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The free energy of impermanence
The invention of the stereoscope and the inevitable demise of all viewpoints
The shine fades. The light dims. The fire loses its warmth. The cloud dissipates in the sky. It’s a strange and frustrating fact about life—given enough time, everything seems to stop being that good. It’s a bane for the psychology of happiness and a core teaching for the Buddhists. But a grounded explanation still eludes us as to why minds simply cannot find rest in the way things are.
A partial explanation for this fact, I think, may reside in an unlikely place… in the dusty-dark corridors of a psychophysics lab. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to spend time in such an inhumane place, you’ll know that it’s something akin to a digital torture chamber hidden in the deep underground of old university buildings. Most don’t even know these chambers exist.
There, first-year students are forced to exchange their biologics for grades in order to manufacture 1s and 0s for obscure papers about the flashy movements of tiny circles and diamonds. Phenomena which no human has otherwise ever encountered; and certainly not while choked by a metal brace and having their eyelids all but stapled to their foreheads.
For hours at a time, these new adults have their consciousness prodded and poked by young researchers, who themselves are undergoing the even more tormenting tribulation of solitary confinement; where they nevertheless have to be productive. Not even jails condemn criminals to work while they’re being isolated.
The ‘laboratories’ are not fitted with beds but with Frankenstein chin-rests, chairs with uncomfortable right angles, blacked-out windows, soundproof caging, and a few shiny dots of light that dance around one of the last remaining fully functional and mysteriously fast 90s desktops running Linux. It’s worth noting that no screams could be heard from within.
Deep inside some of these time-warps akin to the hyperbolic chambers of Dragon Ball Z without the physical improvements subsequent; select labs contain the instrument of interest. The contraption is composed of just a few mirrors and some pieces of wood, not much bigger than two shoe boxes. The device, called a stereoscope, was invented in 1838 by a Sir Charles Wheatstone, a philosopher, who probably wore a monocle, with an apparently excellent intuition for the dynamics of conscious experience. The invention is often rebuilt by hand by a part IT part carpenter guru who actually appears to live in the mazes underground.
[left: a stereoscope. Right: Sir C. Wheatstone]
The stereoscope would go on to be one of the quintessential methods for revealing the uncanniness of the construction of perception by the human brain and land high-impact papers in important journals throughout time. The only exchange was an immense hero’s journey into the ‘great beneath’ of college buildings where dragons of loneliness, doubt, and imposter syndrome lurked awaiting their feast.
But to the point:
What is a stereoscope? A stereoscope is used to induce a fascinating perceptual experience in subjects known as binocular rivalry. I’ve used it myself in various experiments during my post-doctoral research in Amsterdam (see here). However, for my own well-being, I won’t elaborate further on my personal experiences in the chambers. This piece is highly philosophical (cope).
Binocular rivalry occurs because we use the contraption with the mirrors (see above) to present different images to each eye of the subject peering through it. This leads to something very odd. In ordinary life, when you look around, both of your eyes almost always receive similar information. For example, if you’re looking at a sunset, both of your eyes see the rays of light from which you can determine the idea of a sun.
To understand how the stereoscope works, just imagine wearing sunglasses. Although your glasses have two lenses, the light hitting both lenses is mostly coming from the same place. If you look out a car window, both your eyes see the car. The stereoscope allows us to mess with that. It allows us to present one lens with a sunset, and the other with say… a donkey.
That’s an extremely confusing situation for the brain. Now your eyes are receiving the input of two different realities at the same time. It begins to wonder (it doesn’t actually wonder it just hums and buzzes): “Am I seeing a donkey or a sunset!?” It can’t be both! There are never two totally different realities in the same location. It has to be either a damn sun or a donkey.
The brain then essentially freaks out but resolves this conflict between the sun and the donkey by only allowing you to see one of the two. But it can’t resolve the issue completely, so it keeps switching between them. First a sun, then a donkey, then a sun again (and sometimes, briefly, a mix of the two), and so on. Essentially, madness ensues.
The great god of all things unholy—“psychophysics”—has won again.
