I'd like to start by way of analogy. I think it'll make the link to rationality easier to understand if I give context first.
I sometimes teach the martial art of aikido. The way I was originally taught, you had to learn how to "feel the flow of ki" (basically life energy) through you and from your opponent, and you had to make sure that your movements - both physical and mental - were such that your "ki" would blend with and guide the "ki" of your opponent. Even after I stopped believing in ki, though, there were some core elements of the art that I just couldn't do, let alone teach, without thinking and talking in terms of ki flow.
A great example of this is the "unbendable arm". This is a pretty critical thing to get right for most aikido techniques. And it feels really weird. Most people when they first get it think that the person trying to fold their arm isn't actually pushing because it doesn't feel like effort to keep their arm straight. Many students (including me once upon a time) end up taking this basic practice as compelling proof that ki is real. Even after I realized that ki wasn't real, I still had to teach unbendable arm this way because nothing else seemed to work.
…and then I found anatomical resources like Becoming a Supple Leopard.
It turns out that the unbendable arm works when:
- your thoracic spine is in a non-kyphotic position
- your head isn't hanging forward (which would mimic the thoracic tension of kyphosis)
- your shoulder is rolled back and down enough for the part of your clavicle immediately above the sternoclavicular joint to stick out a bit (see here)
- your shoulder has slight tension in it from holding your elbow in a pointing-down position
That's it. If you do this correctly, you can relax most of your other arm muscles and still be able to resist pretty enormous force on your arm.
Why, you might ask? Well, from what I have gathered, this lets you engage your latissimus dorsi (pretty large back muscles) in stabilizing your elbow. There's also a bit of strategy where you don't actually have to fully oppose the arm-bender's strength; you just have to stabilize the elbow enough to be able to direct the push-down-on-elbow force into the push-up-on-wrist force.
But the point is, by understanding something about proper posture, you can cut literally months of training down to about ten minutes.
To oversimplify it a little bit, there are basically three things to get right about proper posture for martial arts (at least as I know them):
- You need to get your spine in the right position and brace it properly. (For the most part and for most people, this means tucking your pelvis, straightening your thoracic spine a bit, and tensing your abs a little.)
- You need to use your hip and shoulder ball-and-socket joints properly. (For the most part this seems to mean using them instead of your spine to move, and putting torque in them by e.g. screwing your elbow downward when reaching forward.)
- You need to keep your tissue supple & mobile. (E.g., tight hamstrings can pull your hips out of alignment and prevent you from using your hip joints instead of your mid-lumbar spine (i.e. waist) to bend over. Also, thoracic inflexibility usually locks people in thoracic kyphosis, making it extremely difficult to transfer force effectively between their lower body and their arms.)
My experience is that as people learn how to feel these three principles in their bodies, they're able to correct their physical postures whenever they need to, rather than having to wait for my seemingly magical touch to make an aikido technique suddenly really easy.
It's worth noting that this is mostly known, even in aikido dojos ("training halls"). They just phrase it differently and don't understand the mechanics of it. They'll say things like "Don't bend over; the other guy can pull you down if you do" and "Let the move be natural" and "Relax more; let ki flow through you freely."
But it turns out that getting the mechanical principles of posture down makes basically all the magic of aikido something even a beginner can learn how to see and correct.
A quick anecdote along these lines, which despite being illustrative, you should take as me being a bit of an idiot:
I once visited a dojo near the CFAR office. That night they were doing a practice basically consisting of holding your partner's elbow and pulling them to the ground. It works by a slight shift sideways to cause a curve in the lumbar spine, cutting power between their lower and upper bodies. Then you pull straight down and there's basically nothing they can do about it.
However, the lesson was in terms of feeling ki flow, and the instruction was to pull straight down. I was feeling trollish and a little annoyed about the wrongness and authoritarian delivery of the instruction, so I went to the instructor and asked: "Sensei, I see you pulling slightly sideways, and I had perhaps misheard the instructions to be that we should pull straight down. Should I be pulling slightly sideways too?"
At which point the sensei insisted that the verbal instructions were correct, concentrated on preventing the sideways shift in his movements, and obliterated his ability to demonstrate the technique for the rest of the night.
Brienne Yudkowsky has a lovely piece in which she refers to "mental postures". I highly recommend reading it. She does a better job of pointing at the thing than I think I would do here.
…but if you really don't want to read it just right now, here's the key element I'll be using: There seems to be a mental analog to physical posture.
We've had quite a bit of analogizing rationality as a martial art here. So, as a martial arts practitioner and instructor with a taste of the importance of deeply understanding body mechanics, I really want to ask: What, exactly, are the principles of good mental posture for the Art of Rationality?
In the way I'm thinking of it, this isn't likely to be things like "consider the opposite" or "hold off on proposing solutions". I refer to things of this breed as "mental movements" and think they're closer to the analogs of individual martial techniques than they are principles of mental orientation.
That said, we can look at mental movements to get a hint about what a good mental posture might do. In the body, good physical posture gives you both more power and more room for error: if you let your hands drift behind your head in a shihonage, having a flexible thoracic spine and torqued shoulders and braced abs can make it much harder for your opponent to throw you to the ground even though you've blundered. So, by way of analogy, what might an error in attempting to (say) consider the opposite look like, and what would a good "mental posture" be that would make the error matter less?
(I encourage you to think on your own about an answer for at least 60 seconds before corrupting your mind with my thoughts below. I really want a correct answer here, and I doubt I have one yet.)
