Monday, December 22, 2014

How To Train Noticing

Alice wants to stop treating her beliefs as binary and start treating them probabilistically—that is, she wants to update herself incrementally. So she's hoping to work on the skill of raising her credence a little bit when she encounters weak evidence against her beliefs, instead of entirely disregarding anything that doesn't completely "change her mind". What should she do?

Obvious plan is obvious: If she encounters weak contrary evidence, then she should update slightly away from the hypothesis.

But obvious plan is not best plan. Why not?

Let's assume that Alice already knows exactly what she means by "update slightly away from the hypothesis" and knows exactly how to do it. (So the first problem is that in real life, she might not know either of those things.) The problem I want to focus on in this post is that "encounter weak contrary evidence" is a shitty trigger no matter how good the action you plan to take when the trigger happens.

Imagine one of those fake duck ponds you see at carnivals, the ones with the kiddie pool and the yellow rubber ducks. A current is pushing the floating ducks in circles around the edge of the pool. There are nine ducks with their bellies painted red, and one duck with its belly painted purple. To win the prize, you have to grab the purple-bellied duck when it floats by.

Now imagine the same duck pond, but instead of their bellies being painted, it's their backs. There are nine red-backed ducks and one purple-backed duck, and to win the prize, you have to grab the purple-backed duck when it floats by.

The second game's a lot easier, right? Why is that?

The mere fact that the purple duck is in front of you is an insufficient trigger. When you play the second game and win, you're not just grabbing the duck in front of you when it's purple. You're grabbing the duck in front of you when you see that it is purple. You notice a purple experience happening in your mind, and that's how you know to grab the duck. In the first game, you lose, because there's nothing to notice. Even though the ducks are in fact different, they all look the same from your vantage point.

Back to Alice.

The game she's playing is "update slightly when I encounter weak contrary evidence". The duck pond is the world, the current is time, and the ducks are events. Most of the ducks are red, and the purple ducks are "weak contrary evidence". "When I encounter weak contrary evidence" is a bad trigger in exactly the same way that "when the purple duck is in front of me" is a bad trigger. It doesn't pick out a subjective experience that distinguishes the attempted trigger from everything else. There's nothing to notice.

To make a good training plan, Alice needs an analogue to an experience of purpleness. She needs to know exactly what it feels like to encounter weak contrary evidence. Once she has that, then she has a reliable trigger.

So how can Alice find out what subjective experience is a function of weak contrary evidence? First of all, she's got to know what weak contrary evidence is. Not just what it feels like, but what it means. Let's assume she knows that already. So what's left is to identify the corresponding subjective experience.

Here's how I do it.

  1. I guess. I remember or imagine a few specific instances of encountering weak contrary evidence (such as when I thought my friend wasn't attracted to me, but when I made eye contact with him across the room at a party he smiled widely). On the basis of those simulations, I make a prediction about what it will feel like, in terms of immediate subjective experience, to encounter weak contrary evidence in the future. The prediction is a tentative trigger. For me, this would be "I feel a sort of matching up with one of my beliefs, there's a bit of dissonance, a tiny bit of fear, and maybe a small impulse to direct my attention away from these sensations and away from thoughts about the observation causing all of this".
  2. I test my guess. I keep a search going on in the background for anything in the neighborhood of the experience I predicted. Odds are good I'll miss several instances of weak contrary evidence, but as soon as I realize I've encountered one, I go into reflective attention so I'm aware of as many details of my immediate subjective experience as possible. I pay attention to what's going on in my mind right now, and also what's still looping in my very short-term memory of a few moments before I noticed. Then I compare those results to my prediction, noting anything I got wrong, and I feed that information into a new prediction for next time. (I might have gotten something wrong that caused the trigger to go off at the wrong time, which probably means I need to narrow my prediction.) The new prediction is the new trigger.
  3. I repeat the test until my trigger seems to be accurate and precise. Now I've got a good trigger to match a good action.

If I were Alice, I'd take one more step toward noticing every instance of weak contrary evidence. A precise and accurate trigger is necessary, but it's not always sufficient. This kind of skill takes practice.

I have a knitting counter, which I bought for $7.13 on Amazon. Knitting counters are very simple: You press a button, and it advances the count by one. When I'm training myself to notice a trigger, I carry the knitting counter in my pocket. Every time I notice the trigger, I push the button. I reset the counter to zero at the end of the day, and the next day I try to beat my highest score.

(There are plenty of substitutes for the knitting counter, of course, such as keeping track in your head. But it does make a highly satisfying cliking sound.)

I keep doing this until my score levels out. Then, I swap out the action of pressing the button for whatever other action I think is useful. In this case, it would be "update slightly away from the hypothesis".

Usually, the leveling out process runs into the action-swapping process, so for a while I'm responding with the action while I'm still getting better at noticing the trigger. But if the action is any more complicated than pressing a button, I hold off on taking it and train noticing specifically until I'm feeling pretty comfortable with the noticing itself.

So in short, here's how to train noticing: Identify a subjective experience you want to notice, predict what the experience will be like, test your prediction, repeat 'til you've got it right, and gamify your practice.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Reflective Attention

And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry's art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it. —HPMOR, Ch. 3

A rationalist’s art is most distant when it is most needed. Why is that?

When I am very angry with my romantic partner, what I feel is anger. I don’t feel the futility of throwing a tantrum, or the availability of other options like honest communication, or freewriting, or taking a deep breath. My attention is so narrowly focused on the object of my anger that I’m likely not even aware that I’m angry, let alone that my anger might be blinding me to my art.

When her skills are most needed, a rationalist is lost in an unskillful state of mind. She doesn’t recognize that it’s happening, and she doesn’t remember that she has prepared for it by learning and practicing appropriate techniques.

The following exercise trains a skill I call reflective attention, and some call mindfulness. For me, it serves as an anchor in a stormy mind, or as a compass pointing always toward a mental state where my art is close at hand.

Noticing that I am lost in an unskillful state of mind is a separate skill. But when I do happen to notice—when I feel that small, small note of confusion—reflective attention helps me find my way back. Instead of churning out even more pointless things to yell at my partner, it allows me to say, “I am angry. I feel an impulse to yell. I notice my mind returning over and over to the memory that makes me more angry. I’m finding it hard to concentrate. I am distracted. I have a vague impression that I have prepared for this.” And awareness of that final thought allows me to ask, “What have I trained myself to do when I feel this way?”

The goal of the following exercise is to practice entering reflective attention.

It begins with an instruction to think of nothing, because when you monitor yourself to make sure you’re not having any thoughts, your attention ends up directed toward the beginnings of thoughts. Since the contents of consciousness are always changing, maintaining focus on the beginnings of thoughts prevents you from engaging for an extended period with any particular thought. It prevents you from getting “lost in thought”, or keeping attention focused on a thought without awareness of doing so. The point is not actually to be successful at thinking nothing, but to notice what happens when you try.

Keeping your focus on the constant changes in your stream of consciousness brings attention to your experience of awareness itself. Awareness of awareness is the anchor for attention. It lets you keep your bearings when you’d otherwise be carried away by a current of thought or emotion.

Once you’re so familiar with that feeling of mindfulness that creating it is a primitive action, you can forget the introductory part, and jump straight to reflective attention whenever it occurs to you to do so.

