Suffering as attention-allocational conflict

by Kaj_Sotala4 min read18th May 201163 comments


SufferingConsciousnessAttentionDialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT)Focusing

I previously characterized Michael Vassar's theory on suffering as follows: "Pain is not suffering. Pain is just an attention signal. Suffering is when one neural system tells you to pay attention, and another says it doesn't want the state of the world to be like this." While not too far off the mark, it turns out this wasn't what he actually said. Instead, he said that suffering is a conflict between two (or more) attention-allocation mechanisms in the brain.

I have been successful at using this different framing to reduce the amount of suffering I feel. The method goes like this. First, I notice that I'm experiencing something that could be called suffering. Next, I ask, what kind of an attention-allocational conflict is going on? I consider the answer, attend to the conflict, resolve it, and then I no longer suffer.

An example is probably in order, so here goes. Last Friday, there was a Helsinki meetup with Patri Friedman present. I had organized the meetup, and wanted to go. Unfortunately, I already had other obligations for that day, ones I couldn't back out from. One evening, I felt considerable frustration over this.

Noticing my frustration, I asked: what attention-allocational conflict is this? It quickly become obvious that two systems were fighting it out:

* The Meet-Up System was trying to convey the message: ”Hey, this is a rare opportunity to network with a smart, high-status individual and discuss his ideas with other smart people. You really should attend.”
* The Prior Obligation System responded with the message: ”You've already previously agreed to go somewhere else. You know it'll be fun, and besides, several people are expecting you to go. Not going bears an unacceptable social cost, not to mention screwing over the other people's plans.”

Now, I wouldn't have needed to consciously reflect on the messages to be aware of them. It was hard to not be aware of them: it felt like my consciousness was in a constant crossfire, with both systems bombarding it with their respective messages.

But there's an important insight here, one which I originally picked up from PJ Eby. If a mental subsystem is trying to tell you something important, then it will persist in doing so until it's properly acknowledged. Trying to push away the message means it has not been properly addressed and acknowledged, meaning the subsystem has to continue repeating it.

Imagine you were in the wilderness, and knew that if you weren't back in your village by dark you probably wouldn't make it. Now suppose a part of your brain was telling you that you had to turn back now, or otherwise you'd still be out when it got dark. What would happen if you just decided that the thought was uncomfortable, successfully pushed it away, and kept on walking? You'd be dead, that's what.

You wouldn't want to build a nuclear reactor that allowed its operators to just override and ignore warnings saying that their current course of action will lead to a core meltdown. You also wouldn't want to build a brain that could just successfully ignore critical messages without properly addressing them, basically for the same reason.

So I addressed the messages. I considered them and noted that they both had merit, but that honoring the prior obligation was more important in this situation. Having done that, the frustration mostly went away.

Another example: this is the second time I'm writing this post. The last time, I tried to save it when I'd gotten to roughly this point, only to have my computer crash. Obviously, I was frustrated. Then I remembered to apply the very technique I was writing about.

* The Crash Message: You just lost a bunch of work! You should undo the crash to make it come back!
* The Realistic Message: You were writing that in Notepad, which has no auto-save feature, and the computer crashed just as you were about to save the thing. There's no saved copy anywhere. Undoing the crash is impossible: you just have to write it again.

Attending to the conflict, I noted that the realistic message had it right, and the frustration went away.

It's interesting to note that it probably doesn't matter whether my analysis of the sources of the conflict is 100% accurate. I've previously used some rather flimsy evpsych just-so stories to explain the reasons for my conflicts, and they've worked fine. What's probably happening is that the attention-allocation mechanisms are too simple to actually understand the analysis I apply to the issues they bring up. If they were that smart, they could handle the issue on their own. Instead, they just flag the issue as something that higher-level thought processes should attend to. The lower-level processes are just serving as messengers: it's not their task to evaluate whether the verdict reached by the higher processes was right or wrong.

But at the same time, you can't cheat yourself. You really do have to resolve the issue, or otherwise it will come back. For instance, suppose you didn't have a job and were worried about getting one before you ran out of money. This isn't an issue where you can just say, ”oh, the system telling me I should get a job soon is right”, and then do nothing. Genuinely committing to do something does help; pretending to commit to something and then forgetting about it does not. Likewise, you can't say that "this isn't really an issue" if you know it is an issue.

Still, my experience so far seems to suggest that this framework can be used to reduce any kind of suffering. To some extent, it seems to even work on physical pain and discomfort. While simply acknowledging physical pain doesn't make it go away, making a conscious decision to be curious about the pain seems to help. Instead of flinching away from the pain and trying to avoid it, I ask myself, ”what does this experience of pain feel like?” and direct my attention towards it. This usually at least diminishes the suffering, and sometimes makes it go away if the pain was mild enough.

An important, related caveat: don't make the mistake of thinking that you could use this to replace all of your leisure with work, or anything like that. Mental fatigue will still happen. Subjectively experienced fatigue is a persistent signal to take a break which cannot be resolved other than by actually taking a break. Your brain still needs rest and relaxation. Also, if you have multiple commitments and are not sure that you can handle them all, then that will be a constant source of stress regardless. You're better off using something like Getting Things Done to handle that.

So far I have described what I call the ”content-focused” way to apply the framework. It involves mentally attending to the content of the conflicts and resolving them, and is often very useful. But as we already saw with the example of physical pain, not all conflicts are so easily resolved. A ”non-content-focused” approach – a set of techniques that are intended to work regardless of the content of the conflict in question – may prove even more powerful. For those, see this follow-up post.

I'm unsure of exactly how long I have been using this particular framework, as I've been experimenting with a number of related content- and non-content-focused methods since February. But I believe that I consciously and explicitly started thinking of suffering as ”conflict between attention-allocation mechanisms” and began applying it to everything maybe two or three weeks ago. So far, either the content- or non-content-focused method has always seemed to at least alleviate suffering: the main problem has been in remembering to use it.