When I think of how I've messed up in attempts to consider the opposite, I can remember several instances when my tone was dutiful. I felt like I was supposed to consider the opinion that I disagreed with or didn't want to have turn out to be true. And yet, it felt boring or like submitting or something like that to really take that perspective seriously. I felt like I was considering the opposite roughly the same way a young child replies to their parent saying "Now say that you're sorry" with an almost sarcastic "I'm sorry."
What kind of "mental posture" would have let me make this mistake and yet still complete the movement? Or better yet, what mental posture would have prevented the mistake entirely? At this point I intuit that I have an answer but it's a little tricky for me to articulate. I think there's a way I can hold my mind that makes the childish orientation to truth-seeking matter less. I don't do it automatically, much like most people don't automatically sit up straight, but I sort of know how to see my grasping at a conclusion as overreaching and then… pause and get my mental feet under my mental hips before I try again.
I imagine that wasn't helpful - but I think we have examples of good and bad mental posture in action. In attachment theory, I think that the secure attachment style is a description of someone who is using good mental posture even when in mentally/emotionally threatening situations, whereas the anxious and avoidant styles are descriptions of common ways people "tense up" when they lose good mental posture. I also think there's something interesting in how sometimes when I'm offended I get really upset or angry, and sometimes the same offense just feels like such a small thing - and sometimes I can make the latter happen intentionally.
The story I described above of the aikido sensei I trolled also highlights something that I think is important. In this case, although he didn't get very flustered, he couldn't change what he was doing. He seemed mentally inflexible, like the cognitive equivalent of someone who can't usefully block an overhead attack because of a stiff upper back restricting his shoulder movement. I feel like I've been in that state lots of times, so I feel like I can roughly imagine how my basic mental/emotional orientation to my situation and way of thinking would have to be in order to have been effective in his position right then - and why that can be tricky.
I don't feel like I've adequately answered the question of what good mental posture is yet. But I feel like I have some intuitions - sort of like being able to talk about proper posture in terms of "good ki flow". But I also notice that there seem to be direct analogs of the three core parts of good physical posture that I mentioned above:
- Have a well-braced "spine". Based on my current fledgling understanding, this seems to look something like taking a larger perspective, like imagining looking back at this moment 30 years hence and noticing what does and does not matter. (I think that's akin to tucking your hips, which is a movement in service of posture but isn't strictly part of the posture.) I imagine this is enormously easier when one has a well-internalized sense of something to protect.
- Move your mind in strong & stable ways, rather than losing "spine". I think this can look like "Don't act while triggered", but it's more a warning not to try to do heavy cognitive work while letting your mental "spine" "bend". Instead, move your mind in ways that you would upon reflection want your mind to move, and that you expect to be able to bear "weight".
- Make your mind flexible. Achieve & maintain full mental range of movement. Don't get "stiff", and view mental inflexibility as a risk to your mental health.
All three of these are a little hand-wavy. That third one in particular I haven't really talked about much - in part because I don't really know how to work on that well. I have some guesses, and I might write up some thoughts about that later. (A good solution in the body is called "mobilization", basically consisting of pushing on tender/stiff spots while you move the surrounding joints through their maximal range of motion.) Also, I don't know if there are more principles for the mind than these three, or if these three are drawing too strongly on the analogy and are actually a little distracting. I'm still at the stage where, for mental posture, I keep wanting to say the equivalent of "relax more and let ki flow."
A lot of people say I have excellent physical posture. I think I have a reasonably clear idea of how I made my posture a habit. I'd like to share that because I've been doing the equivalent in my mind for mental posture and am under the impression that it's getting promising results.
I think my physical practice comes down to three points:
- Recognize that having good posture gives you superpowers. It's really hard to throw me down, and I can pretty effortlessly pull people to the ground. A lot of that is martial skill, but a huge chunk of it is just that good posture gives me excellent leverage. This transfers to being able to lift really heavy things and move across the room very efficiently and quickly when needed. This also gives me a pretty big leg up on learning physical skills. Recognizing that these were things I'd gain from learning good posture gave me a lot of drive to stick to my practice.
- Focus on how the correct posture feels, and exactly how it's different from glitchy posture. I found it super-important to notice that my body feels different in specific ways when my shoulders are in the right position versus when they're too far forward or back. Verbal instructions like "Pull shoulders back" don't work nearly as well as the feeling in the body.
- Choose one correction at a time, and always operate from that posture, pausing and correcting yourself when you're about to slip up. Getting good shoulder posture required that I keep my shoulders back all the time. When I would reach for water, I'd notice when my shoulder was in the too-far-forward position, and then pull back and fix my shoulder position before trying again. This sometimes required trying at very basic tasks several times, often quite slowly, until I could get it right each time.
Although I didn't add this until quite late, I would now add a fourth point when giving advice on getting good physical posture: make sure to mobilize the parts of your body that are either (a) preventing you from moving into a good position or (b) requiring you to be very stiff or tense to hold that position. The trouble is, I know how to do that for the body, but I'm not as sure about how to do that for the mind.
But the three bullet points above are instructions that I can follow with respect to mental posture, I think.
So, to the extent that that seems possible for you, I invite you to try to do the same - and let me know how it goes.
I’m not sure if I can answer this because I don’t understand what good mental posture is or even what good physical posture is, for that matter. Can you please confirm if my understanding, below, of what these are is correct?
Basically, posture refers to the body's alignment and positioning with respect to the force of gravity.