This will probably take around five minutes, but you can do it for much longer if you want to.

Notice what your mind is doing right now. One thing it’s doing is experiencing sensations of black and white as you read. What else are you experiencing? Are there words in your inner monologue? Are there emotions of any kind?

Spend about thirty seconds trying not to think anything. When thirty seconds is up, stop trying not to think, and read on.

What’s happening in your mind is constantly changing. Even when you were trying not to think, you probably noticed many times when the stillness would shift and some new thought would begin to emerge in conscious awareness.

Turn your attention to those changes. When a new thought emerges in consciousness, see if you can notice the exact moment when it happens, becoming aware of what it feels like for that particular change to take place.

If it helps at first, you can narrate your stream of consciousness in words: “Now I’m seeing the blue of the wall, now I’m hearing the sound of a car, now I’m feeling cold, now I’m curious what time it is…” You’ll probably find that you can’t narrate anywhere near quickly enough, in part because thoughts can happen in parallel, while speech is serial. Once narrating starts to become frustrating for that reason, stop slowing yourself down with words, and just silently observe your thoughts as they occur.

If you’re finding this overwhelming because there are too many thoughts, narrow your focus down to just your breathing, and try to precisely identify the experience of an exhale ending and an inhale beginning, of an inhale ending and an exhale beginning. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable with it, and then slowly expand your attention a little at a time: to other experiences associated with breathing, to non-breath-related bodily sensations, to non-tactile sensations from your environment, and finally to internal mental sensations like emotions.

If you notice an impulse to focus your attention on a particular thought, following it and engaging with it—perhaps you notice you feel hungry, and in response you begin to focus your attention on planning lunch—instead of letting that impulse take over your attention, recognize it as yet another change in the activity of your mind. If you’re narrating, say, “now I’m feeling an impulse to plan my lunch”, and keep your focus broad enough to catch the next thought when it arises. If you realize that you’ve already become lost in a particular thought, notice that realization itself as a new thought, and return to observing your stream of consciousness by noticing the next new thought that happens as well.

You might need to practice this many times before you get the hang of it. I suggest trying it for ten minutes to half an hour a day until you do.

Once you feel like you can recognize the sensation of reflective attention and enter that state of mind reliably given time, begin to train for speed. Instead of setting a timer for fifteen minutes or however long you want to practice, set it to go off every minute for the first half of your practice, spending one minute in reflective attention, and one minute out. (Don’t do this for all of your practice. You still need to practice maintenance.) When you can consistently arrive in reflective attention by the end of the minute, cut the intervals down to 45 seconds, then thirty, fifteen, and five.

In real life, the suspicion that you may be lost in an unskillful state of mind will be quiet and fleeting. “Quiet” means you’ll need to learn to snap your attention to the slightest hint of that feeling. For that, you’ll need to train “noticing”. “Fleeting” means you’ll need to be able to respond in less than five seconds. You’ll need to begin the process in less than one second, even if it takes a little longer to fully arrive in reflective attention. For that, training for speed is crucial.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Feeling Clearly

Every stripper knows to name a higher price than he expects to get when selling a lap dance. He'll start out by telling you it'll cost $75, and you'll say that's too much. Then you'll counter with $40, and he'll say, "How about $50, and I show you a new trick I learned yesterday." If I ask you later why you agreed to $50, then unless you already know about anchoring effects (or perhaps even if you do), you'll say the guy was hot and you thought $50 was a fair price.

But if I asked you the moment you walked into the club, "What's the highest price you'd consider fair for a lap dance with the guy on stage right now?" you'd say, "$25" (or something lower than $50, anyway). You wouldn't be lying to me. It would feel true to you.

Anchoring is just one among the many guises of the introspection illusion.

People tend to think they have direct access to the origins of their mental states. They think they're infallible when it comes to certain kinds of self-knowledge, like why they chose to be a teacher, whether they like broccoli, or why they agreed to pay $50 for a lap dance. But they're wrong.

This is a big deal.

Suppose you want to be more productive by making your work periods more enjoyable, so you've decided to start playing your favorite kind of music (French house) as you work. Here are some judgements that might have influenced that plan:

  • your favorite kind of music is French house
  • you're more productive when you're happy
  • you don't find music distracting

Maybe all of these things are true, and maybe not. If they're not, your plan isn't going to work so well. Will you notice when it fails, or will you go on believing all of these things whatever happens, as long as they keep feeling true? The introspection illusion means that how true they feel to you is not an excellent indicator of how true they actually are, even though they're mostly about your own thoughts and beliefs. Empirical observations about productivity under various circumstances must be part of the story.

But not all kinds of introspection are equally subject to this problem.

The introspection illusion happens when we try to access the processes underlying our conscious mental states. Processes underlying our conscious mental states are not themselves part of our conscious mental states. So this is the illusion of feeling as though we are conscious of unconscious processes.

But we really are conscious of some things. You're conscious of the temperature of the room, now that I've brought your attention to it. You're conscious of the color of your shirt. You're conscious of the emotional sensations that occur upon reading the phrase "your grandfather's voice".

The surface level introspection you employed to become aware of each of those mental contents is far more reliable than the deep soul-searching people often associate with the word "introspection". And you can get a lot of mileage out of that if you know how to use it. This is what all the "mindfulness" and "being in the moment" stuff is really about.

If just asking yourself the question "How do I feel about my boyfriend's new girlfriend?" and going with the first judgement that occurs to you won't do the trick for predicting the emotions that will influence your interactions with her, what will work?

There's a technique I use often for making more accurate predictions about my future mental states. I call it "Feeling Clearly". It's not a method for revealing the true feelings hidden at the core of your being. It's just careful observation of what does in fact happen to your mind when it encounters whatever you're wondering about. If you're right about that, what you really truly feel deep down (if there is such a thing) isn't so important, is it? Predicting and influencing the contents of your consciousness is all that matters.

This is applied experimental phenomenology. It lacks many virtues of a randomized, double-blind, controlled, peer-reviewed study. But your feedback loops can be way fast.

How fast?

Quick, make a prediction about how much you will enjoy imagining smelling a rose. Ok, now imagine smelling a rose. How much did you enjoy it? Did you overestimate, or underestimate? Taking that into account, make another prediction about how much you'll enjoy imagining smelling a rose. Ok, now imagine smelling a rose again. Were you closer this time?

That fast.

Here's how it works.

Choose a simple idea or topic that makes you a little uncomfortable. Nothing really important or painful, just something small that's been worrying you, or that feels unresolved. It might be something a friend said to you yesterday. It might be an upcoming responsibility, or a recent event that didn't go as well as you'd hoped. Whatever it is, be specific, and then set it aside for later.

Notice what your mind is doing right now. One thing it’s doing is experiencing sensations of black and white as you read. What else are you experiencing? Are there words in your inner monologue? Are there emotions of any kind?

What’s happening in your mind is constantly changing. Turn your attention to the changes. When a new thought emerges in consciousness, see if you can notice the exact moment when it happens, becoming aware of what it feels like for that particular change to take place.

If it helps at first, you can narrate your stream of consciousness in words: “Now I’m seeing the blue of the wall, now I’m hearing the sound of a car, now I’m feeling cold, now I’m curious what time it is…” You’ll probably find that you can’t narrate anywhere near quickly enough. Once narrating starts to become frustrating for that reason, stop slowing yourself down with words, and just silently observe your thoughts as they occur.

