Friday 7 August 2015

Shinzen Young's take on technological aids to meditation

Shinzen Young has pondered on the usefulness of technological aids to meditation:

He posits four assumptions to simplify the discussion.  Embedded in these assumptions is the idea that there are switches in the brain that can turn off and on or dim the self makes me uneasy.  This seems to push the concept of neural correlates for states of mind a tad too far.  I would hold, along with many theorists in cognitive science (Clark, O'Reilly, Chalmers, Hutto, Chemero, Varella, Thompson, Noe), that the mind is more than the brain, that it is extended, situated, enacted and embodied and includes language, cultural and social practices, tools and technology.  Why is this relevant and not just a quibble?  Because working on the brain in abstraction without taking all these extensions into consideration will not likely lead to the kind of results that Shinzen Young foresees.  

I appreciate that he sees that the "conceptual content" of practice is one of the necessary components of a technological approach to aiding meditation.  I have noticed in my experiences with clinical neurofeedback that people sometimes just want to fix their brains without altering their approach to life and what perpetuates the dysfunction that led them to seek treatment.  Similarly, with meditation, it is essential to alter perspectives and attitudes.  Traditionally sila (wholesome conduct) is the foundation of the path to liberation.  The "techno-boosts" that he talks about are potentially accelerants rather than replacements of meditation practice.

I am not sure that lesions (even reversible ones) are the path to arhatship, and zapping the brain (as opposed to measuring it and getting feedback) does not appeal to me.  Whatever technologies we use for aiding meditation should be well-understood and safe.  The virtue of biofeedback in general and EEG neurofeedback in particular is that they have been around for a long time, they are non-invasive and, even when unwanted effects occur (and they can), they can be easily reversed or the effects simply fade away with time if they are not reinforced.

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