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For some reason, I’ve always felt an instinctive dislike towards my childhood self. I generally like kids, but if somebody had magically produced a copy of the person that I was at 5 or 10 and asked me to look after that kid for a while, my automatic reaction would have been “no, I don’t like that kid”.

I’ve also had somewhat of a bad self-esteem for a long, long time. For my tenth birthday, I decided that I didn’t want to get any presents, because I felt like I had done nothing to deserve them. And I didn’t want to get any presents on future birthdays, or on any Christmas, either. (This caused what’s probably one of the oddest child-parent fights that I know of, with my dad being angry about wanting to give me presents and me steadfastly refusing them.)

These two things seemed obviously related.

So today I started exploring that feeling of dislike. Where was it coming from? Why did I have such an aversion regarding my younger self?

Now here’s the thing. I was an only child who frequently spent more time by himself or around adults than he did around other kids. Like all kids, I had a fair share of fights with my parents about stuff like bedtimes and such.

But I never realized that other kids had those same kinds of fights and tantrums too.

I remember having been distinctly shocked when a teacher we had when I was 13-15 made an off-handed comment about this happening with younger kids.

I hadn’t known that this was a Kid Thing: I had thought it was a Kaj Thing.

And as a result, I’d felt guilty and bad over each time that I’d been self-centered and emotional in the way kids are. By the time I heard my teacher make that comment, it started to dawn on me on an intellectual level that this was nothing special: but on an emotional level I had already internalized a belief that I was exceptionally ungrateful and undeserving for everything my parents did for me.

Today I went back to those experiences. A few memories in particular stuck out: one of the countless bedtime struggles, as well as an occasion when I’d told my dad over the phone that I didn’t like him. And now, instead of just recalling my behavior in those memories – like on every previous occasion when I had recalled them – I tried to remember my emotional state, and to sympathize with it, and to recall other kids that I’ve seen acting up and who I’ve felt sympathetic towards.

And then there was a shift, and those memories started feeling like instances of a Kid Thing, rather than a uniquely Kaj Thing.

And now if you’d bring me a copy of me as I was at 5 or 10, I’d just like to hug that poor kid and tell him that it’s okay.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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For a few months this fall, I was part of a poly triad which ultimately didn’t work out… but the moments when it did work, worked. So well in fact, that I suspect that any relationship with only two people involved will from now on feel somehow lacking to me, no matter how good otherwise.

There were two of us guys involved with one gal, with the guys starting out as strangers to each other. Still, from the start it was clear that everyone wanted everybody to be happy, and was going to act accordingly.

To me, at the best moments, we felt like family. Not just two men who happened to both have a relationship with the same woman, but a cohesive unit doing its best that everyone in it (as well as the kid from a previous relationship) would be as well off as possible. Thinking back to it, I recall moments like:

  • all three brainstorming and looking up stuff about how to make the kid sleep better at night, or to be more willing to sit still while riding a bus
  • one of us reading a book aloud to the two others, all three cuddling together
  • everyone spending several hours carrying some fresh wood together
  • all three sitting together and discussing some conflicts that had come up between two of them, with the third one offering a more neutral outside perspective and acting as a general calming force

It’s hard to describe, but I feel like there was a very strong sense in which there being three of us brought a sense of extra stability to the relationship. If someone was upset or doing badly, nobody needed to feel like they alone had the primary burden of helping that person out. Whoever needed support, there were two other people to shoulder the effort of providing it. And nobody would hesitate to provide it, if only they were in a shape where they could.

While it ultimately didn’t work out, that feeling of being a tight-knit family, with a sense of “one for all, all for one”… I’m going to miss that, in any relationship that doesn’t have it. You can get the sense of mutual support with just a single couple, of course; but things like that sense of “we’re both in love with the same person so we’re going to work together to make her happy; and we know that she cares about us both and will be the happiest if both of us are happy, so we’ll also do our best to help each other out whenever we can”… that I don’t think you can really get without having a triad.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Three weeks ago, I ran across an article called “Google’s former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding joy“. Yes, the title is kinda cringe-worthy, but the content is good. Here are the most essential five paragraphs:

Successfully reshaping your mindset, [Chade-Meng Tan] argues, has less to do with hours of therapy and more to do with mental exercises, including one that helps you recognize “thin slices of joy.”

“Right now, I’m a little thirsty, so I will drink a bit of water. And when I do that, I experience a thin slice of joy both in space and time,” he told CBC News. “It’s not like ‘Yay!”” he notes in Joy on Demand. “It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of nice.’”

Usually these events are unremarkable: a bite of food, the sensation of stepping from a hot room to an air-conditioned room, the moment of connection in receiving a text from an old friend. Although they last two or three seconds, the moments add up, and the more you notice joy, the more you will experience joy, Tan argues. “Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

Tan bases this idea on neurological research about how we form habits. Habitual behaviors are controlled by the basal ganglia region of the brain, which also plays a role in the the development of memories and emotions. The better we become at something, the easier it becomes to repeat that behavior without much cognitive effort.

Tan’s “thin slice” exercise contains a trigger, a routine, and a reward—the three parts necessary to build a habit. The trigger, he says, is the pleasant moment, the routine is the noticing of it, and the reward is the feeling of joy itself.

Since then, I have been working on implementing its advice, and making it a habit to notice the various “thin slices of joy” in my life.

It was difficult to remember at first, and on occasions when I’m upset for any reason it’s even harder to follow, even if I do remember it. Still, it is gradually becoming a more entrenched habit, with me remembering it and automatically following it more and more often – and feeling better as a result. I’m getting better at noticing the pleasure in sensations like

  • Drinking water.
  • Eating food.
  • Going to the bathroom.
  • Having drops of water fall on my body while in the shower.
  • The physicality of brushing teeth, and the clean feeling in the mouth that follows.
  • Being in the same room as someone and feeling less alone, even if both are doing their own things.
  • Typing on a keyboard and being skilled enough at it to have each finger just magically find the right key without needing to look.

And so on.

Most of these are physical sensations. I would imagine that this would be a lot harder for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in their body. But for me, a great thing about this is that my body is always with me. Anytime when I’m sitting comfortably – or standing, or lying, or walking comfortably – I can focus my attention on that comfort and get that little bit of joy.

In the article, it said that

“Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

I feel like this is starting to happen to me. Still not reliably, still not always, still easily broken by various emotional upsets.

But I still feel like I’m making definite progress.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Unlike the other kids in my neighborhood, who went to the Finnish-speaking elementary school right near our suburban home, I went to a Swedish-speaking school much closer to the inner city. Because of this, my mom would come pick me up from school, and sometimes we would go do things in town, since we were already nearby.

At one point we developed a habit of making a video rental store the first stop after school. We’d return whatever we had rented the last time, and I’d get to pick one thing to rent next. The store had a whole rack devoted to NES games, and there was a time when I was systematically going through their whole collection, seeking to play everything that seemed interesting. But at times I would also look at their VHS collection, and that was how I first found Star Wars.

I don’t have a recollection of what it was to see any of the Star Wars movies for the very first time. But I do have various recollections of how they influenced my life, afterwards.

For many years, there was “Sotala Force”, an imaginary space army in a setting of make believe that combined elements of Star Wars and Star Trek. I was, of course, its galaxy-famous leader, with some of my friends at the time holding top positions in it. It controlled maybe one third of the galaxy, and its largest enemy was something very loosely patterned after the Galactic Empire, which held maybe four tenths of the galaxy.

The leader of the enemy army, called (Finns, don’t laugh too much now) Kiero McLiero, took on many traits from Emperor Palpatine. These included the ability, taken from the Dark Empire comics, to keep escaping death by always resurrecting in a new body, meaning that our secret missions attacking his bases could end in climactic end battles where we’d kill him, over and over again. Naturally, me and my friends were Jedi Knights and Masters, using a combination of the Force, lightsabers, and whatever other weapons we happened to have, to carry out our noble missions.

There was a girl in elementary school who I sometimes hung out with, and who I had a huge and hopelessly unrequited crush on. Among other shared interests like Lord of the Rings, we were both fans of Star Wars, and would sometimes discuss it. I only remember some fragments of those discussions: an agreement that Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were superior movies to A New Hope; both having heard of the Tales of the Jedi comics but neither having managed to find them anywhere; a shared feeling of superiority and indignation towards everyone who was making such a blown-out-of-proportions fuss about Jar-Jar Binks in the Phantom Menace, given that Lucas had clearly said that he was aiming these new movies at children.

The third last memory I have of seeing her, was at a trip to a beach we had at the end of 9th grade; I’d brought a toy dual-bladed lightsaber, while she’d brought a single-bladed one. There were many duels on that beach.

The very last memory that I have of seeing her, after we’d gone on to different schools, was when we ran across each other in the premiere of the Revenge of the Sith, three years later. We chatted a bit about the movie, what had happened to us in the intervening years, and then went our separate ways again.

For a kid interested in computer games in 1990s Finland, Pelit (“Games”) was The magazine to read. Another magazine that was of interest, also having computer games but mostly covering more general PC issues, was MikroBitti. Of these, both occasionally discussed a fascinating-sounding thing, table-top role-playing games, with MikroBitti running a regular column that discussed them. They sounded totally awesome and I wanted to get one. I asked my dad if I could have an RPG, and he was willing to buy one, if only I told him what they looked like and where they might be found. This was the part that left me stumped.

Until one day I found a store that… I don’t remember what exactly it sold. It might have been an explicit gaming store or it might only have had games as one part of its collection. And I have absolutely no memory of how I found it. But one way or the other, there it was, including the star prize: a Star Wars role-playing game (the West End Games one, second edition).

For some reason that I have forgotten, I didn’t actually get the core rules at first. The first thing that I got was a supplement, Heroes & Rogues, which had a large collection of different character templates depicting all kinds of Rebel, Imperial, and neutral characters, as well as an extended “how to make a realistic character” section. The book was in English, but thanks to my extensive NES gaming experience, I could read it pretty well at that point. Sometime later, I got the actual core rules.

