Help, having a brain blank. I can come up w examples of times something happened, but not times something didnt-happen. What heuristic?
— Kate Donovan (@donovanable) April 29, 2014
If I tell 100 people not to think of an elephant, what's the single thing they're all most likely to think about over the next five minutes, aside from sex?
An elephant, of course.
Negation and oppositeness are perfectly intelligible semantic concepts - in general, no one is confused about what "Don't think of an elephant" means - or, more generally, "Don't do [X]," where X is any intelligible behavior. And people would know how to comply, if [X] were a physical action like sitting down. But even if they wanted to, they don't know how to not think of an elephant - even though that's a behavior they exhibit most of their waking lives, and in some sense on purpose.
Even for physical actions we are not only admonished to refrain from, but have a strong personal interest in not doing, we feel an impulse to do them anyway. Standing on a narrow ledge, afraid of falling, you might feel a strong urge to jump. Why?
Because a part of your mind that is trying to take care of you is thinking, as hard as it can, "Don't jump!" And there's another part of your mind, whose job it is to fetch ideas related to the things you're interested in. This fetcher doesn't understand words like "don't," but it does understand that you're very interested in the idea of jumping off that ledge, so it helpfully suggests ways to do so.
This can be a big problem if you're trying to find ways not to do something, or for something not to happen.
It is not possible to find ways for something not to happen.
Knowing this, how should we use our brains differently than we did before? For obvious reasons, I am not just going to tell you to avoid thinking of the things you want in terms of negations. Instead, I'm going to tell you some stories of how I used techniques designed with this in mind, to win at life.
The Case of the Missing Car Keys
A few days ago, I was on my way to an eagerly anticipated debate presided over by the incomparable Leah. I had gotten my scheduled prior weekend chores out of the way, and even had time to stop by the local Le Pain Quotidien for a leisurely brunch (for which the service was no more intolerably slow than usual, but this time they apologized without prompting and comped about half the meal), and read a chapter of Global Catastrophic Risks. In short, everything was going horribly right. Right in precisely that way that makes the bad news so upsetting by contrast.
This was the day I discovered that I am not smart enough to hold onto car keys, but I am smart enough to avoid getting defensive and starting a fight about it. They fell out of my pocket, either on the sidewalk or at the restaurant, or at the Whole Foods where I had plenty of time to pick up snacks for the event. I retraced my steps and asked after the keys at both places I'd been. No luck. I got back to the debate location just in time, and despondent. It didn't ruin the debate for me, since that was a pleasant and engrossing distraction with lots of happy people talking about interesting things, but afterwards I had to ask my girlfriend to come bring me the spare key so I could bring the car home.
Not only was I upset that I lost time waiting for the keys, and feeling bad about myself for losing them, and anticipating the hassle of going to the dealer to get another extra key (if that's even possible) - but I also put my girlfriend in a bad mood, which made me expect to be criticized for losing the keys. My brain was looking for ways to preemptively blame her. (There were plausible ways to argue it, but nothing that could be accurately described as her fault to anyone except my increasingly desperate defensive brain.)
I managed to suppress that particular comment preemptively blaming her, but on the car ride home, she brought up a few more things that could have turned into fights. But I (just barely) managed to say, "let's talk about these things if you still think that's a problem when we're both in better moods."
Haha, fightbrain, YOU LOSE! (For now.)
I would have totally failed at this as recently as a couple of months ago. What changed?
Well, over the past few months, I've been meditating for about 10 minutes a day, on average. More recently I even set up a Beeminder goal for this. I'm not meditating for spiritual insights or inner calm - I'm meditating to train my mind to do what I want. In particular, I'm practicing this pattern:
Me: I'm going to focus on X.
My brain: Y! Y! Y Y Y Y Y Y Y Y!
Me: I notice that I'm thinking about Y. Now let's think about X.
Over and over again, for as long as it takes. Not fighting the passing thought - not responding to "Y" with "not-Y" (which as we now know just gets parsed as "Y") - but gently redirecting my attention back to X, where X can be the feeling of my breath as it moves through the bottom of my nostrils, or the task of bringing the car safely home.
I still had to expend some WILLPOWER, which is evil, and means I'm not as good at this as I want to be, but in the past I would have lost and picked a fight. This time I won, and put off the conversations about what happened and what needed to change until I could engage productively.
