Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Perceptual Editing

In a practice run of his CFAR unit called “Narratives”, Val brought to my attention a pretty awesome skill, and I’d like to share the basics with you. His class includes some more advanced techniques that build on what follows, but I want to try to highlight their foundations.

You may be familiar with the idea that we view reality through a flawed lens. Our experiences do not convey information about the external world with perfect accuracy. For example, there is a blind spot in your visual field that your brain automatically fills in with its best guess (sometimes wrong) of what’s actually out there.(1)

The technique I want to talk about relies on the fact that our experiences comprise not only things that have passed through the perceptual lens, but also content we personally contribute. In cognitive biases called “selective perception” and “attentional bias”, for example, what we already expect to experience and where those expectations direct our attention prevent us from perceiving an accurate reflection of what’s happening. If you've tried this attention test, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

How Thoughts Feel From the Outside

But not all of our personal contributions to experience are so drastic, and they certainly aren’t all harmful. Every time I let a judgement, evaluation, or attitude affect how the world seems to me, that’s something that’s coming from inside my own head, not outside of it. Even if my judgement is totally accurate and instrumentally valuable, it’s nevertheless a process occurring strictly inside my own mind. Many Buddhists strongly emphasizes this point, and prescribe terminating such contributions so we can become more directly acquainted with reality. (I’m just pointing out that it’s been a topic of interest for thousands of years, not suggesting you follow those instructions.)

“Perceptual editing” (my term) is the ability first to recognize when you’re making a personal contribution to experience, then to decide whether it’s a contribution you actually want to make, and finally to leverage the opportunity and deliberately choose what contribution you’d rather make, if any.

Perceptual contributions often happen in the form of verbal narration (a process called “subvocalization”). When you read these words, it’s likely you’re hearing them spoken by a little imaginary voice inside your head. Unless, I suppose, you've eliminated that in the course of learning to speed read, in which case I ask that you slow down so you can play along. That voice is your very own creation. Once you've noticed that it exists and that it’s neither part of the world nor identical with whatever is listening to the voice, you’re most of the way to gaining some degree of control over it. You can, for example, re-read this sentence and replace your internal narration of the words in red with a narration of “popsicle”. (Humor me and give it a try.)

Similarly, this same internal voice narrates nearly all of our experiences (at least for most people). It’s so ubiquitous that we hardly ever notice it, like a fish unaware of the water. For example, I just thought, “I’m getting hungry. I wonder if Robby wants to get lunch.” Had I not deliberately distanced myself from my inner narration in order to examine its contents as though from the outside, that thought would have drifted on by and been erased from my memory before I ever so much as attended to its existence. If you don’t believe me (or if you want a better grasp on this idea), try the following.

Noticing, Distancing, Editing

Set a timer for two minutes. Just sit there and attempt, for those two minutes, not to subvocally narrate your experiences. Ready, set, go.

To the extent you were successful, you probably had to exert effort to squash verbalizations the moment they began to arise in consciousness. It may have felt like pushing something down.

Now try that exercise again, but this time don’t try to prevent subvocalization. Simply notice when it happens. More importantly, pay attention to how being aware of your inner narration feels different from your usual experiences. Notice how it feels like there’s more distance than usual between yourself and your thoughts.

Finally, sit silently just long enough to notice the next subvocalization that arises. Then pick something to change about it, and then think that instead. For example, if I noticed myself thinking, “I really love chocolate ice cream,” I might edit that phrase to “I really like chocolate covered strawberries”. (The purpose here is merely to observe the sensation of making decisions about what you think.) 

How quickly can you edit? Can you feel the gist of what you're about to think and change the course of your thought before it's over? It's not easy at first, but neither is it impossible.

It's Sort Of a Superpower, Actually

Subvocalization is not, of course, the only kind of contribution we make to experience. We contribute all sorts of things, such as moods, attention, and interpretations. Although you can eventually gain direct control over other kinds of perceptual contributions, you may find that narration is the easiest one to get a handle on. Fortunately, changing the content of your narration can cause changes to your mood, attention, and interpretations as well.

Why is that fortunate? Because our personal contributions to experience do not always help us. Sometimes they do--if I’m working on a difficult problem and I think “I can totally do this”, it might keep me motivated to find a solution--and sometimes they have no noticeable effect at all. But sometimes they harm us, adding aversive aspects to an experience that would be easier to deal with otherwise.

Harmful subvocalization is especially pronounced in clinical depression. Depressed people tend to get in these feedback loops where they feel bad, they tell themselves about how they’re feeling bad, it makes them feel worse, and they become more likely to say things to themselves about how bad they feel as a result. Phrases that contribute to this sort of problem include “I’m worthless” and “I’ll never be happy”.

But you don’t have to be depressed to benefit from the ability to edit your thoughts. Whenever you notice yourself thinking something, if you can distance yourself from it enough to consider it from the outside, you can decide whether it’s a helpful thought or not, and choose, if you prefer, to think something else instead.

The process of noticing, distancing, and editing takes practice, and I think time spent practicing this ability is probably time very well spent indeed. The better you get at shaping the contents of your experiences, the less you are at the mercy of contributions you did not choose to make.

