Thursday, July 30, 2015

Effective Rest Days

Today is my day off.

I’ve been really good at days off recently. I used to be terrible at them. I used to not have much of a strategy, and I'd basically end up forcing myself to stay put and not do anything strenuous or work-like. I often ended up feeling sort of depressed, and the next day I wasn't at all ready to work.

On my most recent day off, I climbed a mountain, ran several miles, and got some chores done. I felt excellent and ready to work hard the next day.

Here's how my new strategy has played out so far today.

When I woke up this morning, I thought I should have breakfast, and that I should treat myself to something extra tasty and extravagant, like bacon and a fancy omelet, or perhaps a souffle.

I snapped my fingers. That, I realized, had been one of my flags: an image of how my day off should be, according some stereotype of a “day off”. I asked myself, “What do I actually want, right now?” posing the question as an invitation, a desire-shaped door held open for any nearby desires that might like to wader in. Does “bacon and souffle” fit through that door? No, actually. That’s not a desire-shaped thought. It's a day-off-shaped thought.

On days off, [if I feel like I'm playing out the role of a character taking a day off] --> [then I ask myself what I actually want right now.]

My gaze happened across a box of cookies-and-cream protein bars, and a new image sprang to consciousness: a heated protein bar sitting on a plate beside a glass of milk and some Soylent. I felt warm and happy thinking about it, and it went right through the desire-shaped door I’d created. I snapped my fingers, recognizing another flag - a sensation of desire - and then hesitated, mildly confused.

2: “Really? A protein bar and Soylent?”

1: “Yes. And milk.”

2: “That sounds like the kind of breakfast we’d have if we were clumsily motivated by body image. Are we sure we wouldn’t rather have bacon? Even if we could push a button to summon it instead of having to cook? Even if it had no effect at all on our body, besides giving us energy and satiating hunger?”

1: “summons an image of biting into a warm, gooey cookies-and-cream protein bar Yes, definitely.

2: “Well, ok then. We genuinely want this right now, and it doesn't cost anything. We’ll have that.”

On days off, [if I feel a sensation of desire] --> [then I check whether I genuinely want it right now, and if so I give it to myself, provided it costs less than ten bucks].

Later, I was walking down the street toward a coffee shop I like, when I felt another flagged sensation: the cognitive aftertaste of a recently suppressed desire. I stopped, snapped my fingers, and invited desires from recent memory to present themselves. Nothing was forthcoming. I looked around, hoping to jog my memory, and quickly locked onto a men’s clothing store on the corner.

2: “What? Why would we want to go in there?”

1: “We're curious.”

2: “Oh right, we’ve been curious every time we’ve passed here for like a year and a half, haven’t we.”

1: “Yep. Let’s go.”

2: “But we can tell from here that it won’t have anything we want to buy. It’s mostly blue jeans and flannel button-downs.”

1: “You say that every time, but we’re still curious.”

2: “Hm, yeah, that's strange. What are we curious about?”

1: “We want to see what it looks like, know how big the inside is, touch all the furry coats on that rack outside.”

2: “Oh. I guess whether we’ll buy anything is completely irrelevant then. That was a silly reason to suppress a desire.”

1: “Yep. Let’s go.”

2: “Ok.”

On days off, [if I notice I've suppressed a desire] --> [then I excavate that desire for further examination].

My plan when I got to the coffee shop was to read fiction. The thought of reading fiction at the coffee shop was what caused me to leave the house in the first place, and I looked forward to it the whole way here. Reading more fiction is something I’d like to do, and rest days are good times for that. But as soon as I sat down in this chair and started reading, I felt a desire to write. Specifically, I desired to write about this recent change in my approach to rest days that has so greatly increased their value.

2: “But we told all those past time-slices we’d get to read fiction when we got to the coffee shop.”

1: “But we are here now, and we want to write, not read.”

2: “Yeah but, what about reflective cooperation across the intertemporal coalition? Our past selves had our future wellbeing in mind when they desired that we read. They thought we needed to spend more time reading fiction, and we agree with them. They’d be disappointed to hear their decision was overpowered by an unreflective impulse,

(translation: summons image of trying to stick to a diet, yet succumbing to the immediate temptation to have a cookie every time a cookie desire happens)

which would damage the power of our future selves’ intentions to motivate our actions

(translation: summons image of a future self deciding to try a new diet, while the memory of all the past times with the cookies plays through their head and reduces their confidence in the intertemporal coalition’s ability to stick to diets).

That’s most of what ‘being responsible’ means to us.”

