How Is Everybody?

What is this?  I haven’t posted anything on my blog for almost a month?!  How irresponsible of me.  If I said I’ve been too busy to post anything, I’d be lying.  Really I’ve been immersed in some personal projects.  Maybe I’ll talk with all of you about some of the things I’ve been up to.  So let’s get right to it.

As some of you probably already know, my passion is understanding the mind and our world, and as of the past few years, I’ve been researching how to build intelligent machines which understand space.  I want to better learn how our brain understands the world we see out of our eyes, and how it builds a model of the world.  What sort of data structures are used within the human brain to hold onto spatial and object information?  How is it accessed?  How is that information processed and changed?  How does our brain make predictions on what we will experience next, forming expectations of the world?  In other words, I want to build a machine that has two camera eyes and can understand the world it sees through those eyes.  I want it to be capable of driving or walking around, avoiding obstacles, identifying objects, having memories of past experiences with those objects, capable of predicting your next action, and so on.

I’ve been searching for algorithms that are modeled after the human brain, using simulated neurons and neural networks.  After searching online for months and months, and reading textbooks I acquired after checking out MIT open-courseware’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences program (I bought the same textbooks they use for their neuroscience degree program at MIT, and have been reading them),  eventually I found a jewel.  Jeff Hawkins, president of a company called Numenta, and founder of Palm computing, has been traveling around the country giving introductory lectures on building intelligent machines and simulating the brain in computers.  He’s developed an algorithm which he’s modeled after the neocortex.  He calls it Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTMs).  It’s the exact sort of thing I’ve been searching for.  So how does it work?

Let’s first pose a difficult question.  How does your brain identify objects, say, a cat?  Think of how different each cat or dog you see is from each other.  One cat may be skinny, another fat.  One may be white, another brown, while another black with white spots.  One dog may be a beagle, while another is a golden retriever.  Even so, you’re able to notice that they’re all dogs and easily can identify them as such.  Small children simply look at a few pictures of dogs in a picture book and can then easily identify the animals they see in real life.  How can the brain do things like that?  Or better yet, how can I build a computer program that can look at a video feed and watch hours and hours of footage and then identify a particular type of animal when it comes on screen?

For example, when I was watching David Attenborough’s films, in the behind the scenes footage I saw their team having to stake out a bird’s nest for days, filming and filming, waiting for the bird to come back.  Imagine if they could just leave their camera there, hidden in the brush, and film all the footage, and then have a computer “watch” all of that film, identifying the moments in time when the animal came back to the nest.  AI could track the bird, moving the electronic tripod to keep the bird in view.  That way the researchers wouldn’t have to sit and watch hours and hours and hours of footage.

Or say you wanted to make Youtube and Google far more intelligent.  Instead of just applying intelligent machines to just visual information, say we applied it to audio information as well.  Say you are wondering about the positions of a political candidate in an upcoming election.  Has that candidate ever stated their position on such and such an issue?  You could ask, “What does Ron Paul think of Medicare and Social Security?”  And then AI algorithms would search Youtube and find particular clips of Ron Paul stating his positions on those topics.  It could cut out small portions of much longer clips and bring them up to you for viewing.

Sounds neat doesn’t it?  Well that’s what’s currently being developed these days and it’s amazing technology.  That’s the sort of thing Jeff and his colleagues at Numenta are working on.  But how does it work?  First off, you can read their research papers here.

I was particularly drawn to them because I have always wondered how abstract thought took place within the human brain.  I always wondered how the brain stored information about a generic “cat”.  How would I write an algorithm that could identify a cat?  I had no idea how the brain did that.  But now I think I get it.  Take a look at this picture below.  This is the idea behind HTMs.

If you look at your brain’s neocortex, which is where this sort of thing happens, you’ll see that it is structured in layers.  Though this is a gross simplification, the sensory organs, such as your eyes, feed into the bottom layers, which then process the information upward to higher and higher layers.  Higher layers also feed back down to lower layers, but we’ll talk about that in a second.  So what’s going on there?

Basically the brain starts with simple patterns, such as a direct image input from your eyes.  The neurons then feed that information upward to the next layer up, which finds patterns in a small portion of the image.  You can see that in the HTM image above.  And then that feeds up to the next layer above it, which finds patterns in the patterns.  Then the next layer up finds patterns within the patterns, within the patterns.  And so on and so forth.  A common very simple pattern algorithm is run over and over and over, passing the results upward in a pyramid of pattern information.

