Announcement (Staying)

Hey all :).

I feel like I haven’t updated you on my alternate life (i.e., grad school :P) in quite a while, and there have been some big changes recently. Coming into this year, I feel like a real graduate student: I have my projects; I know basically what the next steps on all of them are; I have the rhythm of the early years of graduate school; I have some approximation (neither too specific nor vague) of where I’m heading. Attending the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines Summer School was surprisingly inspirational towards those goals, as working on an independent project there with post-docs and faculty gave me a stronger outline on how the field of computational cognitive science is shaped. It’s a small field, especially if you focus on my specific interest of social interactions. It’s a real possibility that I can list out the prominent people in this area, a lot of them off the top of my head. It always feels grounding to me— to know where I’m going.

The big news, however, is with the lab :). For the past long while, the professor leading my lab has been deciding whether to change institutions or not. As of this June, the lab will no longer be located at UC Berkeley, and instead will be moving to Princeton University.

In the academic world, it’s unusual but not especially uncommon for professors to move around to different universities. It happens more with younger, junior faculty, but occasionally senior faculty move to different schools. There are a lot of different reasons for moving, and our professor was divided about the choice for a long time. Both he and his wife, also a cognitive science professor at Berkeley, will be relocating.

My professor is astonishing and amazing and is recognized to care a whole lot about his students, and he’s been very flexible in trying to work out how we, as the graduate students and post-docs in his lab, want to make this move work. Specifically, each of us get to make the choice of whether to stay at Berkeley or move to Princeton, and on what timeline.

There were already going to be some interesting dynamics in place this year, since it happens that this is a period when a lot of people in lab are finishing up. Happily, everyone has been doing very well with job applications! Several post-docs are moving into industry and faculty jobs, and several grad students are graduating. As such, the lab is going to naturally shrink down in size. (I’ve been trying to figure out why labs sometimes have this clumping structure—we’ve got a lot of people in the upper years, and a lot of people in the lower years, but not many in between. My friends and I have concluded that accepting graduate students into labs has a lot of inherent randomness in it depending on each year’s batch, and we don’t think there’s much of a pattern in it :).)

For the remaining people, we have the option of following our advisor to Princeton and getting our PhDs from Princeton, which a few of us were doing at last count. We could also stay at Berkeley, with the complex administration that accompanies that, but like I said, our advisor is amazing and is willing to make it work.

I, after very long debate, am going to try to get a PhD at Berkeley :).

There’s still a ton of logistics to take care of—the most prominent one being where my funding is going to come from—but I think this is going to work out. I plan to be based at Berkeley and visit Princeton occasionally, with a lot of Skyping intermixed. Though there’s still a lot of uncertainty, I’ve been internally wrestling with this decision for so long that to have this large part of it in place leaves me with this sense of… almost yawning confusion, really :). It’s just been so long in the coming, and simultaneously so much change!

It feels bittersweet, really. Beautiful, on the one hand, because I love my life here, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to stay in Berkeley for as long as I can. It’s a wonderful place for me to grow right now, and I’m pretty confident that my advisor and my collaborators and I can make it all work, given that I have such wonderful people around me (including the neuroscience program administrator, who told me today that she’s going to find out how to make this happen). I’m sad, on the other hand, because it’s going to be different. The lab is mostly going to be away, and my advisor is going to be away, and I haven’t thought much about where I’m going to have a desk next year, and there’s this part of me that feels a little lost, like there’s a part of how I belong that won’t be here anymore.

I think that it’ll work out even better than if nothing had changed, in the end :). There are tremendous opportunities. I’ll be connected with the research communities at both Berkeley and Princeton, and have the incredible access that comes from knowing friends and colleagues at both places. I know how this goes from splitting my undergrad in two, at both Wellesley College and M.I.T, with research at Harvard Medical School: the variety of people you meet across institutions is incredibly worth it, and actually one of my favorite parts about life. Similarly, I like the cultures on both the East and West coasts, and from visiting in Massachusetts this summer I know how much I like both in my life. I also really enjoy differences and newness, and having new friends and new cities and lab in both places will feel like a stretch and nonetheless fulfilling, as it historically has for me. Moreover, I know intimately the warmth of community from Wellesley, and Princeton is known for their tight relationships among graduate students.

I’ll also have more widespread relationships across Berkeley, as I reach out to people in different labs and find on-campus unofficial advisors. I’ve already done this to a larger extent than most, but interdisciplinary and spanning across groups remain values of mine. My advisor will also continue to remain as my advisor, as miraculous as that is, and he has gotten no less wonderful over time. He is committed to making this work, and so many people around me are committed to making this work, and when I think of all of the people who are going to have to be involved in this and are willing to be involved in this, I feel kind of helpless and awed at this net surrounding me, at what feels like a family.

I know how lucky I am. I know how beautiful my life is :). I forget, as we all do, but I am so fortunate as a person, and even as a graduate student (because sometimes academia is hard, and depending on the people around you can be made to be miserable).

Hm :). And so I recognize the sadness, and the quiet fear, because when things are unknown and known things are lost one can look at the future and feel lonely.

And so I recognize the joy, and the future. Because for every step I think I take alone, I’m surrounded by the constant, faith-power-love-hope-kindness-investment-strength-lucky beautiful glow, of the worlds and wonder for the people around me.

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Three Weeks in Summer

We’re standing outside, the last day of the summer school. Most people are inside the restaurant, talking, taking advantage of the bar, and we’re only a little ways away at the entrance. Our friends pass us occasionally, as they drift in and out, people sometimes saying hi, but mostly leaving us alone, not wanting to interrupt. He moves underneath an overhead lamp, and I follow him. Weaving back and forth to look at him without the overhead glare, shifting when I look down and away.

He’s telling me about dancers.

“When you date one… to make it work, you have no choice to try to mix into their own mind, to live their experience. It won’t work otherwise; they live in their own space, and it’s so different from the ones we’re familiar with, the ones similar to the people here. But it’s beautiful. Non-linear, non-consistent, they are experts in how they live, how they experience the world.”

I’m listening. I know what I’m looking for, I can gesture at it—there’s a space I haven’t explored, some way of experiencing the world that I know exists and I don’t have. He’s giving it to me. Different language, different concepts, underneath the street light.

He spreads his hands out, makes small chopping motions, and I can clearly see the idea he’s outlining: “Their truth is in the now,” he says, “not some line spreading from the future to the past, each point an observation that you reason into conclusions. That’s not their truth. Their truth is in everything they’re experiencing. Non-linear and non-consistent.”

I’m listening. My own experience, how I process the world, how I draw conclusions about myself, echoes in those chopping motions of his hands. I don’t feel attacked, though. Rather, like the world is opening.

“I’d recommend you date one,” he says, smiling.

“A dancer?”

“Yes. Also, you should try dancing. Ecstatic dance, in Oakland.”

I shudder, looking down and away. Twist uncomfortably. Look at his face, see he isn’t budging. I express more nervousness, uncomfortableness, but he’s unmovable.

I stand up straight, look him in the eye. “You do know that’s terrifying.”

He laughs. “Of course!” He says. “It took me years, and I thought ‘fuck that noise’ for a long time; I had to do it at Burning Man two years in a row before I starting going.  And then all of a sudden when I wanted to see friends, I went to dance.”

(Internally, I throw up my hands, exasperated. One of my other friends engages this mode of communication as well: me struggling, him not giving an inch, and when I confront him about it, him admitting that actually it’s a hard problem and that hey, he empathizes. It’s a build-and-release, calculated, a slow, eye-contact stare with a smile, establishing power, making me dig, pushing. Fascinating, in its own way, and over fast enough that I only have that brief sense of really? before we move on, that feeling swept away under the general progression, connection, sense of moving and expanding.)

He’s bright-eyed, focused, continues to answer my questions, shape them in his own light. “It’s beautiful. This whole other way of being, you can see it in them. That there’s no such thing as simple emotions anymore, all of it is nuance, complexity.”

I tell him a story one of my other friends has about me, that I’ve gained a pixel into my emotions, but that an entire screen exists, expanding ocean of sparkling lights. I tell him what he’s telling me is consistent with what I’ve heard from others. He says that story feels true to him too.

(He shifts, and I keep an eye on him, wary, nervous—he’s sharing, he’s not pulling any information from me, he’s not receiving anything from me, he’s teaching, I could lose his attention at any time. He moves back into the light again, and I settle, follow.)

Dancers, eh? And someone’s full attention, full experience, sharing knowledge with me in the darkness, answers shaped by my interests and his, filtered through us both.

I can take that; I can find that beautiful.

I shudder, look away, look back.

I’m sitting on the counter of the kitchen, thirty other people crammed in the small room around me, beers in hand. It’s loud, and bright, and the window is open behind me, keeping the air cool, and I’m comfortable where I am, back against the windows, on the counter. I reach over for the box of school supplies, and a friend pushes it towards me, me stuttering a thanks, rapidly reassuring them that I only want a post-it, really, I don’t need the whole thing, thank you, before the interaction completes and I have my post-it, everyone in their spots again, on their way.

I pull a pen out from my pocket, which I’d picked up from the floor. Start writing on the post-it, around the corners, around the edges, silent in this busy room, people in a loose semicircle around the counters talking.

Someone comes over, smiles at me. “I hope you’re not working,” she says.

“Nope,” I say, looking up immediately, grinning. “Though Heather caught me earlier.”

She frowns, does a disapproving face, asks me how long it took her.

“Five minutes or so. I knew I’d get in trouble for it,” I reply, easy smile mirroring hers. She shakes her head, faux stern, and leaves me to it.

I’ve filled up the front of the post-it note, and am frowning at the little space I have on the back, when another peer comes over, sits down on the counter next to me.

“What’re you working on?” he asks, and I think he’s the third. (Isn’t it special, I think, in that brief felt-sense, isn’t it special that if I’m writing in a room with people, at least three people in five minutes will come over, engage me, ask me what I’m working on, check in, see if I’m okay, make sure everything’s good. Isn’t it special, I think, and a burst of gratefulness and awe and wonder sweep through me, and isn’t it special that it’s fine for me to write in a crowded room, fine in my mind for me to be artificially by myself, in my own head, not pushing myself to do anything else: isn’t that special.)

I look at the post-it note, decide I have enough of the basics written down that I can talk with other people without losing the thoughts completely. I turn to him.

“Just had a really good conversation with someone, so I’m writing down notes.”

“Yeah?”

“We were talking about different ways of experiencing life, and how there’s a mode that I want to get into, something like experiencing life in the now, fully experiencing emotions. He recommended I date a dancer.”

My counter-mate laughs. “That seems over-specific.”

I shrug, grinning. “Point stands. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for while, this mode of living I’m missing, and it was a very nice conversation. Anyway, how are you?”

