[L R} and Relevance Realization

What is the optimal thing to pay attention to?

14 min readDec 6, 2023


How do we know how to pay attention?

This is the essence of the machinery of Left and Rite.

Right now, at this very moment, if your brain was forced to process everything in the room, it would explode.

But, lucky for you! The mindbody is wise enough to selectively process and and sift through the billions of data points constituting the environment around you.

RRR is a theory that offers practical insight into the nature of [L+R} in the human mind. It was formulated by University of Toronto professor of cognitive psychology, John Vervaeke. It is foundational to our lives and the collective story humans have spun over millennia. It is!

Recursive Relevance Realization.

Recursive Relevance Realization (RRR) is a framework that conceptualizes an organism’s ability to “pay attention” as resulting from a dynamical system in which a cognitive agent makes use of opponent processing relationships to zero in on relevant aspects of the world, and move closer to certain goals.

In plain English now: RRR is about how we choose what to focus on at any given moment in time. Opponent processing is [L+R}, and we are wired this way.

It seems to be our nature to take this for granted!

“Yes, we just know what’s important, and that’s that! Nothing to psychoanalyze here, homie.”

Respectfully, we’re going to bypass that, in the name of science.

Cognitive science is a growing field that merges neuroscience, psychology, computational theory, and thinking about thinking (philosophy). Slightly less theoretical and thinking about thinking these days, ever since sneaking from the whiteboard of theory onto our handheld devices. Non-human cognitive agents like the neural network-based models behind ChatGPT and Anthropic Claude testify to how well humans have been able to get cognitive and computer sciences to converge.

The left and rite of RRR

In 2021, while recovering from a head injury (always wear a helmet while cycling), a revelation dawned on me. I realized, for the first time, the absurdity of our predicament. A new, never-before asked question emerged in my mind: “how can it be that you’re here and now?”

It was as if someone was shaking me to wake up and pay attention.

But linguistically, to pay attention pre-supposes some sort of currency.

What is this attention we seem to be paying — and how did we come to know it? How did we acquire that which we now pay with? Is this about how we spend out life force?

And what of transactional fairness? How can we be sure we are not getting ripped off? Especially when there’s so much cheap and shitty information out there.

The magnitude of this nonsense in my mind was life-changing, but I struggled to put it into words for an appointed term.

Until I stumbled upon that YouTube series led by a professor of cognitive science and Buddhist psychology from the University of Toronto.

Few ideas capture the quintessence of human thought and perception as elegantly as John Vervaeke’s concept of recursive relevance realization (RRR).

John, thank you for gifting me the language to map to these feelings, theories, and ideas.

RRR is an immensely powerful pillar and aspect of [Left + Rite}. It offers a window into the intricate mechanisms that govern our interactions with the world around us.

Expect to see more advances from this space as the two CS giants, computer and cognitive science, continue their convergence.

Realizing What’s Relevant

At any given moment, our senses are bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information. Processing every bit of this data would be suicide by short-circuiting our brains.

Death by combinatorial explosion — remember the error message on your calculator when you experimented with big numbers?

This is where relevance realization comes into play, acting as the mechanism of mind, a cognitive filter that helps us navigate this sea of information.

You see, our cognition works in a very interesting way. It’s what makes us human. We can remember, plan, abstract, recognize patterns, and think about thinking. We are dynamic enough to pay attention, surf waves, take naps, and skydive.

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine that familiar spectrum spanning from left to right…

How we humans decide what’s worth paying attention to? That’s a spectrum, spanning left to right… from algorithmic search, to intuitive guess.

The Left: Algorithmic Search

On the Left we have the algorithmic aspect of RRR. This is how our brain employs logical, structured methods to sift through information. It’s a process akin to a search algorithm in a computer, methodically sorting and prioritizing data based on learned patterns, rules, and experiences. This side is systematic, reliable, and grounded in rationality, allowing us to make sense of the world in a coherent, structured manner.

  • It’s like following a recipe. When faced with a problem, our brain retrieves stored information and follows learned procedures to find a solution. For example, when planning a route to a new location, we use algorithmic thinking to consider distance, time, and known paths.
  • In cognitive science, this is often related to System 2 thinking, as described by Daniel Kahneman. It’s deliberate, logical, and requires conscious effort. It’s the system we engage when solving a math problem or learning a new language.