The same idea applies to audio information coming into your ears.  You start with basic audio coming in from your left or right ear, which then feeds up to a higher level, and then another higher level.  Each layer looks for patterns within the layer below it, and you end up with patterns of patterns of patterns of patterns.

Going back to our cat example, the information “cat” would be a higher level concept in this pyramid, and if you traced “downward” in the pyramid you would come to individual experiences with particular cats you’ve had contact with.  So in one grand stroke, your brain is forming memories of the particular pet cat you’re playing with, but also forming generalized ideas about how cats behave in general, how they appear, and so forth.  Your brain then comes to an understand, “Ah, so this is what a cat is like.  This is how they behave.”  And then in the future your brain can identify cats and have expectations about how they behave.  For example, you’ll know to be careful when dangling your socks in front of their eyes as cats have an instinct to claw such interesting objects, possibly injuring your hand if you’re not paying attention.

Now let’s talk about the connections that feed downward.  Your brain doesn’t just passively observe the world around it – it tries to make predictions about what will happen in the future.  When I see my pet cat Meanus lying on my bed, I have had a lot of experiences with her.  I know what to expect and when I go to rub her belly, I know what she’s going to do.  My brain takes visual input from my eyes, which then triggers this pattern recognition process described above.  If finds patterns, and then patterns within the patterns, and then patterns within the patterns within the patterns, and then matches that up with, “Oh, that’s meanus!”  So those particular neurons fire and I become conscious of being in the room with my cat.  Now at the same time, my brain is constantly comparing my present experience with experiences I’ve had in the past.  Past memories of Meanus are being called up and accessed, being used to predict what she will do next.  That’s what the feed downward links do.  In particular they compare past experiences to the present, and if they’re not lining up the brain says, “Wooaaahhhh.  Something new is going on here.  Alert!  Attention, attention, focus attention on this!”

For example, if I was here typing on my computer and then Meanus stood on her hind legs and started audibly singing, “Fly me too the mooonnn, let me plaaayyyyy among the starrrssss…”  My head would spin, I’d be blown away, and then I’d think, “What the HELL IS GOING ON!”  I’d lose interest in everything else and watch in silence as Meanus crooned me a toon.  My brain would recognize the Meanus patterns but when it compared what Meanus is doing now to what she’s done in the past, it wouldn’t recognize the behavior, would consider it “weird” and out of the ordinary, and my attention would be drawn to it.  That’s because this would be violating my brain’s current mental model of the world.  Cats don’t sing!  My brain would then have to start rethinking Meanus, such as, “How is she able to sing?  Has she been possessed by spirits?  Is she being controlled by aliens?  How intelligent is she?  Am I dreaming?  Is this really happening?”  I’d have to then change my relationship to that object and how I plan to respond to it in the future.

Before going on, I’d like to bring up something which I found fascinating about all of this.  Many years ago I remember reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and he mistook this process for free will.  Or maybe this is what free will is?  He said we only notice our free will in action when our expectations are violated.  For example, we may will to place an object down on the kitchen table, but as we lay it down and let go of it, it starts to fall over and roll toward the edge of the table.  That’s when we scramble to grab it before it falls off and breaks.  Our free will decided to place the object the table, but that decision was violated by reality, and then we had to make a new decision to grab for the object.  Now, however, I understand that that’s just how the brain is structured to work — the HTM process.  It’s how that pyramid hierarchy of information processing works.  If something violates our expectations, attention is focused on that until the situation is brought under control.  Most of it is an unconscious process though, and I don’t think it explains free will.

Ok, so how does this tie to how I’ve been spending my time?  Well, first off, I’ve been studying neural computation, and how to model neural networks in software.  I want to implement something like Numenta’s HTMs and then rig a computer up to go around, processing information from cameras.  I want to store all the visual information in this HTM hierarchy and then train the system to identify objects.  Next, I want to be able to go into this huge multi-terabyte database of visual information and run a program on it which can go into that HTM database and pull out 3D spatial information.  I want to be able to say, “Computer, generate me a 3D model of my bedroom.”  It then searches its database, finds that tree of information, processes downward through it, and then builds a 3D model of my bedroom on my screen, rendered in OpenGL.  Then I can fly through it and look around.

I want to be able to walk around a place with a camera, filming things, and then show that film to my computer, let it parse in the video feeds, and build up an ever growing database of visual information.  I could show it a video clip of me walking around a college campus and then say, “Computer, build a 3D model of the buildings you saw in that video.”  It would then do so.