I’m not sure if I started playing right away; I have the recollection that I might have spent a considerable while just buying various supplements for the sake of reading them, before we started actually playing. “We” in this case was me and one friend of mine, because we didn’t have anyone else to play with. This resulted in creative non-standard campaigns, in which we both had several characters (in addition to me also being the game master) who we played simultaneously. Those games lasted until we found the local university’s RPG club (which also admitted non-university students; I think I was 13 the first time I showed up). After finding it, we transitioned to more ordinary campaigns and those weird two-player mishmashes ended. They were fun while they lasted, though.

After the original gaming store where I’d been buying my Star Wars supplements closed, I eventually found another. And it didn’t only have Star Wars RPG supplements! It also had Star Wars novels that were in English, which had never been translated into Finnish!

Obviously, I had to buy them and read them.

So it came to be that the first novel that I read in English was X-Wing: Wedge’s Gamble, telling the story of the Rebellion’s (or, as it was known by that time, the New Republic’s) struggle to capture Coruscant some years after the events in Return of the Jedi. I remember that this was sometime in yläaste (“upper elementary school”), so I was around 13-15 years old. An actual novel was a considerably bigger challenge for my English-reading skills than RPG supplements were, so there was a lot of stuff in the novel that I didn’t quite get. But still, I finished it, and then went on to buy and read the rest of the novels in the X-Wing series.

The Force Awakens, Disney’s new Star Wars film, comes out today. Star Wars has previously been a part of many notable things in my life. It shaped the make believe setting that I spent several years playing in, it was one of the things I had in common with the first girl I ever had a crush on, its officially licensed role-playing game was the first one that I ever played, and one of its licensed novels was the first novel that I ever read in English.

Today it coincides with another major life event. The Finnish university system is different from the one in many other countries in that, for a long while, we didn’t have any such thing as a Bachelor’s degree. You were admitted to study for five years, and then at the end, you would graduate with a Master’s degree. Reforms carried out in 2005, intended to make Finnish higher education more compatible with the systems in other countries, introduced the concept of a Bachelor’s degree as an intermediary step that you needed to do in between. But upon being admitted to university, you would still be given the right to do both degrees, and people still don’t consider a person to have really graduated before they have their Master’s.

I was admitted to university back in 2006. For various reasons, my studies have taken longer than the recommended time, which would have had me graduating with my Master’s in 2011. But late, as they say, is better than never: today’s my official graduation day for my MSc degree. There will be a small ceremony at the main university building, after which I will celebrate by going to see what my old friends Luke, Leia and Han are up to these days.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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A model that I’ve found very useful is that pain is an attention signal. If there’s a memory or thing that you find painful, that’s an indication that there’s something important in that memory that your mind is trying to draw your attention to. Once you properly internalize the lesson in question, the pain will go away.

That’s a good principle, but often hard to apply in practice. In particular, several months ago there was a social situation that I screwed up big time, and which was quite painful to think of afterwards. And I couldn’t figure out just what the useful lesson was there. Trying to focus on it just made me feel like a terrible person with no social skills, which didn’t seem particularly useful.

Yesterday evening I again discussed it a bit with someone who’d been there, which helped relieve the pain a bit, enough that the memory wasn’t quite as aversive to look at. Which made it possible for me to imagine myself back in that situation and ask, what kinds of mental motions would have made it possible to salvage the situation? When I first saw the shocked expressions of the people in question, instead of locking up and reflexively withdrawing to an emotional shell, what kind of an algorithm might have allowed me to salvage the situation?

Answer to that question: when you see people expressing shock in response to something that you’ve said or done, realize that they’re interpreting your actions way differently than you intended them. Starting from the assumption that they’re viewing your action as bad, quickly pivot to figuring out why they might feel that way. Explain what your actual intentions were and that you didn’t intend harm, apologize for any hurt you did cause, use your guess of why they’re reacting badly to acknowledge your mistake and own up to your failure to take that into account. If it turns out that your guess was incorrect, let them correct you and then repeat the previous step.

That’s the answer in general terms, but I didn’t actually generate that answer by thinking in general terms. I generated it by imagining myself back in the situation, looking for the correct mental motions that might have helped out, and imagining myself carrying them out, saying the words, imagining their reaction. So that the next time that I’d be in a similar situation, it’d be associated with a memory of the correct procedure for salvaging it. Not just with a verbal knowledge of what to do in abstract terms, but with a procedural memory of actually doing it.

That was a painful experience to simulate.

But it helped. The memory hurts less now.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Two of the biggest mistakes that I used to make that made me a poor conversationalist:

1. Thinking too much about what I was going to say next. If another person is speaking, don’t think about anything else, where “anything else” includes your next words. Instead, just focus on what they’re saying, and the next thing to say will come to mind naturally. If it doesn’t, a brief silence before you say something is not the end of the world. Let your mind wander until it comes up with something.

2. Asking myself questions like “is X interesting / relevant / intelligent-sounding enough to say here”, and trying to figure out whether the thing on my mind was relevant to the purpose of the conversation. Some conversations have an explicit purpose, but most don’t. They’re just the participants saying whatever random thing comes to their mind as a result of what the other person last said. Obviously you’ll want to put a bit of effort to screening off any potentially offensive or inappropriate comments, but for the most part you’re better off just saying whatever random thing comes to your mind.

Relatedly, I suspect that these kinds of tendencies are what make introverts experience social fatigue. Social fatigue seems [in some people’s anecdotal experience; don’t have any studies to back me up here] to be associated with mental inhibition: the more you have to spend mental resources on holding yourself back, the more exhausted you will be afterwards. My experience suggests that if you can reduce the amount of filters on what you say, then this reduces mental inhibition, and correspondingly reduces the extent to which socializing causes you fatigue.

Peter McCluskey reports of a similar experience; other people mention varying degrees of agreement or disagreement.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

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Mine is an eleven-hour flight: I’m sitting between two people, a woman on my left, by the window, and a man on my right, by the corridor.

We’ve hardly spoken to each other: she once asked if I preferred to have the window open or closed, and I spoke to him when I needed to go to the bathroom, apologizing and then thanking him for making room for me.

Still, in this cramped space it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we know each other, at least for a bit.

I know that he’s reading George R. R. Martin’s The Dance With Dragons.

I know that she’s been napping under a blanket for a large part of the time.

He was the only one who had brought food of his own. When one of the in-flight staff asked whether she wanted water or juice to drink, she said no, but she did ask when our food would be served. (In half an hour.)

I know that both of them, when given the choice between a meal with chicken or one with potatoes, went for the chicken. I went for the potatoes.

All three of us chose to have tea rather than coffee.

He’s been up from his seat twice; she hasn’t moved from hers; I’ve been up once.

I think that she’s attractive; I haven’t paid attention to his appearance. I don’t know what they think of mine.

I’m the only one who’s been using a laptop, he’s the only one who’s been reading a physical book. Both of them have watched onboard movies; I haven’t.

She and I happened to think of filling our customs form around the same time, and did so side to side. I haven’t seen him fill his.

All of us end up occasionally touching each other, or stealing space for our elbows: it’s impossible not to. None of us says anything about it, each of us forgiving the violations of our personal space in exchange for having our similar violations forgiven.

As of this writing, it’s only two more hours before we arrive. I’ll enjoy their company for a while yet, and I do feel happy to have them here.

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2014 was one of the best and worst years of my life.

It started with the worst: in the first three months or so, my girlfriend and I broke up, the part-time job I was doing started feeling unmotivating, and I realized I didn’t have the energy to both do the job and work on my thesis at the same time. Romance, work, studies: three major spheres of my life, all crashing down around the same time.

I mostly recovered from the breakup and put my thesis on a temporary hold, but work continued to be unmotivating. In the summer I went to see a psychiatrist, and was prescribed antidepressants. Thus started the better part of the year, as I realized that I’d been suffering from a mild depression for years without knowing it. The meds went a long way towards fixing that, and everything started looking brighter. There were still down periods, but even they were better than the down periods I was having before the meds.

Of the concrete things that happened, there are so many things I could cover.

I’ve definitely been becoming a lot more social and extroverted during the year. In April there was the first Less Wrong European Community Weekend in Berlin, which was a lot of fun by itself, and also led to me becoming close friends with several people. In November I attended the Center for Applied Rationality’s workshop in England, which led to me starting my own rationality workshops here in Finland, and also crafting a local, more tightly-knit community of people who would support each other in making each other’s lives awesome. The workshop also caused me to finally start organizing regular “come and hang out with me in a bar” evenings like I’d been intending to do for the last half a year. Also made and strengthened several other friendships in unrelated ways.

A large part of the boosts also came from the antidepressants, as well as reading several books which helped me considerably level up my social skills. The Charisma Myth was the first one, then followed by Non-Violent Communication which not only helped me resolve conflicts I’d been having with others but also make my own emotions clearer. In the last few days I’ve started reading Crucial Conversations, which has a lot of similarities with Non-Violent Communication but also covers many things which NVC didn’t.

I continued working on some academic papers on the side, kind of as a hobby. At the beginning of the year, “The errors, insights and lessons of famous AI predictions” by Stuart Armstrong, Sean Ó hÉigeartaigh, and me was published in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. Around the end of the year, I had a paper accepted to an AAAI workshop on AI and ethics, and Physica Scripta formally published my and Roman Yampolskiy’s paper from 2013 that we’d only had up as a technical report so far. Google Scholar reports that there were 15 citations to my different papers in 2014, up from the 9 citations that I got in 2013.

On the topic of hobbies, I had for a long time liked the idea of game mastering role-playing games, but in practice rarely had the time or energy to do the necessary preparation for them. Now I finally managed to get into different RPGs which were designed to only require minimal advance preparation, and turned out to be a lot more fun to run than the old-style games. (E.g. different move engine games starting from Apocalypse World, and games like J Matias Kivikangas’s Here Be Dragons, which I unfortunately still haven’t gotten a chance to run. Soon!)