Good posture refers to the removal of impediments in movement. It is about activating only the right muscles at the right time in order to achieve specific movements.
Good mental posture, on the other hand, seems to involve taking certain perspectives or entering certain frames of mind that are conducive to the achievement of your current goals.
From the article you linked:
If we view thought activation in a similar way to how we view muscle activation in regards to physical posture, then we can think of good mental posture as the undertaking of certain perspectives or mindsets that inhibit unhelpful thoughts and induce helpful thoughts, where what is helpful depends on the current task at hand.
A good mental posture will be:
PS. Physical posture and mental posture may be entwined. People who are in pain or tired often have bad posture.
Well, I can do that for physical posture. I don't know if I can do that for mental posture, but I'll try.
I think in broad strokes your description of what good physical posture is sounds right to me. I wouldn't tie it to gravity specifically; I think it makes sense to talk about good posture in a space station. But maybe replace "gravity" with "surrounding forces" and I think it's basically right.
I'd sum it up by saying that posture is a description of how efficient the arrangement of your body is at transmitting forces. A curled-forward upper back is terrible at transmitting forces between your arms and your hips when compared to a more straight upper back, so I'm inclined to call a straighter upper back "better posture".
There seem to be a few default physical positions that are about as good at general force transmission as a human body can get. Those positions are what I call "good posture".
I personally like Todd Hargrove's breakdown of what good physical posture does for you, though I think the one you linked to is reasonably good too.
I honestly don't know what good mental posture is. I'm gesturing at an intuition based on a bunch of my own experiences and how they resonate with my experience with physical posture.
For instance, if someone trips and knocks into me, I'm much more likely than untrained people to just keep my ground. If I get knocked to the side, though, I'm likely to keep my torso moving as basically one piece, which makes it really easy for me to recover my balance. It's really notable to me when my postural habits slip up and someone knocks into me because I feel like I'm flopping around through the air as I fall over, and relative to my baseline it feels physically dangerous to me.
I notice something that feels analogous in my mind. If someone turned to me and said "Val, go get me coffee", I'm likely to get agitated in a way that reminds me of getting bumped into while having a floppy core. I can pause and use some CBT-like techniques to "catch" myself by, say, noticing that the person probably didn't mean to offend me - but this seems more analogous to grabbing a hold of something nearby to keep myself from falling than it does having a solid core. Instead, I notice that there's some kind of way I can choose to orient myself to the situation and to myself that lets me notice my annoyance at being ordered around and basically not get "knocked over". In that mental "position", I feel like the CBT-like thoughts are much more solid mental "movements", more like taking a stable step to keep my balance than grabbing at whatever is in reach as I fall.
If I had to guess at a definition of mental posture, I would try by analogy to the "efficient at transmitting forces" description of physical posture above. Maybe something like saying it's a description of how efficiently one's patterns of directing attention let one mentally navigate one's environment. The thing is, I haven't really worked out how to capture the intuition I have that being unbothered by being offended is a function of good mental posture whereas being really fast at mathematical computations isn't.
Right, though I think this might be too abstract to be useful. I could also say that physical posture involves taking certain physical positions that are conductive to the achievement of your current goals. I think that's accurate, but I don't think it quite captures the details that are useful in the analogical mapping.
That's a neat take on it. I feel like it's missing something; e.g., in the anxious/avoidant trap in attachment theory, the problem isn't just the thoughts, but also something about the way that emotional anticipations seem "off balance". Just changing thought patterns a la CBT doesn't seem to reach deeply enough to fix attachment wounds in my experience. But the basic idea is neat. It reminds me of the idea of avoiding wasted mental movements (e.g., thoughts like "I don't know if I can handle this!" when you have to are utterly wasted in nearly all possible futures where you succeed, so it seems worthwhile to just not bother with that thought).
(By the way, I'd warn not to take attachment theory too seriously. It has a lot of psychobabble in it. I do think it does a really nice job of describing some experiences people have, and the "anxious/avoidant trap" is a great example. But the page I just linked to includes a bunch of Freudian guesswork about why avoidants attract anxious folk and vice versa, and that's basically without any empirical support as far as I know.)
I like this breakdown. It resonates with me. There are two details I'd want to tweak based on my limited personal experience playing with this stuff:
Overall I like your description though. It gives me the impression that you're looking at basically the same thing I am.
I thought this was a delightful use of language! I had been using "mental arts" to act as a verbal and visual mirror for "martial arts", but hadn't noticed this mapping between "physical" and "psychical". Thank you for this!
Yep. I'm a little surprised by how strong the analogy is in my inner experience, which makes me wonder if the mapping is somehow a natural one.
I'm reminded of Todd Hargrove's suggestion that the brain is for movement and his follow-up analysis of the idea.
Presence seems to help with mathematical computations and also with not getting offended. Presence happens on of those words that's mystic for a lot of people, so let me try to put forward an operational definition.
There a meditation I have done where the group sits together and the only order is too be present. From time to time the leader of the meditation rings a really loud bell. Everybody who get's shocked by the sound isn't present. While the people that do get shocked are present.
Unfortunately both psychopaths and Buddhists monks are able to not get shocked by loud noises in this way. I think it's worthwhile to exercise caution in that area because we don't want to turn people into psychopath that don't feel important things.
For that reason I would advocate against doing Scientology style desensitation training even when it will put you into a mental state where you don't get easily triggered anymore.