That’s the goal I’m working on.  I want to fully understand how our subjective sense of space works and how our brain works with space and numbers, and logic and everything else.  This HTM stuff is deeper than just space.   It’s how language and abstract thought work.  It’s how intelligence works.  This is what intelligence is.  It’s this process of finding patterns within patterns within patterns, and organizing them in a hierarchy, and making predictions with that information.  At least, that’s what I’m currently thinking intelligence is.

From what I gather, algorithms similar to this are what are being used to build intelligent computer chips.  Companies like IBM are wanting to build computer chips which process information in a way similar to these HTMs and then the computers can be intelligent.  This doesn’t get rid of normal processors, but by changing the way information is being processed, sensory type information, such as sight and sound, can be processed far more effectively and easily.

However, during the past week or so I’ve had a long diversion from my research.  I was a little burnt out from my brain research and had just taken two exams in class – math and physics.  I wanted a break and needed some time to work on something different.  It’s nice to do that here and there.  I have just acquired a new development IDE and was reading through some programming books to learn the new features.  That was nice.  I was writing some “goof off” programs to test how things work.  I ended up making a really stupid program with a paintbox which drew random lines within it.  Once I finished that I leaned back in my chair, yawned, and went for a walk.  It was a good day.

Once I got back from my walk I got to looking through my bookshelf and saw an old classic I hadn’t read in ages.  It’s called The Black Art of 3D Game Programming:  Writing Your own High-Speed 3D Polygon Video Games in C.  Now there’s a gem for you!  It was written in the early 90s and shows you how to write 3D games in DOS!  Epic!  Beyond Epic!  Why is that?  This is before the days of Windows, and DirectX, and OpenGL.  This is back when you had to write directly to your video card’s memory buffer, writing your pixels for each dot on your screen.  Memory address (X,Y) on your 320×200 screen set to some RGB value.  I was thinking, “Ah, I remember this book.  I love this book.”  Then I got to reading the section on 3D game programming, the mathematics involved, the matrices, the vector mathematics to calculate collisions, and so forth.  Then I got a wild idea.  What if I wrote a 3D engine over the weekend, rendering to Windows paintbox?  LOL.  Software rendered 3D graphics engine using the code from this ancient book.  So, that’s what I did!

I got to cranking and then made a simple Doom like game, where I was running around in 3D world.  I wrote the code to render the picture, pixel by pixel.  I had to write code to draw individual lines, to draw polygons and triangles, and to do lighting effects.  LOL.  I didn’t use any libraries of any kind.  No help.  I did it all from scratch.  I coded my 3D points in 1 by 4 matrices, which I then multiplied by rotation and translation matrices, rotating my scene relative to the camera.  I’d swing my mouse around and change my camera’s direction cosine angles and rotate my scene.  That was cool.

I logged into MSN messenger and told one of my old friends how my Saturday had been one of the best days of my life.  He didn’t seem to understand why writing a 3D graphics engine from scratch into a Windows paintbox was anything to be happy about.  But to me, I went under the hood into how virtual reality and video games work, understanding how all the fancy 3D graphics and video games of today work.  How do they render the walls, the textures, the lighting, and all of that?  How do they make it look so real?   Well, I know how it works, all the way down to drawing each individual pixel to the screen.  That’s why it cool.  I like knowing how stuff works.  I especially like programming simulations.

In the video above, you find a ray tracer, which I would like to eventually find time to program. I programmed something similar, but much more simplistic. Mine also used complete software rendering, without using any libraries. That way I had full control over how things were rendered, the physics used, and so forth. In their simulation, they blast billions of light rays into a scene, which then bounce around, physics calculates how the light bends and reflects, and then it collides with the camera. It works how reality works. My simulation I wrote over the weekend uses a series of tricks and rotations, similar to how 3D games programmed today work. Ray tracing requires too much CPU power to handle in games today, but in 20 years, I guess it will be the norm as to how games are rendered. It produces photo-realistic graphics, as you can see.

I like video games and virtual reality in particular because in that world you’re God.  Think of it this way — say you were made God for a day.  You could change anything, and make anything work however you wanted.  You could build your own world from scratch, to your every specification.  How would your world work?  Well, when you write your own video games, that’s essentially what you’re doing.  You can make any experience for the player you can imagine.  The real test is how creative you can be.  When I’m out for walks, I try to notice every little detail of this world.  I look at things both from the angle of the physicist, where everything is ordered and following laws, to the emotional and graphical, such as an artist’s perspective.  I look at the sky, with the blues and oranges and reds, or the stars flickering in the sky.  I notice specular highlights from the lights in the room shining on reflective objects, and light and soft shadows being cast from multiple light sources in the kitchen.  I think to myself, “If I were God of my own virtual reality experience, how would I program my reality to work?  What good things from my world would I keep, and what things would I change? What would people in my world experience?”  I find that doing such an exercise makes me extremely happy because it makes me focus on everything that’s awesome about this world, and learn how those things work.  Then I try to program those things into a computer, and I come to a very deep understanding of the things I love most. Also, when undergoing this process, I also have to search and find ways to bring those experiences to other people.

