Professor Mark Miller is a cognitive scientist and philosopher working on the groundbreaking frontiers of predictive processing research. His work’s evolving, highly conceptual nature means his lectures are a constantly unfolding synthesis of inspirations. 

There is never a moment of stillness — physically or mentally — as he speaks; in his lectures, he joyously careens around the room like a spinning top, connecting insights from Daoist meditation and psychology research to horror movies, internet phenomena, and silly anecdotes about his newborn daughter. 

However, my interview with him for The Varsity was an unusually still conversation, where he sat cross-legged atop a desk like a guru about to enter a deep meditative trance. Our interview, which I originally set up for the Love and Sex issue in February, touched on the relationship between developments in cognitive science and what they indicate about love and intimacy. 

The Varsity: Some interesting cognitive science research suggests that when people fall in love, their representations of themselves and their romantic partners blur together. This seems to conceptualize love as a process of ‘becoming’ the beloved. What are the implications of this idea?

Mark Miller: My research is on predictive processing, an emerging cognitive framework that suggests the brain and body work together as a prediction engine. This means they take everything they know about the world to make good predictions about what happens next, and the differences between the predictions and real-world signals are then used to better adapt their model of the world. So one of the things that we do as predictive systems is try to reduce the volatility in our environment. 

If you’re in a relationship, you’re not alone in a prediction system. We might’ve evolved to couple with others to create dyads acting as a single system, thus reducing volatility. I hear something beautiful in the way you describe love as a coming together of two systems who care about each other so much that the volatility that you face is actually the volatility that I face. I think romantic love is the process of our models teaming up in that important confluence. 

We know that sex and intimacy bring people together in a powerful way. If intimacy helps us step into a position of vulnerability, where we become more available to be seen, that’s inherently a situation where you drop some social protective mechanisms. Ideally, we’re not talking about one-night stands, which I think are completely caustic. One-night stands, especially repeated ones, enforce your belief that other humans are just opportunities to self-gratify, which I suspect is synonymous with psychopathy. 

TV: Would you agree that empathy seems to be the core trait underpinning these relationships of mutual care? 

MM: I did my master’s research on empathy, to update some of the ways we think about [it]. We often separate cognition from emotion; we understand empathy as mimicking each other’s emotions to think better about the person. I don’t think this is the best description of what empathy is. When you start appreciating that emotion, cognition, and behavioural nervous dynamics are deeply entangled, you get a different view of what empathy is: shared emotion turns out to be shared perception and cognition. 

A better way of thinking about empathy is not me as a detective collecting clues about you. But maybe empathy is a quick-and-dirty evolved way for me to step into your reality. We’re potentially living in very different realities, and empathy dynamics help us work together as a team.

TV: Your work emphasizes the importance of ‘belief hygiene,’ the idea that the beliefs we surround ourselves with tangibly impact how we experience the world. Today, young people are having fewer relationships than ever. I wonder if this is symptomatic of a larger digital culture characterized by disinformation and distrust. How do you think that affects our abilities to form meaningful, loving relationships?

MM: Given our framework, it becomes obvious that what we believe really, really matters. As you generate your experience based on the networks of beliefs you’ve installed over your lifetime, what you believe shapes your experience of reality. If you appreciate that fact, it becomes fundamental to select good mentors and information that are conducive to a healthy worldview. 

Something that’s shown up in our research, relative to this, is around establishing non-zero sum activities as central to your aims. If you’re unfamiliar with zero sum, it’s a socially antagonistic game where if I win, you don’t, or vice versa. Over the long run, you get into a scarcity mindset, where you believe you’ll only get what you want by taking it from someone else. If we can’t team up, we regularly fail to manage the volatility in our environment — especially today, when volatility is peaking with uncertainty about who we are, our politicians, and our news. The only way to survive this massive uncertainty is through teaming up with other systems we trust. 

TV: You’ve put forth a strong indictment of hookup culture, which dating apps have charged into a huge phenomenon. Though we recognize how dehumanizing these apps can be, they’re still a big part of social rituals, especially on college campuses. What do you think is a good way to move forward in a society that’s heavily reliant on these apps, while maintaining your hopefulness, integrity, and empathy for others?