This may be a little basic, but if you're already going with the "efficient at transmitting forces" idea for physical posture, then I think a good analogy in terms of mental posture would simply be "efficient at processing information" (of which being rational is a pretty useful method, just like keeping your spine, er, non-kyphotic is useful).
This is much more concise than:
while at the same time relatively neutral with respect to the actual goals that you may have (e.g. keeping one's balance, either physically when someone bumps into you, or mentally when someone offends you).
And if you were to compare mental posture to an artform like aikido on the physical side, you might also get something like the noble eightfold path on the mental side (which, sayings like having "right mindfulness" can be compared with "relax more").
Also, with the amount of upvotes and relevance to this topic, I'm surprised to see that Roles are Martial Arts for Agency hasn't been linked yet. It was definitely in the back of my mind as I made a few comparisons.
Good point. I guess when I said “you are activating only the thoughts that are pertinent to the task at hand” I was referring to mainly system 2 thoughts because system 1 is not constrained by the same resource limitations. I would say that, in fact, habituating system 2 thoughts and making them system 1 or relaxing and letting your system 1 take over falls into the same idea of only activating the thoughts that you need to. If you continually use system 2 when system 1 can be used, then this can be a problem. I am sure that with aikido you don’t think through all the moves like a beginner would, but instead, like when we drive, a lot of the thought that controls your movement is done through system 1.
Some words on discipline (n.b. not technical just inspiring, and get disciplined is another subreddit.
Something I've seen in various martial arts training: people who have a strong kinesthetic sense of how to achieve things and avoid mistakes can be surprisingly bad at articulating what it is they are doing. There's probably an analogic phenomenon in reasoning and discourse. People who find that they are persuasive, or have the ability to get good grasp on a topic in a short time, may not be able to convey the techniques they are using to achieve these effects. As this sort of problem doesn't stop people from giving advice, I think it's a useful pre-filter to put on when reading or hearing advice: Ask yourself if you can restate what they're saying or pay attention to what they're physically doing to gain a concrete, object level sense of what they mean.
Often becoming an expert at something just means that activity is now handled mostly by system-1, but we are only aware of the processes that are taking place in system-2, so becoming expert at something can lead to one having less access to the process they're utilizing than a beginner or intermediate practitioner has. This is unfortunate for those of us who would like to learn from such experts.
I doubt that a beginner without much body awareness who goes into that dojo would be able to notice the difference between what the sensei is saying and what he's doing. If it would be easy to see, someone would have already told him. Val spend a lot of time developing awareness and is using it in that example.
A bit of a side question -- would you recommend the Supple Leopard book for figuring out the underlying biomechanics of many martial arts techniques? The spine positioning, in particular, looks a lot like what Tai Chi tries to achieve...
Yes, just ignore him when he tries to say that elite olympic weightlifters are squatting wrong. He's basically good everywhere else. (what is up with this pattern in the exercise world?)
I don't particularly know about exercise, but once, being annoyed by all of the spammy advertisements that say "Never do this exercise!", I googled for that phrase. It seems that everyone with an exercise blog has some set of exercises to "never do". I suspect it's simply a clickbait pattern, the same as for those ads: choose something unremarkable and be conspicuously against it. Being right is optional.
Yeah, I got curious and googled up that controversy -- my impression is that Starrett backed off and is now saying that "knees out" only means "don't collapse your knees in"...
Oh, that's great news! Always nice to see someone update rather than get defensive.
The description of the use of posture in aikido is super interesting!
I'm a little worried that analogizing "mental arts" to martial arts might lead the imagination in the wrong direction--it evokes ideas like "flexible" or "balanced" etc. But thinking about mental states when I get a lot of research done, the biggest one by far is when I'm trying to prove some annoying guy wrong on an inconsequential comment thread on tumblr. If I could only harness that motivation, I'd be set for life. Thinking about aikido practitioners primes me for things like "zen-like and serene", not "peeved and petty".
What would mental posture be? Here are some of my thoughts on what it may be in general:
1) Best posture for what? Different tasks may require different postures. Rationality or mental arts may be too broad. The best posture for specific practice X may be different than for specific practice Y.
2) Although we don't understand the human body nearly as well as I'd like, we still understand things like physical posture better than we understand thoughts and consciousness. So we may not yet have the vocabulary for the equivalents of "thoracic kyphosis" or "tight hamstrings".
2) You might be getting into philosophy here. In my engineering education, I was taught a specific philosophical approach to the world. It goes something like "The world is more complicated than we understand. Nevertheless, we can do useful things by using models of reality that are oversimplified and we can simplify them further with assumptions. It is important to keep track of which assumptions we make, and the conditions under which the model will work, or not work. Every model has limits and situations where it will not work. Being explicitly aware that we are using a model, what assumptions we are making, and when it works is important. When we don't know the answers to those questions, empirical testing can help. It's important to keep track of all this, because when we apply the wrong model to a situation, people can die."
This is not a universally held approach to the world. There are people walking around living their lives who view the world through a philosophical lens closer to Plato's Forms, or something else that is also vastly different from the above.
I think that the "remember that it is a model, and that another model might be more useful, and that it is based on these assumptions, and that the model will fail in some circumstances" is an extremely useful approach to the world, and I have applied it to other areas of my life with good results.
3) Become more comfortable with uncertainty, in general, (Pema Chodron's advice to "lean into the sharp points" comes to mind here. I recommend her book "When Things Fall Apart" for a Buddhist look at some of these issues.)