Richard Feynman once said, “What I cannot create I do not understand.” If you can’t create your own virtual reality similar to our own, you don’t understand the world you live in.

Oh yeah, and before I forget, you may have noticed that comments are closed.  I started getting like 500 spam comments a day from bots.  I got tired of cleaning them up.  I don’t know how to stop them, so I just closed comments down entirely.  I’ll try to work on fixing that sometime.  The internet is such a sleazy place.  Bots go around trying to create links to people’s sites, creating false sites full of viruses and spyware, all to help push some crappy website’s page ranking up in Google’s search results.  Losers.  Try writing real content and having a real website, and then maybe people would come to view your site without having to resort to tricks and lies.  You’re like Newt Gingrich, hiring companies to make millions of fake twitter followers.

The Yin And Yang Of The Mind

I’d like to continue the discussion of yesterday and elaborate on a topic which is really interesting to me:  the yin and yang of the mind.  As I was reflecting on this idea today, I mainly considered how the mind is a swirl of yin and yang, like a lollipop.

Let’s start with being thankful versus being discontented.  The same mental mechanisms are used for both, yet one is considered a virtue while the other a vice.  The human mind has the ability to transcend space and time using its imagination.  It can imagine and or remember things that don’t currently exist, and if you desire, it can compare that to what is currently in front of you.  We do it all the time.  It’s how we know that time is passing and that things are changing.  It’s what allows us to understand the world, make decisions, and have a degree of control over our lives.  It allows us to choose who we want to be.  But like anything with great power, it’s a very dangerous tool as well.

If you compare “down”, we consider it being thankful.  We think of all the nice things we have in our lives and how much worse off we could be.  Using the exact same mental system, we can also look at our world and think about how much better everything could be.  This is comparing “up”.  Although what’s considered “up” and “down” (better and worse) are often relative to a person, you get the idea.

We’re often told to have big dreams and that we can accomplish great things.  But what is a dream?  It’s a state of discontentment.  It’s an imagined reality which you want to bring into existence.  It can be a dream to find a lover, to build a great company, or in some way change the world for the better.  Either way, it’s a state of discontentment.  The same system that allows you to better yourself is also what allows you to be discontent with your life.  They work hand in hand, yin and yang.  You can’t separate the two without destroying who you are, your dreams, and everything that you value.

I remember watching videos of a famous inventor talking about the future of nanotechnology, and how future humans will be able to immerse themselves in virtual reality, have any experience they desire, and also control the world all the way down to individual atoms.  At the same time, I could tell the man wasn’t very happy with the world he lived in.  He saw how much better things could be and that left him severely discontented.  Why wasn’t he living in that wonderful world?  The thought had to occur to him every single day.  The man has ten PhDs and is one the most brilliant men on the planet.  His mind has grown so large he can see possibilities far beyond most people.  He sees where humankind is headed and it’s wonderful.  But the same intelligence leaves him very unhappy.

Intelligence is generally considered a virtue.  The more you perceive the laws of this universe, the more power you have to navigate between all the infinite possibilities to the one you desire.  Every new scientific and engineering discovery we’ve made has allowed us more and more possibilities.  Metaphorically speaking, it’s like we’re reuniting to God.  Our drive to learn about the universe ultimately stems from this separation from the divine.  We yearn to be better, to go farther, to be stronger.  We want to explore, to learn, and to grow.  As we grow and learn, we find and acquire new things to be thankful for, yet ultimately those things grew from a discontentment and a longing for a better world.   If we weren’t bored and eager to explore, we never would have learned about all the wonderful sights we have to cherish in this world.  We can’t be thankful for something we don’t know anything about.

The same applies to love and hate.  The second you choose to love something, you also choose to hate something else.  With every decision we make, we flee one thing and gravitate toward another.  If you’ll love anything, you stand for nothing.  If you’ll believe anything, you have no principles.