MM: Social media sets us up to see other people as storefronts rather than whole human beings, which are much more challenging, mysterious, beautiful, and important things. Going on reels, where you’re pinged with five-second clips about love, is a horrible, ridiculous idea. And if you’re going to sources like Instagram to figure out what a relationship looks like, real sex and love are going to become punishing for you. 

We’re ruining our natural abilities to tune into what real relationships are. They’re gonna be hard, awkward, and challenging, but also intimate, beautiful, and soft. If we’re not tuned into that, the only place that we’re going to feel satisfied is back online. 

There’s a larger story here about the hedonic treadmill. The neuroscientist Peter Sterling says that when our culture restricts opportunities for meaningful, beneficial, wholesome engagements with others and the world, we’re left with the goal of maximizing our few hard-coded rewards, like sex and food. Today, many places we used to seek meaningful experiences are being removed. Concurrently, things like porn addiction, fast food consumption, and hookup culture are on the rise. So then your question becomes a bigger one: what do we do about the meaning crisis that we’re in? 

It might not be as easy as just saying we can just ‘stop’ hookup culture. If our society keeps perpetuating a loss of meaning, then our natural inclination is to maximize easy rewards in order to feel something, even if it’s temporary. Part of the solution there is finding more nonzero sum things to care about. Nonzero sum aims are endlessly interesting. Personally, I say my academic career is my hobby, while my central interest is becoming a good human being! For me, that means learning to be wise, joyful, and of good service to people in my life. If you set goals like that, there will always be meaningful things, no matter what situation you’re in. 

TV: What about good influences — has any art struck you as capturing something intrinsic and real about the experience of love? If an alien came down to earth and you were tasked with explaining human love to it, what would you show it?

MM: Love is so dynamic and unfolding that I don’t think any set image does it justice. Maybe the Sufi poets got it, maybe Rumi. But really, if an alien came down and asked, ‘What is this love thing?’, I would try to fall in love with that alien. Spend some time exploring each other, trusting each other, and caring for each other’s needs as much as our own. I would invite it into my life. Maybe the best way to teach what love is is to be in love. 

TV: Okay, now what’s the deal with sex? It’s popularly said that humans are the only organisms that pursue sexual pleasure for pleasure’s sake, as opposed to a reproductive purpose. What about sex strikes you as an inherently human thing, and what might the predictive processing framework have to say about it?

MM: The special thing humans can do is create reasonably volatile situations where we learn a lot, transform deeply, and find new opportunities to reduce error. Being ‘on the edge’ is valuable and fun for our kind of system! The appeal of things like risky play and horror movies is something our research is really interested in. 

I think sex might be just like that in an important way — maybe death and sex share something there. They’re both scary as hell. Nobody teaches you how to do them well. We’re not getting good information from anybody who matters about how to do them. 

So maybe sex can be thought of as you and your partner jointly creating this risky space, breaking your own models, and exploring alternative ones in a safe yet scary environment. Risky play is a ‘safe scary’ environment where you become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

TV: I feel like the idea of ‘safe scary’ is relevant to dating as a whole, because it’s learning to be vulnerable, acquire new information, and ultimately, form a fuller picture of the world and people in it. 

I’d like to end by asking: what advice might you have for young people who are having problems forming romantic and sexual connections?

MM: It might not be what you’re expecting, and that’s okay. I believe the first step is practicing kindness and love with yourself. Then extend that to your network, letting romantic and sexual escapades grow from a foundation of self-compassion and care for others. Prioritize wholesome and inspiring interactions that serve the greater good. 

I would say, start by taking time every day to love yourself in a contemplative, meditative way. Sit down and start honestly loving your body, loving yourself, and then extend that circle of care to your friends, family, strangers, and beyond. Let that authentic care underpin all your relationships. That is a really strong, ethical, and virtuous foundation, I think, to reevaluate what relationships and sexuality are all about. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.