Ghost in the Machine: How Feedback Shapes the Mind



        Have you ever seen two mirrors opposite one another, the cascade of you, imposed on a bounding infinity?

Have you ever heard the screech of a microphone that gets too close to a speaker?

Or compound interest?

When Benjamin Franklin died, he left one thousand pounds sterling to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, to be saved in a fund for those in need. It has accumulated interest for 200 years and is now worth more than $10 million.

So what is feedback?

A feedback system is one in which there is an input – which is then transformed, and the resulting output becomes the input for the next round of transformation. A famous feedback equation by Benoit Mandelbrot can produce stunning beauty and complexity, from a very simple initial input:

  “Tree of Life” created with Mandelbulber 3D by Ben Switzer

        Feedback can create beautiful fractal images like the one above, through many generations of small change,  while still preserving the core elements of the very first input.  This is how the shape of cauliflower or tree branches form – in self-similar copies of that original self.  That core sameness is what’s known in physics and mathematics as an invariance, which simply means “that which stays the same.”

Why is this important to intelligence?

The mind is a grand feedback loop – partly because the hardware of the brain is a recursive structure of self-similar networks, which look strikingly like lightning bolts, or branches of a tree.  This is no coincidence, as we are in and of nature.

All things have a core form, an invariant property which defines them. Many scientists would argue that the invariant form is a law of physics, such as thermodynamics or quantum physics. And these are valid, as at the smallest level we are atoms, but this ignores a crucial question for modern science, which asks if systems are a sum of their parts alone. But we are discovering that the world in its enormous complexity, reeling toward an entropic fate, is exceedingly difficult to predict.

In the 1600s, Isaac Newton envisioned the Universe as a great clock with many moving parts, whose outcome could be exquisitely predicted with sufficient data.  Einstein revealed to us that the world is relative, and the spooky nature of quantum mechanics tells us that the very act of observing the Universe affects it.  So how do we predict a system we are affecting?

The field of this concern is known as complex systems theory, and examines a range of complex systems including social networks, climate, computing, economics, game theory, and quantum physics.  It looks at how chaotic systems have a morphology (usually a symmetry) at the geometry of a system, or how it is shaped. A good example of morphology is a cube of ice, which when subjected to heat, changes its shape to a liquid. But is it not still water? Apply even more energy, and it becomes vapor.  Just as a star, when subjected to extreme lengths of time, energy, and pressure, can become a black hole.

In terms of biology, many would argue that our form resides in the genetic information contained in every cell in our bodies. However, increasing understanding of epigenetics reveals that genetics are not the concrete blueprints we imagined – that genes can change throughout our lifetimes. That means that our true nature is a relationship between our genes, our perception, and our environment. Therefore it is crucial to maximize the impact your environment has on the development of your brain.  There are strategies to maximize your environment, and at PN, we have collected the most effective for cultivating new neurons and in the process, new ideas.

Indeed, thoughts and choices may alter our genes and can even slow the aging process.

So how can we take advantage of this loopy mind we find ourselves in?

Influencing a feedback loop is simpler than you’d think.  Pull the microphone away from the speaker, and the sound gets weaker.  Change the curvature of the opposing mirrors, and you get a funhouse effect.

The mind is one of the most complex feedback structures we know of, and interestingly, the very knowledge that the mind has a feedback nature can influence that nature.  When we realize that we are the mirror that reflects ourselves, we can alter that reflection.

This is part of what we do at Prometheon. We examine the symmetry of mind, which when revealed promotes self-awareness and empowers one’s ability to change. After all, change is what the brain does best.

So why don’t people change all the time?

Loops become entrenched, solidified.  In the structures of the brain, this is known as excitability, and relates to the probability a given neuron or neural network will fire, as well as the growth and connectivity of axons and dendrites.  Certain networks are more likely to fire based on many repetitions, thus the expression you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. In the example of addiction, if a person is an alcoholic, the smell of beer may elicit the firing of networks in advance of even having a drink – because those behaviors are so well established that the brain is predicatively activating itself.

These loops can be altered – but only by the mind, as it transforms stimuli into perception, and qualifies that perception with understanding.  This is why many people must “hit rock bottom” before they can change.  The realization that one has a problem, in the analogy of the alcoholic, is a reordering of self-perception.  Although hitting bottom is an external event, the experience of that event always happens in the mind.

Think about your daily life – a system of routines, executed in a sequence.  A lot like a computer program. Humans are creatures of habit, there is comfort in a well-closed loop, in minimizing chaos and unpredictability.  Yet paradoxically our minds are the most  chaotic structures ever discovered – and for many – this daunting bulb of dream and dread can have people convinced they cannot change. But perception itself is an act of perpetual creation and change.

Here at Prometheon, the first step to change is acknowledging that one can change. Often times initial sessions include a crash course in brain structures, so the participant can understand they are making physical changes to their brains that correspond with mental changes in their minds. That who they are is a spinning waltz of the mind commanding the brain, and the brain shaping the mind in turn.

There is beauty in the loop that is us, as we are a reflection of the loopiness of nature. As we go on in life, we move only forward with the arrow of time, as a river flows one-way.


And like the river,  we shape the riverbed that cradles us.



Sign up for a program today, cultivate your loop – and become the serene riverbed you always knew you were.


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