Perceptual dexterity: a case study

by Duncan_Sabien5 min read7th Oct 202118 comments

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FocusingWorld ModelingRationality
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My partner Logan Brienne Strohl has been doing original rationality development off and on for the past ten years (and "on" for at least the past three).

A week or so ago, I received a long email from them, which they summarized as follows:

Duncan and I recently moved out into the country, where it took us almost a month to get moderately functional internet. I was psychologically prepared for a lack of internet, but Duncan was not. Rather than being understanding and supportive of his struggles, I found myself acting irritated, dismissive, and even disgusted. Shortly after an alarming-to-me discussion that addressed the internet issue directly, I sat down to figure out what on earth was happening in my head. This is my log of that introspective session, which I shared with Duncan, and which I'm happy for him to share with you.

The reason I asked Logan for permission to publish the email is that it leapt out to me as a sort of motivating example for the kind of work that they've been doing.  Their primary focus these days is in phenomenology and preconceptual immediacy, much of it headlined by their concept of "naturalism," some of which has been published on LW.

The email isn't any of that, exactly.  It isn't naturalism, and it isn't about naturalism, and you can't pinpoint naturalism just by reading it.  But it was excellent in a way I had a hard time describing, and clear evidence that there's something going on in Logan's head that is outside of the boundaries of my own competence.  I found myself thinking thoughts like "so this is the mind that is discovering-slash-developing naturalism" and "so this is what a mind that's been steeping in naturalism-etc, and practicing it relentlessly, looks like in motion."

In particular, the email was chock-full of what Logan refers to as perceptual dexterity, and which I now hope they write about at length in the near future.

(Or rather, not perceptual dexterity precisely, but something like recursive perceptual dexterity?  Phenomenological perceptual dexterity?  Perceptual dexterity turned on itself and applied to Logan's own thoughts and moment-to-moment conscious experience.)

It seemed worth publishing, along with some annotations, as a case study.


The email

(It's about 2000 words, maybe 4000 with all of the annotations.  I recommend reading now if you're going to, and leaving the below for a post-script.)


Post-script

A few more of Logan's words on perceptual dexterity, drawn from scattered drafts that have not yet been published:

  • When I look at a water bottle, I see a water bottle. That is, when I direct my gaze and attention toward the part of my visual field where light is reflecting off of the surface of a water bottle, my concept for "water bottle" is activated.
  • When I see a water bottle as a water bottle, certain parts of my experience stand out to me, while others are discarded. My attention lands on the bottom of the screw-top lid where I would grip to twist, for example, and on the narrow middle where my hand would wrap around it. The thin line circumventing the bottom doesn't occur to me.
  • If I'd never seen or heard of water bottles before, I'd have no such concept to activate, and I'd see it as something else. A small club, maybe. Or a paper weight. Or just a shiny bronze cylinder with an unknown purpose.
  • But I don't actually have to be ignorant of water bottles to see a water bottle in a different way. I can move my mind so it is as though I've never seen a water bottle before, holding what's familiar in abeyance as I rotate my attention through many different associative paths. I can choose to see it as a weight for a mechanical scale. I can see it as a a bubble blown in glass and coated with metallic paint. I can see it as a pendant taken from the necklace of a giant.
  • I call the capacity for this sort of rotation "perceptual dexterity", and I think it comprises half of original seeing. It is the ability to see something again, and again, from any angle you like, or from many all at once. The more perceptually dexterous you are, the less constrained you are to see only what you saw in your very first glance. You are not trapped in your most familiar perspective.

And from another object-level example, this time a lamp:

  • When I activate these various concepts and look through them toward the same part of my visual field, I become aware of more facts about the lamp that were obscured by my first associative path from sense data to “flat”. The texture of the fabric stands out when I perceive the lamp shade as a tapestry, for example. The tautness of it leaps into attention when I perceive it as a canvas. If I rotate my mind into aggression, I see the sharpness of the corners, and when I rotate it into love I see the softness of the sides. Looking through fast, I see the reaching vertical plane, and looking through slow, I see individually woven strings. It’s as though I can be many people at once, seeing something from many angles without moving my head. I thereby see more thoroughly, and more originally.

