1 min read21st Aug 20226 comments
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Hmm, I'm noticing that a surprisingly large portion of my recent creative progress can be traced down to a single "isthmus" (a key pattern that helps you connect many other patterns). It's the trigger-action-plan of

IF you see an interesting pattern that doesn't have a name
THEN invent a new word and make a flashcard for it

This may not sound like much, and it wouldn't to me either if I hadn't seen it make a profound difference.

Interesting patterns are powerups, and if you just go "huh, that's interesting" and then move on with your life, you're totally wasting their potential. Making a name for it makes it much more likely that you'll be able to spontaneously see the pattern elsewhere (isthmus-passing insights). And making a flashcard for it makes sure you access it when you have different distributions of activation levels over other ideas, making it more likely that you'll end up making synthetic (isthmus-centered) insights between them. (For this reason, I'm also strongly against the idea of dissuading people from using jargon as long as the jargon makes sense. I think people should use more jargon, even if it seems embarrassingly supercilious and perhaps intimidating to outsiders).

I dig the word isthmus and I like your linked comment about it being somehow dual to a bottleneck (i.e. constraint).

It seems quite related to Wentworth's mazes. I.e. see the picture https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/nEBbw2Bc2CnN2RMxy/gears-level-models-are-capital-investments

There are two ways to try and solve the maze: find a path (search, prime &babble) or find constraints by finding walls.

If I need to go from the left to the right In a maze then highlighting continuous vertical stretches of wall from top to bottom will yield bottlenecks while horizontal highlighting along paths yield isthmuses. Both techniques can be used together

Quite cool imho

owo thanks

Seems like Andy Matuschak feels the same way about spaced repetition being a great tool for innovation.

I struggle with prioritising what to read. Additionally, but less of a problem, I struggle to motivate myself to read things. Some introspection:

The problem is that my mind desires to "have read" something more than desiring the state of "reading" it. Either because I imagine the prestige or self-satisfaction that comes with thinking "hehe, I read the thing," or because I actually desire the the knowledge for its own sake, but I don't desire the attaining of it, I desire the having of it.[1]

Could I goodhart-hack this by rewarding myself for reading and feeling ashamed of myself for actually finishing a whole post? Probably not. I think perhaps my problem is that I'm always trying to cut the enemy, so I can't take my eyes off it for long enough to innocently experience the inherent joy of seeing interesting patterns. When I do feel the most joy, I'm usually descending unnecessarily deep into a rabbit hole.

"What are all the cell adhesion molecules, how are they synthesised, and is the synthesis bottlenecked by a particular nutrient I can supplement?!"

Nay, I think my larger problem is always having a million things that I really want to read, and I feel a desparate urge to go through all of them--yesterday at the latest! So when I do feel joy at the nice patterns I learn, I feel a quiet unease at the back of my mind calling me to finish this as soon as possible so we can start on the next urgent thing to read.

(The more I think about it, the more I realise just how annoying that constant impatient nagging is when I'm trying to read something. It's not intense, but it really diminishes the joy. While I do endorse impatience and always trying to cut the enemy, I'm very likely too impatient for my own good. On the margin, I'd make speedier progress with more slack.)

If this is correct, then maybe what I need to do is to--well, close all my tabs for a start--separate out the process of collecting from the process of reading. I'll make a rule: If I see a whole new thing that I want to read, I'm strictly forbidden to actually read it until at least a day has passed. If I'm already engaged in a particular question/topic, then I can seek out and read information about it, but I can only start on new topics if it's in my collection from at least a day ago.

I'm probably intuitively overestimating the a new thing's value relative to the things in my collections anyway, just because it feels more novel. If instead I only read things from my collection, I'll gradually build up an enthusiasm for it that can compete with my old enthusiasm for aimless novelty--especially as I experience my new process outperforming my old.

My enthusiasm for "read all the newly-discovered things!" is not necessarily the optimal way to experience the most enthusiasm for reading, it's just stuck in a myopic equilibrium I can beat with a little activation energy.

  1. ^

    What this ends up looking like is frantically skimming through the paper until I find the patterns I'm looking for, and I end up being so frustrated that I can't immediately find it that the experience ends up being unpleasant.

Here's my definitely-wrong-and-overly-precise model of productivity. I'd be happy if someone pointed out where it's wrong.

It has three central premises: a) I have proximal (basal; hardcoded) and distal (PFC; flexible) rewards. b) Additionally, or perhaps for the same reasons, my brain uses temporal-difference learning, but I'm unclear on the details. c) Hebbian learning: neurons that fire together, wire together.

If I eat blueberry muffins, I feel good. That's a proximal reward. So every time my brain produces a motivation to eat blueberry muffins, and I take steps that makes me *predict* that I am closer to eating blueberry muffins, the synapses that produced *that particular motivation* gets reinforced and are more likely to fire again next time.

The brain gets trained to produce the motivations that more reliably produce actions that lead to rewards.

If I get out of bed quickly after the alarm sounds, there are no hardcoded rewards for that. But after I get out of bed, I predict that I am better able to achieve my goals, and that prediction itself is the reward that reinforces the behaviour. It's a distal reward. Every time the brain produces motivations that in fact get me to take actions that I in fact predict will make me more likely to achieve my goals, those motivations get reinforced.

But I have some marginal control over *which motivations I choose to turn into action*, and some marginal control over *which predictions I make* about whether those actions take me closer to my goals. Those are the two levers with which I am able to gradually take control over which motivations my brain produces, as long as I'm strategic about it. I'm a fledgling mesa-optimiser inside my own brain, and I start out with the odds against me.

I can also set myself up for failure. If I commit to, say, study math for 12 hours a day, then... I'm able to at first feel like I've committed to that as long as I naively expect, right then and there, that the commitment takes me closer to my goals. But come the next day when I actually try to achieve this, I run out of steam, and it becomes harder and harder to resist the motivations to quit. And when I quit, *the motivations that led me to quit get reinforced because I feel relieved* (proximal reward). Trying-and-failing can build up quitting-muscles.

If you're a sufficiently clever mesa-optimiser, you *can* make yourself study math for 12 hours a day or whatever, but you have to gradually build up to it. Never make a large ask of yourself before you've sufficiently starved the quitting-pathways to extinction. Seek to build up simple well-defined trigger-action rules that you know you can keep to every single time they're triggered. If more and more of input-space gets gradually siphoned into those rules, you starve alternative pathways out of existence.

Thus, we have one aspect of the maxim: "You never make decisions, you only ever decide between strategies."