So the brain deals with the confusion of two competing perspectives by selecting just one of the coherent versions at a time. But the other coherent perspective is still there competing for your conscious awareness of it. Neither ‘perception’ is really more accurate than the other.
The brain’s guessing-game fails in the face of such an unusual reality; like a lost tribe encountering a helicopter, the brain starts shooting arrows of possible perspectives at the confusing stimulus.
What makes binocular rivalry so popular in consciousness research is that it reveals just how constructed our conscious experience is. Binocular rivalry conclusively demonstrates that perception is not based solely on the ‘world’ out there, but based on an interpretation of what might be out there, or should be out there, given what we know. It’s a challenge for all who are not representationalists.
We are, as it were, fumbling around our very own organic virtual reality constructed via a prediction machine known as a brain and a body. It’s a humbling revelation. Scientists like Professor Anil Seth have called this a controlled hallucination. Buddhists have called it a magician’s trick.
The best theory (in my opinion) for why perception keeps flipping during binocular rivalry is proposed by my colleague Prof. Jakob Hohwy of Monash University in Australia. In their paper, they argue the following (simplified version):
The brain has a strong expectation (priors) that two things shouldn’t exist at the same location at the same time. That essentially never happens in ordinary life. So the brain determines that only one should reach consciousness at a time. It’s the best guess given previous learning.
However, the image that doesn’t reach consciousness produces “prediction errors” in the system because it doesn’t just go away. The donkey is there, hidden from awareness, even if you’re only perceiving the sun. The donkey keeps kicking to indicate to the brain: “You’re ignoring me, but I exist!”.
The brain is happy with just presenting you the sun for a while, but over time the donkey provides a competing signal that makes it difficult to argue that the sunset is all there is. The prediction error builds up until a new inference is made: an ass emerges.
There’s plenty of good evidence for this that I won’t bore you with. Broadly speaking, though, you can mess with the brain’s inferences to make one of the images more likely to stick for longer in systematic ways by reducing the relative prediction error. By the way, meditation can also dramatically affect binocular rivalry in predictable ways (we’re researching this as we speak). But see here.
Why all that glitters isn’t gold
The issue with life outside of psychophysics labs (if there is one) is that there are always competing perspectives on reality. When you arrive at a way of looking that gives you a pleasant sunset… for a while, it feels magical. It’s satisfying.
The diet is perfect. The exercise regime is the best. This relationship is all I’ll ever need. S/he’s perfect. This guru is the real deal. This medication is the cure. These psychedelics are the source of truth. This meditation practice is the true way.
And so on…
But, eventually, prediction error accumulates. Every perspective is limited when faced with life. No particular net can catch the immense ocean of reality. Entropic forces will begin to build an army and start their assault on your current worldview. The donkey behind the sunset is hiding in the forest of your unconscious mind, amassing power and influence.
You can try to keep the sunset alive, fighting for evidence that supports the perspective that was so deeply fulfilling a moment before… but it’s no use. No particular view of things—though it seems and feels like it works for a while—can maintain its apparent realness. The feeling of truthiness always fades. There will always be an ass there stomping its feet and hee-hawing for your attention.
But this is not a post-modernist take. This is itself a view of things. But it’s a meta-view. It’s an insight into how insights work. How they all eventually fade. It’s an understanding that arises from stepping outside of the field of “belief” in order to look at the way beliefs themselves unfold. It’s a reminder that we are very simple creatures trying to hold onto something incomprehensibly immense, and that holding too hard is going to make some donkey out there upset.
Unfortunately, there’s no preventing the fading of the sunset. Even a meta-view reaches its limit. But there is the possibility of freedom. Freedom from a fixed point of view:
The moment you try to hold it in a fixed form, you miss it. Water drawn from the stream is no longer living water, for it ceases to flow… all evils are attributed to man’s self-assertiveness, his itch to possess life in fixed forms.
- Alan Watts
Perhaps the best we can do is learn to wonder at the magic of the transitions; to ride the donkeys. Perhaps we can learn to witness the sunsets and the darkness that follows, savouring the shadows with patience and confidence about the coming dawn.
Ruben, aka the donkey.
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