What is this thing and what is the point of it?
I’m trying to build a branch of rationality that is about looking at ideas and problems “for real”, thinking about them “for real”, “as a whole person”, and “without all the bullshit in the way”. This is a mini workshop in that vein.
The exercises here are about original seeing. They’re meant to help you stretch and strengthen a couple kinds of perceptual muscles. Most of them are not much like “here is how to do the thing”; they’re more like “here’s some stuff that might conceivably lead to you independently figuring out what the thing is and how to do it”. So be ready to experiment. Be ready to modify my instructions according to your whims.
This endeavor will happen in three phases.
Phase One takes about twenty minutes to complete, and stands alone pretty well. In it, you will directly observe a concrete object (something you can hold in your hands, like a carrot or a teacup). Phase Two takes about ten minutes, and leads you to summon an abstract object (something you can't hold in your hands, like scout mindset, the future, or whatever happens when you talk to your mother). Phase Three takes another ten minutes, and should be completed right after Phase Two. In Phase Three, you will directly observe an abstract object.
If you want to make a mini-workshop of this, block off an hour, and take breaks.
If all goes well, you'll leave with a greater ability to think about things originally. You'll be better at observing absolutely anything in ways that sometimes reveal new information you could not have uncovered through habit, convention, or rehearsal of your preconceptions.
Epistemic Status, History Of the Exercises, and Responsible Use
(Feel free to skip this part and go straight to Phase One, if the heading doesn’t interest you.)
I think the stuff in Phase One is moderately solid.
I first designed and ran something like it as a CFAR unit around 2018. I’ve been using it and tinkering with it since, in both pedagogical and personal contexts (n≈75 people), and it’s come to be an important part of how I guide people toward a more direct approach to thinking and solving problems. It’s only a first step into direct observation that’s probably not all that useful on its own, but I bet it’s a pretty good first step for most people.
However, a few people seem to have an overall cognitive strategy that crucially depends on not looking at things too closely (or something like that), and this is actively bad for some of them. If you try this for a minute and hate it, especially in an “I feel like I’m going crazy” kind of way, I do not recommend continuing. Go touch some grass instead. I’ve never seen this cause damage in just a few minutes (or at all, as far as I can tell), but I do think there’s a danger of dismantling somebody’s central coping mechanism if they push past their own red flags about it over and over again, or for a whole hour at once.
The stuff in Phases Two and Three is way more experimental. In fact, I’ve yet to run the full unit the same way twice, in the seven-ish times I’ve run it. I’ve tried these exercises in roughly this form with several people one-on one, with several small groups, and with one larger group, and I’m left with a sense that “this is roughly the right direction, but more work is needed”.
On the safety of Phases Two and Three: I haven’t seen any concerning-to-me reactions from people who have tried Phase Two or Phase Three, but I also have less data (n≈20). However, the exercises after Phase One are lighter touch—more of you feeling your own way around however you want, less of me telling you what to do—so my priors on danger there are lower. People seem more likely to fall out of the exercise than to fall into something that’s bad for them. If you want to be extra cautious, build form first: go with easy and happy subjects, rather than fraught subjects.
In this series of exercises, you will directly observe a concrete object, such as a hairbrush or a tissue box. You'll pay some attention to how you observe by default, you'll experiment with different approaches to direct observation, and then you'll reflect on your methods and their results.
Pick a nearby object. Doesn't matter what it is, as long as you can hold it in your hands. Spend five minutes (by a clock) observing it. Every time you notice something new about your object, tap your leg. (“Something new” is “anything you haven’t tapped your leg for, regardless of whether it strikes you as novel”.) Your goal is to rack up lots of leg taps.
Demonstration (I recommend that you read each demo after you’ve tried the exercise, unless you're stuck and need help figuring out what the heck I'm asking you to do):
Here are notes I took while I observed a pair of scissors. Writing them out slowed me way down, and they don’t include the leg taps (which are important!), but they might be helpful anyway.They're blue. The handles, I mean. There's a spot in the middle that's a different texture, like something was plastic-welded then removed. They open a certain amount, to make a certain angle. The thumb hole is... "beveled", is maybe the word. There's a bit that sticks out from the thumb half to control how close together the blades go, or something. There's a metal part, a ring around the pin that holds the blades together, with an interesting pattern. It looks like overlapping raised inclines. The metal near the edge of each blade has vertical stripes, like grain in wood. There are words on one side. It says "V5210 MADE IN JAPAN", and to the left of the words are apparently abstract symbols: Two triangles together, a large triangle, and a rectangle. If they were letters, the letters would be "K A O".
