This post is a series of missives and notes I took while reading a popularization of cybernetics concepts as applied to self-help that was hugely influential in the self help field when first published in 1960. I am unsure if these notes will be of any interest to others. This is not a book review or a summary, but rather my own impressions of the models that the author was trying to build up and the cross connections between those concepts and others.

In general, I wish more people would make posts about books without feeling the need to do boring parts they are uninterested in (summarizing and reviewing) and more just discussing the ideas they found valuable. I think this would lower the friction for such posts, resulting in more of them. I often wind up finding such thoughts and comments about non-fiction works by LWers pretty valuable. I have more of these if people are interested.

Why this book: If you wish to understand the box you live in, investigate records from the time it was being built. The social psychology and cognitive science results that much of the lesswrong memeplex hangs its hat on are subject to an incentive structure whereby surprising results are the ones that are promoted or made more visible. But surprising relative to what? Is there some generic folk psychology template that I am comparing to? This plays some role, but I think I have underestimated the degree to which the defaults are constructs. I wanted to get a sense of how they might have been built, which lead to an investigation of Alfred Korzybski, the first person to utter "the map is not the territory", and the inception of cybernetics as a field of discipline, which also heavily influenced the people and work that later went on at Bell Labs and thus shaped the emergence of the information age.

I found this book interesting in particular because it did not use the standard anecdote-concept format of most self-help (with perhaps 2-8 concepts in an entire book) but instead seemed much more concept dense. I do recommend reading the whole thing if these notes seem interesting.


  • You should do the thing that I am doing in this post with the book: generate notes from each chapter and tie them to your own concepts and experiences in order to get them to stick. The book contains blank sections for you to do this. (Interesting in that this isn't the first time I've seen a pedagogical model explicitly used in a book, but this is the first time it matched the system I wound up gravitating towards for non-fiction note taking)
  • The inner simulator can cause updates as well, or very nearly as well as actual experiences (see visualization training results). The implication is that the inner simulator can cause the activation of the multi-sensory neurons that increase the weight your systems place on evidence. Things that activate multi-sensory neurons with fake evidence are dangerous (narrative fallacy, movies, updating on fictional evidence).
  • It takes about 3 weeks to get a new behavior pattern to not feel strange.

Chapter 1

  • Identity consistency effects are stronger than generally recognized, because most people do not have complete access to the self-image that generates judgments of which actions would be consistent or inconsistent with that image.
  • Identity can be thought of as a gradient in a sort of confirmation bias space. It directs you to which features to find salient about a situation. It can also be thought of as a set of habits for getting rewards/avoiding harm that doesn't update very often or very easily (learned helplessness, elephant rope parable)
  • Identity is more fluid than typically believed. In general, we take actions and then back-fill an identity or set of justifications consistent with that identity (rationalization, especially noticeable in certain brain dysfunction disorders, man who mistook his wife for a hat etc.)
  • The hidden variable in growth mindset is whether it is being applied to inputs or outputs (well calibrated locus of control). E.g. I will get that specific job/hit that specific metric rather than I will apply to many jobs/I will provide more of the inputs to that metric. People for whome growth mindset 'didn't work' were consistently found to be applying it to specific outputs.
  • People can have positive affect towards harmful features of the self-image without really being aware of it. This is likely because it is an important component of some habits or coping strategies. It will be hard to alter these harmful features until the positive habits have alternative routes towards success. (goal factoring, connection theory, coherence therapy, etc.)
  • Self-trust is required for spontaneity/creativity to not be impinged/clamped down on out of fear. Things like improv training provide safe environments to start building a success spiral for this.
  • Common frame: my will power against the very large forces of human nature, shame, social structures, etc.
  • Low level feedback structures in the brain and nervous system have goal states that they attempt to correct towards when they deviate. Coherent goal states are mutually compatible, incoherent goal states result in fights between feedback mechanisms (essentially the same as the later perceptual control theory)
  • Unrealistic self image generates more deviation signals
  • Unsurprising that productivity systems fail when they are being used as a bludgeon to try to bash yourself into the same shape as some unrealistic self-image.
  • Can build up less incoherent self-images based on small experiences (success spirals)