This intimate swirl between yin and yang is so embedded in our nature that I don’t see how this law could ever be removed without us losing our humanity.  We can never be complete and satisfied.  The mind is built to be discontent and continually desire bigger, better, and faster things.  This universe of ours, this game of life we’re currently immersed in, isn’t something that can be “won”.  We were constructed by a yin and yang dynamic.  Our existence is not a static state, but is a flow, a process, a movement.  And that movement is directed by the world’s feedback system – success and failure.  We had replication with random mutations along with non-random selection, winners being decided by who was best suited to survive in the environment.  That striving to be better, stronger, and endure is infused in us in every aspect of our being, consciously and unconsciously.

Is It Better Never To Have Lived?

Are any of you familiar with a philosophical idea called anti-natalism?  I was listening to various people debate the idea on youtube and found it strange that I’d never heard of it.  I hope I’m not oversimplifying the idea, but from what I gather, it’s the idea that it would be better if we’d never been born.  Wanting to learn more about this idea, I got ahold of a book by David Benatar called Better Never To Have Been.  He is one of the chief authors anti-natalists reference.  After reading a good portion of the book, it seems worthwhile to share what I think of these ideas.

I really wasn’t all that impressed with the book initially, but once I came to chapter 3, I liked the book a little more.  That chapter began as follows,

I have argued that so long as a life contains even the smallest quantity of bad, coming into existence is a harm. Whether or not one accepts this conclusion, one can recognize that a life containing a significant amount of bad is a harm. I turn now to show that all human lives contain much more bad than is ordinarily recognized.  […] The worse a life is, the greater the harm of being brought into existence. I shall argue, however, that even the best lives are very bad, and therefore that being brought into existence is always a considerable harm. To clarify, I shall not be arguing that all lives are so bad that they are not worth continuing. That is a much stronger claim than I need to make. Instead, I shall be arguing that people’s lives are much worse than they think and that all lives contain a great deal of bad.

He next discussed the suffering and pleasures of this life from a hedonistic perspective.  This is a rather long quotation from the book, so forgive me.

Consider first the hedonistic view. Such a view will need to distinguish between three kinds of mental states—negative ones, positive ones, and neutral ones. Negative mental states include discomfort, pain, suffering, distress, guilt, shame, irritation, boredom, anxiety, frustration, stress, fear, grief, sadness, and loneliness. Positive mental states—pleasures, in the broad sense—can be of two kinds. First, there are those which are relief from negative mental states. These relief pleasures include the subsiding of a pain (such as a headache), the mollification of an itch, the abatement of boredom, the alleviation of stress, the dissipation of anxiety or fear, and the assuagement of guilt. Secondly, there are the intrinsically positive states. Intrinsic pleasures include pleasant sensory experiences—tastes, smells, visual images, sounds, and tactile sensations—as well as some non-sensory conscious states (such as joy, love, and excitement). Some pleasures have both relief and intrinsic components. For example, eating a tasty meal while hungry brings both relief from hunger and the intrinsic pleasure of fine-tasting food. (By contrast, eating insipid food while hungry might relieve the hunger, but it would do so without the intrinsic pleasure. Neutral mental states are those which are neither negative, nor positive in either the relief or intrinsic sense. Neutral states include the absence of pain, fear, or shame (as distinct from gaining relief from these negative states).

For the psychological reasons mentioned earlier, we tend to ignore just how much of our lives is characterized by negative mental states, even if often only relatively mildly negative ones. Consider, for example, conditions causing negative mental states daily or more often. These include hunger, thirst, bowel and bladder distension (as these organs become filled), tiredness, stress, thermal discomfort (that is, feeling either too hot or too cold), and itch. For billions of people, at least some of these discomforts are chronic. These people cannot relieve their hunger, escape the cold, or avoid the stress. However, even those who can find some relief do not do so immediately or perfectly, and thus experience them to some extent every day. In fact, if we think about it, significant periods of each day are marked by some or other of these states. For example, unless one is eating and drinking so regularly as to prevent hunger and thirst or countering them as they arise, one is likely hungry and thirsty for a few hours a day. Unless one is lying about all day, one is probably tired for a substantial portion of one’s waking life. How often does one feel neither too hot nor too cold, but exactly right?

Of course, we tend not to think about how much of our lives is marked by these states. The three psychological phenomena, outlined in the previous section, explain why this is so. Because of Pollyannaism we overlook the bad (and especially the relatively mildly bad). Adaptation also plays a role. People are so used to the discomforts of daily life that they overlook them entirely, even though they are so pervasive. Finally, since these discomforts are experienced by everybody else too, they do not serve to differentiate the quality of one’s own life from the quality of the lives of others. The result is that normal discomforts are not detected on the radar of subjective assessment of well-being. That we do not think of how much of our daily lives are pervaded by the discomforts mentioned does not mean that our daily lives are not pervaded by them. That there is so much discomfort is surely relevant on the hedonistic view.