Make a list of strategies you used to get leg taps. By "strategies", I don't just mean things you did on purpose with the deliberate intention of noticing new things. I mean anything your mind or body did, for any reason, that resulted in a tap. If you have trouble with this one, think back to a time you tapped your leg, and ask yourself, "What happened right before that?"One single example to get you started (but don’t read the rest of my list before you try it yourself): I looked at it with my eyes.
Make a list of strategies you used to get leg taps. By "strategies", I don't just mean things you did on purpose with the deliberate intention of noticing new things. I mean anything your mind or body did, for any reason, that resulted in a tap. If you have trouble with this one, think back to a time you tapped your leg, and ask yourself, "What happened right before that?"
One single example to get you started (but don’t read the rest of my list before you try it yourself): I looked at it with my eyes.
I looked with my eyes.I looked closely.I turned it over.I opened it.I touched it.I looked at different parts.I asked questions.I wondered how it works.I wondered how it was made.I wondered about the purpose of different features.
What strategies could you have used that you neglected? What else could you do to get more taps? Draw a line beneath the default strategies you wrote down before, and start adding possible strategies below it.
More strategies (feel free to steal these and add them to your list):Use the scissors to cut paper.Use the scissors to cut other things.Look for other uses.Listen.Smell.Taste.Close my eyes and touch with more focus.Make other objects act on the scissors.Make the scissors act on other objects.Play with them.Make art with them.Use them for prop manipulation.Make music with them.Be angry at them.Be concerned for them.Be other emotions toward them.Pretend I'm a scissor expert and evaluate them.Measure them.Be systematic.Take them apart.Make a mess with them.Compare them to other objects.Offer them to my cat.
Spend another five minutes (by the clock) observing your object. Tap your leg whenever you notice something new. Try something from your list of possible strategies whenever you start to slow down.
The marks at the tip of the scissor blades. What do they feel like? With my eyes closed I can distinguish them from the non-marked part of the blade, but just barely. What about the writing? No, it seems tactilely indistinguishable. Sounds? How hard I close the blades makes a big difference to the sound they make. When I move very slowly, there's a small catch just before they close. What do they smell like? At first I thought "no smell", but the blades and the handle have a different "no smell". The blade smell is colder. Oh I'm surprised by the taste of the plastic part. It's sharp and bitter. The blade is cool quiet florid, but there's a more "metallic", electric pennies flavor near the tip of the blade. What if I'm concerned for the scissors? They've gotten kind of dirty. There are sticky tape things in places. How does it feel when the handle spacer guard thing slams into the other side of the handle? Does the vibration of that move all the way through the scissors? Yes, if I touch the blades while closing them, I feel the thunk in my hand.
What, if anything, is different between you and your object now compared to when you started? How does it seem to you? Has anything changed?
I feel much more inclined to clean and possibly sharpen the blades. This pair of scissors feels more "real" now. It feels like there's something out there made of details. Before, they were "a pair of scissors", but now they're more like "this pair of scissors".
Welcome to the end of Phase One. What has happened so far?
If things have gone according to plan, you have learned a little about your usual way of observing things, and you’ve stretched a bit past your default observational modes. In so doing, you’ve practiced a couple kinds of perceptual capacities that I call “perceptual immediacy” and “perceptual dexterity”.
By perceptual immediacy, I mean something like “a deliberate emphasis on bottom-up processing”. Perceptual immediacy is the capacity to be aware of low-level sensations before you've done much to process them. Every time you noticed something about your object because you actually looked, rather than just guessing based on what you know of the object’s category, that was perceptual immediacy.
Perceptual dexterity, another skill you’ve practiced, is the capacity to process perceptions a wide range of methods, either simultaneously or in quick succession. Metaphorically: It's the ability to see something from many angles. Every time you turned your object over, used a different sense, or otherwise figured out how to observe your object in a new way, that was perceptual dexterity.
According to my working model, these two capacities together constitute original seeing.
In the rest of this workshop, you’ll turn these observational strategies toward more abstract objects that are not so easy to hold in your hands.
In this phase, you'll summon an abstract object, such as the economy, improvisation, or a puzzle in your research. Much as you might take a hairbrush out of a drawer and put it in front of you on the table, you'll look for ways to make an abstract object more available for direct observation.
In Phase 3, you'll observe an abstract object in much the same way you observed a concrete object before. But first, you'll need to choose something to observe, so take some time to do that. Anything you can't physically touch or see will probably do: justice, minor keys, whatever it is that's caused your work to slow down recently. I recommend choosing something that's worth observing, perhaps something you'd like to regard as much more "real" or "made of details" than you do now. I also recommend starting with something you don’t feel awful about, so you can build form instead of going straight to emotionally dark places. (In my demos, I'll be working with quantification.
