Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What It's Like To Notice Things


Phenomenology is the study of the structures of experience and consciousness. Literally, it is the study of "that which appears". The first time you look at a twig sticking up out of the water, you might be curious and ask, "What forces cause things to bend when placed in water?" If you're a curious phenomenologist, though, you'll ask things like, "Why does that twig in water appear as though bent? Do other things appear to bend when placed in water? Do all things placed in water appear to bend to the same degree? Are there things that do not appear to bend when placed in water? Does my perception of the bending depend on the angle or direction from which I observe the twig?"

Pehenomenology means breaking experience down to its more basic components, and being precise in our descriptions of what we actually observe, free of further speculation and assumption. A phenomenologist recognizes the difference between observing "a six-sided cube", and observing the three faces, at most, from which we extrapolate the rest.

I consider phenomenology to be a central skill of rationality. The most obvious example: You're unlikely to generate alternative hypotheses when the confirming observation and the favored hypothesis are one and the same in your experience of experience. The importance of phenomenology to rationality goes deeper than that, though. Phenomenology trains especially fine grained introspection. The more tiny and subtle are the thoughts you're aware of, the more precise can be the control you gain over the workings of your mind, and the faster can be your cognitive reflexes.

(I do not at all mean to say that you should go read Husserl and Heidegger. Despite their apparent potential for unprecedented clarity, the phenomenologists, without exception, seem to revel in obfuscation. It's probably not worth your time to wade through all of that nonsense. I've mostly read about phenomenology myself for this very reason.)

I've been doing some experimental phenomenology of late.


I've noticed that rationality, in practice, depends on noticing. Some people have told me this is basically tautological, and therefore uninteresting. But if I'm right, I think it's likely very important to know, and to train deliberately.

The difference between seeing the twig as bent and seeing the twig as seeming bent may seem inane. It is not news that things that are bent tend to seem bent. Without that level of granularity in your observations, though, you may not notice that it could be possible for things to merely seem bent without being bent. When we're talking about something that may be ubiquitous to all applications of rationality, like noticing, it's worth taking a closer look at the contents of our experiences.

Many people talk about "noticing confusion", because Eliezer's written about it. Really, though, every successful application of a rationality skill begins with noticing. In particular, applied rationality is founded on noticing opportunities and obstacles. (To be clear, I'm making this up right this moment, so as far as I know it's not a generally agreed-upon thing. That goes for nearly everything in this post. I still think it's true.) You can be the most technically skilled batter in the world, and it won't help a bit if you consistently fail to notice when the ball whizzes by you--if you miss the opportunities to swing. And you're not going to run very many bases if you launch the ball straight at an opposing catcher--if you're oblivious to the obstacles.

It doesn't matter how many techniques you've learned if you miss all the opportunities to apply them, and fail to notice the obstacles when they get in your way. Opportunities and obstacles are everywhere. We can only be as strong as our ability to notice the ones that will make a difference.

Inspired by Whales' self-experiment in noticing confusion, I've been practicing noticing things. Not difficult or complicated things, like noticing confusion, or noticing biases. I've just been trying to get a handle on noticing, full stop. And it's been interesting.

Noticing Rain

I started by checking to see what I expected it to feel like to notice that it's raining, just going from memory. (It doesn't rain much in Berkeley, so it had been a while.) I tried for a split-second prediction, to find what my brain automatically stored under "noticing rain". When I thought about noticing rain, I got this sort of vague impression of rainyness, which included few sensory details and was more of an overall rainy feeling. My brain tried to tell me that "noticing rain" meant "being directly aquainted with rainyness", in much the same way that it tries to tell me it's experiencing a cube when it's actually only experiencing a pattern of light and shadows I interpret as three faces. I could have reasoned carefully and worked out a far more accurate prediction, but that's not what I was after.

Then, I waited for rain. It didn't take long, because I'm in North Carolina for the month.

The real "noticing rain" turned out to be a response to the physical sensations concurrent with the first raindrop falling on my skin. I did eventually have an "abstract rainyness feeling", but that happened a full two seconds later. My actual experience went like this.

It was cloudy and humid. This was not at the forefront of my attention, but it slowly moved in that direction as the temperature dropped. I was fairly focused on reading a book.

(I'm a little baffled by the apparent gradient between "not at all conscious of x" and "fully aware of x". I don't know how that works, but I experience the difference between being a little aware of the sky being cloudy and being focused on the patterns of light in the clouds, as analogous to the difference between being very-slightly-but-not-uncomfortably warm and burning my hand on the stove.)

