What makes people intellectually active?

What is the difference between a smart person who has read the sequences and considers AI x-risk important and interesting, but continues to be primarily a consumer of ideas, and someone who starts having ideas? I am not trying to set a really high bar here -- they don't have to be good ideas. They can't be off-the-cuff either, though. I'm talking about someone taking their ideas through multiple iterations.

A person does not need to research full-time to have ideas. Ideas can come during downtime. Maybe it is something you think about during your commute, and talk about occasionally at a lesswrong meetup.

There is something incomplete about my model of people doing this vs not doing this. I expect more people to have more ideas than they do.

AI alignment is the example I'm focusing on, but the missing piece of my world-model extends much more broadly than that. How do some people end up developing sprawling intellectual frameworks, while others do not?

There could be a separate "what could someone do about it" question, but I want to avoid normative/instrumental connotations here to focus on the causal chains. Asking someone "why don't you do more?" has a tendency to solicit answers like "yeah I should do more, I'm bottlenecked on willpower" -- but I don't think willpower is the distinguishing factor between cases I observe. (Maybe there is something related involved, but I mostly don't think of intellectual productivity as driven by a top-down desire to be intellectually productive enforced by willpower.)

I have some candidate models, but all my evidence is anecdotal and everything seems quite shaky.

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I think that a lot of the answers here are touching upon aspects of the same thing: feedback and reward. The idea-generating mechanisms in our subconscious respond to rewards. If you want to have lots of ideas about something, try to ensure that it either feels as rewarding as possible intrinsically, or that you also get social rewards for them, or both.

  • Eli notes that writing up your thoughts is useful. As he notes, this is useful for iterating them: but a lot of people also find that writing down your ideas, causes you to have even more ideas. I think that a part of this is that when you write the ideas down, it can feel rewarding by itself, and if you also iterate them further and enjoy it, then that's also a form of reward that can be propagated to the initial act of having thought them up.
  • Abram's response is that an intellectual community or receptive audience is a big factor. This also matches: if you get to have enjoyable conversations about your ideas, that's rewarding, and it also gives you leads for new ideas. E.g. if someone didn't understand your explanation, it feel rewarding to have an idea of how you could explain it better; even moreso if you do actually succeed in explaining it.
  • John suggests reinforcing yourself for ideas regardless of their quality, and getting excited about having produced them. The connection here is presumably obvious. Also, "Most people are too judgemental of their ideas" is an important bit: avoiding negative reinforcement for generating ideas, can be as important as having positive reinforcement. If for each idea you generate you automatically think "but this idea sucks", then that's a bit of a negative valence associated with idea-generation, which can quickly stop you from coming up with anything at all.
  • Cousin It, in the comments: "sometimes people end up in some activity because they accidentally had a defining moment of fun with that activity". Yup, if an activity is fun, then you are going to enjoy thinking about it, and will also generate ideas related to it.
  • Personally I've noticed that if I've been getting rewarded for having ideas related to something, then my mind will automatically be scanning things for anything that could contribute to it. For example, right now I'm working on several essays by gradually sketching out what I want to say in them; I enjoy this phase, and have liked it whenever I come up with a new idea that I could use in one of the essays. As a consequence, I feel like my mind is very inclined to notice new instances of the things that I'm writing about, and suggest using that in my essay. ("Hey, the way the person in front of you at the grocery store did X, that's an example of the psychological phenomenon you're writing about.") When I write that down, that process gets a bit of a reward and reinforces the act of scanning everything for its usefulness in these particular essays. So it's not just that rewards can reinforce your creativity in general; they can also reinforce your creativity as related to a specific project.

Here's a quote from the author Lawrence Block, writing in his book "Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel":

... the reception one’s ideas receive has a good deal to do with the development of future ideas.
An example: my longtime friend and colleague, the late Donald E. Westlake, had a period in the mid-1960s when he kept getting ideas for short stories about relationships. (That his own relationships were in an uncertain state at the time may have had something to do with this, but never mind.) He wrote three or four stories, one right after the other, and he sent him to his agent, who admired them greatly and submitted them to markets like Redbook and Cosmopolitan and Playboy and the Saturday Evening Post. All of the editors who saw the stories professed admiration for them, but nobody liked any of them well enough to buy it, and the stories went unpublished.
And Don stopped having ideas. He didn’t regret having written the stories, and he would have been perfectly happy to write more even with no guarantee of success, but the idea factory in his unconscious mind added things up and decided the hell with it. It was clear to Don that, if one or two of those stories had sold, he’d have had ideas for more. But they hadn’t, and he didn’t.
On the other hand, consider Walter Mosley. Shortly after the very successful 1990 publication of his first crime novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter appeared on a panel at a mystery convention in Philadelphia. He announced that he probably didn't belong there, that this book was an anomaly, that it was actually highly unlikely that he'd write any more books within the confines of the genre.
This was certainly not a pose. He very clearly believed what he was saying. Since then, however, he’s written and published a dozen more Easy Rawlins mysteries, three Fearless Jones mysteries, and five Leonid McGill mysteries-along with close to two dozen other books, most of them novels. While a cynic might simply contend that Walter has gone where the money is, I know the man too well to believe commercial considerations outweigh artistic ones for him.
The ongoing success of the Easy Rawlins books have made it almost inevitable that his unconscious would come up with a succession of ideas for additional books. They've been good ideas, engaging their author even as they've engaged an increasing audience of readers, and it would have been a great betrayal of self not to have gone on writing them.

If someone had commented with a one-line answer like "people are intellectually active if it is rewarding", I would have been very meh about it -- it's obvious, but trivial. All the added detail you gave makes it seem like a pretty useful observation, though.

Two possible caveats --

  • What determines what's rewarding? Any set of behaviors can be explained by positing that they're rewarding, so for this kind of model to be meaningful, there's got to be a set of rewards involved which are relatively simple and have relatively broad explanatory power.
  • In order for a behavior to be rewarded in the first place, it has to be generated the first time. How does that happen? Animal trainers build up complicated tricks by rewarding steps incrementally approaching the desired behavior. Are there similar incremental steps here? What are they, and what rewards are associated with them?

(Your spelled-out details give some ideas in those directions.)

Even the by product (ideas) are most trivial too.

