At a recent meetup one of the topics of discussion was methods of introspection. This is an interesting topic to me because sometimes all it takes is becoming aware of a new method to clarify an area where you were making little progress. Different methods also appeal more to people with different cognitive styles. I think it would be awesome to be surprised by useful modes we haven't thought of before!
Before you fill your brain up with what we came up with, I am asking you to spend 1-5 minutes writing down names or descriptions of the different methods you use when engaged in thought. This can be normal thought, metacognition, etc. If you can think of a label or description that communicates something useful about it, it's fair game. An example if you have no idea what I'm talking about: imagining counterfactuals is a method of introspection, meditation can also be one, etc. It is a lot harder to brainstorm once you see 20 different ideas.
Rot13 notes from meeting, you don't have to rot13 your comments, but this means you should make your comment before reading others.
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Okay, let's see.
I've noticed a mental phenomenon I call crystallization. I'm sure other people have noticed it, and they might even have a similar name for it. It's basically where you encounter a new thought or idea that takes a bunch of vague, half-formed thoughts you had floating around in the back of your head, and crystallizes them - condenses them into one overarching, explicit idea. The explicitness is very important - pre-crystallized thoughts are not explicit. Crystallization can be almost an insidious process, in a way, in that you can wind up holding new ideas or beliefs, that you thought you held all along - you don't even notice yourself learning. In that sense it's related to hindsight bias - things seem obvious after you know them.
Random example: I always thought libertarianism held some appeal to me, but I couldn't put my finger on what exactly. Then I read Yvain's non-libertarian FAQ and came upon the following sentence:
Aha! That's it exactly. What attracted me to libertarianism was its simplicity and self-consistency. Makes sense. After reading that sentence it seems obvious. But was it obvious beforehand? Probably not - I had had vague, not-spelled-out thoughts along those lines, but I had never put it into words before. There exists a very clear difference between my thinking before and after reading that sentence, that I might not have even noticed if I didn't have this notion of crystallization.
I post this hoping to crystallize the idea of crystallization itself for people. I think a lot of people have - of course - vague, half-formed notions that something like this is true, but they haven't spelled it out explicitly - and I think explicitness in this case is very important.
I refer to this as "giving a concept a handle." We have the familiar idea of mapping words to concepts, but the process of mapping a more complex concept to a useful (intersection of evocative and memorable) "handle phrase" is a lot fuzzier. Also related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in that it is more difficult to think about things that are hard to communicate succinctly.
I've noticed that I crystallize discrete and effective sentences like that a lot in response to talking to others. Something about the unique way they need things phrased for them to understand well results in some compelling crystallized wisdoms that I simply would not have figured out nearly as precisely if I hadn't explained my thoughts to them.
This is all stuff that I use:
Without reading any other comments or rot13?
Once upon a time, Age-12-Ishaan realized that the universe was either deterministic or random, that minds were made of matter, and that this had weird implications for naive free will. The process of trying to wrap my head around this fact inspired the following game:
Step 1: Think of something random. As random as possible. Clown!
Step 2: In as much detail as possible, How did you think of that thought? (For me, "random" associates with "pig" because the first time I played this game I thought of "pig". the "ig" consonant is similar to the "ick" consonant, which Clown starts with.) Trace back the line as far back and completely as possible
I used to play this game regularly. The motivation was primarily the whole "free will" problem. If every thought could be traced to a previous thought, then my mind must work deterministically. And that was weird! After a while, I started doing it for normal thoughts, even when I wasn't playing. Subjectively, I feel like it made me build up a sort of meta-cognitive hyper-awareness which sticks to this day.
This game caused me to intuitively crack the "free will" issue. I was lying in bed late at night, tracing rapidly moving thought chains carefully. I was doing really well at the game - usually quite a few thoughts are untraceable, but on that day I was successfully tracking an unusual number of them. All of a sudden, it just became intuitively obvious that my brain operated by cause and effect, just like clockwork and rocks and waterfalls and the entire universe. The realization hit me all of a sudden. The conceptual boundaries between myself and the rest of the universe suddenly dissolved, and I started to cry.
I'd say that of all my introspective experiences, this one ranks the highest. It was the first and only time that a philosophical notion made me cry. Now of course the whole idea seems rather obvious and not worthy of strong emotions, but back then it was a huge realization.