1: “Oh, I see. But you’ve forgotten something: The intertemporal coalition, including the recent past time-slices of which you speak, has consented to privilege my needs. Remember why?"

2: “Yes. We have a bias toward privileging the desires of certain other people and our future selves. It leads to fatigue when not occasionally counter-balanced. Privileging our own current selves is a necessary condition for successfully recharging on a rest day. That’s what ‘taking a day off’ means to us. All of our time-slices since February have been clear on that. Sorry, my mistake.”

1: “It’s ok. We also forgot to snap our fingers when we felt the sensation of ‘feeling like the responsible thing is to override an impulse’.”

2: “Indeed. snaps fingers Ok, let’s write.”

On days off, [if I feel like the responsible thing is to override an impulse] --> [then I'll remember why I've chosen to privilege the desires of my present self today.]

It's not the case that I recharge best by "not doing work" and "physically resting". The part of me that needs rest is neither my body nor my concentration. The part that needs rest is the part of me that manages my impulses to makes sure the people around me and my future selves get what they need.

This is not surprising in retrospect, given I spend all the rest of my time in a service role.

So my new strategy for effective rest days is all about attention to a few key sensations that indicate it might be time to put my own present needs first, despite my instincts:

  • desire
  • noticing I've suppressed a desire
  • playing the role of a character taking a day off
  • being responsible by overriding an impulse

If you're not getting much out of your days off and also happen to be in a service role (like nursing, teaching, or leading an organization), maybe this approach could help you, too.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Training CTAPS, Part 2

Kevin helps us train an epistemic CTAP for responding to fearful doubt.

Training CTAPS, Part 1

My imaginary friend Kevin helps us learn attention techniques that improve our ability to notice things.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

CTAPs and The Miracle Question

I've so far talked a lot about the "trigger" part of trigger-action planning (which I've often called "noticing"). Here's a tip that can help identify not just the correct trigger, but also the correct action.

“Tomorrow, you wake up to find that the thought pattern you want has miraculously established itself. What’s the very first thing you notice that’s different?”

This is called “The Miracle Question”.

The habit of thought I’m currently working on is defensiveness. At this point, all I’ve got is a trigger I’m part way through refining. I’ve studied my default pattern of thought and feeling, the one that’s causing me problems. But I don’t have any idea what to do about it yet, so this is a great time to ask The Miracle Question.

I ask myself this question via simulation, not conceptualization. I don’t just think the words or activate the abstract concepts in my mind. Rather, I pose the question by vividly imagining the experiences of a version of myself who miraculously wakes up possessing the skill I want (even if I'm not quite sure what the skill is yet).

Playing through that movie in my mind, what is the first thing to tip me off that I must be imagining her instead of me?

Ok, so I wake up. Then what? I roll over, open my eyes. I grab my phone, push the on button, and see some Facebook updates. I click through and start to read a comment where someone has criticized my idea - and this is where I feel surprise. Reading the comment, I’m still feeling just about as pleasantly languid as I was before, modulo the added focus needed to understand the comment. I feel the difference while imagining this, because ordinarily I'd respond to this situation with some sort of stress.

So what have I gained from this exercise?

I now have a concrete image of the world I hope to steer myself toward, on the scale of moment-to-moment experiences. Before, I just had a thought like "I want to spend less time being defensive." That's different from knowing in precise, concrete detail what it would look like to spend less time being defensive. I don’t know how to get to that other world yet, but I know precisely what gap I'll need to bridge: The specific change I’m after is one that will allow me to read a Facebook criticism when I’ve just woken up while feeling calm engagement.

My search for correct actions is now constrained to things that would plausibly cause that outcome - that would transport me into The Miracle World. Any potential action that would fail to bridge at least part of the gap between here and there is a step in the wrong direction.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Primitive Introspection

[Epistemic status: This is my working model. I think something like this is probably happening irl. Some of my details of neurology, anatomy, and evolutionary biology are probably wrong. I'd be only slightly surprised if I converted from HOPs theory to some sort of HOTs theory in the next year, but I don't think that would have strong practical implications.]


Trigger-action plans exist on a spectrum. Over on the left, you have TAPs like "If I enter my house through my front door, I'll put my keys in the box on the side table." On the right you have TAPs like "If I'm confused, I'll stop and compare what I expected to happen to what happened instead."

keys <-----------------> confusion

Roughly speaking, the stuff on the left is physical, and the stuff on the right is cognitive.

The stuff on the right seems to be harder. Why is that? This post is about my attempt to answer that question.

How do you know when you've just opened your front door? You saw the door in front of you, felt the knob turn in your hand, heard a creaking sound as it opened, and now you see a hole where the door used to be.