My awareness of something like an "abstract rainyness feeling" moved further toward consciousness as the wind picked up. Suddenly--and the suddenness was an important part of the experience--I felt something like a cool, dull pin-prick on my arm. I looked at it, saw the water, and recognized it as a raindrop. Over the course of about half a second, several sensations leapt forward into full awareness: the darkness of my surroundings, the humidity in the air, the dark grey-blueness of the sky, the sound of rain on leaves like television static, the scent of ozone and damp earth, the feeling of cool humid wind on my face, and the word "rain" in my internal monologue.

I think it is that sudden leaping forward of many associated sensations that I would call "noticing rain".

After that, I felt a sort of mental step backward--though it was more like a zooming out or sliding away than a discrete step--from the sensations, and then a feeling of viewing them from the outside. There was a sensation of the potential to access other memories of times when it's rained.

(Sensations of potential are fascinating to me. I noticed a few weeks ago that after memorizing a list of names and faces, I could predict in the first half second of seeing the face whether or not I'd be able to retrieve the name in the next five seconds. Before I actually retrieved the name. What??? I don't know either.)

Only then did all of it resolve into the more distant and abstract "feeling of rainyness" that I'd predicted before. The resolution took four times as long as the simultaneous-leaping-into-consciousness-of-related-sensations that I now prefer to call "noticing", and ten times as long as the first-raindrop-pin-prick, which I think I'll call the "noticing trigger" if it turns out to be a general class of pre-noticing experiences.

("Can you really distinguish between 200 and 500 milliseconds?" Yes, but it's an acquired skill. I spent a block of a few minutes every day for a month, then several blocks a day for about a week, doing this Psychomotor Vigiliance Task when I was gathering data for the polyphasic sleep experiment. It gives you fast feedback on simple response time. I'm not sure if it's useful for anything else, but it comes in handy when taking notes on experiences that pass very quickly.)

Noticing Red Barn Roofs

My second experiment was in repeated noticing. This is more closely related to rationality as habit cultivation.

I was trying to zoom in on the experience of noticing itself, so I wanted something as simple as possible. Nothing subtle, nothing psychological, and certainly nothing I might be motivated to ignore. I wanted a straightforward element of my physical environment. I'm out in the country and driving around for errands and such about once a day, so I went with "red barn roofs".

I had an intuition that I should give myself some outward sign of having noticed, lest I not notice that I noticed (if that's possible), and decided to snap my fingers every time I noticed a red barn roof.

On the first drive, I noticed one red barn roof. That happened when I was almost at my destination and I thought, "Oh right, I'm supposed to be noticing red barn roofs, oops" then started actively searching for them. 

Noticing a red barn roof while searching for it feels very different from noticing rain while reading a book. With the rain, it felt sort of like waking up, or like catching my name in an overheard conversation. There was a complete shift in what my brain was doing. With the barn roof, it was like I had a box with a red-barn-roof-shaped hole, and it felt like completion when a I grabbed a roof and dropped it through the hole. I was prepared for the roof, and it was a smaller change in the contents of consciousness.

I noticed two on the way back, also while actively searching for them, before I started thinking about something else and became oblivious.

I thought that maybe there weren't enough red barn roofs, and decided to try noticing red roofs of all sorts of buildings the next day. This, it turns out, was the correct move.

On day two of red-roof-noticing, I got lots of practice. I noticed around fifteen roofs on the way to the store, and around seven on the way back. By the end, I was not searching for the roofs as intently as I had been the day before, but I was still explicitly thinking about the project. I was still aware of directing my eyes to spend extra time at the right level in my field of vision to pick up roofs. It was like waving the box around and waiting for something to fall in, while thinking about how to build boxes.

I went out briefly again on day two, and on the way back, I noticed a red roof while thinking about something else entirely. Specifically, I was thinking about the possibility of moving to Uruguay, and whether I knew enough Spanish to survive. In the middle of one of those unrelated thoughts, my eyes moved over a barn roof and stayed there briefly while I had the leaping-into-consciousness experience with respect to the sensations of redness, recognizing something as shaped like a building, and feeling the impulse to snap my fingers. It was like I'd been wearing the box as a hat to free up my hands, and I'd forgotten about it. And then, with a heavy ker-thunk, the roof became my new center of attention.

And oh my gosh, it was so exciting! It sounds so absurd in retrospect to have been excited about noticing a roof. But I was! It meant I'd successfully installed a new cognitive habit to run in the background. On purpose. "Woo hoo! Yeah!" (I literally said that.)