And a final snippet of text from our ongoing emails about the internet, which I couldn't resist including, both because it concisely demonstrates the same mental agility I'm trying to highlight and because it's just great:

  • in the thing i've been tracking, it's different. it's the same in that i want someone else to behave (or think, or feel) differently, but the feeling behind the wanting isn't the same. there's a sort of panicked feeling. hm that's not quite right. or [OMG A BIRD IS AT MY FEEDER FINALLY YES EXCELLENT THEY FOUND IT. it is a female nuthatch, i think. nuthatches like bugs, i should get her dried mealworms.] it's more like there's a... i'm imagining a long pointy cone, like a javelin, protruding from my solar plexus. there is a feeling of stabbing outward from my torso at the other person, as though trying to burst a balloon with it, and then maybe push their insides around into the right configuration. behind the javelin, in my solar plexus and chest and stomach, there is a hot and cold feeling that's like steel or getting your finger stuck to a piece of ice.


 

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18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:24 PM
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I thought I'm good at modulating my visual perception (old comment on LW). I got a lot of practice at a meditation retreat and can without much effort turn off shapes (I call it the blank stare) and faces (more difficult). But - and not uncharacteristically for me - I overlooked the effect of emotion on perception. I can very much confirm Logan's observation that salient features change with different mental frames and emotional states. A piece of paper:

  • In default mode, the grid of the square paper is most prominent.
  • Settling into some tiredness it softens and becomes a boring piece of paper. 
  • Being mindful, the paper and especially the numbers on it become unimportant. 
  • In alert mode with a tint of anger, the text gets more contrast and my attention goes to the names on the paper.
  • In wide-angle mode, the border of the paper and the background become salient.

>This is the sort of insight that, in my rough understanding of therapy, therapists hope people will make, but which people are often "too loud" in their own heads to ever notice.

Absolutely. In the brief conversation I had with Logan in person a few years ago I remarked how much I enjoyed their writing, not-only-but-additionally-because it's fascinating seeing them "rediscover/recreate" so much of what I was taught to do professionally from their own unique angle. Since then they have continued to do so and also have in many ways gone beyond the standard.

Excellent read, thanks for annotating it and to Logan for writing it :)

For various reasons, I'm curious

  1. what seems unique to you about my angle, and
  2. in what ways you think I have gone beyond the standard.

One of the things I might possibly be able to do with your answer is allocate more resources to the places where you think I have an advantage over people at the frontier in a related field. (I don't think I've said the second part of that sentence quite right, but I have a feeling it would take me more time than I have to spare just now to get it much righter. I care less about "advantage over", and more about something like "managing to make things that are valuable even to people who are able to visit therapists and use Google Scholar".)

From what I've seen over the past few years, your honed skill in focusing your attention and noticing what's happening and putting what you notice into words allows you to discover what works or is healthy for you from "first principles," for lack of a better phrase. This is different from most therapy, which circles inward from the outside of each problem. Learning from previous situations can shortcut the process, but therapy rarely has the time to actually teach people to do the thing you've learned, which seems to give you a much more gears-level understanding of what's happening and whether you want to change it and how to go about that.

That's how it looks from the outside at least. Does it match your experience?

I think the missing piece in the "why do I attack other person with this thing I'm disgusted by in me" is that when we have learned to judge a thing, we tend to judge others and ourselves both. The existence of a "should" or "ought" like that is a pseudo-moral concept backed by disgust, disapproval, anger, etc. and is usually symmetrically applied to one's self or others.

The trick to getting rid of them lies in understanding that the mental rule for what to be angry, disgusted or disapproving of has no impact on your desire or ability to obtain the underlying value. The brain tells us "if I give up this morally righteous rule, then I will be no better than those ignorant heathen slobs (or whatever) and I won't actually do (important thing)".

But in reality, the importance of the thing won't change if you give up using the brain's moral enforcement machinery. In fact, most of the time we get better at pursuing the underlying value, because we will be able to make intelligent trade-offs that are being banned by the moral enforcement machinery as taboo trade-offs. (For example, the rather obvious trade of allowing people to have their own values regarding endurance while still valuing it highly for one's self.)

But so long as the moral machinery remains activated, it's hard to even think clearly about your options, let alone take any of them that aren't about judging, punishing, etc. The moral machine is highly motivating, but mainly towards actions that can be taken zealously and self-righteously (or at least pityingly of your inferiors).

This feels like opinion stated as fact.

I have some strong disagreements with what you say, but I recognize that it may be true for some people. It feels like you're trying to universalize your own opinion / experiences.

It's based on empirical experiments of helping people deactivate the machinery in question. Those experiments in turn were motivated by the existence of multiple sources suggesting similar ideas, including popular books, so it's unlikely that I an universalizing from even an unusually small group, and definitely not just myself.

Anyway, since I said rather a lot of different things, I'll note that I'm curious what your disagreements are, specifically, rather than attempt to guess which particular part(s) you disagree with, and why.