If you’re finding this overwhelming because there are too many thoughts, narrow your focus down to just your breathing, and try to precisely identify the experience of an exhale ending and an inhale beginning, of an inhale ending and an exhale beginning. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable with it, and then slowly expand your attention a little at a time: to other experiences associated with breathing, to non-breath-related bodily sensations, to non-tactile sensations from your environment, and finally to internal mental sensations like emotions.

If you notice an impulse to engage with a particular thought—perhaps you notice you feel hungry, and in response you begin to focus your attention on planning lunch—instead of letting that impulse take over your attention, recognize it as yet another change in the activity of your mind. If you’re narrating, say “now I’m feeling an impulse to plan my lunch”, and keep your focus broad enough to catch the next thought when it arises.

Do that for about five minutes, or until you’re ready to move on.

When you’re ready, think the thought you chose at the beginning. Drop it into your stream of consciousness. Then immediately go right back to noticing thoughts, emotions, and sensations as they arise.

You’ll probably notice some activity occurring in response to the thought you just dropped in. Observe those responses, one after another, not being drawn into any one of them but remaining aware of each.

Do this for as long as needed. Think the thought again whenever you feel the responses to it have died down.

When you’re done, write down each of the reactions you recall, before they fade from memory.

As a variation, you can write down the reactions in the middle of the exercise, as they’re happening. I don’t suggest starting off with this variation, because it introduces a focus on words that might be disruptive. Find out what it’s like without writing the first time you try it.

Try several sessions of this spread out over the course of a day, or over a few days, and keep notes each time.

So what does this get you? It gets you reliable data on what happens when you encounter whatever thought you're interested in. It circumvents the introspection illusion to help you make more accurate predictions about your mental states, and therefore about whatever behaviors are influenced by them.

Now, that's not going to perfectly map onto real-world situations.

For one thing, it takes practice to get really rich, precise data; to distinguish "fear" from "a cold tightness in my chest I associate with anxiety, plus a feeling of directedness at an image of being abandoned".

Secondly, a thought about something isn't the thing itself. Your simulation of what it will be like to meet Tiffany will have some correlation to what it will actually be like to meet Tiffany, but it won't be perfect.

You can get better at that too, though. You can calibrate.

Get really comfortable with reflectivity, the central skill of this exercise. Then, when you actually meet Tiffany in real life, activate that reflective mode, and take note of how exactly your predictions fail. Form hypotheses about why, and feed those back into your next round of simulation.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunjai's Silent Stranger

It was a sunny day, and Sunjai was taking a stroll down the road through the forest. When he got to a familiar bend, he caught something shiny out of the corner of his eye. As he turned to look over, another elephant suddenly appeared. Where had he come from? It's hard for an elephant to sneak up on another elephant, but Sunjai was completely taken by surprise.

Warily, he turned toward the newcomer, fanning his broad ears and letting a low rumble rise from his throat in greeting. The other man was tall, like Sunjai, and his tusks were similarly long and almost straight. He looked so much like the elephants in Sunjai's family that he thought they must be related, but was sure they'd never met before. Thought he was quite handsome overall, he had a strange marking on his forehead, a bright red line a few inches long and no wider than a human finger. It was the wrong hue to be a natural marking, and Sunjai wondered if he'd been cut.

The newcomer wasn't saying a word. His ears were still fanned out in greeting, and the nervous sweeping of his trunk suggested he felt the same growing awkwardness as Sunjai. Sunjai tried another "hello". Still no response.

Sunjai was really getting worried. This was not at all the standard protocol in any family he'd encountered before. He began to back up and bow his head submissively, in case he'd somehow offended this person--but as he did, the newcomer did the exact same!

Sunjai did not understand this game. He turned to leave before he could make any more mistakes. But after just a couple of steps, the newcomer had disappeared, just as suddenly and silently as he'd arrived to begin with. In his place was an oddly bright and shimmering patch of forest.

Curiosity got the best of him. Sunjai turned back, seeking the hidden path the man must have found, approaching from the side this time, nearer the bright patch--and there he was again, only inches away this time!

What?! Sunjai reared back and almost fell over, he was so startled. When he righted himself, the newcomer was also stumbling, looking equally startled. "How did you do that?" Sunjai asked. They stood still, just looking at each other, for several long moments, while Sunjai pondered the mystery of the surprise elephant.

I don't know how he turns invisible like that. But why doesn't he answer me? Perhaps that is blood on his forehead, thought Sunjai, and his injury has somehow interfered with his ability to speak. I've been so worried about me during this encounter, worried I might get hurt, that I haven't spared any empathy at all for this stranger who may be hurt and confused.

"Do you need help?" he asked, turning his head in questioning. The stranger simply turned his head at the same time, offering no reply. "I'm going to take a look at that wound on your forehead." Sunjai lifted his trunk, reaching up toward the apparent wound. But the stranger lifted up his own trunk at the same time, blocking the advance.

"No, I promise I won't hurt you. Just hold still." He reached out a little faster this time, and the the two elephants bumped trunks. Sunjai pulled back, startled again, for that hadn't felt like elephant flesh. It had been cold and hard, almost like ice. He reached out again, touched, thinking that perhaps he'd imagined it. No, not like ice. But not like flesh either. It was exactly like the glass through which humans observed back at the enclosure.

Sunjai reached over again, trying to touch the man's shoulder, to see if there was something wrong with his trunk, or if all of his skin was like glass. But every single move he made was perfectly blocked, exactly matched by the movements of the other man.

Sunjai put his trunk down. He moved it left, holding it out in a very unnatural, uncomfortable position. Maybe the behavioral similarities were a coincidence up 'til now, but nobody would just happen to reach their trunk stiffly out to the side and just hold it there.

The stranger followed suit. He tried the same thing to the right, and was matched again. He moved as if to reach his trunk up, but suddenly redirected at the last minute, reaching again out to the right. And the man was not tricked. He followed Sunjai exactly, impossibly quickly, as though he were behind Sunjai's eyes, watching him make decisions before he had time to act.

This can't be happening, Sunjai thought. Something is very wrong. And whatever it is is coming from the shimmering patch of forest.

Sunjai leaped sideways, then forward, approaching the bright patch from a new angle, around the other elephant, giving him no time to run away or hide--

And the stranger was gone. Just, vanished. Again.

Sunjai backed up very slowly, tentatively, peering around the front again, reaching his trunk toward the light patch--and another trunk emerged from nowhere, creeping forward at the same rate and angle as his.

I'm losing my mind, thought Sunjai.

Sunjai inched sideways, watching as another elephant emerged bit by bit from nowhere.

Then he retreated again, moving his whole body away from the light patch. He stepped around back, placing himself exactly where the other elephant must have been moments before.

And it wasn't light at all. The light patch was actually a dark patch, because there was a huge black rectangle blocking out the sunlight.

He reached out to touch it, and found that it was cold and hard, just like glass. Just like the touch of the stranger. Sunjai reached his trunk around the side, feeling for the front of the rectangle as he stood at the back of it. Again, he felt glass.

