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Bias and Mind: Detecting It, Working With It, Transcendent Mind
Charles T. Tart
Copyright © 2017 Charles T. Tart
While eating my breakfast this morning, I was reading an excellent new book on expanding the frontiers of science to include the mind, rather than materialistically explain it away. It’s Transcendent Mind: Rethinking the Science of Consciousness, by Imants Barušs and Julia Mossbridge. While I haven’t read enough of it to give it a full review, I want to at least plug it here. The reason I’m writing this right now is that was prompted by its connection to an interesting event that happened to me Tuesday afternoon.
My wife and I have been attending an eight week class on MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. I’ve been curious to see how ancient spiritual and meditation techniques have been adapted to modern culture – and seeing it’s been done very well! This was the seventh class, and the instructor began it by having us sit quietly and simply noticing where we were sitting in the meeting room, what the room looked like from where we sat, and how we felt. After encouraging us to do this for a couple of minutes, he suggested that rather than continuing to sit in the place we were in, which might well be the usual place we sat in every class, we might switch to another chair.
Having taught various forms of mindfulness myself (and still doing so occasionally at GlideWing.com), I thought this was an excellent exercise: a slight amount of stress introduced in the context of mindfulness can be very growthful. I’ve been on many meditation retreats and noticed, with some “superior” amusement, that people get incredibly territorial about exactly where they sit. They either have their designated spot to sit on cushions on the floor or their special chair to receive teachings and meditate. I put superior in quotes because I know my attitude is a distorting remnant of childhood conditioning and try to not let it catch me in life.
When we were asked to move, I had already picked a more comfortable looking chair across the circle of students, a chair I’d always wanted to try and which was then empty. But as I started toward it, I noticed one of the women in the class was also making toward it. I sped up! I’d like to say that I quickly and consciously accepted the fact that I preferred to sit in that chair and consciously decided to speed up, but the speeding up actually occurred slightly before my conscious mind had gotten to the point of thinking about it! Some other part of me, a very basic, bodily part of my nature had decided on a goal and was going for it! Like a robot or a self-driving car, programmed that if A is sensed, B should be done…
Alas, she got to that chair and started sitting down before I could get there quickly enough to politely precede her. Instantly, in terms of my conscious experience, though, I saw there was a similar style chair just outside the circle, in back of her, and quickly pulled it over and into the circle so I could sit there. It was, as I had hoped, more comfortable, and besides trying to be mindful – that’s the point of the class! – I felt mildly satisfied, it was a good approximation to my desired chair.
As we listened to the instructor giving us more suggestions on noticing and reflecting on our sensations and feelings, I looked toward the chair I had started from. This was another chair I had deliberately picked as more comfortable than many others that were in the room, at least for the way I sit, and I had left my jacket hanging on it. I think a part of me was deliberately deciding to “mark my territory,” without much conscious involvement in deciding to do this! No one had sat in my chair, though, and I noticed that, at a bodily level, I was also pleased that my chair had been left alone.
When the instructor asked us to switch chairs once again, I went straight for my original chair and was pleased to get back in it. Then I thought about these observations of aspects of me other than my conscious mind making decisions and initiating actions…
This is an example of personal growth, manifesting in my ordinary life. I’m not very advanced as a meditator, but Gurdjieff work on mindfulness in life has been very helpful to me, and I eventually wrote three books (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential, Living the Mindful Life, and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People) bringing that kind of mindfulness practice and modern psychology together, primarily on a personal practice level. I don’t hold any extreme views of the sort that the Ancient Masters knew all Truth and we must believe whatever they are supposed to have said or, at the other extreme, only answers blessed by mainstream Science have any real value. Done properly, which we have little knowledge yet of how to do, both science and spirituality can enrich each other’s knowledge and effectiveness.
How to help the best of science and the best of spirituality enrich and help each other? One way I’ve thought a lot about concerns problems of unrecognized preferences and biases, hopes and fears, personal and cultural distortions, distorting and limiting the process of science as well as personal functioning. So I’m honored and pleased that Barušs and Mossbridges’ Transcendent Mind found that one of my examples of discovering, working with, and largely transcending personal and cultural bias has been helpful in advancing science. This is perhaps discovering a way ESP may use a known information processing strategy to be more accurate. Until I can find time to write a proper review of the whole of Transcendent Mind, the following quotes constitute a specialized review of the book, but I strongly recommend it to anyone involved with science or deeply interested in the nature of mind.
