The Human Mind

One small part of the recent (June 2015) CFAR workshop caused a significant improvement in how I interact with people. I’ve become more spontaneous about interacting with people.

For several years I’ve suspected that I ought to learn how to do improv-style exercises, but standard improv classes felt ineffective. I’ve since figured out that their implied obligation for me to come up with something to say caused some sort of negative association with attempts at spontaneity when I failed to think of anything to say. That negative reaction was a large obstacle to learning new habits.

Deeply ingrained habits seem to cause some part of my subconscious mind that searches for ideas or generates words to decide that it can’t come up with anything worthy of conscious attention. That leaves me in a state that I roughly describe as a blank mind (i.e. either no verbal content at the conscious level, or I generate not-very-useful meta-thoughts reacting to the lack of appropriate words).

Since I much more frequently regret failing to say something than I regret mistakenly saying something hastily that I should have known not to say, it seems like I’ve got one or more subconscious filters that has consistently erred in being too cautious about generating speech. I tried introspecting for ways to simply tell that filter to be less cautious, but I accomplished nothing that way.

I also tried paying attention to signs that I’d filtered something out (pauses in my flow of words seem to be reliable indicators) in hopes that I could sometimes identify the discarded thoughts. I hoped to reward myself for noticing the ideas as the filter started to discard them, and train the filter to learn that I value conscious access to those ideas. Yet I never seem to detect those ideas, so that strategy failed.

What finally worked was that I practiced informal versions of improv exercises in which I rewarded myself [*] for saying silly things (alone or in a practice session with Robert) without putting myself in a situation where I felt an immediate obligation to say anything unusual.

In a few weeks I could tell that I was more confident in social contexts and more able to come up with things to say.

I feel less introverted, in the sense that a given amount of conversation tires me less than it used to. Blogging also seems to require a bit less energy.

I feel somewhat less anxiety (and relatedly, less distraction from background noise), maybe due to my increased social confidence.

I may have become slightly more creative in a variety of contexts.

I hypothesize that the filtering module was rather attached to a feeling of identity along the lines of “Peter is a person who is cautious about what he says” long after the consciously accessible parts of my mind decided I should weaken that identity. Actually trying out a different identity was more important to altering some beliefs that were deeply buried in my subconscious than was conscious choice about what to believe.

I wonder what other subconscious attachments to an identity are constraining me?

Something still seems missing from my social interactions: I still tend to feel passive and become just a spectator. That seems like a promising candidate for an area where I ought to alter some subconscious beliefs. But I find it harder to focus on a comfortable vision for an alternative identity: aiming to be a leader in a group conversation feels uncomfortable in a way that aiming to be spontaneous/creative never felt.

Thanks to John Salvatier and Anna Salamon for the advice that helped me accomplish this.

[*] – I only know how to do very weak self-rewards (telling myself to be happy), but that was all I needed.

I use Beeminder occasionally. The site’s emails normally suffice to bug me into accomplishing whatever I’ve committed to doing. But I only use it for a few tasks for which my motivation is marginal. Most of the times that I consider using Beeminder, I either figure out how to motivate myself properly, or (more often) decide that my goal isn’t important.

The real value of Beeminder is that if I want to compel future-me to do something, I can’t give up by using the excuse that future-me is lazy or unreliable. Instead, I find myself wondering why I’m unwilling to risk $X to make myself likely to complete the task. That typically causes me to notice legitimate doubts about how highly I value the result.

Book review: The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.

This book provides clear and well-organized instructions on how to become more charismatic.

It does not make the process sound easy. My experience with some of her suggestions (gratitude journalling and meditation) seems typical of her ideas – they took a good deal of attention, and probably caused gradual improvements in my life, but the effects were subtle enough to leave lots of uncertainty about how effective they were.

Many parts of the book talk as if more charisma is clearly better, but occasionally she talks about downsides such as being convincing even when you’re wrong. The chapter that distinguishes four types of charisma (focus, kindness, visionary, and authority) helped me clarify what I want and don’t want from charisma. Yet I still feel a good deal of conflict about how much charisma I want, due to doubts about whether I can separate the good from the bad. I’ve had some bad experiences in with feeling and sounding confident about investments in specific stocks has caused me to lose money by holding those stocks too long. I don’t think I can increase my visionary or authority charisma without repeating that kind of mistake unless I can somehow avoid talking about investments when I turn on those types of charisma.

I’ve been trying the exercises that are designed to boost self-compassion, but my doubts about the effort required for good charisma and about the desirability of being charismatic have limited the energy I’m willing to put into it.

Book review: Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking, by Ralph L. Keeney.

This book argues for focusing on values (goals/objectives) when making decisions, as opposed to the more usual alternative-focused decisionmaking.

The basic idea seems good. Alternative-focused thinking draws our attention away from our values and discourages us from creatively generating new possibilities to choose from. It tends to have us frame decisions as responses to problems, which leads us to associate decisions with undesirable emotions, when we could view decisions as opportunities.

A good deal of the book describes examples of good decisionmaking, but those rarely provide insight into how to avoid common mistakes or to do unusually well.

