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The Tinkered Mind
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December 31st, 2020
As people age, they tend to be more reticent to the adoption of new ideas and beliefs that might displace the ones they already have. The mind has a fickle stickiness with respect to new ideas. While young the mind is sticky for anything and everything: as children we don’t know how the world works so almost anything can stick to the young mind.
Meanwhile, the quality of stickiness of the mind in later years seems generally coalesced in power upon the ideas and beliefs already there. The overall stickiness factor seems equal, just distributed differently over time. A person in their seventies is far less likely to give up their model airplane hobby whereas a nine year old is switching hobbies with every turn of the head. Age seems to concentrate the adherence of the mind to what it’s already familiar with.
This general trend of stickiness to concentrate over time is largely responsible for institutional rigidity. An excellent example is the study of psychedelic compounds. For decades this area of inquiry has been a taboo topic, one sloughed toward the law and hushed for fear of punitive association. But why? It goes to reason that anything that presents even the potential of danger should be highly researched and studied so that we understand exactly what the risks are, and furthermore, what hidden benefits might also lie in such areas. We follow this logic when it comes to other dangers, whether they be on the level of enemy countries or sports teams - we study to minimize risk and search for leverage. And yet, the mental model that’s been applied to psychedelics has been one of denial and ignorance. It’s required the aging out of an entire generation for the topic to finally come back on the table of serious inquiry as spear headed by John Hopkins’ Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
Younger minds come in that still retain a diversified stickiness and replace the entrenched stickiness of older minds that have yielded the power to steer institutional agenda. That diversified stickiness allows for shifts in institutional agenda before things solidify again and the need for another generational rotation is required.
This concentration of stickiness in the mind is important in order to get anything done. It’s similar to attention and focus. If a mind has maximally diversified stickiness then it gets easily distracted, like children, and it’s absolutely necessarily to drill down into a topic for an undistracted amount of time in order to make progress on it. But, if the tendency to drill down on a useless topic or to drill down on a good topic in a useless way becomes the norm, then again the generational rotation is required to refresh perspective.
These are, of course, generalities, and when we drill down into specifics, there are crucial exceptions. The shift around psychedelics is an example ripe with appropriate coincidence. The shift was super charged, and perhaps initiated when the New York Times bestselling author Michael Pollan -who is most closely associated with writing about food- released a book all about psychedelic compounds. At the time of publication Pollan was in the ballpark of traditional retirement age - not exactly the sort of person with such esteem you’d expect to drop a serious discussion of such a taboo topic.
The topic of psychedelics is particularly pertinent to this discussion because of the effect psychedelics have regarding the mind’s stickiness. If we were to attempt to translate the concept of stickiness into the world of neuroscience, one possible candidate for real analogy is something called the Default Mode Network. This is a large scale brain network composed of a number of brain regions and is generally associated with an idea of self, narrative, memory and ideas for the future. From a crude bird’s eye view it might be summarized as the story we continually tell ourselves about who we think we are. Psychedelics in general, but particularly with psilocybin reduce activation of the Default Mode Network, and studies published in Nature earlier this year conclude an increase in emotion and brain plasticity. To be sure, these topics are only crudely understood. Hence the need for further study, and though the term here employed, the so called stickiness factor grossly simplifies much human experience contained in these topics it’s usefulness is in the potential to describe the utility of such compounds and topics that were previously considered dangerous. These compounds, which have been used since before recorded history, alter the stickiness factor of a person’s mind, greatly during the time of use and with a subtle lasting effect that an individual can capitalize on in beneficial ways. Again, this is a gross simplification of a topic that lacks specificity.
The trick we as a species doen’t seem to have figured out yet is how to have a conscious control over the concentration or diversification of our mind’s stickiness. The process of siloing the power of the mind’s stickiness into perennial topics is, from a very real angle, a bit of an imprisonment. We are left constantly yearning for a greater, deeper experience - the one that we seemed to be immersed in as children, but we fall for false advertisements of peak experiences that turn out to be counter-productive and lacking all fulfillment: the sugary ones in our diet and the vicarious ones on the screen. The greater, deeper experience isn’t something that happens to us necessarily. Probably the better way to capture this is to phrase the greater and deeper experience as simply a perspective we can arrive at, achieve and inhabit. The treasure of childhood lost is a perspective that has been narrowed and boxed out by what we’ve repeatedly added to that perspective. In a very real way, our sticky mind grows stuck to a certain idea of the world, shackled and then eventually oblivious to the potential experience and benefit of new perspective. For the most part, the crucial ingredient of experience that most often gets boxed out with a mind growing stuck is a deep sense of the moment. We live in our head, concentrating on ideas we have of the world, blinded from what is actually happening, and so the present has for many the dull veneer of something laboriously remembered the day after as opposed to the fresh vibrancy that is always available now.