Controlling your inner control circuits

by Kaj_Sotala9 min read26th Jun 2009159 comments


Perceptual Control Theory

On the topic of: Control theory

Yesterday, PJ Eby sent the subscribers of his mailing list a link to an article describing a control theory/mindhacking insight he'd had. With his permission, here's a summary of that article. I found it potentially life-changing. The article seeks to answer the question, "why is it that people often stumble upon great self-help techniques or productivity tips, find that they work great, and then after a short while the techniques either become ineffectual or the people just plain stop using them anyway?", but I found it to have far greater applicability than just that.

Richard Kennaway already mentioned the case of driving a car as an example where the human brain uses control systems, and Eby mentioned another: ask a friend to hold their arm out straight, and tell them that when you push down on their hand, they should lower their arm. And what you’ll generally find is that when you push down on their hand, the arm will spring back up before they lower it... and the harder you push down on the hand, the harder the arm will pop back up! That's because the control system in charge of maintaining the arm's position will try to keep up the old position, until one consciously realizes that the arm has been pushed and changes the setting.

Control circuits aren't used just for guiding physical sequences of actions, they also regulate the workings of our mind. A few hours before typing out a previous version of this post, I was starting to feel restless because I hadn't accomplished any work that morning. This has often happened to me in the past - if, at some point during the day, I haven't yet gotten started on doing anything, I begin to feel anxious and restless. In other words, in my brain there's a control circuit monitoring some estimate of "accomplishments today". If that value isn't high enough, it starts sending an error signal - creating a feeling of anxiety - in an attempt to bring that value into the desired range.

The problem with this is that more often than not, that anxiety doesn't push me into action. Instead I become paralyzed and incapable of getting anything started. Eby proposes that this is because of two things: one, the control circuits are dumb and don't actually realize what they're doing, so they may actually take counter-productive action. Two, there may be several control circuits in the brain which are actually opposed to each other.

Here we come to the part about productivity techniques often not working. We also have higher-level controllers - control circuits influencing other control circuits. Eby's theory is that many of us have circuits that try to prevent us from doing the things we want to do. When they notice that we've found a method to actually accomplish something we've been struggling with for a long time, they start sending an error signal... causing neural reorganization, eventually ending up at a stage where we don't use those productivity techniques anymore and solving the "crisis" of us actually accomplishing things. Moreover, these circuits are to a certain degree predictive, and they can start firing when they pick up on a behavior that only even possibly leads to success - that's when we hear about a great-sounding technique and for some reason never even try it. A higher-level circuit, or a lower-level one set up by the higher-level circuit, actively suppresses the "let's try that out" signals sent by the other circuits.
But why would we have such self-sabotaging circuits? This ties into Eby's more general theory of the hazards of some kinds of self-motivation. He uses the example of a predator who's chased a human up to a tree. The human, sitting on a tree branch, is in a safe position now, so circuits developed to protect his life send signals telling him to stay there and not to move until the danger is gone. Only if the predator actually starts climbing the tree does the danger become more urgent and the human is pushed to actively flee.

Eby then extends this example into a social environment. In a primitive, tribal culture, being seen as useless to the tribe could easily be a death sentence, so we evolved mechanisms to avoid giving the impression of being useless. A good way to avoid showing your incompetence is to simply not do the things you're incompetent at, or things which you suspect you might be incompetent at and that have a great associated cost for failure. If it's important for your image within the tribe that you do not fail at something, then you attempt to avoid doing that.

You might already be seeing where this is leading. The things many of us procrastinate on are exactly the kinds of things that are important to us. We're deathly afraid of the consequences of what might happen if we fail at them, so there are powerful forces in play trying to make us not work on them at all. Unfortunately, for beings living in modern society, this behavior is maladaptive and buggy. It leads to us having control circuits which try to keep us unproductive, and when they pick up on things that might make us more productive, they start suppressing our use of those techniques.

