Here is a story about me. This showcases the consequences of “exotic self modification”, and is not intended as advice for or against the practice, just a data point. Weigh your risks.

TL;DR: you have probably misidentified your terminal goals. do not explicitly and exclusively optimize for them. also, when experimenting, do not lose sight of the “outside view” of your experiment.

I’m young, neuroplastic, trying to figure out my life. I had a lot of structured free time (thanks school system). I decided to try and improve myself at the level of my mind and goals, because I identified that as a fundamental goal of mine.

This identification was a seemingly profound moment in my life, and I thought "aha! this is the root of all my utility! so i should just optimize for it, and my life will be ideal".

I was cognizant that I am the architect of my own mind, and used those powers. But my blueprint was hastily drawn, and missed supporting structures, bringing the whole building down after it reached sufficient weight and complexity. 

My naive, lossy compression of utility screwed me over. But I didn't know that yet, I was headily envisioning my exponential swoop to a more and more perfect version of myself.

I started meditating, mostly by paying attention to my body and perception, and trying to alter it, as well as manipulating my modes of thought.

I started thinking more visually, and considerably more abstractly. I spent my time reading math and physics and modeling the world.

I wanted to be able to control “myself”, and a target here was my emotions. I figured out that I could imagine happiness, and then let it wash over me, a serene burst of pleasure. I entered vividly pleasant scenarios, imagined myself floating, sunkissed, through the wind. I did this a lot, because I could.

I stopped outwardly caring about others, thinking I could just block their influence, and I was manipulative and callous to prove to myself that I could be. Ironically, in trying to reach more variety, my emotional complexity collapsed.

I was impulsive, seeking out novelty by doing whatever out of distribution things I could think of, while trying to sow more randomness in my thoughts by varying who I talked to and where I got information.

I started theorizing top-down, thinking about structures like new computation paradigms and physics models, then trying to apply them to reality. I twisted my mind’s eye, I was always thinking.

My former goals lost their grounding, all I cared about was increasing, first order, my abilities and the variance in my life. This meant that schoolwork fell to the side, automated away or done extremely creatively (occasionally to the point of losing credit for not following the rubric closely enough). I couldn’t justify spending time working on things I thought I knew how to do, the intellectual ability to do them was the only thing that I factored in, because that's where I thought improvement in abilities came from. I also focused overwhelmingly on meta-improvements, molding my approach to problems instead of just solving them in the most "efficient" way I could, trying to transcend local maxima.

Every single thought I had and action I took was justified by my variety/meta improvement goals. I reflected on everything as it happened, and wouldn’t do things if I didn’t think they fit. This was perpetual, an overarching paradigm governing me.

Then I let go, no more structure, no more meaning. My life felt empty, the pleasure I summoned up was detached, and so was I. I turned to empty, low bitrate social interaction, or social media, mining those tiny bursts of dopamine as I turned off reason and awareness.

Bursts of clarity cut through, and I’d exercise, or continue some ability or novelty increasing plan, or pull on a cached thought thread or image. But these got shorter, succumbing to the deep emptiness of the evening.

Everyday, I cycled through “productivity” and a weird mix of hedonism and nihilism, commenting on this to friends with the tone “haha, my brain is weird”, somehow not reflecting on why or realizing how bad this was.

Then I slept, after more meaningless mental yoga, trying to take advantage of hypnagogia, and woke up, and repeated it all.

My mind was fracturing under the stress, my identity in whiplash, but internally there were no signs of damage. I had a dream where I imagined absorbing and being someone else, with their goals and worldview and thoughts. It was uncomfortable and oddly profound, and I used it as a positive indicator for plasticity instead of a warning.

I lasted a month.

One night, I broke down, wondering what the point of it all was, why I couldn’t control myself, why all of my pleasure felt so empty, wondering what practical progress I’d made in my worldview.

I thought I had discovered a simplified “goal” in my life, self improvement, but pursuing it and only it had become a nightmare.

I was a powerful enough mix of disconcerted, emotional, and uncertain to finally get an outside perspective on what I had been doing, and only then did this become clear to me. I had absorbed and embodied a worldview that was too condensed, too narrow, too obsessive.

I should have treated this as an experiment, but I was fully convinced it was my new way of life, and I was on the path to being maximally productive, if only i kept trying harder.

I ended up snapping out of this very explicitly. I could feel my goals “realign” as I laid in bed processing what I had been doing and why (after discussing it, I finally had an outside view, the ability to question the efficacy and insanity of my world). I was free.

It was an immense relief. I immediately felt more right, more comfortable, looser, happier. The worldview I had before was uptight and strict, like a ruler up my back, too long and at the wrong angle.

I slipped back into those goals, comfortable in my ability to come back now that I had felt the difference, testing my ability to go back and forth, and it was so brittle, so contrived.

