Sequence index: Living Luminously
Previously in sequence: The ABC's of Luminosity
Next in sequence: The Spotlight

You should pay attention to key mental events, on a regular and frequent basis, because important thoughts can happen very briefly or very occasionally and you need to catch them.

You may find your understanding of this post significantly improved if you read the third story from Seven Shiny Stories.

Luminosity is hard and you are complicated.  You can't meditate on yourself for ten minutes over a smoothie and then announce your self-transparency.  You have to keep working at it over a long period of time, not least because some effects don't work over the short term.  If your affect varies with the seasons, or with major life events, then you'll need to keep up the first phase of work through a full year or a major life event, and it turns out those don't happen every alternate Thursday.  Additionally, you can't cobble together the best quality models from snippets of introspection that are each five seconds long; extended strings of cognition are important, too, and can take quite a long time to unravel fully.

Sadly, looking at what you are thinking inevitably changes it.  With enough introspection, this wouldn't influence your accuracy about your overall self - there's no reason in principle why you couldn't spend all your waking hours noting your own thoughts and forming meta-thoughts in real time - but practically speaking that's not going to happen.  Therefore, some of your data will have to come from memory.  To minimize the error introduction that comes of retrieving things from storage, it's best to arrange to reflect on very recent thoughts.  It may be worth your while to set up an external reminder system to periodically prompt you to look inward, both in the moment and retrospectively over the last brief segment of time.  This can be a specifically purposed system (i.e. set a timer to go off every half hour or so), or you can tie it to convenient promptings from the world as-is, like being asked "What's up?" or "Penny for your thoughts".

When you introspect, there is a lot to keep track of.  For instance, consider the following:

  • What were you thinking about?  (This could be more than one thing.  You are a massively parallel system.)  Was it a concept, image, sensation, desire, belief, person, object, word, place, emotion, plan, memory...?
  • How tightly were you focused on it?  (Is the topic itself narrow or disparate?)  What other items (sensory, cognitive, emotional) seemed to intrude on your concentration, if any, and how did you react to this incursion?
  • How did you feel about the subject of the thought?  This includes not only emotional reactions like "this is depressing" or "yay!", but also what you felt inclined to do about the topic (if anything), and how important or interesting your thought seemed.
  • How does thinking, in general, feel to you?  (I conducted an informal survey of this and got no two answers the same.  Anecdotally, it may be rather key to determining how you are different from others, and so in refining your model of yourself relative to the fairly generic priors we're starting with.)  Coming up with a good way to conceptualize your style of thinking can help you interpret introspective data, although be sure to abandon a metaphor that looks about to snap.  You might have different answers when you're "actively" thinking something through - i.e. when novel information is generated in your mind - and when you're thinking "passively", as when you read or listen to some information and absorb its content as it comes.
  • What memories did the thought dredge up, if any - parallel situations from the past, apparently unrelated anecdotes that floated by for no reason, events where you learned concepts key to the topic of your thought?  Did the thought generate anticipations for the future - a plan, a fear, a hope, an expectation, a worry?
  • What sensory input were you receiving at the time?  Include not only sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste, but also things like temperature, proprioception, and internal symptoms like hunger or nausea.  Can you determine how, if at all, that interacted with the thought?

You cannot have too much data.  (You probably can have too much data in one situation relative to how much you have in another, though - that'll overbalance your models - so make a concerted effort to diversify your times and situations for introspection.)  When you acquire the data, correlate it to learn more about what might bring various aspects of your thought into being.

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The first scientific psychologist on the planet was probably named Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt. He created a laboratory in Leipzig 130 years ago (about 20 years after Darwin published "Origin of Species") to scientifically study in internally accessible elements of mental life, taking into account the physiology of the body. My limited understanding of his methods are that his "experimental subjects" were specialists who were highly trained in (1) something like "luminosity" and (2) a technical vocabulary for talking about their introspection.