Furthermore, the control circuits are stupid. They are occasionally capable of being somewhat predictive, but they are fundamentally just doing some simple pattern-matching, oblivious to deeper subtleties. They may end up reacting to wholly wrong inputs. Consider the example of developing a phobia for a particular place, or a particular kind of environment. Something very bad happens to you in that place once, and as a result, a circuit is formed in your brain that's designed to keep you out of such situations in the future. Whenever it detects that you are in a place resembling the one where the incident happened, it starts sending error signals to get you away from there. Only that this is a very crude and unoptimal way of keeping you out of trouble - if a car hit you while you were crossing the road, you might develop a phobia for crossing the road. Needless to say, this is more trouble than it's worth.

Another common example might be a musician learning to play an instrument. Learning musicians are taught to practice their instrument in a variety of postures, for otherwise a flutist who's always played his flute sitting down may realize he can't play it while standing up! The reason being that while practicing, he's been setting up a number of control circuits designed to guide his muscles the right way. Those control circuits have no innate knowledge of what muscle postures are integral for a good performance, however. As a result, the flutist may end up with circuits that try to make sure they are sitting down when playing.

This kind of malcalibration extends to higher-level circuits as well. Eby writes:

I know this now, because in the last month or so, I’ve been struggling to identify my “top-level” master control circuits.

And you know what I found they were controlling for? Things like:

* Being “good”
* Doing the “right” thing
* “Fairness”

But don’t be fooled by how harmless or even “good” these phrases sound.

Because, when I broke them down to what subcontrollers they were actually driving, it turned out that “being good” meant “do things for others while ignoring your own needs and being resentful”!

“Fairness”, meanwhile, meant, “accumulate resentment and injustices in order to be able to justify being selfish later.”

And “doing the right thing” translated to, “don’t do anything unless you can come up with a logical justification for why it’s right, so you don’t get in trouble, and no-one can criticize you.”


Now, if you look at that list, nowhere on there is something like, “go after what I really want and make it happen”. Actually doing anything – in fact, even deciding to do anything! – was entirely conditional on being able to justify my decisions as “fair” or “right” or “good”, within some extremely twisted definitions of those words!

So that's the crux of the issue. We are wired with a multitude of circuits designed for controlling our behavior... but because those circuits are often stupid, they end up in conflict with each other, and end up monitoring values that don't actually represent the things they ought to.

While Eby provides few references and no peer-reviewed experimental work to support his case of motivation systems being controlled in this way, I find it to mesh very well with everything I know about the brain. I took the phobia example from a textbook on biological psychology, while the flutist example came from a lecture by a neuroscientist emphasizing the stupidity of the cerebellum's control systems. Building on systems that were originally developed to control motion and hacking them to also control higher behavior is a very evolution-like thing to do. We already develop control systems for muscle behavior starting from the time when we first learn to control our body as infants, so it's very plausible that we'd also develop such mechanisms for all kinds of higher cognition. The mechanism by they work is also fundamentally very simple, making it easy for new circuits to form: a person ends up in an unpleasant situation, causing an emotional subsystem to flood the whole brain with negative feedback, leading to pattern recognizers which were active at the time to start activating the same kind of negative feedback the next time when they pick up on the same input. (At its simplest, it's probably a case of simple Hebbian learning.)

Furthermore, since reading his text, I have noticed several things in myself which could only be described as control circuits. After reading Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong for a long time, I've found myself noticing whenever I have a train of thought that seems to be indicative of a number of certain kinds of cognitive biases. In retrospect, that is probably a control circuit that has developed to detect the general appearance of a biased thought and to alert me about it. The anxiety circuit I already mentioned. A closely related circuit is one that causes me to need plenty of time to accomplish whatever it is that I'm doing - if I only have a couple of hours before a deadline, I often freeze up and end up unable of doing anything. This leads to me being at my most productive in the mornings, when I have a feeling of having the whole day for myself and of not being in any rush. That's easily interpreted as a circuit that looks at the remaining time and sends sending an alarm when the time runs low. Actually, the circuit in question is probably even stupid than that, as the feeling of not having any time is often tied only what the clock is, not to the time when I'll be going to bed. If I get up at 2 PM and go to bed at 4 AM, I have just as much time as if I'd get up at 9 AM and went to bed at 11 PM, but the circuit in question doesn't recognize this.