“Good,” he says, and goes on. He’s thoughtful, this peer of mine, I can tell almost immediately from how he listens. He tells me that he’s glad I’m introspecting on this kind of thing. Why? I ask. It’s been a good experience for him, he says.

I’m easy, now, relaxed. I was unsettled before, jittery before my earlier conversation, searching for some kind of connection with people, but I’ve already gotten all I needed out of the evening. I move some helmets out of the way to not bend over awkwardly to talk to him, and mirror his posture. He’s easy to engage with, moreover—he’s obviously thought down these lines before, isn’t confused or encountering new territory. It’s always easier to connect with people who know the space of introspection, know why they do it, where it goes. Less to talk about, less questions, often, but easier, calm, and that interaction is layered over with the green of his eyes and the bright noise of the room.

“I actually read your blog,” she says, and I gape, because I know that if I hadn’t been talking about it she wouldn’t have brought it up.

“Did you!” I exclaim. “What’d you think?”

She smiles, looks down, gives a far fuller answer than I’m used to. “I read the one about your old lab; I didn’t know you did electrophysiology work. It was actually really interesting, the discrepancy between meeting you and then reading about your internal life, on the blog. There’s just such a difference.”

I grin—I love when people give me comments like this, honest and observational, just her thoughts, and she just goes on.

“I enjoyed the arc of the story. And you get to this part about your labmates not liking you, because they thought you were arrogant, and I could see that,” she says.

I’m trying to figure out whether to be offended or not. “What do you mean?”

She shrugs, still smiling, and I’m mentally whipping through all of my previous interactions with her over the summer school. She’s a postdoc, and just prior to this I’ve asked her for advice on something unrelated, and her hair is flyaway and eyes are warm.

I try again, flustered. “Do you think I come across that way? What should I do to not?”

She tilts her head, considering. “Doesn’t matter,” she says finally, firmly. “It’s a good thing, you know? And fights against the gender stereotype. Plus, everyone goes around sounding overconfident these days, I think it’s a good way to be.”

I blink, astonished. No one has told me anything like that in recent memory.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I say, getting with the program, joining in with the evidence I’ve accumulated on that front, though I haven’t accessed it with this lens.

Internally, I feel something astonished, something close, and something solid and firm.

Thank you, I mouth to her in my mind. Thanks.

He’s put an arm around my shoulder, and is pulling me into a half-hug, in front of others in this conversation. I’ve seen him do this with other people tonight, and I’ve implicitly granted him permission, earlier in the evening.

GAH, my mental voice screams, looking at people looking at me looking at him making this gesture.

Somewhere inside, I smirk internally, because this is hardly the first time. I always have strong, blinking-question-mark reactions to public displays of affection.

It’s warm and nice and my mental voice is sounding a blaring alarm.

We might have to work on this, I tell it, amused. There are obviously some serious emotions going on here, probably worth sorting through.

It might be nice not to try so hard, a part of me suggests. To just feel what we feel and let it be.

Fair, is as far as the dialogue gets before the next interaction sweeps it along. That would be nice. But we’re protecting something, too, and we’ll get the full story, but let’s keep this feeling, this warm, violated, swirl of a tension of a special of a fighting feeling—let’s keep that, keep that closeness, because it’s ours.

“Smirk,” he blurts at me, smirking.

“What?” I demand, turning to look at him.

“Smirk,” he repeats, smug look on his face.

I frown. “What, you mean I was smirking?”

He just continues to look at me, smugly.

“I was not! I didn’t mean anything bad,” I protest.

“I didn’t say you meant anything bad, I just said you were smirking. You’re over here, hand in front of your mouth, just this smirk behind it…”

I shake my head, sigh. I could have been doing it.

…I was probably doing it.

(If I didn’t think this particular guy was amazing, with powerful view on the world and how to improve it and how to survive and so many beautiful ideas about science, I’d probably be annoyed at him. But he’d complimented me on having an organized internal mind the first conversation I’d had with him, he spent hours telling me about what he cares about and why, he’s inspirational and brilliant and asks great questions, and I’ll embrace that he was looking at me from the right sideways angle to see whatever my face was doing that I wasn’t aware of :)).

“Monica,” she says warmly. “I remember what a weird relationship we had in college.”

“Was it?” I ask, smiling.

She tells me about some memories of us debating before the class, and everyone staring at us like “what the fuck are these two people doing”.

I don’t remember, but I can see us doing that, and also me not noticing. It’s nice to see old people again, see how we’ve changed and remain the same.

“Just hold on a bit longer, I promise it’s worth it,” he says, scrolling through his phone, and I shrug, laughing, assure him it’s fine.

“Here,” he says, holding it out. “By Marcus Aurelius of all people.”

“Remember that to change thy opinion and to follow him who corrects thy error is as consistent with freedom as it is to persist in thy error. Book VIII, 16.” We read.

“I think it’s important,” he says, leaning forward on the countertop. “The idea that it’s as much becoming a person to listen to what other people are telling you, and do it, than to not change.”

I nod, surprised that I like it as much as I do.

“Where’d you find it?”

“Well, I started Googling Marcus Aurelius, and the search term is “freedom” within the Wikipedia page…”

I’m sitting on the steps on the first day, and one of my new strangers comes over, slumps down next to me.

“Hey, Monica. You going to the social after the lecture?” she asks.

“There’s a social?”

“Are you on the WhatsApp group?”

She adjusts her glasses, pulls out her phone, messes around with it for the five minutes it takes for us to troubleshoot the process.

Another new stranger wanders over, also remembers my name, casually sits down, pulls me into a conversation.

They head off to the social, I walk them partway and turn around for bed, them bidding me goodbye.

People are nice, you know?

Just really nice.

We’re sitting in a circle, and playing a social game. When it’s each person’s 2-3 minute turn, the whole circle can ask them questions they’re genuinely curious about, and the person has to answer in 10 seconds, or pass if they don’t feel like answering the question.

I fix my eyes on the person, full attention.

“What’s beautiful?” I ask.

“So much,” they say, staring straight back. “So much is fucking beautiful. And sometimes I forget that, and that’s a tragedy.”

Nailed you. I think. Nailed you.

It’s my turn in the social game, and people are asking me questions.

“What’s wrong with people?”

I don’t even have to think, which is the point of the game—instinctive, immediate, what’s on your mind, right now.

“People have too strong opinions, and they defend them too much.”

“What do you want to fix?”

“I want to stop feeling so uncertain all the time. It feels unnecessary.”

Two of them frown across the circle at each other, pause, speak simultaneously. “Is it contradictory to want other people to not have strong opinions and you not be uncertain?”

“Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask.”

I frown, collecting my thoughts, and spread my hands a little, making two squares and expanding them. “It’s graded. Like, other people need to come WAY down in confidence.”

They let me get away with that, which surprises me. Making agreeing noises even before I’ve finished talking, just after I’ve made the gestures. At this point in my life, given the people who are around me in work and in play, I’m used to having to struggle a bit.

“Do you take in opinions too easily and defend them too easily?”

My response is almost instantaneous. “I take in opinions too quickly but I don’t defend them.”

(There’s no time to think, but in retrospect they’re spectacular questions. And I admire myself, now, for how far I’ve come, that I’m able to produce answers that feel true, without social censoring, immediately. I was not able to do this several months ago.)

“And now for the question: how often do you masturbate in a week?”
I grin—there’s always some sort of running joke in these types of circles, and this seems to be the one chosen in this one, and it’s innocent enough. I answer the question.

(Note: for this game, the questions vary wildly with who’s playing. ‘What’s wrong with people’ / ‘what’s beautiful’ / etc. are my preferred vein of questions, but everyone I play with has their own favorites, and the composition and norms of the circle influences the play.)

It’s a new circle, and I’ve been playing for the last three, but we have a new group this time. The person sitting next to me is up, and as I look at them, they make strong eye contact with me, very socially-attentive.

“What are you uncommonly good at?” I ask.

They start, surprised, in recognition of the unusualness / value of the question. I don’t respond—I’ve asked this same question before in a previous circle, and though it’s new for them, we’re in a circle of people who have seen me ask it, so I can’t match them emotionally. They recover, gather their thoughts, speak thoughtfully.

“Not changing my opinions. Holding my own opinions strongly—it can have its drawbacks, but it’s not something I see a lot in other people.”

I smile, completely in the space they’re inhabiting. That does seem like something lovely.

(In retrospect, I look back and laugh.)

I’m in a lecture, and I’m fed up with the speaker. I should be able to push through it—I always have in the past, or rather I didn’t get this angry in the past—but he’s just making me furious, and the annoyance is pulsing through me, almost every sentence he utters.

It feels like betrayal, which is way too strong of a reaction, but he’s doing something, and it’s related to the idea of violating the social order, then using the social order and politeness to enforce that we don’t retaliate.

I’m furious and feel like doing something more productive. Very quietly, during the next pause, I sneak out of the room, sit on a table outside the hall, and work on programming until everyone comes out an hour later.

The day four professors I adore come to speak, I’m dancing around the whole day. They expand the universe and mind and science, some of these people.

“Thank you,” he tells me emphatically. “This was exactly what I wanted, I’m so glad you organized it. I’m going to organize these circle things at home, this was perfect.”

“Yeah?” I say, happy. “You enjoyed it?”

“It was perfect; I hadn’t heard of this before either.”

“Well, thanks for participating! I love this game, it’s the best.”

“I’ll play social games with you,” she says before dinner, easy as anything.

“Really?” I ask, surprised and pleased.

“Yeah. And we can get some other people, too.”

“Really, you’ll play?”

“We can meet up at the lab, do it after dinner.”

Social games would literally not have happened without her. I just need one person, and I can plan and organize, but I need one. Thank you.

“Yeah, I remember you were chill, before.”

“Whaaattt?” I respond, turning to her. We’d met four years ago at a previous summer school, and I’d always liked her. So much spirit.

She backs down, defends herself. “I mean, you never went to parties at night, seemed to keep to yourself.”

I laugh, surprised at the different perspectives. “I’m way more chill than I was four years ago, but it’s true I’ve never partied much. I like small group settings, especially one-on-ones.”

She nods, agreeably, and the table stops sending their gazes ping-ponging back and forth between us. The conversation easily turns back to science before someone’s phone slips out of their pocket and into the water below, and then we’re wrapped up in conspiracy theories regarding the merits of putting phones in rice.

“I wanted to work with you because you seemed like you got things done.”

I raise my eyebrows. “Really?”

My partner on this project is one of the kindest people I’ve met, so thoughtlessly, default caring, and of course incredibly smart and driven and well-spoken and energetic in addition to being considerate.