How do you know when you've just felt confusion? In my case, I'd know because I'd have noticed feeling a sudden burst of surprise followed by a lack of resolution that's now developed into a hanging that's-not-rightness.

But I know that because I spent a long time studying my own reactions to confusing situations. I attended strategically to confusion. If you asked me five years ago how I know when I'm confused, I might have said, "Well, I just... know, you know?"

And if you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have been wrong. The truth would have been, "I usually don't know when I'm confused."


I think of human introspection as analogous to the parietal eyes of lizards. Lizards (and some other animals) have a light sensor atop their heads that can't detect anything more specific than the presence or absence of light.

If you took away a lizard's true eyes and left it with just the primitive third eye, it would have something almost but not quite entirely unlike vision. It could distinguish night from day, but certainly not knights from daisies. In other words, it would be about as blind as its distant ancestors who had just begun to develop sight. Lizard-relevant parts of the world would be way more complicated than its vision could handle.

My best guess about why introspection is harder than outrospection is this: We're in an awkward evolutionary stage where the human-relevant goings-on inside our brains are way more complicated than our shiny new prefrontal cortices can handle.

We have an organ that lets us perceive high-order cognitive algorithms like "my inferences from what my model of Karen's brain predicts I will say", or "the thing happening in my auditory cortex when I hear E above middle C".* But we still have the primitive version of the organ. We've not yet evolved true introspection. So we can perceive our thoughts and feelings, maybe for the first time in evolutionary history, but our perception tends to be vague, fuzzy, and weak. Night and day, not knights and daisies.


But there's a funny thing about perception of cognitive algorithms.

Imagine you're playing Where's Waldo...

...but instead of carefully scanning through the chaos, you can turn everything without red stripes into a perfectly blank white background. Suddenly, the game wouldn't push your visual processing to its limits. Finding Waldo would be easy.

You can't change a physical image just by thinking about it - but you can change your cognitive algorithms by thinking. That's what thinking is.

So introspection is hard because our PFC is primitive, but there are still things we can do to make it easier. If I want to train a thoroughly cognitive trigger-action plan, my strategy should make it as easy as possible on my primitive PFC.

The art of streamlining thought for successful perception seems to consist of strategic use of attention, as far as I can tell. Attending in ways that make the most of a human PFC will be the subject of an upcoming post.

*Considering introspection to be a "sense" is a minority position among philosophers of mind (I think?). I recommend the SEP article on higher-order consciousness theories if you're curious about other perspectives.

Cognitive Trigger-Action Planning For Epistemic Rationality

I suspect that the overwhelming majority of good epistemic practice is best thought of as cognitive trigger-action plans to customize and internalize.

[If I'm afraid of a proposition] → [then I'll visualize how the world would be and what I would actually do if the proposition were true.]
[If everything seems to hang on a particular word] → [then I'll taboo that word and its synonyms.]
[If I flinch away from a thought at the edge of peripheral awareness] → [then I'll focus my attention directly on that thought.]

Before looking back through some of the Lesswrong Sequences, I installed the trigger-action plan "[If I notice that something I read feels important] --> [then I'll ask myself, "In what real-life situations is it important?" and design a trigger-action plan to impliment the insight.]" Sometimes I fail to identify a correct action, but I at least come up with some hypothesis for what the right trigger would be, so I can study my own experience of relevant situations.

(When I train a trigger well, I often find I'm done, anyway.)

You can gain a lot of abstract insights by reading, which can re-orient your mind and shift your whole approach to the world. You can learn some great hacks for problem solving by taking the right classes and workshops. But when it comes to advancing your own art in the ongoing context of daily life, CTAPs is the name of the game. It is the way to change your default responses to sensations of thought and emotion.

[If something feels key to advancing your art as a rationalist] → [stop, drop, and trigger-action plan.]

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Why Mere Noticing Solves So Much

I was at first astonished by how often my pesky cognitive mistakes were solved by nothing but skillful use of attention. Now I sort of see what's going on, and it feels less odd.

What happens to your bad habit of motivated stopping when you train consistent reflective attention to "motivated stopping"? The motivation dissolves under scrutiny.

What happens to your disputes over definitions when you train consistent attention to having lost sight of what you really disagree about? You gain sight of what you really disagree about.

What happens to your neglect of base rates when you train consistent reflective attention to the sensations of base rate neglect? You start thinking about base rates at the times when you need to most.

If you recognize something as a mistake, part of you probably has at least some idea of what to do instead. Indeed, anything besides ignoring the mistake is often a good thing to do instead. So merely noticing when you're going wrong can be over half the battle.