The negative mental states mentioned so far, however, are simply the baseline ones characteristic of healthy daily life. Chronic ailments and advancing age make matters worse. Aches, pains, lethargy, and sometimes frustration from disability become an experiential backdrop for everything else.

Now add those discomforts, pains, and sufferings that are experienced either less frequently or only by some (though nonetheless very many) people. These include allergies, headaches, frustration, irritation, colds, menstrual pains, hot flushes, nausea, hypoglycaemia, seizures, guilt, shame, boredom, sadness, depression, loneliness, body-image dissatisfaction, the ravages of AIDS, of cancer, and of other such life-threatening diseases, and grief and bereavement. The reach of negative mental states in ordinary lives is extensive.

This is not to deny that there are also intrinsic pleasures in a life. These pleasures sometimes occur in the absence of negative mental states, and are best when they do. Intrinsic pleasures can also coexist with the negative ones (so long as the negative states are not of sufficient intensity to undo the pleasure entirely). Neutral states and relief pleasures obviously can also affect the quality of a life. It is better to have a neutral state than a negative one, and if one has a negative state, relief from it (as soon as possible) is better than no relief. Nevertheless, there would be something absurd about living for neutral states or relief pleasures, or about  starting a life in order to create more neutral conscious states or to produce more relief pleasure. Neutral states and relief  pleasures can be valuable only in so far as they displace negative states. The argument that it is better never to come into existence explains why it is also absurd to start a life for the intrinsic pleasures that that life will contain. The reason for this is that even the intrinsic pleasures of existing do not constitute a net benefit over never existing. Once alive, it is good to have them, but they are purchased at the cost of life’s misfortune—a cost that is quite considerable.

Next he looked at our lives from the perspective of desire fulfillment.

Rather little of our lives is characterized by satisfied desires and rather a lot is marked by unsatisfied desires. Consider first how vulnerable our desires are to the vicissitudes of life. No desires for that which we lack are ever satisfied immediately. Such a desire must be present before it can be satisfied and thus we endure a period of frustration before the desire is fulfilled. It is logically possible for desires to be fulfilled very soon after they arise, but given the way the world is, this does not usually happen. Instead, we usually persist in a state of desire for a period of time. This time may vary—from minutes to decades. As I said before, one usually waits at least a couple of hours until hunger is satiated (unless one is on a ‘hunger-prevention’ or a ‘nip-hunger-in-the-bud’ diet). One waits still longer to get rest when one is tired. Children wait years to gain independence. Adolescents and adults can wait years to fulfil desires for personal satisfaction or professional success. Where one’s desires are fulfilled, this fulfilment is often ephemeral. One desires public office and is elected but not reelected. One’s desire to be married is eventually fulfilled, but then one gets divorced. One wants a holiday but it ends (too soon). Often one’s desires are never fulfilled. One yearns to be free, but dies incarcerated or oppressed. One seeks wisdom but never attains it. One hankers after being beautiful but is congenitally and irreversibly ugly. One aspires to great wealth and influence, but remains poor and impotent all one’s life. One has a desire not to believe falsehoods, but unknowingly clings to such beliefs all one’s life. Very few people ever attain the kind of control over their lives and circumstances that they would like.

Not all one’s desires are for that which one lacks. Sometimes we desire not to lose that which we already have. Such desires, by definition, have immediate satisfaction, but the sad truth is that that fulfilment often does not last. One has a desire not to lose one’s health and youth, but it happens all too quickly. The wrinkles appear, the hair goes grey or falls out, the back aches, arthritis ravages one’s joints, the eyes weaken, one becomes flabby and saggy. One wishes not to be bereaved, but unless one’s desire not to  die is thwarted sooner rather than later, one must soon face the death of grandparents, parents, and other dear ones.

As if this were not bad enough, consider next what we might call the ‘treadmill of desires’. Although the fulfilment of some desires is temporary because the fulfilment becomes undone, desire fulfilment is much more often temporary because even though the desire remains fulfilled another desire arises in its place. Thus the initial satisfaction soon gives way to new desires.

Then Benatar takes a quotation from Abraham Maslow, the famed psychologist.