I was thinking in a very different direction upon reading "a lot of people also find that writing down your ideas, causes you to have even more ideas." I know what you mean in the context of a reinforcement system, but I think it misses the more pressing phenomena, at least in my experience of uncertainty whether i'm inventing or indulging, of working on ideas.

The "even more ideas" part sounds to me like a sort of (combinatorial) explosion, when my stroke of inspiration is much more problematic, much less elegant than I thought. Sometimes this also means m

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I'm not trying to hold it constant, I'm just trying to understand a relatively low standard, because that's the part I feel confused about. It seems relatively much easier to look at bad intellectual output and say how it could have been better, think about the thought processes involved, etc. Much harder to say what goes into producing output at all vs not doing so.
I think I understand the distinction, and I think if it was as simple as "people undershoot their actual capacities in favor of humility / don't want to risk wasting anybody's time" everyone would have adjusted social norms to remedy it by now. thanks

This reminds me of how little control you have over your own mind. However, that is not the worst part. The worst part is when you don't realize how little control you actually have.

I think I have almost my entire life fallen prey to the fallacy of believing that emotions don't affect me. I thought I was impenetrable to feedback on the emotional level. That I could, with a cold mind, extract all of the object-level information from feedback. But then somebody gave me very negative feedback on an article I had worked very hard on for over a week. Afterwards... (read more)

I also wrote a huge amount in private idea-journals before I started writing publicly. There was also an intermediate stage where I wrote a lot on mailing lists, which felt less public than blogging although technically public.
1Johannes C. Mayer4mo
I have been doing something similar lately. I wrote with somebody online extensively, at one point writing a 4000 word Discord messages. That was mostly not about AI alignment, but was helpful in learning how to better communicate in writing. An important transition in my private writing has been to aim for the same kind of quality I would in public content. That is a nice trick to get better at public <writing/communication>. There is very large difference between writing an idea down such that you will be able to retrieve the information content, and to write something down such that it truly stands on it's own, such that another person can retrive the information. This is not only useful for training communicating in writing, it also is very useful when you want to come back to your own notes much later, when you forgot about all of the context wich allowed you to fill in all the missing details. Previously I would only rarely read old nodes because they where so hard to understand and not fun to read. I think this got better. Maybe one can get some milage out of framing the audience to include your future self. The very first and probably most important step in the direction of "writing to effectively communicate" which I took many years ago, was to always write in "full text", i.e. writing full sentences instead of a bunch of disparate bullet points. I think doing this is also very important to get the intelligence augmenting effects of writing. For me the public in public writing is not the issue. The core issue for me is that I start multiple new drafts every day, and get distracted by them, such that I never finish the old drafts.

In my personal practice, there seems to be a real difference -- "something magic happens" -- when you've got an actual audience you actually want to explain something to. I would recommend this over trying to simulate the experience within personal notes, if you can get it. The audience doesn't need to be 'the public internet' -- although each individual audience will have a different sort of impact on your writing, so EG writing to a friend who already understands you fairly well may not cause you to clarify your ideas in the same way as writing to strangers. 

I would also mildly caution against a policy which makes your own personal notes too effortful to write. I wholeheartedly agree that you should keep your future self in mind as an audience, and write such that the notes will be useful if you look back at them. But if I imagine writing my own personal notes to the same standard as public-facing essays, I think I lose something -- it takes too long to capture ideas that way.

"the mid-19605"

Should be "1960s", I think

Fixed, thanks.

I agree with many of the existing answers, in particular Kaj's, but wanted to point out another factor, which in my own experience, contributes to not publishing many ideas despite having many half-baked ideas.

I think, even among people who have a lot of ideas, where having ideas is defined as having them appear (or be produced) within your conscious awareness, actually formalizing and publishing ideas requires overcoming multiple hurdles.

In this blog post about researcher productivity, the author summarizes a paper by William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor, that posits and tries to explain why researcher productivity levels fit a log-normal distribution. I quote:

Shockley suggest that producing a paper is tantamount to clearing every one of a sequence of hurdles. He specifically lists:
1. ability to think of a good problem
2. ability to work on it
3. ability to recognize a worthwhile result
4. ability to make a decision as to when to stop
and write up the results
5. ability to write adequately
6. ability to profit constructively from criticism
7. determination to submit the paper to a journal
8. persistence in making changes (if necessary as a result of
journal action).
Shockley then posits, what if the odds of a person clearing hurdle #i from the list of 8 above is pi? Then the rate of publishing papers for this individual should be proportional to p1p2p3…p8. This gives the multiplication of random variables needed to explain the lognormal distribution of productivity (Shockley goes on to note that if one person is 50% above average in each of the 8 areas then they will be 2460% more productive than average at the total process).

In my own experience, the ideas to published piece of writing pipeline is similar. In order to go from idea to post, I have to:

  • have a good idea;
  • write it down;
  • block out time to expand upon it;
  • (in some cases) find data that supports it;
  • survey literature to see if someone's had it or disproven it before;
  • (in some cases) write a program or do some math to flesh it out; and
  • write something coherent explaining it.

Reinforcement/rewards help individuals summon the extrinsic or intrinsic motivation to persist through these phases. That said, I also think it makes sense for individuals to figure out in which of these phases they typically fail.

In my own life, I've recently been experimenting with lowering my own expectations for my data-gathering, literature survey, and editing phases in order to get more of my ideas down in writing. My recent Babble, Learning, and the Typical Mind Fallacy is an example of my attempts at this. Given its low popularity on LessWrong, I may have bulldozed my way through hurdles I should've still jumped, but it's better than nothing.

This doesn't quite seem right, because just multiplying probabilities only works when all the quantities are independent. However, I'd put higher odds on someone having the ability to recognize a worthwhile result conditional on them having an ability to work on a problem, then having the ability to recognize a worthwhile result, so the multiplication of probabilities will be higher than it seems at first.

I'm unsure whether this consideration affects whether the distribution would be lognormal or not.

I checked out the post you linked because I found this comment to be both well-written and insightful.

And I found your essay to be similarly interesting, so I’m just as surprised as you are by the non-existent reception.

Perhaps we should be aware of trivial inconveniences? Clicking a link might not seem like much of an investment, but when there are so many other quality posts on this site, it could be just enough of a hassle to deter engagement. Especially since you appear to be a newer member of Lesswrong, so you haven’t had time to develop a reputation as a high-level contributer.

