Interoception, Ataraxia, Rationality & Updating your Priors
I try to read as many books as possible when I’m not working (currently it’s David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature), but a lot of the time, all I have time for are work-related articles. Many are a little on the dry side, but every once in a while, come across new topics or ideas that are really interesting or even enlightening. I usually tell P about them, but recently was inspired by the idea of sharing some of them with you. So, here’s a new series of Talking Points, that is, ideas that I’ve come across that I think you might be interested in hearing about. This edition covers the concepts of ataraxia, interoception, and rational thinking.
The Greek word ataraxia (ἀταραξία) loosely refers to a lack of disturbance or trouble; tranquility. Achieving ataraxia requires the mind to be in a lucid state of equanimity or evenness. A mind that has achieved ataraxia is characterised by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. The concept behind the term is that rather than pursuing happiness, we should strive to pursue a sense of tranquility.
“Ataraxia should act like a slow-release drug, accumulating over days and weeks. Ancient philosophers believed achieving ataraxia created an emotional homeostasis, where the effect wouldn’t just be a more stable base-level mood, but one that would hopefully flow out to the people around you.” Being in a state of ataraxia will help you face and deal with the troubles that may enter your life such as grief, failure, mistakes—and being prepared for these things; but “ataraxia is also learning how to relax and to have fun and making the most of each day. That also causes you to flourish.” (The Guardian)
It is a ‘resting’ state of serenity and achieved by using reason to assess a situation rationally, to understand what you can control, and what you can’t control. What you cannot control is not worth worrying about.
Ataraxia is a mindset that can be cultivated internally, so if you would like to know more about it, you can read further with these two articles at The Guardian& Medium.
I have been coming across so many articles lately on rationality, and am also looking forward to Steven Pinker’s upcoming book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (Viking). It’s a topic that I never realised I was so interested in until I discovered how irrational and emotionally driven nearly everything I do is. Since then, reading about it and learning how to be more rational has become a bit of a new hobby of mine.
Introspection is key to rationality. A rational person must practice what the neuroscientist Stephen Fleming, in “Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness” (Basic Books), calls “metacognition,” or “the ability to think about our own thinking”—“a fragile, beautiful, and frankly bizarre feature of the human mind.” Metacognition emerges early in life, when we are still struggling to make our movements match our plans.
Another important part of rational thinking is Bayesian reasoning: When new information comes in, you don’t want it to replace old information wholesale. Instead, you want it to modify what you already know to an appropriate degree. The degree of modification depends both on your confidence in your preexisting knowledge and on the value of the new data. Bayesian reasoners begin with what they call the “prior” probability of something being true, and then find out if they need to adjust it. (The New Yorker)
If the new information is more valuable than your preexisting knowledge, it might cause you to update your opinions and revise your priors—that is, to alter some of your well-justified prior assumptions. The point of rationality is not to build an immovable world view, but instead, to continually update your probabilities, and move closer to a more useful account of reality.
If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, click here.
David Robson wrote an interesting article in The Guardian last month about interoception–your brain’s perception of the state that your body is in, transmitted from receptors on all your internal organs, including your cardiovascular system: your lungs, your gut, your bladder and your kidneys.
Scientists believe that our ability to read these interoceptive signals can determine our capacity to regulate our emotions, and in turn, regulate our susceptibility to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
“Much of the processing of these signals takes place below conscious awareness: you won’t be aware of the automatic feedback between brain and body that helps to keep your blood pressure level, for instance, or the signals that help to stabilise your blood sugar levels. But many of these sensations – such as tension in your muscles, the clenching of your stomach, or the beating of your heart – should be available to the conscious mind, at least some of the time. And the ways you read and interpret those feelings will have important consequences for your wellbeing.” (The Guardian)
If you are interested in learning more about this lesser known sense and its effect on our mind-body connection, click here.