Chapter 2

  • Two situations, goal is known or unknown.
  • Known goals rely mostly on negative feedback (course correction) while unknown goals rely mostly on positive feedback (seeking behavior, dopamine on recognition of sought pattern)
  • There's a tendency for well calibrated snap-judgments in situations with other humans get attributed to ESP and similar explanations (editorial on my part, author believes in various ESP like jackassery).
  • Lack of a 'recognition' state increases ambiguity in goal directed tasks i.e. no clear picture of what an organized cupboard looks like generates friction in beginning the task due to lack of a feedback mechanism. In contrast, a clear internal picture generates lots of intermediate states to compare to.
  • In general, fine grainededness in the reward signal is required if the task needs fine grainededness in the actions performed.
  • Increasing negative capability makes goal navigation less punishing/aversive.

Chapter 3

  • Placebo effect is strong and can be trained to be stronger (hypnosis, some buddhist practice, critching yourself)
  • Mental picture as a tool is a trainable skill, commonly used for state shifting (public speaking, exercise, command mode, SNS activation in general?) but can be applied to any goal directed behavior.
  • Vivid detail is the feature that increases with practice that seems to improve the effectiveness. All 5 senses (same exact claim as Mahasi noting practice in buddhism)
  • For complex behaviors it is not possible to systematize improvement, too many minor details (think socializing or complex movements in sports) but change in image changes what is being compared to moment by moment in low level systems and brings small details in line.

Chapter 4

  • Limiting beliefs get repeated internally more than you remember through some combination of words, images, feelings, essentially you have hypnotized yourself. (same language to later NLP's worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness taxonomy of limiting beliefs)
  • Almost everyone has a pattern that transforms 'I am inferior at X' to just 'I am inferior' after which confirmation bias takes over. Stems fundamentally from a 'should.' Somehow convinced that you should be better (how? by having been taught? by having practiced? don't automatically think that for some reason. All of this is a coping mechanism for the fact that biological determinism is somewhat true? internalized dominance hierarchy coping?)
  • belief formation/refactoring happens in the relaxed state (? first I've encountered this one. Seems related to the safety of containers, psychotherapy etc.)
  • Imagination is more powerful than the will. Use of willpower but image is demotivating = thing doesn't happen. Image is motivating, willpower to try to prevent it, thing will happen. (exercise, junk food)
  • Maintaining as detailed a picture of the objective as possible is sufficient/more efficient than effort (top idea in your mind, Graham)
  • Physical relaxation backprops to mental relaxation (the relaxation response)
  • Noticing any situation or mental occurrence that causes a physical tensing is highly worth investigating.
  • Relaxation technique (very reminiscent of Feldenkrais method)
    • first voluntarily relax muscles for several minutes
    • you will reach a limit of voluntary control
    • same technique as yoga nidra, slow body scan imagining parts as heavy, wet clay or concrete, sinking into the surface you are lying on
    • you or someone else could not move/lift you if they tried
    • other visualizations: deflating balloon, cut marionette strings, remembering previous relaxed state
    • relaxation is a skill that will improve with time
    • paying attention to how relaxed you are will flow out into non-relaxation times and you'll notice tension you didn't before, this grants lots of little opportunities to relax just a bit at the margin throughout day