This research program seems to have had very little effect on the english speaking world. There were few translations. Some of the early stuff may well have been mistranslations. In later decades this research program may have been the "old paradigm" that behaviorists were reacting against when they were going crazy with claims that their own work was "totally reproducible" by virtue of making no reference whatsoever to "internal states of mind"?

If anyone is inclined to read the classics and make accumulative progress the barriers to entry may be substantial... But if anyone is interested, the place to start might be the autotranslation of the german wikipedia article about Wundt, and then there seem to be a few translated books on Amazon by Wundt including:

  1. An Introduction to Psychology (1912)

  2. A Psychological History Of The Development Of Mankind

  3. Ethics: The Facts of Moral Life

Cross-posted from Seven Shiny Stories

3. Text

Dot reads about an experiment in which the subjects receive phone calls at random times and must tell researchers how happy they feel. Apparently the experiment turned up some really suboptimal patterns of behavior, and Dot's curious about what she'd learn that she could use to improve her life. She gets a friend to arrange delayed text messages to be sent to her phone at intervals supplied by a random number generator, and promises herself that she'll note what she's doing, thinking, and feeling at the moment she receives the text. She soon finds that she doesn't enjoy watching TV as much as she thinks she does; that it's probably worth the time to cook dinner rather than heating up something in the microwave because it's considerably tastier; that she can't really stand her cubicle neighbor; and that she thinks about her ex more than she'd have ever admitted. These thoughts were usually too fleeting to turn into actions; if she tried to remember them hours later, they'd be folded into some large story in which these momentary emotions were secondary. But treating them as notable data points to be taken into account gives them staying power. Dot starts keeping the TV remote under the book she's reading to remind herself what entertainment is more fulfilling. She buys fewer frozen meals and makes sure she's stocked up on staple ingredients. She agrees to swap cubicles with a co-worker down the hall. There's not all that much she can do about the ex, but at least when her friends ask her if everything's okay between them, she can answer more accurately.

How does thinking, in general, feel to you?

When I'm tired, it's like talking in my head. When I'm really productive, it's partly non-verbal; it feels as if I'm dealing directly with concepts. The difference is kind of like putting one foot in front of the other versus walking.


Me too, to all of that. I'm somewhat surprised more people don't say this.

Just realized when thinking about this that I probably go too fast from "what do I observe" to "I ought to be doing something".

I've also noticed a while ago that my self-observation was entangled with "Is what I'm feeling or doing good enough?" Sometimes the answer was yes, but I'm pretty sure observation and evaluation need to be sorted out.

I'm interested in the rest of the sequence, and I voted this one up.

I think one thing that made it sound unattractive is that it's describing a lot of work without anything specific about what you've gained by being more luminous. You mention some achievements in the first post, but not what in particular you found out and how you used it to make positive changes.

I'm intrigued that a lot of the work I've done has been about being more conscious in the present rather than trying to track the origins of thoughts-- I am more conscious in the present than I was, but I may have missed a valuable angle on the work.


How does thinking, in general, feel to you?

Like talking to myself. However, when I'm trying to learn something new, I often imagine myself trying to explain the subject matter to some intelligent stand-in, which I usually imagine is my sister.

Also, when I'm lost in reverie, I usually get a mild feeling of well-being and contentment.

there's no reason in principle why you couldn't spend all your waking hours noting your own thoughts and forming meta-thoughts in real time - but practically speaking that's not going to happen

Someone named Lion Kimbro has apparently done just that. It's impressive work but I'm not sure it's worth the effort, nevertheless I've always kept it in the back of my mind as something possible.

Didn't we try introspection, back around gestalt psychology, and it was a dismal failure?

Why does Alicorn think this time around will be different?

I'd be interested in your unpacking that claim of a trial and failure. I lack the background to know with precision what events you are referring to.

What was tried, what was it aiming to do, in what ways did it fail?

Sigh. I hate being handed the initiative like this; it feels like rope to hang myself with.