Suppose you want to make original, direct observations of something abstract, such as quantification. If you want to use roughly the same observational tools from before, you'll need to get the object in front of you somehow. How might you do that? (I suspect there are a lot of correct answers to this, and the best answer might depend on the particular object you want to observe.) Take one or two minutes to think of at least a couple possible approaches.
Interlude: Some Words On Presence
A characteristic feature of concrete objects is total presence (or total absence). If I ask myself, "Are there scissors here right now?", the answer is either "yes" or "no".
Maybe I can construct some weird edge cases where I mess with the meanings of "here" or "right now"—perhaps the scissors are lying on the ground in the doorway, or someone throws them out the window right as I'm asking the question—in which case the answer would be, "Maybe sort of?" But "sort of" is not an ordinary answer for concrete objects. For the most part, concrete objects are either present, or they're not.
By contrast, abstract objects are almost always "sort of present".
Is quantification here right now, I ask myself? Well, I respond, there are two tungsten spheres displayed on the windowsill, and three air plants on the wall behind me; "two" and "three" represent quantities I have discerned, so... sort of? It would at least be wrong to say that quantification is entirely absent.
But also, there are a lot of things in this room that I haven't counted, let alone all the things on Pluto that I couldn't count if I wanted to, plus I have a feeling that there's more to quantification than counting anyway. So it also seems wrong to say that quantification is entirely present.
For our current purposes, what matters about the non-total presence of abstract objects is that it's possible for abstract objects to be more present or less present, and it's possible to deliberately influence how present an abstract object is.
How could I increase the presence of quantification?
Here are the first things that occur to me: I could remember a specific time when I quantified something, and play through that memory in detail. I have a kitchen scale, so I could go get it and start weighing things. I also own a ruler, a light meter, a PH meter, and a clock, so I could try using those. I could count lots of other stuff in the room around me, or the stuff outside my window. I could go outside and try to find out how many pine cones there are per square meter on my property. I could try to estimate all sorts of things, like the distance to the moon, the number of grains of sand on the beaches of California, or the number of movies I'm likely to see in the next ten years. I could roll some dice and try to get a feel for what "one in twenty" means. I could read about the history of numeric thought, and try to reproduce some of the methods I learn about. I could try to invent five new ways of counting things. I could deliberately miscount things, and see what that’s like.
According to me, any of these activities would likely increase the presence of quantification for me. They all involve finding a place where I suspect quantification impinges on the world, then entangling myself with whatever exists in that place. (This is much of what I mean when I talk about "contact with the territory".)
What could you do to increase the presence of the abstract object you've chosen? Take one or two minutes to brainstorm some ideas.
A side note:
Many abstract objects can be made far more present when observed across time. "A pattern in the way my brother and I approach conflicts", for example, requires multiple exposures for direct observation.
There's an entire sequence to be written here, but it may be worth pausing briefly to consider: If you wanted to make a regular practice of observing your object, perhaps over the course of a week or a month, what might you do?
Interlude II: Some Words On Felt Senses
Besides non-total presence, there's another obstacle to observing abstract objects: It's very easy to end up observing your concept of something more than the thing itself.
With concrete objects, it's relatively easy to avoid this problem (though only relatively). For example: While observing the scissors, I set out to feel the texture of the letters written on the side, expecting them to feel different from the surrounding plastic. When they turned out to feel the same as the surrounding plastic, I did not accidentally hallucinate a phantom texture. If I had, I would have been plastering my concept of the scissors over top of the real scissors and observing that instead.
But if my concept of quantification is similarly off—if I expect measurement to be precise by nature when in fact it involves quite a bit of approximation, for instance—how will I know? How will I avoid plastering "precision" over my whole observational process?
Increasing the presence can go a long way toward solving this, and in the case of quantification I think it'll do almost the whole job. It's easy to think "precision" when thinking about measurement, but it's harder to miss the guesswork that goes into slicing 1/3inch-thick shortbread cookies when you're actually holding a knife next to a ruler (as I discovered during a recent break).
In some cases, though, the most concrete parts of something you can deliberately interact with turn out to be pretty psychological. "Whatever's been slowing down my research", for example, will likely be mostly in your head. It's much easier to conflate real things with your concepts of them when both the concepts and the data you hope to observe are psychological.
This is where perceptual immediacy becomes absolutely crucial.
Just as you can deliberately focus on low-level outrospective perceptions—like the colors and shapes in your visual field, rather than just “a house”—it is also possible to deliberately focus on low-level introspective perceptions. This is the way to gather relatively raw data about the inside your own head.
For me, and for many of people I've worked with and mentored, paying attention to the kinds of felt senses found in Focusing helps a lot with this.
