Teaching Introspection

bySwimmer9638y1st Aug 201131 comments


As Yvain pointed out in his recent post The Limits of Introspection, humans are not naturally good at inferring our cognitive processes. We resort to guessing with plausible-sounding stories about ourselves, and we aren’t very accurate.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching a swimming lesson. (You'll understand later why this reminded me.) A recurring problem that I’ve noticed with both children and adults is that it isn’t obvious to them what their bodies are doing. Feet go in strange directions, hands fail to lift above the water, and they literally can’t describe what it feels like. It’s pretty much impossible for a novice swimmer to watch the instructor demonstrate front crawl and then imitate it perfectly–muscular control isn’t that perfect. That’s why there are swimming instructors: because it’s very, very hard to learn swimming (or dance, or soccer, or a martial art) by reading a book, even if that book has illustrated diagrams. Two friends reading the book together and watching each other’s attempts in the pool would probably do better, but that’s still a case, metaphorically, of the blind leading the blind. Most sports have instructors and coaches who are, relatively speaking, experts. (I competed at the regional level in swimming for something like five years and trained five to seven times a week the whole time, which pretty much qualifies me to teach eight-year-olds. An Olympic coach would need a much higher level of mastery.)

The most basic thing a coach provides that the two friends practicing together don’t have is relevant feedback. I watch a young swimmer demonstrating her front crawl, and I can immediately chunk my observations into “what’s done properly” and “what’s done wrong” and translate the latter category into “things to change.” And the easiest way to learn perfect front crawl isn’t to do it over and over again with tiny changes, but to practice exaggerated and simplified “drills” that teach particular fragments of muscle memory. Faced with a given stroke problem, I can look over a list of about eight different front crawl drills to find the one best suited for fixing it. To place some objective measure on the improvements, I can time my swimmers or count their strokes per length The coaches of more elite swimmers have even fancier tools in their hands: videotaping, fins and hand paddles, and the flume, basically a wind tunnel in the water. (I wish I had one of these in my basement!) All to provide better feedback: even Olympic-level swimmers don’t automatically know what their bodies are doing wrong or what needs to be fixed. (I’m assuming this is true of sports other than swimming, too.)

Granted, human muscles do start out under some voluntary control. A baby learns how to walk with no instruction, only the feedback of trial and error. (And of seeing adults walk? I seem to remember reading that some feral children crawl on hands and knees, and seem to prefer this method to walking.) But even apparently involuntary skills can be learned, with the help of creative technology. With biofeedback, people can control their blood pressure and anxiety levels and apparently various other processes . The parallel should be obvious here. Introspection, like physical coordination, is only imperfectly under conscious control…but there is some control. That’s what consciousness is: self-awareness. Most people are aware that they have emotions, and that they make decisions because of their emotions, i.e. “I didn’t mean it, I just did it because I was angry!” Likewise, most people are aware of their likes and dislikes. It’s only a small leap to recognize that these kinds of preferences are malleable facts about the state of the brain, not immutable facts about the outside world. People do succeed in wrestling with their uncooperative minds, fighting akrasia and making deliberate and reasoned decisions.

Nevertheless, most people aren’t even at the same level, metaphorically speaking, as a non-swimmer trying to learn from diagrams in a book. The literature on cognitive biases and Alicorn's sequence on luminosity are a start on the ‘book of introspection’ and some of the Less Wrong groups that meet in person are trying to help each other master these skills. The various schools of meditation are arguably about teaching introspection, and clinical psychology could be seen the same way. Is it possible to go further? Olympic coaches have probably maxed out how fast an unmodified human can swim; your technique can't be any better than perfect; but I would like to think that we haven’t even scratched the limits of how well a completely unmodified human brain can understand itself. As far as I know, most traditions of meditation are just that: traditions, often ancient, that don’t accommodate recent discoveries about the brain and about thought processes. And psychology is limited by the focus on fixing ‘problems’ and returning patients to ‘normal.’ (And if you are ‘normal’, you don’t need a psychologist!) But everyone is affected equally by our apparently-innate inability to notice what our brains are really up to, and normal isn't a very ambitious standard. 

What does a cognitive bias feel like? I can’t look back on my actions and say “yeah, I’m pretty sure I said Tide was my favourite detergent because I was still thinking about oceans and moons.” Or at least, I can’t do that automatically. But if a scientist can predict that participants in an experiment will choose Tide when thinking about oceans and moons, then I can predict that about myself, too, and look back on all my decisions, trying to infer what factors were present at the time that could have primed my choice. It’s still a guess, but it’s an informed, useful one. And with practice, with an expert instructor to point out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, maybe a given cognitive bias does feel like something recognizable. Maybe the hidden secrets of your thought processes would become transparent and obvious. The next problem is finding instructors who are sufficiently advanced, and teaching exercises to use. The repetitive and level-based nature of video games would make them ideal as “thinking drills" training "neural memory" instead of "muscle memory."

I don't know enough to guess at the specifics of what this kind of school might look like, but I would definitely take lessons in introspection if they were available…I can’t really see a downside. Finding out that my decisions were due more often to random factors unconnected to to the Great Story That Is My Life might be unflattering, but it's equally awful whether I know about it or not, and knowing gives me a chance to fix those decisions that might otherwise turn out damagingly irrational. Anyone, or any group of people, willing to take on the task of becoming expert instructors in this field would hugely help those of us who have trouble learning procedural skills from books.