The Biggest Construction Project Ever

Now that they are being studied at Johns Hopkins University, it must be OK to talk about psychedelic drugs. I was doing just that a few days ago with an old friend from the sixties; actually we were using Facebook Messenger, an unwieldy communications channel if there ever was one. I texted him the big takeaway from my very first LSD experience:

It’s all constructed

When I felt my perceptions of the world change dramatically because I had chemically altered my brain, I also realized that I’d been making it up all along. We all are. We just agree enough about what we’re making up that we think it must really be like that out there.

I’d say it was an important insight for me because once I saw that my whole experience of the world is made up by me, it naturally got me wondering what else is made up.

But the pithy phrase that said everything to me — It’s all Constructed — didn’t quite hit the mark for my friend. He sent me a Message the next day asking me to say more, or use different words.

It’s nice to have someone show interest in stuff that matters to me. But that’s not the only reason to write more and use some different words. It’s not just a 50 year old idea I’m trying to bring back to life. It’s an idea that’s at the heart of most things I’m thinking about and most new areas I’m exploring right now.

Theory of Constructed Emotions

For example, I am currently reading “How Emotions are Made,” by Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and leading emotion researcher. She shows, convincingly in my opinion, that emotions are not some imprinted, hardwired, universal holdover from our old reptilian brain. They are constructed on the fly with considerable input from our much more modern cerebral cortex.

According to the Theory of Constructed Emotions, we learn what happy and sad and all the rest of them are from the people around us. Then we apply those ideas to explain and put a convenient label on a whole set of perceptions of ourselves and others, moment to moment, all so we can figure out what to do next. It happens so fast and so automatically we don’t realize we are constructing our emotional experience using the explanatory ideas we have learned.

When I first had the insight 50 years ago that my perceptual experience was a construction, I didn’t think reality was an illusion or that there’s nothing out there. I still do not think reality is an illusion. I just think our perceptual mechanisms only register a version of reality, a sub-set of it, energy vibrating at frequencies our sensing devices can interact with.

Mostly, we draw on what we’ve already learned when we’re making up the reality we’re in. It’s much more efficient than refreshing every pixel every nanosecond. Our brain just tells us what should be out there and our senses tell us when we need a little update because something just changed.

I didn’t see it all that clearly during my first LSD experience. The idea of top-down projections with bottom-up error correction comes from more recent neuroscience.

Even so, I hadn’t applied the idea to emotions until Lisa Feldman Barrett showed me how. It is a challenging book even though I am predisposed to see the world the way she does. I guess the theory is still controversial but it is growing in influence and it feels to me like it will become the accepted way we look at emotions.

The Order of Time

The book I read just before ‘How Emotions are Made’? Carlo Rovelli’s, ‘The Order of Time.’ You guessed it — Time is not a fundamental constituent aspect of the universe. We construct it. It seems like everywhere I turn we’re figuring out that nothing ‘out there’ is presented to us. We create it and play it in our own internal studio, touching it up some when one of our scouts sends some news.

Time of course is different from our physical world simulation and our construction of emotions. If anything is really external to us you’d think it would be time. It’s ridiculous for me to summarize in a few sentences what Rovelli clearly and elegantly describes in a short, non-mathematical book. With him, getting there is half the fun

But his conclusion is clear. Time is an artifact of our bandwidth and processing limitations. We can’t keep up with everything everywhere at every scale at every nanosecond, so we sample a little bit of what we can and get by with it, leaving the rest vague and blurry. That blurriness is why there is time. If we could really be here now and take it all in, there would be no such thing as direction (ie, no entropy) and nothing fixed to measure duration against.

Saying we construct time suggests a more active role than we deserve. It’s more like, Time is a consequence of our limitations. We construct it in the sense that it would not exist without us. .

Constructivist Learning

Constructivism is a Learning Theory. There are dozens of recognized and researched Learning Theories, many of which are going to look pretty silly as our understanding of neural processes grows. Constructivists (like me) see learning is an active process, as opposed to passively receiving transmitted information. As we are increasingly aware, there is no such thing as passively receiving transmitted information in the first place.

I received a PhD in Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences from Utah State University in 2002. I thought that I would learn what learning was at a very concrete materialist level. I didn’t. I did learn a lot about learning but I didn’t quite get to what was going on at the level of neurons and synapses.

We were beginning to appreciate the distinctly different projects all under one heading — Learning. Learning to shoot a basketball? Learning a language? Learning how to appreciate art? Learning how to not get mad when you shouldn’t? It’s fair to call each of those ‘Learning,’ but different neural regions, networks and processes underlie each one.

