Science of Meditation Week 1 - I Can't Get No Satisfaction

My notes from a Coursera course on meditation, Buddhism, and modern psychology - Week 1.

The human condition and our inability to see the world clearly:

  • Idea that we should be skeptical of our feelings. Meditation helps us 'see' that our feelings are not real. With a meditated mind you can observe the feeling anger and think "oh isn't that interesting, this thing called anger is what I am experiencing"
  • Feelings shape thinking and perception but feeling can be manipulated, which in turn implies that our perception of reality can be manipulated. Example - experiment with images of alligator/squirrel, snake/rope, clever/cooking pot. Priming with ominous music leads participants to perceive the more threatening image vs. playing happy music or no music at all.
  • From an evolutionary perspective these false positives when we're primed for threat/danger makes sense, it's the 'better safe than sorry' mindset.
  • First Noble Truth - life is suffering, or more accurately unsatisfactoriness is pervasive. Sanskrit word "dhukka" (pleasantly surprised to see this song referenced "I can't get no satisfaction").
  • "If you were satisfied it would mean you don't want any more" but no matter what we get there is always this wanting, yearning for more. And also clinging to what we do already have.
  • Second Noble Truth - thirst/craving for things or clinging to pleasure or things that do not last. Impermanence, as a truth about reality, is a very pervasive word in buddist text. "hedonic treadmill".
  • Fears and anxiety are also included in the Second Truth. Meaning aversion to things. So aversion to social rejection is the same as craving for social praise or clinging to your social status.

Evolutionary psychology and explanation for the first two Noble Truths:

  • So what are the reasons for our failure to see the world clearly. Our inability to grasp the impermanence of pleasure.
  • Assume dopamine is correlated with pleasure and reward in humans (and in monkeys)
  • So why does natural selection build brains like that, where pleasure evaporates quickly, why is it so impermanent (in the monkey getting fruit juice reward experiment dopamine spike was only 1/3 of second)?
  • Well it makes sense from designing for survival/gene propagation - reward the 'animal' for reaching a goal, make the pleasure not last long so that the animal will be motivated to continue acting, make the animal’s brain focus more on the pleasure than the fact that it's fleeting so the animal is motivated to reach the goal.
  • Interesting side note - anticipation of pleasure also produces a dopamine spike in the monkey and that suppresses the dopamine spike of after receiving the actual reward. (This feels equivalent to getting praised for talking about something you're planning to do vs. for actually having done something).
  • Natural selection seems to explain the noble truth one and two. And natural selection doesn't care whether we see the world clearly, the goals of survival/gene propagation are favored. Also natural selection doesn't care if we're happy - if making us feel unhappy will get us to do the work to survive then that is just fine.
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