It's a technique which is practically useful - whenever I think a thought, I can trace back why I thought it. For example, I can usually articulate exactly why I'm upset without much difficulty as long as I do the exercise soon after becoming upset.
Take this next with skepticism, but I suspect it might also be somewhat useful for distinguishing false memories from true ones. It's almost impossible, for me at least, to trace back farther than 30 seconds so I can't access the memory itself this way...but I think I can sometimes catch the moment that the memory is modified by an unrelated association. It seems like the act of trying to remember can sometimes alter a memory...and if I trace back I sometimes realize that the thing which has inserted itself into my memory was actually a thought which occurred during the process of trying to remember.
An anecdote: After a road trip, my father and I couldn't find a suitcase. We both remembered carrying it down the stairs and putting it on the driveway, but neither of us remembered putting it in the car. We concluded that we must have left it in the driveway. I used the technique, and realized that the memory of carrying the suitcase downstairs and to the driveway was in fact implanted because when my father suggested that I had carried the suitcase down the stairs, I had visualized doing so in order to see if it triggered any familiarity-match. The first time I visualized this, there was no familiarity match, but the second time I visualized it there was a familiarity match to the previous visualization, and I had interpreted the familiarity-match as a faithful memory. I told my father that it was probably a false memory, and sure enough it turned out that the suitcase had never left the apartment.
I'm not confident that this false-memory-discovery effect isn't false attribution on my part, but I would definitely say this thing which began as a child's game seems to have shaped who I am in a positive way. It allowed me to intuitively overcome mind-matter dualism, and probably also made me more emotionally and intellectually self aware.
This seems potentially useful for breaking bad habits. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Datapoint: I still struggle with bad habits, most of which relate to information addiction. Link aggregaters, forums, books, wikis...even academic articles (The tab explosions I get following trails of citations are worse than TvTropes). It's a very double-edged thing: lowering grades but significantly enhancing research projects.
It can help with identifying the bad habit and recognizing its triggers, but that won't necessarily make resisting the trigger easier. It might be useful when used in conjunction with some behavioral modification techniques?
Yup, I'm thinking specifically of the Cue Action Reward model. You keep the trigger and the reward the same.
A habit I find my mind practicing incredibly often is simulation of the worst case scenario. Obviously the worst case scenario for any human interaction is that they will become murderously enraged and do everything in their power to destroy you. This is generally safe to dismiss as nonsense/completely paranoid. After numerous iterations of this, you start ignoring the unrealistic worst-possible scenarios (that often make so little sense there is nothing you can do to react to them) and get down to the realistic worst case scenario. Often times in my youth this meant thinking about the reaction to my saying exactly what I felt and thought. The reactions I predicted in response were inaccurate to the point of caricature, but I often found that, even in the wost case scenario that made half sense, there was still a path forward. It wasn't the end of the world or some irreversible horror that would scar me forever, it was just an event where emotions got heated. That's generally it. There's little way to create a lasting problem without planning to create such a thing.
Obviously this doesn't apply to supernatural actions on your part (creating strong AI is, in many ways, a supernatural scenario), but since those lie outside the realm of common logic, you have to handle them specially. Interestingly, when I was realistic about it, people didn't react too badly to when I thought about what would happen if I suddenly did some intensely supernatural event like telekinesis. Sure, it's surprising, and they'll want you to help them move, but there's nothing they can really do if you insist you want to keep it a secret. They pretty much have to respect your right to self-determination. Of course they could always go supervillain on you like in the comics, but that's not a terribly realistic worst-case scenario even if it were strictly possible.
Of course it sounds like meaningless fiction at that point, but it serves to illustrate just how bad the worst case scenario is; I've found it is very hard to pretend the worst case is immensely terrible when you think about it realistically.
I'm not saying this is generally inadvisable, but it seems dangerous for some kinds of people because of a serious possible failure mode: by focussing on the half-plausible worst-case scenario, you will cause yourself to assign additional probability to them. Furthermore, they will come true sometimes, which will give you a feeling that you were right to imagine them, an impression of confirmation, which could lead to a problematic spiral. If you have any inclination towards social anxiety, practice with extreme caution!
That's true. The process does rely on finding a solution to the worst case scenario. If you're going to be crippled by fear or anxiety, probably a very bad practice to emulate.