Epistemic status: slightly more advanced than mixing stuff in a pot and throwing it at a wall to see what sticks

This is approximately the first step in a rationality bootstrap system I threw together for myself which I am sharing because I think it's a useful exercise in its own right. It's not without justification—I have spent a while building up and distilling insights from self-help and psych and neuro—buuuut I'm really bad at explaining the big vector field of evidence as it exists in my head so you just get the output! This implementation notably draws on KonMari, Soares' replacing guilt series, bewelltuned.com, this tumblr post on the basics of reasoning, and Kaj Sotala's IFS steelman.

tldr: An introduction to different parts of your brain and how to get them to work together: sensory realism, the output of associative-reactive learning algorithms, and abstracted models. Say hi, let them poke each other for a bit, and give them some guidelines for how to mesh.

Overall Guidelines

  • Please read through all the instructions before starting.
  • Have a vision of what you want out of doing it.
    • Imagine some weeks after trying the exercise your life was reasonably improved. What happens that week? For each of the senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, body sensation, etc.) name several moments you would expect to experience in that world.
    • Imagine you didn't finish the exercise, and/or didn't find helpful. What happened? For each of the senses, name several moments you would expect to experience in that world.
    • Talk these expected moments out with a friend or in a journal, *then* commit.
    • Avoid exaggerating predictions—trying to trick yourself into improving rational thought is really unlikely to go well. Regardless of how this exercise goes, the coming weeks will probably be very similar to the weeks before it.
  • Commit to completing the whole thing at once
  • For all your tools, consider
    • Does this have a high signal to noise ratio? Seek plentiful sources of accurate info so you can build rapid feedback cycles.
    • Is this high stake? (High cost or high reward?) You want to do the most important thing first.
    • Does this spark joy or curiosity? Sometimes you need to trust your gut. Not to mention, you have comparative advantage in areas you enjoy engaging with because you will more readily practice and improve in them than for areas you don't.
  • Express thanks or gratitude for the things you're putting behind you
    • Even when you understand the situation well enough to know why it couldn't have unfolded any other way, and you know you can't change what happened, and you're already doing everything you can to make the future better, you may still feel a little leftover ball of undirected badfeels in your chest.
    • Existing with an aimless negativity for too long can sour into taking it out on other people or yourself, or resenting existence itself. You could struggle then to remember to care for other people, and treat yourself kindly, and focus on what good there is in life while it lasts... or you could take this convenient moment in which you are keenly aware that a bit of your life has just played itself out to remind yourself!

Section 1: Illusion

You are hallucinating your senses.

Sometimes your hallucinations match up really well with each other and other people's hallucinations, and we call it reality. Sometimes they don't, and we just call it hallucination. Either way you are hallucinating.

Get acquainted with the illusion.


1. Pick a comfortable and familiar place to be in.

2. Lay down for 1-3 minutes with your eyes closed and do nothing in particular. Set an actual timer for this so you don't undershoot it.

3. Open your eyes. Let your focus wander as it will until you notice yourself noticing a visual sensation. When you do, fix the view in your mind with the label "this one", close your eyes if that's helpful to stay focused, and lightly consider:

  • Is this one high stake? Does this visual relate to a high risk or high reward?
  • Is this one a quality signal? Is this a good source of accurate information?
  • Is this one pleasant? Is interacting with this yummy or fascinating?

If you find the sensation to be none of above, take a moment to appreciate that you took the opportunity to conclude that. And don't forget that the absence of something can also be important or informative!

4. Repeat finding "this one" and classifying it for 20 things. A paper to mark the count will be helpful here.

5. Take a 1-3 minute lie-down doing nothing in particular again.

6. Go around the room smelling and/or tasting stuff. Fix the experience of a scent or flavor in your mind with the label "this one", and lightly consider if it is any of: high stake, a quality signal, or pleasant. If none of those fit, take a moment to appreciate that you had the opportunity to conclude their lack.

Do this for 10 ten scents or flavors. Huff air out your nose in between sniffs to clear out old scents, and close your eyes if it helps.

7. Take a 1-3 minute lie-down doing nothing in particular again.

8. Go around the room touching stuff. Fix a feel in your mind with the label "this one", and lightly consider if it is any of: high stake, a quality signal, or pleasant. If none of those fit, take a moment to appreciate that you had the opportunity to conclude their lack.