Occasionally the book switches to some dull math, without clear explanations of what benefit the rigor provides.

The book also includes good descriptions of how to measure the things that matter, but How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard does that much better.

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.

A somewhat new hypothesis:

The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain.

Here’s a more extensive explanation.

This hypothesis connects many of the sensory peculiarities of autism with the attentional and social ones. Those had seemed like puzzling correlations to me until now.

However, it still leaves me wondering why the variations is sensory sensitivities seem much larger with autism. The researchers suggest an explanation involving increased plasticity, but I don’t see a strong connection between the Intense World hypothesis and that.

One implication (from this page):

According to the intense world perspective, however, warmth isn’t incompatible with autism. What looks like antisocial behavior results from being too affected by others’ emotions—the opposite of indifference.

Indeed, research on typical children and adults finds that too much distress can dampen ordinary empathy as well. When someone else’s pain becomes too unbearable to witness, even typical people withdraw and try to soothe themselves first rather than helping—exactly like autistic people. It’s just that autistic people become distressed more easily, and so their reactions appear atypical.

Book review: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio R. Damasio.

This book describes many aspects of human minds in ways that aren’t wrong, but the parts that seem novel don’t have important implications.

He devotes a sizable part of the book to describing how memory works, but I don’t understand memory any better than I did before.

His perspective often seems slightly confusing or wrong. The clearest example I noticed was his belief (in the context of pre-historic humans) that “it is inconceivable that concern [as expressed in special treatment of the dead] or interpretation could arise in the absence of a robust self”. There may be good reasons for considering it improbable that humans developed burial rituals before developing Damasio’s notion of self, but anyone who is familiar with Julian Jaynes (as Damasio is) ought to be able to imagine that (and stranger ideas).

He pays a lot of attention to the location in the brain of various mental processes (e.g. his somewhat surprising claim that the brainstem plays an important role in consciousness), but rarely suggests how we could draw any inferences from that about how normal minds behave.

The Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference attracted many interesting people.

There were lots of new devices to measure the usual things more easily or to integrate multiple kinds of data.

Airo is an ambitious attempt to detect a wide variety of things, including food via sensing metabolites.

TellSpec plans to detect food nutrients and allergens through Raman spectroscopy.

OMsignal has a t-shirt with embedded sensors.

The M1nd should enable users to find more connections and spurious correlations between electromagnetic fields and health.

Ios is becoming a more important platform for trendy tools. As an Android user who wants to stick to devices with a large screen and traditional keyboard, I feel a bit left out.

The Human Locomotome Project is an ambitious attempt to produce an accurate and easy to measure biomarker of aging, using accelerometer data from devices such as FitBit. They’re measuring something that was previously not well measured, but there doesn’t appear to be any easy way to tell whether that information is valuable.

The hug brigade that was at last year’s conference (led by Paul Grasshoff?) was missing this year.

Attempts to attract a critical mass to the QS Forum seem to be having little effect.

Book review: The Motivation Hacker, by Nick Winter.

This is a productivity book that might improve some peoples’ motivation.

It provides an entertaining summary (with clear examples) of how to use tools such as precommitment to accomplish an absurd number of goals.

But it mostly fails at explaining how to feel enthusiastic about doing so.

The section on Goal Picking Exercises exemplifies the problems I have with the book. The most realistic sounding exercise had me rank a bunch of goals by how much the goal excites me times the probability of success divided by the time required. I found that the variations in the last two terms overwhelmed the excitement term, leaving me with the advice that I should focus on the least exciting goals. (Modest changes to the arbitrary scale of excitement might change that conclusion).

Which leaves me wondering whether I should focus on goals that I’m likely to achieve soon but which I have trouble caring about, or whether I should focus on longer term goals such as mind uploading (where I might spend years on subgoals which turn out to be mistaken).

The author doesn’t seem to have gotten enough out of his experience to motivate me to imitate the way he picks goals.

Book review: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal.

This book starts out seeming to belabor ideas that seem obvious to me, but before too long it offers counterintuitive approaches that I ought to try.

The approach that I find hardest to reconcile with my intuition is that self-forgiveness over giving into temptations helps increase willpower, while feeling guilt or shame about having failed reduces willpower, so what seems like an incentive to avoid temptation is likely to reduce our ability to resist the temptation.

Another important but counterintuitive claim is that trying to suppress thoughts about a temptation (e.g. candy) makes it harder to resist the temptation. Whereas accepting that part of my mind wants candy (while remembering that I ought to follow a rule of eating less candy) makes it easier for me to resist the candy.

A careless author could have failed to convince me this is plausible. But McGonigal points out the similarities to trying to follow an instruction to not think of white bears – how could I suppress thoughts of white bears of some part of my mind didn’t activate a concept of white bears to monitor my compliance with the instruction? Can I think of candy without attracting the attention of the candy-liking parts of my mind?

As a result of reading the book, I have started paying attention to whether the pleasure I feel when playing computer games lives up to the anticipation I feel when I’m tempted to start one. I haven’t been surprised to observe that I sometimes feel no pleasure after starting the game. But it now seems easier to remember those times of pleasureless playing, and I expect that is weakening my anticipation or rewards.