She’s kind of effortlessly cool and during circling, tells us she bought her bright pink sweater when she was wandering around in a Costco in a bathing suit in Hawaii, got cold, bought it for $20, and has had it ever since. She keeps on asking me if I’ve enjoyed working with her on the project, because I was internally struggling at the beginning (we can’t do everything my way if we’re working with a partner) but she has been incredible, and had better ideas that I did a lot of the time. Plus, ruthless competence was the name of the game at this summer school, which is always lovely.

But I see it, what she’s saying. I led a bunch of circles, and was enforcing rules and telling people to go away and come back later, and I always forget that this is a part I have and a part that people like, because people’s eyebrows always go way up when I jump in with: “Okay, here’s what I understood, what’s the action plan.”

I forget sometimes, how… I don’t have a word for it, but a long thin blue shine, quiet and beautiful, iridescent green, tinge of warmth, more of sunlight, lovely and a touch nostalgic, barest of awe, the shudder-bubble of appreciation… of living my life, of being the person I am, of the love around me. Of late-night conversations and people who care and ideas that span the world and generations and truth-seekers and curiosity and caring about people outside….

It’s cheating, but it’s fucking beautiful, you know? It’s fucking beautiful.

No post this week

I’ve been really enjoying the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines summer school :). It’s been inspirational research-wise, fun and nice to hang out with the other participants, and comforting, in a large sense…

Next week will likely be busy as well, what with having missed the first two weeks of school at Berkeley, but I’m also excited to get back and have time to work on projects!

Hope you all have great weeks,

Monica

llama.jpeg

(Adventures :))

Organizing

Hey readers :).

Much is happening at the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines summer school! I have so many options… I could write about excellent quotes and presentations from the people here. I could do an archetypal blog post and post a bunch of pictures and descriptions of activities. I could write a slices-of-my-life post centered on my adventures at the beach (I’m currently trying to overcome my fear of jellyfish). I could write about my recent introspective jaunt, because I seem unable to get through any length of time recently without an introspective jaunt. Arg, I’m pretty evenly split between all of them, but short on time, so I have to pick one. Ah well—I did promise someone a description of the introspective jaunt, so here we go!

The current question on my mind is this one:

Why am I not a great thinker?

I’ve had this question in the back of my mind for several years now, and it’s taken different forms. Here are different versions of it: “Why do I not have the same motivational structure as an archetypal scientist?”, “Why can’t I generate good questions like some of my scientific peers?”, “Why do I not think ideas through from first-principles, from the bottom-up, checking for truth at each level?”, “Why can’t I argue my ideas with people?”

It’s a useful focus for several reasons. One: it’s the kind of meta-level change that would guide how I collect and organize information in the future. Two: I worry about these questions a lot. Three: I generally compare myself to the best people in my peer group. I am now incredibly fortunate that my peer group has become incredibly competent, to the point where I’m starting to feel like I’m falling behind if I don’t pick this up. (This isn’t nearly as dire as it sounds, because most of my peers have a few years on me, and this ability seems to develop naturally over time. Some people seem especially blessed with it though.)

What do I mean by “great thinker”? I’ve been exposed to great scientific thinkers a lot these past few days, and I generally have a few people around me at home who exhibit similar qualities. What I mainly focus on is: curiosity and integration. Curiosity refers to a specific kind of innate curiosity about the world, where people are interested in diverse new ideas for the sake of new ideas—the kind of thinking where pretty much anything is “cool” and worth diving into to discover the intricacies of. This kind of curiosity also means idly thinking about relevant ideas in the shower or discovering countless things in daily life. Integration refers to the ability to integrate new ideas into an existing structure about how the world works, such that hypotheses, questions, and arguments can be generated from this structure. Older ideas and new ideas can be compared with each other since they’re “accessible”—in the same representational format. New ideas are also evaluated against existing evidence, and current theories can be easily explicated because they’ve been thought through. When I’m referring to a “great thinker”, my working definition is someone who has innate curiosity, has excellent integration, and is a fantastic storyteller. That last part is about having both the ability and desire to explain your world models to others. Incidentally, if you have all of these traits and are kind in addition, I’m likely to have that odd combination of respect, reverence, wonder, and fondness for that makes for low-key hero worship :P.

In any case, I don’t feel like I’m a great thinker compared to the best of my peers. (…That sounds obnoxious, but I get to interact with these people, and I want to be respected by them. Also, in some situations I’m lucky enough to be in an entire room full of “best of my peers” and then it’s just embarrassing.) Here’s where I think I go wrong.

Curiosity. I am naturally curious about the world. I’m idea-based, I’m really happy to spend a few hours introspecting and talking with people about their thoughts. However, I’m usually not science-curiosity idea-based, or philosophy-curiosity idea-based, or any-topic-outside-those-that-are-relevant-to-my-life-slash-my-peer-group-cares-about idea-based. Which means that a lot of the time, people are telling me about some idea that’s exciting to them, or some connection they’ve just made between something they observed and an abstract generalizing principle, and my main thought is the following. “Shoot, I’m supposed to care about that? How in the world was I supposed to know to care about that? What process did they use to generate that thought, because I definitely would not have. Means I’m defective and not curious enough, danggggg itttt….”

I’ve been worried about this for a while. You’d think I wouldn’t: not being naturally curious about every topic in the world really doesn’t seem like a problem. Moreover, the trait of being curious about everything isn’t always helpful to those who have it—I’ve asked someone about it, who told me this: “I like having a job, some structure, otherwise it gives me too much freedom. I can get excited about anything—if you left me alone for a week, I might spend the whole thing studying a log. Delving into wood and how it works etc. You can’t do that for everything, you can’t do that in real life!” Another person has told me that being fascinated by everything results in the common failure mode of starting a bunch of things and then never finishing any of them.

Meanwhile, I’ve got this pretty spectacular system where I have directed, focused attention / curiosity on whatever I feel I need to be focused on. What do I direct this focus? …So here’s something about me: one of my main motivating factors is being in the top cohort of an activity that I care about, compared to my peers. And another one of my main motivating factors is to hang out with people I admire and think are awesome, which necessarily means that they are better than me in some dimension I care about. This combination produces nice results, and seems to be my version of “growth-mindset”. I’ve also heard people call it “ambition without a goal”, since it’s not working toward some grand vision—it’s just that there are things that I admire and like, and want to be good at them so I can be as awesome as the people around me are.

I recently thought that the only version of curiosity I had was this consciously-directed, socially-based curiosity. I found that pretty depressing, because there’s something about “natural” curiosity— curiosity that doesn’t take any form of willpower or negative encouragement— that feels pure to me. However, I was reflecting on my thinking recently (surprise), and then I realized what I spend most of my non-directed-focused time doing: reflecting on my thinking. And making social observations to myself, like trying to figure out how the way in which someone said something was creating a specific impact in listeners due to various implicit inferences (I collect this specific type, I’m not even kidding). I literally have a 60,000 word document on these two topics, which I update throughout the day, multiple times a day, with observations. Turns out I am naturally curious about something—understanding my own mind, and how people communicate/interact with each other.

So why am I constantly worried about whether I have “natural curiosity”? It comes down to not feeling that I’m naturally excited about the right things, and having received some negative social feedback from that in the past. One of my old mentors used to say that I had the wrong mentality to be a scientist, because I wasn’t thinking about science in the shower. I also see a lot of people around me who I consider to have the “right scientist mentality” and seem to be working harder than I am and accomplishing more. And I have friends who are generally curious about more things than I am, so I usually feel bad about that, since I consider curiosity an infinitely-increasing Good Thing (despite some evidence to the contrary, see above.)

All of the above are old habits of thought. But let’s consider the actual scenarios in which my system goes wrong—my system being natural curiosity about introspection / social, and directed curiosity about everything else.

Here are the ways in which my system results in me feeling inferior: 1) in keeping up with all of the people who have super-general curiosity, 2) in keeping up with the people who have specific curiosities in the domains I care about, and 3) in keeping up with the people who have good integration abilities and so learn faster.

  • 1) It turns out that if you have some natural curiosity in one area, like I do, you have less time and energy to be curious about general ideas than people who have broader interests. This seems to be rather inevitable, and it seems fairly useless to feel bad about it given the amount of time and mental space we possess in our lifetimes. It is too bad that we don’t have full control over our natural interests (I’d probably choose to make my interests general-purpose if so, or possibly save-the-world directed). But given that I’ve been trying to shift my natural interests for years (to varying degrees), it seems like that’s something I can still try to do, but shouldn’t be giving me negative feedback every time I see that it hasn’t shifted.
  • 2) It also turns out that if people have specific curiosities in domains I care about, but are not my natural domains (…see science/philosophy/whatever), I am going to know less. I am going to have a harder time motivating myself, I will spend less free time doing it, and that is the way it is going to be :). On the mitigating side, I have much better compensatory mechanisms than other people though. I have both a directed-curiosity peer-comparison-based system, and I really enjoy learning from other people, especially if it’s one-on-one. Moreover, for my specific job focus, I’ve happily fallen into basically the closest possible match: I’m making computational models of social cognition, which basically means I’m systematizing how social interaction works. It’s very I never thought I’d get this close. (It’s especially special given all of the hang-ups I have / had about being curious about the “right” things :). This feels like one of those series of decisions that occurred due to the “desperate lunging” approach I described in a blog post way back.)
  • 3) “Keeping up with the people who have good integration abilities and so learn faster.” As it goes. There are people who can learn faster than me in general. Sometimes it’s due to natural intelligence, and I don’t worry about those people, I just admire them. Sometimes it’s due to better integration structures. I can work on that. And if I can improve on that, and be closer to the fantastic people, then why not?

Integration. My thoughts on this are much less well-formed, especially since it’s quite late now, so I’m just going to rush through a few points. But I’ll definitely be continuing to think about this, so more to come :).

First, the problem, briefly: Why can’t I generate good questions like some of my scientific peers?”, “Why do I not think ideas through from first-principles, from the bottom-up, checking for truth at each level?”, “Why can’t I argue my ideas with people?”

One hypothesis that I was floating recently was this: I just don’t think in a way that integrates knowledge. I learn things only in a social manner, meaning I learn the answers to questions in a “get the right answer for the teacher” kind of way, not a “let me integrate this with my other knowledge and generate deep understanding”. The exception would be my natural interests, and a few areas in which I’ve learned things more organically and not in a test setting.

After having observed myself these past two weeks, and some good conversations with naturally curious people, I’ve concluded that the latter is true, but with a different implication. The feeling and thought I associated with the above description was this: “I—somehow, even though everyone around me doesn’t have it— have this really crappy system that isn’t pure at all, and is the one that all the bad students in school have who don’t really understand the material. Since “by social obligation” is the only way in which I think, and I generally care only about social things in general, I’m not really capable of natural first-principles ground-up understanding. It’s going to be like pulling teeth to get there since I’m going to have to use the directed-attention system. But I can do it, and it’s a goal, so I will slog through.”

