The Mental Machinery

Hey readers :).

It has been too long! My friend Smitha asked me what was going on in my head the other day—“what’s most interesting for you right now, Monica?”—and I couldn’t even point her to the blog :). That conversation continued amusingly, too: I told her I’d been focusing more internally, figuring out myself, rather than doing more external processing. Smitha laughed, said that it was it was funny that by “external” she knew I meant thinking about interactions between people, because that’s not her version of external focus. Her definition probably has much more in common with what I call “save the world” thoughts: focusing on trying to solve problems that will affect humanity on a broader level. I’ve put a hold on save-the-world thoughts until I’ve gotten myself to a more stable place, but I’m going to see if I can keep on coming back to them.

So, what’s going on with me? For one, on Friday I turned in this class paper :). That was amazing, because I’d been stressing and putting a substantial deal of work into it, and to have it finished approximately when I’d planned for it to be done was very satisfying. I already enjoyed working with the data more than usual—I finally have a handle on the programming language Python, and I happened to be thoughtful with how to organize my data at the outset, such that it’d been elegant to add new analyses. In February when I was putting together a conference paper, I hadn’t understood what analyses I would have to do later, so when I finally needed to run one at the last-minute I had to hand-code everything. Hand-coding takes longer a lot of the time, so that’s annoying, but what’s more annoying is that it feels so inelegant. Like, I’m yelling at myself for every minute of the hand-coding because if I had just organized my data better I could do this with code and it would be pretty and gahhhh why are you doing this, Monica. Also, when I complain about this to my friends they ask me the same thing, because some of them are even more code-elegance oriented than I am. It’s funny to me that after you’ve done enough programming not doing it efficiently (or readably, for me) screams wrongness until I know a few people who avoid hand-coding even if it’ll be faster, just for the satisfaction of it. (It is very satisfying to look at nice code though :). My own code, not anyone else’s. Reading anyone else’s is a disaster :P).

The previous weekend I attended the Center for Human-Compatible AI’s inaugural retreat. It was amazing. It was especially amazing because one of the topics was “preference aggregation”, or how to figure out what to do when you have multiple agents with possibly conflicting preferences. This is the topic of my current project, which I’m mostly calling “Fair Allocation of a Shared Resource”. I’ve had… what, three?… projects since getting to graduate school. One was a rotation project working on hierarchical model fitting for reinforcement learning data. (This is probably the most concise description of what I was working on, but the idea that it points to is much less ridiculous than that sounds. Basically, you know hierarchies, where there are broader and broader groupings as you go up? And you know trial-and-error learning, where you try to accomplish a goal and get rewards or punishments as you go along? “Hierarchical model fitting for reinforcement learning data” is trying to describe the trial-and-error learning by throwing a model at it that has multiple levels of a hierarchy.)

The second project was on “collaborative memory”—a gigantic behavioral study in which I had over 2000 participants sit in online chatrooms and try to recall words together. That was my February paper, and still ongoing. The system I was using for recruiting participants failed to exclude people who were taking the experiment a second time, so basically I’m going to redo the whole experiment, with some other experimental tweaks, and then hopefully submit it as a journal article once all of that is done. It’s probably going to take a while, given that my analysis code is a mess and the code to launch the experiment is outdated :). (That analysis was so poorly planned :). I mean, I did the best I could, but since I wanted to be using Python, but didn’t really know how to use Python, I was doing a lot of Matlab programming, and also some of it worked better on Excel, so I had data in three environments and was importing things all over the place, plus didn’t realize that the data would be weirdly formatted since I had do some hacks at the last minute since things weren’t working, and it’s all going to be much cleaner on the second round. :)).

My third project, the one I’ve spent most of this semester working on, is about how a robot should choosing a resource that people have to share. Consider you’re working at a hotel, and you have to serve a drink to the room. You have a bunch of guests with preferences, and you can’t please everyone. What should you do?

This question is more relevant than it sounds (assuming you’re not a caterer or a hotel manager) because it happens that a lot of situations have this structure—say you’re a government and you’re trying to figure out what programs to implement nation-wide, or trying to make a decision for your family. The basic idea is what to do when you’re an uninvested third-party whose goal is to make the people around you happy, when the people around you don’t necessarily agree on what makes them happy. At the Center for Human-Compatible AI meeting, “preference aggregation” roughly means what to do when you have an artificial intelligence which is programmed to serve human needs… but what to do when you have multiple humans with multiple preferences and needs?

