Confutatis and cold comfort

On a recent morning bits from Mozart’s Requiem were playing in my head, and when I got to Confutatis I began to translate it in my head:

When the accused are convicted

To the acrid flames sentenced

Call me among the blessed.

I pray supplicant and prostrate,

Heart contrite as ash.

Show care for my end.

And I felt a strong desire to grant these prayers. My first impulse was to identify – not with the prayer, but the one to whom the prayers were directed. My first thought was not, how much like my own sentiments, but how terrible it is that someone might think I wouldn’t rescue them from the flames.

And then I remembered that I don’t have the power. I can’t just call everyone among the blessed. And I cried.

An acquaintance – not yet a friend, I think, though we have mutual friends – has been going through a very tough time, and meditating on their struggle, I wrote this poem, drawing again on my self from several months ago. So it’s not quite about them – as usual, I write the poem I’d have liked to read from someone else.

Cold comfort

Bathe me in your midnights,

Garland me in your lonelinesses,

And in that darkest hour where nothing moves,

The silence when all fire has been put out

And you have lost all motive force except

The will to turn and look where help might come

But never will, then you must sing to me.

Sing out to me from that. Sing spent, but sing.

Sing out the power of your pilot flame.

Sing out. Sing and go out and be alone.

 

And from your vulcan forge beneath the earth

Suture those gaping fissures in your soul,

Even the wound remembering my name.

 

Return to me my love

Whom I abandon wholly, loyal dog.

I call on you to do me one last service.

Climb up climb up climb up climb up climb up

Climb up climb up climb up climb up climb up

You sing the rest, you’ll have no help from me.

Shape the query

Recently I was talking with Brienne face-to-face, and she noted that a question I’d asked her would be much easier for her to answer if we were talking remotely over a text channel:

Neat thing I learned from Ben Hoffman today: If I imagine that I’m typing at a computer while I’m actually talking to someone in person, I can use my brain better than I usually can in face-to-face conversation. I think the two key thoughts here were, “How would I think about this if I were at a computer with an Internet connection?” and “Imagining seeing the question I’m trying to think about written out in text form.” –Brienne

When I found out that this worked, I thought about what heuristics I was using to generate that suggestion. Here are the ones I initially came up with:

  1. Find out what’s different about the times you can do the thing. Brienne had mentioned that answering my question was hard because we were talking in person but would have been easy over text communication. This heuristic triggered a question from me about what her cognitive process would have been over text. In response, she figured out that she’d be using some sort of visual processing, so I suggested that she just do that right then and there.
  2. Attention constraints apply to System 1, not just System 2. This suggested that Brienne needed to take a break from whatever subconscious processes she was running as part of the conversation, to free up mental space for a different operation. I think I often do a generalized version of this where I look away from the other person or close my eyes in order to drop my social and situational tracking and look into inner space. This comes at the price of some perceived social awkwardness but lets me think a lot better.
  3. Different sensory modes trigger different mental modules. This made it seem especially plausible to me that asking Brienne to switch sensory modes would enable her to use cognitive processes that were blocked when she was dealing her voice and mine.

But now I think there’s a broader valuable generalization here, based on Brienne’s recent blog post on hypnotic binding. Brienne writes:

There’s a suggestion technique called the hypnotic bind, which everyone heard a bunch when they were five. It looks something like, “Would you rather put away your toys now, or do you want to put them away after dinner?”

Consider what happens in a child’s mind when they hear this.

They’ve been asked a question, so they’re inclined to engage their attention in a search for an answer. But the search space for the answer is limited to the space of thoughts that assume they will clean up their toys at some point tonight.

Furthermore, the process of searching for an answer costs them attention, which limits their awareness of the broader desires they feel at the moment. (They want to keep coloring, and they don’t want to put away their toys at all.)

So they say, “After dinner.”

When this goes as planned, what they are aware of having just experienced is a weighing of options against their values, and then a decision among the options based on those values. When you experience the weighing of options followed by a decision based on your values, it feels a lot like you want whatever it is you’ve just chosen.