After new observations, here’s what I think the more accurate implication is. “I have a really fantastic ability to direct my attention and curiosity. I care about being respected by peers and teachers I respect. I like learning things from people, and learn from them in a way that’s like hearing a story—you don’t question a story, you just try to understand as much as possible, and don’t really reach beyond since the point is to appreciate that it’s been given, especially if it’s been given well. I’m knowledge-seeking, and have a really strong desire to understand the scope of knowledge, such that almost all of the topics I could hear about now and in the future are organized in my head. Because of this I’m generally interdisciplinary, and interested in hearing about diverse topics. And because of this widespread interest, and the unusual capacity to be directed-curiosity interested in any topic, I don’t have time to do first-principles reasoning on everything. Because I often would rather gather large-scale shallow knowledge—important for peer interaction—rather than deep, specific knowledge (often because I’m overwhelmed with any specific topic choice)—I don’t usually engage the ground-up reasoning module. However, I am CAPABLE of doing so, and in fact frequently do engage deeper thinking when I don’t understand something, need to remember something, or am instructing myself to do so. My deeper thinking isn’t as developed as those of most capable bottom-up reasoners who I interact with. But my mode of thinking—go as deep as you need to to get by according to my standards and no more— is by far more efficient, especially in the environment I spent the most time in: school. I was talking to a new friend who was telling me that bottom-up curiosity is hell on people in the school setting. There’s not enough time to think through a problem during tests, and people who are good at pattern-matching do much better during time-based and pressure-laden situations. Thus, given the goals I care about—organizing large-scale knowledge (being able to know a LOT of diverse, medium-depth material across domains), being respected by experts but not be an expert myself (I like to fall in the best cohort of people, but dislike being the best), learning from people I think are awesome, time and effort efficiency, and having space to do bottom-up thinking with respect to introspection and social interaction: …yeah, it’s not surprising that I have the pattern that I do with respect to deep thinking. I find it frustrating when people are able to produce deep thinking out of “nowhere” (in that I can’t imagine the process I’d use to generate it, since it seems random). But this is the same problem as the one above: it depends what you’re spending your time thinking about. And while I wish I could move my interests and desires more around sometimes—and I think I can to some extent—it seems useful to accept that I’m already pretty optimal with respect to the goals that I have.

I just pushed through a lot of thoughts in that paragraph—I meant to separate it out, but bed time! (Gosh this took longer than I thought). After I finished this exercise yesterday, my conclusion was this: “…Within my existing structures, I just made it okay to be who you are.” This conclusion seems a little absurd to me, but in working through my own thoughts and with others, it seems like a lot of the early work with “shoulds” is really just appreciating the existing systems for what they’re doing. Sometimes the existing systems can be updated, given the goal has changed—and I will be updating the existing system, since one of my new goals is to be able to generate deep thoughts.* And sometimes (often), the existing system is doing a really great job tracking your goals, and you can pat it on the back and acknowledge it, because you usually only want a few small changes, really, and the whole system doesn’t need to be disassembled and condemned. As they say at Rationality Camp, “shoulds” are sad creatures who are just trying to tell you something—in my experience, something about goals or worries and kindness towards self.

*(I have several hypotheses for how to do this—generate deep thoughts, I mean. One I’ve already put into action, which is just spending more time and energy to visualize and connect a new idea that I think is important to existing domains of knowledge. Another is to just keep on accumulating new information, since you get a lot of structure just based on ideas you miscellaneously collect, which is why I think expertise can appear even if you spend no time integrating. A third is something like creating a central representational system that everything gets evaluated within and against. Right now I feel like I might have different sets of knowledge stored as “stories”, associated with a feeling of how much I trust the person who told it to me. “Stories” aren’t especially comparable. This “stories” idea is also why I don’t think I question people—it doesn’t occur to me in the story setting (though I have more luck when I put myself in an adversarial setting), and also the information isn’t readily accessible since I mostly just have a good feeling associated with a story rather than have a list of its arguments.)

Night, all :). I don’t know if I’ll get time to write next week, since it’ll be the last week of the course and thus insane! Woods Hole is a beautiful place, and it’s been wonderful to be surrounded by these people. I’m doing a research project which is going well, enjoying collaborating with another peer, and am really appreciating the open-water swimming in the mornings. See you all soon!

Monica

Update + Story (“Fixation”)

Hey readers :).

I’m currently in Woods Hole, MA, attending the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines summer school! They’ve got us very booked—lectures from 9am-9pm for the next three weeks. So not much off-time, but the lectures have been great, and the people—my fellow students, the TAs, and the faculty—are awesome. I’ve also started swimming in the ocean every morning, since it’s literally 5 blocks away from my dorm (I feel like those circumstances make me contractually obligated to go, and my best friend from college, Tiffany, agrees.)

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The view out my window at Woods Hole
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It’s real pretty, guys

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given that there’s not much off-time, I’m not sure how much time I’ll have for writing, but luckily I have some stuff I’ve saved up for this week! I submitted an entry to Tipbox’s writing competition a few weeks ago, prompt below. Looking at the winning entries, this wasn’t quite what they were looking for, but I thought it was fun to write :).

In other news, I had a wonderful time at the Effective Altruism Global conference last week. I finally have some pictures, even—here’s me and my friend Claire at the Palace of Fine Arts in SF, and a panel of famous (whoo! Fan-personing so hard) people presenting on Effective Altruism in the Media. I also got to meet a bunch of new people as well as hang out with older friends—I really love that community of people :).

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Me and Claire!
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That’s Prof. William MacAskill, A.J. Jacobs, Julia Galef, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (ALL SO IMPRESSIVE, GAH.) (Also, Joe Gordon-Levitt wears mismatched socks.)

See you all later—I’m back to being inundated in science! 😛

Monica

ps. (I did a proper blog post, readers. I feel like I haven’t done a proper blog post with pictures and links and normality and such for years.)

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Prompt:

What do we want?

We want you to write a short article about your time in science: maybe you have an awesome story about how you landed your PhD; maybe you have some great advice on what to do afterwards; perhaps there are some things you’d like to tell your younger self; maybe all your experiments failed, the gel tank burst into flames, and your supervisor decided it was all your fault, but somehow you persevered! Whatever it is, we want to hear about it. We want you to inspire other scientists (failing that, just making them interested or moderately amused works for us).

Some specifics:

  • 1,000 word limit
  • Add as many images as you like (make sure you own these images, though!)
  • Write something genuine, something that other scientists will relate to
  • When you submit your entry, include a picture of yourself (if you want to), a short bio (who you are, what you do, where you work – 50 words max), your blog if you have one, and your twitter handle if you have one”

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Fixation

“Heather’s an expert fixater,” Rebecca informs me proudly, and I frown, bewildered.

“An expert what?”

“Fixater,” Heather chimes in. “Focusing on a fixation cross when doing a psychophysics task.”

Ah. I’ve been introduced to psychophysics—the branch of psychology that studies how people perceive physical stimuli. We’re a color vision lab, doing cognitive neuroscience, so “psychophysics task” roughly translates to “staring at barely-visible colors on a computer screen.”

“Uh, can’t everyone stare at a fixation cross at the center of a screen?”

Heather and Rebecca turn to me. They’re standing together: the elders educating my newborn, undergrad self.

“No,” one of them says; I can’t recall which. “No, it actually takes a lot of practice to be good at fixation; normal people’s eyes make a lot of tiny twitches, and that makes it hard to use the eyetracker.”

“I can stare for hours,” Heather says.

“I’m working on it,” Rebecca announces.

And that’s that, apparently. The gauntlet has been thrown, and I fearfully conclude that to join this lab I’d better become a hell of a fixater.

It’s a bit of a patchwork family, this new lab whose coattails I’m clinging to. We’re all women, except our PI and all of the other researchers in our hallway—and I’m the youngest, staring up at the various queens of the roost. Heather and Rebecca aren’t ruling class yet, but they are the people who take me under their wing after I’ve done some helpless flailing. They’re astonished by my lack of MATLAB skills. I’m astonished I exhibit any competency at anything research-related.

They throw me into the deep end; they debug my code. They bring me with them to the communal coffee area to meet people; they get frustrated that I don’t know how to cite things. They walk me through the arduous process of getting the proper ID card; they shake their heads as I growl at the eyetracker. I figure out public transport for the first time to travel to lab.

“Monica,” Heather says, “It’s time to get you acclimated to doing psychophysics.”

“Uh,” I say, both excited and preemptively overwhelmed.

“You’ve written your MATLAB code to analyze the data, but we’d like you to get some experience as a subject as well.”

“UH,” I opine more urgently, because this might be the moment. A year awaited, now finally arrived: I’m going to become a master fixater.

“Do not even talk to me about staircases,” I complain to Rebecca, who is laughing at me. “Staircase procedures are the worst.”

“Fun to program, too,” she replies, smirking. In this recent study, we’re trying to determine the edges of color detection ability, so we’ve been squinting at faint blue and red circles all day. In a staircase procedure, whenever you get a trial right, the next trial is harder, and whenever you get a trial wrong, you get sent back a few steps easier. You don’t even start the real task until you’ve sorted out your decision boundary with a gazillion staircases.

I’m a complainer, though—we’ve both been doing this task, and sure enough Rebecca has better discrimination than me. I sigh, and we go and collect Heather and the new postdoc for lunch.

“Want to come over for dinner?” Rebecca asks, on the way back.

“Yeah,” I confirm, smiling. Rebecca and Heather are roommates, and have been teaching me how to make colorful stir-fry in the heat of the summers, and the oddities of Daleks and Dr. Who.

I’m in the box where we do these experiments, staring at the blue and red circles. Beep, goes the machine when I get the trial right. Silence, when I get it wrong. I’m in a box, so I can’t see anyone, not that I could look away from the screen due to the eyetracker anyway, but I can hear them mutedly through the walls.

Rebecca and Heather are griping over who’s the best at something-or-other again. I grin: if either of those two doesn’t have a clear advantage in a research domain, they’ll outcompete each other to ridiculous proficiency. My PI comes in, has a conversation with another lab member. He leaves, more chatter, then just the drone of machines and air conditioning.

Beep. Beep. Silence.

Ooh, I think. That’s a long string of wrong answers.

They don’t pay us for this stuff, but I know I’m going to get shit when I come out of the box if the quiet goes on too long. The experiment has mandatory auditory feedback, and the room’s a handful of driven, zealous people, and there’s nowhere else I mean to be than sitting in a dark box, waiting for a beep.

Rebecca and I come in late and stay late—running the computer for each other, sitting in the box. It’s quiet around midnight, and we bring podcasts and reading. I sleep on the couch in the hallway’s kitchen when it’s too late to return to the dorms.