Interestingly, today’s proponents of Western ideology may have forgotten where the word “algorithm” comes from… The Middle East.

A Muslim polymath (person very gifted in many subjects) named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.

He was a Persian polymath who helped steer Arabic Golden age advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and geography. He was appointed as the astronomer and head of the House of Wisdom in the city of Baghdad around 820 CE.

And he was an orthodox Muslim — one who submits to God.

Is there anything rational about that?

There may just be… but we’ll need to cross the bridge to the rite in order to find out.

Baghdad’s House of Wisdom

The Rite: Intuitive Guess

On the Rite, we encounter the more enigmatic aspect of relevance realization — intuition. The ‘random’, or intuitive, guess.

This is less about logical deduction and more about an instinctive, often subconscious understanding of what really matters. It’s an innate ability to ‘feel’ the significance of certain aspects of our environment without explicit reasoning. It could be due to our long evolutionary arc. It can often be wrong (or outdated). But we seem to remember when it’s right.

It may be attributed to a gut feeling… Which could in turn be an activated solar (like the sun) plexus, the original name for modern science’s gut-brain axis.

This side of relevance realization is less tangible, and as a result, has a propensity for early dismissal in our modern world — certainly in the West. Occasionally defying clear-cut logical principles, intuition remains crucial for navigating emotions, uncertainty, and novelty. It’s a bit like tapping into the reservoir of genetic wisdom we didn’t even know was at our disposal.

  • An intuitive, or “random” guess, is more spontaneous and often operates on a level outside of what we typically consider ‘conscious’. It is the sensing of the mood in a room upon entering. This process runs in the background and may be based on patterns and experiences that are not always consciously accessible.
  • It is System 1 thinking, which is automatic, fast, and often emotional. For instance, when catching a ball, we don’t calculate its trajectory consciously; instead, we intuitively position ourselves to catch it.

There is certainly something unconscious going on here. But how tuned in to it are we?

It seems that our important goals and some part of us is capable of operating in the background while our conscious mind is elsewhere, a phenomenon which many famous writers, scientists, and entrepreneurs have noted was a boon to their creativity and insights.

A young Steve Jobs once traveled to India, living in ashrams for 9 months, in search of enlightenment.

Many years later, Jobs told Walter Isaacson, who wrote his biography:

“The main thing I’ve learned is intuition, that the people in India are not just pure rational thinkers, that the great spiritual ones also have an intuition.”

After returning from India, Jobs, along with his friend Steve Wozniak, founded Apple Computer in 1976.

Considering the Corpus Between Left and Rite

It stands to reason that both sides are essential, but how do we get them to play nice with one another?

This is the story of our lives.

It stands to reason that we are modeled to favor one side over the other.

The Left provides a stable, rule-based foundation.

The Rite introduces flexibility, creativity, and adaptability.

It can be argued that the Left is easier to grasp and has contributed to more value-creation in the modern day, while the Rite is more aloof but is the bringer of beauty into the world. But it’s rarely that simple.

Together, they form THE dynamic cognitive program that allows humans to be expert general problem solvers and efficient learners. We are particularly interested in systems that allow a honing of intuition. A science of art to blend with the art of science, if you will.

Current Work

John Vervaeke’s theories provide a deeper understanding of these cognitive processes. In the masterpiece that is Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, he emphasizes the importance of ‘salience landscaping’, which is how our mind determines what is relevant in a given context.

These are window that can (and must) change over time.

Salience Landscaping:

  • Vervaeke contends that our cognition is not just about processing data but about transforming it. We constantly filter and prioritize information based on what is most relevant to our goals, values, and current context.
  • For example, when reading a book, certain phrases might stand out more if they resonate with our current life situation. This is our cognitive system dynamically adjusting its focus based on relevance.

Recursive Relevance Realization:

  • Vervaeke’s concept of RRR suggests that this process is ongoing and self-updating (recursive). As we encounter new information and experiences, our understanding of what is relevant evolves (although sometimes there is a resistance to this).
  • This can be seen in how our priorities and interests change over time. What was important to us five years ago may not hold the same significance today, indicating a shift in our relevance landscape.

These are cognitive science concepts that are relatable and shared between all of us humans. As a result, they scale up into societies and the world at large.