On a front that’s harder to describe, I started a large-scale restructuring of how I thought about ethics and morality. In a sense, I had ended up with a kind of an externalized sense of morality, which caused me a lot of guilt and stress. I started making a transition towards a more internalized morality, which had helped a lot.

Now as we enter 2015, a lot about my future is unclear. I’m intending to finally graduate with my MSc around summer, and I’m uncertain of what I will do after that. I’ve actually been feeling sufficiently extroverted as to start pondering whether I would actually prefer some kind of a career that involved being social and interacting with lots of different people on a daily basis, as opposed to the more introverted, technical kinds of careers that I’d been mostly thinking of before.

In any case, I feel that I’m now leveling up much faster than I was before, and am becoming far better positioned to tackle different challenges in life. Hopefully things will go well.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

xuenay: (sonictails)

I find that after many years of being mostly shy-ish and uncertain, I’m starting to – still not consistently, but considerably more often – act confidently and competently in social situations. There seem to have been a bunch of things that have affected this.

One is that anything that makes me feel generally better also tends to help me out in social situations: if I’m in a generally positive state of mind, that works as a partial cushion against social anxiety. I think that the antidepressant prescription I got half a year ago has contributed to that, both directly and indirectly. Directly by making me feel more generally confident and happy, and indirectly by helping me achieve more things in my life, which causes extra confidence that carries over to social situations. However,  I was definitely also making progress in being social before I got the medication.

I think that a large part of my feeling of social discomfort, as well as the feeling that I can’t come up with anything to say, has been because I’ve felt the need to come up with something interesting to say. One useful bit of advice was in Keith Johnstone’s book Impro, aimed at giving advice for improv theatre, which advises against trying to appear original:

Many students block their imaginations because they’re afraid of being unoriginal. […]

The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Many people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever. They’ll say and do all sorts of inappropriate things. If someone says ‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original. Whatever he says he’ll be too slow. He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he‘d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. I gave up asking London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place. Some idiot would always shout out either ‘Leicester Square public lavatories’ or ‘outside Buckingham Palace’ (never ‘inside Buckingham Palace’). People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old answers. Ask people to give you an original idea and see the chaos it throws them into. If they said the first thing that came into their head, there’d be no problem.

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions, he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in order to fulfill his contracts?

The same rule is worth applying to conversations: stop worrying about whether the thing that comes to my mind is particularly interesting or witty or anything, but rather just go ahead and say it. Conversation is basically just people saying whatever random things that come to their mind anyway, it usually doesn’t have a deep purpose beyond that.

I also got a lot of valuable advice from the book “The Charisma Myth“. Possibly the most valuable bit was the notion that I actually don’t need to say much in order to be perceived as someone who’s pleasant to have around in a conversation – if I’m interested in and focused on the person that I’m talking with, then that’s going to be automatically reflected in my facial expressions and body language in a way that the other person is going to pick up on and enjoy. That realization alone was enough to take off some of my worries about not being interesting enough. The book’s also got a number of exercises that help you get into a mental state where others are more likely to enjoy your presence. One of my favorites, which is both easy and instantly effective (for me at least), is the “angel wings” exercise:

…in any interaction, imagine the person you’re speaking to, and all those around you, as having invisible angel wings.

This can help shift your perspective. If even for a split second you can see someone as a fundamentally good being, this will soften and warm your emotional reaction toward them, changing your entire body language. So give it a try: as you’re walking around, or driving around, see people with angel wings walking and driving. It’s worth imagining yourself with wings, too. Imagine that you’re all a team of angels working together, all doing your wholehearted best. Many of my coaching clients (even hardened senior executives) have told me how extraordinarily effective this visualization has been for them. They can instantly feel more internal presence and warmth, and I can see a great increase in the amount of both presence and warmth that their body language projects.

Another tip from the book that I’ve found useful, related to the earlier “don’t try to be interesting” advice, is that when in conversation, I shouldn’t let my thoughts get sidetracked into a mode where I’m thinking about the next thing I want to say. Instead, I should just keep my attention and focus on what the other person is saying and let them feel that my full attention is on them, and concentrate on absorbing their words. This seems to actually make it easier to come up with things to say.

Then there’s just general success spirals: once I had these pieces of advice, I started applying and practicing them, and once I’d had some with success with them I got more confident, which helped me be more successful on the next time, and so on. I seem to also get confidence boosts from various things like wearing nice clothes, as well as from wearing my cat ears: the ears are unusual enough that random people on the street will sometimes give me compliments on them, which is nice for my self-esteem. They also make it easy for people to start conversations with me.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

xuenay: (sonictails)

I just got home from a four-day rationality workshop in England that was organized by the Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR). It covered a lot of content, but if I had to choose a single theme that united most of it, it was listening to your emotions.

That might sound like a weird focus for a rationality workshop, but cognitive science has shown that the intuitive and emotional part of the mind (”System 1”) is both in charge of most of our behavior, and also carries out a great deal of valuable information-processing of its own (it’s great at pattern-matching, for example). Much of the workshop material was aimed at helping people reach a greater harmony between their System 1 and their verbal, logical System 2. Many of people’s motivational troubles come from the goals of their two systems being somehow at odds with each other, and we were taught to have our two systems have a better dialogue with each other, harmonizing their desires and making it easier for information to cross from one system to the other and back.

To give a more concrete example, there was the technique of goal factoring. You take a behavior that you often do but aren’t sure why, or which you feel might be wasted time. Suppose that you spend a lot of time answering e-mails that aren’t actually very important. You start by asking yourself: what’s good about this activity, that makes me do it? Then you try to listen to your feelings in response to that question, and write down what you perceive. Maybe you conclude that it makes you feel productive, and it gives you a break from tasks that require more energy to do.

Next you look at the things that you came up with, and consider whether there’s a better way to accomplish them. There are two possible outcomes here. Either you conclude that the behavior is an important and valuable one after all, meaning that you can now be more motivated to do it. Alternatively, you find that there would be better ways of accomplishing all the goals that the behavior was aiming for. Maybe taking a walk would make for a better break, and answering more urgent e-mails would provide more value. If you were previously using two hours per day on the unimportant e-mails, possibly you could now achieve more in terms of both relaxation and actual productivity by spending an hour on a walk and an hour on the important e-mails.

At this point, you consider your new plan, and again ask yourself: does this feel right? Is this motivating? Are there any slight pangs of regret about giving up my old behavior? If you still don’t want to shift your behavior, chances are that you still have some motive for doing this thing that you have missed, and the feelings of productivity and relaxation aren’t quite enough to cover it. In that case, go back to the step of listing motives.

Or, if you feel happy and content about the new direction that you’ve chosen, victory!

Notice how this technique is all about moving information from one system to another. System 2 notices that you’re doing something but it isn’t sure why that is, so it asks System 1 for the reasons. System 1 answers, ”here’s what I’m trying to do for us, what do you think?” Then System 2 does what it’s best at, taking an analytic approach and possibly coming up with better ways of achieving the different motives. Then it gives that alternative approach back to System 1 and asks, would this work? Would this give us everything that we want? If System 1 says no, System 2 gets back to work, and the dialogue continues until both are happy.

Again, I emphasize the collaborative aspect between the two systems. They’re allies working for common goals, not enemies. Too many people tend towards one of two extremes: either thinking that their emotions are stupid and something to suppress, or completely disdaining the use of logical analysis. Both extremes miss out on the strengths of the system that is neglected, and make it unlikely for the person to get everything that they want.

As I was heading back from the workshop, I considered doing something that I noticed feeling uncomfortable about. Previous meditation experience had already made me more likely to just attend to the discomfort rather than trying to push it away, but inspired by the workshop, I went a bit further. I took the discomfort, considered what my System 1 might be trying to warn me about, and concluded that it might be better to err on the side of caution this time around. Finally – and this wasn’t a thing from the workshop, it was something I invited on the spot – I summoned a feeling of gratitude and thanked my System 1 for having been alert and giving me the information. That might have been a little overblown, since neither system should actually be sentient by itself, but it still felt like a good mindset to cultivate.

Although it was never mentioned in the workshop, what comes to mind is the concept of wu-wei from Chinese philosophy, a state of ”effortless doing” where all of your desires are perfectly aligned and everything comes naturally. In the ideal form, you never need to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do, or to expend willpower on an unpleasant task. Either you want to do something and do, or don’t want to do it, and don’t.

A large number of the workshop’s classes – goal factoring, aversion factoring and calibration, urge propagation, comfort zone expansion, inner simulation, making hard decisions, Hamming questions, againstness – were aimed at more or less this. Find out what System 1 wants, find out what System 2 wants, dialogue, aim for a harmonious state between the two. Then there were a smaller number of other classes that might be summarized as being about problem-solving in general.

The classes about the different techniques were interspersed with ”debugging sessions” of various kinds. In the beginning of the workshop, we listed different bugs in our lives – anything about our lives that we weren’t happy with, with the suggested example bugs being things like ”every time I talk to so-and-so I end up in an argument”, ”I think that I ‘should’ do something but don’t really want to”, and ”I’m working on my dissertation and everything is going fine – but when people ask me why I’m doing a PhD, I have a hard time remembering why I wanted to”. After we’d had a class or a few, we’d apply the techniques we’d learned to solving those bugs, either individually, in pairs, or small groups with a staff member or volunteer TA assisting us. Then a few more classes on techniques and more debugging, classes and debugging, and so on.

The debugging sessions were interesting. Often when you ask someone for help on something, they will answer with direct object-level suggestions – if your problem is that you’re underweight and you would like to gain some weight, try this or that. Here, the staff and TAs would eventually get to the object-level advice as well, but first they would ask – why don’t you want to be underweight? Okay, you say that you’re not completely sure but based on the other things that you said, here’s a stupid and quite certainly wrong theory of what your underlying reasons for it might be, how does that theory feel like? Okay, you said that it’s mostly on the right track, so now tell me what’s wrong with it? If you feel that gaining weight would make you more attractive, do you feel that this is the most effective way of achieving that?

Only after you and the facilitator had reached some kind of consensus of why you thought that something was a bug, and made sure that the problem you were discussing was actually the best way to address to reasons, would it be time for the more direct advice.