So since I had a behavioral study with a very similar structure, I got to talk to all sorts of people about how to improve my study, and what findings I had already. It’s so rare to have a conference discussing ideas that were directly related to my current research project. The conference was also great because I got to meet a lot of interesting people, and I am familiar with the main arguments and style of Berkeley’s human-compatible AI group by this point. I remember when I used to see equations and get scared (not that long ago. Senior year of college.) Nowadays, the equations I see usually have a pretty similar structure, since most of them are based in reinforcement learning and what’s called Markov Decision Processes, which describes situations in terms of “states”, “actions”, and “rewards”. So I can finally see why these sorts of equations aren’t scary… because if you know you’re looking for “states”, “actions”, and “rewards”, and you know approximately how they’re going to be oriented to each other, and approximately what symbols are going to be used to represent them, they’re really easy to pick out and see the logic for. Suddenly I’m not looking at an unrecognizable equation, but rather one that’s a slight variant on what I’ve seen before. The fast learning that takes place when you have no idea what’s going on is great in a lot of senses, but it doesn’t feel great; not like basically having a sense of where people are going to do :).

I think the week before that I went to the San Jose Comicon with two friends. That was good fun, and we also got to swing by the March for Science that was going on there (I unfortunately did not participate in the marches in Berkeley or San Francisco. But I was very happy I got to at least attend one!) I now have even more cutesy animal decorations in my bedroom. Man, my taste, readers… every time someone walks into my room, I feel like it’s kind of exploding at them. I like high-saturation colors, drawings with slightly surprising concepts, science-related items, aforementioned cute animal representations, and cards from people, which means my room is papered with these things. My sisters say that I’m like a bird and collect all the shiny high-saturation things, and then stick them to walls, and I totally do. The concept of “taste” and disagreeing with people on it, is immensely relieving to me. I don’t like the feeling of not appreciating something that friends find valuable, but a lot of those somethings fall into the realm of “taste”, and taste is arbitrary so it doesn’t actually matter whether one likes it or not. And if I make the analogy to how some people think about my room (…it’s not exactly “subtle”) then I don’t find it not-okay if I don’t like other people’s taste or they don’t like mine. Any disagreements greater than the taste level can’t be resolved in this way, but a surprising amount of ideas I disagree with for other people fall into this arbitrary, not important realm.

What’s going on this week? Well, there’s some part of me that’s in recovery mode—I’m trying to take as many naps as possible. Also, last week I sprained my ankle (…again) so I was doing what I’m supposed to do, and resting and icing and compressing and such, rather than what I did last year, which was push through it and hope for the best. Intriguingly, my ankle is much better than it was last year at the one-week mark! I think this might just been a miracle; that’s my stated cause. (I would like to say that last year I did not know what a sprained ankle felt like, because when I fell down the stairs last year it nausea-inducing hurt for a few minutes, and then I could breathe again and the pain went down and it was approximately fine. Until it swelled up and I couldn’t walk super well on it. This time I know what that degree of pain indicates (it was actually a very similar experience. I need to stop falling down stairs. Frustratingly, I’m not sure how to do that, especially if it only happens once a year.) and so took measures. Also, I had to walk on it last year because I was doing grad school visits. This year I was on mandatory AHHH-DON’T-TALK-TO-ANYONE-PAPPPPPEEERRR leave, so I really did just not move for a few days.)) In sum, I get to exercise again, which is wonderful. So: sleeping and exercising and talking to people again, all good things.

Then there’s the other part of this week, which is that a guy I’ve been talking to a lot is visiting! I met him at Rationality Camp (where else would one meet guys?) but he doesn’t live here, so we’ve been Skyping and messaging. He’s visiting San Francisco for a week, so we’ve been hanging out, and that’s my personal learning for the week. This stuff is complicated, readers. As a person with pretty much zero experience in anything date-like until arriving at grad school, I’ve been kind of surprised at the subtlety of the new rules to be learned here. On the other hand, I’ve also been surprised by how it isn’t different from normal friendships, because a lot of what’s happening seems to be: take care of yourself, take care of the other person, communicate and listen. Basic how-to-be-a-human-with-other-people stuff.