Heather analyzes the data; I have my own projects, my own thesis project. Late in the summer we’re invited to the annual lab barbeque. I know my PI’s place and his kids by now. I have my own set of baby ducklings, new undergrads, to herd and mentor.

“Remember when we first met?” Heather asks.

I do. Heather and Rebecca didn’t like me much, then. They thought I was too full of myself, before they taught me MATLAB and what to wear to a conference and how to make tea right. Now Heather is off to post-graduate study, and Rebecca knows more about how to do anything in lab than anybody.

“Wow, your eyes don’t move,” one of my new labmates tells me, where I’m in a testing room in England, having moved there for my Masters.

I smile. Patchwork families, all of them, hierarchies and competition and teaching and affection, and I look forward to belonging in this one as much as the last.

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s called fixating.”

An Internal Monologue

*another read-at-your-own-risk post :). Thanks as always, readers :). (Refer to this post for most recent polished content)

Hey. How are we, Monica?

What the f kind of title is “An Internal Monologue.” We’re SO PRETENTIOUS. SO PRETENTIOUS CAN I GO BEAT SOMETHING UP.

… (chuckle). All right. I’m banning you from using swear words in this post, and also all caps. Needs to be somewhat readable (using big words!) Also, ground rules. Italics are interrupting thoughts, bold is narrator, normal writing is the main thread. Readers: main thread is going to be pretty off-topic itself, and I don’t promise consistent characters. Here we go!

God I wish the phone would stop ringing. And yes, I know we have to use the title “internal monologue” because otherwise there wouldn’t be enough introduction to the reader. Remember how we used to write, in 9th grade? Got a C on that story, because people couldn’t understand it. A mostly dialogue-piece. Perfectly clear in my head of course—that lesson has stuck, hasn’t it?  Formatting information so that an outside reader can at least attempt to understand it. If they don’t it’s your fault. Huh. Talking about “whose fault” again. I was just talking with a friend about that, about how talking about “fault” is an upper level masking the lower feelings level. Gah, my mind is so hippie-spiritual these days, or something, no, I can’t claim hippie-spiritual, I don’t have a full grasp of that concept and I’m probably just at the edge of it. Mehhhh the “I don’t have a full grasp of that concept” thought didn’t feel like truth, that felt like something the cognitive side of my brain was making up as a hypothesis. Man, I’m rambly in my own head. How is “rambly” not a word? Microsoft Word, come on. I use that word all the time.

So—

No also before we get back on whatever track we’re doing (fine, I know what track we’re going on, it’s the one about fury), I want to state that I can’t actually beat anything up, because I don’t know how. Also for the record I don’t want to beat anything up because I’m kind of feeling that concept, but I don’t think I’d like the practicalities of it, and also that stuff (no swear words. Why isn’t there a really good substitute for the f-word? The s-word is really easy to substitute) is BAD in that it has consequences and it’s not a good high-level policy and is making the world worse. Just so we all know.

I am amused. I wasn’t expecting quite this level of off-centeredness. Why haven’t we done this before? Nah, I’m supposed to be focused. Tell me about the fury thing, since that’s what we’re talking about and what I’m here for.

So the fury thing. (Man, you know the phone ringing I mentioned earlier? That was just about loud noises. Apparently I am very irritable right now, which is interesting because I wasn’t irritable at all talking to my housemate a few minutes ago. Anyway.) So earlier—and I can tap it now if I look for it, but it’s not as salient—GAH okay there it is. It’s a pretty pleasant—that’s not the word—satisfying is closer? Satisfying sensation. (Nope, that word choice is wrong too.) It’s not anger at self, it’s anger at the world. Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s not anything noble like justice or anything—WHY are we putting in these caveats? Why must we always have so many caveats?—the whole point is that this fury emotion doesn’t have any caveats, it’s just mad that WHY AREN’T WE F-ING AWESOME YET. (I know you said no caps. Sorry.)

It’s like, yesterday and the day before I figured out something awesome, which is how to be a cool person. It’s been my goal to become a cool person for a long time, except I had zero clue how to do it, so it was one of those goals where I was searching for the path and not actively progressing on it. I’m not going to fully define what I mean by cool person here (because public forum! I talk about a lot of stuff but can’t talk about everything. That “stuff” was meant to be “stuff” by the way. Though I should maybe stop using “stuff” because it’s not very mature. How often do I think about writing style when I’m writing? It doesn’t seem to change most of my writing, but perhaps a lot? Huh. No conclusions, moving on.) but it’s something about being able to build on knowledge and being “naturally curious”, the latter being more important here. Anyhow, I figured out how to do it, which is actually astonishing, because I’ve been drooling over cool people for years and now have a path to do it. And normally I really like when I have paths, and know all the steps, because then I can just do all the steps and achieve the goal!

But yesterday I ran into a labmate, who already has the cool person trait, and I was so, so furious yesterday. Not at him, not at me (well, okay, kind of at me), but fairly undirected. Because he already has the cool person trait (see, see? Italics, narrator. Not caps.) (Are you serious right now?) (Totally serious, lol ;P.) and, actually, upon reflection, SO DOES almost everyone else in the lab (I appreciate the effort). And this means, instead of leveling up by becoming a cool person, I’m catching up, see, and that’s lame. LAMMMMMMMEE. (But not offensively. Is that offensive? I haven’t heard anything about “lame” being offensively but if so I don’t mean it that way, I mean “not cool” and if it is offensive please let me know and I’ll stop using it. I’m sorry!!) (…Does this actually go through our head every single time? I’m actually curious to know how many deviations of this variety occur. Also, look I’m inserted into the text! It’s really hard to do blog posts correctly because I totally make them up as I go along, with a theme in mind, which is apparently obvious to the reader as well. Or maybe I said this already in a post. Then again, how many people have read 6 years worth of posts by now. My god. We are actually in August, which makes it 6 years. I’m insane.)

Anyyyyyhow. (You’re supposed to be keeping us on track here, not impressed.) I was getting—no, I’m still getting it—something like anger / fury / rage that I AM NOT AWESOME YET, and the path to being awesome is just to work at it like a ladybug (…what) for a ton of months until I get awesome. BUT EVERYONE ELSE ALREADY (sorry) has it, so why do I have to work for it? That’s not fair!! And that’s so incredibly whiny and also stupid, because I have tons of stuff that other people have to work for, and so it’s actually so incredibly unfair in my favor. Okay, that actually made me feel better even though it was ridiculously obvious. Still. (Pout.) (Pout.) (Pout.) Nope, I’m a whiny brat. I’m just not feeling wanting to put all the work even, even though I actually do want to put all the work in.

It’s a pretty odd sensation, actually. Like, I’ve been watching sports animes while on the elliptical, and they’re getting to move around and DO things, and I’m also able to throw myself into this and get there and the process is awesome and the goal is awesome and I’m pretty darn motivated. But I want to DO something, I want to do it like all of this anime’s basketball games, I want to throw myself into it and have it be over. Have some boxed off performance time. Also, I really want to do something physical. I’ve been working out too much recently—working out is good for you to some extent, but it also turns into a waste of time at some point (gah, I feel really lame for saying that the last thing was unfair, because I’m naturally motivated to work out, and that’s something a lot of people have to try really hard for, and I’m really lucky because I just have that motivation structure naturally, and it’s so unfair and I enjoy it so much and I’m sorrrrrryyy) but I want to move around and run and… well, conceptually kick things, because I have little faith in my ability to kick things well. (Yeah, that’s the real reason. I don’t think I can kick things, and think I will look stupid doing it. Also I often think it’s stupid except in a sports context, when it can be kind of cool depending on the sport.) (So many digressions. A certain amount of these “have to” be said because I’m working in a public forum, but interesting that there’s so much top-down correction that happens regardless.)

Anyway, so sitting and thinking and doing so for an hour a day every day for the forseeable future is kind of unlike destroying the opponent in an anime basketball game. Even though the goal is awesome. And also that the goal is awesome but other people have already achieved the goal, but that one actually feels less important now when I write it up. Also, I feel like this isn’t everything, just my hypotheses for what’s going on.

Super-digression! My old therapist was of the impression that one of my main problems was anger. Specifically, that I wasn’t letting myself feel enough of it, and also that I’m going to roll over and not stand up for myself when I’m feeling it. I told him that wasn’t my problem. He insisted it was my problem, over several sessions, over and over. I told him that WASN’T MY PROBLEM, and then he congratulated me for getting angry and expressing myself, and I was like THIS ISN’T MY PROBLEM I CAN STAND UP FOR MYSELF AND I CAN GET ANGRY LET’S WORK ON MY ACTUAL PROBLEMS GAHHHHHH and he was like: you’re going very well, let’s talk more about this, and internally I have my incoherent scream of frustration.

Ha, got to use the italics! I said I would, so so there. I do try to keep things consistent with what I say in the intro, but sometimes it gets way out of hand and I need to change the intro. That’s not infrequent, actually. Ooh, “not infrequent”. I enjoy double negatives. They make me stop and think about how language and meaning is so cool. Which may be why I’m a much slower reader than people expect, because I keep on getting caught up in things like “not infrequent” and then need to sit on them for a bit and let the free-association happen before I move on.

But yes. ‘Tis life. There’s not really much else I can do, and the thing is that I’m really happy almost all of the time to have my job be a thinking job. (Oh shoot. I’M REALLY GRATEFUL FOR MY JOB, OKAY, READERS? I HAVE THE BEST JOB, I KNOW I’M REALLY LUCKY TO HAVE IT, MY JOB IS kind of a perfect fit for me, and I don’t want to do anything else and it’s absurd that it exists and I get to have it. Yes? Gratefulness accomplished? Actually that kind of helped me too. Why do I forget these things…) (Oh dear, I’m catching some of these, but how many do I not catch? MONICA? MONICA?!?) (…We can calm down now, signaling accomplished. Okay.)

It’s weird having so many parts, really. I’m really quite happy with the thinking job, but then there’s this angry part that’s like growl, let us just DO THE THING NOW, and then there’s a huge part of me that likes to cower and be hurt. Actually, the fury part’s… okay, no, I don’t want to get into the frame of mind (ooh, “frame” of “mind”! I use the word “frame” all the time, and I use “mind” in things like “mindscape” and I feel like other ways, now I’m combining them! I should probably stop doing that, I use both of those words too much already.) where I have internal parts yelling at each other, because I know where that leads and it’s very unpleasant. Note to readers: don’t have it so that internal parts are yelling at each other because then you’ll never want to introspect.

But anyway, the nice part about the fury part is that I don’t have to worry about what’s hurt. It’s my current hypothesis that pretty much everything unpleasant boils down to someone being hurt in some way, which means that to resolve anger or meanness or whatever you basically have to stop whatever is hurting them. Which is a ton of work—finding what’s hurt—and it’s making me feel weak to go around all the time to all of these parts and be like: okay, what’s going on, what’s hurting, are you okay.