Leaving his trunk on the front of the glass rectangle, Sunjai began to slowly step back around to the front of the "light patch", maintaining contact the whole time. And he could see, as he passed around the side, that the rectangle was very thin and flat, almost nothing to it.

He stopped, positioning his head so that he could see the black glass if he moved a hair to the left, the light patch and the disembodied trunk if he moved a hair to the right. He waved his trunk around, knowing it would cause the other trunk to move just the same. If there really was a trunk behind the glass, he'd be able to see it from here.

Nothing. There was no trunk behind the glass. Somehow, the disembodied trunk was on the front of the glass itself.

Sunjai's head was spinning. He was frightened and confused, and his panic was starting to overcome his curiosity. There was another elephant trapped in the surface the glass, and he had direct access to Sunjai's own intentions.

Sunjai fled. Putting the glass rectangle far behind him, he ran and ran, panting in a one-man stampede all the way back to his tribe.

"Sunjai!" his mother exclaimed, "Are you all right? Did you get hurt? There's something on your forehead!"

"On my... there's something... there's..." Slowly, shakily, Sunjai reached up to touch his own face. "There's something on my forehead." he whispered.

"Yes," his mother responded.

"On MY forehead!" he shouted.

"Yes, and it's bright red, it looks like--"

"BLOOD!" Sunjay almost screamed, and turned back the way he had come. "Mother, everyone, follow me. Quickly. You have got to see this!"

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Spotlight of Attention

You're reading an article that claims bad news for your current dietary habits. Beets, which are your favorite food, are supposedly evil. According to the article, beets have been shown to cause heart disease, cancer, and Ebola. Yes, all at once.

Now, we can both predict what will happen to your attention by default.

It will shun any sensations that might indicate rationalization should they begin to arise in the periphery of your attention. It will initiate a sharply focused, moderately directed search for flaws in the study. And it will rapidly withdraw from all sensations indicating evidence in favor of the Evil Beets hypothesis.

There are a many many cognitive processes that contribute to such complicated mental events as "rationalization", and most of those processes are subconscious. What I want to draw your attention to is very simply attention: The allocation of limited processing resources at the level of conscious awareness.

You might not know how or why the rationalization process is happening, or even what it is really. But when you happen to become aware of some sensation that indicates it's going on, that's an opportunity to re-allocate resources, thereby exerting some control at the interface of conscious and unconscious processing.

There are a few things about attention that seem really important to me.

First is direction of attention. I talked about that in the last post, and suggested a quick (<5 minute) exercise to set off the associated sensation.

Second is focus of attention. Direction is where you point the spotlight. Focus is the radius of the beam.

Third is searching. Searching is a sweep of the darkness.

Searching is what happens with your attention if you're prepared to become aware of something. It happens in a sharply focused, highly directed way when you can't find your keys. It happens in a more softly focused, highly directed way when you search for something to write with. And it happens in a softly focused, relatively undirected way when you "keep an eye out" for someone with a hair cut you might like to try in the future.

So why does this matter? I've been illustrating with vision, but these spotlight-like properties characterize attention generally, as far as I can tell.

Go back to the Evil Beets article. By default, your attention's going to do some dangerous things that might make an enemy of the truth—resulting in death by heart disease, cancer, and Ebola.

But suppose you've trained hard and have excellent control over your attention. Then since you can predict it will do these things by default, you can counter. You can direct it toward sensations of rationalization. You can soften the search for flaws. And you can assign equal focus to sensations indicating evidence in favor of the Evil Beets hypothesis.

You'll probably need to do more than that to save yourself. But you could—and should—start by gaining control over your attention. Becoming consciously aware of a problem is usually the first step toward solving it.

Focusing Attention

Here's a quick exercise (<5mins) that sets off the sensation of focusing. Focus can be hard to distinguish from direction. It takes practice to gain precise control of either.

  1. Rest your gaze on the top left corner of your monitor. Pick a tiny little spot. Focus on that point as narrowly as you can, picking out the tiniest pinprick of your visual field and letting all of your attention shine laser-like directly onto it.
  2. Then, without moving your eyes, let your attention soften to include about an inch of space around that spot. Slowly let it soften to include more and more of your visual field.
  3. How much can you soften your focus without changing anything about your vision? Once you're aware of as much space around spot as you can manage—perhaps your whole visual field—hop back and forth between laser focus and a one-foot radius of attention. Take note of the sensation of rapidly changing focus.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Directing Attention

Being a human having emotions of uncertainty and dissonance is like being a horse drawing a carriage down a busy street. As prey animals, horses find large, fast-moving objects frightening, and cars tend to send horses into a panic. Since a horse's visual field is about 350 degrees, streets provide constant opportunities to spook a carriage-drawing horse. Carriage drivers don't want their horses to panic, so they use blinders, reducing the horses' vision to what's right in front of them, which keeps them calm and controllable.

That's all good and well as long as there's a carriage driver holding the reins, directing every single turn, watching the road and the cars and the buildings and never letting anything bad happen to the horse. If you're a horse without a driver, though, blinders are a bad idea. You need all the vision you can get.

Human attention narrowly tracks our gaze most of the time. We don't notice much about our periphery unless there's some sudden unexpected movement. Then our attention snaps to that spot, and our gaze quickly follows. Our attention is like that for all sensations we can be aware of, not just vision. Like hearing your name at a cocktail party, or remembering you left the oven on. We evolved to turn our attention toward those things so naturally and easily that we can't help doing it.

Much of learning rationality, or at least the style I've so far studied myself, involves attuning your mind to new types of sensation, striving for the automatic snap-focus response when you encounter them. We want our attention to move toward confusion, rationalization, curiosity, and many other sensations we didn't evolve to care so much about. 

You can't flee from a motionless predator who remains dark and indistinct in your peripheral vision. You can't turn off the oven when your feeling that you've left it on stays quiet and fuzzy in the periphery of your attention. And you can't burn for investigation in response to peripheral sensations of curiosity when your brain hasn't fully integrated the knowledge that curiosity matters.

But we also seem to have evolved something like blinders for other types of sensations, as though the social structures of our tribes could act as carriage drivers to direct and protect us during times of near blindness. When we enter an argument with someone we consider an enemy, for example, not only do we become even more focused than normal on the mental activities associated with defeating her, but we raise shields against any internal stimulus that might lead to our defeat. So acting on confusion isn't as simple as promoting it from peripheral to foveal attention. You first have to take off the blinders.

That's what reflective attention is for.

Knowing the blinders exist, knowing when they're on, locating them, taking them off, knowing which internal sensations are worth extra attention, and installing snap-focus habits for them--all of that has to happen before you can get consistent practice with your chosen bias interventions, whatever they might be.

The exercise from the last post decouples vision from attention. I think that attuning your mind to sensations of deliberate control of attention is probably necessary for becoming reflective at will, especially on the human equivalent of crowded streets. I hope I've explained it better this time, so here it is again, if you want to take a shot at it.

  1. Look at the "A" in the title "Agenty Duck". Keep your gaze fixed on that letter.
  2. Without moving your eyes, try to read the word directly below "Agenty". Can you feel your attention prying itself away from your gaze?
  3. Try moving your attention around, still looking at the A. Move your attention to different parts of the screen, then off of the screen and around the room.
  4. Ok, now bring your attention back to the A, joining vision and attention once again. 
  5. This time, keep your attention on the A, but move your eyes around the screen. Your attention wants to follow, doesn't it? Don't let it. See how quickly you can look around without losing attentive focus on the A.