They also happen to point towards spectrums, consideration of opposites, and a richer understanding of the meta-model of [L+R}.

Contemplating the bridge between logic and intuition is great; but ultimately, we must cross it.

The reason we can afford technological advancement and nice things, is because we have crossed the bridge.

The reason there is still upheaval in society, debate about where the digital world is heading, is because we haven’t crossed the bridge enough times.

To witness intentional, intuitive innovation in the real world is akin to witnessing magic. It’s an improvement to the interface through which our minds are continuously adapting and evolving to make sense of the world, whether we like it or not.

We can go with the flow, or fight it. Cross the bridge, or deny its existence.

This Here is a Double-Edged Sword

You know we adore paradox.

Consider the inherent poetry built into relevance realization:

That the efficiency and elegance of the very foundational machinery that allows us to transcend ourselves, can also leads to self-deception and depression.

Our cognitive superpowers come with their own set of challenges and potential pitfalls. Understanding these and building that inner transformer, a sort of super-filter, can help us better navigate our minds.

  1. Bias and Misinterpretation: Our intuitive guesses, while often accurate, can be heavily influenced by existing biases and beliefs. This means that what we deem relevant may be more a reflection of our preconceived notions than an objective assessment of the situation. For instance, confirmation bias can lead us to pay attention to information that supports our beliefs while ignoring contradictory evidence. This can result in a skewed understanding of reality, limiting our ability to make informed decisions.
  2. Emotional Influence: Emotions play a significant role in determining what we find relevant. While this can be beneficial in many situations, it can also lead to irrational decisions when our emotions overpower our logical reasoning. For example, in a state of anger or fear, we might focus on threats or negative outcomes, overlooking potential positive aspects or solutions. The world on some level, is addicted to this, without even knowing it. A return to the breath, pranayama, surely helps.
  3. Over-reliance on Patterns: The algorithmic search aspect of relevance realization relies on recognizing and applying learned patterns. While this is generally effective, it can lead to rigidity in thinking. We might become so accustomed to certain patterns that we fail to recognize new, emerging patterns, or we might apply old patterns to situations where they are no longer applicable. This can stifle creativity and innovation. Cultivate an ability to “turn off” the pattern recognizer in you from time to time. Perhaps it’s not that deep, but only you can decide.
  4. Information Overload and Selective Attention: In our attempt to manage the flood of information available to us, we might end up focusing too narrowly, missing out on important, less obvious details. This selective attention can lead to a tunnel vision effect, where we become so focused on certain aspects that we fail to see the bigger picture. Feel free to close your eyes from time to time and give your brain a break with practices such as yoga nidra.
  5. Self-Deception: Perhaps the most insidious aspect of relevance realization is its potential for self-deception. We can’t lie to ourselves (some part of you will always know it’s a lie), but we are prone to bull-shitting ourselves! Our desire to see ourselves in a certain light can influence what we deem relevant, leading us to ignore or downplay information that challenges our self-image. Our ego, while useful, can at times hinder personal growth and lead to a distorted view of ourselves and our capabilities. Radical candor is required to truly thrive.

Navigating the Double-Edged Sword

Recognizing the dual nature of humans is important. Realizing the machinery of how you realize relevance is the first step in shining a light on the parts of ourselves that we may not be comfortable facing.

This requires (temporary) separation from the constructed self.

Via self-inquiry or meditation, by noticing our own biases, emotional states, and the patterns we rely on, we can strive for a more balanced and comprehensive approach to processing information. This involves actively seeking diverse perspectives, questioning our assumptions, and being open to new ideas and approaches. It also means being mindful of our emotional states and how they might be coloring our perception of what is relevant.

In conclusion, while relevance realization is a fundamental and powerful cognitive process, it is not infallible. By understanding and acknowledging its limitations, we can harness its strengths more effectively and guard against its potential pitfalls, leading to a more nuanced, truthful, and harmonious understanding of the world and ourselves.

Conclusion: Embracing the [L+R} of Cognition

In recognizing the [L+R} nature of relevance realization, we admit to sitting with the area of our knowledge and the related perimeter of our ignorance.

We learn to appreciate the balance between the logical and the intuitive, recognizing the strengths and limitations of each, and where they blend into one another. This understanding is not just a key to better problem-solving and learning; it’s a pathway to deeper self-awareness and a more profound appreciation of the human experience.

