"Back off and give him more space -" said the dry voice of Professor Quirrell.

"No!" interrupted the Headmaster. "Let him be surrounded by his friends."

-Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Words of distraction or encouragement

Recently, at the gym, I overheard some group of exercise buddies admonishing their buddy on some machine to keep going with each rep. My first thought was, “why are they tormenting their friend? Why can’t they just leave him alone? Exercise is hard enough without trying to parse social interactions at the same time.”

And then I realized - they’re doing it because, for them, it works. It's *easier* for them to do the workout if someone is telling them, “Keep going! Push it! One more!”

Whereas for me, that divides my attention - I have to break off a piece of attention that was being used for willpower to move the heavy thing, and use it for processing someone else's speech and figuring out what to do about it, and damn it, they're just telling me to do the thing I was doing already, and I feel like throwing the weight at them.

This doesn’t seem like social anxiety. I have friends who can’t do things as well when other people are watching, but that isn’t my problem. It doesn’t matter if people are watching me, as long as I can safely ignore them while performing - as long as I can be sure they’ll shut up, stand back, and let me work. I even benefit from fast feedback, if it’s something I know how to act on, and given between sets rather than during them.

Words as performance enhancing drugs

I suspect that I find encouragements to do what I’m already doing distracting rather than encouraging, because I am trying to hold onto the integrity of my own cognitive process, and words from other people feel like a disruption of my already-sufficient will. For me, there’s a lot of overhead whenever someone talks to me because I have to reallocate mental space to social interactions.

I think this is an important difference between people who are better at narrow-focus activities and people who are better at broad-awareness ones: In the narrow-focus orientation, the most natural thing to do when engaged in an activity is reallocate all one’s attention to the object of overt focus, and it takes an active effort to keep unrelated mental processes going. In the broad-awareness orientation, by default a bunch of cognitive processes - peripheral perceptual awareness, social awareness - are always running, and it takes work to reallocate focus to just one thing, if it’s possible at all. On this model, the sorts of people helped by admonitions are helped because it recruits energy from an otherwise unrelated task (social attention) for use in their focus task (pushing a heavy object). It acts as a bolster, strengthening them in what they already wanted to do, helping them recruit this other part of their will that they didn’t have conscious access to before.

Julian Jaynes, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, argues that verbal admonitions are closely integrated with our cognitive processes (and makes the additional claim that early human brains admonished themselves through hallucinations):

The most plausible hypothesis is that verbal hallucinations were a side effect of language comprehension which evolved by natural selection as a method of behavioral control.

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir far upstream from a campsite. If he [...] cannot [...] narratize the situation and so hold his analog ‘I’ in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle-Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was then capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do.

[...] Behavior more closely based on aptic structures (or, in an older terminology more ‘instinctive') needs no temporal priming. But learned activities with no consummatorvy closure do need to be maintained by something outside of themselves.

Similarly, in fashioning a tool, the hallucinated verbal command of “sharper” enables nonconscious early man to keep at his task alone. Or an hallucinated term meaning “finer” for an individual grinding seeds on a stone quern into flour.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein similarly imagines a language that does not denote objects or abstract thoughts, and is for nothing but actions:

(2) Let us imagine a language ...The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B.  A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words 'block', 'pillar', 'slab', 'beam'.  A calls them out; --B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. -- Conceive this as a complete primitive language.


(6) We could imagine that the language of (2) was the whole language of A and B; even the whole language of a tribe. The children are brought up to perform these actions, to use these words as they do so, and to react in this way to the words of others.  An important part of the training will consist in the teacher's pointing to the objects, directing the child's attention to them, and at the same time uttering a word; for instance, the word "slab" as he points to that shape.


(19) It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle.---Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering yes and no. And innumerable others.-----And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.

But what about this: is the call "Slab!" in example (2) a sentence or a word? --- If a word, surely it has not the same meaning as the like-sounding word of our ordinary language, for in (2) it is a call.  But if a sentence, it is surely not the elliptical sentence: "Slab!" of our language.

----- As far as the first question goes you can call "Slab!" a word and also a sentence; perhaps it could be appropriately called a 'degenerate sentence' (as one speaks of a degenerate hyperbola); in fact it is our 'elliptical' sentence.---But that is surely only a shortened form of sentence "Bring me a slab", and there is no such sentence in example (2).---But why should I not on contrary have called the sentence "Bring me a slab" a lengthening of the sentence "Slab!"?

When I hear “slab”, my mind interprets this by imagining the object. A native speaker of Wittgenstein’s command language, when hearing the utterance “Slab!”, might - merely as the act of interpreting the word - feel a sense of readiness to go fetch a stone slab.

At the Vipassana Center silent meditation retreat, admonitions worked very well for me:

The instruction contained a lot of words of admonition and encouragement, often repeated in the exact same terms. It was emphasized that we were here to work hard, that we should start with a calm and quiet mind, that we should work diligently, patiently and persistently, and that if we did so, we were bound to be successful. This served as a substantial boost to my willpower; in private meditation sessions, if I found myself flagging, I was able to “play back” a recording of these verbal admonitions, and felt encouraged to apply myself more fully again.

I think this worked well because these were literal audio recordings, and I was expected to be silently meditating, so there was no feeling whatsoever that I had to respond. (The occasional interruption, early on, was also a welcome distraction from the considerable physical discomfort I experienced as a result of sustained sitting.)

It also helped that some brief periods were somewhat explicitly set aside for instruction, and were brief. For most of the meditation I did not feel at risk of obtrusive interruptions. Rather, I could replay that tape in my head when I felt I needed encouragement. It wasn’t an external imposition - it was nothing but a tool that I could pick up and use, at my own discretion, to better regulate my own mind.

"Writing is a drug that counterfeits memory." -King Thamus of Egypt

6 thoughts on “Admonition

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