Zooming your mind in and out

by John_Maxwell2 min read6th Jul 20156 comments


Personal Blog

I recently noticed I had two mental processes opposing one another in an interesting way.

The first mental process was instilled by reading Daniel Kahneman on the focusing illusion and Paul Graham on procrastination.  This process encourages me to "zoom out" when engaging in low-value activities so I can see they don't deliver much value in the grand scheme of things.

The second mental process was instilled by reading about the importance of just trying things.  (These articles could be seen as steelmanning Mark Friedenbach's recent Less Wrong critique.)  This mental process encourages me to "zoom in" and get my hands dirty through experimentation.

Both these processes seem useful.  Instead of spending long stretches of time in either the "zoomed in" or "zoomed out" state, I think I'd do better flip-flopping between them.  For example, if I'm wandering down internet rabbit holes, I'm spending too much time zoomed in.  Asking "why" repeatedly could help me realize I'm doing something low value.  If I'm daydreaming or planning lots with little doing, I'm spending too much time zoomed out.  Asking "how" repeatedly could help me identify a first step.

This fits in with construal level theory, aka "near/far theory" as discussed by Robin Hanson.  (I recommend the reviews Hanson links to; they gave me a different view of the concept than his standard presentation.)  To be more effective, maybe one should increase cross communication between the "near" and "far" modes, so the parts work together harmoniously instead of being at odds.

If Hanson's view is right, maybe the reason people become uncomfortable when they realize they are procrastinating (or not Just Trying It) is that this maps to getting caught red-handed in an act of hypocrisy in the ancestral environment.  You're pursuing near interests (watching Youtube videos) instead of working towards far ideals (doing your homework)?  For shame!

(Possible cure: Tell yourself that there's nothing to be ashamed of if you get stuck zoomed in; it happens to everyone.  Just zoom out.)

Part of me is reluctant to make this post, because I just had this idea and it feels like I should test it out more before writing about it.  So here are my excuses:

1. If I wait until I develop expertise in everything, it may be too late to pass it on.

2. In order to see if this idea is useful, I'll need to pay attention to it.  And writing about it publicly is a good way to help myself pay attention to it, since it will become part of my identity and I'll be interested to see how people respond.

There might be activities people already do on a regular basis that consist of repeated zooming in and out.  If so, engaging in them could be a good way to build this mental muscle.  Can anyone think of something like this?


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Reminds me of a discussion about learning styles compared to search algorithms I once participated in on c2.


Me: I don't use depth-first-learning but rather A*-learning, meaning, that I have a learning goal in mind all the time (since I can remember) and try to learn everything, that contributes to this goal (minimizes the distance to the goal). The goal is motivated by a curiosity how things work or could be made to work (at an abstract scale, including social problems). The distance to this goal is measured by the usefulness of the knowledge to achieve this. Interestingly I have found, that learning this way all the pieces of information quickly form a coherent picture and fit together. Though I have to admit, that this might be my subjective impression and I hope that this beautiful picture is not an artifact of my mind. As to the personal usefulness of this approach, I think, that it provides me with a clear profile as well as an in-depth expertise in my field.

Matthew: Do you not worry that you will find a local minimum and mistake it for the global one? (cf. simulated annealing) It sounds like you have ("this beautiful picture") [I think I meant have worried, not have mistaken!]. In my case, I suspect I chase the goal that appears to be necessary or relevant at the time.

Me: No. My impression is, that the universal knowledge space is rather flat. But what I do worry about, is, whether I will ever come near to my goal and whether this goal is really worth it. Lately I discovered, that the space around my optimum seems to be really flat. Meaning, that I now have the problem, that determining the direction of further research gets difficult. On the other hand, this might mean, that my personal world model (locally centered around my learning-goal) may be rather consistent now. I might try a random walk to break out of this - possibly - local maximum.

You appear to have not factored into the equation a cost-of-switching factor. Where if it was so great an idea it would already be in existence. (which is not to say that it isn't great or worth trying; but perhaps not as great as you expect)

If there is a cost to switching in terms of ego depletion or tiredness or focus or any other number of mental capacity problems, then the strategy to flip will yield bad results. The other model worth pointing out is - its easier to switch one way than the other; i.e. easier to zoom out than in. AKA get into the flow of things.

Where if it was so great an idea it would already be in existence.

I'm optimistic there is low-hanging fruit in this area if Hanson's near/far interpretation is correct. Maybe evolution engineered us for hypocrisy by making mental pathways that let the two modes collaborate hard to stumble upon.

I'd guess that many existing popular self-improvement techniques help the two modes work together more effectively somehow or another.

Anyway, you could always zoom in and understand the impact of switching costs through experimentation ;)

could someone graciously explain the -1 downvote? Thanks. Edit: now 0, unclear as to why

Whether this is a big deal depends on the timescales on which JM4 was thinking of switching.

By my reading he was talking a short (n<30mins) type switch. if he was trying for a 2x daily switch to checkup on each thing; that might work.

It also depends which mode is used for the most time, and which one needs more time.