It is the mechanism of Learning, any kind of Learning, that we are finally beginning to see — the way regions of the brain work together, comparing, adjusting, rearranging. Neurotransmitters are released. Synapse chemistry is altered. Neurons fire off their electrical potential differently, in different directions, as a result of learning.

The more you look at it, the more there is never not learning. The process is physical, electrochemical, and it makes measurable change continuously. We constantly update attributes of stored concepts, reassess risks, adjust threshold values — whole groups of neurons are recruited into new networks — all based on new learning.

Many believe that during various stages in the sleep cycle, new learning is reviewed and sent into deeper memory networks. It never stops.

In this way all of our learning is constructed, not transmitted or presented.

Categories of People

It is impossible to exist in most parts of the world today without being categorized. Race and gender are probably the two most basic categorical dimensions. Nationality is close. If you think I’m going to say these categories are 100% constructed, you are correct. I also think that not seeing those categories as constructed is the source of our most difficult socio-political problems, the ones that most affect our ability to solve the global problems that impact all of us, across all categories.

States need categories, or they think they do. States and academics invented race and they taught it to the rest of us. Yes, of course, some percentage of people cluster around certain similar characteristics such as melanin levels in the skin, facial features and other traits. But not everyone does. And not everyone has all the cluster characteristics, many have just some of them.

The set of characteristics that we currently use to define each race is based on averages that some individuals conform to well and others do not. There is no single essential feature or condition that all members of a specific race have and non-members don’t. Most people fit into most of the parameters well enough that it works, unless you focus on the people who don’t fit most of the parameters or don’t fit one of them in a very big way. Mostly those people are told that it’s their problem.

If there were something essential to each race, like some kind of consistent Whiteness genetic marker, we could then say that Whiteness is an objectively measurable fact. There isn’t. States, with assistance, define the categories that become Race. Once Irish and Italian immigrants were designated ‘Black’ in the United States. Then they weren’t. It’s not about the closeness of population fit to the category definition. It’s about the idea of absolute lines between races existing in nature. They don’t. Or at least no one has found them yet.

It can’t be that way with gender. It’s so much more clear.

Yes, some people can make babies and some can’t. Some people have XX chromosomes and some people have Xy chromosomes. Some people have higher testosterone levels than others. There is a spectrum of bone densities, with clusters. It does not follow from these observations that everyone is either a male or a female. All it means is that some people can make babies and some can’t. Some have certain chromosomes and some have others. Cutting across a very large set of observable conditions and asserting there are only two available super clusters for everyone isn’t an objective division in nature. It’s an assertion, the construction of a dividing line.

Even the best categories might work for many people, but not for all people. More importantly, by virtue of being a category, additional attributes become associated, that may or may not be shared by the individuals in the category.

The problem is not the categories. Authorities could have valid reasons for them. The problem is we reify them. We see the categories as real, describing something with meaning beyond what we give them.

Nationalism is the easiest straw man in the world to knock down. I bring it up because, despite how obviously constructed it is, it is just as pernicious as race and gender. It leads to more wars, if maybe not more battles.

One of the first things all astronauts say when they look at the Earth from space is that there are no national boundaries. Looking at maps based on nations our whole life helps train us to believe in nations. Pictures of the Earth from space are inherently subversive to States because they don’t show any State boundaries.

Within the national boundaries of the US, it became illegal in the early 1970s not just to use LSD but to conduct research on it. It was illegal to learn about LSD and other psychedelic drugs for decades. It set us back, but the learning process is now underway again.

Death Anxiety is the initial research area in which psychedelic drugs are being studied at Johns Hopkins University, mentioned at the outset of this piece. Within the framework of modern medicine, anxieties are disorders which need to be managed to reduce negative impact on functioning and the experience of life in general. It appears as though psychedelics can help some individuals to see their situation from a different perspective, which then allows them feeling differently about it.

I bring up the topic of Death Anxiety in the context of everything that seems solid turning out to be constructed because it gets me wondering. Man, if there one thing we are Totally Sure is not constructed and is indisputably measurable in nature it has to be Death. You are either Dead or not-Dead. Where is there room for squishiness there? Where is there room for category exclusion or fluidity? There obviously isn’t, right?

I’m not so sure. How do you define not-Dead? If it’s about self-reproducing, viruses might want to debate the point. But that isn’t my point. It doesn’t matter that we’re missing lots of instances that don’t fit the categories. I think what we’re really missing is who we are. Almost all Buddhist traditions, for example, teach that the idea of our Self as an autonomous entity is an illusion, based on the limits of our operating perspective. We’re all stuck at some street-level view of reality — and if we could only get up higher and take in more, we’d see that all those pieces that appear to be separate are totally connected.

Suppose that’s true. Then Death would be just like Time — a construction based on our shortcomings.

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Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos

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