It actually makes me relieved that I started so late, because at this point I know what I’m like as a human being, and I can’t really imagine what I’d have done as, say, a middle-schooler somehow not only responsible for my own feelings but someone else’s as well. I would have made a total hash of it, given that I’m making plenty of mistakes even now. Also, I’d like to put forward a message to other people who started relatively late, because that’s been a path that worked for me and there’s not a lot of encouragement to wait that long. Actually, the reason I originally ventured into the dating realm last summer is because I was annoyed at people asking why I didn’t date. (The comment that tipped that one over the edge was this: “By why haven’t you dated? You’re pretty.” … What the fuck, yet another older male telling me this. First, this is not a thing you get to judge me on, especially to my face, and second, one might think that there are other reasons for choosing not to do something, such as school, or lack of interest, or actually anything that could involve me actually making a decision with my own mind rather than helplessly waiting for someone else to come solve this problem for me. The second part of that sentence is admittedly unfair—he wasn’t actually meaning to imply that I couldn’t make my own decisions, just stating one variable that could be challenging if I were pursuing that goal—but is a reflection of how I feel whenever someone makes this sort of comment. Prettiness is not the only factor here, in the case of other people choosing me or me choosing them, and also this involves a choice on my side, and I hate when it feels like people aren’t acknowledging that. Additionally, it may be that I’m overreacting to a comment like this, but it’s the repetition from different people that gets to you. “Oh, you want to study computational cognitive science? You seemed so perfect otherwise,” is one that I’ll always cite as particularly bad—that one then proceeded to demand me out to dinner. (There is a difference between being asked out and demanded out, though this is not common terminology :)). Constant surprise at the fact that I hadn’t dated, and aggressive demands for “why not” have been historically annoying. Luckily, though, most of the people I hang out with don’t respond that way. They’ll be surprised, and ask “why not?” but they’ll do so curiously. I think that’s all I want, really. For people to ask assuming that I know who I am and that I’m responsible for my choices.)

Hahaha—well, falling into older-men-pressure (there wasn’t ever much peer pressure or familial pressure, for which I’m grateful :)) isn’t the best reason to get into it, and actually after two weeks of Tinder-ing that summer I declared the project complete and decided that would cover me for the foreseeable future. (I capped it at 2.5 weeks. I had a thesis to write, after all.) So I wasn’t anticipating dating anyone when I came to grad school, but then I ran into someone really awesome in the fall, and I keep on running into awesome people and I’d already had some introduction. Now it’s one of my new self-growth activities, plus whatever else nice things come along with it. It’s been mentioned to me that this all seems a bit learning-oriented at the moment… but then again, what do I do that’s not somewhat learning-oriented, about myself or the world or people? :P. Several people have told me one does dating “for fun”, and I’m like: yeah, I know, I’m going to be learning all sorts of stuff and this seems like it might even be enjoyable, sounds like a great thing to do, and they often reply with: I think you’re missing the point. Ah, but what I’ve learned is that there is no point to miss :). People seem to get all sorts of things out of relationships, and as long as I’m having a good time exploring and not hurting anyone along the way, seems like I’m good to go. And it turns out that that’s what the “you’re missing the point” people mean, and what they and an even larger collection of people say. It doesn’t really matter that my framework for classifying situations as “good to get into” doesn’t line up perfectly with other people’s concepts of “fun”—we’re pointing at the same general idea, and that, I think, is the important part.

Truly, the number of well-wishers around me who just want me to have a good experience, and “room to explore”, and safety in exploration, and warmth and wellness, is astonishing. This seems to be the response I hear from practically everyone when I start talking about this new venture-into-the-unknown. I’ll sometimes spin myself into circles, but there is this huge block of people now—it’s almost universal in the people around me—who keep on expressing that they want my safety and happiness; gentle encouragement in my trying this out.

(In other evidence that I have really, really great people around me now, on my birthday I was invited to an independent party that I couldn’t make due to previous commitments. A few hours before the party started, plans changed, and I told them I was able to come. The friend who had invited me made a cake, and had me blow out 24 candles, and then everyone sang the Happy Birthday song in harmony. So wonderful. So, so wonderful.)