I second the trivial inconveniences point. I have to have good reason to expect a post is quite good before I'll bother clicking a link to read it.
Yeah, I almost wish I'd excluded that reference to my own post. Re-reading it now, I realize it comes off as "woe is me, no one read my post" but I more meant it as "just removing hurdles has its own problems, like sometimes publishing stuff that isn't very good. Therefore, I'm not yet sure where the right balance lies."

I believe for some people it's very important to have a moment of realization that one can get to the frontier of knowledge in a given field of interest. It feels intimidating if others are making contributions that seem decisively out of your league. Because people might intuitively underestimate how far you can get with focused reading and learning, it could be good to give tailored advice to people newer to (e.g.) AI risk for how/where they can make contributions that will feel encouraging. For illustration, a few years ago I was playing a computer game for fun for quite a while until I was by chance matched up with the one of the better competitive players and I almost won against them, getting lucky. That experience showed me that I'd have a shot if I actually tried, and it encouraged me to immediately start practicing with the aim of becoming competitive at that game. It changed my mindset over night. Similarly, I think there's a difference in mindset between "reading and talking about research topics for fun" and "reading and talking about research topics with the intent of seriously contributing".

I agree with others that a rewarding social environment and people in a similar range of competence you can bounce ideas back-and-forth with are extremely important. If you collaborate with people who are similarly driven to figure things out and discuss ideas with you, that automatically forces you think about your ideas for much longer and in more detail. By yourself you might stop thinking about a topic once you reach a roadblock, but if every morning you wake up to new messages by a collaborator adding criticism or new bits to your thinking, you're going to keep working on the topic.

I also suspect that people are sometimes too modest (or in the wrong mindset) to develop the habit of "taking stances". Some people know about a lot of different considerations and can tell you in detail what others have written, but they don't invest effort coming up with their own opinion – presumably because they don't consider themselves to be experts. Some of the community norms about not being overconfident might contribute to this failure mode, but the two things are distinct because people can try practicing taking stances with personal "pre-Aumann opinions", which they are free to largely ignore when deferring to the experts for an all-things-considered judgment.

Speculation about personality traits conducive to generating ideas: OCD was mentioned in the comments. There's also OCPD and hyperfocus. Carl Shulman's advice for researchers among other things mentions something about having a strong emotional reaction to people being wrong on the internet (in communities you care about) – I think this might be a symptom of being very invested in the ideas, and it can help further clarify one's thinking while trying to articulate fervently why something is wrong. Need for closure also seems relevant to me. It has its dangers because it can lead to one-sided thinking. But in me at least I'm often driven by feeling deeply unsatisfied with not having answers to questions that seem strategically important. And, anecdotally, I know some people with low need for closure who I consider to be phenomenal researchers in most important respects, but these people are less creative than I would be with their skills and backgrounds, and their obsessive focus maybe goes into greater width of research rather than zooming in on making progress on the "construction sites". Finally, I strongly agree with John Maxwell's point that a "temporary delusion" for thinking that one's ideas are really good is a great reinforcement mechanism (even though it often leads to embarrassment later on).

Re temporary delusion that one’s ideas are important (or new): a good example is individuals who file patents. They think they have a world-beating invention. In fact 90% of patents are never used, and getting a patent costs a fortune. There’s a well-known phenomenon I’ve heard called ‘search shock’, when a naive inventor goes to a patent attorney, who conducts a patent search and reveals to the incredulous inventor that every supposedly original, brilliant aspect of the invention has been both thought of and patented before.

Only a partial answer: In my personal experience, writing up whatever thoughts / ideas you have (and even better, sharing them with other people), in some form or another, allows for iteration on what otherwise would have been idle musing.

Yeah, I think that one of the most important things in my intellectual development was an assignment in high school to keep an idea pocket-book for some period of time. I filled several books in the alloted time, and just kept at it. Writing in a notebook became one of my primary down-time activities.

The difference between having an idea on your commute home from work and then getting home and surfing the internet / turning on the TV / whatever, vs getting home and writing out the idea in a notebook before doing those other things, is huge. That's at least one iteration on the idea; a chance to add details, notice flaws, and refine them.

(old cereal boxes cut up into strips are a thing I keep in my kitchen to write upon - I don't like picking up a notebook with maybe greasy hands, but spoiling a cardboard strip seems like no biggie.)

I've rigged google assistant to be easy to speak out notes to for situations where I don't have use of my hands.

I think sometimes people end up in some activity because they accidentally had a defining moment of fun with that activity. Their mind was in the right shape at the right moment and something clicked. It can happen at any age, but I'm not sure you can engineer it. I still remember exactly how math clicked with me as a child - what time of the year it was, what the room looked like, etc. The same with guitar when I was a teenager - I was watching someone play and I even remember the exact chord when my mind went click.

I think this is worth being one of the answers.

I think a big contributing factor is having some kind of intellectual community / receptive audience. Having a social context in which new ideas are expected, appreciated, and refined creates the affordance to really think about things.

The way I see it, contact with such a community only needs to happen initially. After that, many people will keep developing ideas on their own.

A school/work setting doesn't seem to count for as much as a less formal voluntary group. It puts thinking in the context of "for work" / "for school", which may even actively discourage developing one's own ideas later.

Also, it seems like attempts to start intellectual groups in order to provide the social context for developing ideas will often fail. People don't know how to start good groups by default, and there is a lot which can go wrong.

Editing to add:

Another important bottleneck is having a mental toolkit for working on hard problems. One reason why people don't go past the first answer which comes to mind is that they don't have any routines to follow which get them past their first thoughts. Even if you're asked to think more about a problem, you'll likely rehearse the same thoughts, and reach the same conclusions, unless you have a strategy for getting new thoughts. Johnswentworth's answer hints at this direction.

The best resource I know of for developing this kind of mental toolkit is Polya's book How to Solve It. He provides a set of questions to ask yourself while problem-solving. At first, these questions may seem like object-level tools to help you get unstuck when you are stuck, which is true. But over time, asking the questions will help you develop a toolkit for thinking about problems.

...and since there is a particular pleasure in derailing community thought, if one manages to find a place where one does not go over to the Dark Side when doing it, one likely should go for it :)

My model is having ideas is a skill and the best way to do it is to practice at high volume. Most people are too judgemental of their ideas and they don't believe they can have ideas/having ideas isn't a mental motion that occurs to them.

