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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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mental Postures

Related posts: Simulating Confusion, What It's Like To Notice Things, A Message To System 1, Your Strength as a Rationalist by Eliezer Yudkowsky, I Notice I'm Confused About Noticing I'm Confused

I'm gaining control over my mental postures.

Sometimes when it's time to work, I'm distracted and don't feel like working. I'm supposed to be filling out a form or whatever, and instead my thoughts are flitting about all over the place. I'm thinking about a conversation I had over lunch, then about how I really need to remember to send that email to the guy about the thing, then about the lady I can see out the window who's walking five dogs at once. Or maybe I'm thinking about all of those things at the same time. I realize I'm distracted, and I think, "Ok, I have got to focus."

Often that doesn't get me very far. Usually, there is a small and temporary change toward focus. Sometimes there's a huge change in the overall quality of my experience, and suddenly all my attention has moved to the task at hand.

I've been using a term for changing the overall quality of my thoughts and feelings to something more conducive to accomplishing my immediate goal. I call it "adopting a mental posture". 

It is analogous to adjusting your physical posture. Try sitting up straighter. Now adopt a more relaxed posture. Now pick a posture somewhere in between. 

I know from teaching dance and yoga that different people can start out at very different ability levels when it comes to control over their physical postures. Some people can see a two-dimensional photo of somebody in eagle pose for the first time and know exactly which actions are required to move their body into that configuration. Other people have trouble purposefully rolling their shoulders back. I also know that most people, no matter where they start, can get much better at controlling their physical posture with instruction and practice.

I've been deliberately practicing gaining control over my mental postures, and it seems to be paying off. I've also had some instruction in meditation, which I'm pretty sure gave me leg up on this.

I think of emotions and mental postures a little differently, but I don't draw a sharp distinction. In general, I think of an emotion as a particular sensation or small set of sensations taking place in my experience, where by "experience" I mean "all the things I'm consciously aware of at a given time." Right now my experience includes (but is certainly not limited to) the following sensations:
  • yellow (and lots of other visual sensations representing my notebook)
  • the clicking sound of the keyboard keys (and a bunch of other sounds from my environment)
  • the tactile sensations of my hands on the keyboard, my feet on the floor, and the temperature of the room (it's very warm here)
  • an urge to stop writing this and get a snack
  • the burst of simple pleasure induced by crunching into Chile's equivalent of an Oreo cookie
  • these words in my inner monologue as I compose this sentence
  • the seven-ness of the number of items on this list
The "urge to stop writing" is an example of an emotion. It's a relatively independent psychological sensation that doesn't represent any particular thing about the external world. ("Yellow" is an independent psychological sensation that does represent a particular thing about the external world. The distinction here is fuzzy too, but some things are more emotion-like than others.) 

My mental posture right now is not any individual, independent element of my immediate experience. It's the quality of the environment containing all these elements, and it's not something I'm usually aware of. I'm not aware of it right now. I can become aware of it by noticing what all the contents of my awareness have in common, and then bringing the abstraction of that commonality into awareness. Now that I'm doing that, I can feel that it's something like open, lethargic, and dutiful. 

I named three things there, but I'm trying to point to what's really a single sensation. It is a sensation, but it's a sensation I'm not aware of until I look for it, and I only find it by noticing the effect it has on all the other objects of my awareness and recognizing what they have in common. They all have an open-lethargic-dutiful cast to them.

My mental posture has an effect on everything to do with my experience. It's not merely a sensation, or a quality of a set of sensations. It also affects my thought processes, the way I think over time. It affects the speed at which I can have new thoughts, the level of agency I have over what my thoughts will be, and the intensity of some kinds of sensations. When my mental posture is focused, calm, and alert, I have a lot of control over which thoughts I'll have, over the speed at which they change, and over the intensity of the sensations I choose to focus on. When my mental posture is distracted, panicked, and exhausted, the opposite is true: I have little control over which thoughts I'll have, little control over the speed at which they change (and many of them will undoubtedly change very quickly), and I'll experience two kinds of things with great intensity whether I like it or not: sensations representing loud external stimuli, and a few negative emotions.

This is analogous to saying that your physical posture affects how you perform physical activities, and so it is more than the coordinates of your body parts in space. When you sit upright with your shoulders relaxed and your feet on the floor, you might type faster and more accurately than when you hunch over and scrunch up your shoulder and neck muscles, and you will probably experience different long-term effects in the form of back pain. In a partner dance, both a rigid posture and an extremely relaxed posture reduce your physical response time to inputs from your partner.