At first, I had felt that I didn’t have very many bugs to address, and that I had mostly gotten reasonable advice for them that I might try. But then the workshop continued, and there were more debugging sessions, and I had to keep coming up with bugs. And then, under the gentle poking of others, I started finding the underlying, deep-seated problems, and some things that had been motivating my actions for the last several months without me always fully realizing it. At the end, when I looked at my initial list of bugs that I’d come up with in the beginning, most of the first items on the list looked hopelessly shallow compared to the later ones.

Often in life you feel that your problems are silly, and that you are affected by small stupid things that ”shouldn’t” be a problem. There was none of that at the workshop: it was tacitly acknowledged that being unreasonably hindered by ”stupid” problems is just something that brains tend to do.  Valentine, one of the staff members, gave a powerful speech about ”alienated birthrights” – things that all human beings should be capable of engaging in and enjoying, but which have been taken from people because they have internalized beliefs and identities that say things like ”I cannot do that” or ”I am bad at that”. Things like singing, dancing, athletics, mathematics, romantic relationships, actually understanding the world, heroism, tackling challenging problems. To use his analogy, we might not be good at these things at first, and may have to grow into them and master them the way that a toddler grows to master her body. And like a toddler who’s taking her early steps, we may flail around and look silly when we first start doing them, but these are capacities that – barring any actual disabilities – are a part of our birthright as human beings, which anyone can ultimately learn to master.

Then there were the people, and the general atmosphere of the workshop. People were intelligent, open, and motivated to work on their problems, help each other, and grow as human beings. After a long, cognitively and emotionally exhausting day at the workshop, people would then shift to entertainment ranging from wrestling to telling funny stories of their lives to Magic: the Gathering. (The game of ”bunny” was an actual scheduled event on the official agenda.) And just plain talk with each other, in a supportive, non-judgemental atmosphere. It was the people and the atmosphere that made me the most reluctant to leave, and I miss them already.

Would I recommend CFAR’s workshops to others? Although my above description may sound rather gushingly positive, my answer still needs to be a qualified ”mmmaybe”. The full price tag is quite hefty, though financial aid is available and I personally got a very substantial scholarship, with the agreement that I would pay it at a later time when I could actually afford it.

Still, the biggest question is, will the changes from the workshop stick? I feel like I have gained a valuable new perspective on emotions, a number of useful techniques, made new friends, strengthened my belief that I can do the things that I really set my mind on, and refined the ways by which I think of the world and any problems that I might have – but aside for the new friends, all of that will be worthless if it fades away in a week. If it does, I would have to judge even my steeply discounted price as ”not worth it”. That said, the workshops do have a money-back guarantee if you’re unhappy with the results, so if it really feels like it wasn’t worth it, I can simply choose to not pay. And if all the new things do end up sticking, it might still turn out that it would have been worth paying even the full, non-discounted price.

CFAR does have a few ways by which they try to make the things stick. There will be Skype follow-ups with their staff, for talking about how things have been going since the workshop. There is a mailing list for workshop alumni, and the occasional events, though the physical events are very US-centric (and in particular, San Francisco Bay Area-centric).

The techniques that we were taught are still all more or less experimental, and are being constantly refined and revised according to people’s experiences. I have already been thinking of a new skill that I had been playing with for a while before the workshop, and which has a bit of that ”CFAR feel” – I will aim to have it written up soon and sent to the others, and maybe it will eventually make its way to the curriculum of a future workshop. That should help keep me engaged as well.

We shall see. Until then, as they say in CFAR – to victory!

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

xuenay: (Default)

Clarisse Thorn: How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land.

“Here is the strange part, for me, in remembering him: I don’t think he consciously wanted me to hurt myself like that. If he had been deliberately abusive, if he had really wanted to tear me apart, if he’d been physically abusive [...] Maybe then I would never have gotten involved? Maybe then I would have walked away sooner? But maybe not.”

“Can I teach other people to set boundaries in situations like that? I don’t know. The feminist ideas and gender analysis I was exposed to as a kid didn’t prevent that experience (although, again, maybe those things would have helped if the situation had been more obvious: if he’d been physically abusive, for example, or more overtly controlling).”

I recommend the above article particularly for those with little experience with relationships. There’s a lot about this text and situation that seems familiar to me: in my first relationship, I too should have been better at setting my borders and policing them. And when my partner didn’t properly respect my borders, it wasn’t out of malice either: I have no doubt that she really did love me, but rather just didn’t realize what she was doing, or just couldn’t help being needy when she did.

It was exactly that which made it so hard for me to say no when I should have: had the relationship been openly abusive, I would have realized it pretty quickly, but when I was already in the relationship and my partner needed me and clearly cared about me, how could I have said no? (At least I would have left it had it been openly abusive from the start. It didn’t seem dysfunctional at first, either.) And even if the requests seemed unreasonable, wasn’t it reasonable that I who was better off compromised on what I wanted? And if it was impossible to even raise the issues of what I experienced as unfair without her pretty much breaking down and starting to hate herself, and me being forced to patch her back together without us ever really getting to the point of talking about those issues… then sometimes, that resentment had few other places to go than to turn inward, and I might wonder whether I was the one who should have tried harder.

Some people will know or guess who I’m talking about, so let me emphasize again that I don’t blame her, nor bear her any ill will. Again, I’m sure that she really did care about me, but was just undergoing a really hard time, and was in a really bad shape. She’s better now. We’ve talked about it, she’s sorry about it, and I’ve forgiven her. (I also let her read this text beforehand and made sure that she was okay with me posting it.) And she did teach me to be far more sensitive about my borders, and I think that I’ve done a much better job of setting my limits since then. It’s rare, but sometimes that which doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

Would I have done things any differently if I had read this article beforehand? As the author of the article says, when asking herself whether she would have acted differently in case her lover would have been more abusive – maybe not. I was a lonely teenager, being really in love for the first time in his life, after having had experienced many unrequited crushes before. It’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that I would have regardless just tried to do everything to make the relationship work, just as I did back then. But maybe this will help someone else instead.

Of course, none of this is to say that people should dump their partners if the partner is having a difficult time, or that you shouldn’t ever compromise on your desires if you’re clearly better off than your partner is. That’s what makes these issues so hard – there are no clear lines of what to do when. But at least make sure that you really are helping because you genuinely want to help… not because you’re being guilted into it.

Originally published at Kaj Sotala. You can comment here or there.

xuenay: (Default)
For those curious, basically all of my meditation has been tranquility meditation.

Friday, March 9th. 30 minutes. Attempted to meditate while lying on my back, figuring that I wouldn't fall asleep since I'd just had my morning caffeine. Not very successful. I was maybe a little too relaxed, my thoughts wandered and I had difficulties feeling my breath in order to concentrate on it.

Sunday, March 11th. 20 minutes. Attempted to meditate in the morning, noticed that I was basically just falling asleep, then took a cold shower and tried again. Felt nice, though not particularly exciting.

Monday, March 12th. 50 minutes. I had the timer on 30 minutes, but I just ignored it at first. Somebody had recommended drinking green tea about half an hour before meditating, so I gave it a try. I only had bagged tea at hand, but I put two bags in the same cup to get a stronger effect.

Something happened, though I am not sure what it was. I ended up concentrating on various feelings of pain and bidding them welcome - not in a masochistic way, but rather in such a way where I genuinely welcomed pain and didn't consider it something that would cause suffering in the first place. I dug up memories of various situations where I'd been embarassed or ashamed, and each such memory seemed to make the state of concentration deeper. It felt nice.

From this point on, each of my meditation sessions has been preceded by a cup of green tea, made using 2-4 tea bags.

Tuesday, March 13th. 60 minutes. I sat meditating with my fingers crossed, and at one point relatively early on I freaked out as my fingers started feeling incorporal. They also felt like they were drifting to be inside each other. Then the frightened surprise pulled me out of that state, and although I tried to reach it again, I could not.

Wednesday, March 14th. ~45 minutes. I started gradually losing feeling in my fingers and feet, after which the numbness spread to the rest of my body. Only my head and part of my chest (where I was too conscious of my breathing) retained feeling. Then at some point I realized that although large parts of my body were without feeling, I still remained aware of where the borders of my body parts were. After I realized this, feeling pretty quickly returned to them.

After that, the lack of feeling came and went for the rest of my meditation session. There were moments when I noticed, noted, and let go of feelings whose existence I hadn't even realized before. I started to get a small inkling of what the complete cessation of sensation that's said to come with the deepest meditative states might be like. I became aware of having a sense of time, a feeling of presence in my own head, and a feeling of moving my attention around. I attempted to focus on those to make them vanish as well, but was for now unable to do so.

I also felt really good and happy for the rest of the day.

Thursday, March 15th. 20 minutes of meditation, bathroom break, 40 minutes of meditation. At the end of the second meditation session, I got a clear feeling of something happening, but I don't know what it was. After it had happened, I got a sense of this session's leassons had now been learned. It told me that I could stop meditating now, since I wasn't going to learn anything more before the next time. My concentration seemed to grow considerably more shallow at the same time.

Whether that feeling actually meant anything or whether it was just a trick of my brain is an interesting question. I'm presuming that it was just a random feeling: to use a computer metaphor, meditation practice seems to be about exploiting some accidential glitch in the brain which likely never played an actual evolutionary role. Given that, whatever subconscious system produced that "this lesson is now over" sensation is probably just as clueless about what was going than the rest of me was.

This turned out to be a "let's practice meditation / concentration all the time, everywhere" day. Pretty much no matter where I went or what I did, I used the opportunity to do concentration practice and dismiss unwanted thoughts or feelings. When waiting for a bus, for instance, I picked the feeling of impatience and pretty much just got rid of it. I started thinking that if somebody could learn to do this reliably and for any feeling / emotion, it would let them have complete control over their own mind, only suffering from the fears and dislikes that they wanted to suffer from. I don't know whether that's actually possible, but the possibility is exciting to think about.

