This is part 17 of 30 of Hammertime. Click here for the intro.
You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.
~ Owen Wilson
It is with some trepidation that I venture into the “fuzzy System 1” side of instrumental rationality. I worry that these introspective techniques optimize too much for cathartic eureka moments, and that the resulting feelings far overstate their true value.
Nevertheless, there is a definite power to these methods. You have subconscious beliefs, values, and strategies that you’re unaware of, or at least can’t articulate. Gendlin’s Focusing is a starting point for plumbing these hidden depths.
Day 17: Focusing
Background: “Focusing” for skeptics.
tl;dr: your brain hallucinates sensory experiences that have no correspondence to reality. Noticing and articulating these “felt senses” gives you access to the deep wisdom of your soul.
I’ll start by explaining my most gears-like model for why focusing works, and then describe some exercises towards strengthening the Focusing muscle.
One of the predictions of my model is that felt senses are only one piece of the nonverbal puzzle – the patterns in our dreams and our tastes for fiction and mythology, for instance, serve the same function. This will be the content of a future post.
Left and Right Brain
This model is derived from Jordan Peterson’s lectures on psychology, and in particular this conversation. I reserve the right to call everything fake if you try to falsify it.
Human beings are both predator and prey. This duality is so central to human evolution that the brain is divided left and right to serve the two different purposes separately.
The left brain is the predator brain, the center for “approach” mechanisms. It’s built for tracking a particular prey animal, articulating rules about behavior, and solving concrete problems. To fix your attention on a target is to activate your left brain and get ready to hunt it down. In the direction you look, there is clarity and legibility. Over that direction, you gain power and mastery.
“Sin” derives from the Greek word for missing the mark: human beings are aiming creatures.
The right brain is the prey brain, the center for “flight” mechanisms. It’s built for hypothesizing a venomous fog of worst-case scenarios: snakes in every tree, traps under every bramble. The right brain is constantly on edge, searching for subtle clues of being tracked by a clever predator or failure mode. It operates on the things you don’t know and cannot see: the space behind your head, the shadows in dark corners, the places and concepts you circumambulate.
With its higher level of clarity and certainty, the left brain is by far the more verbal of the two, and most of your articulated knowledge resides there. The right brain, on the other hand, may have access to the most important big-picture insights about your life. The trouble is to communicate them.
When the right brain has a message to send that won’t go directly through the corpus callosum, the message manifests in other ways. You feel a tightness in your chest or a glow in your belly. Unbidden images appear to you when you close your eyes. Recurring nightmares play out the last moments of your likely doom.
Focusing is about noticing these subtle clues and completing the communication between left and right brain.
The basic idea of Focusing is to notice and track your felt senses and learn to articulate them. The most exciting thing that happens during focusing is noticing a “felt shift,” a relief or change, in the sensation once you hit upon the right words to frame it. This response is your right brain confirming that you got the message.
I’ll start by listing a few felt senses I’ve had recently:
- When I solve a problem in a creative way (e.g. fix posture by turning in the shower), there’s a sensation of enlightenment at the back of my head which literally feels like my skull is opening up. The words to this feeling are “I’ve discovered a new dimension!”
- I sometimes sit slouched over in bed for hours at a time browsing Facebook or Reddit, playing video games, or binge-watch a season of a TV show. After getting up from the slouch, my whole body is enveloped in a haze of laziness and decay. The zombie haze is thickest inside my ribs. The words to this pressure are “Symptoms of the spreading corruption.”
- A piece of my social anxiety forms a hard barrier that pushes against the center of my chest. I learned the words to this feeling from a post by Zvi: “Conform! Every time you walk outside the norm, think about the implicit accusation you’re making against everyone who didn’t try it.”
Here’s Gendlin’s Focusing check from CFAR:
1.Say aloud “Everything in my life is fine,” or “I’m on track with all of my goals.”
2.Pay attention to the sensations in your belly, chest, and throat. If you’re like most people, something will catch or react weirdly to the statement.
3.Try to get a sense of what the feeling “sees,” and write it down.
4.Imagine setting that thing aside (like putting it next to you on a park bench), and try again: “Apart from that, everything in my life is fine.” See what catches this time.
5.Continue until you reach a statement that doesn’t produce a reaction, and instead rings true (e.g. “Apart from A, B, C, D, my life is fine right now.”)
Set a Yoda Timer and try the Focusing check.