So, what can we do about conflicting circuits? Simply recognizing them for what they are is already a big step forward, one which I feel has already helped me overcome some of their effects. Some of them can probably be dismantled simply by identifying them, working out their purpose and deciding it to be unnecessary. (I suspect that this process might actually set up new circuits whose function is to counteract the signals sent by the harmful ones. Maybe. I'm not very sure of what the actual neural mechanism might be.) Eby writes:

So, you want to build Desire and Awareness by tuning in to the right qualities to perceive. Then, you need to eliminate any conflicts that come up.

Now, a lot of times, you can do this by simple negotiation with yourself. Just sit and write down all your objections or issues about something, and then go through them one at a time, to figure out how you can either work around the problem, or find another way to get your other needs met.

Of course, you have to enter this process in good faith; if you judge yourself for say, wanting lots of chocolate, and decide that you shouldn’t want it, that’s not going to work.

But it might work, to be willing to give up chocolate for a while, in order to lose weight. The key is that you need to actually imagine what it would be like to give it up, and then find out whether you can be “okay” with that.

Now, sadly, about 97% of the people who read this are going to take that last paragraph and go, “yeah, sure, I’m going to give up [whatever]”, but without actually considering what it would be like to do so.

And those people are going to fail.

And I kind of debated whether or not I should even mention this method here, because frankly, I don’t trust most people’s controllers any further than I can reprogram them (so to speak).

See, I know from bitter experience that my own controllers for things like “being smart” used to make me rationalize this sort of thing, skipping the actual mental work involved in a technique, because “clearly I’m smart enough not to need to do all that.”

And so I’d assume that just “thinking” about it was enough, without really going through the mental experience needed to make it work. So, most of the people who read this, are going to take that paragraph above where I explained the deep, dark, master-level mindhacking secret, and find a way to ignore it.

They’re going to say things like, “Is that all?” “Oh, I already knew that.” And they’re not going to really sit down and consider all the things that might conflict with what they say they want.

If they want to be wealthy, for example, they’re almost certainly not going to sit down and consider whether they’ll lose their friends by doing so, or end up having strained family relations. They’re not considering whether they’re going to feel guilty for making a lot of money when other people in the world don’t have any, or for doing it easily when other people are working so hard.

They’re not going to consider whether being wealthy or fit or confident will make them like the people they hate, or whether maybe they’re really only afraid of being broke!

But all of them will read everything I’ve just written, and assume it doesn’t apply to them, or that they’ve already taken all that into account.

Only they haven’t.

Because if they had, they would have already changed.

That's a pretty powerful reminder not to ignore your controllers. When you've been reading this, some controller that tries to keep you from doing things has probably already picked up on the excitement some emotional system might now be generating... meaning that you might be about to stumble upon a technique that might actually make you more productive... causing signals to be sent out to suppress attempts to even try it out. Simply acknowleding its existence isn't going to be enough - you need to actively think things out, identify different controllers within you, and dismantle them.

I feel I've managed to avoid the first step, of not doing anything even after becoming aware of the problem. I've been actively looking at different control circuits, some of which have plagued me for quite a long time, and I at least seem to have managed to overcome them. My worry is that there might be some high-level circuit which is even now coming online to prevent me from using this technique - to make me forget about the whole thing, or to simply not use it even though I know of it. It feels that the best way to counteract that is to try to consciously set up new circuits dedicated to the task of monitoring for the presence of new circuits, and alarming me of their presence. In other words, keep actively looking for anything that might be a mental control circuit, and teach myself to notice them.

(And now, Eby, please post any kind of comment here so that we can vote it up and give you your fair share of this post's karma. :))