Tag Archives: meditation

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


"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

Nature and Nature's Bod: Attachment, Desire, Empathy Overload, and Embodiment

I’ve been working on increasing my sensitivity to my own desires and preferences. As part of this, I’ve been working through the exercises in a book my friend Sarah recommended, called Pleasurable Weight Loss

One recent exercise was to go somewhere with great natural beauty and connect with nature. I have never in my life felt connected with growing things - cities feel vibrant, alive, and purposeful to me, plants just feel like passive items of scenery - but I had decided to try every exercise in the book, no matter how hard it seemed, and make a genuine effort to engage with the spirit of the exercise. At worst, I’d get a better sense of what made the exercise hard. So I went out to Tilden Park and attempted to find a nature trail. I almost failed, but eventually found the botanical garden, where I wandered around, and noticed a few things. Continue reading

Positive Queries - How Fetching

If I tell 100 people not to think of an elephant, what's the single thing they're all most likely to think about over the next five minutes, aside from sex?

An elephant, of course.

Negation and oppositeness are perfectly intelligible semantic concepts - in general, no one is confused about what "Don't think of an elephant" means - or, more generally, "Don't do [X]," where X is any intelligible behavior. And people would know how to comply, if [X] were a physical action like sitting down. But even if they wanted to, they don't know how to not think of an elephant - even though that's a behavior they exhibit most of their waking lives, and in some sense on purpose.

Even for physical actions we are not only admonished to refrain from, but have a strong personal interest in not doing, we feel an impulse to do them anyway. Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?

Because a part of your mind that is trying to take care of you is thinking, as hard as it can, "Don't jump!" And there's another part of your mind, whose job it is to fetch ideas related to the things you're interested in. This fetcher doesn't understand words like "don't," but it does understand that you're very interested in the idea of jumping off that ledge, so it helpfully suggests ways to do so.


This can be a big problem if you're trying to find ways not to do something, or for something not to happen.

It is not possible to find ways for something not to happen.

Knowing this, how should we use our brains differently than we did before? For obvious reasons, I am not just going to tell you to avoid thinking of the things you want in terms of negations. Instead, I'm going to tell you some stories of how I used techniques designed with this in mind, to win at life.

Continue reading

Null Results

Humans tend to look for evidence that reinforces our beliefs, not evidence that contradicts them. This is called confirmation bias. A related problem is that people tend to publish results that show various treatments or interventions working, but not results that show them failing to work, because the latter is less interesting. This is called publication bias.

In the spirit of combating those things, I'm going to share some things that didn't work for me.


Rolfing is basically a kind of massage (though Rolfers insist there's a difference) with a slight amount of evidence that it produces feelings of relaxation over longer periods of time than other massage methods. Rolfers are certified by the Rolfing Institute, and put you through a series of ten sessions. Then you're done, permanently. They say it takes a few months for the changes to become manifest, and it's been a few months, so I'm now ready to talk about what it did for me.

Rolfing is famously uncomfortable. During sessions I was asked to give lots of feedback about how intense the pressure was on a scale from 1 to 10 (the target was something like 6 or 7), and since I am a tough guy idiot I was reluctant to actually say "hey, that's an 8," so I probably got some unnecessary pain. Some of the parts of the massage are also kind of weird-feeling, like the session that focused on my chest - I'm not used to strong pressure on my ribs or sternum, but ultimately it was bearable and I felt very good after the sessions.

During the sessions, when the pressure was particularly intense and a little painful I turned it into kind of a mindfulness practice. I would focus on the sensation, in detail, and to some extent that defused the distress. This should be familiar to many people who have meditated. And it's positive evidence for the effectiveness of meditation in teaching a certain kind of mental control.

The really nice thing about Rolfing was that I finally got a massage with a sufficient amount of pressure. Even though it was sometimes painful, it was a satisfying experience. I think this preference for massages with a lot of pressure might be hereditary. When I was a kid I'd give my mom shoulder massages so hard my hands hurt, and that was just barely enough pressure for her. I'm totally the same way - I've never gotten a shoulder massage that had too much pressure - although I have had just barely enough, during Rolfing. If you don't like lots of pressure you probably won't like Rolfing.

Some minor aspects of my posture seemed to be improved, and I got unsolicited compliments on my posture from people who didn't know I was going through a course of Rolfing, but now several months later I seem to have backslid significantly. For example, my feet, which used to point outwards but after Rolfing pointed straight ahead, point outwards again. I haven't experienced the kind of enhanced bodily awareness that I heard about anecdotally that initially interested me in Rolfing.

On the whole it wasn't a huge win, but might have just barely been worth the time and money for me. If you don't have or make much money, and don't have reasons other than general well-being to try it, I can't recommend it; it's too costly an experiment.

Anonymous Feedback Form

On Less Wrong, Gwern wrote about putting up a personal anonymous feedback form. I thought the idea was really cool, so I put one up myself January 16th. There are links on my about page on Twitter, Facebook, and here. Aside from my own tests, I have received zero responses.