Chapter 5

  • non-conscious processes are not in adversarial relationship fundamentally. They are trying to surface relevant possible actions and feelings for the situations and beliefs you are in. (IFS, coherence therapy)
  • that these beliefs were formed in the past does not mean that memory based work (trauma, much of psychotherapy, etc.) is the only or even most efficient way of dealing with them. Which isn't to say that if memories surface spontaneously they need to be ignored, but explicitly digging for them probably isn't helpful (confabulation, introspective illusion etc.)
  • behavioral therapy: act as if for a few weeks.
  • Bertrand Russel 'self identification is the source of unhappiness' (pure motive)
  • You can't alter a belief via will, you can only replace it with a better belief.
  • Juxtapose inconsistencies in beliefs in order to soften them (coherence therapy)
  • Anecdotes that point at the anger/clarity pairing. Seems slightly different than loss aversion.
  • Worry: excessively detailed bad outcome scenarios. Specificity makes things less likely, not more, but that's not how the brain updates.
  • Positive motivation: insufficiently detailed good outcome scenarios (or one sided fantasies instead of realistic)
  • Tendency to exaggerate the importance and difficulty of tasks. Think of your tasks as easy and playful and they will be (and be higher quality, creativity research)
  • If 'I'm tired' works as an excuse for a part to get what it wants you shouldn't be surprised that 'I'm tired' surfaces more often in your thought stream (moral licensing) Over time this can shift into a background identity. 'I'm a low energy person'
  • Moving towards positives works better than avoiding negatives as a navigation strategy because avoiding negatives results in more random flinchy movement. You don't know which chasms are worth crossing if you don't have a landmark to sight on.
  • Conscious thought is better thought of as problem prioritizer, formulator, and logistics handler. The actual problem solving work is non-conscious. (! this is an interesting framing, even if imperfect) (Meshes well with problem loading followed by walks showers etc.)

Chapter 6

  • Wuwei stuff, victory by surrender etc.
  • Make extremely thorough preparations to solve the problem as intensely as you can, and then don't worry about it. The answer will come or it won't but forcing it literally never works, or at best gets you shitty designed by committee solutions. Useless for anything truly hard or worthwhile.
  • This is not to say that great performance occurs by magic. Thorough preparation for the pianist involves deliberate practice, likewise good habits of thought can be deliberately cultivated that will affect analytical problem solving (mathematician toolbox)
  • Awkward = inhibited, trying to think out actions, consequences. Other people assume goal orientation = agenda = salesman, not friend. Want something from you.
  • Worry antidotes
    • 1. actually make decisions, which means once in motion responsibility for outcome is off your shoulders. Half assed decisions breed worry, if the outcome is bad you will beat yourself up for half assing it
    • 2. presence. don't try to stop drinking forever. don't drink today. If you are thinking about something that you can't do anything about in the present moment, you are priming your nervous system for a different scenario than the one you are in.
    • 3. Don't multitask, or at least don't multitask right now :) Your creative machinery can solve any problem, but if you feed it three at once it will return incoherence. That's just how it is wired. The feeling that you should be doing many things now is an upstream jamming up of your prioritization machinery. Your prioritization machinery can be taught to feed you one thing at a time and output the rest to a buffer (GTD, etc) with repeated practice.
    • 4. Setting intentions before sleep is a good way to relax and a good way to wake up with many of the solutions already worked out. Catnaps also work.
    • 5. vividly remember the details of the relaxed state from time to time.

Chapter 7

  • Happiness seems directly related to sensory clarity (!) correlations between finer distinctions and pleasant mood reported
  • Common frame: happiness is a reward for virtuous behavior. Reinforced by parenting styles
  • Common frame: happiness is selfish
  • Common frame: happiness is a future state
  • Correct frame: happiness is a set of habits
  • Unhappiness reflex is practiced and diligently maintained by us
  • Happiness requires problems. If we meet problems with the certainty that we should not have to be doing this, that we deserve something more glamorous, that others certainly don't have to deal with these problems, we will be unhappy. This isn't to say that gratitude and presence will immediately lead to deep and lasting happiness, but weakening the unhappiness reflex is an important part of the process.
  • Reactivity is a core part of unhappiness. Reflex. Waiting for the next bad thing to happen. When bad things happen as a result of positive action taken by us, it is seen as part of the set of obstacles on the way towards a worthwhile goal, rather than something that has happened. It is more likely to be seen as a challenge (narrative, locus of control)
  • Finding the bad in everything vs finding the good in everything. Both miscalibrations, but one is obviously better for most non-critical situations.
  • Passively waiting for happiness to come to you is reactivity.

