Self-priming

by Connor_Flexman3 min read7th Apr 20204 comments

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This is a self-help technique in the class of things like "low-grade meditation for 15 minutes", and as such YMMV and it's only sometimes even worth burning the time to do it. But, I like it, and I liked exploring it. Also, I derived it from cognitive science, which is a thing a lot of people seem to think is never practical, so there.

Anyways, here's

The pitch.

Everyone knows the power of priming. Even though all the stupid versions of the experiments failed to replicate, the basic ones did. And even if the basic ones didn't, you'd know they were designed wrong, because everyone's had the experience of e.g. talking about fetch while tossing a ball and then trying to yell "catch" to your friend and saying "fetch" instead.

But this is low-level priming. There's also high-level priming: if you take two gamers and have them talk about the stock market, but one of them hasn't played games in weeks and the other just finished a wild round of Dota, all else being equal the one who was just playing will be much more likely to introduce a gaming metaphor first.

For the more important application of it, the old version of Meditations on Moloch said it well:

Chronology is a harsh master. You read three totally unrelated things at the same time and they start seeming like obviously connected blind-man-and-elephant style groping at different aspects of the same fiendishly-hard-to-express point.

You can obviously prime yourself a ton by what you read. But this isn't super useful on its own. At least, I don't immediately know what I would prime myself for.

But another point. Creative people are always traveling and seeking out novelty, because travel just causes your brain to invariably begin erupting with ideas. On the opposite end, consider when you are (for an unlikely example) in lockdown in your house seeing the same 3 rooms over and over again for weeks. Your flow of ideas ceases, when you hear a new thing your brain reaches nowhere for a similarity, and you become catatonic.

(This quarantine isn't where the technique originated, but it sure is its wheelhouse.)

The technique

is to then prime yourself with the densest analogy-fodder available, so you can effortlessly have lots of thoughts later. Maybe you choose the following regimen for day 1:

  • 3-minute video of a lightsaber duel
  • 3 minutes writing down your basic model of the stock market
  • 5 minutes deciding your favorite plant
  • 5 minutes reading a poem by CS Lewis

It took you 20 minutes, but after this you're primed for analogies on any topic that your subconscious can easily relate to lightsabers, stocks, dope plants, or CS Lewis poems, which is all of them, because I chose a covering set.

There's a way to do it wrong, which is by choosing things that are interesting but don't actually interest you. (These 4 highly interest me, but probably won't immediately light you up.) Obviously priming doesn't work well if you promptly forget about the things you looked at. You need your subconscious dwelling on them. This is not the same as your conscious wanting your subconscious to dwell on them.

But if you do it right, this is a definite positive of the technique: it's just looking at stuff you like, so it should be energy-positive, which is more than most self-help hacks can say.

Variants:

First, you can just try varying the types of thing you prime yourself with. You can really prime with a lot of options, and I've learned a lot from exploring.

But for actual variants.

Targeted priming. Need to be creative about plants? Need to more adroitly navigate your confidence issues when planting? Want to hook in more of your current ideas about plants to your training in physics? Skip priming so many things, and just choose some video where someone navigates a confidence crisis or whatever. Let your brain churn on it.

Sleep priming. Do your self-priming just before you sleep instead of just before you do other stuff. Sometimes after a boring day my brain has very little of interest to chew on at night, nor does it want rest and get very rejuvenated, it's just in a very lame place. Priming helps you remember it doesn't have to be that way. Just please don't overuse this and ruin the last vestige of time when your subconscious can work on the actually important stuff without your consciousness hijacking things for its own purposes. I feel a little bad for even mentioning this one. Also be careful not to get caught up in the thoughts and balloon your sleep latency, that's why I stopped after ~two attempts with this sort of thing and now prime sleep in better ways.

Long-term priming. Maybe you had a really good framework a while ago that you realize you haven't used much lately, and you're worried you lost some of the good parts and didn't strictly dominate it with better understanding. Maybe you want to think a little more like an economist, or a little more like your friend Andy, and you don't have a great way to do that deliberately. Just prime a bit by skimming an economics paper and trying to get the gist, or just replay some classic Andy moments in your head. If there's good stuff, your subconscious can grab it and build a gradient; if not, nothing. This one is actually quite safe I think: if your subconscious doesn't see much useful there, you'll get bored and won't pollute yourself.

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:40 PM
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Thanks Connor! To self-prime, we need to generating priming material (or strategies for generating priming material). What might these generators look like? If your goal is to introduce new directions of thinking without particular targets, here possible strategies:

-Go to r/random and look at the best of all time for up to 5-10 minutes (set a site nanny like StayFocusd so it doesn't exceed this)

-... Same, but for YouTube, Podcasts, Wikipedia, etc. Youtube video walking tours of different cities are intriguing and different

-Quickly list things that you're [afraid of, curious about, hateful of, disgusted by, in love with, uninterested in] and choose one to investigate

-Find someone with opinions about your media consumption. Get them to recommend a book/band/movie where "there's no way you haven't seen this!!"

-Daydream in a linked list. "This reminds me of my dream about subway stations which reminds me that the BART infrastructure has always puzzled me, so I'll look into that because why not"


The problem with these for me is some part of me thinks this is artificial novelty, not something that will cause deep updates about the way the world works (so I won't actually use them). If you're like me, you'll need to generate priming material your own way, and the above list are just clever-sounding strategies.

These are great!

(Although the media one seems like it would take ages and be more about actual exploration than priming per se.)

As to your comment at the end, I want to note that the point isn't actually novelty! Yours are in fact more novel than mine were. You just want your brain to be chewing on something. If you choose things you like, they won't be very novel, but they *should* hook your brain and get you idly replaying them in the back of your head. Hopefully just basking in cool/interesting things for a bit will take care of the "artificial" objection?

To self-prime, we need [ways] to generat[e] priming material
Want your [subject of sentence] to