On the third day, I noticed too many red roofs. I followed the same path to the store as before, but I noticed somewhere between twenty and thirty red roofs. I got about the same number going back, so I think I was catching nearly all the opportunities to notice red roofs. (I'd have to do it for a few days to be sure.) There was a pattern to noticing, where I'd notice-in-the-background, while thinking about something else, the first roof, and then I'd be more specifically on the lookout for a minute or two after that, before my mind wandered back to something other than roofs. I got faster over time at returning to my previous thoughts after snapping my fingers, but there were still enough noticed roofs to intrude uncomfortably upon my thoughts. It was getting annoying. 

So I decided to switch back to only noticing the red roofs of barns in particular.

Extinction of the more general habit didn't take very long. It was over by the end of my next fifteen minute drive. For the first three times I saw a roof, I rose my hand a little to snap my fingers before reminding myself that I don't care about non-barns anymore. The next couple times I didn't raise my hand, but still forcefully reminded myself of my disinterest in my non-barns. The promotion of red roofs into consciousness got weaker with each roof, until the difference between seeing a non-red non-barn roof and a red non-barn roof was barely perceptible. That was my drive to town today.

On the drive back, I noticed about ten red barn roofs. Three I noticed while thinking about how to install habits, four while thinking about the differences between designing exercises for in-person workshops and designing exercises to put in books, and three soon enough after the previous barn to probably count as "searching for barns".

What These Silly Tests Are Really About

My plan is to try noticing an internal psychological phenomenon next, but still something straightforward that I wouldn't be motivated not to notice. I probably need to try a couple things to find something that works well. I might go with "thinking the word 'tomorrow' in my internal monologue", for example, or possibly "wondering what my boyfriend is thinking about". I'll probably go with something more like the first, because it is clearer, and zooms in on "noticing things inside my head" without the extra noise of "noticing things that are relatively temporally indiscrete", but the second is actually a useful thing to notice.

Most of the useful things to notice are a lot less obvious than "thinking the word 'tomorrow' in my internal monologue". From what I've learned so far, I think that for "wondering what my boyfriend is thinking about", I'll need to pick out a couple of very specific, instantaneous sensations that happen when I'm curious what my boyfriend is thinking about. I expect that to be a repetition of the rain experiment, where I predict what it will feel like, then wait 'til I can gather data in real time. Once I have a specific trigger, I can repeat the red roof experiment to catch the tiny moments when I wonder what he's thinking. I might need to start with a broader category, like "notice when I'm thinking about my boyfriend", get used to noticing those sensations, and then reduce the set of sensations I'm watching out for to things that happen only when I'm curious what my boyfriend is thinking.

After that, I'd want to practice with different kinds of actions I can take when I notice a trigger. So far, I've used the physical action of snapping my fingers. That was originally for clarity in recognizing the noticing, but it's also a behavioral response to a trigger. I could respond with a psychological behavior instead of a physical one, like "imagining a carrot". A useful response to noticing that I'm curious about what my boyfriend is thinking would be "check to see if he's busy" and then "say, 'What are you thinking about?'"

See, this "noticing" thing sounds boringly simple at first, and not worth much consideration in the art of rationality. Even in his original "noticing confusion" post, Eliezer really talked more about recognizing the implications of confusion than about the noticing itself. 

Noticing is more complicated than it seems at first, and it's easy to mix it up with responding. There's a whole sub-art to noticing, and I really think that deliberate practice is making me much better at it. Responses can be hard. It's essential to make noticing as effortless as possible. Then you can break the noticing and the responding apart, so you can recognize reality even before you know what to do with it.


Rhaidot said...

You make me wonder if I can train myself to notice thunderbolts. My girlfriend is naturally gifted to perceive them. She suddenly stop doing whatever she is doing, paralyzed, gazing something that isn't there, then snaps of that static state, and if there is someone around, she smiles nervously. Then the lightning finally strikes. I will like to have such a cool ability, even if I can't get so good as her, maybe noticing things about thunderbolts will expand the grasp of my senses. I wonder if liking rain is a prerequisite, because I don't like rain that much...


Anonymous said...

Noticing is absolutely the critical skill that allows all sorts of other interesting and vital abilities. For personal anecdotes, I got a huge gain in ability-to-maintain-eye-contact over a weekend where I noticed what it feels like to get distracted by an idea and lose focus on a conversational partner.