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Pattern recognition in reverse: Emptiness through drawing, meditation, psychedelics

This post is about various means by which one can overcome the mind´s tendency to construct and show us a world that is "fabricated" (as the Buddhists say), and more of the world is it appears before the construction.



You can have a tiny "deconstructionist" experience, akin to yogic meditation experience of many years, in the following ways:

  • Visual: With a mind as still as possible, look firmly at an object for a long time. Eventually, it may no longer appear as - say - a chair, but as a collection of shapes and colors

  • Auditory: Repeat the same word - it doesn´t matter which - very often. After a while what you say may have lost its meaning - it may just appear to the mind as a sound empty of meaning.

Above , you see one of my drawings from 1963, when I was 9 years old. Our village teacher made us paint "realistic" paintings. When we deviated and gave in to the joy of color and shape, we were reprimanded.

So, I learned to draw in a way that was tightly bound up with concepts: the concept of chairs, people, flowers, houses, etc.

Essentially, I was forced into seeing the world through a tight conceptual lense, feeling ashamed when I went astray by the teacher pointing out that "THAT is not a face!".

My mother remembered vividly the afternoon, when I tried for hours to get the painting of a bee right. She told me that I was desperately crying for having to start again and again, because some aspect of the bee was "not right". No wonder my artistic skills in this area never flourished!

Drawing and art: Betty Edwards on dissolving chairs into patters when drawing, 1979

Only sometimes in the 1990 when I accidentally picked up a copy of Betty Edward´s "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", did I understand what had gone wrong: for the first time in my life, I took up a pencil, looked at an object as a collection of lines, curves, light and shadow, and drew a hand.

Actually, I did not draw a hand. My eyes followed extremely slowly the contours of e.g. the outer rim of the hand, did not even look at the drawing paper, and let my hand with the pencil "automatically" follow my what my eyes saw. Not bothered with getting a hand right, not bothered with producing what my conceptual mind thought a hand should be. I was just following the lines without thinking. In a way, this was already a kind of concentration meditation.

And I liked my drawing! I liked it because quite effortlessly, this new collaboration of eye and hand, freed of concepts, had freed my drawing. My drawing eventually, where I drew abstract patterns the way my eye actually perceived them represented much more a real hand than I had ever been able to produce when I drew "the concept of a hand".

From that point on for a while I drew the faces of my children and wife with enthusiasm. Sadly I lost my drawing book. But I do remember the joy of painting that I had never had as a child.

Betty Edward´s "non-conceptual drawing" pointed forward to mahamudra meditation that I was to meet later.

Meditation: Daniel P Brown on meditation, pattern recognition, and desconstruction, 1981

Daniel P Brown is one of the meditation teachers - such as Culadasa - who have always tried to link the Eastern meditative traditions to Western science.

In particularly, two strands of Western science are linked to meditation training and concepts:

  • Development psychology (what Wilber calls "growing up and cleaning up" as opposed to the Eastern "waking up") such as trauma and attachment theory.

  • Cognitive psychology / cognitive science and neuroscience (such as presented by Goleman in "Altered Traits"). The combination of East and West is also called contemplative science. It includes, for example, EEG research of meditators while meditation.

Dan Brown uses both links in his "high intensity training" retreats. As cognitive science and neuroscience made headway in the last 40 years, he continually updated his training material. Here, I am just focusing on the link to cognitive psychology as established by 1981, the time of writing of his dissertation.

And here is the early basic proposition by Dr Brown, made in his 1981 dissertation:

Deep yogic meditation in parts "is analogous to the process of pattern recognition in cognitive psychology, but in reverse." (Brown 1981, p. 590)

This hypothesis rests on the "constructionist" theory that what we perceive is the result of bottom-up process of receiving sensory stimuli, and aggregating them across levels of ever higher abstraction to what eventually appears in the mind as recognisable objects and instances (e.g. a specific car is an instance of the type "car").

Of course, as science is now much more aware, there are also top-down processes shaping the earliest impressions into what the mind has already learned. However, Daniel Brown in this 1981 dissertation rests on the early versions of this approach which emphasised the bottom-up nature of perception.

What does the yogi do during mediation to "reverse" this process?

Daniel P Brown describes it extensively in the 700+ pages of his dissertation. Essentially, the yogi deconceptualizes their mind by systematically training themselves to perceive at the level of more elementary sense impressions.

In the end, Brown suggests, in line with Culadasa´s (2017) later "The Mind lluminated", that the yogi trains himself to look "behind the scenes", and arrives at lower levels of processing of sensory and mental artefacts. Only through repeated and ever-deeper dismantling the fabrications will the yogi reach enlightenment - defined as insight into the artificial, constructed nature of all perception.

This "deconstruction" process applies to all types of internal events and objects: to visual objects, auditory perceptions, the felt sense, and even to thoughts and emotions-

At the end of the yogic deconstructionist process, "only pure autonomic activity remains". The affective effect is stripped off the experience, as it is seen as "empty" (Brown 1981, p 655).


I have made such an experience once in a psychedelic ceremony, where I experienced only the autonomic reaction of tears, but without corresponding emotions.

Dr Brown´s 1981 foresighted statement that "there there are no constructivist theories of affect within cognitive psychology, the meditative texts anticipate this current trend within other areas of cognitive psychology" (Brown 1981 p 655). The 2016 book by Lisa Feldman-Barret, "How Emotions are Made" fulfills exactly this promise.

He also formulated what Chandaria (2022) called

Descending the hierarchy of cortical fabrication

When I link this back to my experience with "Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain", it appears obvious: Betty Edward helps with seeing the world "naked".

The Bayesian Brain and Meditation - another desconstructionist view

His "pattern recognition in reverse" description is taken up to day also by Chandaria (M. Taft & Chandaria, 2022). Chandaria´s description integrates the newest neurological research and concepts also used in Artificial intelligence, nearly half a century after Dan Brown´s initial attempt.

This slide uses the Buddhist term "fabrication" and "un-fabrication".

Culadasa on the hierarchical board room model of the mind , 2016