(From this point on, I’ll be assuming some experience with Focusing. Here is a standard introduction. For current purposes, you really only need the sections “Clearing A Space” and “Felt Senses”.)
Focusing is usually introduced as something that starts from a "what's here?" kind of motion. What's going on for me right now? What do I notice? What's up? Standardly, you look for a felt sense, then you sort of dialog with it, finding out what it's about or what it wants. Lots of people mainly use Focusing to figure out what's up for them right now. They start with a felt sense, and by the time they're done, they have some kind of intellectual understanding of what's going on for them. (An extreme version of this is the “true names” approach Duncan describes here.)
I often do Focusing backward. Rather than finding a handle to bring something into conscious awareness, I let go of a conscious handle to find out where I fall. I start with my intellectual understanding of something—my concept, a high-level perception, a story I've told myself about what something is or how it works—and then I find the felt senses associated with it. You could say that I deliberately make anti-sense of things.
Here's the key insight that makes Focusing so valuable for original seeing: You can have a felt sense of anything.
Sure, I can find a felt sense of "all that about exercise after recovery from illness"—which for me involves tightness in my chest, reaching from my stomach, a question that starts "Will I ever?", and a heavy pressure holding me down when I imagine myself on a bike. This is a conventional sort of thing to have a felt sense about.
But I can also find a felt sense of my rain boots. There's a covering-my-feet sensation, a warm-in-my-chest gratitude and the image of rain, a clunk-clunk clumsy motion to my imagined gait, a stomping-in-puddles celebration like gold explosions in my stomach. There seems to be more depth to it the longer I look, and it changes as I explore, as I Focus from different perspectives. When I imagine my boots angrily, there's the shock of icy water spilling over the sides. When I imagine them through the eyes of my friend Duncan, the stuff about playing in puddles gets much more bright.
Find your felt sense of the concrete object you observed earlier.
I think of felt senses as somewhere between raw sensation and conceptualization.
Concepts are extreme summaries. If I speak from my concept of my boots, rather than from my felt sense of them, I'll tell you that my boots are black, made of rubber, and size 7 (US men's). That's about it. My concept of my boots, like all my other concepts I've examined, seems relatively circumscribed, static, and useful. It's like I've discarded almost all of the information I've ever encountered about my boots, keeping only the parts that seem especially relevant to my intentions with them.
My felt sense of my boots seems pretty different, though, from my concept of them. It seems relatively continuous with the rest of my awareness; it’s dynamic; and it’s full of all sorts of irrelevant details. It’s something that can be explored, like a playground packed with interactive equipment. It's as though there's way, way more boot-related information floating around in me than can be found in my concepts.
Which means that when I want to avoid cutting off almost all of my experience as I observe an abstract object—if I want to stay open to what's real instead of accidentally staring at my extremely summarized preconception—I stay tuned in to my felt senses of things.
Find your felt sense of the abstract object you've chosen.
Some pieces of my felt sense of quantification: A rushing forward that reminds me of "sequence". A whump-whump-whump in my chest like heavy pillows being tossed on top of each other, for which the handle "aggregation" jumps out as fitting. "This and this and this", an image of pointing to one thing after another, a feeling that seems related to “the particularity of things”. A circle whose size changes over time, growing and shrinking. The tactility of measurement tools in my hands, their weight, the click of buttons, the shift of a toggle switch, and a zooming-in-and-in-and-in feeling in my head.
Go back to your list of ways you might increase the presence of your abstract object. Try one of them, and as you do, stay tuned into any felt senses that seem related. Do this for one minute. (I know that’s not much time. This is meant to be an appetizer.)
This is the end of Phase Two. If these exercises have worked for you, then your abstract object is more present for you than it was before, and you’re also tuned into your experience of it in an intimate, alive kind of way. That is what’s needed before direct observation is possible.
Here we go! Let's try to directly observe something abstract. This will probably be harder than observing concrete objects; be patient, and feel your way around gently until you start to get the hang of it.
Repeat the previous exercise, staying tuned into felt senses as you make your abstract object more present. This time, tap your leg every time you notice something new about your object. Do this for five minutes.
