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!
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 :).