If you want to have more ideas, I suggest reinforcing yourself for the behavior of having ideas regardless of their quality. A temporary delusion that any particular idea you have is REALLY GOOD is a great reinforcer. Ideally, having one idea that seems REALLY GOOD puts you in a bit of an excited, hypomanic state which triggers additional ideas.

For me, keeping a notebook of my ideas works really well. Categorizing and writing down an idea means I won't forget it and I can admire it as a new addition to my collection. I've been doing this for some years, and I now have way more interesting ideas than I know what to do with.

Another trick is to keep a notebook on your bed and write down ideas as you're falling asleep. Seems like thinking is more fluid then.

I don't ever sit down to generate ideas nowadays, I just engage in passive collection. That seems more time-efficient, because if I sit down deliberately to ideate, I waste a lot of time thinking "I don't have any ideas" and just waiting for the ideas to come. (However, if you'd prefer to do deliberate brainstorming, I'd recommend first collecting ideas for brainstorming prompts. You can make your own list: any time something makes me go "hm, that's a bit different than the way I usually think", I add it to my list of brainstorming prompts. [Note that I never actually end up using this list of prompts because passive collection means I already have an idea surplus.]) I'm now at the point where just creating a page in my notebook for "ideas of type X" seems to prompt my subconscious to gather ideas of that type. I think it's a manifestation of my internal packrat instinct... like stamp collecting, but for ideas.

How do you manage your pipeline beyond collecting ideas?

I used to simply have an idea notebook. Writing down ideas was a monolithic activity in my head, encompassing everything from capturing the initial thought to developing it further and communicating it. I now think of those as three very different stages.

  • Capturing ideas: having appropriate places to write down thoughts as short memory aids, maybe a few words or a sentence or two.
  • Developing ideas: explaining the idea to myself in text. This allows me to take the seed of an idea and try different ways o
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My pipeline is weaker in the later stages. I often spend some time developing ideas right after capturing them, or develop ideas if I randomly start having thoughts related to some idea I already captured. But communication currently takes what feels like too long, maybe because I am perfectionistic about ensuring that any given essay contains all the ideas in my notebook that logically seem like they belong in that essay. I would probably write more if my pipeline was better. Hoping to do some dedicated work improving it at some point.

I find that even if I capture an idea, I'll drop it by default if it isn't collected with a set of related ideas which are part of an ongoing thought process. This is somewhat tricky to accomplish.

Whenever I have an idea, I try to ask myself what future situation the idea might be useful in. Then I either find a page I already have for that situation or create one if it doesn't already exist. Not sure if that's helpful.

Certain types of medications can potentially make people more intellectually active.

There is a concept in neuroscience called neuroplasticity. One important fact about neuroplasticity is that it declines with age, particularly it undergoes a sharp decline around or after puberty. This decline is a major reason why people have trouble learning foreign languages after this age. People who learn the language after the neuroplasticity decline are much more likely to speak with an accent, no matter how much effort they put into it. In the last decade there were some major discoveries made in this field. Particularly, the protein that naturally inhibits neuroplasticity in humans with age has been identified. It is called PirB. Its inhibitor is also identified by the same group that published this article. Potentially, a PirB inhibitor would re-enable neuroplasticity and allow people to learn things easily, to form new neuronal connections like they did while they where children. It can bring back a lot of mental freshness and learning abilities that people normally lose with age. This likely can significantly boost person's mental abilities, and make people more intellectually active. I think they are trying to get the FDA approval for the PirB inhibitor to be used as a treatment for amblyopia and Alzheimers. But the plasticity decline itself isn't a disease, so it's unlikely that it will become an officially approved drug for this purpose.

I think it has to do with intellectual honesty. There's a lot of highly intelligent people who are willing to accept the status quo, even if they are aware that it's broken, and just move on with their life. Then there are some people who are just psychologically incapable of such "ignore it and move on" attitude. Interestingly, this applies across broad spectrum of disciplines.

Science: A former kind of person does all the steps from a scientific method textbook and move on with their research. The latter kind of person won't be able to avoid thinking about why the method is as it is, whether its rationale matches their experiment, whether there are special circumstances that make the method inadequate and so on.

Engineering: The former type of person would just take existing tools and practices, glue them together and get a viable product. The latter kind of person will agonize over corner cases, whether there's a fundamentally different way of doing the same thing, whether the design is internally consistent and so on.

Arts: The former type of person is a mannerist. They use the existing expressive repertoire of their time and use it to create viable art. The latter kind of person cannot avoid seeing the problems with the current style, trying different ways of addressing them, getting back to basics and so on. Think van Gogh, for example.

You seem to be claiming that it is a personality trait, something which influences how a person will interact with a broad variety of ideas and circumstances, which may or may not be true. Suggesting that it is a personality trait also comes with connotations that it would be hard to change, and may have origins in genetics or early childhood.

I'm somewhat skeptical of both claims. I suppose I think there is a broad personality factor which makes some difference, but for one person, it will tend to vary a lot from subject to subject, with potentially large (per-subject) variations throughout life (but especially around one's teens perhaps).

Aren't you describing obsessive-compulsiveness? Sure, it's one possible path to a certain kind of creativity, but I don't think it's the happiest or most fruitful path. Sorry for being a bit harsh - I'm just afraid that calling it "intellectual honesty" might make people double down on their obsessive ways, when they could've been better off cultivating acceptance habits.

What Martin is describing might somewhat resemble OCD, without actually being OCD. Let's just say that some degree of obsession seems related to the development of ideas, at least in some cases. I did want to focus on the descriptive question rather than the normative question. It is possible that almost all intellectual progress comes from obsessive people, while it's also "not the happiest or most fruitful path". Do you think that's wrong? If so, why do you think there are other common paths? I'm actually fairly skeptical of that. It seems very plausible that obsession is causally important.
For example, the Sequences or HPMOR don't read like they were written in an obsessive headspace. They have plenty of free-wheeling moments, remember the bit about Greengrass of Sunshine?
4Martin Sustrik5y
Funny that I had exactly the same thought when writing the comment above: Isn't that just OCD? But if you look at concrete examples, it doesn't feel like that. Einstein? Incapable of accepting easy solutions? Yes. OCD? Probably not. Even van Gogh, despite the host of psychological problems, probably haven't had OCD.
I think Martin's describing something more like "curiosity" than OCD. It's not obsessing over the problem so much as finding the problem interesting, wondering whether there's more to it, digging deeper.