(Notes taken afterward, this time.) I used my kitchen scale to weigh things. I noticed that a certain felt sense seemed to shift over the course of weighing things. At first, there was a slippery ghostly quality to the numbers. I weighed a bottle of bubble fluid, and it was as though "4.3oz" "didn't mean anything". Then I weighed a sketchbook, and "9.25oz" similarly "slipped out of my head". But I didn't like something about that slipping, and I (not very deliberately) zoomed in on it, trying to get it to stay put. I'm not sure I know the difference between something "being slippery" and me wanting to "throw something out". It's consistent with my experience that I was semi-purposfully discarding the numbers, and I wonder why. Anyway, I applied some kind of force to try to get the number to stay put, and I ended up comparing the weight of the sketchbook to the weight of the bubble fluid. "The sketchbook," I told myself, "weighs about twice as much as the bubble fluid."I couldn't tell at first whether this decreased the slipping/discarding, but I kept doing it with other objects, comparing them to the weight of the bubble fluid. I also started estimating the weights of things in my head before weighing them on the scale, mostly by asking myself "how much more or less than the bubble fluid does this object weigh?" I found that the volume of the object strongly influenced my estimation of weight, at least at first. I tended to overestimate the weight of objects that take up a lot of space, and to underestimate the weight of objects that take up little space. I got better at this over time, though, mainly by closing my eyes and paying a lot of attention to the sensations in my biceps as I held things.By the end, the "slippery" feeling was no longer something it seems right to call "slippery". There's still something in roughly the same place, something that happens when I pay attention to the numbers themselves, to the readout of the scale, but it has parts now. It's more like a chaotic attempting-to-align, like looking at an autostereogram and being partway to resolving the image.
Find your list of observational strategies from the first set of exercises. Try one of the strategies from the list, and find ways to apply it when observing abstract objects. For example, what might it be to turn your object upside down? To use more senses? To take it apart? Tap your leg every time you notice something new, and continue for five minutes.
I turned quantification upside down.It wasn't immediately obvious to me how to do that, so I started by turning myself upside down (in a handstand against the wall) and weighing things by lifting them with my feet. It was sort of fun, both to be upside down and to use different literal muscles to take weight measurements, but it didn't feel like quite what I was after, so I switched gears.I also tried turning my digital kitchen scale upside down. I was kind of excited and didn't know what would happen. Turns out that when it's upside down, it doesn't seem to register changes in pressure from the now-bottom side (the side you usually put objects on to weigh them), but it does register changes in pressure from the now-top side (the side that usually sits on the counter). However, it under-reports weights. Something that actually weighs about 10oz weighed in at 0.4oz, for example.But this, too, felt like not-quite-the-kind-of-move-I-was-after, so I switched gears again."Well," I thought, "I've been choosing objects and then finding a number associated with them. What if I instead choose a number first?" I chose "5", and then I started making piles of objects. Each pile contained five objects. I decided to stop and evaluate when I got to five piles.As I went, I noticed that I wasn't quite sure what an object is in this case. I chose my backpack as one object for a pile, but my backpack contains pens and books and things. Maybe there's more messiness in counting than I tend to imagine.I looked at the five piles and asked myself what I notice in my body and my mind, and I found that there was a sort of "blankness", a "failure to get a handle on things", like a sheer cliff I can't climb or a featureless frozen tundra. I wanted more information than that, so I used a trick I ran into when I was weighing things: I found something to compare the piles to.I made some piles of three objects, and then I stood back to look at everything again. "What do I notice?" I asked myself. "Well, the five-piles seem bigger than the three-piles." Then I noticed that most of the five-piles were more voluminous than the three-piles. They didn't just have more objects, they also took up more space. I had a feeling that I wanted to focus on the number of objects in the piles and not on their size, so I made some more three-piles comprising larger objects.When I looked again, I had a sensation, which I can only describe as "the epiphany that five is larger than three". When I looked at the five-piles, they were sort of... many. Many little things, many little parts, a collection of several distinct things. When I looked at the three-piles, there was a similar feeling of made-of-little-things, but the sensation was weaker. It was roughly the same feeling, but there was less of it than for the five-piles. I believe I laughed out loud and exclaimed, "Five is more than three!" Perhaps I’m finally ready to graduate preschool.
A question that tends to come up when observing abstract objects is, “How do I know if I’m observing the right thing?”
There’s definitely a puzzle here: The more strongly you use your concept to steer during your explorations, the less opportunity you have to learn what didn’t make it into your summary; but if you’re merely free associating and using nothing to steer, how will you avoid wandering into places that have nothing to do with the object you set out to observe?
I hope you’ll try to answer this for yourself, but here are a couple strategies I use to navigate this obstacle.
I think of my concept as a stone tossed into the pond of my immediate experiences. I deliberately think, “quantification” (or some other handle), and then I let go of that thought and observe the ripples. After thinking “quantification”, what do I automatically picture in my mind? What other words wander into my thoughts? What do I feel, emotionally and in my body? Where does my attention wander?
Not everything I experience in the moments after dropping the stone will be a result of the stone. There are ripples all over, because there’s a lot more going on in the pond than just a single rock sinking. But some of the ripples are caused by the stone. If I toss the stone in many times, I might start to recognize characteristic patterns in the ripples. These patterns may correspond to quantification-related information that’s present in my experience but has not made it into my intellectual summary.
