I recently had my worldview forcefully re-centered by Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. It vividly illustrates that the world is categorically far better than it has ever been, while also being ever more obviously in dire need of further improvement.
An idea appearing at the end of it really knocked me over: the “global workspace” model of consciousness, and specifically the blackboard metaphor thereof. This is the idea that the many modules of your brain have a common area for posting up information to be shared with the others. Each module does lots of subconscious work off on its own, but then can scribble their results on the central blackboard, erase bits, and read the other modules’ results in order to work collaboratively. (Sort of like the top levels of the memory hierarchy in a computer, where only the data being actively processed is moved into place for quick access.) Here’s the exciting part: perhaps the blackboard literally equals consciousness. Like, what if consciousness is what it feels like to be the workspace for a bunch of brain modules, where they write information to be shared, and to be the process that evaluates the disparate contents of the blackboard and synthesizes them into coherent ideas? That’s exciting!
The unexpected benefit of discovering this model is that now I have a new meditation technique. When thoughts attempt to get thought in my brain, I imagine them as words and images being written on the blackboard. That’s fine — I patiently watch them be written there, and then calmly erase them. Often, before I can even finish erasing the last thought, the next one is being written, so I then move on to erasing that one. After a while, sometimes I can keep the blackboard blank for a few seconds at a time. Focusing on the image of the board being continually erased is a perfect way to allow thoughts to arise, but to avoid getting carried away by them. I imagine that the better one gets at meditation, the more blank blackboard time they can achieve.