Friday, March 16th. 20 minutes, break, 40 minutes. Nothing particularly exciting happened on this day.

Saturday, March 17th. 60 minutes. At one point, I noticed that my meditative state was failing to deepen because I was clearly waiting for it to deepen, and the feeling of expectation messed things up. I then tried to rid myself of the expectation, and I was kinda successful, though through an unexpected route: by visualizing and looping in my head the Sean Den Förste Banan video. (Yes, you may point and laugh at me now.) As I did so, I felt my concentration clearly deepen.

After a while of doing that, I switched to counting numbers. Suddenly I realized that I was not experiencing them as raw numbers, but as my age. For instance, when I visualized in my head the number 15, I also saw images of myself when I was 15. As I got past my current age, the images grew more abstract. As I approached age 100 I felt/saw myself get older, but then apparently radical life extension was invented and my body stopped getting frail. Past age 100, there was a feeling of having lived for a long time and having seen everything, and of living in a drastically different world than pretty much anyone who wasn't as old. I think I died, presumably in an accident, around age 180 or so, but I kept counting until I reached 300. "While I was dead" I think there was a feeling of stillness and a lack of motion, possibly combined with a sense of things continuing to happen all around me.

Eventually I concluded that nothing more was happening and started exploring impermanence by studying the various sensations of my body and trying to break them into smaller and smaller components. Most of it I did to the sensations from my feet. Soon my feet started feeling odd, as I had no idea of whether my muscles were relaxed or tense - they felt like they could have been both.

Monday, March 19th. 65 minutes. Mildly altered states of consciousness, nothing particularly special. Again, I noticed that I was expecting something interesting to happen, and that expectation prevented me from just being a neutral observer of my own mind. I tried to get rid of the feeling of expectation, but then I realized that this too implied an expectation of change - trying to will something gone involves expecting that it will be gone. So then I tried to just let go of it without specificially trying to let go of it. (Yeah, I can't explain it any better than that.) Not too good at that yet - I think I might have had momentary successes, but each time they caused an "oh, I did it, something's happening now" feeling which ruined it. I'll just have to keep practicing.

Since last Wednesday, meditation has frequently led to me losing feeling in my fingers and feet, but I haven't experienced the almost-whole-body lack of feeling again.
xuenay: (Default)
February was a low-achievement month. Aside for making progress in meditation, I didn't get much done.

COMPLETED WRITINGS

* A Less Wrong post, Avoid Misinterpreting Your Emotions. As of right now, it has promoted status, 60 upvotes and 28 comments. It's an expanded version of my earlier LJ post, Not believing in your emotions.
* Contributed three answers to the Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange. The answers were to the following questions: Is variation in human brain size related to mental functioning? (my answer got 12 upvotes), Bias by which we tend to accept vague descriptions of ourselves (my answer got 5 upvotes), and Do we understand the mechanism behind pleasure and pain, excluding the subjective aspect? (my answer got three upvotes).
* I got an e-mail telling me I was one of the top CogSci Stack Exchange users for the month of February.

INCOME HUNTING

* Attended a job interview for the IT research assistant summer job. Heard that the research group I'd picked as my top choice had about 70 applicants, out of which only a few would be picked. Although the interview went okay, I don't think I'll make the cut.
* Sent a couple of job applications to other places.
* Went to the library and looked through some of the magazines there, searching for ones who might be willing to pay for my writing. Found some promising ones.
* The secret crazy website project is still being worked on.

BOOKS-IN-PROGRESS

* Novel: secret co-written one that I'm not at a liberty to talk much about. Minor progress.
* Novel: The City of Light and Fire. No progress on this one.
* Novel: Dreamland (working title). No progress on this one, either.
* Non-fiction book: How human minds differ, or, I need a catchier title (working title). Nope, no progress here either.

SCHOOL

* Continued attending Neuroinformatics 4, but I haven't gotten any session diaries written beyond the first one. Need to fix that.
* ...and that was just about all that I accomplished, school work-wise.

OTHER

* Started doing semi-regular meditation exercises again, and began finally making progress on it. For details, see my post from two days back.
* My Google Plus account went up from 687 followers on Jan 31st to 726 followers on Feb 29th. That's an increase of 39 people. (Statistics courtesy of circlecount.com.)

OVERALL

Meh, much ado about nothing. I'm not sure of exactly how I managed to achieve this little. This month, I need to shape up.
xuenay: (Default)
I've finally been achieving some progress in meditation, so I figured I'd give you a report and also write things down so that I won't forget.

About a month or two ago, an iRL friend of mine found Daniel Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha and started doing meditation practice. Since he had done things involving concentration practice before, he made rapid progress. Inspired by his practices and partially because I'd so quickly lost my position as being the superior meditation guru of us two, I too started making attempts at meditation again.

On a Monday maybe three weeks ago, I realized that something had clicked. You know that thing when you try to learn a skill, spend a long time being bad at it, and then suddenly one morning you wake up and realize that you're suddenly good at it? That happened to me and my concentration ability: concentrating on just one thing felt easier in an almost qualitative way, and was far less frustrating.

I reached the first samatha jhana the following day, the first time since my only previous jhana experience last summer. I put myself in the first jhana several times afterwards (including once while walking next to a noisy road), and also tried doing some noting practice. Suddenly I was using almost all available opportunities to do concentration practice, like when I was preparing a sandwich snack. I also thought about the Three Characteristics a lot.

On Friday that week, I woke up in the morning and turned on the lights. The first thing that I happened to look at was the back of my hand (which I'd just used to turn the lights on), and I was startled to realize that I was seeing in it far more details than I'd done before. When I looked around me, I could see details of things jumping out at me in a way they hadn't done before. While looking at a fantasy map on my wall, I noticed the names of the different regions for pretty much the first time - previously I'd only looked at the "big picture view" of the map. Things also looked sharper somehow, as if I'd just gotten stronger glasses.

I expect that if I'd done meditation practice at this time, the effect might have become permanent. As it was, I didn't have the chance as I had promised to go see a friend. By the time I got back home, six hours later, my perception had gradually faded back to normal.

For some reason, this caused a longer interruption to my practice. Getting to the first jhana felt more difficult, and I lost my inclination to keep doing concentration practices all the time. This might have had something to do with the fact that the noting practices had made it more difficult to really try to solidify any emotion, since I'd just been trying to think of them as impermanent. For a while, I was basically unable to meditate while at home, though for some reason I noticed that getting to a very light first jhana was still possible if I was walking outside. Sitting still at home, though, not much luck.

Then a while later, I decided to try out tranquility meditation. The first time, recalling a time when I'd felt happy and using the way I had felt as my concentration focus, felt quite nice, and I think I got to the first jhana. Unlike my previous jhanas, it was almost entirely lacking the irritation of needing to constantly maintain the feeling.

My next attempts at tranquility meditation fared worse. Using feelings of happiness as an object became harder, because for whatever reason, I suddenly had difficulties recalling my feelings on occasions when I'd felt happy, or indeed recalling any occasions when I'd been happy in the first place. And there was again the thing about having difficulty solidifying anything, feeling included.

So after some days, I decided to use the breath as an object instead. Now, there had been *one* lasting effect from that one Friday: I had briefly done some meditation on the way to my friend, and thought that I could see faint lights even with my eyes closed. And those lights had began to show up on later meditation sessions, as well. They don't seem to be *entirely* hallucinatory, since they are clearly stronger when I'm meditating somewhere well-lit, but I have also seen a much weaker form of them when when meditating in total darkness.

So this time around, I was doing tranquility meditation with the breath as an object, and I began to really notice the lights. Mostly I seem to sort of see them from the corner of my (closed) eyes, and if I try to focus my attention to them I'm not sure if I'm actually seeing any light at all. Now however, there were times that they got strong enough to persist when focused on, and I could follow them as they moved about in my visual field. They also seemed to work as feedback - when I e.g. focused on a feeling of tension and tried to let it go, the lights got considerably stronger. In general, they seemed to intensify whenever I was doing "the right thing".

I seemed to get quite strongly into... something, not entirely sure what. Some sort of jhana, I suppose. There was a feeling of movement, and my body seemed to grow heavy and slightly numb, with all sensation in the region around my head, where the lights were and where I'd also been focusing on some tension. Something seemed to be happening, but I wasn't sure of what.

When I emerged from meditation, I had an odd feeling, pretty close to how MCTB describes the first vipassana jhana, Knowledge of Mind and Body. I also seemed able to visualize things more vividly. I meditated two more times that day, though I didn't get an equally strong experience from those occasions, and I think my mental state actually faded back towards normality during them. On the third time I also got rather drowsy (I guess I hadn't slept enough that night), and ended up feeling drowsy for the rest of the day, unable to get much done. By evening I was feeling rather normal again.

That was yesterday. This morning I started with some more meditation, which went roughly the same, though again my experience wasn't nearly as strong and I didn't seem to get as deeply into it. Part of this was probably that I couldn't decide how to act regarding the lights: should I treat them as feedback but essentially ignore them, e.g. keep doing the things that made them stronger but not particularly focus on them? Or should I try to gradually shift from using my breath as a focus to using them as a focus? Or should I do neither, just treating them as yet another observation to be noticed and then let go? I think I instinctively did whatever the "right" thing was before, but I can't remember what that was.

I also made a tentative observation that I might be able to reverse the causality with the lights: e.g. usually when I'd let go of a thought, the lights would get stronger. On a few times, I tried instead making the lights stronger, thereby letting go of the thought. I'm not really sure if it worked, though, since on most occasions the thought still seemed to be there when my attention "got back" from the lights.

When I stopped meditating today, I again had a slight Mind and Body-ish feeling, but it was much weaker and also faded much quicker than on the first time.
xuenay: (Default)
It's time for my second semimonthly personal achievement report! This one covers the period from December 13th (when I wrote my previous report) to January 31st. From now on, I'll try to post reports at the end of each month.

So, what have I accomplished since I last reported?

