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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mindfulness and Wanting

Arguably, the primary cause of human distress is when our deeds do not measure up to our desires, or when our short term behavior does not correspond to our long term goals.  Put another way, a major source of our unhappiness is that we often ‘want’ something that has long term or predicted utility, yet end up ‘wanting’ something that has utility only in the moment, or ‘decision utility’ (e.g., when we surrender to distraction rather than complete a more valuable task). To remedy the emotional discomfort this creates, we can rationalize why we should not want something (like the fox disparaging the unattainable grapes), or not appraise what we would otherwise have wanted (just avoid thinking about the grapes). Thus if we reduce the value of what we want by reappraising it or being merely mindful of it, we will be less desirous of it and far less upset at its prospective loss.

This latter concept of ‘mindfulness’ reduces wanting and the emotional problems that ensue due to wanting not by reappraising events, but by not appraising them at all. Although rooted in religious (Buddhism) and philosophical tradition (Stoicism), contemporary explanations of mindfulness are based upon cognitive psychology and the complementary perspective of cognitive neuroscience[i]. Cognitive psychology implies that wanting correlates with non-affective mental processes, and this idea conforms to the emphasis in cognitive neuroscience on the cortical structures that comprise the rational or ‘rationalizing’ aspect of the brain.  Because wanting is a uniform concept, the practice of mindfulness (as well as meditation for that matter) uniformly reduces all wanting through eliminating or reducing the continuous appraisal that is an elemental aspect of wanting. Thus in mindfulness everything in the perceptual field is observed and not appraised. Because of this, mindfulness practice generally occurs outside of one’s working day.

The problem with this approach is that when the perspective of ‘affective neuroscience’ is considered that gives far greater prominence to the mid-brain systems that modulate affect, ‘wanting’ always contains an affective component that represents the activity of sub-cortical structures, namely midbrain dopamine systems that are activated by the cognitive elaboration of the novel discrepancies between acts and outcomes, and do not intrinsically predict the long term utility of outcomes (i.e., as 'gut level' feelings they do not predict the future) [1]. Because of the ‘pleasure’ attendant with dopamine release, the value, ‘incentive salience’, or decision utility of behavior increases, and may conform or dis-conform with the long term logical or predicted utility of behavior[ii]. If they conform, then we have productivity, creativity, relaxation, and ‘happiness’, but if they do not conform, we have non-productivity, non-creativity, stress, and ‘unhappiness’. Because wanting is comprised of cognitive and affective components whose ends may mutually conform or non-conform, wanting is never a purely cognitive event, and some types of wanting may be good for you and others not so good. Hence, it would be more logical to be mindful towards those wants that lead you astray than those that keep you on the straight and narrow. In other words, it is best to be mindful of our irrational wants than our rational ones. The problem is not to avoid appraisals that may lead us to want, but to avoid those appraisals that lead us to ‘mis-want’[2]. Thus a mindfulness strategy must focus on non-elaborative awareness of the short term wants that dis-conform with long term goals[3]. In other words, to be not just effective but practical, mindfulness must entail not the mitigation of wanting, but of mis-wanting.

By non-appraising what we should be mindful of rather than what we could be mindful of, we can expand the applicability of mindfulness to all our working day, and finally make mindfulness a mainstream procedure that is universally embraced.  By being mindful of distraction or distractive thoughts but not our workaday behavior as well as avoiding useless elaborative thinking or rumination, we can gain the benefits of mindfulness without constraining our rational wants that populate our day. Thus mindfulness can be expanded in scope to encompass all of our daily activities without losing its therapeutic power to reduce and control harmful emotions.