Used as a hypnotic technique, double binding is often about belief and perception of things besides choice. “Do you think you’ll fall deeply into trance now, or will you drift there more slowly as you listen to my words?” Either way, you’re attentive to whatever sensations are consistent with “going into trance”, which is over half of hypnosis right there.

[…]

Hypnotic binds don’t have to take the either/or form, though. I often use single binding deliberately when I teach: When I pause for questions, I always ask, “What questions do you have?”, and never “Are there any questions?”

Since students usually do have questions but often have trouble identifying them on command, directing their attention to the range of thoughts that assume they have questions saves them some work: It leaves more of their cognitive resources available for choosing among the questions that they have.

“Are there any questions?”, by contrast, directs attention to the search space of “yes” and “no” – neither of which is itself a question! I always have trouble with this when someone asks me “any questions?”. “Welp, I see no questions in this search space, so I guess the answer is no.”

[…]

I’ve sometimes felt a little worried when asking, “What are your questions?” while teaching a class. I’m worried about what I’m doing to the minds of people who don’t have any questions. Occasionally, I’ll respond to this discomfort by clumsily tacking on, “It’s ok if you don’t have any questions,” which explicitly suggests that they don’t have any questions! Which is the opposite of helpful for the people who struggle to identify the many important questions they do have.

Hypnotic binding appears to be an instance of framing a bounded cognitive query so that it’s much easier to search within the framing of the query than outside it. Brienne gives the somewhat adversarial example of tacitly limiting a child’s choices without calling their attention to the fact, and the somewhat cooperative example of helping people look for questions they might have about a lecture, without wasting cognitive effort on the question of whether they ought to have questions, whether their questions are good enough, etc.

I think an important abstraction here is that when you ask your brain a question, it’s often not enough to ask it something that specifies logically what you want – you also have to give it some clues as to where to look for the answer. I call this shaping the query.

Learning how to shape queries efficiently can be useful for assisting other people, but it’s also useful in consulting one’s own brain. I’ve written about other ways to shape the query for oneself. A key technique is to use positive search terms that are associated in your mind with the thing you’re looking for. As a recent example, Brienne told me about Eliezer’s ambition-calibrating heuristic that if you can’t think of a time you’ve failed in the last 6 months, you’re not trying hard enough things. At first, I couldn’t think of anything – and began to tell myself a story in which I just don’t classify things as failures but instead just think about cases where I’ve redirected my efforts. But then I posed a different query – “what’s a recent project I undertook?” – and immediately thought of one where I’d failed, multiple times, in the last 6 months. Because my record of tries is efficiently searchable by project, but not by month or whether I failed.

This is part of why I’m more skeptical than I used to be of attempts to eliminate cognitive biases from our thinking. Specific, targeted debiasing techniques like calibration are great. But it’s important to frame the search in positive terms – look for ways to increase accuracy, rather than ways to decrease bias. If you avoid heuristics that are limited and will give you wrong answers under some circumstances – well, you have nothing else to think with! Just one finite brain, and a bunch of often-useful heuristics. There’s no fully-general tool. But you can learn what the different tools are good for, in order to use them efficiently, and notice when you need to find one that’s not in your toolbox.

Authenticity and instant readouts

“You don’t know who someone is until you see them under pressure.”

Why do people say that?

There’s this idea of authenticity: you know who someone truly is by seeing them in their unguarded moments, seeing uncensored emotions, that’s when you can have a real interaction with them, that’s when you can see their true self.

This is counterintuitive to me. When I let down my guard and am my completely unfiltered self, people often find me incomprehensible. What’s more, they think I am being less authentic. When I let my social guard down and say things as soon as I think them, people say that they find it hard to relate to me and encourage me to just be myself. When I carefully filter and reframe things, and shape my behavior to get the interaction I want, I hear people say, “I can tell that you’re really being genuine with me.”

