A Major Cause Of Mental Ill-Health Has Been Discovered And So Has A Powerful New Treatment
In the Matrix movies, there are those who famously opt to take the ‘red-pill’ and discover that they are living inside a computer simulation of the world, while those who take the ‘blue-pill’ continue to live in blissful ignorance. Hollywood hyperbole aside, could the Matrix really contain a glimmer of truth? In recent years, neuroscientists have started to believe that we do indeed live inside a simulation, albeit one created by the brain rather than an alien computer. And this has profound implications for our understanding of the origins of thoughts, feelings and emotions but also for many mental health problems too.
The New Psychology of the Mind: Predictive Processing
It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to become conscious of the present moment. This is because of the vast amount of information flowing in from our senses, all of it needing to be co-ordinated and integrated so that we can become not only conscious of the world but also make decisions and act upon them – in real time – in the present moment. Given the complexity of the task, you would expect this to make everything – from walking along a crowded street to such simple things as catching a ball – extremely difficult. But nature has got around the problem by giving us a brain that predicts the future. It constructs a ‘simplified’ model of the world that is constantly updated and enriched by information from our senses. What we regard as the present moment is actually a stunningly realistic illusion created by the mind. An illusion so compelling that we mistake it for reality. It is called a simulation and the process it relies upon is known as ‘predictive processing’[i].
Predictive processing works by constantly ‘guessing’ what information the senses are about to send to the brain. We do not truly see the world; we see what our minds think the world is about to look like. Nor do we truly hear, but instead experience the sounds that the mind believes are about to hit our ears. And the same is true for our other senses, too. The mind predicts what we are about to taste, feel and smell. And in practice, it is this prediction – or simulation – that we experience, rather than the ‘real’ world.
As you can imagine, this is a fantastically complex process, but a simple analogy helps: if you are talking about politics in the UK and someone mentions the Houses of P . . . you can guess what’s coming next (the word ‘Parliament’). Because you have predicted the word, you don’t need to listen to the word itself. You can instead use that moment to capture the meaning of the whole sentence. Such predictions make perception and responses more fluent because the world is normally predictable. As explained above, we don’t create a prediction for one single sense but for all of them. Simultaneously. We construct a global model that incorporates sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations. This model is constantly updated, moment by moment, and incorporates any deviations from the real external ‘reality’; we move through the world creating and updating – predicting and checking – it. And if our checks show that we have made an error (like when we approach a door and pull on the large handle rather than pushing on it), we simply begin to pay more attention to the actual stream of data arriving from our senses. Any necessary corrections are then built into the model.
The brain also stores core experiences ready for re-use in the simulation. Imagine you are walking through your local park on a lovely sunny day. You have been to the park countless times before, and know it in detail. You have seen the sun filtering through the leaves of the trees many times; you know how the grass looks and smells, the sounds made by the children on the swings, the dogs barking and the traffic in the distance. You know everything you need to know about the park in order to reconstruct a highly accurate simulation of it in your mind. And if there are a few gaps – well, the mind is perfectly capable of filling them in and constructing a seamless experience.
States of Distress Are Also Ones of Hope
It’s not just visits to a lovely park that are recalled from memory to prime your simulation. Distressing thoughts, feelings and emotions are, too. In fact, troublesome states of mind are the easiest to recall. This is because the mind tends to store the most salient experiences on a hair-trigger (along with your most potent thoughts, feelings and emotions). So in practice, the things most likely to be re-experienced in your simulation are the most negative ones. Such dark and amorphous emotions as anxiety, stress, anger and unhappiness are held at the front of the queue.
None of this means that your distress is exaggerated or untrue. If you feel sad, then you are sad. If you feel anxious, stressed, exhausted or angry, then you truly are experiencing such distress. Your predictions are true for you. Simulation is reality.
Painful though they are, these states of distress are also ones of hope. For they are not solid, real and unchanging. Your simulation can be ‘re-calibrated’ to better reflect reality. And you can do this using an ancient type of mindfulness known as vedana or feeling tone meditation (See Deeper Mindfulness: The New Way to Rediscover Calm in a Chaotic World). In these meditations, you are asked to still the mind with a simple breath or body meditation and then to focus, in a very specific way, on the feelings and sensations that arise in the moment that the unconscious mind crystallises into the conscious one. In this way, your simulation is progressively recalibrated and brought into closer alignment with reality. So you learn to experience the world as it truly is rather than one recreated from your darkest memories or deepest fears. Feeling Tone meditations progressively release the grip that such distressing states of mind hold over you. You come to realise that yes, sometimes life can be painful, but at other times it is glorious, too. So you come to experience life as an ever-flowing series of pleasant and unpleasant moments. Moments of keen reality. And it is in such moments, that you can genuinely start to live again.
And research is beginning to show that an eight week program based on these feeling tone meditations can be a highly effective treatment for anxiety, stress, and depression while also enhancing overall wellbeing.[ii] It might not be necessary to take a Red Pill to break free of a distressing simulation. Feeling tone meditations may be enough.
[i] For a review of this approach, see Andy Clark, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind (Oxford University Press, 2016), Lawrence Barsalou (2008), ‘Grounded cognition’, Annual Review of Psychology, 59, pp. 617–45 and Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Pan Books, 2017) and Manjaly, Z. M. & Iglesias, S. (2020), ‘A computational theory of mindfulness based cognitive therapy from the “Bayesian brain” perspective’, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, p. 404.
[ii] Williams, J.M.G., Baer, R., Batchelor, M. et al. What Next After MBSR/MBCT? An Open Trial of an 8-Week Follow-on Program Exploring Mindfulness of Feeling Tone (vedanā). Mindfulness 13, 1931–1944 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-022-01929-0