Share a felt sense and its True Name.
I have a lot to say here but I'll stick to this for now:
There's always the risk of Goodharting on all sorts of things, but I think we should collectively chill out about people getting too excited about stuff. Getting too excited is a perfectly natural part of the learning process (you can tell because kids do it by default when not punished for it); it's what gets you to overlearn things so that they stick with you. The people I know who learn things fastest do it constantly, I do it constantly when I learn math, and I think it's a really important component of learning rationality too.
Umeshism: if you've never gotten too excited about something then you aren't learning fast / deeply enough.
I think this snark makes it clear that you lack gears in your model of how focusing works. There are actual muscles in your actual body that get tense as a result of stuff going on with your nervous system, and many people can feel that even if they don't know exactly what they are feeling.
That's true; I've had "butterflies" that gave me actual stomachaches and indigestion. "No correspondence to reality" isn't exactly right, I'm not sure how to phrase it. Perhaps "no correspondence to external reality, if you consider normal bodily functions as external reality."
But your claim that I lack gears in my focusing model is definitely true.
I had a tense neck for 7 days. I could do some thing to relax it but then after sleeping it was again fully tense. After those 7 days I did Focusing on it and resolved the issue with a session of Focusing.
Focusing can help for very physical issues.
On the other hand, given what I know from anecdotal reports, phantoms limbs can have felt senses. It seems possible to have the felt sense without a corresponding "external reality".
I slightly object then to this phrase "I’ll start by explaining my most gears-like model for why focusing works"
yes, it is accurate, in that it's YOUR most gears-like model, but to me this reads like a misuse of the term 'gears-like'
'gears-like' implies—if it turned out to be some other thing or work some other way, you'd be shocked and would have to consciously check the evidence (the inside of the box) again.
later you include the right to claim it as a fake framework, which feels more like what it actually is.
Gears-like is a spectrum. Although there are places where my models lack gears and SquirrelinHell has more, I think there are enough gears in my model for me to say gears-like without misusing the term: e.g. making falsifiable predictions such as "dreams are as good as felt senses for noticing inarticulate motivations and aversions."
hmm. i don't really have much to say on that prediction. maybe it's falsifiable. i find the comparison a bit odd.
i consider there to be two main ways of getting to know oneself.
inside view methods, like introspection; and outside view methods, like observing our own behavior over time and noticing patterns or analyzing dreams, thoughts, tastes.
they do seem both useful in getting to know myself. does that match what you predict?
What do you mean by "no correspondence to... normal bodily functions"? Something like: the butterflies in your stomach don't help you with digestion?
Yes. The purpose of the sense/muscle tension/whatever else your brain and body is doing is solely to alert you of some nonverbal info.
There’s this feeling I get where I feel like my eyes are having a hard time focusing, I’m a little tired, and there’s a tingling in my forehead - like a precursor to a headache (almost like someone is hovering their finger between my eyebrows). I get this feeling if I’ve been doing empty, shallow, digital things for too long - glancing at headlines, procrastinating, etc.
I call it “malaise” or “UGH”. Not the most descriptive phrase, but putting a word to it helps me go, “oh I’m feeling that ‘malaise’ feeling, I should do X”.
There's a very particular kind of anxious feeling I get, a kind of catch in the throat and knot in my stomach, that means "your current plan has a major failure mode that you're totally undefended against." I deeply aspire to reach a point in my life where this feeling is no longer regularly present.
During 5 minute yoga timer I felt rushed to recognize felt senses.
Most of them were floating tensions in the stomach area.
Somehow even though they felt similarly, I almost always had a good idea which of the Big Life Confusions they are, and when I said their approximate name there was a release of tension in the stomach.
To get to more nuanced names I'd need a longer session for each specific life problem, with current set up I've added some of the discoveries to the bug list, and checked that others are already there
-- Not sure this is helpful, even if on-topic --
I find this CFAR version of Focusing surprising. It seems to skip steps 3 and 4 of Gendlin's version. I had a well-developed felt sense before Focusing but I was poor at naming emotions.
Doing Focusing with Gendlin's process allowed me new access to emotions.
A few days ago, we were talking about the ability to read others emotions at an LW event. Together we had an idea of how Alice could make progress on an issue by getting better at reading the emotions on other people.
Bob asked Alice to guess his emotions.