I really like these people, you know? I really enjoy my environment. I’m paid to learn and read and listen, and code and write and talk. I live on a hill that overlooks water and a city, and I live in a city with cheap, great food. I work at home or at the university, where there are always lectures going on, always science to learn, always people to talk to, always an intellectual environment. My advisor is beyond incredible. My friends in graduate school are great. I have friends outside academia, these Rationality Camp people, who are my people, who I love having discussions with and who have been welcoming me with open arms. I have the human-compatible AI people to connect me with the computer science content I want. I have such excellent friends, here and also Skypeable. I bike places in a city that has cloudless sunshine, day after day after day. I enjoy my work and what I’m learning about. I have projects I’m working on, I feel like I’m making progress on myself, I feel like I’m making progress in learning about other people, I feel like I’m making progress learning about the world. My ankle is crazy bruised from falling down the stairs, I’m perpetually made uneasy by the content of my dreams, I write a blog that people read, I’m not dead yet and alive and a human on this planet for the brief period where it exists… I don’t know, I often get sucked into the microcosms of the day / week / month, but there is in contrast such a pull to boggle at the incredible wonder that is my life, the fact that it really shouldn’t exist. I’ve been asked why I’ll fight to get rid of the bad things in my life but not reach for more good, and I really don’t think that’s it. I’ve already reached for my subjective good; I’ve already got it, and its platform for more growth. Any bad feelings are just kind of a layer on top of it, a lens for interpreting the world, and there are other lenses, and a lot of the negativity I feel isn’t really necessary. (Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about the saving-the-world-bit. The happiness-growth situation right now is absurd and really shouldn’t be possible, and wondering at that and figuring out what my mind is doing is most important to me right now. But figuring out what I want to do to impact people outside myself and the people immediately surrounding me is definitely on the radar.)

What I’ve decided, after Rationality Camp and talking to people and reading this article, is that most fear in my life is unnecessary. The article highlights this question: what’s the worst that can happen, in today’s society compared to previous societies, if you really mess up? Probably you’ll lose your job, but probably you won’t be excluded from the tribe and starve to death. So emotions like fear of social exclusion aren’t actually as life-and-death today as they were when they were evolving, and this argument extends to most non-physical situations that people are afraid about.

What am I most afraid of? After talking to therapists, I’ve realized that I’m ridiculously afraid of people getting mad at me. I go to crazy extents to avoid this, and a lot of my behavior is organized around avoiding negative interactions. This fear shows up in daily situations, but it’s especially amusing when it appears in the edge cases, and even I look at what I’m doing and am like: “okay, what was that, Monica?”

For example, when I first got here I was as in awe over my advisor as I continue to be now. One day I was walking towards him in a hallway and proceeded to do a looking-away, head-down slinking behavior where I was kind of skirting around him. He then looked straight at me, smiled, and pointedly said: “Hello, Monica,” and I looked up at him sheepishly and said hello. That sort of thing is just embarrassing, and I haven’t done it since he did that, but I look back at it and am like: where is the world is that kind of behavior coming from? I know it’s been an annoying habit from college days—I’ll hang around the edge of a group, being shy and feeling kind of excluded, until someone says hello, and then suddenly I have permission to be included and will talk all over people if they’re good friends and I have something to say. It feels ridiculous every time I do it, especially with friends—I know I’m already in this group, what am I afraid of? (I’ve really stepped down how much I do this recently.)

I usually just get frustrated with myself when I see myself doing this sort of thing, but one of the most important concepts my therapist has brought up is that there are reasons for why we’ve developed the habits we have. There are reasons why I never want to seem not-put-together or in control, I’m occasionally ridiculous around people in authority, why I almost always assign some blame to myself when a situation doesn’t go well, why I often demand very clear rules and constraints when someone expects something from me, why I usually don’t express strong opinions, why I really don’t like angry voices, why I’m afraid of dealing with upset people, why I panic-spiral if someone’s mad at me, why I practice intense avoidance and tension-diffusion (often really obviously), why I’ll repress anger, why speak in cognitive rather than emotional language if I’m actually hurt by something, why I’m obsessed with doing social things right, why I’ll justify the counter-argument if I’m feeling something I’m not “supposed to” rather than express the feeling, why I get freaked out if I have to say anything negative about a person, why I’ll push through anxiety, why I seek out challenges, why I’m very attached to independence, why I’m careful, why I learn fast and adjust rapidly based on feedback, why I’m upfront about what I’m thinking and feeling, why I expect and value hard things… some of these might be linked, many are probably loosely linked. Some probably reflect personality, and many probably reflect what’s adaptive in different environments and policies I’ve been exposed to. I like a lot of these traits—I generally think it’s a good policy to avoid arguments, and to reason carefully about both sides of an issue. I think independence is really important, and self-portrayal, adaptivity, clarity, and trying not to hurt people are also important. Many of the above—again, not very well clustered, and some of them might not really be connected—are really useful. But what therapy has been saying, and I think is a marvelous idea, is to just think about what traits you have. Don’t be mad at them, because they come from somewhere, and presumably they were useful in some previous situation. Consider whether the parameters of the previous situation still apply to the new situations you’re facing. Consider, if the parameters have changed, whether you still want those traits—not by attacking them as bad, but by acknowledging their usefulness previously, and maybe their non-necessity now. So much of therapy seems to boil down to this: Notice, acknowledge without judgment, and (for me) consider what may be unnecessary.

