Time: 22:56:47

I

This is going to be an exercise in speed writing a LW post.

Not writing posts at all seems to be worse than writing poorly edited posts.

It is currently hard for me to do anything that even resembles actual speed writing: even as I type this sentence, I have a very hard to resist urge to check it for grammar mistakes and make small corrections/improvements before I've even finished typing.

But to reduce the burden of writing, I predict it is going to be highly useful to develop the ability of actually writing a post as fast as I can type, without going back.

If this proves to have acceptable results, you can expect more regular posts from me in the future.

And possibly, if I develop the habit of writing regularly, I'll finally get to describing some of the topics on which I have (what I believe are) original and sizable clusters of knowledge, which is not easily available somewhere else.

But for now, just some thoughts on a very particular aspect of modelling how human brains think about a very particular thing.

This thing is immense suffering.

Time: 23:03:18

(Still slow!)

II

You might have heard this or similar from someone, possibly more than once in your life:

"you have no idea how I feel!"

or

"you can't even imagine how I feel!"

For me, this kind of phrase has always had the ring of a challenge. I have a potent imagination, and non-negligible experience in the affairs of humans. Therefore, I am certainly able to imagine how you feel, am I not?

Not so fast.

(Note added later: as Gram_Stone mentions, these kinds of statements tend to be used in epistemically unsound arguments, and as such can be presumed to be suspicious; however here, I am more concerned with the fact of the matter of how imagination works.)

Let's back up a little bit and recount some simple observations about imagining numbers.

You might be able to imagine and hold the image of five, six, nine, or even sixteen apples in your mind.

If I tell you to imagine something more complex, like pointed arrows arranged in a circle, you might be able to imagine four, or six, or maybe even eight of them.

If your brain is constructed differently from mine, you might easily go higher with the numbers.

But at some fairly small number, your mental machinery simply no longer has the capacity to imagine more shapes.

III

However, if I tell you that "you can't even imagine 35 apples!" it is obviously not an insult or a challenge, and what is more:

"imagining 35 apples" is NOT EQUAL to "comprehending in every detail what 35 apples are"

I.e. depending on how good your knowledge of natural numbers is, that is to say, if you passed the first class of primary school, you can analyse the situation of "35 apples" in every possible way, and imagine it partially - but not all of it at the same time.

Directly imagining apples is very similar to actually experiencing apples in your life, but it has a severe limitation.

You can experience 35 apples in your life, but you can't imagine all of them at once even if you saw them 3 seconds ago.

Meta: I think I'm getting better at not stopping when I write.

Time: 23:13:00

IV

But, you ask, what is the point of writing all this obvious stuff about apples?

Well, if you move to more emotionally charged topics, like someone's emotions, it is much harder to think about the situation in a clear way.

And if you have a clear model of how your brain processes this information, you might be able to respond in a more effective way.

In particular, you might be saved from feeling guilty or inadequate about not being able to imagine someone's feelings or suffering.

It is a simple fact about your brain that it has a limited capability to imagine emotion.

And especially with suffering, the amount of suffering you are able to experience IS OF A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT ORDER OF MAGNITUDE than the amount you are able to imagine, even with the best intentions and knowledge.

However, can you comprehend it?

V

From this model, it is also immediately obvious that the same thing happens when you think about your own suffering in the past.

We know generally that humans can't remember their emotions very well, and their memories don't correlate very well with reported experience-in-the-moment.

Based on my personal experience, I'll tentatively make some bolder claims.

If you have suffered a tremendous amount, and then enough time has passed to "get over it", your brain is not only unable to imagine how much you have suffered in the past:

it is also unable to comprehend the amount of suffering.

Yes, even if it's your own suffering.

And what is more, I propose that the exact mechanism of "getting over something" is more or less EQUIVALENT to losing the ability to comprehend that suffering.

The same would (I expect) hold in case of getting better after severe PTSD etc.

VI

So in this sense, a person telling you "you cannot even imagine how I feel" is right also with a less literal interpretation of their statement.