The Phenomenology of Peripheral Vision (Part 2)

In the last post, I described an exercise that suggests many of us are wrong about the character of our own visual experiences. We tend to overestimate the breadth of foveal vision, even when we're reflecting without distraction on vision specifically while our eyes are open.

I find this result humbling.

I still accept a (very) weak infallibility thesis about present phenomenal experience. When we explicate beliefs about present experience, the phenomenal objects in question partially comprise those beliefs. It's not possible for me to believe that I'm having a red experience without having a red experience, else I'm referring to something besides "a red experience" when I utter the words "a red experience", and the mistake is purely linguistic. A lot of people disagree with me about that, but I'm not so sure it's worth arguing over. If it's true, it's trivially true, so it's not very helpful to know. If you're interested in this topic, I recommend the SEP article on Self-Knowledge pretty highly.

But why are we wrong? If the world is visually clear to us for only about two degrees of arc--the size of your thumbnail held at arm's length--why would we ever think otherwise, and why don't we notice our mistake before someone hits us over the head with it?

I think it's a combination of two things. 

The first is a sampling bias. If I ask myself "How much of the room can I see clearly at once?" the most natural way to find the answer is by looking at the room. Without successful fixation on a particular object, my eyes automatically move around without my conscious guidance. I imagine my brain is likely running through an abbreviated, non-conscious version of, "The wall is clear, what about the blender? Yep, that's clear. So's the lamp, and the cabinet, and the door. I can't see behind me, but pretty much everything in front of me is clear." When people know they're being asked about the phenomenology of peripheral vision, maybe they make up for that at least a little, but apparently not enough. 

It is weird to consider visual experience of things we're not looking at. Our brains evolved to to move our gaze toward the objects of our attention, and we do it so automatically that it takes a special effort to notice it happening.

The second is also a sampling bias. It's not just the case that I tend to move my gaze to the object of my attention. I also tend to keep my attention fairly narrowly focused on the object of my gaze, at least while I'm attending to vision. I bet you do to. Here, let me show you.

    1. Look at the "A" in the title "Agenty Duck". Keep your gaze fixed on that letter.
    2. Without moving your eyes, try to read the word directly below "Agenty". Can you feel your attention prying itself away from your gaze?
    3. Try moving your attention around, still looking at the A. Move your attention to different parts of the screen, then off of the screen and around the room.
    4. Ok, now bring your attention back to the A, joining vision and attention once again. 
    5. This time, keep your attention on the A, but move your eyes around the screen. Your attention wants to follow, doesn't it? Don't let it. See how quickly you can look around without losing attentive focus on the A.
    What does this mean for the phenomenology of peripheral and foveal vision? 

It means that we're primarily aware of that which we see most clearly. It is difficult to bring objects in peripheral vision into the focus of attention. One person who tried the above exercise couldn't make it past part two, because it was so uncomfortable to decouple visual and attentive focus. You have to be aware of something to notice it, so it takes effort, and possibly practice, to notice that an object ten degrees off center in your visual field is quite fuzzy and indistinct.

I'd performed the above exercise, and several like it, many times before encountering these questions of phenomenology of vision. As it happens, my initial estimation of the breadth of foveal vision was nearly right--three to five degrees of arc, instead of two. In the first instant I did feel a temptation to say something closer to thirty, but I successfully decoupled my attention from my visual gaze quickly enough that I barely noticed doing it. So my hypothesis is that I've trained myself to notice this kind of perceptual mistake upon reflection. I'm currently running a Tortoise Test on Facebook to see if others can do the same. I pre-commit to publishing the results, whatever they might be.

Results: I asked people "How many degrees of arc, would you say, are there at the center before things start going fuzzy in the periphery?". 16 people responded with straightforward numerical answers. 6 of them did the above vision/attention decoupling exercise before encountering the question. For those who did the exercise first, the average answer was 5 degrees of arc. The most common answer was 2, and answers ranged from 2 to 15. For the 10 who didn't do the exercise, the average was about 15 degrees, the median was also 15, and answers ranged from 7.5 (actually "5 to 10") to 35.

This supports both my explanations, though it doesn't distinguish between them. I could do that by having people do the same thing with just fixation and no decoupling, and then with decoupling but no fixation. I'm not sure how to do the second thing, unless I have them move attention to something besides location in the visual field (such as color, or even sound). I could also test the "training combats the illusion" hypothesis more directly by having people do these exercises once a day for three days, and then wait a week or two before asking them to estimate the breadth of foveal vision. Needless to say, I'd just like more data overall.

I concluded the last post by conceding that "Maybe the experiment itself modifies peripheral vision, rendering the foveal center artificially narrow, and people are actually correct in their beliefs about vision the whole time." I also said my priors were strongly against that, but I dismissed it too hastily. (This may have had to do with having spent much of the day reading anti-phenomenological infallibility articles.)

In fact, after writing the paragraph following this one, I now feel more than 50% sure that that's what's going on.

Time distortion may render the "illusion" true to the the phenomenology of peripheral vision even if experiments in reading and change blindness demonstrate that much of our peripheral visual experience is fabricated. Just as you might line up many pictures to make a completely in-focus, seamless panoramic, we might move our eyes to several parts of our visual field in succession, keeping the data from each saccade in memory, and then experience all that data with the same phenomenological time stamp. 

If that's so, an activity involving careful, extended visual fixation would create a poverty of in-focus data to piece together, thereby revealing the narrow range of ontological fovea compared to ordinary phenomenological fovea. 

Something like this happens when you tap your nose with your finger and experience pressure in your nose and finger simultaneously. It takes longer for a nerve impulse to travel to the sensory cortex from your fingertip than from your nose*, so the experience of simultaneity is evidence that the phenomenological "present" is a layering of recent memories.

In these past two posts, I set out to demonstrate and discuss a striking failure to hold accurate beliefs about our own ongoing visual experiences. At the end of it, I find I no longer agree with Dennett and his compatriots when they count this as a demonstration of immediate phenomenological error. 

Hopefully I'll still be able to make the points in my next post that I originally intended this to illustrate.


*I believe this because I once heard Sam Harris say it. He is a neurologist, after all, but I'm not entirely certain I trust him to ask himself whether the difference in signal arrival time is enough to be perceptible even if we don't layer recent memories to create present experience. And I don't know what the time difference is myself. Seems plausible, though. But perhaps more plausible to me than you due to my overt time dilation experiences under the influence of hypnosis and marijuana.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Phenomenology of Peripheral Vision

What is it like to have peripheral vision?

How narrow is your foveal center--the part of your vision with complete clarity? How precipitously does that clarity fade into the periphery? Where exactly does vision end completely?

Imagine you had a hula-hoop about the diameter of your wingspan, so that you could hold it up to make a circle around your head on a plane with your eyes. Now imagine there are random numbers on the hula hoop spaced about an inch apart. How many of those numbers do you imagine you'd be able to make out at once?


(The following experiment is adapted from (second-hand discussions of) one described in Dan Dennett's Consciousness Explained.)

If you have a regular deck of playing cards, take that out and skip the next paragraph.