Luckily, I’ve decided that as a general policy, non-physical fear seems pretty unnecessary, so that helps me delimit what I want to fix. Basically, my current goal is to try to gently remove all social fear in my life, because it seems like a little much. There is actually no reason for me to feel guilty for hours because someone mildly disagreed with something I did. Seems excessive, and feels stupid at the time, so cognitively I know where I want to be. The next step is to ease the emotional system into line, instead of trying to drag it as I have been. Emotions also point at something, and I’m finding that instead of my usual methods—rationalizing and distraction—sometimes I have to just “lean into” the emotions and sit in that irrational intensity for a while before mental switches happen. It’s kind of slow-going :). (And also surprisingly fast in other ways.)

I’ve heard it said that I have an interesting mind. I was recently having a conversation with someone in which it was explained to me in the following way, which I like.

“Your mind,” they commented, wryly.

“I’m sure everyone else’s is just as complicated and weird.”

“Yeah, but most people’s are contradictory in a mushy way. Yours is complicated in a precise way, with all of these overlaying rules and layers of structure you’ve built up.”

I would buy that. I’ve felt in recent past that my mind is just one giant system of coping mechanism that I’ve constructed mainly to allow me to move “wants” around so that I’m motivated to do stuff, and to not be as anxious about, like, everything :P. Plus I like thinking, and I like minds and people, and I think what results is kind of intricate machinery that’s hard to dismantle in some ways and easy to manipulate in others. Haha, it occurs to me that it’s like how I organize code, really—one can choose structures that make some things easy to manipulate, but those same structures will be a complete pain to change when some special new inputs need to be analyzed, requiring hand-coding.

I think I’ve optimized my mind so that it updates really fast on what’s expected of me. Like, I think I can go from input – you need to learn linear algebra, Monica—to execution much, much faster than most people, because of the meta-processing of this machinery. That particular pathway is just ridiculously streamlined. There are the pre-requisites: I have pretty much absolute confidence in my ability to learn almost anything, given enough time. I have a habit of learning new things, so it’s practiced and doesn’t require any new systems. I have methods of dealing with insecurity (…mostly just by shoving through it), and a set of practiced norms about seeking help and friends. This overlaps with the machinery itself, which seems to be mainly about managing motivation. If the advice comes from someone in authority I trust, and other people agree, then I consider that sufficient evidence and don’t have to consult what I feel at all. If I’m feeling worried about it, I marshal the “learning is good! Hard things are good!” policies and slam that on top of it. I like organization, I really really like plans, and I like taking actions towards goals, so I can very quickly put “final goal- intermediate goals – tasks to be taken later – tasks to be taken now” plans together and start executing, and get all sorts of positive feedback from the system for doing this sort of thing. And I think the ease and practice and fluency of this system makes me much, much better at doing what is advised to me than other people, assuming I think the advice is valid.

I think this is what people are gesturing at when they think I’m “miraculously effective”. I seem to be much better at motivation than other people, in that if I cognitively decide I’m going to do something, then I’m going to do it. That’s how the system works. (I think this is a great system to develop if one’s trying to get through the modern-day school system well. It’s also perfect for being pre-med. I was such a good pre-med… with the caveat that I fervently didn’t want to practice medicine…)

So I’m good at skill-acquisition and doing challenging learning things for the sake of learning them. Say someone told me that the most important thing I could do right now was, hm, learn all of the biology and chemistry and mathematics to do wet-lab work to research anti-aging drugs, and convinced me that this was actually the really, really best thing for me to do in my life. Then I’d start making plans and taking online classes and talking to people in the field and working on that. If someone told me I really needed to start a start-up (which frankly sounds terrifying) and be successful at it and start from ground zero and quit everything and do that, and I truly believed they were correct about that, then I’d go do that. If someone convinced me that what I really should be doing was manual labor, and there was nothing better for me to be doing than that, then I’d be doing that. If I needed to learn how to repair mechanical things, or how to be a great politician or lawyer, or whatever—if everyone was agreed that this is what I really, really needed to be doing, I’m pretty sure I’d just suck it up and do that.