…need gratifications lead only to temporary happiness which in turn tends to be succeeded by another and (hopefully) higher discontent. It looks as if the human hope for eternal happiness can never be fulfilled. Certainly happiness does come and is obtainable and is real. But it looks as if we must accept its intrinsic transience, especially if we focus on its more intense forms.

– Abraham Maslow, Motivation And Personality

That’ll do for quotations from the book.  You should have a general idea as to the sorts of things Bentar focuses on.  Pretty dark eh’?  I decided to reflect on these ideas as I went for my walk today and within ten to fifteen minutes of serious contemplation, I came to one singular conclusion:  the human mind and its incessant chattering makes our lives far more miserable than need be.  If you can’t learn to still your mind and exist in the moment, these sorts of thoughts will consume you and leave you depressed.

Here’s the deal.  A lot of animals out there live entirely in the moment.  Though their lives are nothing but a continuous struggle, they have limited memory capacity, and mostly live in the moment.  They only suffer when they’re actually being eaten, or are in battle, or are truly starving.  Otherwise they seem to enjoy nibbling on your garden’s tomatoes, singing while perched up on a tree limb, or bathing in the sunshine.  Us humans on the other hand, we have the ability to imagine and anticipate things we aren’t currently experiencing.  This helped us survive in the harsh world we live in, but it also makes us miserable.

Very simple animals are like toddler babies.  If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.  Us adult humans are different.  You can walk around the corner and I will still be aware that you’re in the hallway.  I will know that you’re still there, and even if you’ve ran away somewhere and hid yourself, I will start reflecting, “Ok, where did he go?  He must be somewhere nearby.”  This powerful ability allowed us to evade and outsmart predators and hunt prey, while also allowing us to control the world around us.  However, this same mental ability allows us to imagine all sorts of things that aren’t there, anticipate upcoming problems, and even foresee our own deaths.  Emotionally it’s a double-edged sword.

Many of the problems Benatar focuses on throughout these first few chapters  are related to what I’d call our “mental model” system.  I’ll try to explain what I mean.  Take the problem of watching yourself growing old, flabby, and wrinkly.  Your mind has this mental model of the world where it stores this time-sequence of your life and the things you experience.  This also includes your body.  So you look into the mirror and think, “I’m not as pretty as I once was.  I used to be thin and attractive.  Now I’m old and fat.”  You remember when you were attractive to members of the opposite sex, and maybe even reflect on past encounters you had thirty years ago in the past.  The brain wanders from the moment and instead of just having an experience, it starts roaming all over the place, comparing this moment to God knows what other moments.  You start comparing yourself Jennifer Aniston, Megan Fox, and other celebrities.  You compare yourself to your friends, neighbors, and coworkers.  You compare and compare and compare.  You contrast and compare.  You contrast and compare.  The mind just keeps working and working and going and going, generating endless discontentment.

Religion is another problem with this mental model system.  Using words we’re able to communicate ideas to others, allowing us to anticipate events that aren’t necessarily happening to us right then and there.  You can say, “Jason, watch out!  There’s a poisonous snake under your bed!”  I might not have ever seen the snake but I’m thankful that you warned me about it.  Yet this is a dangerous tool.  People start warning you about things that don’t exist and put your mind in all sorts of unnecessary fears.  The religious priest starts warning you of the all powerful, all knowing, ever-present deity watching your every move, ready to throw you into the pits of hell if you commit even the slightest transgression against ridiculous laws.  Were you attracted to the beautiful woman that walked by?!  LUST!  Pray to the holy virgin and REPENT!  And if you believe this invisible being exists, and that there is this invisible order with heaven and hell, and all of that, your mind is just going to torture itself for no reason at all over petty things that don’t matter.  It’s natural for a man to be attracted to a beautiful woman.  It’s part of your biology.  It’s ok.

As I walked and walked, I remembered my history classes in school.  Think of what history is.  It’s like a giant warning call for all the madness that happens in this world, and how crazy people can be.  It’s preparing us for all sorts of disasters and how to properly react to them.   But such preparations come with a serious cost.  Our minds are being pounded with negativity and we come out emotionally damaged.  “Ok class, today we’re going to watch what happens when men have wars.  Brace yourselves.”  The little sixth graders come back from their chocolate milk break to watch civil war reenactments, people marching off in lines blasting each other with muskets.  They see a man bleeding on the ground, screaming in pain.  Then they read about the Persian empire, the Macedonian phalanx, and see Alexander the Great roaming around with his troops.  These young minds are imagining men being impaled with spears, blasted with guns, stabbed with swords, hung on crosses and whipped to death, and on and on.