I haven’t inserted myself enough here, the balance of different text-types isn’t right. Okay, carry on. 

(Really?) Okay, anyway, I’m really proud that my internal selves are forgiving and not yelling anymore (proud? Wasn’t expecting that word) (…Wait, wait, I have self-pride with regards to this self-improvement stuff? I mean, yes, I have pride over being better, but proud of myself? WHAT? You aren’t allowed to do that, Monica!)

Whoa whoa whoa sounds like a digression. We’ve got an “allowed” here, code red (lol), means there’s some mental structure here that needs to be dissected. Why aren’t we allowed to be proud of ourself? (Why isn’t ourself a word. I mean, I know, but it’s applicable here. ANYWAY. The question.) Proud of ourself for being kind to ourself? Oh my god owwww just posing the question in that way definitely gets a reaction whoaaaa wow that’s strong. [Shudder]. You know what, I don’t want to work on this right now. I’m gonna flag it to work on later—“pride in being kind to ourself” (OWWWWWW)—whoa, did NOT know that was there. Bleaeaeaea. [Shakes head]. Moving on, it’s actually kind of crazy what kind of stuff (that wasn’t meant to be a “stuff”) is in our heads. Like, I have this huge mental machinery that supports my particular formatting and bending of emotions (interesting word choice there, Monica. “Formatting of emotions”? I kind of like it though, it fits.) because it’s just so f-ing strange in there. I feel like there needs to be this immensely complex roadmap and series of checks and balances, because we have all sorts of hangups. Mine aren’t even that special, I bet a massive number of people have something similar to this one. I didn’t know it was there though! Until I briefly poked at it. Emotions are so cool. (WHOA WHOA WHOA THAT THOUGHT HAS NEVER OCCURRED TO YOU BEFORE. OH MY GOD. Let’s just sit here and fully let that percolate through the rest of your psyche. Emotions are so cool. Wow. …Wow. [Shudder]).

Ah, I forgot the topic. Topic was about how searching for the things that are hurting makes me feel weak. Also, I’m kind of constantly annoyed that I can’t be fully in control of myself 24/7, and do time-wasting weak things. And I can sort of predict when they’ll happen—like, if I start reading, I’m going to keep on reading for at least an hour—and the fact that it’s inevitable that I’m going to mess up somewhere is annoying. But then I have to be like: no, Monica, beautiful soul-person (idk, I don’t want to use my usual petnames for myself on the blog because they’re… I was going to write “equally as silly”, but my belief-reporting function just came online and told me the true answer is “because they’re mine.”), this is the wrong framework, there is not “weakness” there are just multiple selves and everyone has needs and some part of you has this need and we’ve gone over this already and the new system is much, much, better, can you feel how much better it is?

And fine, okay, I acknowledge that the new system is indeed much, much better, I actually appreciate the reminder. You’re right, whoever was just speaking, the world is much better when I don’t throw all of the weakness into one character and hate it, and instead not use the concept of weakness, but just think of myself as a system and I’m as a whole responsible for taking care of myself as a full system, where there aren’t characters so much as just me.

Ah, is this just a case of an old problem, then? The concept of “weakness” being a flag for not universal forgiveness and interest in problems? Yeah, seems a little that way. It’s interesting because I’ve been starting to keep track of what my “themes” are. I’m able to make changes to my mindscape really quickly—seriously, I’ve finally started taking the speed of my updates for granted, but it’s ridiculous. But there are themes that do come back, and I think those are the really ingrained ones, the ones where I can address some of but extend really widely through my psyche. I’ve now flagged “weakness” as one of these, though it’s gotten SO MUCH BETTER. Another one is social approval, and that one also has improved a lot. Self-anger and guilt and “supposed to” and “shoulds” I’ve been going at for ages, and again are much better. (They’ve been replaced with “wants”. Though I’ve apparently got some “alloweds” lingering around too. That doesn’t actually surprise me, these have been built up over many, many years.) The nice part is that I can feel when I’m falling into my old frameworks—there’s a particular feeling associated with them—so it’s easier to recognize and talk myself out of them. (Talk myself out of them isn’t the right term either—that’s an old frame. The term I’m using these days is “calibrate to reality”. A lot of the time my beliefs don’t actually make sense when you check out the data of my real-world experience, so if I can make my beliefs accurate to what’s actually true, this actually usually makes the problem resolve on its own. The key is not to force anything, or to force things in alignment with truth. It’s actually pretty tricky to do this right; I feel like I’m balancing on an edge sometimes. This is part of what makes it tiring; we’ll see if I can make it less tiring in the future.)

One of my friends asked me why all of this introspection is necessary for me. I told him it was fun, and made me feel good, and would help me achieve goals better. He seemed satisfied with this response. A funny thing is that I usually try to give the responses that people want to hear, but recently I’ve been instructed to give the true response rather than my hypothesized what-I-should-say response (this is pretty unconscious, by the way, but it was pretty common for me to start things with “so I’m SUPPOSED to feel…) Part of this “giving true responses” thing is that it’s hard enough for me to do (requires a lot of internal focus / awareness) that I can’t really do the “what are you thinking I’m going to say” processing very well, so I just end up saying what I mean. It’s not exactly what I mean, because it has to get through my internal review board first (“is that the right frame for this? Nope, I don’t like where that train of thought is going, new frame, oh wait I recognize that new frame as an old one we don’t like, new frame, try again…”) but it’s going through MY internal review board rather than my internal simulation of my LISTENER’S review board. (Can I just read out that sentence again? “It’s going through my internal review board rather than my internal simulation of my listener’s review board.” I can’t believe that’s a thought you’re trying to express and also that that feels right.) So it’s always a surprise when I can sort of third-person hear what comes out of my mouth, and then realize that it’s the type of response that the listener wants (because that’s totally the response that the listener wants, and I know that unconsciously and I’m sure it’s shaping it) because I just through a miniature marathon trying to make sure it passed all MY tests and then it ended up passing the listener’s test kind of as an incidental sidestep. (Wow, I’ve never thought of it this way before, but this all feels really right.) And that’s SUCH a different way of communicating for me. It feels SO INCREDIBLY DIFFERENT, and it’s still a bunch of processing, and I’m still somewhat modeling them, but I’m so much more focused on what I want to say for myself, and I still kind of get that back-end surprise, when I check what I’ve said against what I simulate the other person wants to hear, and think: oh.

Oh, other related point: “people pleaser”. Hate that concept. Hate hate hate go die. Also, I’m aware that you’re not allowed to have strong feelings for something because it means something’s not calibrated and there’s an issue. Which is definitely true for this case. Man, it’s kind of hard to be equanimous (oh my god, that IS A WORD, Microsoft!) all the time about everything, but that does seem to be the state when you have no issues. (Also, I said the word “allowed”, which is also not “allowed” if we’re aiming for the “you have no problems” state. These are just a few examples of the mental checks things have to pass through and why I call it a mini-marathon. Good things happen at the end though! You end up with much calmer thoughts– hm, I guess it’s still very busy, the thoughts, but there is less emotional flailing.)

But anyway, there are definitely lots of “people-pleaser” tendencies though I don’t like that concept because it feels weak and whiny and subservient and those are definitely all strong words, which means I’m totally benching this to look into later. (When you can get strong words to come up, that’s a good sign, because that’s when you often get surprised. Going in and saying how a thing makes you feel, and then examining from an outside perspective what words come out, is really informative.)

Regardless, the original point was on how the fury was somewhat related to not being strong already (new word there) and being frustrated with not being able to work all the time and immediately make the thing I’m considering not-awesome and weak go away. That’s actually a new reframing. Feels more right. You also notice you’re not angry anymore, even though you liked the anger because it didn’t mean you have to think about hurt? God I hate when things feel better when you go through the mechanisms. I feel like I’m being tricked into feeling better, which annoys me, and yes that annoyance can be looked into but I know the surface-level thing it traces back to. (Deep breath). All right, new frame, let’s not be annoyed at success here, or at least tag that for later since it’s really a deeper issue :). (It’s actually interesting that some frames of mind make it much much easier to make progress than others. “Resistance” is the therapy term, and one of the reasons why I keep tagging things is that once you work through all of the tagged things, a whole bunch of other blocks just kind of disappear. It seems like blocks are pretty related to each other, and if you fix the blocks that come up in daily thinking, those are the ones that are commonly in use so fixing them percolates down the chain of lesser issues. That’s my hypothesis, anyway, and it feels like there’s some truth to it.) (So much “feeling like there’s truth” these days. I feel like I’m much more reliant on intuition, and “I feel like” means something besides a nice substitute for “I think” when I’ve used that too many times. Intuition knows stuff though! Intuition actually has a lot of thinking content, that’s one of the really big concepts here.)

So I’m not going to work through the fury thing here (there’s a lot more underneath it, and we’re going to get into the weakness vein, will probably take at least a half an hour and I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a few, possibly more spread out over weeks depending on how stubborn this one is.) (Well, depending on if the angle I go at it is a good one or not. Whatever I replace it with has to feel true. Luckily, a new frame I’m using is that there are many varieties of truth—different people’s or perspectives’ truths can all be true at the same time—so I’ll find one!)

I’m going to finish up here soon, so I wanted to put in an unrelated thought: you know how I volunteer at San Quentin’s prison to teach math? The guys have a podcast called “Ear Hustle”. It’s really great. The guy who I tutor is in one of the episodes, and listening to him has me thinking and feeling a lot. I know this guy from a first-person perspective, and I know what he thinks of me, and now hearing him from a third-person perspective… it’s fascinating, and makes me feel sad and curious and alive.

Another thing that I’ve been discussing with one of my friends is the social justice movement, because I was reading a thread on Facebook from some of my Wellesley alums that I couldn’t figure out how to feel about. Real life is really confusing, especially when the real world has actual problems. I don’t know what to think or do, and still don’t.

So, for another night—recently, I’ve been thinking about things when wandering around with a bike at midnight (I love where I live; it’s really safe. Also I walk up the hills, so that I can bike down really quickly when I’m done), and another night I was laying in a lawn chair staring up at the sky (too foggy for stars) listening to cars going by. The house I live is really quiet, too, so there’s a lot of space and time to think if I have the inclination.

But next week adventures begin again! I’ll be heading off to Massachusetts to attend the Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines summer institute (gah, I feel like official stuff has no place given how much rambling has previously taken place here—different style. I probably should have put the prison thing in another post too—maybe I’ll do that as well, since I’m just feeling a lot about it. I’m not allowed to write much about my experience though on a public forum, though, is the problem, but we’ll see how much I can talk about my own thoughts without involving anyone else.) I’ll be gone for three weeks, and by the time I get back I’ll already have missed the first 2 weeks of school, so I’ll be hitting the ground running. End of summer, guys. It’s been a long and beautiful one :).