COMPLETED WRITINGS

* Two LJ posts, Not believing in your emotions and Interesting paper on the neuroscience of meditation. I'm pretty happy with "not believing in your emotions", and count it as a very important insight.
* A Less Wrong post, The Substitution Principle. At the time of writing, it has promoted status, 59 upvotes, and also 59 comments. I'm pretty happy with it.

ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENTS

* Finished and submitted my two papers to the International Journal of Machine Consciousness. You can see the submitted versions here: Coalescing Minds and Digital Advantages. Unless something catastrophic happens, they should be published in print around summer. These will be my first peer-reviewed journal publications, so yay.

INCOME-HUNTING

* Responded to a "writers wanted" ad on Less Wrong, and ended up doing a total of 12 hours of copyediting work for Quixey on a contract basis. They paid nicely, but I don't know when/whether they'll have more work for me.
* Submitted a summer job application to be an IT research assistant.
* Submitted an application for the Rationality Curriculum design position. Also wrote "The Substitution Principle" to be the start of a rationality training program, to be followed by concrete exercises, but didn't get around designing the exercises yet. Need to do that next.
* Submitted a grant application to Taiteen keskustoimikunta, asking them if they'd want to give me money to write my book on how human minds differ from each other. I have no idea about my chances, but it can't hurt to try.
* Began planning a way to make money by presenting myself as a rationality expert and giving lectures to various companies. That's still under development.
* We figured that we didn't have the time to release the secret crazy website project in time for Christmas and make it polished enough for our tastes, so we decided to postpone it for now. It's still being worked on, though, and other secret crazy website projects await after that!

BOOKS-IN-PROGRESS

* Novel: secret co-written one that I'm not at a liberty to talk much about. We made progress on this one, developing a new way to write it and making considerable improvements on our main characters.
* Novel: The City of Light and Fire. No progress on this one, really.
* Novel: Dreamland (working title). Based on an RPG campaign I ran, so I already roughly know the plot for this one. Wrote one page worth of prose for it, which is not much but still something.
* Non-fiction book: How human minds differ, or, I need a catchier title (working title). Submitted a grant application and asked for money to write this one, and came up with a preliminary table of contents as a part of that.

SCHOOL

* Passed the two exams (Introduction to Machine Learning, Introduction to Specification and Verification) I had.
* Currently doing two courses: Neuroinformatics 4 and Probabilistic Models. Was also supposed to test out of two courses (Distributed Systems and Software Architectures), but I haven't gotten around doing the needed studying for those two.
* Made a Khan Academy account to revise some calculus that I'd forgotten. However, while I managed to remind myself of how derivatives worked, I was sorely disappointed to realize that there were no automated integration exercises offered. That's what I'd have needed the most.

OTHER

* Since it was Christmas, I put in an extra donation to the Singularity Institute, giving them a total of $140.
* Been actively posting various kinds of links on my Google Plus account, and they're apparently being appreciated, judging from the fact that I've gone up from 622 followers on Dec 13th to 687 followers on Jan 31st. That's 65 people. (Statistics courtesy of circlecount.com.)

OVERALL

Again, not a bad month. I'm still not doing as much schoolwork as the recommended pace, but then I'll hit my maximum allotted student benefit months this fall, so I'll need to find an alternate source of income before that. My income-finding efforts weren't too bad so far, but I need to invest more in them still.
xuenay: (Default)
One of the many things that I've learned from [livejournal.com profile] theferrett is that I don't have to believe in my emotions.

Here's an example of what I mean. Last night, I was suffering from insomnia. As frequently happens when I do, I got frustrated and started worrying about everything. It did not take long before this proceeded into severe self-doubt issues: will I ever amount to anything, will any of my projects actually succeed, et cetera. I was quickly - as usual - becoming convinced that the answer was no, and I should just stop being ambitious and settle for some safe but boring lifepath while I still had the chance.

Now, previously I'd only thought of two options in this kind of a situation:

A) Get rid of the thoughts by distracting myself or finding something that will cheer me up and get me out of that mood.
B) Fail to get out of the mood, keep thinking these thoughts.

For some reason, it had never occurred to me that there could also exist a third option:

C) Keep feeling miserable, but stop thinking those thoughts.

So that's what I did. I thought, "I'm feeling miserable because I can't sleep and I'm frustrated, but that has nothing to do with whether my projects and ambitions will be successful or not. My current emotions convey me no information about that topic. So it's pointless to doubt myself because of these emotions." (Not in so many words, but that was the general idea.)

So I stopped thinking those thoughts. And while I still felt generally miserable, the thoughts stopped making me feel even worse.

Previously I had thought that emotions and thoughts were connected in such a way that in some kinds of bad moods, you had no choice but to think negative thoughts. Now it appears that this isn't the case. Is this something that everyone but me knew already, or is it something that should be talked about a lot more?

Cross-posted: G+, FB.
xuenay: (Default)
Recently I've been trying to become consistently more happy and suffer less. An important component of this involves reaching a state of equanimity - "a state of mental or emotional stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment", to use the Wikipedia definition. Although I have several techniques for overcoming negative feelings, it often happens that I'm simply not motivated enough to use them. In other words, I feel bad, and I know I could make myself feel better with some effort, but I just don't feel like mustering that effort.

By contrast, if I've managed to reach a state of equanimity, managing and dissolving negative feelings is something that happens almost on its own. While I'm not immune to emotional hurt, say, it's much easier to take care of. Things like practicing mindfulness on any sort of discomfort becomes almost automatic when in equanimious.

Getting into equanimity isn't always easy, even when I want to. Exercise and cold showers help in making me feel physically good, which helps. Ultimately, though, I need to think the right way.

There are a number of thoughts that I've noticed help me get into a state of equanimity. Not every one always works, which is why I've developed a number of them. If I have access to them all, usually at least one will work.

During the last month or two, my Enlightenment progress has stalled, and on most days I haven't been equanimious at all. Part of this, I think, has been because I forgot pretty much all of these thoughts. Every now and then some of them has come back to me, and sometimes it has helped for a day or two before it stopped working again. I finally realized I needed to compile a list of all such thoughts that I've used. This should help me to always have available *some* thought that might work in that state of mind.

I've divided these in three categories.

No self: Negative emotions arise from drawing a boundary between self and non-self. When one abandons the thought of a separate self that has to be defended from a hostile external world, emotions such as fear or uncertainty vanish.

No time: The need to defend yourself only exists if there is a chance that things will get worse in the future. Likewise, being impatient about something, or wanting desperately to experience something, only makes sense if it is combined with a notion of time passing. When one abandons a time-centered perspective and concentrates on the present, emotions such as fear or impatience vanish. When the present is the only moment that exists, my thought often goes, I should take heed and enjoy it.

No care: Suffering arises from identifying so strongly with your emotions that you cannot resolve attention-allocation conflicts. If you have a strong emotional attachment to eating expensive chocolate bananas on one hand, and on principle avoiding all chocolate on the other, you cannot reason your way out of such a conflict. When one stops identifying with their emotions but instead embraces them as useful feedback, the suffering related to negative emotions vanishes.

And here are the actual thoughts. Although listed as separate, some of these are overlapping and some build on each other. In particular, several of the "no time" theories presume parts of the "no self" theories. Some might also seem to somewhat contradict each other, but I don't think they ultimately do: they're simply based on different levels of analysis.

I don't really have the space or energy to comprehensively explain these all, so I'm not sure how much sense they will make to people. Still, maybe someone will find something useful here nonetheless.

- No self, psychological: There is no Cartesian Theater or homonculus, sitting in the center of the brain and running things. To take some specific part of the brain and call it "THE self" is not scientifically justified. Instead, there is only a vast collection of different subsystems, producing quite a variety of selves.

- No self, Occam's Razorical: It makes little sense to talk of an observer in the brain that is the one that observes everything. What would the positing of such an observer add to any theories? It makes more sense to say that there are various cognitive algorithms, which produce qualia as a side-effect of being run. Instead of there existing somebody who observes all the qualia produced by the brain, there are only the qualia which observe themselves and then cease to exist. If so, it makes little sense to identify with the qualia produced by my brain in particular. Instead I can identify with the qualia of all life everywhere. (I previously wrote about this view here, under "the self as how the algorithm feels from the inside".)

- No self, system-theoretical: To speak of a 'self' as separate from the environment makes little sense. My identity is defined by my environment. If all of my physical properties were held constant, you could make me think or do anything by choosing an appropriate environment to match. I'm part of a vast distributed cognitive system, and drawing the boundaries of self strictly around the physical shell housing my body makes little sense. (I previously wrote about this view here, under "the self as lack of personal boundaries".)

- No time, psychological: My mind can only act in the present. I can imagine the future, or remember the past, but both of these involve thought processes that operate in the now. I live in an eternal present.

- No time, physical multiverse: Depending on which Tegmarkian multiverses are real, all physically possible worlds exist or all logically possible worlds exist. Then, no matter what I wish to experience or what I fear, in some part of the multiverse I am already experiencing it. If I identify not with a specific observer but with qualia, then I'll know that I already have everything I could ever wish for, as well as already suffering from everything I could ever dread.

- No time, physical block: In a block universe conception of time, the whole universe already exists as an unmoving four-dimensional block. Time does not pass in the sense of the current me ceasing to exist and being replaced with another me after a moment passes: instead, this me, and all the other mes, exist eternally.

- No time, logical: If I identify with specific qualia instead of specific observers, then the qualia that "I am experiencing" (rather, the qualia which I am) at this very moment is the only qualia which I can be. Anything else would be a different qualia. Therefore, the me that exists at this very moment is the only logically possible one that I can be.

- No care, psychological: Our emotional reactions to anything are just an interpretative layer imposed by our brain, our emotions in general a mechanism to guide our action. They do not exist outside our brain. There is no inherent reason for why I should react to something with anger, and to something else with fear, and to something else with joy. In principle, I can choose to feel any emotion in conjunction with anything that I do or experience. (I previously discussed this view here.)

- No care, projective: All emotions exist within me. To think that somebody external pressures me, say, is incorrect to the extent that it assumes an external force. What is happening that others are activating processes that reside within me, and to ascribe them as pressuring me is projection.

