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

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