Book review: Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind, by Andy Clark.
Surfing Uncertainty describes minds as hierarchies of prediction engines. Most behavior involves interactions between a stream of information that uses low-level sensory data to adjust higher level predictive models of the world, and another stream of data coming from high-level models that guides low-level sensory processes to better guess the most likely interpretations of ambiguous sensory evidence.
Clark calls this a predictive processing (PP) model; others refer to is as predictive coding.
The book is full of good ideas, presented in a style that sapped my curiosity.
Jeff Hawkins has a more eloquent book about PP (On Intelligence), which focuses on how PP might be used to create artificial intelligence. The underwhelming progress of the company Hawkins started to capitalize on these ideas suggests it wasn’t the breakthrough that AI researchers were groping for. In contrast, Clark focuses on how PP helps us understand existing minds.
The PP model clearly has some value. The book was a bit more thorough than I wanted at demonstrating that. Since I didn’t find that particularly new or surprising, I’ll focus most of this review on a few loose threads that the book left dangling. So don’t treat this as a summary of the book (see Slate Star Codex if you want that, or if my review is too cryptic to understand), but rather as an exploration of the questions that the book provoked me to think about.
I’ve substantially reduced my anxiety over the past 5-10 years.
Many of the important steps along that path look easy in hindsight, yet the overall goal looked sufficiently hard prospectively that I usually assumed it wasn’t possible. I only ended up making progress by focusing on related goals.
In this post, I’ll mainly focus on problems related to general social anxiety among introverted nerds. It will probably be much less useful to others.
In particular, I expect it doesn’t apply very well to ADHD-related problems, and I have little idea how well it applies to the results of specific PTSD-type trauma.
It should be slightly useful for anxiety over politicians who are making America grate again. But you’re probably fooling yourself if you blame many of your problems on distant strangers.
Trump: Make America Grate Again!
I started writing morning pages a few months ago. That means writing three pages, on paper, before doing anything else .
I’ve only been doing this on weekends and holidays, because on weekdays I feel a need to do some stock market work close to when the market opens.
It typically takes me one hour to write three pages. At first, it felt like I needed 75 minutes but wanted to finish faster. After a few weeks, it felt like I could finish in about 50 minutes when I was in a hurry, but often preferred to take more than an hour.
That suggests I’m doing much less stream-of-consciousness writing than is typical for morning pages. It’s unclear whether that matters.
It feels like devoting an hour per day to morning pages ought to be costly. Yet I never observed it crowding out anything I valued (except maybe once or twice when I woke up before getting an optimal amount of sleep in order to get to a hike on time – that was due to scheduling problems, not due to morning pages reducing the available of time per day).
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.
Interplay is something which seems helpful at making me more spontaneous. Interplay is hard to describe, but it has aspects of meditation, dance, yoga and improv.
I’ve been to the SF group twice and the Oakland group once, and I plan to continue attending the SF group occasionally. There are a fair number of other places where you can find Interplay.
A description from SF Interplay site:
Learn to have more ease and openness through improvised movement, story, voice and stillness. The spiritual practice of InterPlay can facilitate deeper connections with the divine, other people and our planet. As improvisation becomes easier in our bodies, we have more access to our own wisdom, making us less afraid of what might cross our path. Rather than reacting with fear and paralysis in the face of what is unknown, we can breathe, dance, and find fullness.
Book review: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor.
This book provides a unique description of the differences between the left and right sides of the brain, because she experienced about as big a decrease in the functioning of her left hemisphere as anyone who has recovered enough to write about it. It’s a very quick read, but didn’t have as much information as I’d hoped.
She makes plausible claims (with minimal mysticism) that her stroke helped her experience nirvana and continues to help her choose to have the best parts of her brain dominate her personality. It makes me wish there were something better than the Wada test that would enable the rest of us to more safely experiment with such experiences.
It helps me understand what I’m not accomplishing when I try (with little success) to meditate, but it appears that her advice for how to do better only works for people who are starting with a mind that is less strongly dominated by the left brain than mine.
It’s important to remember that the parts of her brain that are reporting the benefits of her experience are the ones that survived. We have little information about how the parts of her brain that died would have evaluated the experience.
Book Review: Fantastic Voyage : Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil, Terry Grossman
This book provides a lot of interesting ideas for improving your health, but it is a bit too ambitious and I’m often left wondering whether they researched a particular idea well even that I should respect their opinion. They often seem to be more interested in showing off how many different topics they know something about than they are on focusing on the most important steps that a typical reader should be taking.
They are somewhat biased toward technological solutions, but occasionally surprise me with other approaches, such as pointing out some clear evidence that some kinds of meditation improve longevity.
I’m fairly suspicious of their advice about aluminum. It’s unclear why we should consider aluminum dangerous enough to be worth worrying about, but if it is then choosing the right baking powder and antacids are at least as important as the aluminum sources the book mentions (minor gripe: the index doesn’t have entries for aluminum or metals). Parts of the book leaves me wondering whether a close examination would reveal similar questionable aspects to their advice.