AI Therapists Clarify How Mindfulness and Circling Help to Understand People

I found recently inspiration for a way of explaining and orienting Circling practice from an unexpected source.

This insight came from reading a book called Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.

The authors spent several years investigating high performing teams and organizations exploring the edges of how to reliably produce altered states of consciousness that have previously been the realm of elite performers, mystics, and psychedelics. These altered states they argue produce amazing insight, productivity, and inspiration that would otherwise be nearly impossible. They break down the drivers for these altered states as psychology, neurobiology, technology and pharmacology.

One chapter features an Artificial Intelligence named Ellie who serves as an AI Therapist. Ellie was funded by the army to identify soldiers with depression with the hopes of stemming the rising tide of suicides. Normally, a robot AI would sound insane. However, they make the compelling case that Ellie is actually not investigating what people are merely saying but more so how they’re expressing themselves. This goes hand in hand with how good circling facilitators work. A good circler (or really anyone who’s good at reading and relating with people) can pay attention to not just the content of what people are saying but how they express themselves via nonverbal cues of the body.

Let’s jump to a section from the book:

…Her ability to identify, assess, and respond to emotion in real time is the result of a growing body of research into the mechanics of embodied cognition. The neurobiology of emotion shows that our nonverbal cues—our tics, twitches, and tone—reveal much more about our inner experience than words typically do. “People are in a constant state of impression management,”13 explains USC psychologist Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the director of the institute. “They have their true self and the self they want to project to the world. And we know the body displays things that sometimes people try to keep contained.”

her ability to track a patient’s unconscious tells involves inexpensive, off-the-shelf technology: a Logitech webcam to monitor facial expressions, a Microsoft Kinect movement sensor to follow gesture, and a microphone to capture word choice, modulation, and inflection. Every second, she’s noting and processing more than sixty different data points. She constantly scans vocal tone for signals of sadness, for example, with every word rated on a seven-point “openness” scale (that is, willingness to disclose revealing information). An array of algorithms then analyzes this data and helps provide a clearer picture of a patient’s overall well-being.

“For the past century, scientists only had good data about two of the three streams of information we can glean from people. There’s what people say about themselves, self-reporting, and what the body can tell us, biophysical data like heart rate and galvanic skin response. But there’s also behavior—our movements and facial expressions. These have always been hard to assess and, typically, we could only get at them through subjective observations.”

With her cameras, sensors, and algorithms, she extends our five senses and gets upstream of our umwelts—or reality as we perceive it. She bypasses our relentless storytelling and reflects back to us a little more of what we’re actually thinking and feeling.

AI therapists like Ellie are simultaneously more objective and more perceptive than humans and they can help us become the same. She gives us distance from our inner critic and a better understanding of what we’re perceiving in the present moment. In a very real sense, Ellie’s dispassionate reflection of who we are mimics the advantages conferred by ecstasis—the ability to look at ourselves from outside ourselves.

So, Ellie constantly keeps track of sixty data points, most of them around a person’s behavior. These non-verbal cues include facial expressions, body gestures, vocal tone, word choice, and modulation. Whereas most humans get wrapped up too much in the storytelling content of how people express themselves (and then get triggered into their own story), Ellie is able to not get lost in the story.

Whereas, the authors somewhat bash on human beings’ ability to assess and track these non-verbals and argue an AI can do it better, I would argue that this ability to read and understand others is a trainable skill. Practices like meditation and circling help us cultivate the skill of not getting lost in other people’s stories (including our own) and cultivate the clarity to detect and discriminate more information such as body language.

It’s interesting that my meditation teacher does hundreds of one on one interviews with students every month. He is able to assess a student’s meditation practice within seconds of them entering the room before they have even spoken a complete sentence. And he does this by reading the person’s behavior and body language. How much tension is in their body as they move? How is their eye contact? How do they open the door? How do they sit? There’s such a wealth of information in just a few seconds of observing a person.

Likewise, in circling practice, one of my teachers said, “Honor Everything, Believe Nothing”. Another way of saying, honor whatever story and experience the person is having but do not believe in the person’s story at face value.

Furthermore, unlike a computer AI, to the extent that a facilitator can empty themselves of a self, the more capable they can take on another person’s being or self. Rather than dispassionately reading a person’s body language and such, you can become the other person. At least it feels that way. And therefore gain a wealth of insight and information and relate from a genuine connection that an AI could never do (at least without its own consciousness and embodiment).

So, mindfulness practice can help us both empty ourselves at will from being in our own storytelling narrative and also cultivate our skill of clarity to discern and break down our experience. This skill translates to our ability to be with other people and reflect back to them who they are.

Likewise, Circling is a way of practicing this mindfulness skill in relationship with other people. In circling, unlike many normal conversations, we track not just what is said but how it is expressed. What words do they keep using over and over? How their body gestures or their eyes move? What’s their body posture? Are they moving or still? Are they making eye contact? There’s such a wealth of information here that can only be recognized if we don’t get lost in that person’s story which is often the expression of their superego or ego. The projection that they want to impress onto others. But their embodied expression reveals the other parts of themselves of how they’re actually feeling and thinking.

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