- No care, philosophical: I can dis-identify with any thoughts or emotions that come into my mind. Instead of saying "I am angry", I can say "I'm hosting a feeling of anger as a visitor in my mind right now". I have desires, emotions and thoughts, but I am not my desires, emotions or thoughts. (This is the basis of at least some sort of mindfulness practice, which I previously discussed here.)

----

These might give you the impression that nothing matters and you might as well lay in bed until you die. Not so. Even if every possible experience exists, not all of them exist in the same proportion. If it did, we would not observe the kind of a regular, ordered universe that we do, but instead a chaotic, unpredictable universe [1]. Therefore our actions still matter and have consequences - it all adds up to normality.

It is still meaningful for me to have goals which I seek to accomplish - even if were logically, psychologically and physically impossible for "this" particular entity to experience their completion, some "other" entity will still reap their benefits. (Our language is not very well designed to handle self-lessness.) And of course, if I identify with all the qualia experienced with all sentient life everywhere in the world, the fact that this particular set of qualia will only be this set forever doesn't matter. I want my efforts to be happy and free of suffering to have as big of an effect as possible.

I think I'll stop here, in case I still have the occasional reader or two who considers me somehow sane.



[1] I should be more specific here. Yes, if all possible experiences exist, then it is logically necessary that *some* of those experiences would still be about a regular, predictable universe, regardless of whether the universe actually was chaotic or not. But there would only exist a small number of such experiences, while far more of them would exist if there was a more regular weighting. Therefore, given that "I" observe a regular universe, the subjective probability that I exist in one is higher.

Regardless of what kind of a theory we select, it has to be one that still allows probability theory to be meaningful. If it didn't, then nothing we did mattered, and we don't want that, now do we? Again, it should still add up to normality.

See e.g. here or here for views on how to make probability theory function even in a Big universe.
xuenay: (Default)
I previously characterized Michael Vassar's theory on suffering as follows: "Pain is not suffering. Pain is just an attention signal. Suffering is when one neural system tells you to pay attention, and another says it doesn't want the state of the world to be like this." While not too far off the mark, it turns out this wasn't what he actually said. Instead, he said that suffering is a conflict between two (or more) attention-allocation mechanisms in the brain.

I have been successful at using this different framing to reduce the amount of suffering I feel. The method goes like this. First, I notice that I'm experiencing something that could be called suffering. Next, I ask, what kind of an attention-allocational conflict is going on? I consider the answer, attend to the conflict, resolve it, and then I no longer suffer.

An example is probably in order, so here goes. Last Friday, there was a Helsinki Less Wrong meetup with Patri Friedman present. I had organized the meetup, and wanted to go. Unfortunately, I already had other obligations for that day, ones I couldn't back out from. One evening, I felt considerable frustration over this.

Noticing my frustration, I asked: what attention-allocational conflict is this? It quickly become obvious that two systems were fighting it out:

* The Meet-Up System was trying to convey the message: ”Hey, this is a rare opportunity to network with a smart, high-status individual and discuss his ideas with other smart people. You really should attend.”
* The Prior Obligation System responded with the message: ”You've already previously agreed to go somewhere else. You know it'll be fun, and besides, several people are expecting you to go. Not going bears an unacceptable social cost, not to mention screwing over the other people's plans.”

Now, I wouldn't have needed to consciously reflect on the messages to be aware of them. It was hard to not be aware of them: it felt like my consciousness was in a constant crossfire, with both systems bombarding it with their respective messages.

But there's an important insight here, one which I originally picked up from PJ Eby. If a mental subsystem is trying to tell you something important, then it will persist in doing so until it's properly acknowledged. Trying to push away the message means it has not been properly addressed and acknowledged, meaning the subsystem has to continue repeating it.

Imagine you were in the wilderness, and knew that if you weren't back in your village by dark you probably wouldn't make it. Now suppose a part of your brain was telling you that you had to turn back now, or otherwise you'd still be out when it got dark. What would happen if you just decided that the thought was uncomfortable, successfully pushed it away, and kept on walking? You'd be dead, that's what.

You wouldn't want to build a nuclear reactor that allowed its operators to just override and ignore warnings saying that their current course of action will lead to a core meltdown. You also wouldn't want to build a brain that could just successfully ignore critical messages without properly addressing them, basically for the same reason.

So I addressed the messages. I considered them and noted that they both had merit, but that honoring the prior obligation was more important in this situation. Having done that, the frustration mostly went away.

Another example: this is the second time I'm writing this post. The last time, I tried to save it when I'd gotten to roughly this point, only to have my computer crash. Obviously, I was frustrated. Then I remembered to apply the very technique I was writing about.

The Crash Message: You just lost a bunch of work! You should undo the crash to make it come back!
The Realistic Message: You were writing that in Notepad, which has no auto-save feature, and the computer crashed just as you were about to save the thing. There's no saved copy anywhere. Undoing the crash is impossible: you just have to write it again.

Attending to the conflict, I noted that the realistic message had it right, and the frustration went away.

It's interesting to note that it probably doesn't matter whether my analysis of the sources of the conflict is 100% accurate. I've previously used some rather flimsy evpsych just-so stories to explain the reasons for my conflicts, and they've worked fine. What's probably happening is that the attention-allocation mechanisms are too simple to actually understand the analysis I apply to the issues they bring up. If they were that smart, they could handle the issue on their own. Instead, they just flag the issue as something that higher-level thought processes should attend to. The lower-level processes are just serving as messengers: it's not their task to evaluate whether the verdict reached by the higher processes was right or wrong.

But at the same time, you can't cheat yourself. You really do have to resolve the issue, or otherwise it will come back. For instance, suppose you didn't have a job and were worried about getting one before you ran out of money. This isn't an issue where you can just say, ”oh, the system telling me I should get a job soon is right”, and then do nothing. Genuinely committing to do something does help; pretending to commit to something and then forgetting about it does not. Likewise, you can't say that "this isn't really an issue" if you know it is an issue.

Still, my experience so far seems to suggest that this framework can be used to reduce any kind of suffering. To some extent, it seems to even work on physical pain and discomfort. While simply acknowledging physical pain doesn't make it go away, making a conscious decision to be curious about the pain seems to help. Instead of flinching away from the pain and trying to avoid it, I ask myself, ”what does this experience of pain feel like?” and direct my attention towards it. This usually at least diminishes the suffering, and sometimes makes it go away if the pain was mild enough.

An important, related caveat: don't make the mistake of thinking that you could use this to replace all of your leisure with work, or anything like that. Mental fatigue will still happen. Subjectively experienced fatigue is a persistent signal to take a break which cannot be resolved other than by actually taking a break. Your brain still needs rest and relaxation. Also, if you have multiple commitments and are not sure that you can handle them all, then that will be a constant source of stress regardless. You're better off using something like Getting Things Done to handle that.

So far I have described what I call the ”content-focused” way to apply the framework. It involves mentally attending to the content of the conflicts and resolving them, and is often very useful. But as we already saw with the example of physical pain, not all conflicts are so easily resolved. A ”non-content-focused” approach – a set of techniques that are intended to work regardless of the content of the conflict in question – may prove even more powerful. I'll cover it in a separate post, though the example of dealing with physical pain is already getting into non-content-focused territory.

I'm unsure of exactly how long I have been using this particular framework, as I've been experimenting with a number of related content- and non-content-focused methods since February. But I believe that I consciously and explicitly started thinking of suffering as ”conflict between attention-allocation mechanisms” and began applying it to everything maybe two or three weeks ago. So far, either the content- or non-content-focused method has always seemed to at least alleviate suffering: the main problem has been in remembering to use it.
xuenay: (Default)
Note: Various traditions use various names for the different stages of meditation. I'm basically going by the classification scheme in Daniel Ingram's Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. It divides the stages of meditation to the eight concentration (Samatha) Jhanas and the sixteen insight ñanas.

I think I finally hit the first (Samatha) Jhana. I hadn't been doing meditation exercises in a while, because I had gotten sick and had very little energy to try out anything. But this morning I'd finally recovered and thought I'd give it a try after a long while.

In fact, I believe that taking a break probably helped me. Paradoxically, I had been too motivated before. Previously I'd set out to meditate with this solemn determination to get something happening, and when I failed to get access concentration I'd grow frustrated. This time around I didn't have that solemn determination, just a feeling of "hey, let's try this and see what happens".

I was already in a good mood when I started. As is my habit, I'd taken a caffeine pill to help me wake up, which frequently gets me energetic and in a good mood right from the morning. Getting up, I had taken a few moments to reflect on the things that I was happy and grateful about in my life. I put a pizza in the oven and decided to try meditating while waiting for it to get warm.

I sat down, took a moderately comfortable position, and closed my eyes. As I was already feeling good, for a moment I tried to concentrate on that feeling from the start, but it was a bit elusive. Then I experimented a bit, trying out various things I could concentrate on and seeking the one that felt the best. My breathing, the general feel of my body, the wind outside, the sounds my oven made as it warmed up. For a while, I concentrated on all four simultaneously. But this seemed too much like noting practice and insight meditation territory, when I wanted to get concentration meditation mastered first. So I narrowed it down to just my breathing, as has been my usual practice.

Hitting access concentration was really easy. This may have had something to do with the fact that I'd just woken up and didn't have many thoughts in my mind yet. Basically I just concentrated on my breathing and observed it, not trying to exert conscious control on it but just letting it become faster or slower as felt appropriate. As I was still feeling energetic, my breathing got rather fast at one point, almost to the point of hyperventilation. I was still suffering from a cough left by my cold, so I couldn't take very long deep breaths, instead preferring quick shallow ones. This made it both easier to avoid coughing and, I think, easier to avoid exerting conscious control and easier to just observe. Whenever a thought came to my mind, I tagged it with a simple label and then let go. "Cough" was the most common label.