The OP sounds like they're (to some extent) talking about both the "former" and the "latter" though - why does anyone do anything at all?


My best guess: There's a difference between reviewing ideas and exploring them.
Reviewing ideas allows you to understand concepts, think about them and talk about them, but you're looking at material you already have. Consider someone preparing a lecture well-they'll make sure that they have no confusion about what they're covering, and write eloquently on the topic at hand.

On the other hand, this is thinking along pre-set pathways. It can be very useful for both learning and teaching, but you aren't likely to discover something new. Exploring ideas, by contrast, is looking at a part of idea space and then seeing what you can find. It's thinking about the implications of things you know, and looking to see if an unexpected result shows up, or simply considering a topic and hoping that something new on the subject occurs to you.

As Kaj pointed out, most of the answers so far focus on feedback and reward. As an answer, that feels correct, but incomplete. I know so many people who are clearly very smart, surrounded by friends who give them positive feedback on whatever they're doing, but it doesn't end up channeling into intellectual development. If every intellectually-active person were linked to an idea-focused community, then the feedback answer would make sense, but I doubt that's the case. So what's missing?

I don't have a complete answer, but I remember a quote (maybe from Feynman?) about keeping a stock of unsolved problems in your head. Whenever you learn some new trick or method, you try applying it to one of those unsolved problems. At least for me, that's mostly how my "sprawling intellectual framework" develops. Some of them are open technical problems, others are deficits in my current social or economic models of the world. This feels connected to what Martin talks about - some people notice holes in their understanding and then keep an eye out for solutions. You hear something that doesn't sound right, doesn't quite make sense, and you reflexively start digging. Maybe you find an answer quickly, otherwise you carry the problem around in the back of your head.

I don't know why some people do this and others don't, but as a causal factor, it feels orthogonal to social feedback. It still feels like I don't have all the puzzle pieces, though. This question will continue to sit in the back of my head.

Abstracting your idea a little: in order to go beyond first thoughts, you need some kind of strategy for developing ideas further. Without one, you will just have the same thoughts when you try to "think more" about a subject. I've edited my answer to elaborate on this idea.

I think the main factor would be a sense of confidence that the person has a genuine chance of contributing meaningful ideas to the subject. If you think that others are already miles ahead of you, then a combination of the bystander effect and Dunning Kruger effect may stop you from ever trying. After all, there is social risk for presenting ideas that you expect to be seen as foolish.

Just an opinion: ideas do not come from nothing, so the larger the data pool (memories, experiences, interests) the more ideas are likely to be generated.

It very much seems like we live in an age of hyperspecialization; people know very much about relatively few things. Generally, these areas of knowledge are complimentary or related. Sometimes they overlap outright. Life is barely long enough to get good at one thing, so people often choose to specialize early and stay on one very fixed path.

From the outside looking in these collectives of experience are very tribal. They develop their own languages and symbols. They become these closed systems where ideas aren't created as much as they are simply refined; bounced back and forth among tribal members. But this does not seem to be a very good pattern for long term growth or sustainability. Homogenization leads to extinction.

What I mean by that can be understood by looking at the evolution of life on Earth as an example of the obverse. Evolution tends towards diversity. Diversity gives life its best possible chance of success. That way, when an asteroid slams into the planet, not everything dies. If evolution had tended towards homogenization (only making the best dinosaurs possible) instead of diversity, the K-T Event might have turned this planet into a floating rock.

It may be a bit of a weak analogy, but I feel like the same principles might apply fairly well to specific areas of knowledge. Ideas are the mutations that allow knowledge to change and evolve into something new. Exclusivity and specialization are a sort of homogenization that leads to stagnation and fewer truly new & good ideas. Not that ideas don't happen at all, just that maybe they happen less often than they should... or could. I don't know, really. This is mostly just speculation based on personal observation and opinion.

Colloquially, I can say that the people I have known in my life who seem to have the most ideas are the ones whose interests are all over the map, so to speak. They tend to be older, with a deeper well of experience to draw from. Their knowledge pools, being varied as opposed to complimentary, allow them to look outside these otherwise closed systems and make inferences, or to see patterns that people too mired within the subject matter might easily miss.

They may not always be good ideas, but they are often striking in their seeming originality and unexpectedness.

An example that comes to mind is of a family friend who worked for years in automotive manufacturing before going back to school to get his certification as a laboratory technician. He got a job as a lab assistant at a University research hospital. He would overhear the researchers in the break room talking about their current projects, and one of them that really grabbed his interest was the problem of infectious disease control measures, specifically, getting healthcare professionals to wash their hands between patient interactions. He had the idea, based on his experience in manufacturing, to apply Poka Yoke (a Japanese manufacturing term that roughly means error-proofing) to the problem of getting nurses and doctors to wash their hands between patient encounters. His idea was to install sink-locks at all the doors to patient rooms. These doors would only open from the outside if the sink was used for at least 20 seconds immediately prior to opening them, or if an emergency button was pushed. From the inside they open at will. He mentioned the idea in casual conversation with one of the senior researchers who was so excited by it that he wanted to design a study around the concept.

I feel like there is a potential benefit to be had by looking outside as opposed to focusing too intently within. Maybe spending some percentage of time learning about completely new things as opposed to only endeavoring to learn new details about things we already know might yield an increase in new ideas. There's nothing wrong with getting out of our comfort zone and challenging our perspectives.

Lack of a 'recognition' state increases ambiguity in goal directed tasks i.e. no clear picture of what an organized cupboard looks like generates friction in beginning the task due to lack of a feedback mechanism. In contrast, a clear internal picture generates lots of intermediate states to compare to.

People able to work on X have reasonably good proxy measures so that they can feel their way through the ambiguous parts of problems.

Opportunity is the key. Put it into context, what is the difference between, a rockstar who goes all round the world making music and spreading ideas through their words, and someone who buys their records, thinks about the music, tries their level best to play music and write songs that are of equal importance to the rockstars music, and yet their ideas arent able to get off the ground? It isnt for lack of trying. Someone once told me that undiscovered genius does not exist and never has. He was a very eminent professor of philosophy, yet I didnt believe him. Maybe you think the world is a meritocracy of ideas? I do not think it is. In a world where those with the good ideas get the most rewards there is a lot of competition. Maybe some kid with a guitar tries to be famous but never meets the right contacts, never plays at the right venues, lacks a certain amount of support from those around him, yet his ideas are astounding and equal to those of any rockstar, and gives up after trying but getting nowhere.

