Silicon Valley's Next Big Hack? Consciousness Itself

You might even be borderlinewith what this tells you as your phone and its wearable companions translate your life into trackable data. This is the core of the quantified self movement, and it has become a big business in the past half decade.
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By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Is there something that lies beyond the quantified self movement? This MIT trained, former NASA robotics engineer says yes.

Admit it: you've used at least one of those self-improvement apps thinking that it would make you a better person. Heck, you might be using one right now: keeping track of steps, calories, sleep, even the number of times you checked your phone yesterday.

You might even be borderline obsessed with what this tells you as your phone and its wearable companions translate your life into trackable data. This is the core of the quantified self movement, and it has become a big business in the past half decade.

"The whole quantified self movement is a path towards self-awareness, it's just right now a path towards conceptual self-awareness."

That's the New Age sounding take of Mikey Siegel, an engineer who is part of the "consciousness hacking" movement in Silicon Valley. Siegel--who has worked for NASA and holds a degree from MIT--and his cohort want to use technology to do more than just turn our activities into data. His work is all about turning what's going on in our minds and bodies into something that can be can experienced externally, in some cases even as a collective experience.

Instead of looking at an infographic that represents heart rate over time, for instance, Siegel built HeartSynch, a hybrid science/art installation which he describes as a "technological mirror." The installation, which made its way from Burning Man to become part of the Body Metrics collection at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, visualizes a group's heartbeat and respiration in aggregate, guiding them towards a collective balance. Audio and visual feedback cue the group, showing them a path towards synching up. It's a technologist's approach to group meditation.

That focus on meditation is no accident, as the past two decades have seen a growing interest in scientific approaches to solving what's known as The Hard Problem of Consciousness. While there are still philosophies of science that hold that consciousness is just an illusion, a growing body of data coming in from schools like Harvard and Yale suggest that focused attention--better known as meditation-- can have positive effects on depression and aging and can even make physical changes in the structure of the brain.

(For a good primer on the debates over consciousness check out Oliver Burkeman's "Why can't the world's greatest minds solve the mystery of consciousness?" in the Guardian.)

Siegel takes the idea that this focused attention can change people's experience of life and runs with it. For instance: the prototype project HearNow was an experiment that converted brain and heart activity into "immersive soundscapes." The project page claims that "by listening to this self-symphony, we can learn the sounds of our body and mind-states increasing self-awareness, helping us maintain presence and focus."

Instead of engaging with conceptual abstractions of what's going on inside our heads, this brand of consciousness hacking aims to get people to feel their way towards self-awareness. If the classical model of consciousness is Descartes' "I think therefore I am," this kind of self-awareness is rooted not in thought, but in what's known in some schools of Buddhist teaching as non-dual awareness.

Now it would be some kind of fool's errand to try and explain in a paragraph what has eluded some philosophers and sages for eons. If you're in the camp that believes consciousness to be nothing more than an illusion, then speaking of non-dual awareness will seem like an even larger flight of fancy. Even if you hold that what's experienced inside our heads is somehow "real," the notion that there is a different mode of consciousness will seem strange.

Non-dual awareness is, in certain traditions, the goal of meditative practice. It is synonymous with enlightenment, a loaded term that comes with mystic baggage. Siegel's own use of the term puts it into the context of belief systems: the battles that go on in both our culture and our heads.

Basically, we're all walking around with a model of reality in our heads, looking for facts that fit our belief systems. This is where confirmation bias and solipsistic systems like "The Secret" come from. Non-dual awareness turns the belief/reality dynamic on its head: putting our active experience of the world and not our conceptual representation of it in the driver's seat of perception.

"Arguably the reason we as western people suffer is because of our belief systems, it's because of our minds, not because of any actual circumstances that are around us," said Siegel. He asserts those beliefs end up shaping a lot more than just what's in our heads. "The technology we create, we create in our own image."

While Siegel's personal projects have bridged a gap between neuroscience and art, he's working now on creating an infrastructure for exploring what we could call an "app and gadget" approach to mindfulness. In the wake of HeartSynch, Siegel and several colleagues have formed the Transformative Technology Lab at the private Sofia University in Palo Alto. It's right in the heart of Silicon Valley.

The lab is acting as an incubator space for those who want to marry the gadget and app approach of the Valley to the often esoteric consciousness problem. The lab hosts both a series of Consciousness Hacking Meetups in Silicon Valley and San Francisco and is putting together a Transformative Technology conference in Palo Alto this June.

The timing couldn't be better, as one of the year's most anticipated product launches is evidence of which way the tech winds are blowing.

"(Take) for example the Apple Watch's ability to haptically send a heartbeat or a tap pattern," said Siegel. "This is not a symbolic representation of something, this a non-conceptual form of communication. If we think of most meaningful experiences in our lives, the things that actually matter the most--especially ones that involve other people--they're not about some thought or idea typically. They're about something you feel."

Apple isn't the only big force pushing into the marriage of tech and "the feels." Intel is pushing cameras that can read users heartbeats, a technology which is being used to power a horror video game that teaches principles of meditation. Stanford researchers have hacked game controllers to use biometrics to affect difficulty settings automatically.

What Siegel and the Transformative Technology Lab hope to prove is that there is more than just entertainment value in these new devices. What's less clear is if the Valley's capital will ever be as excited about technology that can move people towards contentment as it is about technology that can move people around.

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