Sunday, December 21, 2014

unit testing the brain

The previous time I used a peculiar tech metaphor for regular insight meditation, I likened one of its lasting aftereffects to a gyroscope interrupt. (It trains the practitioner's brain to reflexively identify disturbances to equilibrium.) This time I have a metaphor for the meditation session: "unit testing". In software development, unit testing is systematic, frequent, independent retests of distinct units of software. The rationale behind it is not too different from one-by-one retests of the bulbs in a defective strand of Christmas tree lights. Done properly, unit testing rapidly detects problems on the manageable level of circumscribed software units. Hence, developers can potentially pinpoint a unit's problems before it disrupts the smooth functioning of the whole program, i.e. the intact strand of units.

This hopeful goal entails two requirements in practice. First, the units need to be limited. Unit testing is more useful if the units are small and narrowly directed. At the same time, the humble units need exact connection points, because they only accomplish large, worthwhile tasks by assembling and collaborating. Second, once software developers have suitable units, they need an alternative test mode with purposeful procedures to isolate, run, and check the units. As already stated, the aim of unit testing is to temporarily avoid confusing interference from other units. So the procedures of unit testing should easily uncouple a unit, send it prearranged substitute connections/inputs, and measure differences between outputs and expectations. Again, the chore of retesting one Christmas tree bulb is comparable. One bulb can be conveniently retested due to a single clear outcome to evaluate, a known socket "interface" for the electricity it depends on, and a corresponding bulb tester device which can use the same socket.  

Just as unit testing is valuable for disentangling complicated software, insight meditation is valuable for disentangling the much more complicated activity of the brain. Without unit testing, software can be a massive jumble of intersecting parts. Each part can have many obscure overlaps with the rest. Turbulent brain activity presents similar difficulties. If the corresponding "units" are mental phenomena of all kinds, then the normal mode of these units is to combine, follow in quick sequence, and mask one another. Too much is happening. Subtle understanding is infeasible, because distinguishing the units is difficult.

Like unit testing, insight meditation is a quieter, concentrated mode than normal. Through extreme focus and calm, it deliberately decreases and slows the brain's churning. Then, like unit testing, it disconnects and studies individualized units. When each mental phenomenon arises, it's not granted attention beyond bare perception. Therefore it doesn't capture and transport attention somewhere other than the current moment.  In another modern metaphor, it's one out of a large fleet of buses that arrive at the meditator's bus stop, halt for a short time, and then leave; the meditator sees a bus very well but they repeatedly choose not to enter it and take a trip. By doing this, each phenomenon is more noticeable than it would normally be. It can be checked without the distractions that normally overshadow it.

Over time, a particular insight is inevitable: the units of brain activity are both numerous and diverse. Some of the categories are sensations, feelings, drives, aversions, memories, judgments, plans, statements, inferences, compulsions, worries, fantasies, assumptions, etc. Other liberating insights are that these units are in fact separable, and a solitary unit is much less imposing. Although some units are undesirable and uncontrollable, someone who experiences them isn't obligated to make them worse. They aren't obligated to ruminate on them and engage in a downward spiral. They aren't obligated to despise them for being what they are.

Furthermore, a unit might not only be unpleasant but also ungrounded...or perhaps nonsensical! In essence, it might be the equivalent of a buggy unit. Long-term, it might be contributing to unproductive, destructive patterns of thoughts and actions. But it's unidentified, unexamined, and unverbalized, until insight meditation yields the opportunity to recognize the bug and its full nastiness. It probably won't immediately vanish once it's been recognized; falsehoods can be persistent. Nevertheless, it can be counteracted or disregarded when it's recognized again later.

Some may object that the metaphor of unit testing is appallingly reductive and mechanistic. I don't mind. I've never claimed otherwise about my usage of insight meditation. I'm not interested in converting to different spiritual journeys, paths to enlightenment, lifestyles or cultures or laws or deities or words. I'm not interested in my soul. I'm interested in better teamwork with the sole brain that I have during the sole life that I have. 

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