This is the strategy I most often recommend to people who tell me they feel “floaty”, “unfocused”, or “distracted” while observing an abstract object. It can help to choose something concrete that represents your concept—something small you can hold in your hand, or a word written on paper—so you don’t have to remember what the stone’s supposed to be every time.
It may also help to set a repeated timer that goes off at regular intervals (every thirty seconds, every five minutes, whatever makes sense for you) so you don’t have to choose when to toss another stone. Waiting for the ripples to dissipate on their own might lead to more thorough observation if you can manage it; but sometimes that’s just too much cognitive overhead on top of an attentionally demanding task.
When I do this, I almost always always end up trying a few different ways to toss the stone. It’s rare for merely thinking the word to get me very far. The word usually feels fake and ghostly. But I start with the word, and then I try other things see to what happens: a feeling in my chest, an image, a sound. It's like I'm picking up especially shiny pieces of the ripples, and then tossing those.
The point of this stone-tossing is that you do not have to maintain perfect focus on your object at all times. In fact, it's better not to; it's hard to learn much through observation when you've already decided what to see. Instead of berating yourself for "getting distracted", just toss the stone again. And again, and again, and again. Whatever happens, even if it seems to have nothing to do with the object you're trying to observe, constitutes potentially relevant information.
2. A Sense Of Realness
To a first approximation, my second strategy is to be extremely patient as I feel my way around. But the details of how I do that probably matter a lot.
If you happen to have already read and understood Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance (which is where the term “original seeing” comes from), then I can say this to you briefly: When observing abstract objects, I track not only my felt sense of the object, but also my sense of quality. Rather than steering using congruence with my concept, or not steering at all, I rely heavily on my sense of quality to steer.
Put another way: Sometimes, while observing, I feel a burst of sensation that I often call “realness”. I wrote about this sensation in my introduction to naturalism, here.
One morning in college, I was half-sleeping through a poetry lecture in a dim classroom, when I looked out the window and saw a tree branch covered in spider silk. The silk shimmered in the sunlight. Strands of it hung from the branch and wafted in the breeze, and as they moved, the sunlight seemed to drip down the strands in waves. It caught me. I don’t remember anything about the lecture, but I’ll never forget the silk. Seeing it felt a lot like waking up from a dream. That tree seemed more real than anything in the classroom, and more real than anything else in my life from the previous month.
One morning in college, I was half-sleeping through a poetry lecture in a dim classroom, when I looked out the window and saw a tree branch covered in spider silk. The silk shimmered in the sunlight. Strands of it hung from the branch and wafted in the breeze, and as they moved, the sunlight seemed to drip down the strands in waves.
It caught me. I don’t remember anything about the lecture, but I’ll never forget the silk. Seeing it felt a lot like waking up from a dream. That tree seemed more real than anything in the classroom, and more real than anything else in my life from the previous month.
When I saw the silk, the sensation of realness (or whatever it is) came as a burst. The same feeling was also pretty burst-like when, while observing quantification, I noticed the “many-ness” of the five-piles.
But I’ve found that this sensation is almost always present to some degree or another. Sometimes there’s very little of it; I noticed an uncomfortable degree of non-realness earlier this morning while mindlessly scrolling a social media feed, for instance. Sometimes I notice uncomfortably little realness while talking to someone, and then I say, “Actually, I think all of that was fake. Let me try again.” The sensation of realness seems to increase or decrease at least a tiny bit every time I make any motion at all with my mind.
Near as I can tell so far, the sensation of realness tracks all three components of contact with the territory at once: presence, personhood, and sensation. Lots of contact, lots of realness. Not much contact, very little realness. (You can read more about my model of contact here, if you want.)
The main way that I avoid getting lost in irrelevant places as I observe abstract objects is to move toward things that seem more “real”.
I’ve come to think of this as my epistemic conscience. It’s like a tiny voice that tells me whether I’m trying to stay intimate with the territory or just making shit up out of habit.
I don’t think there’s anything more crucial to observing abstract objects well than honing your awareness of your own sense of realness (or quality). You have to learn to hear it at all, then you have to distinguish it from similar feelings that track things like utility, congruence-with-expectation, or enjoyment.
I think that repeating Phases Two and Three with an abstract object like “realness” or “quality” would be an excellent way to start.
My time estimates are based on how long things tend to take when I lead them in person. If you dive really deeply into things, it'll take longer. If you skim stuff or have a ton of expertise in a relevant field, it'll take less long.
FAQ: "But does this observation count for a tap?" Yes. Err on the side of tapping "too much".