If you don't have a deck of playing cards, get some index cards and a pen. In a pinch, you can just cut up some blank paper. You'll need ten cards. Write the numbers zero through nine, one each, in the center of the cards. Make the numbers of consistent size, about as big as your thumbnail.

Shuffle the deck. Draw a card and hold it at arms length in front of you with your left hand, so the number is facing you. If you can't make it out clearly at arm's length, move it toward you until it's in focus. 

Then, keeping your gaze fixed on the first card, draw another card with your right hand, and hold it at arm's length (or however far away the first card is), but out to the right. 

Move your right hand back behind you until the card disappears from your vision. Move it in and out of your vision, a hair at a time, until you're sure exactly where it disappears. Does it feel completely binary--now you see the card, now you don't--or is there a point where you'r not completely sure whether you can see the card or not?

Very slowly, not letting your gaze waver from the first card, move your right hand in toward your left, inch by inch.

There may be a point where you feel about 50% sure you have correctly identified the card in your right hand, but you can't make it out clearly. Note about how many inches apart the centers of each card are at that point. If you've got a friend around to help, you can even have them measure for you.

Keep moving your right hand toward your left until you feel certain you've correctly identified the second card. How many inches apart are the cards now?

You might even try moving the cards even closer until the number in your right hand is just as clear as the number in your left hand. 

I find that I can't actually do this last part without folding one of the cards, because the numbers must be touching. Even then I notice that I can shift my gaze slightly to bring the number on the right into even sharper focus.

A lot of people are surprised by this experiment. Many think there's equally high clarity for about 30 degrees of arc, and update on the results of this experiment to two degrees of arc. They learn that their foveal vision is much narrower than they thought. 

Ponder the implications of that for a minute.

People are wrong about what it's like to have peripheral vision. Peripheral vision is, presumably, part of every sighted person's experience for many hours a day. Yet, you ask them questions about their ongoing subjective experience of vision while their eyes are open, and they report falsehoods. 

Maybe the experiment itself modifies peripheral vision, rendering the foveal center artificially narrow, and people are actually correct in their beliefs about vision the whole time. My priors are pretty strongly against that, though, and I think my own account of what's going on is stronger. 

Do you have one? I'll tell you about mine next time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Tathatā: Why Be Here Now?

None of us is born knowing the difference between a situation and our experience of a situation.

There's so much Buddhism-inspired hype in contemporary self-help about "being in the moment". I don't know how much of it is completely missing the point. 

But there is a point, and it's a good point. 

The good point is not "you should spend all or even most of your time attending to immediate sensory experiences, rather than remembering the past, imagining the future, or entertaining abstract thoughts." How dare you pass by a flower without stopping to smell it! Unfortunately, that's the easiest thing to take away from anything that talks about "mindfulness" or "being here now".

When attempting to state the useful insight of "be here now", I find myself tempted to say things like, "Immediate experience is all we have." I don't say it, because I expect it to sound like nonsense to anyone who doesn't already know what I mean by it. I'll try it a slightly different way.

  1. Problem solving tends to benefit from an accurate model of the situation, the available tools, and the problem solver. 
  2. No matter what you do, every action will be directed by a mind that exists within its own bubble of immediate experience. 
  3. We actually don't have a very good model of immediate experience by default, despite spending every moment of our lives in it. 

When you imagine a future version of yourself, your attention is not on that with which you're immediately acquainted. It's on an attempt to model the future, and attempts to model the future call on memories of the past. Memories of the past are not faithful models of immediate experiences.

Most of immediate experience is forgotten. Most of it doesn't matter, isn't vivid, isn't unusual, doesn't make a lasting impression. It takes an extra reflective effort of become aware that your mind's doing whatever it's doing. A lot of the truth of what it is to be a mind slips through the cracks. So our default models of immediate experience lack crucial information.

Additionally, they equivocate between objects and representations of objects. 

From a distance, you don't have separate memories of hearing your partner's voice become strained, seeing their facial muscles tighten, interpreting their words as insults and accusations, feeling a shadow of anger and believing it is the emotion they feel. You don't have a memory of sense impressions and interpretations, of forming hypotheses and weighing evidence. Not unless you've trained that specifically. You just have a memory of your partner being angry. 

If you use that memory to plan for the future, at some point you're going to run headlong into the impossibility of experiencing your partner's anger directly. Where does your partner's actual anger exist? In your partner--and thus outside of your experience. That event just isn't available to you.

Why not?

Because immediate experience is all we have. 

There, I said it.

It is the capacity to recognize all the features of immediate experience, without intrusion by mnemonic distortion and object-representation equivocation, that is cultivated by a practice of "living in the present moment".

It doesn't always work. Maybe it almost never works. I'd bet, though, that it works sometimes, and that almost nothing else ever does.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How I Feel About Emotional Appeals

Cross posted from Facebook by request.

Edit: Clarifications, new thoughts, and updates in response to the Facebook discussion and my own further reflections are below the main post as footnotes. I certainly welcome critical comments, but do please read the notes first, because it's likely I've already addressed your point.


I went to a Catholic high school that took an annual field trip to DC to march in a pro-life rally. I was pro-choice from the moment I started actually thinking about it. I chose not to join everyone else on the trip. So I was frequently prompted to think about it, to talk about it, and to listen to others doing the same.

I realized around sophomore or maybe junior year that there was a really scary thing going on. The two sides acted like they had completely different values, but they actually had almost exactly the same values and simply disagreed about a single question of fact: Are unborn babies moral patients?

The pro-lifers thought the answer was yes, because God gives everyone a soul at the moment of conception. The pro-choicers thought no, for various reasons, but usually because they didn't believe in souls and had reasonable beliefs about cognitive development. Everybody valued bodily autonomy for women, and everyone valued sentient human life above that.

The debates or accusations almost never went in the direction of the central question of fact, though. Nobody was saying, "The pro-choicers think unborn babies are soulless and they're wrong!" or "The pro-lifers think unborn babies can think and feel and they're wrong!" Everybody acted like the other side believed the same thing they did about this question, and was therefore being purposefully evil, either by murdering soul-bearing babies or by denying adult women bodily autonomy for the sake of a worthless lump of flesh in their stomachs.

It was frightening, because the problem really mattered a great deal, and ignoring the empirical question in favor of vilifying the enemy could never lead to resolving it. If I was wrong and babies were moral patients, there was no way a pro-lifer was going to convince me of it by showing me gruesome pictures of aborted fetuses, and I might end up committing murder one day. I would at least vote to allow others to do so. (1)

I am seeing exactly this happen to my current community with veganism and meat-eating. It's a little more complicated, but at heart it's the same thing, and I'm equally frightened by it. (2)

Vegans post videos and descriptions of factory farms that seem to assume the viewer believes animals are moral patients in virtue of their subjective experiences, and that the viewer simply doesn't care enough about the animals yet because they don't look like humans--which is exactly like the aborted fetus photos. Meat-eaters act like the vegans (knowingly) care more about non-sentient meat sacks than about humanity and its future, and (sort of paradoxically, actually) like vegans must be stupid for believing animals can feel.