If you mean something like this place then there is also discipline. I would not dare submit an idea here yet. Others seem so much more skilled at formulating ideas and yet I enjoy reading their ideas and hate writing my own down, I believe I am probably not as well educated as most people here and my ideas may not be as intellectually stimulating as those I read. It may be a false belief but it is, anyway a belief that stops me creating ideas that spread and instead enjoy those who are good at it

Another thought I have is that those who are good at thinking are usually only the best in one particular area. Correct me if I am wrong but Wittgenstein is not usually noted for his ability to think about structural engineering. David Bowie was not noteworthy because of his ability to think about thermodynamics. People are reluctant to speak on subjects upon which they are not experts. As Wittgenstein once said "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"

The main difference is having a thorough map of the territory. The stage before having worthwhile ideas is going on a mapping exercise - finding out what is already known about a topic, and learning what existing workers in the field are able to do, and how they understand it. As you learn how the different aspects of the field are connected, it’s possible to start having your own useful ideas - and most of the time you’ll find your idea is already known and part of the field. But as you continue to map and explore, you may come across ideas that don’t seem to be in the literature. And of course this may be an original idea. There is a big difference between being intellectually curious enough to know something about a field, and having dug through that field sufficiently to have a decent map of it. Conversely there are often crackpot ideas in every field - the easiest test for them is often to ask the originator of the idea to explain the current mainstream theory. If they can’t, then you can save your time on their alternative. For me one motivator is this - there is no difference between having an idea that turns out to be known already, and having an original idea. It’s the same thing, except for having not yet reached the frontier of the known world. It was my idea, and it was original once….. And it’s much more likely to be correct than an idea that nobody else is talking about yet - it’s a sign of being on the right track.

Generating ideas shouldn't be associated with the mammal brain of emotions, have you tried generating any? It quite depends on creative fiction vs researched papers.

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I receive an original idea every time I face an uncomfortably vague but demanding obsession, a question I didn't know how to ask. I think about it until I do know how to ask the question, until the vague obsession becomes precise. Out comes a payoff. I can write it down and people will like it, usually (if I can convince anyone to read it).

I can't imagine that there are a lot of people who don't get these leading obsessions, these tractable neuroses, these itching intuitions that there is something over there that we should be trying to get to know. I think there is a difference between people, some people go after those sorts of smells, others are repelled. A lot of good work comes from people who, through circumstance or psychology, cannot ignore their difficult questions.

I don't know what use this observation is for creative engineering work. I've been stuck on a simple game design problem for weeks and I'm pretty sure that's because I never learned to direct my creativity (or, to phrase that in another way: the thing that is directing my creativity does not respect and listen to the thing that knows what problems I'm supposed to be working on right now). Something in the design is missing, shallow, but this problem.. in my mind.. it never asserts itself as one of these kinds of unarticulated question that can and must be answered. I just want to turn away. I want to do something else. Some crucial party in me is not interested. I can't tell it it's wrong to be disinterested. I hate this game. I know that one day I will love it again, unfortunately I love it when it needs my love the least, and I hate it when it needs my love the most. Maybe I need to divorce the concept of the game as it exists (the current build) and the vision, the game as it should exist. Terrible thing to be confused about, but it feels like that's what's going on.

I've thought this before: A finished, released game will always be a thin shadow of an experience it is alluding to, a lot of the time games make it very obvious, it's practically explicit, I didn't want it to be obvious, I wanted the game to be honest, just what it appears to be, and so I have to go through hell to bring the being so far forward to align with the appearance.

I have a friend with whom I speak English even though English is neither his mother tongue nor mine. He is worse at it than I am. But I am fascinated by his word choices. Constrained as they are, they kind of wake me up. For example, "... and I will be sitting here, at the same table, with the same people, and we will just speak about other things" (like going into crime). And I would look at "the same table", on which we are having dinner, and feel more alert than a moment before. He would never invite me to "speak about other things"... but he would be sitting in the same chair.

I think there are generally three ways to get intellectually active. The first one is to be a professional. The second one is to be inspired. And the third one is to have a preference for simplicity, strong enough that you would want there to be a more streamlined way of doing something. You would not even need to think about it in words. It's enough to recognise it when you see it, it just flips a switch.

Starting from the assumption that this is learned("Nurture"):

Generally, through the ambient feeling of your experiences, learning to see yourself as someone who can find solutions vs. learning that other people have the answers. This would be a very tricky edge to ride, since often other people DO have the answer (experience, expertise, whatnot). More on that below, first just a few examples:

  • Imitation approach: I suspect that being exposed to role models who invent and think will help anyone. This might even offset negative reinforcement directed at oneself to some degree (In stories, the hero(scientist etc) can also meet adversity.)

  • Reinforcement-explanation approach: Experience of having your ideas shut down, ignored, etc. Being punished for generating ideas would leave two options: Stop or at least shut up about it. Alternatively the "support" should obviously not look like endless praise, but like interest and questions/suggestions where more information might be found - unless of course something is clearly corect/incorrect, in which case that should be said. Positive reinforcement here would have to aim at the process of investigation - and getting closer. No meaningless fetishizing of the search.

  • Never getting anywhere/learned helplessness. Thinking is hard, aandhaving that pay off too rarely (that may differ from person to person) will teach us to avoid the trouble in the future.

Picking up from above: I find that learning something is often more or less tricky, depending on how easy it is to formulate an ideal that can be "blindly followed". When someone says "just train/read/empathize etc MORE" - implementation may still be difficult, but the mindset is simple. You only need to be a maximizer. When you start adding "don't be too hard on yourself/don't overdo it..." - the problem is hidden in the implied but unclear "too much".

With many activities the solution may be in understanding the goal and the process properly. Sticking with the examples so far:

Training requires rest, nutrition etc to be effective. Treat adhering to the dosage that's right in your case (you can consult professionals) as part of the discipline, not as breaking the discipline. If you injure yourself, that's inefficient training. Reading til you damage your eyes, compromise your sleep etc. is not efficient if you actually want to learn. Don't empathise to the point where you can't distinguish between other and self. That's not empathy, that's confusion.

