I wrote this in 2018, as part of a rationalist co-housing project with lofty goals (some of you might remember the Accelerator). It's been sitting on Arbital since then, but I've recently been reducing the amount of websites that have my name on it, so I'm republishing it here.

Epistemic status: literally a shower thought. Please read with caution, and add criticism.

Accelerating personal growth: a mashup of models

I have multiple related models of this, and none of them seem to fully map conditionspace. Therefore I have decided to include them all, to provide a list of recommendations that is as complete as possible. If you have a model that seems completely different, please add it to the list.

Model 1: it all boils down to (perceived) physical safety

With “perceived” I mean that your system 1 has to agree. If you have a sense that your physical body will be well cared for in the foreseeable future, you will have an easy time focusing on long-term non-physical things. Things that bring one to this state are:

  • Being able to unconditionally take care of yourself, or being fully accepted by those that take care of you.
  • Having a sense of high status in your community, so that more resources will be allocated to you.
  • Having a good record of being physically well (remember s1 cares mostly about data). This means things like pulling all-nighters and skipping breakfast have subtle negative externalities.
  • Keeping a good stack of currency (i.e. money, energy, karma) on hand

The list can go on forever, but I hope this is enough for you to be able to generate it yourself.

A few practical recommendations based on this model:

  • Residents should be self-sufficient
  • Have temporary residents pay ahead before coming to the accelerator so they are covered for the length of their stay, but give them a linear slice of their money back if they leave early so they don’t have to incur financial loss for leaving. They don't get stuck.
  • Hold operations (taking care of food & shelter, cleaning, etc) to high standards
  • Give residents at least small responsibilities so they can have a sense of being needed
  • Establish a culture of self-care

Again, this list is not exhaustive.

Model 2: reach self-actualization

You must know about Maslow’s hierarchy, and you might be aware of the positive effects of climbing that pyramid. Maslow called the first 4 needs ‘deficiency needs’, indicating that not meeting these needs has a negative effect on health. He called the 5th need self-actualization, which is the (visceral) need to fulfill one’s full potential. It seems quite helpful to actually want to improve yourself on a gut level.

Maslow’s model is great, but the specific 4 needs he pointed at have been called into question. Also the specific order of those needs have been called into question. What remains is the idea that there is a list of needs that, when met, allow a state of growth. I’d like to propose the following list (stolen from Human Givens, which is annoyingly commercial but seems to have good content):

  • Security - safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • Attention (to give and receive it) - a form of nutrition
  • Sense of autonomy and control - having volition to make responsible choices
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Emotional intimacy - to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n all”
  • Privacy - opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • Sense of status within social groupings
  • Sense of competence and achievement
  • Meaning and purpose - which come from being stretched in what we do and think

The bold claim that is made with this list is that it is impossible to have mental health problems if all of these needs are met. This claim has been refuted (thanks Hyperclavie) but I’d still like to propose that they’re a significant step in most cases.

Practical recommendations based on this model:

  • (Security) scout the area before deciding on a location, look for crime indicators, and have a good alarm system
  • (Community) have regular gatherings where (almost) everyone is present
  • (Intimacy) establish a culture of openness and nonjudgment
  • (Privacy) have spaces where one must be quiet (meditation rooms?)
  • (Status) have explicit rounds of appreciation and (somewhat covertly) make sure everyone gets a turn

Most of these recommendations could have been given with the first model. It seems to me that that’s a good thing: both models seem to be pointing at the same thing from a different angle, which makes me think they’re actually pointing at the thing we care about.

Model 3: intrinsic motivation

Quick Wikipedia definition:

“Intrinsic motivation is the self-desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to analyze one's capacity, to observe and to gain knowledge. It is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on external pressures or a desire for consideration.”

This looks like the same visceral need for growth that I referred to with Maslow. It seems to me that intrinsic motivation is related to a state of self-actualization, but when it comes to the way to get in such a state, the models depart.

According to Dan Pink, the three factors that lead to a state of intrinsic motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose:

  • Autonomy is being self-directed. It means that the causal chains of whatever you achieve can be traced back to you, and not to someone who told you to do it. In other words: if you had not existed, the thing you did would not have happened.
  • Mastery is being skillful. It means that you actually feel good at the thing you’re doing.
  • Purpose is when the thing you’re doing actually benefits not just you, but also your community.

Practical recommendations:

  • Strive to make people as self-directed as they can handle, as long as it doesn’t make them fail at what they’re doing
  • Have people stick to the same task so they can develop mastery in it and actually become better at it than anyone else
  • Establish a culture to be vocal about the things one appreciates

Putting the first three models together

I didn’t plan to write this section, but it seems to me that these models fit together even more neatly than I anticipated.

Dan Pink talks about people at work, and in that context, it seems to me that his three factors would sum to status. This would mean that the second model is a generalisation of the third, and I feel that the first is a generalization of the second, since all the needs that are mentioned (except privacy?) eventually lead to physical safety in some way.

Yet, given just the first model, I wouldn’t have been able to generate the recommendations that the second and the third generate, so I suppose it is still useful to keep all three of them in mind, and add others.

Model 4 (addendum): a big PNS

Some CFAR alumni will remember the Againstness class, where Val tells us about the autonomic nervous system, and it's parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). These parts can have different levels of activation, and the point of the class is that a SNS-dominant state is generally bad for you. Interestingly, it seems to me that this goes both ways. I.e. "bad for you" is generally a SNS-dominant state. Remember that list of things that even your grandma knows are good or bad for you? Well:

  • exercise releases neurotrophic factors that eventually induce neurogenesis in the PNS, increasing it's baseline activity.
  • meditation increases long-term PNS activity (to an extreme extent in monks).
  • alcohol increases SNS activity in the short term and damages the PNS in the long term.
  • ingesting salt increases SNS activity.
  • a diet with starch and sugars has been linked to chronically elevated SNS activity.
  • sleep deprived people have a stronger SNS response to stressful stimuli.
  • addictions (in drugs and internet) cause the SNS to be more strongly reactive.
  • loneliness is associated with increased SNS response.

Now I'm not rationalizing. I literally thought up a list of things that are commonly regarded as "bad for you" and all of them turned out to influence the autonomic nervous system in the same way. If the thing is good for you, it increases the relative activity of the PNS. If it's bad for you, it increases relative SNS. It wasn't even hard to find: most of this stuff is confirmed by papers in journals that were part of the first few search results.

That's great, but how close is "good/bad for you" to the goal of the Accelerator, which is to make people more rational/agenty? Decide for yourself:

  • depression is a state of perpetual SNS dominance.
  • burnout occurs when the SNS has been dominant for too long.
  • heart-rate variability, which is one of the biomarkers for PNS activity, is linked to increased cognitive performance.
  • SNS activity interferes with memory encoding, consolidation and retrieval.

I have the suspicion, which might not be fully justified by this data alone, that being in a PNS-dominant state most of the time might be the most important condition for growth. And here's the best part: it's measurable! We can have realtime feedback!

Practical recommendations:

  • If participant agrees: measure the SNS and PNS activity of participant (through galvanic skin response). Attach a device that notifies participant (and maybe people in their surroundings) if SNS dominance occurs. This will be great s1 feedback.
  • Use SNS and PNS data as a factor in evaluating events

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