For myself "curious to mind in addition to being excited. Bob then also used the word curious to describe his state emotional state. Curious wouldn't have been a word that my system II would have used given situation to mentally model Bob's state. It still matched Bob own sense of what he felt. Before I did Focusing I just had an ability to perceive the body of the other person well and could use that information to model their emotional state but I had no direct access to emotions as entities like curiosity or sadness.
The exercise described here is one application of Focusing, for finding bugs. At CFAR workshops we do something like this in the class on Hamming problems.
The CFAR class on Focusing is more similar to Conor's post and puts a lot more emphasis on searching for a handle that fits.
Does CFAR have a script for doing what Gendlin refers to as "fitting"? That's the hardest part by far, for me anyway. It's easy enough to know that something is wrong, but I've almost never achieved the felt shift that supposedly accompanies correctly fitting and resolving the felt sense.
It's hard to teach. You need to be willing to try out a lot of labels, including labels that scare you or that seem ridiculous or melodramatic (which is another way of saying that they scare you). We've experimented with pairing participants up with CFAR instructors and mentors who can guide them in various ways towards labels, but that's a hard and idiosyncratic process and I don't have much to say about it at this level of generality.
Note: the link for "Conform! Every time you walk outside the norm" doesn't seem to be working.
When I attempt the focusing check, it immediately brings to mind the things in my life that are most good, or that make me feel most accomplished. Is the idea to iterate until you've pared it down to things you don't enjoy and don't feel satisfied with? Step 5 seems vaguely to imply the opposite.
As for felt senses, I've had the thought before that right after or right before talking to certain people, I feel like someone broke into my veins and replaced my blood with powdered sugar and helium. Uh, in a metaphorical-poetry way, not in a sciencey-agonizing way.
For most people the sentences “Everything in my life is fine” or “I’m on track with all of my goals” don't feel completely true on a system I level and counterexamples come up. If that isn't the case for you and you actually believe both are completely true, then that's great.
You might ask more specific questions.
Fixed! A bunch of formatting was broken by crossposting as well.
The idea of the focusing check is to bring to mind the things in your life that contradict the statement - it sounds like you're doing the opposite. The end goal is to come up with a list of the few central things you're not satisfied with in your life.
I think I've already been doing something sort of like Focusing, except more like Duncan's post - relying a lot more on trying on words and phrasings than on bodily felt senses. In particular I've noticed that I can do a useful kind of processing by thinking aloud while walking (or, as I recently discovered, kayaking) and noticing which things I say do or don't feel right, and if something doesn't feel right, trying various other things and seeing what does.
I hadn't tried the focusing-on-bodily-senses thing before, though, so I tried that today. The check described here doesn't work very well for me because there's just too much. So instead I tried to hone in on specific types of feelings (emotional, bodily, or both, hard to tell the difference honestly) and see what they were like and what they related to.
I didn't get as far as I wanted on my first try, partly because the feeling in question included a strong desire to hide from it, partly because my roommate walked in and I no longer felt able to really freely introspect and feel stuff. So then I decided to try focusing on the effect that having another person in the room has on me. This was really interesting - I found that I could feel this in the left side of my body (my roommate is sitting to the left of me) as a heightened alertness and a directional pull to the left - my left ear is paying extra attention, there's a pull at the corner of my left eye to pay attention to what my roommate is doing; I think I also have more tension in general on the left side of my torso than my right. If I turn my head to the right, then the back of my head feels the alertness. I might be breathing a little less freely than when I was alone in the room? Not sure about that, though.
(soooo this is a large part of why I tend to want a lot of alone time I guess.)
I'm not sure I know yet how to use bodily sensations to get insights about something other than bodily sensations. I do expect to try this more. (though this is for sure the scariest of the techniques in this sequence so far.)
Ok, I'm kind of new to the whole LessWrong Buissness, so can someone please explain to me:
What is your thing with Jordan Peterson? I get, that he is a Psychologist and so on, but there are a lot of people out there, who not just take his 101 life advice by heart, but also his political .... Ideas?
From the way he is quoted in this sequence and the fact that there seems to be no discussion about this in the comments, you seem to see him as a legitimate expert on rationality? Or do you seperate between his psychology and politics? Or does no one know him here except alkjash? I'd love to hear from you all!
I haven't looked into him too much, but my impression is that he is reasonably respected as a psychologist, so on psychological topics I would trust his opinion no more and no less than that of any other person who seems to be reasonably respected by other psychologists.