Vegans: If the meat eaters believed what you did about animal sentience, most of them would be vegans, and they would be horrified by their many previous murders. Your heart-wrenching videos aren't convincing to them because they aren't already convinced that animals can feel. (3)

Meat-eaters: Vegans think there are billions of times more people on this planet than you do, they believe you're eating a lot of those people, and they care about every one of them the way you care about every human. Furthermore, if you can't pass the ideological turing test for every major philosophy of mind, you should really stop calling vegans stupid. If you *can* pass those ideological turing tests, then I hope you already appreciate that you can be as brilliant as either David Chalmers or Eliezer Yudkowsky and still get this kind of question massively wrong (because at least one of those two is wrong). (4)

This problem matters. It matters a lot. Which is why I am all for valid, relevant, honest arguments about which things are sentient, how we might know that, how sure we can be, what actions would lead to the largest number of quality adjusted life years given either hypothesis, and everything along those lines. I am *not* in favor of arguments over whether it is wrong to eat meat, let alone whether you have to be evil to do it, before the central empirical question has been so much as mentioned. (5)

Finally, let me tell you about what happens when you post a heart-wrenching video of apparent animal suffering: It works, if the thing you're trying to do is make me feel terrible. My brain anthropomorphizes everything at the slightest provocation. Pigs, cows, chickens, mollusks, worms, bacteria, frozen vegetables, and even rocks. And since I know that it's quite easy to get me to deeply empathize with a pet rock, I know better than to take those feelings as evidence that the apparently suffering thing is in fact suffering. If you posted videos of carrots in factory farms and used the same phrases to describe their miserable lives and how it's all my fault for making the world this terrible place where oodles of carrots are murdered constantly, I'd feel the same way. So these arguments do not tend to be revelatory of truth.

Thus, be it known: You are never going to convince me to stop eating meat merely by appealing to my emotions. You will, however, torture me every time you try, and I will not abide pointless suffering any more than you. If you try to use truth-orthogonal emotional manipulation to persuade me of things--anything, not just veganism--I will block you and never trust you to have a fair, truth-seeking conversation with me ever again. (6)


1) Everything above here is an account of my memories of a very tiny community--my high school had something like 130 students in it, my hometown 12,000--and I was between 11 and 13 years old at the time. They're also probably taken primarily from religion class, where debates about Anselm, Aquinas, and New Atheism were common. As such, my cached thoughts about the pro-life/pro-choice clash are certainly not representative of the larger debate.

But regardless, the lesson I learned from that experience was a good one: It's easy to misunderstand people. The person you're talking to has reasons for their beliefs and actions just like you do. If you don't understand them, the correct move is to try to understand them, not to dominate them by any means necessary. It's likely you share larger goals, and disagree about a point of fact that can be discussed productively.

2) This is not quite true. It is what I have been perceiving, but not what I have been seeing. My emotional reactions and automatic responses are consistent with believing I've been seeing this. It's the easiest interpretation of the facts when your mind is configured like mine. But I know they are largely mistaken. What I've actually been seeing is a debate over veganism and meat-eating that shares some red-flag characteristics with the pro-life/pro-choice debate as I remember it. But not the ones I claim here.

3) I meant to refer to my current community, a group of a couple hundred rationalists, when I said this, and not to the general population. I don't know what people in the general population would say if asked why they do or don't eat meat. When I was a vegan myself, I lived at a Zen temple where almost everyone was vegan and people chanted "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them" every morning and believed "sentient" meant "literally everything". I don't think that's normal either.

Update: Even restricted to that, though, I was wrong. I really did believe this before, even reflectively and not just automatically. I no longer do. I think the people who changed my mind about this are underestimating how many people believe non-humans aren't sentient, but I was drastically underestimating how many believe animals have internal experience but eat them anyway.

This is also misleading because I am mostly not in the group of meat-eaters I was describing, despite eating meat. Granted, I didn't claim to be, but it's a perfectly predictable inference that I shouldn't have allowed. Before now, I thought that other people reflectively aware of being like me were incredibly rare, but apparently I was wrong. I've seen several people today claim that they believe animals are conscious and that they don't care.

However, and don't you dare quote that last paragraph without this one, 
I'm in a state of transition about this. The longer I avoid winter depression, the more I care about ordinary experiences of ordinary people. So it will probably be the case in a few months or maybe a year that if you can convince me animals are conscious, I will stop eating them. Or probably just if you raise my probability estimate enough, regardless of whether it goes over 50%, because there are a lot of farm animals. I am extremely doubtful that you will do that, though, and remember that you'd have to say something I've never heard or thought of myself before. The position on animal consciousness I'm thoroughly convinced of is laid out here.

4) I came to believe that meat-eaters were acting this way toward vegans from a small and biased sample. I'm noticing now that the thing about not calling the other side stupid or irrational before you can pass the ideological turing tests applies much more strongly to vegans I've heard from than meat-eaters. Cut it out, everybody. The Hard Problem is a really really really hard problem.

5) I stand by everything in that paragraph. On the other hand, it does allow another predictable false inference, which is that I think the problem matters because eating meat is bad if animals are sentient. The real reason I think it matters a lot is that if we can't solve it, building an AI with coherent extrapolated volition is going to be a lot harder. How are we going to get it to optimize for the wellbeing of humans but not palm trees? How are we going to agree on the right conclusions in metaethics--which is necessary for the survival of humans and everything else--if we can't have truly productive discussions about the preferences of chickens?

The remainder of the post remains apparently accurate upon reflection. The only thing left to note is that there is a difference between trying to change my beliefs via emotional appeals, and trying to inspire me to act on beliefs I already hold. I recognize that the videos I refer to are largely meant to do the latter, but they are sometimes used for the former, they have the same effect on me anyway, and multiple people have admitted today to using terror tactics when reason doesn't work.

6) Fair, truth-seeking conversations are, and have always been, essential to scientific progress of all forms. I am extremely disappointed in many people who have responded to my post in ways that cut off any possibility of honest discussion. 

Honesty requires vulnerability. Speaking the truth is dangerous. Today, in a moment of despair, I declared that I would stop doing it. But the only way I know of to cultivate a culture of collaborative truth-seeking is by example. By going out in the open and being uncertain, changing my mind, correcting deception despite the social risk, revealing facts about my mind that could be used against me, and never, ever bullying people epistemically. If you take up someone's emotional vulnerabilities as weapons, the first thing you destroy is progress toward knowledge.

The discussions of animal rights I've seen in the EA and rationalist communities in the past year have worried me almost as much as the social justice conversations, because the way those discussions go, it's like people are at war. And they seem to know it, and think it's a good thing, that they must dominate the evil enemy at all cost. And when one person declares war, it's kinda hard not to raise some shields. But we have to stop this. This is not how the truth is revealed and applied. This problem is too important to be overwhelmed by blue/green politics.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Identification and Seeking the Subject of Experience

Here is a thing that I'm pretty sure is inappropriate for the book, but that I want to post somewhere anyway. I'm very curious to know your reactions. It's an exercise for creating enough distance between yourself and your experiences or beliefs that you can evaluate them more fairly, and maybe change your mind about them more easily. I expect it to take five to ten minutes.

Choose a thought with which you identify. It might be, "I'm a libertarian," or "art is really important to me," or even something small and silly, like the belief that "asparagus tastes awful". Something that feels like it's a part of you, like if you didn't implicitly think this, you wouldn't quite be the same you anymore.