Yay for making it through, and until next time!

Monica

A Mind-Adventures Ramble (read at your own risk)

Hey readers!

I’ve been messing around with my mind today, in addition to collecting research data for an experiment! I’m very happy to have collected data and am excited to analyze it, but am going to talk about the weird mind stuff because we all know how much I love weird mind stuff :).

Today I had a lot of “updates”. To reintroduce the concept, when I say “update” I mean “Bayesian update”, which is a mathematical rule which basically says: when you have some prior understanding, and then throw evidence at it, your final understanding is going to incorporate both your prior information and your new evidence in a well-balanced way. Meaning if you had a lot of new evidence, you’ll have changed your old belief a lot, and if you didn’t have much new evidence, your previous belief will be roughly the same.

Specifically, when I say “updates” I’m saying that I had some really big shifts in belief, usually from getting a new perspective, after which all of my previous information can be interpreted differently. This doesn’t strictly map onto the “Bayesian update” idea because usually my “new evidence” is usually learning a new perspective and then applying it. Nonetheless, these updates are insane because in the course of a few hours, they can completely wipe out really long-standing, years-long anxieties.

Two weeks ago I had a massive update, following my post about believing in magic. That post was about being able to try out frameworks for understanding the world that I don’t think are necessarily true and perfect. The update after that was the following: the world is a fundamentally safe place for me. Not physically or emotionally safe, per se, but the idea that there’s not one optimal path for me to follow, and if I “fall off” the path, then I’m very likely to be able to get back on. My previous understanding had been that if I wasn’t doing the perfect thing all the time, then I was going to be doomed and all would be lost and it would be VERY BAD. After the update, my understanding of the world was that unless I do something like a) get addicted to crazy drugs, b) get into an accident that really messes me up (especially my brain), or c) get into some really wacked-out mental state that doesn’t allow me to switch back and forth, I’m pretty much good to go and can try most things. This wiped out an IMMENSE amount of fear. It’s hard to express how much fear this removed in one go. At the time, I’d been thinking about related things, meandering around my mindspace like usual, and then this realization hit me sort of all at once, and I just sat down where I was, outside the gym, and started crying a little because of the freedom of it. It was a really cool update. It was on the scale of when I figured out I could get rid of the “shoulds” in my life and replace them with “wants”, which was an update that took longer—I think that one took a couple of months.

Anyhow, today I had a couple of big ones. They came about because of a few conversations I had with myself, a quasi-therapist, and a friend. All of them involved doing something called “belief reporting”. Belief reporting is taught by one of the non-profits I hang out at, and the idea is that you’re supposed to hold in mind the intention to say what is “true for you”. A belief reporting session mainly involves being asked questions and then reporting your beliefs in this way. Turns out, when you do this, your beliefs often make little sense and are not the ones you cognitively endorse, because you’re trying to speak from the lower-level emotions :). This is probably my favorite part of doing belief reporting—because it’s often surprising, bringing out what your unconscious has to say to your conscious awareness.

(I don’t do the standard version of belief reporting. One of the things I’m discovering about using this and related techniques is that I have some resistance to using them in the taught way. I seem to want to hook up what I think is the general idea to my standard ways of investigating my mind… I’m going to see if I can name some of the differences. One is that I demand a LOT of words out of what I’m feeling; I don’t like emotions very much unless they have semantic content. Another is that I’ve adapted and enforced my usual practice of pretending that everything I’m thinking I’m simultaneously presenting to an outside party. I really don’t think other people do this, but organizing my thoughts such that they’d make sense being written seems pretty essential for me to feel justified and move forward. I’m also still writing things out and sending them to people—this is again the public audience thing, and specifically the writing forum. For belief reporting, I have my own version of “true to me” detection that I developed a long time ago, which is basically: try a frame, try a reframe, try saying different statements and see which one makes the negative emotions go away. Today I developed the concept of a “gasp-want” rather than just a “want”, which means I want something really desperately in order to cover up some REALLY BAD failure that I think I have. As I’ve gotten more practice with sorting through emotions and seeing what they’re about, it’s become easier to delineate what a “gasp-want” is compared to a normal “want”, what a “should” is compared to a “want”, what is me frantically trying to overlay some deeper emotion, what is an incomplete characterization of what I’m feeling. It’s all interesting, and phenomenologically different for everyone! (The word “phenomenological” is a new one for me, in that it finally means something—it’s how things feel and how they’re conceptualized in your head compared to other people’s.))

Update one was centered around how I think about beliefs. I’ve been feeling “lost” lately, unmoored. I’ve also felt attacked lately, when someone was pushing me too hard on something I’d just started believing. Turns out a useful concept for me is “belief towers”. Most of my beliefs are fluffy, wispy, cloud things, where there’s not much evidence beneath them and I can’t hold on to them very well. Other people give me a lot of my beliefs. Then there are belief towers, which have evidence beneath them, and are still unstable, but I can work with them. Belief towers are also often given to me. At this point, I’ve decided to start building some of my own belief towers. It’s important to me to know that I can construct ideas on my own and defend them and create an understanding of the world. As it stands, if someone starts correcting one of the newly-delicate belief towers I’ve been building, I’m going to explode at them, because I want to defend my fragile belief towers and my understanding that I can build them. I generally don’t mind people picking apart my beliefs if it’s done in a gentle way, but these I want people to be particularly careful around.

Another way that we were looking at my conceptualization of beliefs this afternoon is related to my goal of “being a person”. This is a weird concept, but in my mind “being a person” means that you can reason through ideas from first principles, form your own beliefs, are “trying”, and are working towards some goal composed of what you want. I think I’m on the way to becoming a person and think that a lot of people aren’t persons by this definition. (I know, it’s a weird framework. It’s the sort of thing that’s definitely going to get updated in the future, but I’m using it for now.) I was describing how “being a person” worked in my mind… which is that I really want people to “be people”, and part of the process of becoming a person means you get sent into “lost state”, when you’re questioning your beliefs. You can go from lost-state back to not-being-a-person where you don’t question anything. You can stay in lost-state for a long time, but sometimes that can send you into a cluster that sort of looks like meaninglessness / hopelessness / bad long-term things. You can also go from lost-state to “on the road to being a person” state. It turns out that I believe that there are people who are “being people” who can basically just stay on that road without having to go to lost-state all the time, but that for ME I think I should have to be in lost-state all of the time. Why? Because if I went to “on the road to being a person”, then I’d have to have actual beliefs and hold them up for people to attack / inspect / make judgment on, and that’d be BADDDDDDD. (A surprising amount of belief reporting is just running into thoughts that say “BADDDDDDDDD don’t think about this BADDDDDD”. I have learned that most people have many many thoughts and clusters like this! It’s very interesting.)

To summarize across these two stories, I don’t think most of my beliefs are “real”, I’m in the process of constructing these fragile belief towers which I think are necessary to becoming a “real person”, and I’m really afraid of holding up the towers I’ve made for external inspection. (Because the towers may be wrong, or because people won’t like me if they’re wrong, or because if they are wrong that means I can’t ever construct towers, my usual BADDDD content :)). Which means that since I want to become a real person, but I’m protecting these belief towers from all the BADDDD, I’m kind of stuck in the lost-state, which is not a particularly pleasant state to be stuck in.

Here’s the update. I haven’t got it cemented yet—and feel like it’ll probably help to write it out here—but it’s a taste of something that feels really useful. Here goes.

So it feels kind of inevitable that people aren’t going to like my towers, and aren’t going to like that they’re complete or think they’re wrong or whatever. And if that’s inevitable, then there’s really no use banging my head against the wall trying to make sure they’re perfect, because they’re just not going to be perfect, and really if we could give fewer fucks about this that seems good, because I’m feeling trapped as is. And it’s not like I’m going to be a complete failure at constructing towers anyway, because I’ve gotten this far in life and I don’t think I’m completely miscalibrated with how the world works. So my towers are going to make some sort of sense, and they’re also probably going to be wrong in some sense, but—here’s the key bit—what I construct my towers out of is going to be real.

As it were, one of the main hypotheses I have for why I need external validation (or am afraid of it) is because those are the things that I don’t myself believe are valid. So if I can take as a baseline that my towers are going to have something real in them—there’s going to be some truth to them—then that makes it much easier to show them to others. Also, here’s a novel idea—if other people think my towers are wrong, I can just ignore them. Like, “hey everyone, I made a tower, what do you think”—and then stuff whatever they say inside the tower, and if the tower regurgitates it, then say “nope, that doesn’t go in there”, and have that be all right. Or if someone gives me a bomb and I’m not ready to put it in my tower, just put the bomb in some packages outside of the tower and come back to it later, on my own time. There’s two main things here—the trust in my tower and how I’ve constructed it, in that it’s right in some sense, and is pointing at something meaningful—and the idea that I can choose not to accept something, or to wait on it. Faith, really, that what I’m doing is “right” in some sense, even if it’s not perfectly right.

So what I seem to have here is this: if I can have faith that what I’m doing is some approximation of correct, even if it’s not perfectly correct, and I trust that I can do this at my own rate, so I can reject ideas or put them aside for later and that also feels right, then I’m golden and am open for suggestions from people which make the belief more correct. And the key to having this not-freaking-out-constantly attitude is this idea: people are always going to disagree with me, it is intriguingly inevitable, so we do what we can and go along. This is a difference between “there is one right path” and “there are many paths, and lots of them work”. An example of this difference for me is when I’m looking at a bunch of compliments someone’s giving me, and not thinking “so how can I incorporate these into my self-concept” and instead thinking “so that’s what they think about me, interesting.” (This is a recent one for me, by the way. It took me until this year to realize that people aren’t always right.) Feels something like: hey, there’s not one path to enlightenment here, shove over since I’m making my way through, appreciate the help if you want to give it but I’m not taking it as dogma. Irreverence. Should be obvious, maybe, but this is a new thought for me :). I expect some of it to stick!

(If this does stick, this should be helpful on the “I feel like I can’t defend any of my beliefs or hold on to them or argue about anything” problem. I’m always looking for progress on the “why must I put so much uncertainty about everything I believe” problem :).)

All right! Second thing tonight. This one was pretty strange. I was biking home, and thinking about this sort of thing, and then all of a sudden part of me I start listening to this part of me that comes up and goes: WE’RE SAD.

Then I get this image of a sobbing child, and I’m like: “whoa, what’s wrong, what are we sad about, what’s happening”. And the sad thing’s like: “No no no, don’t box me, we’re JUST SAD, okay. We’re SAD.”

