So you just read something about the basilisk and it freaked you out.  There’s some emotional argument around being simulated, tortured and extorted by a future AI.  You read it, feel quite scared, concerned or uncomfortable about it and now don’t know what to do about the phenomena.

This won’t be the last time you heard of a monster that scared you, although maybe previous monsters somehow didn’t seem real or like they applied to you.  For example zombies.  Seem rather slow and stupid.  Unless they are fast zombies, in which case you can still see them and make plans with the other humans.  Humans always outsmart the monsters right?  And zombies are super improbable anyway.

Back to the Basilisk.  So problem, you now know of an idea that seems scary.  You have two problems really.  The first is that there’s a class of information that now seems dangerous.  You could in the future find out a new alpha basilisk that is also scary and more urgent to address than the current information hazard.  The second problem is “there’s a scary thing”.

If we look at the greater context of this problem.  As a ~5 year old or young child, if you found a scary thing, like the dark or a mean person, you could turn to an adult and get their assistance.  As an adult, you just kinda “have the skills” to handle scary things, but as a person in-between child and adult, there are now no adults to turn to (or maybe no adults who will take you seriously) and you don’t yet have adult tools for dealing with emotions.  (there’s a long debate about whether people ever turn into adults or just do the same as they have been doing and eventually just have learned competence by practice, while still not being an adult but that’s a different conversation)

To repeat the problem again, there’s an intellectual idea (basilisk) that is bothering the emotional mind (fear) and I don’t have the tools to deal with this problem.

So what are the tools that help with emotions?

A non exhaustive list:

  • Recognition of the emotion
  • Capacity to stay with the emotion
  • Strong stable foundation of emotional territory that feel familiar and native
  • Skill of knowing how to respond to the emotion

Recognition of the emotion

Lucky for us, emotions are a finite set.  Or at least humans have already made a reasonably comprehensive list of emotions.  Language will change over time, leading us to better nuance of emotional experience but for now there exists lists of emotions that do a good enough job of helping us to narrow down our phenomenological experience to a concrete label.

Feeling WheelCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes we can only narrow down to a general cluster of emotion, sometimes we have a few at once and they can muddle each other.  For example if I have multiple events going on in my life, I could be having emotions about each of them, but having them mixed together leading to an experience of overwhelm.

For the purpose of this context, a basic skill of recognition is one you can pick up with a little practice and a little checking back to the wheel.  Try setting a timer 3 times a day and checking on the wheel to see how you feel.  Try random intervals or try just stopping what you are doing, checking in with your body and noticing what feelings are around.

Capacity to stay with the emotion

Emotions in the mind often serve to direct us. They tell us what to move towards and what to move away from.  I’m scared of heights so I know to go away from them.  When I get near the heights, I feel my heart speed up, I feel my mind race and my breathing increases (and more).  Many of the emotional reactions are physiological and that’s important to note.  Sometimes we get very aversive to an emotional reaction, knowing I start to breathe faster, means I know I’m starting to have a panic attack and have difficulty breathing and I don’t like that at all, so I have learned earlier and earlier in that stack to avoid the stimuli.

Sometimes this means that one emotion directs me to another emotion, to another, to another in a chain.  I eventually apply a strategy for dealing with the final emotion.  Being able to stay with the first or second emotion in the chain is an adult skill.  When working with the mind, I might find that I start uncomfortable and then get distracted, then bored, agitated, hungry and eventually eat some food to cover the hunger.  I was probably not all that hungry but the chain led me to some problem I could deal with.  As an alternative, if I build the capacity to stay with an emotion, maybe I could have stayed with my discomfort and continued to write this article instead of pausing for a snack in the middle.  

The capacity to stay is a skill that is built directly from experiential practice.  The process is simple.  Set aside 30 minutes of time, in a quiet place, pick an emotion or experience you already know you find difficult to stay with, or one you want to learn to work with, and invite it into your experience.

I’m going to use the example of fear.  As I invite fear into my experience, I start to notice my mind speed up.  It’s not particularly good but not terrible either.  It’s a little interesting.  Thoughts start to pop in about things I have recently been in fear of, or ways that I might explicitly be in danger right now.  It’s not the case that my roof is any more likely to collapse than it was 5 minutes ago but one of the effects of fear is to bring these thoughts to my attention.  As I add more fear, I notice my lungs clear, my breathing speed up, my mind is racing now.  I’m suddenly struck with the need to check behind me as I feel a little adrenaline in my system.  I don’t particularly like this but it’s also not terrible.  My heart rate is going faster suddenly. (10 mins later) As I wait with these physical and physiological changes, the effect of fear seems to settle.  My mind is clear, my heart rate slows back down and I generally feel there is less weight on my person.  I also feel energized and more relaxed.