Also, more specifically, extend the time in the part of the process where you are looking for the next model to make sense of the situation. That can end up with spending a lot of time not knowing the answer. It usually ends up with a better model of the situation.
The working model to make sense of a situation is called a "cheap trick" by Venkatesh Rao. Rao has a model called the Double Freytag Triangle in his book Tempo that describes an ongoing process of looking for ways to make sense of the world, exploiting them until they break, then looking for the next one that has to take into account more data. (Quick description at the glossary to Venkat's blog here, though he makes up a lot of terminology, so it's not a great explanation for someone who hasn't read the book: http://www.tempobook.com/glossary/#double-freytag-triangle Link to book here: http://www.tempobook.com )
4) Another guide to good mental posture may be to aim for the opposite of the cognitive biases that human factors research has shown trip people up in emergency situations. For example the narrowing of focus to just a few things can lead to counterproductive actions in an emergency.
5) Thinking of the models as tools in a tool box, to be deployed when appropriate, not as part of your identity. It's similar to what Paul Graham said in this essay where he gives the advice to "keep your identity small" http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html
6) Physical and mental realms are not separate. In order to have mental clarity, it helps to have had enough sleep, nutritious food, good air quality, few interruptions, etc. Most of those help with physical posture too, though physical posture is something different than getting enough sleep for example. But they are things that make a difference. Perhaps the idea relevant for mental posture is to have an awareness of your physical state and how that is affecting your thoughts. "I'm not thinking straight right now because of my physical condition therefore I should not make a major decision right now" or rules of thumb like that seem like they are useful.
To sum up, I think a good mental posture might be something like:
But I also think that we haven't sufficiently defined what we are talking about with the words "mental posture" for me to have a good idea whether what I just said was nonsense or applicable at all.
Now, to apply it to the example you mentioned about feeling dutiful about considering the opposite. Perhaps if you were thinking about the situation as being uncertain and then figuring out which of several models to apply to the situation, you would not have already committed to a particular model that you would feel grumpy about considering the opposite of. The approach to "consider the opposite" might be something more along the lines of "What assumptions does this model use? If those assumptions were different, how would the outputs of the model change?" and "This model works in such and such conditions. Do those conditions hold or not? What would information would the model give under the opposite conditions? Would that information be reliable, or would we have to choose a different model to cover that possibility?" And, "Is there a different model available that would better fit the data that I have encountered so far?" And "I am focussing on these things in my model, but what if I included different variables?" Also, choosing a different model would hopefully not feel like attacking one's identity, or doing remedial work to validate an obvious conclusion, but rather like a more pleasant sort of choice.
I'm not sure what you mean by "childish orientation to truth-seeking" but I think this approach does involve truth seeking. It is sort of along the lines of "which approximation, though not completely true, is close enough to being true to be useful in this situation?" but also "Under which conditions does this method of approximation diverge a lot from reality?" It does require thinking of none of the models as completely true.
What came to mind for me is the term "whimsical curiosity". That's what tends to lead my thoughts down various avenues and thought experiments. That attitude is open to all possibilities for their own sake.
Perhaps there's a hint of trollish obstinace in there too, which motivates me to consider the opposite. It's just mildly satisfying to figure out that something is or isn't true. I suspect a stronger form of this mindset is what caused OP to stick a wrench in his sensei's technique.
An exaggerated form of the mindset would be "the more bizarre the idea, the better". Although not ideal, I feel like it may be useful in order to take seriously things you don't actually believe. It's a counter to the dutiful obligation to mechanically think through an idea I disagree with. In my experience, this mindset first causes the reductio ad absurdum to spring to mind, but then I ask myself "what else" and a mix of positive and negative consequences start to occur to me. Sure, this hypothetical world has some insane components, but it also has some interesting unexpected benefits. Sometimes following this train of thought will even lead me to question whether the reductio ad absurdum is really absurd.
As a judoka, this really spoke to me and was a useful analogy - thankyou very much for it!
My own idea of what good mental posture looks like includes some idea of the way you model yourself. One of my biggest failure modes is when I slip into seeing myself as 'random useless seventeen-year-old' and therefore acting as I expect a random useless seventeen year old to act (ineffectively) or waiting to get permission before I do things. When I manage to change into seeing-myself-as-agent mode, my productivity and rationality gets supercharged compared to the aforementioned state. It has funny side effects - for instance, I notice I walk faster and tend to spin on my heels and clap my hands together when I'm being agenty, whereas I stroll and gesture vaguely when I'm being useless. I speak more precisely when I'm in agenty-mode, and replace 'um/er/uh' with silent pauses or 'hmm'. This indicates to me that it's not just a single mental action, but a whole different stance.
I think it's similar to what is spoken about in HPMOR with most people just playing a role and doing what they think someone in that role should do, but others genuinely optimising - but I don't think I've escaped the mode of playing a role, I just sometimes manage to play the role of an agenty person rather than the role of a useless person. It turns out that if you play the role of someone who optimises everything and Gets Stuff Done, you get stuff done. (Sometimes.)
This definitely feels like two very different mental postures. I'm not actually sure how I induce the agenty state from the ineffective state, but I have identified a number of things that might have to do with it, from social pressure, to bright lights, to having a solid idea of what agentyness looks like from observing good role models. The last idea (watching a role model and knowing what agentyness looks like) was reinforced in my mind when I heard a friend saying similar things recently, so to improve my mental posture I'm going to try and watch more awesome people work so I get an idea of what awesomeness looks like, and then try to play that role more and the 'useless kid' role less. I also really like your suggestions!