Chapter 8

  • A human being is a process. No telos, no obvious reason to instantiate any particular process. Like a bicycle, forward motion provides stability. Object level obstacles are easy. The actual roadblocks are things that disrupt a sense of progress.
  • Goals is a loaded term, projects and skills is more alive
  • Beliefs is loaded, instead think of other peoples output as a result of blending together the givens and their mental pictures and habits.
  • 'Bravery' is loaded, instead think of acting, hypothesis testing, curiosity, proactive. Don't do 'correct' things, do whatever presents itself.
  • 'Compassion' is loaded, just be present with people
  • 'Self esteem' is loaded and narcissistic, stop making the story about you and see which interesting stories you can contribute to. Appreciate other people's projects and skill building.
  • Errors have a purpose but once the mistake that caused the error has been corrected for the error is no longer relevant
  • 'Success' is loaded, instead think of moments of happiness or special effort or being afraid and doing the thing anyway

Chapter 9

  • If you think negative feedback is bad try imagining life without it. Lepers die pretty quickly.
  • if you never experience the frustration of a thwarted ambition that would mean you hadn't set ambitious enough goals. If you regularly experience frustration your goal setting machinery might be out of whack. Famous example, golfer recommends not trying to hit the cup on a long putt, but hit a bathtub sized area. This allows one to relax and ultimately perform better. frustration as a problem solving method is a leftover from childhood.
  • Aggression (and clarity) are good when directed well. When frustrated, the aggression will seek some other avenue of escape. Exercise is a good use. As is getting clarity on something by writing angrily.
  • Insecurity from binary classifications? I am not successful vs how successful am I. Failing to clear some threshold that we keep moving the goalposts on. Defensiveness is less effective, reactive.
  • Loneliness might be excessive identification with a mask, cutting us off from our real selves
  • Uncertainty is based on the illusion that passivity insulates against harm. Inactivity is a choice just like the others, and more sure than most to lead to mediocre outcomes. When a real opportunity comes along, do you think you will regret having made lots of mistakes leading up to it? No, they were good preparation. Babe Ruth held the record for the most strikeouts.
  • Resentment, as satisfaction in the sense of being 'wronged' has the same root as outrage and being offended. Equally feeds the victim mentality.
  • If you think that people with negative traits are enjoying success, keep in mind that they are likely finding such success to be empty. Remember the Prime Minster: whenever I think I need to take some revenge on someone who has wronged me, I write down their name on a piece of paper. I periodically review the names and see the indignations life has heaped upon them for me.
  • Focus on positives, check in with negatives

Chapter 10

  • think of samskaras as emotional scar tissue. scar tissue is formed by tension around the wound pulling at it slightly.
  • if you feel slighted by a small transgression, remember your own imression of thin skinned people. It is obvious from the outside that they doubt their self worth
  • excessive emotional reliance on others encourages feelings of excessive (involuntary) vulnerability
  • forgiveness as a way of excising emotional scars, can tell it works if you actually forget the thing and the forgiveness.
  • notice the morbid enjoyment of nursing our own wounds
  • forgiveness is canceling a debt,not because they have paid, but because we recognize the debt was never valid to begin with
  • forgiving yourself for the debts you think you owe others
  • emotions are for the present, the past is data, the future guesses. emotions about either are miscalibrations.
  • if you want to get over bad habits you have to stop blaming and condemning yourself for them

Chapter 11

  • excessively liberal interpretations of environmental and internal cues as negative feedback
  • 'stop what you are doing and do something else!' but it isn't clear what that something else should be, therefore paralysis
  • interpreting negative feedback signal as pointing to a large error
  • this can be observed concretely in the study of stuttering and its treatment
  • this can be thought of as excessive self monitoring, which is why we might say that anxiety is a self oriented or narcissistic disorder
  • method acting poise: times you were relaxed and felt confident you could handle the situation. vivid detail is key.
  • one frame: not too much self consciousness, insufficient self consciousness. Acting the way you are when alone.
  • inhibited people need disinhibition practice. speaking before they think.