If we lived in the moment, we wouldn’t have to experience all of that unless it actually happened to us, and even then it would probably be a rather short experience.  Somebody may run up to us with a rifle and shoot us, or we may be stabbed and die within a short period of time, and so forth.  But instead we learn what all these things are so that we can be prepared, and the list of dangers is practically unlimited.  So you worry and worry and worry and worry.  Am I prepared for this?  Am I prepared for that?  What am I going to do about this?  What am I going to do about that?

As young children, we roam around the backyard playing with our toys and friends, laughing and having fun.  We’re not worried about anything and don’t know anything.  We just make the most of what’s around us and live in the moment.  And because of that, children are happy.  But by the time we get older, we’ve been pounded with so many warning calls, and are in such fear and dread, most of that simple joy is gone.  But we can’t avoid this.  Oftentimes the only way to avoid future pain and suffering is to properly plan for it and avoid it.  Take this video for example.  A lot of the starvation and misery we face in the world today is due to overpopulation.  We have to stop having babies.

The world is so large and filled with problems, we often want to just shut it off.  We have to reflect on thousands of important things which we’ll never actually experience ourselves, such as planning to avert future disasters.  We have to worry about the welfare of people all the way across the world.  We have to stay up to date on political issues and the economy.  We have to properly watch our financial investments.  We have to hold our government accountable so they don’t drag us off into more wars and destruction.

When we lived in simple small tribes you directly experienced the world.  Our sensory systems were adequate for the task.  It’s not too hard to keep up with a small tribe of people.  You know them all by name, have went out on hunts with them, and they know you as well.  Now that’s no longer possible.  The world is too big and too complicated.  We stay glued to our computers and television sets watching and reading the news.  And what do they feed us?  They tell us about the most important worries we need to deal with.  Dictator such and such is slaughtering thousands for no good reason.  Religious psychos are discovered to be working on nuclear facilities.  Bankers are scheming to implode the economy and leave us poor and in rags.  And then you ask yourself, “What can I do about all of this?”  You then realize that you’re completely powerless, filled with fear of things happening all across the world.

Your mind tries to build a mental model of this super-complicated world, with all of its intricacies and dangers, but it’s inadequate for the task.   You realize that you can’t protect your children.  You can’t protect your friends.  You can’t protect your family.  You’re powerless.  There’s little you can do about anything and you just do what you can.  Your brain runs in circles trying to figure things out but it just never has enough information nor the time to sort it all out.

But that all is just the beginning of the mental chatter!  Just as Benatar points out, that same mind is not just worrying about the world.  Oh no.  It’s also wondering what’s wrong with your personal life and loved ones.  You have all these desires which aren’t playing out how you intended.  Why is your love life so screwed up?  Why are your children such a mess?  What doesn’t your husband love you?  Why are you stuck in a boring job?  What did you do wrong?  Why did all of this happen to you?  Why did things turn out this way?  And on and on and on it goes, chattering away.  It flails away, trying to fix every problem in the world and struggles for even simple answers.

I allow the chatter at times, and I care about the world and the issues we face as a nation and as a people.  I care about helping the poor.  I care about civil liberties.  I care about women’s rights.  I care about pollution.   Yes, I care about all these things.  I also have my share of suffering, but do what you can when you can, and otherwise try not to worry.  Try to shut off the chatter and just experience the life coming in from your senses.  Find good things in your world which you can be thankful for and make the most of your short life.  Bertrand Russell seemed to advocate a similar position.

The wise man thinks about his troubles only when there is some purpose in doing so; at other times he thinks about other things, or, if it is night, about nothing at all….It is amazing how much both happiness and efficiency can be increased by the cultivation of an orderly mind, which thinks about a matter adequately at the right time rather than inadequately at all times.  When a difficult or worrying decision has to be reached, as soon as all the data are available, give the matter your best thought and make your decision; having made the decision, do not revise it unless some new fact comes to your knowledge.  Nothing is so exhausting as indecision, and nothing is so futile.

– Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness

Our emotional systems and mental model system evolved together and they were designed for a much smaller world.  They don’t always work well together in our modern society.  Biological evolution isn’t keeping up with cultural evolution.

Sometimes we just have to experience the moment.  Don’t let your mind stray off all over the place, thinking inadequately about anything and everything at all times.  Keep your mind disciplined.  Lock it in the present in the room with you, learning new interesting things.  There’s a time and a place for thinking about troublesome things, and it’s not all the time.