job. If i’m putting in decent effort for personal growth and development, i’ll eventually get promoted, regardless of what else happens. With a ton of effort I could maybe move the timeline up, but a lot of this stuff is just theater around tenure and social maturity.
The only thing the ‘me’ concept adds, while working, is occasional hints on things like posture or body language, etc. But if you’ve trained yourself to be decently socially amiable, none of this stuff is really that important, and so doesn’t need to be computed in real time. The result is that your brain can stop updating hardwired probabilities that represent something like “what are the chances that i will be killed violently” – because those probabilities are basically irrelevant in most of your day to day life.
It really is liberating!