Can "mental posture" be reduced to a list of facts about what sensations you happen to be aware of, how quickly those sensations do in fact change, etc.? Probably. I find it useful to think about it as an additional entity, though, because that makes it easier to gain control over the whole slew of things it "affects". I don't "independently reduce the intensity of irrelevant sensations, increase my agency over the speed of my thoughts, and choose which thoughts to think." I simply "adopt a mental posture of focus."

There are a lot of ways to gain control over your mental posture. Changing your environment will often do it. You can become less distracted, for example, by reducing external stimuli (turning off the television, drawing the blinds, and so forth). You can change your physical posture: Take a deep breath and relax your body as you exhale. Did your mind relax? You can alter your mind's biochemical substrate with drugs, food, exercise, and sleep. You can use urge propagation. Or you can use imagination: For the next twenty seconds, close your eyes and remember as vividly as possible a recent time when you felt joyous. (I'll wait.) Can you see a little bit of a joyous cast, now, as you read on?

What I'm really interested in, right now, is developing a practice that gives me direct control over my mental postures, or at least over the ones I've practiced with. No intermediary steps, just noticing that a different posture would be more useful, and adopting that posture. And... it's working. 

For example, I noticed a little while ago that I was making some mistakes in the skill Eliezer calls "noticing confusion". When I looked for the source of those mistakes, I found that the mental postures I most often adopt when faced with confusion are not conducive to the mental motions I would like to execute when I am confused. As I described yesterday in simulating confusion, I automatically take on a posture that colors things with betrayal, yearning/impatience, and frustration. If I try to ask myself, "What is my current model, and what part of it is in contradiction with the confusing thing?" the thought is bound up in betrayal, frustration, and impatience. It hurts to feel those things about my model, which feels like a part of me, and it's easier to direct them out at the world, at the confusing thing.

A much more efficient posture would be something like "curiosity".

So I created a sort of kata. I meditated on confusion, just like I described yesterday. I practiced merely noticing confusion for a few days to get the hang of just that part. I meditated on curiosity. I created an urge propagator that would help me tie the experience of confusion to the desired state of curiosity (which I've mostly forgotten now, but it definitely involved a trampoline). I created a trigger-action plan, like so: If I notice that I am confused, then I will activate my urge propagator for curiosity.

And then I began to practice the introductory version of my kata.
  • Simulate confusion vividly enough to actually feel it and notice it as confusion
  • In accordance with the trigger-action plan, activate curiosity propagator
  • Let whatever results from the propagator begin a brief meditation on curiosity
I did that at least once each morning for a few days, and I extended my real-time "noticing confusion" practice to the full sequence. In real life, when I noticed confusion, I activated the curiosity propagator and felt curiosity. Between the off-line training and the deliberate real-world practice, I was able to go through the sequence in just a few seconds.

I waited until there was so little time between noticing confusion and feeling curious that the propagator didn't have time to play all the way through. Then I made a new trigger action plan: If I notice that I am confused, I will adopt the mental posture of curiosity. From there, I moved to the advanced version of the kata.
  • Simulate confusion vividly enough to actually feel it and notice it as confusion
  • In accordance with the trigger-action plan, adopt the mental posture of curiosity
And then, of course, I practiced that in real life.

I can now make myself curious at times when it is important to be curious--directly, with no intervening steps. If I am confused, I can immediately become curious.

I'm excited to find out how far I can generalize this practice.

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you can answer this question in the box beside the stars if you want: 

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Simulating Confusion

For many of the kinds of techniques I've been working with recently, I begin by meditating on a mental state I want to notice, modify, or bring about. 

For example, if I wanted to get better at noticing and addressing confusion, I would probably meditate on "confusion" before I begin to practice noticing it in real time. That way I have a much clearer idea of what it is I want to notice, and I can install a trigger-action plan like, "When I notice 'confusion' [that thing I just meditated on], I will snap my fingers [or some other action]." "Meditate on confusion" is a terrible instruction, but when I say it to myself, I mean something very specific by it. 

I want to try showing you exactly what I mean. I'm going to actually go through the exercise I tend to call "meditating on [mental state]", and I will type everything that I notice is happening in my mind as I go. 

3 2 1 go.

At first, there's a lot of mental clutter. I feel a little tired and unfocused, and I'm aware of thoughts about later sections of this post, the louder details of my physical environment such as the barking dog and the colorful painting of the girl with a balloon on the wall. I grope around a little for "confusion", but it doesn't come to me easily. 