My recollection is that the Gestalt psychologists believed that they could gain information through a technique called introspection, but they couldn't. Their results depended fiercely on the dominant theory of the laboratory where they studied.

Unless I am mistaken, behaviorism in psychology was partly a reaction against the failures of introspection, and to some extent cognitive science (e.g. Simon and Newell's Protocol Analysis) was a reaction against excessive behaviorism.

As I understand the current scientific practice, introspection should definitely not be believed. It can be recorded as verbal behavior to be explained, but analyzing the data that you get this way is labor-intensive. So researchers usually use techniques that produce data which is easier to analyze (and get a paper out of). For example, various forms of timing tests like the IAT, or questionnaires with lots of confusion questions, either of which can be put into one of those nice Fisher's ANOVA structures.

My prejudice is that armchair-only techniques have been well explored with only moderate successes, and we should be looking for more physical, external, buildable techniques for rationality.

it feels like rope to hang myself with.

Hey, we're just conversing, not arguing. Or, not arguing yet. };->

It can be recorded as verbal behavior to be explained, but analyzing the data that you get this way is labor-intensive. So researchers usually use techniques that produce data which is easier to analyze (and get a paper out of).

So, if you've got a single subject (yourself), and the goal is not to write a paper but to become more rational (which is labor-intensive anyway), introspection is legitimate?

No. As far as I know, introspection is a good way to convince yourself that you have become more rational, and not a good way to learn things or become more rational.

Someone recently tweeted about "effort shock" - discovering the amount of effort to accomplish something worthwhile, analogous to sticker shock.

Going to school and getting a degree and going into research and writing some bad papers in order to keep your job long enough to write some good papers might be the kind of effort necessary to improve the state of the art in human rationality - though I'd love to hear about faster ways.

Gestalt therapy treated introspection as the best possible way to learn about anything, without considering that conclusions might be flawed. Alicorn's recommending that it be just one data-mining technique among many.

"How does thinking, in general, feel to you?" Do you mean this metaphorically? Can you give some examples of how thinking feels to you?


Thinking, to me, feels like a conversation. For hard problems, the conversation is between two entities, neither of whom is myself, but where one is generally close to myself and the other holds unknown truths. The objective is for the one who is similar to me to ask all the right questions to get the more knowledgeable entity to explain those truths. For easier problems, I talk to myself.

When I do visual thinking, including dreams, it's in the style of a movie, often with drama or action, and sometimes more obvious movie effects. The saddest dream I ever had ended with scrolling credits.

Thinking feels like shaping clockworks out of clay and air, a couple of meters behind my head.

Watching very short films, arranging items in space, sometimes snatches of conversation intrude.

Most of the time it's like talking to myself. When I'm actively analyzing something it's like having a discussion with people who all are me but all taking different stances (and one of them is a joker who can't stop looking at it from a comedian viewpoint).

Hmmm.... thinking feels to me like poking leaves floating down a river.

I really have no idea how to interpret that.

Depends what I'm thinking about.

Sometimes, thinking is talking to myself or to somementalbody else. Sometimes, thinking is floating about somewhere experiencing it mostly visually. Sometimes, thinking is just living the moment. Sometimes, thinking is having mental fun, like rotating cubes in my head. Sometimes, thinking is just self-awareness, 'about' nothing.

When reflecting on it just now, thinking feels like listening to myself speak, with the words but no sound. The more concrete thoughts are at a conversational pace, and some others are in a pace too fast to comfortably speak. This often seems "laid over" a background of an unrelated scene, with dreamlike images flitting about which mildly represent concepts.

Interesting. I thought that my thinking would be mostly words, like inner monologue or talking to myself. Now that I pay attention it is more like images, emotions, concepts constantly flashing through my head, most gone before I even notice them.

Introspectively it seems that my thinking has changed and I just haven't noticed until now. Or that my conscious mind has finally learned to shut up and pay attention.