If you are a mentally healthy individual, not suffering any major traumas etc., I suggest your brain literally has a defense mechanism (that protects your precious mental health) that makes it impossible for you to not only imagine, but also fully comprehend the amounts of suffering you are being told about.

Time: 23:28:04

Publish!

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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:
[-]Elo110

It's bugging me to read this sentence so I propose a rewrite:

I don't know about you, but for me personally, it has always had the ring of a challenge. I like to think that I have a potent imagination, and non-negligible experience in the affairs of humans. Therefore, I am certainly able to imagine how you feel, am I not?

::

For me, that phrase has the ring of a challenge. I have a potent imagination, and non-negligible experience in the affairs of humans. I am certainly able to imagine how you feel, am I not?

(after looking at how I wanted to edit this sentence it would appear that I wanted to remove some/all of the hedge and crutch statements from the point of the sentence)


I would also add:

You might have heard this or similar from someone

and later

also with a less literal interpretation of her statement.

You appear to have switched genders on your imaginary friend. I would suggest you pick non-gender for the whole piece.

Other than that, neat little concept. (Even if I do agree with Gram's alternate explanation of the event - I think you might both be right)

Thanks, fixed (though I left "has always had the ring" to mark that I will no longer treat it as such in the future).

[-]gjm100

This XKCD cartoon seems somewhat apposite: https://xkcd.com/883/

You have special hardware for simulating others' cognition. Neurologically, imagining how someone feels is a completely different thing from imagining a collection of 35 apples.


I can't tell what context you're getting this from, but I've seen "You don't understand how I feel!" used as bad epistemology.

My sister's a heroin addict, and she'll use the fact that I've never been addicted to heroin or experienced opioid withdrawals as a debate tactic. It goes something like:

  1. Only plans to kill my sister's addiction that account for my sister's feelings will work.

  2. Only my sister can fully account for my sister's feelings.

  3. Therefore, only my sister can invent successful plans to kill her addiction.

  4. As a corollary, anyone else's plans to kill my sister's addiction will fail.

It is known that heroin addicts invent good-looking plans for killing their addictions, but do not invent good plans for killing their addictions. By this argument she can ensure that all plans to kill her addiction will always eventually fail.

The epistemically correct response, even if it's not necessarily persuasive in this form (for otherwise I would have persuaded her), is to say that I don't actually need to experience what she has to come up with good plans for killing addictions. "Not knowing what it's like to be an addict doesn't make me bad at making decisions about addictions," pattern-matches to, "I don't empathize with you," and, if she really wasn't listening, "I claim to know more about your own phenomenal experiences than you."

Sometimes how someone feels really doesn't matter, in really specific cases. That is, sometimes it's not necessary for an argument to follow. If you let people conflate this specific and useful objection with a more general sort of paternalism where you always ignore the relevance of everyone's feelings, then you might flinch from being right or doing right.

Eek, I'd be really really careful with arguments like that.

If she doesn't agree that this is one of those cases where what she feels doesn't matter, why doesn't she? Maybe when she sees you as being insufficiently empathetic, it's on this level, not on the object level of how much her feelings about specific plans matter?

If she doesn't give her stamp of approval to your description of her thoughts, how would you know if you had it wrong? How would you notice if you were missing something important?

I get the kinds of things that you're talking about, but we're strictly talking about the argument "If Gram had been a drug addict, then he would know what kind of plan I actually need." Even if we take as an assumption that I have been a drug addict, then it does not follow that I am better at making plans that turn addicts into nonaddicts. If anything, I probably get the epistemic advantage from not being wireheaded. This is not about saying that there are times when someone's feelings don't have instrumental or moral weight. This is about saying that sometimes, people will make you think that an argument that includes knowledge of someone's values as a proposition is itself a value judgment, making something that should not be off limits into something that is off limits. I can say, "No, I would not be better able to help you if I became a drug addict. That argument can be false even if its premises are assumed true." If I stop talking about logical validity, which is always free game, and start being someone who blows off other people's feelings for no good reason, then cut my head off.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that this was a short encounter after a long separation, so this was an urgent situation where you cannot allow an addict to argue for credibility from expertise.