This tendency is also why people worry about me, I think. I’m influenceable. If you can convince my cognitive mind that that’s really what I should be doing, very hard should, then there’s not going to be much resistance beyond that because I have this really excellently-honed system. However, one reason that people don’t need to worry about me so much is that the bar for convincing me of shoulds keeps on getting higher. Like, I’m reasonably convinced about the anti-aging drug thing. Not enough to do anything about it though, and especially not in the face of all of the happiness I’m getting right now. Moreover, it’s been broached to me that the point of life is pretty darn ambiguous, and since internalizing that I’ve kind of closed down the [I’m really open to convincing, go for it] route until I figure out a little bit more about how this machinery of mine works. (When I said above that I’m going to do “save-the-world” bits later, and doing internal stuff now… that’s the summarized version of this idea.)

So, I’ve got very nicely optimized machinery for doing stuff other people want me to do. What’s really hard to manipulate, in that sort of system?

Haha, I doubt the answer is surprising to anyone :). The answer is not overriding a subset of my own desires.

The answer, surprisingly to a lot of people, is not that I’m not listening to my emotions. People seem to think I’m repressing all of them, or aren’t aware of them, or aren’t in touch with them. But… I really just don’t think, with the range of my emotions being what they are, that that would even be possible. I get really happy. I also get really worried, spin-cycled worried, and I can’t actually repress that because I’ve tried and it doesn’t work. It’s also really important to me to be control of what’s going on with my emotions, to present well to other people, and to present well to myself. But what I can do, and what I’ve rehashed in many previous posts, is move emotions around. My main tool for doing that is reframing, and trying to be fair to people and consider their opinions. And my other main tool is distraction and overlaying. I have a lot of positive emotions. I like learning, and I like making progress, and I can feel positively overwhelmed by my life if I do gratefulness lists, broader-perspectives outlooks, writing the blog and finding positive spins, appreciating friends. A lot of tiny bad things can be effectively covered over by appreciating big, positive huge things that people forget. Reframing and overlaying both are good strategies for me. They take some time, because I don’t tend to really acknowledge negative emotions, just see them briefly, think: don’t want that, and then set to work with a combination of these two things until something clicks as enough truth and I’m all right again (process usually takes between 30 minutes and an hour. If it’s much longer than that that exceeds my biking / eating dinner / starting work again time, so I’ll give it up, or shuffle it over to the blog if it’s important.)

The answer to what my machinery misses is also, kind of surprisingly to me, not overriding all of my desires. Before Rationality Camp I hadn’t actually explicitly checked in on what I wanted for a while. And then I did that, and what came back was: huh, you’ve actually pretty much been pursuing what you wanted, in a really weird way. The really weird way is something like this: assemble all of the “shoulds”, consider what you want, and kind of desperately pursue some compromise solution that you think you shouldn’t be doing but has some part of what you want that you really want to hold on to. Believe in your heart of hearts that the compromise solution is terrible, in the sense that you’re going to have to hard-willpower yourself through all of the “shoulds” parts and will feel guilty about the other parts, but try to make it work as best as possible because you’ve committed to it and you try to make everything you commit to work as best as possible. Then, miraculously, pursuing the compromise solution reveals some really good option within that space, dive for that option based on intuition and “really-want”/“this is really good” feels, and then suddenly everything has worked out, and I’ve managed to finagle myself into a situation which a) fulfills everyone’s expectations of me, because I was pursuing the compromise solution, and b) actually has what I want in it, because I was pursuing a compromise solution and then I got the best possible option within that space.

…What a bizarre system.

I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but it does kind of explain the oddness that I feel about having ended up really happy with where I am, in a way that feels accidental? Accidental in the sense that I have really low expectations about a lot of my decisions, but then when I end up in those decisions, it turns out that they have a lot of the environmental traits that I value and am looking for. Additionally, I have a really hard time explaining to people why I end up making all of my really big decisions based on intuition and how I feel, when pretty much every single thing up to that point is about carefully weighing consequences and tradeoffs. No one ever calls me on this, but I think it’s weird that I chose Wellesley based on intuition, and I chose Berkeley based on intuition, and Cambridge really wasn’t in the plan, and none of these were in the plan, and in fact departed from the plans which were carefully constructed based on a number of important criteria. I also find it really strange to explain to myself how I’m so plan oriented, but am actually quite willing to depart from plans. …And I think the above may explain it. My plans are compromise solutions between a lot of “shoulds” and desperately trying to shove what I find intrinsically enjoyable in there (and it feels desperate when I’m doing it), and then once the plan has gotten me to a place where I have options that fulfill all of the “shoulds”, abandon the plan and go for what feels best. HOW BIZARRE.

