What is a reflective record?
A reflective record is anything you write down while in reflective attention.
What does a reflective record look like?
Here's a typical example of one of my reflective records from a couple months ago.
The sound of cars on the road, and a fly flitting through a beam of sunlight. I’m sleepy and my head feels fuzzy. The laptop is uncomfortably warm on my legs, and I think I should move it. The room smells like empanadas from lunch. A moment of blankness, which gives way as I realize I’ve simply lost direction for a moment. I gently nudge it back to the flow of my stream of consciousness. I notice that I have a Facebook notification, wonder what it is, and now I’m deciding to close all my tabs but this one. A feeling of familiarity like an openness in my chest, and as I watch that, memories of having performed this exercise many times. Through my inner monologue, the words “What will my readers think of the chapter I'm working on?”, accompanied by a very dull and mild pang of anxiety. I take a deep breath, and I’m enjoying the sensation of the air rushing out of my nostrils as I exhale. The words “categories of experience”, and I imagine circling phrases with colored pencils. A feeling of sufficiency and completion, part of my experience of the belief that I should stop writing now.
And here's what happens if I make a reflective record right now.
Cars passing by on the road making a swooshing noise. I'm imagining the scene out the window, though I'm looking at my computer screen. I'm imagining the visuals of a sunset over the ocean framed by hills and buildings, though it's actually morning and the sky is cloudy and gray. A pang of hunger rising in my stomach, feeling sharp and insistent. Words in my head: "what should I eat?", and a little frustration. Stopping work to eat feels at once aversive and enticing. The thought of eating causes relief and happiness, but the thought of cooking causes gumbly dark denial and I want to ignore the thought. My socks are gray-blue and fuzzy, and they make me content and comfortable. A memory of the way my attention suddenly retreated from the thought of food to grasp the nearest non-food-related sensation. Sleepiness, a constant temptation for my attention to wander away and forget itself, and apparently I'm more willing to describe my experience in imprecise metaphor than I feel I remember having been in past reflective records. My mind wants to focus on the difference between reflective recording and free writing. The locking-in-place-resolution of a decision not to bother writing about free writing in this post, but to reconsider after I eat.
What is reflective recording good for?
I use reflective recording for three things.
- Habit training. Suppose you're trying to learn a more productive psychological response to confusion than the one you usually have. If you want to respond with curiosity, you'll need an intervention that inputs the beginning of your default response and outputs curiosity. To figure out what that intervention should be, it helps to have a detailed model of the input. Human memory isn't designed to store most of the sorts of things that go on in moment-to-moment awareness, so if you don't capture the details right away, you'll probably forget something important. If gather several reflective records after the same trigger over time, you'll get a better idea of how widely your default responses to the trigger vary.
The same goes for testing the output: To know quickly if the intervention reliably causes the desired mental state, you need to know what mental state it causes, and you need to keep track of the results over time.
Responsible introspection. Responsible introspection is a way to gain self-knowledge while bypassing the introspection illusion. It means paying attention to immediate experience first, and reasoning abstractly about that data later.
We do not have direct access to the origins of our mental states, but we do have mental states, and the contents of those mental states aren't arbitrary. Our experiences provide data about our patterns of thought. To introspect responsibly, collect that data by activating reflective attention in the presence of whatever stimulus interests you (a thought about a new job offer, for instance), and then writing down what you experience. You can repeat that a few times to find out how your reactions to the thought vary over time.
Once you have detailed first-person data that isn't contaminated by inference and belief about belief, you can add it to third-person observations about your past behaviors. From there, it's relatively safe to reason abstractly about problems that depend on predictions about how you'll think and feel.
Predicting experience. Most of immediate experience is forgotten. Most of it doesn't matter, isn't vivid, isn't unusual, and doesn't make a lasting impression. It takes an extra reflective effort of become aware that your mind's doing whatever it's doing. A lot of the truth of what it is to be a mind slips through the cracks, so our default models of immediate experience lack crucial information. For example, we tend to hold onto beliefs we form and dispense with memories of what observations led us to form those beliefs, and what emotions colored our perceptions as we integrated those observations.
When you have a better model of immediate experience, you can make better predictions about how you'll think and feel on a moment-to-moment basis in the future. Practicing reflective attention regularly can't bring back information you've already lost, but it can reduce illusions about experience that result from biases of memory.
Making a reflective record now and then is even better than reflective attention alone, since it lets you review data taken from many time slices all at once.
Here's a conversation in response to this post from Facebook. I'll incorporate what I learned from it into the post soon (probably), but for now, I'm putting it here because it might clear some things up.
Malcolm: I would expect the act of writing stuff down to be way too slow and I wouldn't be able to think things in time. Might try this with speaking aloud and recording it as audio (which is actually what I expected it would be, based on the name).
Jamie:I found that attempting this slowed me right down. I can't write, type or speak even close to the speed I notice thoughts. Converting impressions and awareness into words and then into movement instructions for recording them is almost uselessly slow for stream-of-consciousness stuff. I can sort of 'buffer' because I can sustain two mental streams at once, but even so it's the mental equivalent of trying to run in knee-deep water. By the time I've finished writing something I lost awareness of 90% of the other things I was experiencing at the same moment as whatever it was I was writing down, and almost have to pick the next thing to write at random.
On the plus side, it did make me aware of just how MUCH I notice and immediately throw away without acting on, including stuff I probably ought to record or remember.
Me: You're both probably trying to catch a whole lot more than I am. I wait for a particular kind of thought when I'm actually using this for specific things. When I'm not I pick sort of at random with a huge bias toward stuff it's easy to put into words.
Malcolm: Hmmm... oh! Okay, yeah, I think I have a better sense of the structure. I think the examples you give are kind of misleading about this, as they imply just the random version.
Jamie: Right, so it's not a logfile, it's either a listener or a random activity sample. That feels a lot less close to 'awesome superpower', but a great deal closer to 'physically possible for unaugmented humans'. Your examples felt pretty much stream-of-consciousness, so I had interpreted it as 'log everything that seems important about a given moment'.
Me: Yeah, I was erring on the side of not including enough because I'm trying to learn to only say precisely what is needed. But when I designed a series of exercises on reflective attention, most of the point was to get to "partial reflection", which means keeping your attention fixed on a single category of thought (like physical sensations, emotional sensations, reactions to another person).
But I expect different people to parse their experiences differently, and I found that even for myself sans communication with others, it helped to have identified the most natural system of categorization for my moment-to-moment experiences. The random-ish sampling was originally just for finding those categories. It turns out that it's also great for moving into partial reflective recording if you're having a hard time getting a particular category in focus at first. Also, beginning with partial reflective recording and moving out of it only when it feels right tends to make my free writing sessions a lot more productive a lot more quickly.
Here's my categorization of the first example in the post. (It was edited a little to make more sense in context.)