Direct your attention to that thought. Focus on it intensely. The whole thought: not just the words representing it, but the sensations that comprise your experience of its meaning. The way you feel about it. Become completely absorbed in the thought. Do this for several breaths, until you feel like it's fully in focus.

Now, keeping that thought in sight but softening your focus on it considerably, move toward reflective attention: redirect most of your focus to the process that gives rise to your focus on the thought. Observe your observation of the thought.

What does it mean that you can do this, that you can observe yourself thinking a thought with which you identify?

Shift your focus back and forth, between the thought itself, and your attention to the thought.

Resting now on your attention to the thought, gently recall the feeling of shifting back, zooming out, to this place of attention to attention. If you need a reminder, refocus on the thought and zoom back out to reflective attention again. 

Can you imagine taking another backward step just like that one, but from here? Try it. Move your attention to attention to attention. Bring this more distant, observant state of mind into focus as your object of attention, without losing sight of the first two layers. Seeing now the thought, attention to the thought, and attention to attention to the thought.

Notice that as you step back, becoming increasingly reflective, moving in the direction of the observer, you become more distant from the original thought.

There are several things one might mean by "identifying with a thought", but when you observe the process of observation, you're pointing to a central component of any notion of identity. You are moving in the direction of where the subject of all your experiences ought to be. But you are never actually finding it, never taking it as an object of experience.

You can take this backward step many times, building towers of recursive reflection. But every time you do, the subject of your experience steps back, because it is precisely what is doing the stepping. You cannot direct your attention to it in the same way that you cannot direct your visual gaze to your own eyeballs. When your gaze moves, so do your eyes. When your attention moves, so does that which attends.

Think again that thought with which you identify.

Is that the subject of experience? Is that you?

It cannot possibly be. Why? Because you are thinking it.

Nothing you can think of, nothing that can come under your attention, nothing that can be an object of experience, can be the subject of experience. So there's an important sense in which nothing you identify with can be you

If you keep this understanding always running as a background habit, there is a limit to how intertwined with your thoughts you can feel. Even when you're absorbed in them, you know your thoughts to be ever so slightly distant, always objects of experience, never the subject.

If you find yourself struggling to evaluate an experience fairly--if you find yourself clinging to a belief that feels distinctly yours, or flinching away from an observation that threatens to destroy it--you can create a more comfortable distance by repeating this exercise. 

You can demonstrate to yourself that whatever the truth turns out to be, you will still be here, behind the beliefs, behind the observations, behind the experiences. And you will in fact be safer, armed with a better model of reality. The false thoughts that try to pass themselves off as you, those are the thoughts that will harm you most. "The thought you cannot think controls you more than the thoughts you speak aloud." This is why.

It is much easier to let go of something that you observe, than something that you are.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Ninjas Sandbox

There is now an open Facebook group for people interested in the applied phenomenology book I'm working on. I will use it to post exercises to get feedback, ask questions, answer questions, and keep people updated on my progress. It currently has a chapter by chapter overview of the current plan, and access to the first round of exercises. Please join if you want to play!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Silent Thoughts that Run Your Life

Most people have an internal monologue. Not just when they're reading, but much of the rest of the time too. There's a little voice sort of narrating their day to day activities all the time, or commenting on memories or imagined scenarios when they're distracted. "Ugh, I forgot to take out the garbage this morning." "Oh, that's a nice skirt!" "When is that report due again?"

Many of your thoughts--and I use that term loosely, referring to just about anything going on in your head that you can potentially be aware of--are therefore verbal.

I expect that there is an enormous bias, when we talk about our thoughts, to report the verbal ones, the ones that express themselves through our inner monologue. At the very least, we only tell people about our thoughts after they've passed through a translator that renders them verbal (unless we're using non-verbal art). But those cannot possibly be the only thoughts we have. We are too complex for that.

There is an exercise many people try when first dabbling in contemplative spiritual traditions that goes like this (and I do mean for you to try the exercise yourself):

Take out a watch or some other way of keeping time, and something to write with. Sit comfortably but upright, take a deep breath, and relax. When you're done reading this paragraph, set the timer for one minute. Then, sit silently, and clear your mind of all thoughts. Just stay that way, thinking nothing at all, for a whole minute.

Now take a few moments to write at least a sentence about your experience of the past minute. Did anything unexpected happen? How easy or difficult was it? If you noticed thoughts happening, what were they? (Feel free to post whatever you write in the comments.)

I find this exercise interesting for several reasons. First, it's very difficult for most people. Within seconds of starting the timer, they think to themselves, "Ok, no more thinking. Damn it, that was a thought!" Experts often call this "monkey mind".

Second, people very inexperienced with this sort of activity think their mind suddenly explodes in thought as soon as they sit down to practice, while somewhat more experienced practitioners come to realize that their mind is thinking all the time, and such exercises merely bring attention to that fact.

A few people really do get through the whole minute without activating their inner monologue, but most of them report making a continuous effort to suppress words that try to come up.

(And then there are some people who have no idea what you mean by "inner monologue" even after you describe it to them. I don't actually know how many, the state of science on this is bad, and I could talk about that for an entire post but this post is not about that. Mindspace is deep and wide. Moving on.)

But the most enlightening thing I've learned, both from personal experience and from talking to others who've tried this sort of thing, is that people implicitly believe that if they're not using words to talk to themselves in their heads, then they're not thinking--"no voice" equals "still, empty, featureless mind". The thoughts they struggle against the entire time in this exercise are the verbal ones, so much so that they aren't even aware of any other mental activity. And then when they finally manage a whole minute without narrating their experience, they think they've succeeded. I felt the same way when I first started.

Monastics, and others who sit in silence for hours every day for years, find that the inner monologue eventually becomes much quieter and often silent during those periods of sitting, whether they're quieting it on purpose or not. They also find--and this is perhaps the only really strong justification I know of for putting in the time requiured--that there are an awful lot of other things going on in their heads besides words. When the words stop drowning out all out all the other mental activity, it's possible become aware of those many silent thoughts. From there, one can learn to exert some control over the other mental activities, just like you can probably exert some control over your inner monologue now.

For example, you can re-read this sentence and think "white" when you read "blue". You can choose to generate a verbal thought about the texture of the floor below you. You can speed up the voice, slow it down, change its pitch, change its volume. With practice, you can even render it mute.

Most of what happens in your head is not words. Most of what determines your behavior has very little to do with the voice that narrates your actions (though the voice is also a powerful instrument once you know how to use it). You are far more prone to influence by silent mental flinches, urges, aversions, attitudes, emotions, shifts of attention and focus.

You can gain some control over most of these things. But you have to become aware of them first. You have to become intimately acquainted with aspects of experience you usually ignore before it will begin to have implications for your behavior in real life. Just like you can't quiet a verbal thought you didn't know you heard, you can't respond strategically to an aversion you didn't know you felt, or to a belief you didn't know you held.

The goal of the exercises I'm developing over the next few months is to help rationalists, and others who value clear thinking and better decision processes, gain awareness and control over the workings of their minds--without spending ten years motionless on a mountain top. Specifically, I hope to provide access to enough awareness and control that my readers can put whatever they know or learn of epistemic rationality to much better use.

I doubt I'll post literally everything I'm working on to this blog, but I'll want to share my thoughts as I work through them, and I'll want to have readers test run a lot of the exercises. Stay tuned!

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