Barušs and Mossbridge write: “But not all biases lead to scientific disaster, as long as they are discovered in time. In The End of Materialism, Charles Tart (2009) described how he thought a nonconscious bias against precognition ironically allowed him to uncover data in support of precognition. He was confronted with the reality of this bias while examining data from one of his telepathy experiments. In this experiment, a “sender” sat in front of an array of 10 lights. A random- number generator would determine which of the 10 lights would be lit next, and once that light was illumined, the sender attempted to communicate the appropriate target light to a “receiver” who indicated on a similarly arranged panel of 10 switches which light she thought had been lit. The data supported Tart’s hypothesis in that the suggested telepathy had occurred. Tart could have stopped there, but he recognized that other researchers had analyzed telepathy trials for precognitive telepathy by comparing the correct response for each trial (e.g., Trial 2) with the response given on the previous trial (e.g., Trial 1). He analyzed the data in this way to look for precognitive telepathy, even though he assumed he was just being thorough. To his surprise, he found a statistically significant effect.”
“Tart (2009) reflected that finding this precognitive effect is what made him aware of his bias against precognition, a bias that surprised him because he thought he believed the existing precognition data from other laboratories. “My bias is that at some deep level, I find the idea of precognition . . . so incomprehensible that I just never think about precognition in a serious way” (Tart, 2009, p. 136). He suspected that the reason he was able to do the analysis that led to seeing the evidence for precognitive telepathy in his data was because he found precognition so absurd that it did not threaten him. “In a sense I hadn’t ‘rejected’ or ‘defended against’ the idea of precognition; the very idea was so nonsensical to me at a deep level that I hadn’t needed to actively reject or defend against it” (Tart, 2009, pp. 136-137).”
“But Tart has recognized this bias in time. If he had not, he could have easily dismissed his newfound evidence for precognitive telepathy a bit later, when he discovered that what he had assumed was a random series of light patterns instead was not in fact random. It turned out that the particular sequence of lights he used could have been responsible for what seemed to be a precognitive telepathy effect, because after a particular light was lit, it was not likely to be lit again. This was a flaw in the randomization, and it happened to match a tendency in the participants to not choose the same light twice.”
“It would have been easy for Tart to assume that the precognitive telepathy results were due to the correspondence between the nonrandom sequence and the participants’ responses. However, Tart thought critically about the situation, realizing that if the errant randomization had been to blame, then he could simulate the randomizatio
n error and calculate whether the results could be explained fully by it. He found that the patterns created by the randomization error and the participants’ responses could explain some, but nowhere near all, of the precognitive telepathy effect. So, even if Tart is correct in assuming that the depth of his bias is what allowed him to do the analysis in the first place, the data were eventually correctly interpreted only because Tart carefully observed his own subjective state and used critical thinking to counter his own bias!”
The information sharpening process I theorized was at work in my ESP data, which I named transtemporal inhibition, might be a key to how psychic processes like ESP work. I say “theorized,” as it will take a lot of research by other scientists (I’m retired from active research projects now) to test in order to see whether I “theorized” about it in an interesting way but it didn’t work out or I “discovered” it… More on transtemporal inhibition can be found at a recent publication about it in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Spring 2017, pp. 29-48) will inspire research.
Barušs and Mossbridge note that: “Introspection is a critical path toward identifying our biases, and introspection is one of the processes that occurs during some forms of meditation. For many Western scientists and clinicians, the benefit of meditation has been taken seriously as a research topic only in the past 2 decades…”
I would amplify “introspection” not just in the usual Western sense of thinking about something but developing some skill in the disciplined observation of internal experience, as introduced in MBSR work or in the earlier Buddhist Vipassana meditation tradition…
This is the end of this note, but hopefully just a step in a continuing process where we understand our minds much better and apply that understanding for betterment…and as much transcendence as possible…