Chapter 12

  • Training a relaxation response unconditions and brings equanimity
  • If you can not ignore the response you can still delay it
  • build a mental quiet room
  • it can be helpful to imagine some sort of clearing of steam, release of pressure associated with this room
  • stop reacting to the past and the future and respond just to the present moment. doing nothing and relaxing is the appropriate response to a problem that isnt real
  • imagine yourself doing a task with poise vividly

Chapter 13

  • deliberate practice and visualization
    • (could say a lot about deliberate practice here but it's important enough to read a book and try to internalize it. So Good They Can't Ignore You and Practice Perfect are both good.)
  • many people's internal witness is not their true self but some nebulous combo of parents, teachers, friends, bosses, etc.

Chapter 14

  • command mode works by imagining the result clearly and letting our guidance systems take care of implementation details
  • likewise, think of goals in terms of concrete present possibilities (resonance between goal-means? somehow reinforcing the link between goal and means?)
  • "what would the ceo of a successful company be doing" was tapping into this.
  • there are people who have a buyant spirit, and there are people who work hard and plan, it is rare for a person to have the skill of using the buoyant energy to creatively plan and diligently move towards the goal (open mode? open mode closed mode partnership)
  • vividness is predicated on details, and starting with details is good for success spirals
  • success spirals work well because once feeling successful, branch factor/creativity increases which usually leads to further success
  • So, if you desire something. Think about the goal, and think about what small thing you could do now that would move you towards that goal. Imagine it as vividly as you can. When you take action towards the goal, interpret this as evidence of commitment to the goal. eg if you choose to do a topic focused pomodoro, it is because you care about that topic.
  • A plateau is an opportunity to drop back and begin again building up some small successes
  • As with object level tasks, so too with mental phenomena. You don't force yourself to become an optimist as some giant step, you titrate small doses. "suppose good thing happened?" "good thing is possible"
  • Take aversive stimuli as a challenge and moat. You are near a partof the game that turns most people back. Like a difficult series of jumps at the crux of a platforming level. You may fail, but it would be silly not to try. The alternative is to just stand there or turn back. I will succeed or I will learn. Failure is impossible.
  • dont focus on driving out bad, simply focus on good and let the bad do whatever
  • effort to stop worrying creates tension, tension creates a worrying atmosphere
  • think of it as a balance, negative states should trigger positive ones to ensure clarity. good experiences should trigger some awareness of their passing in order to let you fully savor it.
  • don't try to change the contents of thoughts, change stances

Chapter 15

  • rediscovery of the energy body, CNS retraining.


  • Faith healing is likely placebo/causing relaxation response/repairing locus of control etc that prevents whatever tension and stress were blocking the healing process. People can obviously worry themselves sick and just as obviously be set straight by an authority they trust.

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2 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:20 AM

Really enjoyed reading this. Super dense (probably too dense to really take in) but luckily it was a lot of either "yep, that's matches the pattern" or "oh, hadn't thought to frame it that way" for me; milage may vary. After all, if I think back to myself 7 years ago, I wouldn't have understood any of this or only understood it in the most superficial of ways!

I was reminded reading this, too, of why I went looking for a practice in a spiritual tradition (ultimately settling on Zen since it fit my aesthetic well). I had figured out a lot of this stuff but figuring it out is not the same as living it, and I wanted a practice space that allowed me to deeply engage with these concepts. I tried to piece it together as best I could on my own, but eventually realized I was ignoring the presence of multiple wisdom traditions with active practice communities that, although they often understood these concepts in weird ways, provided a way of doing what I had been looking for. What I've come to understand over the last year of Zen practice is that understanding is probably not even all that necessary: if you can create a process that works it doesn't matter if the people who built or maintain that process understand the underlying machinery that makes it work so long as they have robust ways of keeping it working as intended. A way of interpreting this might be to say that, through cultural evolution, the practice communities of some wisdom traditions have converged on things that work and we only in the last 50 years or so have come to really understand something of why they work in a way that makes sense to post-Enlightenment thought.

Thanks again for posting this and hope you post more of them!


I agree about not needing to understand the machinery in *most* cases. When the environment changes and you need a gears level model of which practices are still well adapted and which now have hidden downsides understanding the machinery becomes useful. Of course this gets super complicated when one of the things you are investigating is the tendency to need to understand things and the hidden downsides of *that*. :)