Because the activity of dopamine systems is determined by anticipation and/or experience of unexpected changes in the perceived or elaborated relationship between act and outcome rather than the outcome itself (e.g. think of the 'pleasure' in anticipating opening a present on Christmas and of opening it), if follows that non-elaborative awareness will necessarily reduce dopamine activity, and therefore reduce the decision (i.e. momentary) but not predicted utility of objects or events[4]. Hence it is argued that the ‘mechanism’ of mindfulness is the cognitive inhibition of the rapidly changing and virtualized relationship of act and outcomes that elicit the positive affect that for good or ill always distorts judgment, and simultaneously engages cortical and midbrain structures. Thus, mindfulness ‘works’ by reducing dopaminergic activity through the inhibition of the elaborative cognitive behavior that elicits it. Or in other words, mindfulness reduces not the rational but the affective component in judgment or ‘wanting’.

The advantages of a dopaminergic based explanation of mindfulness are numerous and compelling.

It is logical
In its essence, mindfulness changes what we want by modifying how we want, therefore it follows logically that any explanation for mindfulness must be rooted in the neuropsychology of wanting.

It is simple
The neuroscience of wanting is detailed and complex, but the description of its logical entailments is quite simple, and requires but rudimentary knowledge of neural structures and processes.

It is concrete
Instead of a metaphorical description of mindfulness that depends upon abstract cognitive behavior or the complex and indeterminate interplay of myriad cortically centered neural processes, a dopaminergic explanation of mindfulness is rooted in specific mid-brain structures whose behavior is determinate and clear.

It informs procedure
By distinguishing between wanting and mis-wanting, mindfulness procedure can be centered on mitigating those wants that pull us in directions contrary to our long term interest, and result in regret, stress, un-productivity, and unhappiness while keeping those wants that  add zest, pleasure, and meaning to life.

It explains
Mindfulness research almost exclusively follows inductive principles, wherein mindfulness practice correlates with specific emotional, neural, or behavioral states. But because mindfulness is still without an adequate explanation, it is far more difficult to justify mindfulness, specifically when posed against the equally inductive conclusions derived from personal experience, popular media, and even academic research that argue that a distracted and mindless lifestyle is good for you or at most a necessary evil.


A Note on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction: MBSR

A truism in psychology is that if you are faced with a continuous dilemma between two alternative choices of equal value, your muscles will tense and you will be stressed. Specifically, if the affective value of a choice can be raised through its cognitive elaboration (imagining or looking forward to an email, a slice of cake, or other temptations) then it can create an artificial or affective dilemma that elicits tension, as you have to choose between doing the right thing and doing the dumb thing (e.g. doing your work rather than checking your email 40 times an hour). Contrariwise, if one can reduce the affective value of an alternative choice through being mindful of it (e.g. a email being just email or a cake just being a cake), then affective dilemmas can be reduced or eliminated, and you will become less stressed. Because an ever distractive world is full of affective dilemmas, mindfulness is a unique and sensible strategy to reduce stress, and demonstrates the predictive power of a dopaminergic theory of mindfulness. 

For a formal interpretation of MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) from a dopaminergic theory of mindfulness, go here.

[1] For example, we become incented to eat cake, go on a date, buy a car, etc. not only because of the utility of doing such things, but also due to the cognitive elaboration of the novel implications of doing such things. However, these novel implications do not predict the intrinsic value of the events they predicate.
[2] Mis-wanting represents distractive, addictive, or obsessive behavior (e.g., excessive rumination) in which the momentary affective ‘urge’ to perform mis-matches the objective or predicted long term value of that behavior.
[3] As an example, if you want to eat cake, the urge to do so may conform to the predicted utility of eating if it is your birthday, and dis-conform with the predicted utility of eating if it is not. Hence to be mindful of a ‘cake only being a cake’ reduces regret when you do so to stay on a diet, but ironically would increase regret if eating a cake was a cause for celebration.
[4] As an example, suppose you accidentally run over my cat. That of course is a bad thing, but as I ruminate on all the novel ways I will take my revenge, dopaminergic activity will increase, thus making the decision utility of taking vengeance a whole lot more important than the long term utility of getting even. After all, a cat is just a cat.

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