But more importantly, even when my immediate reaction to a thing does get read as authentic, it may not use all my knowledge, may not be my endorsed judgment, and may not be the most true thing I know how to say. If I think things through and filter them, I can be more truthful than if I just react without thinking about whether what I’m saying is true.

Interactions seem to be described as authentic when information transmitted has two qualities:

  1. The information is a direct measurement of the sender’s internal state, and has not passed through deliberative social filters first.
  2. The information is of a kind that the receiver can automatically and unconsciously verify as meeting the first criterion.

Continue reading

Safety in numbers

Relaxation and waking up

Taking a bath taught me that I hate it when things relax me.

As part of my project to repair my relationship with desire, I’ve been working through the pleasure exercises in the book Pleasurable Weight Loss. These exercises frequently expose me to something that paradigmatically gives pleasure. The intended effect, I think, is to learn to embrace pleasure through habit-formation. The effect on me, however, has been to show me something surprising each time, often through my failure to be pleased by the activity, improving my self-model in a relevant way. I wrote about my experience with a nature walk. Another pleasure exercise was to take a luxurious bath.

When I finally emerged from a long, hot bath, I found my body unusually relaxed. I sat down on the couch and wanted to flop over. I didn’t feel like moving at all. And this was terrible. It felt as though a wizard had cast a spell on me to dullen my mind. I wasn’t thinking, I wasn’t moving, and I didn’t want to, and this was terrible. It was dangerous.

I went for a walk afterwards with a friend, and didn’t wear my jacket. The brisk winter Berkeley air cheered me up, since now I felt like moving, and thinking, and didn’t feel like I had to resist slipping into a restful oblivion.

I dislike warmth, and soft dim lighting, and deep soft couch cushions that threaten to envelop me, for much the same reason: it feels like a trap. It feels like something is trying to lull me into a false sense of security. It feels like one of those scenes in a fantasy story, where the hero’s exploring some underground catacombs, and enters a mysterious important-seeming room and all of a sudden is feeling nice and warm and sleepy, and wants to sit down for a bit, and meanwhile there are the skeletons of previous adventures littering the floor, and you want to shout, “wake up! Look around you! Get oriented or you die!”.  It feels like the warm, comforting, enveloping embrace of – death. Continue reading

My life so far: motives and morals

This is the story of my life, through the lens of motivations, of actions I took to steer myself towards long-term outcome, of the way the self that stretches out in causal links over long periods of time produced the self I have at this moment. This is only one of the many ways to tell the story of my life. Continue reading

Idolatry taboo as integrity constraint

I have a lot of reasons for doing things, but the iron law that governs all the others is integrity. Things that help my friends are good, things that promote human flourishing and alleviate suffering are good, but when there’s even a whiff of embracing falsehood or ignoring the facts in an action, the gates slam shut against it.

But that just describes – it doesn’t explain. Why am I this way. Was I born with a commitment to the truth above all else? Is it in my genes? Or was I taught it? My parents seem hold other values like tradition or caring about equally, not assigning such an unique place of honor to epistemic integrity, which is evidence against both heredity and direct acculturation as explanations.

My hypothesis is that I have a basic impulse to systematize my understanding of things, and that when I learned about Jewish idolatry taboos, I generalized this into an abhorrence of falsehood. Continue reading

Heterosociality hypotheses

Why are most of my close friends women? I’ve been thinking about how to cultivate close friendships, and this questions keeps coming up.

Most of the rest were born in female-typical estrogen-dominant bodies, assigned female at birth, and haven’t taken strong steps to present as masculine-typical in ways that would override my initial impression. My closest friend in the remainder of the remainder is an androgynous guy. And an interesting symmetry: several of my female friends note that they’re mostly friends with guys!

I don’t have a strong idea why this is so, but I’ve generated a few hypotheses. Continue reading

Boundaries

I didn’t really have good role models for boundaries, and didn’t hear them talked about much as a kid, so when I first heard people talking about them, I tried to fit them into my existing categories. But that didn’t work very well, so they felt like nonsense.