Let me know if this doesn't address your concerns in any way.

I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m not saying that you can afford to let logically invalid arguments go unchallenged as if there was nothing wrong with them. Or that emotions ought to be free from criticism or something. Or that you haven’t earned your confidence or that her listening to you wouldn’t be massively beneficial for her. And I certainly don’t see you as someone who blows off other people’s feelings for no reason - in fact, a big reason I wanted to respond to your comment was because I got the exact opposite impression from you. I’m sorry if it came across otherwise.

If you want I can try to explain more carefully what I was getting at, but I certainly don't want to drag you into a conversation like this if it's not something you want to get into here or now. I'm actually in a somewhat similar situation myself so I’m well aware that it’s not always the time for that kind of thing.

I'm sorry to hear about your sisters addition. That must be hard on you too.

You have special hardware for simulating others' cognition.

Yes, but that to what degree of fidelity? You also have special hardware to simulate objects. The question is one of fidelity and I understood the example thus. After all his analogy wasn't between emotions and objects but between amount of emotion and number of objects.

Sometimes how someone feels really doesn't matter, in really specific cases.

Yes, but that doesn't strike at the core of the matter, namely to what degree "you have no idea how I feel!" can be true.

The epistemically correct response ... is that I don't actually need to experience what she has to come up with good plans...

True - and as you say often not persuasive. What would be a persuasive or emphatic way to nudge her?

Yes, but that to what degree of fidelity? You also have special hardware to simulate objects. The question is one of fidelity and I understood the example thus. After all his analogy wasn't between emotions and objects but between amount of emotion and number of objects.

I don't know enough to say much, but I am wary about any speculation that glosses over social cognition as a very special kind of imagination that can seem identical to the other kind of imagination if you don't know that they happen in different places anatomically. It seems to make it harder to believe that any analogies will hold.

Yes, but that doesn't strike at the core of the matter, namely to what degree "you have no idea how I feel!" can be true.

I meant to link this to the part of the article that says that can feel like a challenge. Sometimes things feel like a challenge because someone's started counting points instead of writing down facts. Now that I reread it though, it doesn't seem like he was being very serious about the feeling of challenge. It probably means my original comment seemed less relevant than I thought it did.

I am wary about any speculation that glosses over social cognition as a very special kind of imagination ... It seems to make it harder to believe that any analogies will hold.

Granted. That's true.

I meant to link this to the part of the article that says that can feel like a challenge.

Thanks that you point this out. Indeed I didn't see that part so clearly.

Only plans to kill my sister's addiction that account for my sister's feelings will work.

False. I assume that plans like "kidnapping her and keeping her in a private prison without access to heroin for a few months" would also work. Illegal and unethical perhaps, but still technically possible.

But I guess in real life it means something like "if she will not like the approach, she will sabotage it", which is probably true. :(

Only my sister can fully account for my sister's feelings.

Other can still make a guess, and maybe guess incorrectly, and maybe guess correctly.

I specifically described this as bad epistemology.

Thank you for trying this experiment, I think it went well.

Glad to hear this; if it goes reasonably well a few times, I'll consider training myself to use speed writing as my main mode of writing most things.

Great idea. And time efficient. If I think about the few LW posts I did - they took ages.

It would probably be even better to create an article this way, and edit it afterwards for greater legibility.

It's worth distinguishing a few concepts: ① The qualia of the feeling. ② The physical equivalent of the feeling. ③ The causation between a stimulus and ②. ④ The behavior caused by ②.

If I show a person with a spider phobia an image of a spider for 5ms I might know more about what happens to them with ②, ③ and ④ then they do themselves.

In my experience the people who are really got at reading ②, ③ and ④ are generally strongly aware that they can't read ①.