(written before reading on)
Outward orientation. Focus on features of the external world. Seeking harmony with the movements of reality.
Here are some motions I might make if I discover I've failed to consider the opposite:
If you startle a cat that's preparing to pounce, it might suddenly jump, whereas if you startle it wile it's lazing about, it might just twitch and look at you suddenly. When it's preparing to pounce, its posture makes jumping the default reaction to anything that happens.
If any of these mental motions is my reflexive response to discovering an error, I must be posed for self assessment, as though I'm prepared to pounce on myself - "What do my experiences mean about me as a person?" - and for judgement of my relationship with other people, with imaginary versions of myself, or with a system of rules.
Some motions I'd rather make upon discovering I've failed to consider the opposite:
(Preferably in that order.)
What posture would make these thoughts the sort I'd have as an automatic reflex if a failure to consider the opposite were to sneak up on me and yell "boo"?
There are probably some more specific good answers to this, but the one that comes to mind - and my current best answer to the more general question "what posture is good for rationality?" - is something like "seeking harmony with external reality".
This is a feeling I'm familiar with from partner dance. When I'm not dancing very well, I tend to have a strong inward focus. I'm concerned about what I am doing, whether the thing I did was what the lead meant for me to do, and how I look to other people.
When I'm dancing my best, my focus is always outward: on the lead, on the music, on the patterns of movement we're creating together. My focus is on the dance, not on myself. It's a kind of being in love, an intense selfless attentiveness to the phenomenon of dancing.
Similarly, when I'm trying to make good decisions in the midst of uncertainty and frequent error, I move more effectively if my attention is on the world, instead of on myself.
Excuse me for getting all poetical, but: Just as a master dancer must be in love with the dance, so must a master rationalist be in love with the truth. Maintaining a posture of selfless attentiveness to accuracy is what it means to be in love with the truth.
When I've fallen - say, by failing to consider the opposite - and may have damaged my model, this kind of outward-facing, world-aligned mental posture helps me spring right back up to rejoin the dance and make things right again.
[Edit: "Maintaining selfless attentiveness" is most of how I personally be in love. I am aware of having an unusual way of being in love. This might be closer to what most people experience as parental love than romantic love. Anyway, it's probably a bad phrasing for most, and just a good handle for me.]
I really like this post. Questions:
Can the (physical or mental) posture that's appropriate for avoiding mistakes be opposed to the posture appropriate for focusing power on one point?
Are there multiple styles of posture or thought that are equally effective local maxima, while hybrids of them are less effective?
Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean.
I don't do a lot of brick-breaking with my fists, so I might not know much about doing that well. But my impression is that the principles that transfer force well through the body in aikido will also transfer force well when trying to deliver a sharp blow to exactly one spot on a brick. In aikido at least, there's no opposition between posture that helps make you do the right thing and posture that helps you avoid doing the wrong thing.
…but of course, it's possible to compromise posture and still deliver a lot of power to one point, just like it's possible to avoid falling over when throwing someone while you have a weak spine posture.
I think the analog in the mind is something like focus or concentration. I think it's certainly possible to concentrate really hard in a way that violates good mental posture in other situations, but I intuitively wouldn't anticipate very good results from that compared to the counterfactual where the focus is done while maintaining good mental posture.
But I really don't know.
And I might have totally misunderstood what you were gesturing at. Please feel free to clarify if needed!
I don't know. I don't know of any for the body, I don't think. Some people claim that you should never round your lower back outward, but as far as I can tell the real rule is to brace your spine so that it can transfer force well, which is much harder to do when it's rounded but not impossible. There are some situations where using the rule of thumb of "curve in your lower back" just isn't possible, so you have to go back to the reason why the rule is there. At that point you start getting things that look like violations of "good posture" but are actually quite good uses of body mechanics. (In this case you brace your spine with your abs while "lengthening" it.)
I'm less sure about mental posture. But that's because I don't have a very good reductionistic model of what "mental posture" is yet.
For my second question, I was thinking for example of different fighting styles, and whether it's just that some are more effective in certain circumstances, or that each style is a local maximum.
A key thing here seems to be that if you really care about the getting right outcome, or in Eliezer's words, have Something to Protect, then considering the opposite won't feel like an annoying duty. Rather, then changing your mind will become something that you actually want to do.
Crucial Conversations is sold as a book for handling social conflicts, but you can also read it as a general rationality guide; in particular, it has a whole chapter on "how to stay focused on what you really want", which has this great example:
You're not talking about defending yourself about an explicit social attack, like the Greta example is; but the mental motion involved is similar: "ugh, why do I have to deal with this?". The subordinate's question, or the need to consider the opposite, is perceived as an annoying external force on you that you're forced to deal with.
I hadn't explicitly thought about it in terms of posture before, but the analogy makes sense. There's something that takes you out of the truth-seeking posture; and then to fix that, to return yourself to the right posture, you ask yourself, "what do I really want here?", or "what if I'm wrong?", and then you go back. (In the Greta examples, her change in mindset is even observable from her physical stance!) And for as long as you're in the non-truth-seeking mode, for as long as you are only interested in defending yourself or your actions, you'll be less flexible in terms of what you can do.
One thought on this point - it might be easier to evaluate "what-if" scenarios by explicitly considering them as fictional. What if I am wrong about this assertion? Well, in such a fictional universe, I would then observe consequences A, B, and C... and only then do I ask the question about whether the assertion or its opposite appears more likely to be fictional.