Another thing I did in between getting upset and having a calm conversation about the keys, was talk with people whom my brain did not want to get mad at. People totally uninvolved with the conflict. This got my brain into a mode of thinking about my losing the car keys that had nothing to do with blaming or being blamed or defending or attacking - I was just explaining what happened and thinking about how I could hold onto my car keys better in the future.
(If you have ideas, I want to hear them! My pocket obviously isn't reliable. I'm likely enough to lose a bag that it's no better. A carabiner can come off, and a regular clip is even worse. I've considered using a combination padlock to hold the keys onto my belt, but that seems more hassleful than it's worth. )
How I Come Up With Ideas When I Can't Come Up With Any Ideas
Let's say I have something I want to do, and I can't think of any good ways it can be done. Like improving my emotional vocabulary - I want to figure out what exercises I can do that will increase the number of emotions I can recognize and name in the moment, and the rate at which I remember them afterwards. At first I thought I couldn't think of anything good.
Then I tried to come up with ten terrible ideas.
My working model of how this happens is that I implicitly have a stack of ideas, and my idea-fetcher assumes that the top of the stack is probably the best idea, so when I query my mind for "ideas about how to do X" the fetcher inspects the top item, finds it terrible, and decides that there are no ideas. If I ask again, the fetcher goes back to the stack, inspects the same top item, judges it unacceptable, and returns "no results" again.
So why does asking for terrible ideas fix this? Because it's not actually possible to query my mind for terrible ideas. Appending the word "terrible" doesn't actually suppress the good ideas - it just stops me from suppressing the bad ones. And once I've retrieved the top idea from the stack (even though it often is pretty terrible), my fetcher will turn up something different when I query it again. So I can inspect the second, and third, etc. Often, in my list of ten "terrible" ideas, some will obviously be good ones, and some others will be bad but improvable. And you can make a lot more improvements to a bad idea you are considering, than a bad idea you aren't even thinking of.
A few months ago, I asked Carl Shulman for ideas about how to build the forecasting and reasoning skills necessary to judge the importance of different existential risks, and he gave me about fifteen different really good ideas in about five minutes. It felt like magic, and I regret to report that at the time, it didn't occur to me to ask him how he was so good at coming up with ideas. But I think he was just using some version of this technique - at any rate, looking back, it doesn't feel like it would have been impossible for me to come up with those ideas anymore. My censors are off. I have the Intent To Solve The Problem. I will accept even terrible ideas.
Swim Parallel to the Shore
Let's say I am going into a social interaction and am nervous that it will be awkward because I'm not good with strangers. We now know that "don't be awkward" is not a query that will produce useful plans. Even "be socially skilled" is a problem - if you're worried about being awkward, you don't necessarily have a strong and vivid an image of what a generic successful conversation looks like - but you sure know what an awkward one looks like. Even if the explicit verbal instruction you give your mind is "tell me how to be socially skilled in this conversation," it will get parsed as "tell me how to be not awkward" and your fetcher will in turn parse that as "be awkward" and helpfully suggest ways to accomplish that goal.
Instead, you might want to make the other person laugh, or get some information from them, or ask them for a favor, or just let them know that you like them and want to be their friend. Pick a goal - or more than one - that is sideways relative to awkwardness, and optimize for that. Your conversation won't be perfect, but it will be a lot less awkward than if you spend all your energy thinking about how to be awkward.
Do the same thing you're supposed to do when you're swimming in the ocean, and the undertow threatens to draw you out to sea. They don't just tell you not to fight the tide, though - they tell you to swim orthogonally to it, parallel to the shore. Pick a new direction, and optimize for that.
An Alternative Approach: Flip The Sign
Kate unsurprisingly has her own interesting take on this. She talks about flipping ideas around so if you don't want X, then you can create a positive goal that's the complement of X. For example, she turns the aversive goal "I don’t want to be the sort of person who avoids things because they’re emotionally weighty" into the positive goal "I want to be the sort of person who tackles emotionally weighty conflicts".
I think this is likely to be a problem because your brain may be stupid but it's also smart. It can sometimes tell when your oh-so-positive wording is just a tricky way of circumlocuting a negation. I'd expect more success with something like, "I want to be compassionate during emotionally weighty conflicts," since that goal pushes sideways, not against the aversion.
You the reader should be happy we disagree, since it means you're more likely to have found a technique that will work for you. If one of our ideas doesn't work for you, try the other. If one works, try the other anyway. Try lots of things! Then keep doing the ones that work.