The moral machinery is just an manifestation of social hierarchy and societal structure that took civilizations thousands of years to distill into its current form. You can point to the perpetual process at any given time in history and study what came before and what happened after. As individuals, we make up the atomic elements of such hierarchy, so for us personally it's merely a exercise in understanding the underlying fundamental concepts behind the allegory of the cave.

I don't understand. These statements don't seem to be much related to each other, nor do any of them seem in any way related to the post they are replying to. I notice that I am (very) confused, especially since the "moral enforcement machinery" I refer to can be observed in animals without language, and so is not exclusive even to language-using humans, let alone civilization.

(Let alone the whole allegory of the cave thing, which is part of Plato's notion of forms, which in the LW canon are explicitly understood to be an inversion of reality: we observe the jagged imperfect real world and extrapolate in our minds the "perfect" forms as a means of abstraction and data compression. This is the exact opposite of the situation in Plato's cave.)

Animals have civilizations, they are mostly limited to regional ecosystems. We just don't deal with animal civilizations on the same level as human-exclusive civilization concept.

The allegory is a story with many different points presented. I should've explained the aspect I was talking about. I was referring to the overall relationship between the different elements: the cave, outside the cave, the people inside the cave and the stuff they were doing inside the cave. The outside is the larger set, the cave is a subset, and the people are the individual elements, or leaf nodes. The sets themselves don't interact directly with the leaf nodes, but they determine the relationships that leaf nodes form by just the set of leaf nodes themselves. They would have their own relationship graph. You have 3 different types of scenarios where the relationship between the sets significantly changes the relationships of the leaf nodes. 1. all leaf nodes exist within the smaller set. 2 Some leaf nodes are inside the smaller set and some outside, which breaks down to whether outside leaf nodes also form sets of their own. 3. All leaf nodes are outside of the smaller set (i.e. in the allegory, that's when the cave people went outside, which marks the end of the allegory). You can think of these 3 different scenarios as separate, or you can think of them as one snapshot of a temporal progression. This pattern can be imposed on human civilization to explain the relationships within it. 

Sorry, I still don't understand what any of this has to do with the comment you originally replied to (which is about the behavior of individual brains), or even the post in general.

I probably misunderstood your comment and the original post too. Sorry about that. I find most of the stuff on this site pretty confusing. I was trying to talk about specific things that you guys have mentioned, but it probably is out of context.

I'm with you except the word "just" in the first sentence; I think the social stuff explains a lot of the moral machinery but I would be surprised if it explained it all.

I wouldn't say that it explains the moral machinery. It's more of an observation science than an inferential or inductive/deductive process. The "just" is denoting the subset nature of moral machinery existing within the overarching concept of human civilization and development. The allegory of the cave concept is also a paradigm from which you can think about the set theory perspective of human civilization.

"I can move my mind so it is as though I've never seen a water bottle before"

I liken this to one of my favourite concepts, shoshin—"a beginner's mind". Entering a state of shoshin requires perceptual dexterity.

One of the problems it tries to overcome, and which you describe in different words, is the Einstellung effect—when your perception of a problem is stuck in some way. And that's one of the reasons perceptual dexterity is so important in original research (and especially math & philosophy).

I really enjoyed the post, but something that maybe wasn't the focus of it really stuck out to me.

i think i felt a little bit of it with Collin when i was trying to help him find a way to exercise regularly. the memory is very hazy, but i think the feeling was focused on the very long list of physical activities that were ruled out; it seemed the solution could not involve Collin having to tolerate discomfort. much like with Gloria and the "bees", i experienced some kind of emotional impulse to be separate from him, to push him away, to judge him to be inadequate or unworthy. (it wasn't super strong in that case, and i did actually succeed in helping him find an exercise routine that he stuck with for years.)

I would find it really useful if you wrote an explanation of how you achieved this in particular, as exercising regularly is one of those 'canonically difficult' things to do.

This is great and I want more.

I really resonated with a part of it. Building up a scaffolding of "morality" or "self-righteous Protestant work ethic" both allows me to function in a reasonable way at all, but also has a side effect of feeling strongly morally judgmental towards others. I do think a large underlining part of that is this need-to-distance.

I am rather good at not applying judgment to e.g. children or dogs, but relatedly have a very strong intuitive agent /patient split, which I understand doesn't actually match reality.

At the same time, I am rightfully frustrated by the self-serving picking and choosing of when to use an agentic frame v when to use a moral patient frame.