In such cases it's "don't fetishize the process, but remember what you're trying to accomplish, and redefine your approach such that it implies everything you have to take into consideration".

This is often tricky, but once done, we can, in principle, max out again, which is cognitively easier.

With regards to problem solving/actually thinking own thoughts I think it's difficult, because firstly you have to be able to:

  • recognize what are your own thoughts, or as "your own" as thoughts can ever be.
  • you have to value having these, although they tend to be "trouble", at least in the short term - at the same time you can't allow yourself to fetishize having your own thoughts versus learning from others, if learning from others would be more efficient, so that's again the issue of "too much".
  • not fall into the trap of priding yourself on your thinking "too much", which is to mean "protect your ideas because they're yours" - at the same time don't mistrust thoughts simply because nobody else has them yet.
  • etc.

It's the same problems, only as other skills/habits, only seeing the problems is more tricky, and there are no coaches you can rely on to tell you exactly how much of something is too much, and how to redefine your approach. The best I have heard is what I call Eliezers "winning" approach. Ask in every instance how it may be better done, and what is required to MAKE IT HAPPEN vs. going through all the correct motions/procedures.

Asked in this fashion the question of why this skill is rare seems to answer itself. It's very hard to learn - for more reasons than I named now, of course.

Starting from the assumption that this is an innate ability thing ("Nature") I can't see anything beyond "Well, it's a raw brainpower thing". This seems anecdotally refusable, so I'm not in this camp. Nonetheless more smarts helps, of course - not least in developing a positive attitude towards problem solvin, but obviously just in terms of "resources" - and maybe if we enhance people's intelligence we'll see more problem solvers? I don't know. I find it hard to see why people wouldn't just use their greater intelligence to prove they don't need to change anything, if no "nurture" elements come in and help.

I've curated this question. It has lots of properties of great discussions: someone posting a genuine question that they're confused about; lots of people chipping in with ideas and suggestions; someone distilling the ideas into a single place (i.e. the currently top-voted answer by Kaj), clearly making progress. And this is all about a key problem, of becoming intellectually generative.

I've been looking for a question to curate since we launched, and while I thought the type I'd curate would be one where someone definitively answered a concrete question, this one has surprised me with the quality of its discussion. Kaj's answer, the answers that Kaj summarised, as well as An1lam's and Lukas_Gloor's, should consider themselves part of this curation (and people reading this post will read your answers). Thanks all!

I think most people stay in "off-the-cuff" territory most of the time. Getting past that usually requires putting in some effort, which requires motivation. That motivation could be internal—that you find the problem very interesting or very bothersome/worrisome on a personal level. Or external—you're getting paid to work on it. If you aren't getting paid and the topic has a primarily academic/abstract feel to it [which is often the case here], you will likely come up with some easy off-the-cuff ideas and stop at precisely that point at which the difficulty of thinking more about it becomes higher than your interest in it.

So the sequences don't provide enough material to do work in things like Safety/Game Theory/Decision Theory/etc. - people also have to read some textbooks or research stuff?

I've read the (original?) Sequences, and I definitely do not feel qualified to do work in AI Safety, game theory, or decision theory. There are many posts on Less Wrong about those topics that I don't even understand enough to follow, much less enough to contribute or critique them. So yes, I think most people would have to read textbooks on the subject or otherwise do a lot more learning work to significantly contribute. This is not too surprising; enough people have been doing enough work on those topics for enough years that I should not expect to be able to jump into it without some effort to cover what they've done and catch up.

The answers on this question have a lot of good analysis from an angle and at a level of meta which otherwise seems somewhat neglected.

Well, I am not into the AI stuff, so maybe my take on it will be far more ameboid than what you had in mind. I rather view the broadly-LW corpus as something like TV Tropes and try to find the "individual articles" (not always, or even consciously) in the things I interact with. Maybe other people do it, too. And if I have to interact with something regularly, like for work, it's far easier to bear when it's fun.

It's like, "I will have to sell this book, which means I gotta be ready to say something about it" and "But this translation of "Wyrd Sisters" flattens witches' individuality - smoothes out prickliness, adds a veneer of experience to something which can only be awkward bumbling, turns a salacious remark into a good-natured explanation, etc. The text is readable and well-built, but has denotational and connotational issues. Through what lense did the translator view the original to arrive at this version?" So "Maybe he decided to translate from the bird's eye view, where the text as a whole must have internal logic and structure, but not from the characters' views, where what they think/do is what matters and actually exists at all" and then "But characters' agency is important, in a meta-text about theatre" which leads to "Who of our translators does consistently preserve 1) author's intonation, 2) author's view of characters, 3) general readability, 4) characters' view of the world, 5) characters' view of themselves? And which publishing house can be counted on to have an editor who gives a damn?"

Which gives me, in the end, two lists - one longer, of quality translators, and one short - of publishing houses. Both rather subjective, but they will do in a pinch.

I'm not sure if this is what you had in mind when you asked your question, or even if this can be called "intellectual activity", it just feels like curiosity. But that's my answer.

Concerning TV Tropes --

I think a primary, maybe the primary, effect that the sequences have on a reader's thinking is through this kind of pattern-matching. It is shallow, as rationality techniques go, but it can have a large effect nonetheless. It's like the only rationality technique you have is TAPs, and you only set up taps of the form "resemblance to rationality concept" -> "think of rationality concept". But, those taps can still be quite useful, since thinking of a relevant concept may lead to something.

Concerning the rest -- not sure what to comment on, but it is a datapoint.

Hmm, this also reminds me of the thing that we discussed at our last meetup (there were two of us, so I wouldn't say it was about Solstice, exactly): how history of plant morphology is a handle for some fairly unrelated fields (social sciences), if you grok it. Not the best possible one, not capable of turning around many axes, and not easy to turn, but - a handle.

The lj post that started it described a monograph on the history of research of inflorescence structure. I won't link it, it's in Russian anyway. It talked how plants are systems of "little integrity" - when you look at them, you see they have only a few easy-to-recognize building blocks, but the blocks themselves are very different case to case. And if one wants to build a system of kinship between cases, suddenly the space of block names explodes.