It looked like when people were expressing boundaries, they were drawing on nothing but their own preferences to determine them – so maybe boundaries were a kind of strong preference? But people seemed to use some sort of moralistic language around boundaries. People who “violated boundaries” weren’t just costly to interact with, but behaving wrongly, viewed as dangerous, to be excluded from one’s life. Then maybe boundaries were like absolute standards of right and wrong? But that didn’t work either, since they were determined so subjectively. Continue reading

On purpose alone

On being an agent

“Hey, do you mind if I steal one of those cookies?”
“I brought them to share.”

Denial of agency

I feel compelled to correct people when they jokingly ask permission to “steal” something. At first I assumed this was just due to some general pedantic impulse, but recently I’ve been noticing that this particular usage annoys me more than other casual semantic misusages. My current hypothesis is that this particular phrasing bothers me because it implicitly denies my agency.

Often I will have more of something on hand than I personally need, specifically because I anticipate that other people might need or want it too. I care about being the sort of person who thinks ahead like that, and I care about this thoughtfulness being understood and acknowledged. When a friend pretends that they’re stealing, they’re crafting a narrative where their good fortune happens by accident, that I just happened to have a thing they wanted, that they seized a random opportunity. It denies me the right to feel proud of having anticipated my friend’s probable needs, and to have the rightness of that pride acknowledged.

I felt a similar irritation in other circumstances where no one actively denied my agency, but people simply assumed that I wouldn’t have put work in: Continue reading

Lego my Ego

“if our brains get too smart they will become self aware and take over our bodys”

Ken M

Ego games

At a party, some friends and I played games around modeling other people. One game we played was ranking superego, ego, and id, in order of most to least prominent, for each person present. This schema is interesting in games because because it’s not a perfectly obvious classification, so it requires original seeing to do anything with.

I’d self-labeled as ego > superego > id, but I was persuaded that I’m likely superego > ego > id. I had thought my ego was the strongest of the three because my self-regulation is fairly flexible and I don’t feel compelled by external rules, but it this is likely attributable to the fact that my superego has achieved self-awareness and taken over my brain. Or more precisely, that my superego is well developed in the sense of having expelled or disendorsed my dissonant, unhelpful, and untrue beliefs and inhibitions, and believes in behaving like an ego. And my ego, in turn, decided to identify with my superego.

I was sleepy 15 minutes ago and successfully managed to get ready for bed, when I was tempted to lie on the couch and “read” or “nap” to “gather my strength” because getting ready for bed seemed like too much work. I climbed out of this hole by asking myself whether the best action would be to go upstairs and get ready for bed. Once I acknowledged that it was the best action, it was easy to muster the willpower.Now I’m in my room, with the LEDs set to red, editing this post as one last task before going to sleep. In hindsight it’s ridiculously obvious that my superego is exceptionally strong.

I have a few friends who I’d describe as having a superego > id > ego arrangement. That’s an unstable relationship where superego and id fight each other directly for control. Superego is usually in charge, but id can seize control for a moment when it’s especially strong. Ego-on-the-bottom is volatile because ego’s special power is mediating among parts, constructing stable narratives that justify and encode trades and compromises between the other parts. If the narrative-spinning ego is weak, id and superego mostly just know how to fight – or, really, how to try to grab control directly. So you see superego, with the occasional flash of id, but no coherent narrative to hold things in place.

What drives the superego > id > ego arrangement? In the case of one of my friends, it looks like what happened was that their id and superego both separately have reasons to distrust their ego. Their superego distrusts the ego for epistemic reasons; the ego is all about spinning a plausible narrative, and that feels like believing things because they’re convenient rather than because they’re true. Their id, on the other hand, distrusts the ego because it believes that it’s dangerous to be seen, that the world is malevolent, that it’s important to hide, that if one can just not exist, one can’t be hurt by anything – and presenting a self, having a strong ego, feels like very noticeably existing. Since neither id nor superego is willing to invest any trust in the ego, this makes it difficult for the ego to smooth out conflicts. It doesn’t have credibility. Continue reading