(1) Not everyone thinks this is how the optical blind spot works. Dennett's view is quite interesting (and here Ramachandran summarizes it and argues against it).

Edited to add: 

Distancing is also useful all by itself without editing. I just tried it on a strongly aversive experience. 

The simple facts (without much contribution from me) are: I committed a faux pas, my friend pointed it out to me, I understood both my error and how to prevent it in the future, and I apologized. Since I committed it in the course of helping him with something (at which I was successful overall), he went on to thank me after asking me not to make the mistake again.

But I personally contributed most of what I actually ended up experiencing. The moment I saw the subject line of the email, which said "Please do not [mistake I made] again," I interpreted it as being scolded, and thus felt a huge wave of shame and embarrassment. Fortunately, since I'd just written the above, I noticed that I was responding with emotions that I seldom find useful (though I am beset by them frequently, alas).

So I created some distance between myself and the thought. From there, I was able to separate out the externally derived components of the experience from the components I'd imposed on it myself. The strong emotional reaction was a response caused by my interpretation of the situation, and not by the email itself. 

I determined that not only was my interpretation almost certainly false (since a more likely motive than punishing me is causing me to not repeat the mistake by merely requesting it), but even if it did reflect reality it was unlikely to have a positive effect on my actions. Since the interpretation (and my reaction to it) no longer felt like an inextricable part of the experience--in fact it had already been extricated--I just let it drift away like a subvocalization that doesn't interest me. 

Now the only remaining effects are new knowledge of how to do better, resolution to act on it, and very mild remnants of shame and embarrassment that are quickly fading since they're no longer being fed by the harmful contribution to experience that I did not choose to make. All of this took around 30 seconds (though I expect it would have taken a lot longer were it not for my background with meditation).

This is huge for me. I've possessed all the sub skills for a long time, but I had no idea they could be so potent when combined and purposefully directed.  I don't think I've ever felt this much power over the effects of my social anxiety.

The Vagabond of Tragedy and Triumph

Something important happened to me tonight.

On the train home, an old black man with patchy gray hair was slumped pathetically across the seats in clear view of where I sat. With a torn and dirty jacket draped over his shoulders, he cradled his head in his hands, propped up on the armrest while his legs stretched out to the seat opposite him.

He was not in good shape. He was trembling slightly, and his long yellowing fingernails tapped against the armrest. Every couple of minutes, he would lean over slightly and spit a thin stream of vomit onto the floor of the train. Once when he shifted, the left arm of his jacket fell down into the puddle.

His unwashed, tattered appearance suggested he was riding the train more for the shelter than to go anywhere in particular. Anything looks more comfortable than his awkward position across those seats, but I suppose the concrete must get awfully cold and hard after a while.

I've never been one to reach out and help strangers whose lives have fallen apart, even when all they ask of me is a dollar for some food. I once felt at least a little bit of empathy for them. Mostly, though, what I felt was helpless.

Making one person's day slightly less horrific just isn't a very good use of my money, time, or emotional energy. To be mumbling paranoid nonsense on a street corner while you slowly starve and freeze is to live a life so shattered that picking up any one of the pieces will not restore wholeness. My dollar will not save anyone, and, more saliently to me, will not bring an end to the conditions that allow such misery to exist in the first place. I do believe that I can bring an end to those conditions, but not by helping any individual person in misery. So I've learned to feel very little at all when I pass them without more than a brief glance.

But I was seated beside him for several minutes, so I could not walk past. I probably could have ignored him anyway if I'd chosen, but for some reason, this time I engaged my thoughts and emotions. I guess I was curious. I wondered what it might be like to be inside his head.

And this is when the important thing happened. As soon as I felt the first pang of empathy, I imagined the world I was trying to create. I felt suffering with him (tiny though  mine was), and immediately, automatically, I envisioned a future free of suffering. It wasn't so much like flicking a switch as like being the flicked switch. I did not participate deliberatively in this event.

It was familiar to feel responsible for his pain, and for all the pain in the world. I've long been wired that way. Yet I felt neither helpless, nor guilty, nor even charitable confronting the experience. I just knew, more plainly and clearly than I ever have, that the future of humanity will not be so ugly as that present moment in which a tragic old man failed to sleep above a growing puddle of vomit.

And simultaneously I knew that it would not be that way because I would not let it. On one side was the man on the train, on the other the salvation of all sentient beings, and bridging the two states of affairs was a solid progression of cause and effect consisting of precisely the kinds of actions I take every day.

There's a CFAR unit called "propagating urges" in which students learn to take their desires to accomplish long-term goals and use them to fuel motivation for the individual actions required to accomplish those goals. For instance, I might propagate the urge to grade all 70 essays so I can successfully complete my degree by imagining receiving my diploma every time I reach for a new page.

I think I may not need to propagate urges when it comes to my work anymore. The drudgery of carrying out the kind of altruism I consider maximally effective is saving the world. It's suddenly become a simple fact of my life. The world will be saved, and I will save it.