1) I'm not doing anything wrong, so nobody needs to get in touch with me.

2) Nobody really cares what I do so they're not motivated to provide feedback.

3) The feedback form is insufficiently visible.

4) Somehow the link or form is broken. (I had a friend test it out and it seemed to work.)

5) I'm so much less popular than Gwern that zero results over two months is not very far statistically from the expected results


"Has your kind really evolved separate information-processing mechanisms for deoxyribose nucleic acid versus electrochemical transmission of synaptic spikes?"

"I don't really understand the question's purpose," Akon said.  "Our genes are made of deoxyribose nucleic acid.  Our brains are made of neurons that transmit impulses through electrical and chemical -"

The fake man's head collapsed to his hands, and he began to bawl like a baby.


The fake man suddenly unfolded his head from his hands.  His cheeks were depicted as streaked with tears, but the face itself had stopped crying.  "To wait so long," the voice said in a tone of absolute tragedy.  "To wait so long, and come so far, only to discover that nowhere among the stars is any trace of love."

"Love?" Akon repeated.  "Caring for someone else?  Wanting to protect them, to be with them?  If that translated correctly, then 'love' is a very important thing to us."

"But!" cried the figure in agony, at a volume that made Akon jump.  "But when you have sex, you do not untranslatable 2!  A fake, a fake, these are only imitation words -"

"What is 'untranslatable 2'?" Akon said; and then, as the figure once again collapsed in inconsolable weeping, wished he hadn't.

"They asked if our neurons and DNA were separate," said the Ship's Engineer.  "So maybe they have only one system. [...]"

"They share each other's thoughts when they have sex," the Master of Fandom completed.  "Now there's an old dream.  And they would develop emotions around that, whole patterns of feeling we don't have ourselves...  Huh.  I guess we do lack their analogue of love."

-Three Worlds Collide

I used to think that traditional literary descriptions of the emotion of sexual love were just hyperbole for dramatic or comic effect, and really people just felt caring or lust or both. Recently I found out that some people say they actually have those sensations in that way, though I still can't quite alieve it yet.

Here's an interesting take on the emotion of love. Read the whole thing. It's good.

What I want to know about this is - do you recognize this emotion? Forget the author's opinions about what you should do about love, and what love means, for a moment - forget it's even called love. Does the author's description of how the emotion manifests physically ring true? Is this one specific recognizable feeling that you have actually experienced?

I don't recognize this sensation at all:

Love is a feeling. It's hot and fluttery and tingly. I get it in my guts and chest and face. The feeling is accompanied by a series of enthusiastic thoughts, such as "This person is the greatest person ever", "I wonder how I can make this person feel good", and/or "I want to climb onto this person and put my face close to their face and smoosh my body onto their body."

I know what feeling goes along with the first thought. And I know what feeling goes along with the third. (The second is ambiguous.) They're completely different feelings. I don't think my experience is vanishingly rare, either - but I'm not sure, which is why I want to hear from you, whether or not you've experienced the emotion described in the linked article.

I've had deep feelings of caring toward some people. I've experienced admiration. I've experienced lust. I've had all these feelings toward some people. But for me they are totally different feelings: they feel completely different. And I never thought of using the word "love" to describe any of them, alone.

Generally, when I say I love someone, I am talking about a more permanent disposition, over a longer period of time than a single emotion. I mean that I generally feel caring toward them, and don't expect that disposition to change in the foreseeable future.

I think there's a specific emotion or combination of feelings that some people experience, and mean when they talk about love, that other people never experience. It's hard for me to write this, because even thinking about this makes me worry that I'm defective, that I'll never love the people I care about the way they would want to be loved.

I think people who talk about love often talk past each other because of the typical mind fallacy, and the illusion of transparency. People who have that "love" emotion see other people who don't bonding romantically and talking about love, and assume that they feel the same thing inside. People who don't have that emotion see people who do making long-term commitments and talking about love, and assume that it's just a word for the behavior.

I don't like summarizing anything from Wittenstein's Philosophical Investigations because unlike some other books, an adequate summary would be nearly as long as the whole thing. But in one place Wittgenstein gives an analogy for purely personal subjective experience.

Imagine that everyone carries around a small box. And no one looks into any box aside from their own. But people say "there is a beetle in my box", and refer to the thing in their box as a beetle. Now, is it meaningful to ask whether someone else's box really has a beetle? It's not a falsifiable statement - after all, you're not going to look inside someone else's box to find out whether their "beetle" looks like yours. The subjective experience of love is very similar to this beetle in a box.

Not quite, though - the description in the linked article is specific enough that I can tell whether I've had that experience. It would be nice to have a more precise vocabulary of emotions and sensations, to avoid this type of confusion. I wonder what other confusions are caused by a large number of people missing out on some "universal human experiences."

Of course I have the alternate hypothesis that people who describe love as an emotion are the mistaken ones. That they're just giving another name to lust, or to caring, when experienced under special circumstances. But limerence is apparently a real thing, and if that's real, then the milder feelings of romantic love are less improbable, so they're likely real as well.