…Where in the world would this kind of process develop? This is so extreme and strange, especially since it has “desperation” stamped across a lot of different parts of it. Someone recently presented the idea that I should just work on artificial intelligence safety research, and stop whatever I’m doing now, and I started bawling, because there was this huge swamp of despair and I thought I was done with all of the shoulds and major life switches and I FOUND SOMETHING THAT WORKS YOU CAN’T MAKE ME NOOOOOOooooo. And I think it’s because I do feel like “finding something that works” does feel like a miraculous process because I always am trying to slot intrinsic desires into the “shoulds” as secretly as possible. Take neuroscience. Why did I decide to major in neuroscience in college? I had a great teacher, I felt challenged, it’s interdisciplinary, and I strongly suspect I chose it because it had psychology in it. These are all intrinsic likes. It also involved programming, and it turns out I like programming: I got lucky. (Oooh. And I feel like I “got lucky” because programming is a huge “should” for me AND I ended up liking it. Interesting.)

But here’s the broader context of why I chose neuroscience: I came in with the feeling that I had to be a biology, chemistry, biochem, or neuroscience major. Those were the four selections I had chosen for myself, and I was completely restricted to that set. To this day I consider it miraculous that I ended up with something as great as neuroscience. It’s that same story: restrict to a set of compromise solutions based on “shoulds”, then dive all over whichever best fulfills intrinsic desires.

Next stage. Computational cognitive science. Why did I end up basically switching over to cocosci in the latter half of college? That was a pretty desperate dive. The intrinsic desire there was wanting to do social psychology, but working with the “should” of it having to be quantitative and computational. (Note that I’m not saying the “shoulds” make sense, I’m just saying what they are / were for me. Happily, I’m working with the shoulds now, so they’re now much more changeable.) I continue to find it miraculous that the field of cocosci exists, because I really thought there was no hope of getting the social psychology / quantitative / computational compromise to work :P.

(The weirdest part of this for me remains the desperation involved. People switch majors all the time in college. People mainly seem to be confused and somewhat driftless during this process, and worry about their choices and not being sure what they want to do. Meanwhile, I’m switching my major in college and the image I’m getting is lunging. (Against whom?) Maybe other people have this experience, but usually I get the sense that people are at least fighting against someone, usually their parents, if they’re fighting to make a switch, and I feel like I was mostly fighting against myself and internalized expectations at this point. (Not to say there weren’t expectations. But I’m saying that I internalized those expectations to the point where if my parents thought something that I thought was valuable, I’d be fighting my version of myself saying those things rather than ever needing to go fight with the source.))

The England decision: I maintain that I “should have” taken the other job that I was in line to get. That decision was a little less lunge-y than the other decisions though, because the England decision fulfilled “shoulds” really well along a different dimension, so that I didn’t need to justify any lunging and could just fit in within the descriptions provided by the shoulds.

(Haha, I just remembered another desperate lunge that didn’t work out. One summer I really didn’t want to be doing something I was slated to do, and so I found another opportunity and tried to hop on that boat. I was promptly foiled and told that since I’d verbally committed to the first activity, I couldn’t switch to the second. These days, I happen to be unusually careful about what I commit to. May or may not be a direct connection, but certainly reinforcement if nothing else. Ha.)

And the Berkeley decision :). There’s a definite “should have” school that I could have gone to, but I chose Berkeley almost entirely based on feel, and hope. It was almost the same feeling as choosing Wellesley, and there’s a “should have” alternative school for Wellesley too.

Excellent, seems like a consistent pattern. All of this desperate lunging and everything feeling miraculous when it works out may have something to do with how much I appreciate what I have, and how astonishing it feels. If I’m fighting myself every step of the way, it must feel crazy to have ended up in a place where it really does feel like this is the best thing I could be doing in this moment. This is basically the huh? feeling I got when I checked in on whether I liked what I was doing and the answer was yes.

All right, so is this a good system? Reasons why it’s a good system: it meets other people’s expectations! And since I usually only care about other people’s expectations when I think they’re good ones, following good suggestions seems like a good thing. Other reasons why it’s a good system: simultaneously while meeting other people’s expectations, I also get to do some approximation of what I want to do! That seems pretty great. And the result to getting to Berkeley seems really, really great. (That’s luck though. Well, this weird combination of luck and intention that I seem to follow.)

Reasons why it’s a bad system: …this seems… tremendously inefficient? I don’t think that really captures it. It’s just bizarre. If you were trying to figure out what to do with your life, I can’t imagine someone sitting down and engineering it this way. There should definitely be a way to consider other people’s advice, and my own desires, and then more directly pursue that result, rather than generating a bunch of results that I’m feeling tense about and then picking the one that seems best from that set.

