What is Love? Neural Annealing in the Presence of an Intentional Object

Excerpt from: The Neuroscience of Meditation: Four Models by Michael E. Johnson

Neural annealing: Annealing involves heating a metal above its recrystallization temperature, keeping it there for long enough for the microstructure of the metal to reach equilibrium, then slowly cooling it down, letting new patterns crystallize. This releases the internal stresses of the material, and is often used to restore ductility (plasticity and toughness) on metals that have been ‘cold-worked’ and have become very hard and brittle— in a sense, annealing is a ‘reset switch’ which allows metals to go back to a more pristine, natural state after being bent or stressed. I suspect this is a useful metaphor for brains, in that they can become hard and brittle over time with a build-up of internal stresses, and these stresses can be released by periodically entering high-energy states where a more natural neural microstructure can reemerge.

Furthermore, from what I gather from experienced meditators, successfully entering meditative flow may be one of the most reliable ways to reach these high-energy brain states. I.e., it’s very common for meditation to produce feelings of high intensity, at least in people able to actually enter meditative flow.* Meditation also produces more ‘pure’ or ‘neutral’ high-energy states, ones that are free of the intentional content usually associated with intense experiences which may distort or limit the scope of the annealing process. So we can think of intermediate-to-advanced (‘successful flow-state’) meditation as a reheating process, whereby the brain enters a more plastic and neutral state, releases pent-up structural stresses, and recrystallizes into a more balanced, neutral configuration as it cools. Iterated many times, this will drive an evolutionary process and will produce a very different brain, one which is more unified & anti-fragile, less distorted toward intentionality, and in general structurally optimized against stress.

An open question is how or why meditation produces high-energy brain states. There isn’t any consensus on this, but I’d offer with a nod to the predictive coding framework that bottom-up sense-data is generally excitatory, adding energy to the system, whereas top-down predictive Bayesian models are generally inhibitory, functioning as ‘energy sinks’. And so by ‘noting and knowing’ our sensations before our top-down models activate, in a sense we’re diverting the ‘energy’ of our sensations away from its usual counterbalancing force. If we do this long enough and skillfully enough, this energy can build up and lead to ‘entropic disintegration’, the prerequisite for annealing. (Thanks to Andrés for discussion here)

If this model is true, it feels very important for optimizing a meditation practice. E.g., we should try to figure out some rules of thumb for:

  • How to identify a high-energy brain state, in yourself and others, and how best to create them;
  • Things to do, and things not to do, during an annealing process (‘how to anneal the right things’);
  • Identifying tradeoffs in ‘cooling’ the brain quickly vs slowly.

Off the top of my head, I’d suggest that one of the worst things you could do after entering a high-energy brain state would be to fill your environment with distractions (e.g., watching TV, inane smalltalk, or other ‘low-quality patterns’). Likewise, it seems crucial to avoid socially toxic or otherwise highly stressful conditions. Most likely, going to sleep as soon as possible without breaking flow would be a good strategy to get the most out of a high-energy state. Avoiding strong negative emotions during such states seems important, as does managing your associations (psychedelics are another way to reach these high-energy states, and people have noticed there’s an ‘imprinting’ process where the things you think about and feel while high can leave durable imprints on how you feel after the trip). Finally, perhaps taking certain nootropics could help strengthen (or weaken) the magnitude of this annealing process.

Finally, to speculate a little about one of the deep mysteries of life, perhaps we can describe love as the result of a strong annealing process while under the influence of some pattern. I.e., evolution has primed us such that certain intentional objects (e.g. romantic partners) can trigger high-energy states where the brain smooths out its discontinuities/dissonances, such that given the presence of that pattern our brains are in harmony.[3] This is obviously a two-edged sword: on one hand it heals and renews our ‘cold-worked’ brain circuits and unifies our minds, but also makes us dependent: the felt-sense of this intentional object becomes the key which unlocks this state. (I believe we can also anneal to archetypes instead of specific people.)

Annealing can produce durable patterns, but isn’t permanent; over time, discontinuities creep back in as the system gets ‘cold-worked’. To stay in love over the long-term, a couple will need to re-anneal in the felt-presence of each other on a regular basis.[4] From my experience, some people have a natural psychological drive toward reflexive stability here: they see their partner as the source of goodness in their lives, so naturally they work hard to keep their mind aligned on valuing them. (It’s circular, but it works.) Whereas others are more self-reliant, exploratory, and restless, less prone toward these self-stable loops or annealing around external intentional objects in general. Whether or not, and within which precise contexts, someone’s annealing habits fall into this ‘reflexive stability attractor’ might explain much about e.g. attachment style, hedonic strategy, and aesthetic trajectory.

Links: Annealing (metallurgy)The entropic brain

[3] Anecdotally, the phenomenology of love-annealing is the object ‘feels beautiful from all angles’. This may imply that things (ideas, patterns, people) which are more internally coherent & invariant across contexts can produce stronger annealing effects — i.e. these things are more easy to fall deeply in love with given the same ‘annealing budget’, and this love is more durable.

[4] It’s important to note that both intense positive and intense negative experiences can push the brain into high-energy states; repeated annealing to negative emotions may serve many of the same functions as ‘positive annealing’, but also predispose brains to ‘sing in a minor key’ (see ‘kindling’).

Related Work: Algorithmic Reduction of Psychedelic States, Principia Qualia: Part II – Valence, and Ecstasy and Honesty

Image credit: Fabián Jiménez


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  8. Max · December 29, 2018

    I love all your stuff but I think you are treading a wrong way when you consider emotions to be a computable phenomenon. I have been studying psychology and Chinese philosophy for a while while practicing different forms of qigong, and adding in Levins recent discoveries on the role of electricity and basal cognition in every cell of the body, I can say with confidence that I consider the dominant paradigm of psychology in the future to be based on physical electromagnetic phenomena. Emotions are chemoelectromagnetic phenomena in the organs. Love is something literally involving electricity in the heart plus the neurochemical cocktail near the organs of reproduction and biophoton emissions from the eyes.

    Have any of my other comments ever showed up? They seem to be going into the void (or just moderated away).

    • algekalipso · December 29, 2018

      Hi Max!

      I agree with you that emotions are electromagnetic phenomena! Indeed, we are making precise, empirically testable predictions under that very assumption. See: https://opentheory.net/2018/08/a-future-for-neuroscience/

      Specifically, we think that consonance between connectome-specific harmonic waves will account for positive emotions while dissonance between them will account for negative emotions.

      The paradigm of love in this post is working at the algorithmic level of abstraction. This does not mean we think that deep down consciousness (and love) are algorithmic. There still needs to be something that implements such algorithms. Contra functionalists, we do not think “everything boils down to computation” – indeed, this is a big point of contention between us and mainstream approaches to philosophy of mind and neuroscience. For a full review of this matter see: https://qualiacomputing.com/2017/07/22/why-i-think-the-foundational-research-institute-should-rethink-its-approach/

      ps. I am not aware of any other comment you’ve made. Weird. I can assure you they are not being moderated away.

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  10. Dor Konforty · December 23, 2018

    Enjoyed reading this.

  11. Dor Konforty · December 23, 2018

    Enjoyed reading this.

  12. Benjamin Andersson · December 22, 2018

    Very good article! I thought about this as well. I learned about simulated annealing while reading about evolutionary simulations in a book on mathematical psychology. Ties neatly to RCH “Entropic Brain” theory.

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