[From Bill Powers (2009.11.28.0849 MDT)]
From: Oliver Schauman
Date: Tue, Nov 24, 2009 at 10:10 AM
OS: I am currently writing a
paper where I attempt a preliminary formulation
of Mindfulness from a PCT percpective. In particular I am looking at
pratice of Mindfulness Meditation. From a PCT perspective, it is
interesting to PCT because the practice seems to involve shifting
modes and thus achieving a limitied ability to regulate
BP: I brushed up on Mindfulness Meditation last night, and was reminded
of many similarities with the method of levels. I think this sort of
awareness exercise has been discovered many times throughout history, and
maybe before, and everyone has a different approach to it.
](http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma4/mpe.html)The particular version I was reading about had the same drawback (for
me) as other Eastern writings I’ve seen. It seems to have two parts mixed
together, one being concerned with the sort of thing I ascribe to the
learned hierarchy and the other being more “pure” awareness as
I came to know it.
The “impure” part, it seems to me, is all the stuff about
coming to understand everything in its True Nature, getting permanent
peace of mind – all the hype about how wonderful things are going to be
once you learn Right Thinking. That approach has nothing to do with
MOL, and actually seems contrary to it.
Perhaps the point is to reassure the self-like brain functions that are
going to be reorganized that the process will be worth the effort, not
dangerous, lots of new knowledge, and all that. Perhaps. But I also
wonder if the promoters of this approach aren’t trying to preserve
something of their own former selves. In my experiences with MOL I
haven’t found any need for such reassurances, and indeed if someone
expresses doubts or hestitation, all I have to do is treat that as a
background topic and off we go. The embroidery seems unnecessary. If
someone seems to think it’s necessary, the MOL guide will start wondering
why it is, and ask about that.
OS: It would seem that during a
meditation practice, the breathing is brought
under conscious control. It is interesting that in many papers (e.g.
Gallego, Nsegbe, and Durand, 2001) automatic control of breathing is
described as modifying muscular movements to match a set point goal,
sensed by chemoreceptors, of oxygen and CO2 levels in the blood.
controlled breathing is conceptualized as direct modification of
I would rather think that, from a PCT view, breath is controlled to
goals we consciously have (e.g. program of inhale and
BP: What’s interesting about that is that those authors don’t seem to
understand control theory. Set points determine inputs, not outputs. When
we breathe consciously, we control the depth and rate of breathing, both
of which are known to us only as perceptions. I doubt that anyone can
sense, or have a preference for, a particular way of operating the
diaphragm muscles. The meditation article I was reading described
conscious control of breathing as maintaining a certain perception of the
breath passing over the “rims of the nostrils.” That’s
obviously a perceptual input, not a motor output.
OS: It is interesting how we can
bring breathing under conscious control at
will. However, unless there are problems with our breathing (i.e.
we slip back seamlessly into the automatic mode of breathing because
system just does not require our attention. It would thus seem that when
variable is being controlled with minimal error, we let it run
BP: This is a subject that requires attention by PCT researchers. What
does it mean to assume conscious control of a control system? Obviously
it means that we consciously adjust the reference signal instead of
letting some higher-order system adjust it. So how do we keep that higher
system from trying to get control back by setting the reference signal
back where it was?
I have one vivid experience that shows a higher-order system trying to
get control back and fighting with my own conscious control. I was
driving in England (around 1994) and hadn’t had much practice with
driving on the wrong side of the road. I made a left turn from a small
side-road to a larger A-type road, so I should have simply turned from
the left lane of the smaller road onto the left lane of the larger road.
But my old USA-driving control system suddenly decided that I should turn
left onto the right-hand lane and sent the car on a collision course with
several large lorries barrelling toward me. I, whoever that was, snatched
control of the steering wheel back and got into the correct (left) lane
just as the lorries zoomed past with the drivers leaning on their horns
and probably as terrified as I was. For a few seconds, perhaps five, I
was wrestling internally against the other control system which was also
desperately trying to get back into the proper (right-hand) lane, with
very poor control of the car and the left wheels up against the rather
tall curb (kerb) grinding scratches into the wheel rims. A fascinating
So how is this possible? How could I be consciously trying to turn one
way while a very different and independent control system was trying to
turn the other way? My emotions at the time were split down the middle:
the same physiological arousal served very well as the feeling part of
two different emotion-goals, which I seemed to be experiencing from both
sides at once.
I don’t understand how consciousness can participate in the operations of
the control hierarchy in that way. It’s as if consciousness is a sort of
detached all-purpose control system that can butt in to the operation of
any hierarchical control system – but usually when we do that the other
control system doesn’t object and push back. If I had to guess, I’d say
the conscious controller substitutes its own reference signal for the one
normally supplied to the commandeered control system by a higher level.
But then what does the higher system do about that? What if its output
doesn’t get disconnected from the same reference-signal pathway? Well, I
guess I just described what happens.
We need to do a lot of experiments to investigate the role of
consciousness in what are normally automatic control processes. I think
there are many control processes going on outside the range of awareness
all the time – breathing is just one control process that’s easy to do
either way. Conscious control seems vulnerable to distraction, as if once
consciousness is involved, the control system needs it to be present in
order to work right.
OS: After an exercise of
breathing we often passively observe external
sensations and intrinsic thoughts. There is a general tendency to
planning (imagination mode) or to act when we notice error in our
If this happens the breath is returned to and we are againg attending to
system that would appear to work with minimal error.
BP: I don’t think breathing itself is the critical factor; this works
with all control processes that we can do conciously. And it’s not
neccessarily the amount of error that matters, is it? I can attend here
and there without having my attention grabbed by an error signal –
though of course large sudden errors do tend to do that. What you’re
talking about, I think, is the way we can step back and observe what
we’re doing instead of just doing it and focusing on the
By the way, remember that in PCT all actions are driven by error signals.
So it’s not a matter of error/no-error. It’s just that large errors tend
(metaphorically) to attract attention.
My problem with the current
paper is that it is very hard to find alot of
literature on Modes and possible hypotheses on how we might switch
them. I would be really grateful for any feedback or tips on how to
continue exploring mindfulness from a PCT perspective!
The best, or at least most-needed, approach is probably to measure the
characteristics of control systems when they are being driven consciously
or are unconscious parts of some other control process. If you’re looking
for solutions to these problems I would guess you won’t find them. You’re
just going to have to do all that hard work yourself.