FAQ: "Do I really have to tap my leg?" Definitely give it a try, but if it's causing you problems, stop doing it. For most people this provides a clarifying structure to the activity–by adding a non-default action to their usual observation habits, they create space for additional awareness—but some just find it distracting. However, even those who initially find it distracting sometimes benefit from tapping again when observations slow down a lot or become muddy. So experiment, and find out what works best for you.
I don't mean "quantification" in the way it's used in math and logic. I'm talking about discerning the quantity of things, such as by counting, measuring, or estimating.
I recently tried doing a variant of this exercise at a larger workshop about solving physics problems.
Instead of abstract objects, I was aiming to help people observe "themselves." (i.e. the second part was to list as many observations as they could about their own state, which included thoughts, feelings, body sensations, etc). I was hoping this would be a better intro to introspection than things like "focusing", for people focused on research.
The exercise fell flat. I think a significant part of this was my execution. Rereading the post... I realize I just totally failed to do the two middle-parts of the first phase. i.e. the part where you observe what your strategies were, and brainstorm new ones. I guess I had just skimmed the post and missed them.
One person reported the first part (observing a concrete object) feeling kinda fake. Another person said "hrm, this whole thing feels pretty different from the main focus of the day." [the basic loop of which was 'solve Thinking Physics problems]. "It feels more like... Logany naturalism stuff." And I was like, well, obviously it is Logany naturalism stuff, but, like, it seems pretty obviously connected to me.
This was all on the first day of beta-test workshops, and afterwards my general update was "have the workshops focus on the core loop of 'solve thinking physics puzzle, then extract insight about how to solve puzzles better'.
On later beta-test days for my workshop, I didn't teach this exercise explicitly, but I did have people do variations of it in 1-1 contexts while talking to them about their physics-puzzle-problem-solving. This seemed to go better.
I'm really happy to hear you tried this! Thanks for telling us about it.
>it seems pretty obviously connected to meI'm curious what happens when you try to spell out why it's connected.
I think observing-abstract-objects and observing-self are both connected, though in different ways.
My overall goal with the Thinking Physics workshop was to teach metacognition, with the physics questions grounding out "are you learning metacognition in a way that is demonstrably helpful?". I think being able to notice whats-going-on-inside-you in high granularity is useful to for noticing what cognitive habits are worth reinforcing.
I think it might have actually been good to start with the abstract-objects version, after doing a physics problem that notably had an abstract-object in it, and have people specifically be trying to generate lots of properties about that abstract object, to give them more handles for how to brainstorm solutions.
I tried this. Overall interesting. I had some good, novel thoughts. I'm not sure I had more or different good, novel thoughts about my abstract object than I would have had I just said "I'm gonna think about this for an hour". I do get the sense that if I were practiced at this, I would have had novel thoughts in 10-15 minutes rather than in an hour, and that if I regularly practiced this I'd naturally have some of those novel thoughts without really reaching for them. The whole thing felt brain stretchy in a nice way - not like "oh this is a hard math problem", more like "oh I haven't been to this city before apart from driving through".
My previous review of this is in this older comment. Recap:
I plan to re-run this exercise soon and see how it goes. I feel optimistic about it at least being on the right track towards something good and important. Logan notes that they haven't done it exactly the same way twice, so seems like they have a similar take?
This is very elaborate! Don't think I'd ever have the patience to go through the steps.
However, it reminded me of trying to visualize mathematical objects. Somehow these are more concrete than what you are describing though. For example, when learning linear algebra, I (and probably many others) would visualize various bases, subspaces etc. as arrows or planes in space, often in more than 3 dimensions. When I was learning General Relativity, I needed to imagine tensors. A symmetric tensor is sort of like a fuzzy squished egg, stretching and squeezing whatever it engulfs without changing its volume, but also separately compressing or blowing up the whole thing overall. An antisymmetric tensor is like a multi-dimensional hurricane, spinning whatever it comes across in various directions, in addition to overall stretching/squeezing. Once you develop the relevant intuition, the answer to a specific problem in the domain often comes to you long before you can figure out how to get it. John Wheeler, the guy who gave black holes their name, was famous for that. Anecdotally, a lot of mathematicians are like that.
On the other hand, maybe mathematical objects do not count as abstract objects anymore, if they are the object of your study. On the third hand, category theory is as abstract as it gets, and those fluent in it do "diagram chasing" mentally all the time. Still, maybe it's not what you are talking about at all.
Thank you to Duncan, Robin, timepoof, and Benya for feedback.
Can you give more detail on the ‘sometimes not looking too closely at things was loadbearing for people?’. In particular what percentage of people had this problem? (And, what were the absolute numbers?)
If you could share more Qualia of the things that went wrong that’d also be helpful.
I think it was something like three to five out of 75 people (so like 5%).