I close my eyes to limit external inputs. I take a deep breath and relax as I exhale. I'm still far from simulating confusion.

I need to find the capacity for imagination. I know it's in here somewhere. What does it feel like to imagine something? Let's imagine something easier, like a teddy bear. Ok, I'm imagining a teddy bear. I can feel its fur and its weight in my hands, and I can see its shape and its color. 

What has changed about my experience? The other thoughts I was aware of have drifted off into the background, and I am focused now on this single simulated teddy bear. Good, I've gained some control over my experience. I take another deep breath and relax, focusing more intensely on the teddy bear as the surrounding thoughts melt further away. 

Now, staying concrete, I will let go of the teddy bear and imagine a time when I was confused. Preferably very confused. Ah, good, here is one where I was so confused I feared I was going crazy. I am holding two blue credit cards. It later turns out that I've found a credit card I simply forgot I ever lost and replaced, but at the moment there is a completely unexplained extra credit card, identical to my own credit card but for the number, and bearing my name. It is finals week, and I am terribly tired. 

Oh, excellent, that was the next step and I'm already filling it in. What is the internal experience of this simulated past self who is confused about the credit cards? She is exasperated and frightened. Simulate it. Good. It feels like there is something very wrong with the world, like reality has torn, and I'm staring at the gap. I'm searching impatiently, desperately for an explanation. I don't even remember why this was such an intense experience, but it was. I try out a few explanations I've managed to dig up. I think, "Maybe Chase gave me a copy of my credit card when I opened an account with them?" but I know that the numbers on the cards are different, and a copy of my credit card would not have different numbers, so I discard that attempted explanation and dig around some more. 

Good, I've now got a fairly vivid simulation of the actual sensation of confusion going on. It is a jolt like a missed step, followed by a search and a sharpness in my chest, a feeling that something about the world is broken and I want it to go back to the way it was, I yearn for it to be fixed. 

Now I let the sensory details of the concrete scenario fade away, and I make the sensation of confusion itself the center of my attention. I relax with my eyes closed, just letting that yearning for reconciliation between my observations and my model of the world wash over me, letting it be as much of my experience as I an make it. 

After a minute or two, I bring back the concrete scenario, and I rewind to the beginning, looking for that first jolt of surprise that preceded more developed confusion. I am digging through a drawer in search of my credit card, and I find it--but it is too thick. There is actually another card behind it, but all I notice at first is that something is strange about the card. I feel surprised before I even recognize what specifically is wrong about the card. It's a tiny feeling. Like the next square of sidewalk changing elevation ever so slightly, so that your foot meets the ground just a little sooner than you meant for it to. 

I again let the concrete scenario fade, and I focus on the sensation of surprise itself. I do that for maybe thirty seconds. It's difficult to simulate just the surprise all on its own, because surprise is fleeting, and it keeps developing immediately into either resolution or investigation, and from there to resolution or extended confusion. But I can do it, as long as I keep returning to the feeling whenever I fall off the edge of it. I wait to find my balance. 

Next I focus on the moment when I've begun to accept an unsatisfactory explanation. This is the key moment. There is so much pressure, a heavy weight, from the exhaustion and the discomfort of the dissonance, to choose an explanation and let it rest. To force a resolution. I don't, though. I can't. With every explanation that comes to mind, as I try to accept it, there is a sense of something missing hanging above it. Even if the "explanation" is true, something is still not right. There is something still out of place, something I'm still stumbling over. I can feel it now, high up in my chest and throat, a tightness resisting resolution. I set the concrete scenario aside again, and I simulate the something-wrong-hanging-above-attempted-acceptance-making-my-chest-tight. I let my mind become that feeling for a little while.

I now play through the sequence of abstract sensations a few times: Surprise, investigation, the emergence of a feeling of wrongness--almost of betrayal, then intensified investigation, yearning and impatience for resolution, the pressure of attempted acceptance failing, frustration, and that feeling of wrongness remaining throughout.

All right, I think that took about fifteen minutes, but putting it all into words slowed me down a lot. Usually when I do this for a new mental state, it takes between five and ten minutes. I went all the way through the sequence this time both because I felt distracted and because I wanted to demonstrate. 

Once I've performed this exercise for a given state, though, I can usually simulate the emotion at least weakly in just a few seconds. So for example, starting at the end of this sentence, I'm going to time how long it takes for me to simulate the abstract version of "curiosity", since I've been working with that recently. Yep, five seconds when I'm tired and not using any particular trigger. Handy trick in a lot of contexts, but I'll tell you about that later.