Soon enough, I felt a dampening of the senses. This interview mentioned the metaphor of being inside a car with the car windows suddenly rolled up, which described my feeling pretty well. I noticed that my feet were growing a bit uncomfortable from having been in the same position for so long, but the feeling didn't really bother me. It was a muted feeling, and the sounds from outside were muted as well. My awareness had shifted inwards.

Now having access concentration, it was the time to move to the first jhana. Leigh Brasington's article adviced to seek out a pleasant feeling and shift my concentration to that. I happened to be wearing clothes which I really liked, to the point of them making me feel physically good, so I shifted my attention to that feeling. I started thinking about how I liked those clothes and how I was living at my own and could wear and do whatever I liked. This made me both naturally shift my position into one that felt more comfortable, and it made me smile. Really, really smile in a way I'm not sure I've done before. I could feel a strong sensation of pleasure and happiness in the region around my mouth, radiating to the rest of my body. The thought came to me that I love myself, I love being me and I love being alive. Repeating those thoughts in my mind helped me maintain my good feeling.

Most of the good feeling was still in my upper body. Spontaneously, I visualized and felt my happiness and good feeling pushing out from my shoulders, sprouting out as an angel's wings which then moved to embrace and enfold the rest of my body. I imagined the feeling of resting my head against them and caressing my right wing with my hands, though I did not actually move my hands or head. I maintained this for a while, and although it felt good, I was also growing a bit impatient for my pizza to get ready as maintaining it required constant effort and I was getting a bit tired.

After a while, the oven clicked as a sign of my food being ready, so I stopped to get my breakfast and write this description. So far, I'm still feeling great and even more energetic than before the exercise.

I note with some curiosity that this experience is somewhat different from the descriptions of it I read in Ingram's book and Brasington's article. Those seemed like one was supposed to just concentrate on a specific feeling, not actively think any verbal thoughts or play with visualizations. On the other hand, those were things that came relatively naturally, and other parts of the way the first jhana is described - a feeling of sustained happiness, relief from the discomfort of sitting still, the gradual annoyance of needing to expend effort, the experience being addictive - all fit. I already want to do it again.

On the Self

May. 2nd, 2011 06:17 pm
xuenay: (Default)
I've gone through a variety of theories about the self and continuity of consciousness. Here they are.

1: The self as something arbitrary. Essentially the view I held at the time of writing this post from 2007. I thought that there is no inherent reason to think that the consciousness that now inhabits my brain will be the same one as the one inhabiting my brain tomorrow. Our minds and bodies change all the time: what's the thing that makes the me of today the same as the me of 20 years ago? Certainly one can come up with all sorts of definitions, but from a scientific point of view they're all unnecessary. One simply doesn't need to postulate a specific consciousness, a soul of sorts, in order to explain human behavior or thought. Noting that our memories create an illusion of continuity, and that this illusion is useful for maintaining useful things such as the self-preservation instinct, is more than enough as an explanation.

A thought experiment in philosophy asks: if you stepped into a Star Trek-style transporter, that disassembled you into your component parts and reassembled you somewhere else (possibly from different raw materials), would it still be you or would you it be killing you and creating a copy of you? Another: if the neurons in your brain would be gradually replaced with ones running in a computer, and the original brain was then shut down, would it still be you? Yet another: if you had been translated into software, and then fifteen copies of that mindfile were made and run, would they all be you?

To all of these questions, "the self as something arbitrary" replies: there's no inherent reason why they wouldn't be you. The difference between them would be less than that between you now, and you tomorrow. Of course, for psychological reasons, it is necessary for us to still believe to some degree that we're still the same person tomorrow as we are today. For this purpose, we're free to use pretty much any criteria we prefer: it's not like one of them would be wrong. One such criteria, suggested by Derek Parfit, is Relation R: psychological connectedness (namely, of memory and character) and continuity (overlapping chains of strong connectedness). This works fine for most purposes.

In practice, while I had this view, I tended to forget about the whole thing a lot. The illusion is built into us quite strongly, and the intellectual understanding of it is easy to forget.

2: The self as lack of personal boundaries. Upon reading Ken Wilber's No Boundary, I realized the following. Suppose that I choose to reject any criteria creating a relation between the me of now and the me of tomorrow, seeing them all as arbitrary. It follows that all consciousness-moments are separate beings. But symmetrically, one can take this to imply that all consciousness-moments are the same being. In other words: there is only one consciousness which experiences everything, instantiated in a wide variety of information-processing systems.

This point of view also gains support from noting that to a large degree, our behavior is determined by our environment. The people you hang around with have an immense impact on what you do and what you are. I might define myself using the word "student", which signifies a certain role within society - studying at a university ran by other people, from books written by others, my studies funded by money which the state gets by taxing my country's inhabitants. Or I might say that a defining aspect of myself is that I want to help avert existential risk. This is so because I happened to encounter writings about it at an appropriate point in my life, and it is a motivation which is constantly reinforced by being in contact with like-minded folks. On the other hand, it is a drive which is also constantly weakened by the lures of hedonism and affiliating with people who don't think such things are truly that important.

I'm only exaggarating a little if I say that basically everything in our personality is defined by our environment, and particularly the people within our environment. Change the environment I'm in, and you quite literally change what I am. Certainly I have lots of relatively stable personality traits that affect my behavior, but my environment defines the meaning those traits take. If I change my environment, I'll also change my own behavior. Looked at in this light, the self/non-self boundary becomes rather arbitrary and somewhat meaningless.

So now I was presuming that there was only one consciousness, instantiated in every possible body. All of these bodies and instantiations, taken together, make up a vast system that is me. I (in the sense of the specific brain-body now writing this) am part of the system in the same way that individual cells are parts of my body, or individual subprocesses in my brain are parts of my psyche. My personal accomplishments or my personal pride don't really matter that much: what matters is how I contribute to the overall system, and whether parts of the system are harmonious or conflicted between each other. Doing things like befriending new people means forging new connections between parts of myself. Learning to know people better means strengthening such connections.

Thinking like this felt good, and it worked for a while. But I had difficulty keeping up that line of thought. Again, the illusion of separateness is built strongly into us. On an intellectual level, I could easily think of myself as part of a vast system, with only a loose boundary between me and not-me. But since each brain can only access memories of being itself, and is strongly biased towards thinking itself separate, this was hard to really believe in on an emotional level. Frequently, I found myself thinking of myself as separate again.

3: The self as how the algorithm feels from the inside. The next step came when I realized that the notion of a consciousness experiencing things is an unnecessary element as well. Instead of saying that there are lots of different consciousnesses, or one consciousness instantiated in a lot of bodies, we can just note that we don't really need to presume any specific entity which observes various sensations. Instead, there are only the sensations themselves. A "consciousness" is simply a collection of sensations that are being observed within an organism at a specific time.

Putting this another way: there are a variety of processes running within our brains. As a side-effect of their functioning, they produce a stream of sensations (qualia, to use the technical term). There is no observer which observes or experiences these qualia: they simply occur. To the extent that there can be said to be an observer or a watcher, each sensation observes itself and then ceases to exist.

Of necessity, all of the qualia-producing algorithms we know of are located within information-processing systems which have a memory and are in some way capable of reporting that they have subjective experiences. Humans can verbalize or otherwise communicate being in pain; dogs can likewise behave in ways that sufficiently resemble our is-in-pain behaviors that we presume them to have qualia. As an animal's resemblance to a human grows smaller, we become more unsure of whether they have qualia. In principle, my computer could also have qualia, but if so it would have no way of reporting it, and I would have no way of knowing it. Because an entity needs to be able to somehow communicate having qualia in order for us to know about it, we've mistakenly began thinking that all qualia must by nature be observed by a consciousness. But the qualia observe themselves, which is enough. There is no Cartesian Theater, but rather something like multiple drafts.

So there is no "me" in the continuity of consciousness sense, nor is there any unified consciousness which experiences everything. Instead there are only ephemeral sensations, which vanish as soon as they've come to existence (though if eternalism is right, every moment may exist forever, and there may be an infinite number of copies of each "unique" sensation if multiverses are real). This may seem like a very unsettling theory from a psychological point of view, as it would seem like it'd make it harder to e.g. care about the next day. While both "the self as something arbitrary" and "the self as a lack of personal boundaries" allowed one to construct a definition of self extending in time - even if one acknowledged to be arbitrary - this view makes that rather impossible.

And at first, it was rather unsettling. After a while, however, I managed to come to grips with it. The important point to note is that even if there is continuity of consciousness, the concept of "me" still makes sense. It's simply referring to the information-processing system in which all of these algorithms are running. I can still meaningfully talk about my experience or about making plans. I'm simply referring to the experiences which will be produced by the algorithms running within this brain, and the plans which that brain will make. And there is no reason why I shouldn't feel pleasure from anticipation of future experiences, if those are good experiences to have.

I desire to reduce the number of negative qualia in the world and increase the number of positive ones. Positive qualia are correlated with positive feedback within the information-processing system; negative qualia, with negative feedback. In other words, the system/organism will tend to repeat the things it felt good about, as it gets wired to repeat those behaviors. (Though one should note here that the circuits for "wanting" and "liking" are actually different.) It is good for me to feel good about doing and behaving in ways which will make me more likely to achieve these goals. It is good for me to feel pleasure from the anticipation of doing good things, for this will cause me to actually do them. It is also good for me to feel happy: not only does feeling happy instead of unhappy make me more capable of doing things, it also directly serves my goal of increasing the amount of positive qualia in the world. This line of thought seems like a very successful way of fitting together utilitarianism and virtue ethics, the process of which I began a year ago and which has considerably contributed to my increased happiness of late.

Again, this is easy to think about on an intellectual level, but we're wired to think differently. I've been having more success consistently training myself to think like this than I had with the previous theories, however. Of course, I still frequently forget, but I'm making progress. Various meditation traditions seem to be aimed at helping grok something like this at an emotional level, and I'm dedicating an hour a day to meditation practice aimed at following the progression described in this book. I haven't really gotten any results so far, though.

I was going to also write more about the nature of suffering and how these shifts in thought have helped me become happier and suffer less. However, looking at how long this post got, I think I'll do that in a separate post.

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