Category Archives: Psychology

Emotional qualia are mediated by somatic responses

Unembodied emotions

I used to be confused when people talked about feeling their emotions in their bodies. My emotions didn’t feel like physical sensations - they just felt like emotions. Doesn’t sadness or happiness just feel like sadness or happiness? I had trouble with a lot of advice for how to better manage or get in touch with emotions for this reason.

I sometimes felt my emotions saliently, but I experienced nothing like the variety of qualia other people reported. I basically had a four-quadrant model of emotion: Continue reading

Reading, writing, and thinking, with your brain

In a recent blog post I pointed to the idea that your brain has a sort of implied query language, and there are more and less efficient ways to ask it questions:

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.

This is a roundup of principles I’ve found helpful for using my brain effectively - committing things to memory, finding ideas, and thinking about things. Continue reading

Exploding the sociability binary

A lot of the discussion about introversion and extraversion seems to collapse a whole bunch of things into a single binary. When people point out that they’re not well-described by either term, they tend to come up with patches like “ambivert,” but this is a missed opportunity to develop a more granular understanding of sociability. There are enough tensions in the underlying definitions that I want to blow up those terms and replace them with more precisely defined axes along which people vary:

  • Stimulation affinity
  • Social skill
  • Social anxiety
  • Relationship realism (vs intuitive individualism)
  • Communalism (vs ideological individualism)

Continue reading


"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.” Continue reading

Review: Vipassana Center silent meditation retreat

On my pleasure practice nature walk, I formed the hypothesis that excessive attachment was preventing me from noticing my preferences, desires, and feelings, and that meditation might help with this. I signed up for a free 10-day Vipassana center meditation retreat.

When I decided to go on the retreat, I had two main benefits in mind:

  • Learn to perceive my desires, preferences, and emotions more reliably, by means of being more aware of bodily sensations.
  • Learn to be able to look at these and fully perceive them without feeling compelled to act on them.

I got these, and more. Continue reading

Physical empathy and channels of communication


I was relaxing on a common-room couch, when one of my friends started talking about a clapping game that she’d learned back in her home country. I’ll call it patty-cake for reduced identifiability, and call her Pepper. Another friend (let’s call her Salt) ran over and said “teach me!”, so she taught her how to play it. I was in an introspective mood, so I wondered aloud - why did I feel sad about this?

It wasn’t that I especially wanted to learn patty-cake. It wasn’t even that I expected that Pepper would refuse to teach me if I asked. The problem was that even if I got Pepper to teach me the game, it wouldn’t be the same kind of interaction that she’d had with Salt. But what was that kind of interaction, and why did we all agree that it wouldn’t have been the same if I’d been the one to ask? Continue reading

Fixin' my fiction addiction

The first bargain

Back in 2014, when I was living in DC, I got sick - probably a cold - and used the time I was home doing nothing to binge-read novels. The entire extant Game of Thrones series, some Valdemar books, some other stuff. I noticed I was staying up very late to keep reading - it seemed counterproductive if I was resting to get better. It turned out that this was the only time I permitted myself to read as much as I wanted, and do nothing else. So of course I wanted to use the time as best I could to read.

At the same time, I was not taking much in the way of painkillers or other symptom management medication, on the tacit hypothesis that if I didn’t experience symptoms, I wouldn’t take good care of myself while sick, and would be sick longer.

So I made my first bargain with myself: to make sure I got enough sleep while sick. In exchange I promised to manage symptoms as indulgently as I knew how, and to take some weekend afternoons when I was well to go to coffee shops and read. It no longer felt like an unmanageable compulsion - but it still felt like a chronic deficiency. Continue reading

Skipping developmental levels

A lot of my friends and acquaintances are excited about Robert Kegan’s Constructive Developmental Theory (CDT). The gist of it is that at each stage of development, we’re thinking using some structure, and at the next stage, we’re able to think about that structure from the outside, using the next structure up. Stage 1 is for itty bitty kiddies. In Stage 2, you can think about objects, but identify with your preferences. In stage 3, you can think about preferences, but identify with relationships. In stage 4, you can think about relationships, but identify with your moral system. In stage 5, you can evaluate your own moral system, thinking with some sort of meaning-making faculty.

I’m not describing this very well, and it’s because the Kegan system is very unintuitive to me. I think it’s unintuitive to be because I skipped a level - level 3. Continue reading

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: Continue reading