(The other person present at the meetup actually could not cope with it, he tried to imagine "a world without morphology", an evolution culling out the diversifying misfits - it was freakin' fascinating to watch. I saw the abyss between his engineering background and my observational one, *and I actually think now that "curiosity" means different things to the two of us*.)

It turns out that what people had used to describe as a block, falls apart into several neat categories that only superficially resemble each other, due to convergent evolution of plants or microscopy milestones or *something*. History of morphology reconstructs the gradual focusing of thought on how plants are really built on the inside and outside, and how we kind of feel where current names don't fit already. According to that lj post, social sciences have yet to reach this point, but clearly they, too, deal with systems of little integrity, where one has to invent names for the many real, and not the visible blocks. The lj post advised social scientists to read up on the already covered grounds of plant morphology, to gauge the depth of what they would have to do (my paraphrase).

And this is how I think about "rationality techniques", too; that they are going to fall apart into different clusters, and the engineering-inclined people would want to try to glue them back. Intellectual activity, if it employs specific techniques, should be able to destruct-test them, to arrive at new and better blocks, which is easier to do if I am not at the same moment building something bigger with the old ones.

Well, for techniques to be more than TAPs, they have to kind of branch, don't they? In which case there has to be an (internally natural) hierarchy of concepts, which I am afraid to build, because for me "rationality techniques" as presented here are phenomenological observations. Or stop-signs.


I don't like the concept of "fully general counter-argument", for example, and I try to make do without it. If we have "fully general counter-arguments", then we have "fully general supporting arguments" and "fully general misses" etc. I always try to treat someone's counter-argument as not fully-general unless we both understand it so; because for some reason they view it as the thing to say. It might be an irrelevant reason, but very many are, and the world keeps spinning.

Curiosity is just that - if you are asking whether being told about rationality helps develop curiosity under some conditions, then maybe we shouldn't talk about all "rationality techniques", because they as a whole are not aimed at developing curiosity. Choose some.

The answers to this question were really great, and I've referenced many of them since the time this post was written. I've found them quite useful in my personal reflections on how I myself can sustain being intellectually generative and active myself, and how to build an organization in which other people are able to do so. 

I’m a bit skeptical about the implicit premise, that some people don’t have ideas and others do (as stated — clearly some people are simply more imaginative or creative than others.) I suspect that what happens more often than not though is that people are self editing. They have ideas, and they dismiss them as fleeting or stupid — or fail even to distinguish that they are ideas rather than passing thoughts. We are our own worst critics. The other thing that seems to be a play in the reality that some people are literal fonts of ideation and others baffen deserts, is that there are inadequate constraints on their attempts. When you set out to come up with an idea, in the absence of any significant constraints or an acknowledged problem, there’s nothing ‘against which’ to innovate . Innovation requires a substrate of constraint to flourish. There have to be problems with existing solutions, or seemingly intransigent problems in need of solutions — and sufficient constraints on possible solutions. Then the mind reels with imaginative ideas.

I am a person who (in at least some domains) don't feel a lack of creativity/idea-generation. But, there are definitely domains (science, model building) where I don't generate ideas by default – I have to actually remember to boot up the brainstorming module, and it's a bit rusty like an unused muscle.

It seems to me that generating ideas is a learnable skill that not everyone has.

My first thought was...how do you know people aren't having ideas? Very few of my ideas are something I've thought enough about to write down or talk about in public, and many (most?) people do not have a great desire to write down or discuss their not-fully-fleshed-out ideas for public consumption anyway.

This comment is an idea of sorts, and I just happened to read it whilst at the right confluence of mood, energy, thoughtfulness, etc for me to put in the effort of making it. Another possible contributing explanation for the dearth of idea-having people?

how do you know people aren't having ideas? Very few of my ideas are something I've thought enough about to write down or talk about in public, and many (most?) people do not have a great desire to write down or discuss their not-fully-fleshed-out ideas for public consumption anyway.

I suppose there are a lot of different lines we can draw.

Having ideas at all: almost literally everyone (although, I'm not sure what we should count here, exactly).

Having second thoughts; being dissatisfied with easy answers, and looking for better ones: lots of people, but, to greatly varying degrees.

Having an affordance to think new thoughts in an area of interest; not letting a vague notion of experts knowing better be a curiosity-stopper: somewhat rare? Particularly rare in combination with a moderately informed position? Maybe quite rare in combination with the "having second thoughts" attribute?

Building up an intellectual edifice (of whatever quality) around some topic of interest: fairly rare

Building up an intellectual edifice (of whatever quality) around some topic of interest: fairly rare

I definitely do this. I have half formed books that I might write one day on topics that interest me, and have sprawling Yed graphs in which I'm trying to make sense of confusions and conflicting evidence.

One thing of note is that I was introduced to explicit model building and theorizing a couple of years ago. Because of this had the mental handle of "building a model" as a thing that one could do, with a few role models of people doing it.

I was doing model building of some kind before then (I remember drawing out a graph of body language signals when I was about 21), but I think having the explicit handle helped a lot.

Yes, that is true. However, the thought I intended to convey when I started writing my comment was that it's possible that many people have ideas that they just don't write or talk about that much because of confidence or just not caring enough or whatever.

In other words, you might be asking "why don't people want to share their ideas?" rather than "why don't people have ideas?".

Well, my original intention was definitely more like "why don't more people keep developing their ideas further?" as opposed to "why don't more people have ideas?" -- but, I definitely grant that sharing ideas is what I actually am able to observe.

I think it's just a matter of some people (people like us) who find problem solving and coming up with ideas to be fun. Intellectually active individuals are so because they find it to be fun, while most others do not.

There is a nice quote by Socrates (iirc it is in the dialogue with the geometrician Theaetetos*) where Socrates mentions one of the views about the origin of philosophical thinking, namely that it is born from the sense of dazzle (thamvos, in Greek). He meant (in context) that when a thinker senses something impressive and unknown, he/she is bound to examine it.

Thamvos is, of course, distinct from anxiety, such as when the sense is negative or even horrific.

In essence I agree that one of the prerequisites for intricate thought is the ability (and chance) to be impressed by something you come across, a trigger, whether external or internal.

*you should check the dialogue for other reasons too. For example it includes the (possibly) first ever reference to the Spiral of Theodoros of Cyrene.

[+][comment deleted]5y0