Oh you’re still here? Here are some actionable takeaways for you to level up your “ecology of practices”

  1. Mind-Body Practices: Engage in yoga, tai chi, or other mind-body practices that promote a holistic connection between physical sensations and mental processes.
  2. Mindful Observation: Practice observing your surroundings without immediate judgment or analysis. This helps in recognizing the intuitive aspect of relevance realization.
  3. Reflective Journaling: Keep a journal to reflect on your daily experiences. Note when you relied more on logic versus intuition, and the outcomes of these decisions. Our best-sellers at Zenfulnote are a great start!
  4. Balanced Decision-Making: When faced with a decision, consciously consider both logical (Left) and intuitive (Rite) inputs. See where they come together! Breath, and weigh the pros and cons while also listening to your gut feeling.
  5. Creative Problem-Solving Exercises: Engage in activities that require both analytical thinking and creative solutions, like puzzles or brainstorming sessions, to strengthen your ability to use both sides of relevance realization.
  6. Mindfulness Meditation: Practice mindfulness to enhance your awareness of the present moment. This can help in tuning into your intuitive insights more effectively. Notice when your inhales turn into exhales and exhales into inhales.
  7. Cognitive Flexibility Training: Engage in activities that challenge your usual way of thinking, like learning a new skill or language on Duolingo. This enhances your ability to switch between different modes of thought.
  8. Emotional Awareness Practices: Regularly check in with your emotions to understand how they might influence your intuition and decision-making processes.
  9. Exploring Opposing Views: Deliberately expose yourself to different viewpoints and ideas. This practice can help in understanding the balance between structured logic and open-minded intuition.
  10. Intuition-Enhancing Activities: Engage in activities like art, music, or nature walks, which can help in nurturing your intuitive side.
  11. Feedback and Reflection: Seek feedback on your decisions and reflect on the balance between logic and intuition used. Adjust your approach accordingly.
  12. Cultivating Curiosity: Stay curious and open to new experiences and knowledge, as this can fuel both your logical and intuitive thinking.
  13. Learning from Mistakes: Reflect on past mistakes not as failures but as learning opportunities to understand the interplay of logic and intuition in your decision-making.
  14. Setting Aside Time for Solitude: Spend time alone in contemplation or meditation to better connect with your inner intuitive voice.

Hope you found this relevant!

In the future, we’re hopeful that the team at Zenfulnote will be blessed with the opportunity to work with Dr. Vervaeke himself. Building an ecology of practice and solving the meaning crisis will certainly take a village. Our mission at Zenfulnote is to help humans know themselves better.

Along the way we’ll attempt to simplify the fancy fluff and jargon that my immigrant parents scoff at during dinner.

It could be as simple as [Left+Rite}.


References and Further Reading

John Vervaeke’s Work:

  • Vervaeke, J., & Ferraro, L. (2013). “Relevance Realization and the Emerging Framework in Cognitive Science.” Journal of Logic and Computation, 23(1), 79–99. Link to paper
  • Vervaeke, J. (2019). “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.” Video Series. This series of lectures by John Vervaeke delves into cognitive science, philosophy, and the nature of meaning.

Cognitive Science Foundations:

  • Thagard, P. (2005). “Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science”, 2nd Edition. MIT Press. A comprehensive introduction to the field of cognitive science.
  • Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). “Metaphors We Live By.” University of Chicago Press. This book explores how metaphors shape our understanding and perception of the world.

On Bias and Decision Making:

  • Kahneman, D. (2011). “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A seminal work on the dual-process theory of the mind and the impact of cognitive biases on our thinking.
  • Ariely, D. (2009). “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.” HarperCollins. This book provides insights into the often irrational nature of human decision-making.

Emotional Intelligence and Its Impact:

  • Goleman, D. (2005). “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” Bantam Books. Goleman’s work highlights the importance of emotional intelligence in our lives.
  • Barrett, L. F. (2017). “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. An exploration of the theory of constructed emotion and its implications.

More on Philosophy:

  • Heidegger, M. (1962). “Being and Time.” Translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson. Harper & Row. A foundational text in existential philosophy, exploring the concept of ‘Being’.
  • Watts, A. (2011). “The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety.” Vintage Books. Watts discusses the importance of embracing uncertainty in our quest for meaning. One of my favorites.




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