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.

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?"


Rhaidot said...

I'm consciously aware that I got more easily distracted with sensations that are more familiar for me. For example, I can't concentrate very well when a friend is talking near to me, but if it a friend of a friend then I have not problem to focus. I think that I have a good concentration skill, but I am going to try your recommendations to upgrade my mental postures.


Malcolm Ocean said...

> Can you see a little bit of a joyous cast, now, as you read on?

I found this really invited me to continue the posture while I kept reading, rather than just having me abruptly end up back in the frame of mind I was in when I started reading your post.

Unknown said...

> 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)

What do you mean by "I" in this context?