And my internal problem-solving part is going nuts, trying to figure out what the problem is and fix it, and the sad part’s like “no trying to solve the problem is COMPLETELY THE POINT, the point is that we’re sad and you can’t solve it, we’re sad because you have to solve everything all the time and that’s sad,” except the sad part doesn’t say that sort of thing because it’s refusing to speak in words or rationally and just is telling me to accept that we’re sad.

So I’m doing a mild form of the gasping thing that happens when you’re crying, without actually crying, and this part turns into water and is like: “get out of the box, just be sad, don’t try to fit me in your rationalizations, let me sweep across all of your boxes, we’re just being sad”. And I’m fighting it really, really hard, speaking to the water part and trying to figure out what it’s saying so that I can address the root problem, as per my usual techniques, and the water part is not having it. And the rationalizing part of me knows that it actually wants to concede to the water part, except it’s really really scared of that, and is throwing words like “dangerous” and “safe” and “but what if” and “are you good?” around, and the water part’s like: nope, none of those concepts, we’re just being.

I spend a good part of twenty minutes just freaking out at the water part (still doing this weird dry-crying thing), and then spend an hour after that walking up and down the hill to my house 1) accepting the water part (it turns out to be an ocean.), 2) watching the water part alternatively love and hate me / crush me / refuse to accept any of my rationalization techniques on it, 3) trying to figure out if this water thing is useful and getting refusals. In post-hoc analysis, the water part is actually really cool. What it is is a thing that absolutely refuses to be any one thing—if I say “is this okay?” it responds: “there’s no such thing as okay or not okay, let’s visualize something that’s not okay, I’m going to drown you now.” And if I get comfortable with the drowning, it brings up something else distressing, and if I say I want safety, it says “safety doesn’t exist as a concept, we don’t need that, we just are”. It takes up this enormous space, it’s an ocean that it very kindly let me label as “tera” and “ocean” (it wasn’t accepting one name). In the ocean framework, all of my rationalization techniques are sweeps of paint, and what I’m trying to do when I’m rationalizing is frantically build myself a bunch of cardboard or glass boxes. It was throwing little things called “burbles” at me, which were these unpleasant bubbly things that had gross feelings in them, and alternatively letting me put them in cardboard boxes and simultaneously not put them in cardboard boxes, and basically contradicting every single thing I said. Some of the purposes of “tera ocean” seems to be to meet the needs of giving me space (because I feel like I’m boxed in with all of my rationalizations), making me realize that my rationalizations are only a small part of the entire world, and my favorite was making me accept that there is beauty/hurt and danger/safety and okay/not-okay and none of these concepts mean anything. That these are labels I’m using to box up emotions, but this is unnecessarily limiting. I had to give up trying to box my ocean, and it was amazing, because the rationalizing part of me, even while it was making me do the dry-crying thing and also making really scared faces at the passerby, knew this was what it wanted. The rationalizing part of me wasn’t allowed to want anything (allowed/not allowed is not a concept, what is want? How about not want?) but it wanted the ocean to be part of it. At one point, the rationalizing part was like: “ah, look, here’s a non-verbal update, I hear these work” and the ocean part was like if you want to have that concept, sure, but the point is that I am what I am.

So I’m not exactly sure what the ocean did, but it did have the odd effect of completely removing high-intensity emotions for an hour. I got back and all of sudden the world was big, everything was pretty dissociated, and I could think pretty fast. I determined that the ocean part is kind of crap at doing theory-of-mind—I’d query something like “so he feels this way, how do we feel about that,” and I’d come back with something like “eh, fine.” And I came back with “eh, fine” about almost everything, and didn’t seem to be able to do prediction of other people very well at all, or consider what they could be feeling. I was pretty happy to contemplate things I liked though.

So since this was a strange mood, and I could think pretty fast in it, I threw some more prompts at it, and came up with the following conclusions:

“World’s big. There’s no right path to follow.”

“Um, so we’ve determined that there’s nothing we need to do in life? So what are we supposed to be doing? …um, you’re saying we can pick some puzzles to work on? Like research questions or how people work or something? Our life is reduced to picking arbitrary puzzles?

“Okay, so there’s no concept of allowed anymore. We’re allowed to do anything. That’s SUPER useful, thanks.”

“Okay, so we really like people who teach us things. And we feel guilty about not giving people who teach us things information back. So if we feel guilty, why don’t we go help other people and save the world or something? Then we don’t have to feel guilty, and we get to keep on learning things. Oh, you don’t think doing this for guilt is the best reason? Yeah, you’re probably right, maybe we should get rid of the guilt. But I like the guilt, because I think it ties us to helping others. Why is it important to help others? You tell me.”

“Hm, so if we just do things we like we’re going to end up helping others anyway because that’s part of what we want / like. That’s convenient.”

“What is this thing about wanting to be a “person”, anyhow? We need the approval of all of the “people”. Wait, hold up, we’ve determined that needing approval is a thing about not believing in ourself. What’s a person again? Someone who can do intellectual debate and comes up with their own theories. If I could be such a person, would I? Yes. If I could magically just be good at this stuff, would I take that? Yes. If I had a bunch of free time and I had a guaranteed way of becoming good at this stuff, would I do so over other things I could be doing? Yes. Why aren’t I? Um… you know, maybe I should just do that. What if you don’t succeed? Meh, I’ll keep on glomming onto the people who do succeed. They’re great.”

Wait, that last paragraph was pretty opposite to what I actually went through, from which my end conclusion was that I don’t actually need to be “a person” and instead want to just hang around with them and pursue my own interests while being in their sphere. Um. Take some combination of the above, this is super recent so I don’t know quite what’s going to sink in yet, also that last paragraph was a new update. But regardless, it appears that wants are losing negative urgency! Which is great. I’m trying to reduce the amount of guilt-as-motivation in my life, since I started out with piles of it. And the “person” thing feels pretty fundamental to my drives—up to very recently, it’s been a primary driver to be cool enough to hang out with the cool people. Wait, hold on, let me sit in that update for a second, this is actually new. How do I feel about my second-order want to want to save the world, but without wanting to take any action? This has now turned into a first-order want to do something helpful for the world. WHOA THAT’S COOL. How do I feel about hanging out with the cool people and if I’m not a person enough to hang out with them? That’s sad, I like cool people. If that’s the deal breaker then I should go get enough person-traits to hang out with them. WHOA THAT’S REALLY REALLY REALLY COOL, I’ve been anxiety-stressed-out-BADDDDDDD about that for forever. Meaning, up to this point in my life. Wow. WOW. Wow that’s amazing. It’s so chill! And logical!

What even was the update here, this is amazing! It was like: I really wanted to hang out with “people”. And I gasp-wanted to be “a person”, nominally because that was necessary to hang out with “people”. But I did the hypothetical where I asked if I needed to be “a person” if “people” wanted to hang out with me regardless, and the answer to that was it’d be fine. So then I checked out what I actually wanted, and apparently I don’t actually need to be “a person”, though it’d be nice—but this isn’t actually necessarily any sort of urgent want in itself. But there’s some urgency there, because there was a gasp-want, so I checked out what that was about. And the gasp-want was that I really want to be, as my end goal, always in progress towards something “on the right path”. And I thought that being a person was required to be “on the right path”, but it turns out that’s not necessarily there, though doing things I like and think are cool and helpful is. But regardless I still really want to hang out with the cool people because I think their motivations, not necessarily the skills they have, are really really beautiful and pure and I want to encourage more of the growth and learning-love in the world. (And, new update just now: I can be that! I can have those traits, without the arguing and forming theories skills—I can still have the beautiful growth things and encourage them in others. Ooh, lovely. Don’t know if this is actually possible, but I like embracing others’ interests and can maybe just really accept and love that in myself and encourage in others. Cool. This isn’t a well-formed thought, but there’s some vague intention there and hope that I think will be useful later.)

Scorrrreee. So I’ve just solved the belief-tower problem (fuck it all, just try something and allow others to correct it if necessary, but you’re a complete person as it is and it’s always your choice if you want to change it, many right paths to enlightenment). I’ve solved the second-order want to save the world problem (this is actually a first-order desire, and it’s something that you’re interested and wanting to do naturally, no guilt or urgency required. Some remaining guilt here about how much I owe because my life is great, might be a good thing, not sure.) I’ve solved the personhood problem (the thing you really like about being a person is their motivations, learning and curiosity and growth, and the thing you really want is to encourage that in others, and you also independently really like hanging out with these people because they have beautiful minds, and you can actually do all of that. And if you have to be more of a person to do all of this, then go try to do that. Seems like a useful thing anyway. But if it’s working then no need.) I’ve solved the what-I’m-doing-in-life problem (go pick something, there’s kind of infinite puzzles available. You’re in a pretty sweet position, you actually like what you’re doing a lot. Embrace that, it’s all awesome. Also you like working on things, sense of progress. Also this isn’t actually a solved problem, but that’s cool and it’s better than it was and you can continue to get it wrong then make it better.) Have I solved the time-allocation problem? (How much time should I be spending on introspection vs research vs social vs other1 vs other2? I don’t know, actually. Okay, haven’t solved that one, but am not currently dying of guilt so I’ll leave that one to when I am.) Have I solved the happiness problem? (Um… to be determined :). I suspect not, but all’s well right now.) Also I probably haven’t actually solved any of these problems, but for now I’ll say some significant progress has been made! And I’m looking forward to seeing what the next set of problems is :). If fear is much reduced, and I’m making great progress on guilt and obligation, and I’ve done a lot for lost/helplessness today… probably anxiety, and then… then I’m sure I’ll find something!

Whoo, bed time :). Sorry that it got a little incomprehensible in the end, there. There’s a type of writing when I’m doing pragmatic for-the-reader writing (which is what the beginning of this was, albeit somewhat spastic). There’s also a type of writing when I’m sorting through something for myself and know what all of the idiosyncratic concepts are. There will likely be a post with some literary quality next week, though it might turn into one of these again :).

Best wishes, all—happy August!

Monica

Ps, the Cognitive Science Society conference was great. It was my favorite conference so far—high signal-to-noise in terms of talks that I found interesting. My comprehension was also really high, which helped a lot. I had an interesting experience when I was presenting my paper; there were a lot of microphone difficulties, so I got interrupted partway through. I was apparently not phased at all, and very assertive—I was kind of watching myself talk through a 3rd-person perspective—which surprised me, because I forget that I have default acting patterns like that, when there’s all of this uncertainty going on in my self-concept. Good fun. London was excellent, got to see some friends in Cambridge, haven’t lost my trained ability to understand English and Australian accents, miss the English colloquialisms, found out that I’ve maxed out my favorite elliptical machine (…darn it. I’m going to have to start running or something painful.), heard lots of great talks and was very jet-lagged. Lots of food, too. All really fun :).