Hm, interesting :). Thanks for sitting through that one with me, readers :). Discovering these kind of mental patterns is always an interesting process! (Do you feel like you discover this sort of thing?)

What I meant to originally get back to, before going off on this tangent, was that I have a visual of my mental machinery that looks like this. There’s some base level of emotions. Then on top of that I have a bunch of layers, which have “shoulds” and levers that dip into the positive emotions and levers that dip into the negative emotions and a bunch of moving parts such that I can organize my emotions how I need them to be organized. Woven into these moving parts is this flowing running dialogue that is what makes the machinery move. When I’m actively manipulating parts, like when some emotions are being too strong and I’m trying to pipe them down, I do visualization of concepts and move those around, while putting words to concepts and stating conclusions, and once I can get all of the words to attach to the emotions but reconfigure them until I hit some version of the most forgiving “truth”, everything quiets down and I’m done. Then I can hop back up to the cognitive layer, which is on top of all of this machinery and doesn’t have to interface with the deep layers much in general, and I’m good to go.

What this has meant, amusingly, is that sometimes when I’m talking to people about something I’m worried about, we get this complete disconnect. A few days I was talking to two friends about how I was worried about a particular trait that I may have, and they were like: no, you’ve defined the trait wrong, and no, that argument doesn’t make sense because of this, and no, the trait isn’t actually at all connected to that other thing you’re worried about, why are you thinking about that?

Meanwhile, they were asking me questions, and several times I had to tell them: “…What? That question doesn’t make sense. How am I supposed to connect two completely unrelated topics, with their own sets of emotional baggage, in the short period you’ve left me to answer the question?” And then I rambled a bit about how it didn’t make sense, and why I was concerned, and they said: “What? Why in the world are those concepts connected? Just snap that, that’s not true.”

Normally when I talk to these guys we help each other with some problems that can be solved in twenty minutes, which is how much time we use for this activity. In addition, it’s a nice group to work with because we all have different strengths, and usually one of our solutions will work for the other person. In this case though, I kept on running into the following thought: No. Stop. You can’t just give me solutions to this one. This problem is embedded IN THIS SYSTEM, it’s got very strong connections to identity and shoulds and fear and my mental processes, and we can’t just propose solutions. I know all of the information, I have the same information that you do, I’m just processing it differently, and I can’t “just” anything because there are a LOT of processing steps that I’m doing differently from you two.

At some point we realized this and the conclusion was just to redo the whole system. And I was like: Nooooooo, we can’t redo the whole system, because the system works and if we break something then I won’t be able to be a functional human being anymore :P.

I really do enjoy talking with my Rationality Camp people. Discussions are always so interesting. Most of the time I feel like we get away with pretending that people have the same systems we do, because there are a lot of similarities between how people organize themselves. But then there are times where you notice the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, and to figure out those differences can take hours :). I never realized this was a possibility until Camp happened.

And one of the main differences I’ve found in how people’s heads are organized is that I just have a really weird system for emotional access. There are a whole bunch of people who feel emotions in their bodies, can you imagine that, they have like direct access to emotions in their bodies, and it’s not default behavior for them to look at emotions passed through a cognitive filter. There are people who check their emotions mainly by checking them directly, rather than checking previous behavior, and there are people who don’t mainly work in words.

So many minds :). And it’s way past time for me to go to bed (at least I napped?) but I’m really glad to have gotten down a good part of what I’ve been thinking about recently. I give all the kudos to therapy—there are a surprising number of ideas that, I don’t know, let me buy into tropes that people have been telling me for ages. Something like: “you should do what you want to do” doesn’t really make sense, until it was acknowledged that there are “shoulds” in my life, and there are also intrinsic wants, and doing what I “want to do” can encompass both, and there are ways to make that integration happens. And ideas like: things don’t have to be this way, and you know, not everyone thinks like this, there are other solutions. And have you thought about this particular process you have, and maybe how it doesn’t make sense? So it’s a combination of noticing specific things, pointing out how my defaults aren’t actually the ones that everyone else has and they don’t have to be defaults, and acknowledging my systems and seeing how ideas could fit within those systems. Most of the things they say I think: well, duh, yeah, I know I’m supposed to blah, but it didn’t make sense so I didn’t do it. And then they show how advice could actually work and make sense, and it’s wonderful.

Night, all :). Thanks for sticking with me through the end of this, and tolerating a few without posts! Hopefully I should be back in business with reasonable-sized posts for a while.


(ps. And to think I went into Rationality Camp with the main goal of not being so guilt-driven. It’s kind of amazing, sometimes.)


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