...it may also be partially because I enjoy speculating about fictional universes.
Yep! I find stuff like this helpful.
…and yet when I pump it through the analogical mapping I'm using here between mind and body, mental movements like this feel a bit like practicing grabbing things as I fall as a way of dealing with being pushed or knocked into. That seems like a useful skill, but like a second-order tweak after figuring out how to not get knocked totally off-balance when someone bumps into me. Sort of like trying to learn how to do parkour before learning how to brace one's spine.
And appropriately enough, doing that with parkour actually endangers your spine. Mapping that back through the analogy to the mind again, I think I see a close correlate: I don't know when I can trust my fictional "what-if" thinking to kick online when I need it, or if my attempt to do "what-if" thinking will still be dutiful rather than based on a sincere desire to know the truth.
…although I do think the technique you're suggesting is useful, and I'm totally going to play with it.
Hmmm. You may have a point.
...having considered your article, another potential line of investigation occurs to me. Consider; a lot of the martial arts practitioners, the ones talking about ki flow, are still managing to achieve good physical posture, even if they're talking about it in terms of ki. So, consider how this began; presumably, (I'm doing a lot of guessing here) the earliest practitioners of akido didn't really think in terms of leverage and forces and anatomy, they thought in terms of ki. And they noticed what worked and what didn't.
Not why it did or didn't work - merely what did or didn't work.
Now, consider the idea of finding out how not to fall when pushed. It seems to me that the easiest way to learn what to do to accomplish this without learning why it works is simply to try a lot of things and see what sticks. For example, getting a friend to try to push you over several times, while you try not to fall; sooner or later, you'll start figuring out what works.
In an analogous manner, getting mentally pushed a lot of times may help you to find a better way to hold on to your mental stability. Joining a local debate club might help for this; or just find a friend, pick an issue with some ambiguity to it, and then (this is important) toss a coin to decide which side of the issue each of you will argue (this way you'll often have to defend a position you do not hold); perhaps take a few days to do some research; and then each try to persuade each other of the correctness of the side you randomly elected to defend.
My idea is ... adopting a game-like perspective?
When my game character get hurt, I know it cognitively and I have emotional reactions, but it won't affect my overall stance in an overwhelming way. Things are affecting my character, not threatening 'myself'.
Another trick is to know what you are really up to (aka the mission) and know your mental energy level (aka HP/MP)?
As such, the way I deal with a difficult situation is goal-oriented, responding instead of reacting. And I'll know what I'm capable of (and what I'm incapable of), instead of blaming myself or blaming someone else over some improbable stuff.
Our physical posture is created by muscles.
There is too much focus on the spine when discussing posture in my opinion. Our vertebrae are there to protect the spinal cord, they are not a stack of blocks that keep us upright. Working with the right muscles - the main muscles of movement - will position the spine correctly.
Focusing on Base-Line (pelvic floor and rectus abdominis - the body's 'core pillar' of strength) is key to developing an awareness of the body's position, motion and balance, increasing consciousness of our sense of proprioception which facilitates self-assessment and improvement of posture.
I now know what a "good posture" is. I can feel it.
A mental postures I have when doing good rationality is - Love to be wrong / Want to change my idea
Understanding a larger perspective is useful to set priorities and reflect. On the other hand I'm not sure whether it helps to get into a flow state and be immersed into a subject.
If you search a bug in the code you write, then all mental capacity goes towards being immersed in the code. I would be pleased to hear if someone on LW can code well in a mental state where their mind isn't completely focused on the code. On the other hand I doubt it.
I don't think everybody has to work in pomodoros but I think it's useful to think about how thinking works in the framework. During the work time focus is very important. On the other hand in the pause where you decide on what to work next it's useful to have the big picture in mind.
Being conscious of the context in which you acting might be a better way to frame it. If I do pomodoro I'm clear that coding time is coding time and relaxing time is relaxing time. From Creative Consciousness (CC) workshops I know the technique of writing down a context for whatever activity one engages in. When hanging out with friends at a bar the context can simply be: "Having fun"
Writing down contexts might be more a technique than a basic but context-awareness might be one of the basics you are seeking. (I think this way of being very clear about contexts comes from Landmark)
Having a discussion on LW is for example a very different context for me than having a discussion on a facebook feed. On LW I'm focusing mainly on communicating ideas to people I consider to be smart and intellectually minded. On facebook on the other hand part of my audience isn't intellecutal and that means I have to communicate differently to communicate effectively.
At the moment I had a discussion on the LW facebook group with about politics is the mindkiller with someone who hadn't read the article. On LW my basic assumption would be to assume due-diligence. That facebook group on the other hand seems to need a context where I'm assume I can't to refer to certain LW basics.
The last to Monday's I was at a Wheel of Consent meetup. The core idea of the framework is to distinguish the context where Bob touches Alice to make Alice feel good and where Bob touches Alice to make himself feel good. Communicating about which dynamic a particular touch has is valuable. Getting a shared context creates consent in which both people know what's happening.
There's a fun (or at least "fun") exercise in which I regularly engage at my heavily right-wing, ex-military workplace: I try to agree with the guys who are in knee-jerk agreement with Fox News. I find this helps immensely with mental flexibility, as it forces me to try to actually reason from a foreign point of view. For example: when my coworkers are vociferously agreeing that a wall should be built of the border with Canada, I try to enter the discussion from the Rationalist perspective, looking for any objective benefits a Canadian border wall might have.