Do this for 10 touch sensations.

9. Take a 1-3 minute lie-down doing nothing in particular again.

10. Still laying down, listen for sounds. Fix a sound in your mind with the label "this one", and lightly consider if it is any of: high stake, a quality signal, or pleasant. If none of those fit, take a moment to appreciate that you had the opportunity to conclude their lack.

Do this for 10 sounds.

Section 2: Spirit

Sensations correspond more-or-less neatly with stuff in the territory. There are other processes going on in your brain which have more convoluted but still important relationships to the stuff in the territory: Memories. Emotions. Associations. Intuitions. Impulses. Aliefs. Autonomic responses. Reflexes. Habits. Aversions....

How well the output these processes fit a situation they're "about" can vary drastically. The causality of territory to hallucination to learning to reacting is not a trivial path to trace and optimize. There is, however, one correspondence to the territory that is very simple to track: this stuff exists in your brain. It is part of the territory that is a part of a person.

This leads to a cool hack to troubleshooting issues: you can orient to the "aboutness" of stuff and talk to it as you would a person... because there is a person there. That person is you. The aboutness is only a fragment of a person itself, but anything more it needs to be a whole person is right there for it to borrow. Orienting to the aboutness will be looking inward, regardless of where you place its voice in your imagination.

chatting heads

(See Kaj Sotala's IFS post or the book Impro for better wordsing.)

Internal double crux is one way you can run this, but it's not the only kind of interaction to be had.

Even when all your parts in alignment, you might still want to bring them into a meeting and make it common knowledge that they're in alignment. Nothing has to be going wrong to want to acknowledge what things went right and give credit where it is due. Sometimes you just want to check in to see what everyone thinks.

Those learning and reacting parts of your brain are really really powerful. You want them on your side. It pays to bring them fully on board with your goals and up to speed on reality.


1. Get comfortable and think back to where the evaluation of importance or pleasantness comes from, what it felt like to generate them. Imagine the assessor is there with you, or on the other side of your preferred communication medium. A symbolic item or a mirror may help some people with this.

2. Say hello and introduce yourself: who are you, what brings you around here?

3. Just start talking at them. Broadly, you'll want to cover:

  • How do you treat each other? Was consulting them in the first exercise a good or interesting experience, or do you see yourself avoiding them in the future? Do you like them?
  • Do you trust their judgment? Why or why not?
  • What is their value? Is it important to interact with them, or for them to do what they do well? What are the potential costs or benefits?

It may be very awkward, but so are a bunch of important real life conversations.

4. Express thanks for the experience of working with them and any responses "they" gave.

5. If they're feeling chatty then try asking them whether they like you and trust you, what things you do are important to them. Express thanks for their responses.

6. Say goodbye and let them go.

Yeah I am not great at guiding people through gendlin-focusing-like things, sorry.

Section 3: Runes

You know how "Snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white?

"Snow is white" acts like a symbol here. It is a concept that you can build independently of whether snow is white, and associate it with bits of reality like a little XML tag. You can effect magic by arranging the right runes in a valid spell. For my favorite jaunt through the land of runic magic, see The Simple Truth.


1. Get some writing materials, several pages worth, and settle down in a good place!

2. At the top of the page, write "Dumb Questions and Obvious Answers"

3. In short one-line sentences, write down some things you think. No need to worry right now about whether they're fully true or not, or whether they're consistent with each other, you can get to that later. Be bold in writing small and boring truths when they occur to you; obvious is good!

Also write down questions that you might ask to clarify things or put them in context. No need to try to answer them right now. Be bold in writing trivial or redundant questions when they occur to you; basic is good!

4. When you finish a page, put it face down for the moment. Close your eyes, take a several deep breaths, get up to do some stretches. Then sit down and flip the paper back up again.

. Cover all but the first line with another sheet of paper, and consider:

  • Are there high stakes riding on this statement's truth value, or this question's answer?
  • Does this statement cache out in anticipated experiences? Does this prompt focus you and point you in the right direction?
    • In runic language: A rune that applies to many things strongly, that spells don't fizzle out on.
  • Does holding this thought in your head spark joy or interest?

Section 4, Synthesis, to be in the next installment.

People who post to restate bits in their own words are rock stars in my book. That goes doubly for own words + examples. People who cross-reference are gods.


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