The rubber band model of emotional capacity

FMLCC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Our ability to tolerate new emotional experience is partially mediated by how much emotional experience is currently activated in our system.  That is, if your emotional capacity is a rubber band that is already stretched out, adding more stretch gets difficult and there will be a present strain on your emotional system that will be causing tiredness and irritation.  If you unstretch your rubber band, you can now take on new emotional experiences and get invested in new possibilities without straining yourself.

If I have the capacity to stay with an emotion, this means that I can address the first emotion in a chain, I can counter the bad habits of running away from emotional experience.  I can choose to wait around for better outcomes despite a task being hard or it being scary to negotiate.  If I have more capacity than other people, I now have a superpower because I can stay in the difficulty for longer.

The downside to the skill of being able to stay is occasionally forgetting that you don’t have to.  Which I will cover in “the skill of knowing how to respond” to emotions.

Strong stable foundation of emotional territory that feel familiar and native

If I’m living in a territory where all my emotional rubber bands are constantly stretched tight, I am probably feeling trapped and stuck in the middle of a tiny territory of the mind in which I can occupy while remaining calm and rational.  As I recover the free slack in my emotional rubber bands I now have a bigger foundation.  I can get a bit more excited, upset, scared, from here without being drawn away from stable territory.  

Also as I train myself to have a bigger stable territory, I can also train myself to be stable in slightly less stable territory too.  Training to respond to adverse situations is not just about being in emotionally calm territory in the face of difficult things, it's training in remaining grounded, sharp and skillful in action while in emotionally rocky territory, in the face of difficult things.

Skill of knowing how to respond

In responding to emotional events there are two categories of responses:

  1. Strategic
  2. Dynamic

In a strategic response, you have probably learnt to react a certain way in the face of emotional experience.  For example I might have learnt that when I get uncertain I need to get more information.  In the face of uncertainty I might find myself asking more questions or looking for books on the topic.  Sometimes strategic responses can be a great response but they have the downside of being a lot more like a recipe book.  You can’t make bagels if you keep using a recipe for spaghetti.  You might learn more recipes so you have more strategies but if you aren’t hungry right now, making more food isn’t the right move.

Some bad strategies (that can work for a while) are:

  • When I get angry, I blame someone else.
  • When I get scared I look for someone else to tell me what to do
  • When I am bored I scroll on facebook
  • When I am embarrassed I hide from other people until they leave me alone
  • When I am not listened to, I shut down

It’s not that strategies are wrong, it’s that they tend to overextend their usefulness.  There are ways to work with really stuck strategies, and ways to improve the strategies you currently have, however that’s a different conversation and starts going down the path of therapeutic support (which can sometimes be done alone or with friends). 

In a dynamic response, you can still use previously developed strategies but you also have access to new strategies.  As a dynamic trait, it’s hard to pin down and describe and hard to teach.  A lot of teaching people to be dynamic is teaching people to be strategic over and over in different ways until they start developing their own strategic responses.  We also have a bad habit of rushing to our previously developed strategies when solving a familiar problem.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

One thing to think about when working with strategic responses, is that they often can be divided into the set of the four F strategies.

  • Fight - you get angry at, get aggressive towards, make a strength display, or attempt to push back at the problem
  • Flight - you attempt to run from the problem, attempt to move out of the way of the problem or generally detach (i.e. emotional numbness)
  • Freeze - you find yourself locking up, doing nothing, going blank, or feeling stuck here, despite the rest of what’s going on
  • Fawn - you suddenly feel like making nice about it, acting overly friendly to de-escalate the situation.

It is worth noticing what your habitual response is, and noticing where it comes from.  For example, many habitual responses will be developed in early childhood when working with siblings or friends.  

To be a healthier adult is to maintain active access to all these pathways, and dynamically being able to choose between them, instead of being stuck in one or two.  A different conversation exists on the topic of training how to get better at these responses, and becoming a well rounded responder.

For now, consider if you ever feel that one of these responses feels inaccessible to you, or if you feel blocked from that pathway.

Ultimately the skill of knowing how to respond comes from practice, and experience in waiting with emotions and noticing what feels right as a way of being in response to your experience.

The basilisk

If there is a chance that the basilisk will pose a threat, then we need to have emotionally processed the concern so that we, as individuals, are at a stable place to work on the problem practically.  If contribution to the field is the best way to improve the state of the world, then that seems like a compelling action to take.  But if we are too scared, physiologically disabled with fear, we won’t be able to work on the problem at all.

I would encourage you to all work on your emotional capacity.  Similar to reps at the gym, it’s possible to do reps of training at emotional capacity.  With more practice comes more confidence, and more ability to tackle hard problems without burning out.  Good luck!

cross posted to my blog: 

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