To help me improve my posts, you can answer this question in the box beside the stars if you want: "What was this post about?"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

My Feels About the Secular Solstice

In a recent blog post, Miri talked about why secular ritual is important to her, and about her experience of the 2013 Secular Solstice in New York. Much of what she said resonated strongly with me. In particular,
What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.
and also,
... The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.
I didn't make it to the New York Solstice last year, but I was at the one in San Francisco, and it was similarly powerful for me. The ritual may have been important to me for slightly different reasons, so I wanted to share my perspective as well.

As I've talked a little about before, I have seasonal affective disorder. Despite much recent improvement, it's severe enough that I'm living in Chile for the next four months to avoid the worst of the American winter. This has led to me having some pretty strong feelings about winter holidays, and Advent/Christmas in particular since I was raised Catholic.

Advent's more of a season than a holiday, but it shares with the Solstice the property of not framing winter as a "happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus". It's supposed to symbolize the time at the end of the Old Testament after both Judea and Israel had fallen, but the Messiah had not yet come to deliver Yahweh's people from exile. Originally it was about the time after Jesus died and before his second coming, which is why Advent once included mandatory fasting and other forms of penitence--but then it turned out that he wasn't actually coming back any time soon, so people reinterpreted.

Either way, it's all about preparing to be saved.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

The Catholics imagine that the Jews were actually right at that particular point in their history, and God really was about to come down from the heavens and save them from their misery. As such, the customs surrounding Advent are filled with longing, hope, and the feeling that if we can just hang on a little longer everything will be ok.

Which is exactly what it feels like to have SAD, at least before you learn resignation. And of course, contemporary Western Catholicism ties all of this very closely with Winter.

The Advent season has a lot of rituals I find quite lovely. The Advent wreath, for example (which was actually appropriated from the Lutherans, I just discovered, though the tradition of a wreath decorated with candles is much older than Christianity). Setting up a nativity scene with an empty manger. The whole of Christmas Eve Mass is just spectacular. It starts with a darkened church. Then, slowly, candles are lit and people begin to sing quietly. The lights aren't turned all the way up until Midnight, at which point (in my parish anyway) there begins a joyous Mass that is sung the entire way through.

From my perspective, though, Catholic Advent and Christmas seem terribly broken. There's so much beauty and so much potential there, but the moral of the story is all wrong. What do you do when the nights are long and the wind is cold and you have no place to call home? You huddle together and wait meekly for a Messiah to come and save you.

No. Just, no.

To me, the Secular Solstice is sort of what I wish Advent and Christmas could be. The aesthetics, and even the narrative, are very similar. But it builds toward something else: a resolution to save ourselves, each other, and everyone who will come after us. And to do more than that, to keep making our world better and better until the darkness has been permanently banished.

There is acknowledgement of hardship and the enormity of our challenge from within a cold universe that doesn't care about us in the slightest. That part is taken very seriously, and is tied to the metaphors of winter and night. And then, as a community, we accept that challenge with a vow, not to submit to our fate until a savior is sent from heaven to rescue us, but a vow to take the future into our own hands, to ensure by our own power that it's something beautiful and bright.
Tomorrow can be brighter than today
Although the night is cold
The stars may seem so very far away
But courage, hope, and reason burn
In every mind, each lesson learned
Shining light to guide to our way
Make tomorrow brighter than today
Winter is still hard for me, but last winter was the best one I've had since early childhood. At the San Francisco Solstice celebration, it was clear to me why. Not only am I part of tight-knit community again--not quite a congregation, but close--but I'm surrounded by people brimming with determination to improve themselves and the world around them, and with the self-efficacy and rationality to actually do so.

What I experienced at the Solstice was not merely a reminder or a symbol, but a manifestation of the things I care about most. It was a secular sacrament, in the Catholic sense of the word.

In the winter when I am isolated, I am consumed by fear and despair. On the night of the Solstice, participating in that sacrament along side others working effectively toward the same goals, singing about the march of progress and our plans for the future, I witnessed the power of a motivated community of humans to drive back the darkness.

At one point, footage from the International Space Station was projected onto a large screen. As we watched together from our vantage point in space--while the lights of civilization glittered beneath us, and as dawn broke over the homeworld--there was one shared emotion, invoked by the power of ritual, resonating and amplifying through the minds of everyone present. It felt as if a single brilliant beam of resolution were shining toward the future of humanity.

The Secular Solstice is still new, still developing rapidly and trying to find its feet. If you want to nurture this idea and watch what happens, I recommend that you support the Secular Solstice though the Kickstarter campaign.