Two of the three people I'm thinking of didn't tell me all that much detail. Most of my model of what's going on at least some of the time comes from talking in more depth with just one of them. That's nowhere near enough information to make any remotely confident generalized claims; but it did seem like enough to include a note of caution.
I think most of the people likely to run into this kind of trouble are autistic. According to my model (which is roughly the "weak central coherence" theory), autistic people are dealing with way more sensory information most of the time, because their top-down processing is relatively weak compared to their bottom-up processing. They're not pruning stuff like normal. It just hits them all at once, and they can't organize it.
(I don't know why I'm saying "them" as though I'm not such a person.)
Departing now from standard stories about how autism works, and veering into my own speculation.
It seems to me that autistics tend to choose one of two strategies for coping with this. (I'm using "choose" very loosely here. It might happen when we're two years old.) Either we let everything in and become the "primarily sensory sensitive" flavor of autistic, or we dissociate and become the "primarily sensory insensitive" flavor of autistic. (It's more complicated than that; most of us don't fall cleanly into one category or the other in every circumstance.) Some of us freak out when an ambulance goes by, and can't think straight when there's a coke can in the same room because it keeps making tiny bubble sounds, and can tell you in great detail about the sensations happening on every inch of skin. Like me. Others of us are hardly ever aware that our bodies exist, may not notice you're calling our name when we are standing right next to you, and spend most of our time "with our heads in the clouds". (IME the clouds are often programming, math, or writing fiction.)
According to my story, sensory insensitive autistics have learned to live whatever-kind-of-life-they-have while constantly ignoring almost everything that's happening to them. They're not the only sort of person like this; plenty of neurotypicals also have their heads in the clouds almost all of the time. The thing is, head-in-the-clouds neurotypicals are still pretty much fine if they let through a bit more bottom-up data. It's not what they prefer or are comfortable with, but their basic way of processing information does not rely on never doing this. It doesn't threaten to break them.
Sensory insensitive autistics, though, depend on this extreme strategy for basic survival. When guided to make a move that would let in the flood—the flood that I constantly swim in, but that they have no practice coping with head-on—they can immediately tell that they're in danger of drowning, and they go NOPE, NO THANKS, DO NOT LIKE THIS.
I like the application of different sensory or mental modalities. I just want to remind everybody that people are different and have different primary mental modes or canvasses. Some may work better than others, some not at all. These modes are explored, e.g., here:
It may be useful to explore the range of one's perception and mental canvasses when doing Logan's exercises.
Your description of observing an abstract object reminded me of Feynman's method of deeply immersing himself in new subjects. Studying it intensely from many sides. I read about it somewhere but couldn't find a close match. This one describes at least part of it: https://themindcollection.com/the-feynman-technique/
I tried this in part, and I think I'll try it more completely next time I'm on a plane or in some other liminal sort of waiting space with cycles to spare.
I noticed that in exercise 3, the strategies which I'd rejected were primarily destructive. I happened to observe a pen, and while I did take the cap off to look at both the cap and the body in exercise 1, I didn't disassemble the body (it's friction-fit together so disassembly would potentially destroy it, mar the plastic, etc). The main unused techniques on my list for determining the properties of the materials it was made from would harm the materials: Bite it, scratch it, try to bend it, try to mark it with things to see what sticks, expose it to heat to see what it does, etc.
I happen to sew and draft my own clothing patterns, and there's a parallel here to how one might take the pattern from a garment. You can kind of, sort of copy the pattern with the garment intact, but to get a really deep understanding of how it's put together, one of the best things to do is take it apart seam by seam. The details of which seams are enclosed within which other seams reveals information about the order in which the garment was put together that would otherwise be hidden. Destroying the seams holding a lining to the garment can be the only way to expose what interfacing and construction techniques were used in the outer layers, and so forth.
After disassembly, the pile of cloth pieces and knowledge is different from the garment it started as. If I'd fully disassembled my pen, the puddle of ink and pile of metal and plastic bits would meaningfully differ from the original pen, although the disassembly would have yielded information that I couldn't get without it.
I feel cautious of performing this kind of disassembly on concepts that I like and want more of, lest I invite the "love isn't real, it's just a bunch of chemical reactions" type of philosophical failure mode. There's almost certainly a set of guard rails to abstract disassembly, just as there is to concrete disassembly. With a concrete item, I know intuitively which operations are reversible and which are not -- I know I can take the cap off the pen and put the cap back on and it'll still be the same pen, whereas if I dump all the ink out and disassemble the ball point nib, it'll become a meaningfully different thing, a formerly useful pen.
This intuition about physical objects comes from having broken some throughout my life, and having had to replace them. Do others feel an intuition for where to stop in disassembling abstract concepts? Do you have theories on how you developed that intuition?