This has the double benefit of developing mental flexibility AND making me seem to be a potential political/philosophical ally to the coworkers in question. That way, when I keep developing the Rationalist perspective into the deep, blatant flaws in such a measure, my inputs are actually considered instead of being immediately shouted down.
Occasionally, a coworker even abandons their support for the measure in question.... which leads me to believe I'm on the right path.
A decade ago I read the book of Tohei and learned meditating from them. When talking about Ki he wrote (out of memory): "It's a great concept to guide action. It's a bad concept to explain things."
These days I'm mostly living in the framework of Danis Bois with has terms like "Subjective movement" and "inner movement". I think they are useful for conceptualizing what happens. There are somatic aspects that have nothing to do with biomechanics that are also at work.
Last year I was at training of Aikido Ki techniques. One exercise was about 4 people holding the arms of legs of a person and then the person getting free by letting "Ki flow". When I was holding the Ki flow technique was doing very little. Two times the person first got free from the other ones and then used muscle strength to get free. The third time I was holding the arm and the person didn't get free.
Why? Most of the time I'm holding another person it's in dancing. I think I didn't grab the arm with "anger" or "aggression". You could label this "aggression" as not freely flowing "ki". When in aggression mode, I wouldn't balance things inside my body. Muscles wouldn't relax themselves and there would be a "weakness" that allows the other person to get free.
I like the analogy to mental posture. It is vivid and can possibly be used for newbies to brige an interential gap, but I'm dubious whether deeper insights can be derived from it.
But the concrete example of the unbendable arm was much more useful for me.
I tried it. I tried it myself and I tried to teach my 9 year old to apply it. And as far as I can tell he did - at least he achieved significant counter force and it did look like it came from his back muscles (I explicitly explained that he had to use his back muscles and he is mostly able to transfer this).
Sure there is more to apply the technique more broadly and I doubt this single experiment has any lasting effect. For me it is more like one more puzzle piece to better posture.
Why there is more training needed to apply the technique in more settings? Because I/we just followed a single set of fixed instructions to achieve an isolated effect without understanding the deeper patterns.
Why no lasting effect? Because habits do not form from single occurrences.
OK, some things can be gained. I already notice how I assume the basic position multiple times a day now. But still not broadly.
In this case you likely didn't gain a habit. But you got rid of what Thomas Hanna calls Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). You now have a perception of being out of the "optimal position". That perceptive ability allows you to correct your posture.
Yes, there's still work to do, but in my experience single occurrences can do a lot.
Thanks for the post.
One difference that might make good mental posture more difficult than good physical posture is that we have instincts for good physical posture-- you can learn about good movement by studying animals and 3 year old children. It isn't obvious that there's anything like that for thinking.
Animals maybe, but 3 year old children? They can barely run without falling over.
Right, it seems like people actually have instincts for bad mental posture more than for good mental posture.
Still, I think it might not be too difficult to look at ourselves and determine when we are using good mental postures and bad ones.
For example, consider conversations. Pretty much everyone has had good conversations and bad conversations. In the bad ones, they degenerate (in the worst cases) into you and your conversational partner straight out contradicting each other, insulting each other, talking about each other's motivations and unreasonableness, and so on. In the good ones, each of you point out the good points made by the other and very possibly converge on something close to the truth. In the best conversations I've had, sometimes one of us reversed his position and jumped to defending a position more extreme than the one held by the other -- exactly the kind of "absurdity" predicted by Aumann's agreement theorem for rational conversation partners.
And we usually know even while it's happening whether we're engaging in the reasonable kind of conversation or the unreasonable kind.
Similarly to what you feel about 'keeping yourself upright', do you have an intuition about 'finding yourself uprooted'? I mean, surely there are cashed responses to falls, both natural and learnable; and there seem to be many biased responses to mental falls, which can be considered 'natural' for the moment. What happens when you are physically falling down, have already noted to yourself that this is totally a mistake, and are minimizing impact?
Your metaphors seem to rely on there being rather rapid targeted feedback, and should be, intuitively, better in situations when there is only one alternative hypothesis, not for 'searching for them'. When I imagine imagining, wondering, my inner 'body image' holds breath, reaches out, on tenterhooks, skin crawling with goosebumps, and most of all - blind. It is, perhaps, a bad mental posture for a rationalist to train, but what I find comforting about it is - I don't expect to 'deal with it and be done' when I do think of some alternative hypothesis.
Once, when we worked on reducing trade in protected plant species, we sometimes misjudged situations and found ourselves outnumbered. It often meant 'losing' (we went away, thoroughly shamed, and sellers became bolder), which meant that next time, sellers would be much harder to subdue, but sometimes we could bluff a way to a draw or even 'a victory'. (So it was a trade-off between 'don't start' and 'don't go':) I don't know about others, but I would think, in the middle of confrontation, 'The Law backs me', and it really helped. This mantra tipped some inner scale, my shoulders went back by themselves, I became actually polite (not that I am usually purposefully rude to strangers), and yes, this is Dark-Artish. I think I could train myself to a mantra of 'The Math backs me', and it would tip me towards action in the same way.
(Epistemic status: rambling by association.)
This feels quite connected to the void/the intention to cut, and not just for the martial arts metaphor. In the same way that someone who has mastered a martial technique sees "through" it enough to be able to modify it on the fly, a good mental stance allows me to see "through" cognitive techniques, see how they work, why they work, why they might almost but not quite work for me, how they might work better if I adjusted them just so etc.