It turns out I had built a base state for a reason, and making a gradual but extremely radical and committed change to it was not a net positive when the motivations were ill  defined and *arbitrary*.

It took 2 and a half weeks to feel comfortable again, to ignore the abyss of “purpose” and accept that having absurdism as a base state was the healthiest thing for me at that time.

This was fascinating. I unlocked some interesting new structures and abilities and sensations. But I was *stuck* there, in a subjectively less baseline pleasant illusion. It may not have worked if I hadn’t believed that I was actually pursuing my terminal goals perfectly, but I should have tried that, kept an outside view.

I still don’t know what “I” am aiming for. Self improvement, novelty, and happiness play a huge role, but they aren’t enough.

It seems the way they are served matters, and actual output matters, not just complex, fascinating thoughts. And people matter. Suppressing care is unnatural.

And so begins my arc of caring, of collaborating, of making changes *carefully* and with safeties built in, of more grounded thoughts, so I don’t get myself stuck in a personal hell that locally feels like heaven.

Good luck to anyone else who plays with their mind, and be very careful, lest you get stuck in a self sustaining, globally uncomfortable state. And a little (unproductively) insane.

PS: To anyone reading this who knows me personally, I am fine (or at least, at my baseline level of sanity) now, and it was a very interesting experience that I do not regret. 

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
4 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:34 AM

Interesting.

As counterpoint from a 50 year old who has struggled with meaning and direction and dissatisfaction with outcomes (top 0.1% ability without as yet personally satisfactory results) I have vague recollections of my head-strong teen years when I felt my intellect was indomitable and I could master anything and determine my destiny though force of will.  But I've slowly come to the conclusion that we have a lot less free-will than we like to believe, and most of our trajectory and outcomes in life are set by neurological determinants - instincts and traits that we have little to no control over.  Few if any have drive necessary (another innate attribute) to overcome or modify their base tendencies over long term, a sisyphean endeavour at best, and the likely reason we see such heavy use of nootropic drugs.

Without an (almost literal) gun to your head you can only maintain behavioural settings at odds with your likely genetically innate preferences for short periods, months, perhaps years, but not decades, 'fake it till you make it' in personality modification mostly doesn't work - in my experience people (myself included) almost always fall back into their factory settings.  Choose your goals, careers and partners accordingly, follow your interests, and try to find work environments where others strengths can compensate for deficits you perceive in yourself, eg working with some highly conscientious types is a massive boon if you are ADHD and probably leads to greater satisfaction and better results.

Thank you for sharing this! I am fascinated by others' internal experiences, especially when they are well-articulated.

Some of this personally resonates with me, as well. I find it very tempting to implement simple theories and pursue simple goals. Simplicity can be elegant and give the appearance of insight, but it can also be reductionist and result in overfitting to what is ultimately just a poor model of reality. Internally self-modifying to overfit a very naive self-model is an especially bad trip, and one I have taken multiple times (usually in relatively small ways, usually brought on by moments of hypomania).

It took me a long time to build epistemic humility about myself and to foster productive self-curiosity. Now I tend to use description more than prescription to align myself to my goals. I rule myself with a light hand.

Here is a rough sketch of how I think that works in my own mind:

Somewhere in my psychology is a self-improvement mechanism that I can conceptualize as a function. It takes my values and facts about myself and the world as inputs and returns my actions as outputs. (I'm not completely sure how it got there, but as long as it exists, even if just a seedling, I expect it to grow over time due to its broad instrumental utility.) I don't understand this function very well, so I can't reliably dictate to myself exactly how to improve. I also don't fully understand my values, so I can't list them cleanly and force-feed them into the function. However, this self-improvement mechanism is embedded in the rest of my psychology, so it automatically has weak access to my values and other facts. Just by giving it a little conscious attention and more accurate information about myself and the world, the mechanism tends to do useful things, without a lot of forceful steering.

I was cognizant that I am the architect of my own mind, and used those powers.

Could you perhaps elaborate on how exactly you managed to "exotically self-modify"? Was it just the "aha!" moment you mentioned, or was it the meditation?

When I tried to do something similar a while ago (albeit probably with different methods), I just got null results. So what did you do that produced such undoubtedly strong effects?

I had been communicating with someone who had had great success and very fine control with modification, so that was a clear “this is possible” (they were much more careful though!), and I was also reflecting a lot on how people don’t explicitly take advantage of their self modifying properties enough (it is amazing that we can just … will thoughts and goals into existence and delude ourselves like what?? and the % of people that meditate is low??! the heck?). 
 

I think my success was mostly due to just being in a frame of mind that made me very receptive to change, I think if you’re fighting it because you, at some level, believe your current equilibrium is better than what you’re aiming for (probably the case, tbh) or unaware to what extent change is possible you’d have much weaker results. Also, I had very little explicit, continuous certainty in my goals and habits, rendering them quite susceptible to change.