I can't pin down what thinking feels like. There are a bunch of snippets of sensory experience flying around, some being compared to each other (colliding?), and most being present only briefly before they're sucked away. Analyzing this is extra difficult because I even 10 minutes later, I have almost zero recall of all but the most vivid experiences.

Thinking is like using (at least) one of my senses, but without actualizing the associated physical reality. Right now I can access memories that contain information in audio, visual, tactile and olfactory formats with little effort. I often experience multi-person conversations or music as part of a thought process, but have also known myself to mentally fly around a map, generate pseudocode, mix flavors, sketch an image, or even explore a texture as part of thinking.

...With a little reflection, I find that much of my internal process hinges on something like infographics with little sensory labels, primarily audio but often tactile or even olfactory, but hardly ever actual text. For a complex operation, I seem to zoom in and out on these objects to get the detail/context relationships and see how they interact.

My thinking style has changed twice in my lifetime; I'm going to ramble on about this for a while. I will do a better job of describing me now than when I was younger, because I have a bad memory and it's hard to remember how I used to think.

When I was young (up until the age of 10-12) I just thought in thoughts. I was very quick back then; I could do mental arithmetic and problem solving much faster than I can now, for instance.

Then for just a few years, I started thinking visually. I read all the time during this period; I probably read a ten times as many books in junior high and high school than I have since (I'm 4th year in college). When I remembered something I'd picture the page on the book where I had seen it.

Now I think more verbally. I hear something like a "mental voice". It's very slow compared to either of the others. I think I'm starting to skip my mental dialogue a little lately. I go to lectures and don't read books, which I never would have done in high school. I also am a lot more social; I'm not sure if there's a connection. When I remember something it can be visual or verbal. I also remember things somewhat abstractly sometimes, especially ideas like math. It feels like they're part of me. I'm not sure how long the abstract thing has been going on, it may not be new.

Thinking is like taking a bunch of concepts and jamming them together as one might jam together legos until something fits. I usually do this systematically, as I can feel the first thing that fits is not always the best fit, so I want it organized enough to try everything.


Mostly not like any sensory modality, especially when thinking about relatively simple things. Sometimes talking to myself or to others, or manipulating visuospatialized mathematical structures.


Sometimes talking to myself, sometimes manipulating visualizations (usually heavily mathematical), but mostly not like anything at all, or at least not like any normal sensory modality.

Thinking feels to me like talking to myself.

Thinking feels to me like reading.

Most of my thinking is talking to myself.

Would you allow that "thinking" goes on outside of conscious awareness? Or does the term refer only to deliberative thought?

A lot of my thinking takes the form of internal monologue; talking to myself, or adressing an imaginary audience, or sometimes adressing an actual person who's involved in whatever I'm thinking about. (An interesting aspect is that I almost never imagine being talked back to.) Contrary to Alicorn's observation thinking-as-soliloquy seems pretty common here.

Some of my thinking feels like a smoldering fire, a background process that needs to be given time to run its course, to be tended and protected even though it's invisible, but will eventually break to the surface.

Sometimes my thinking takes the form of actually talking to myself out loud. But this is usually only when something is really bothering me or I have some grandiose or noble plan, which I'm probably procrastinating about or likely to forget (don't tell me that, though). I'm usually driving when I do this.

Sometimes my thinking takes the form of actually talking to myself out loud. But this is usually only when something is really bothering me or I have some grandiose or noble plan, which I'm probably procrastinating about or likely to forget (don't tell me that, though). I'm usually driving when I do this.

All the time my thinking takes the form of talking to myself out loud, to the point where my girlfriend kicks me because I've woken her at 5am again. It tends to take the form of roleplaying situations - at the least, imagining myself explaining something to someone else. I have no plans to stop this behaviour, because it's how I actually get lots of thinking done.

Like you, I find this a useful technique. But I often note when I do this (most often when driving) that the other person in the conversation doesn't do much beyond nod and ask me to clarify further.

The exception is my erstwhile therapist, who when I imagined having conversations with her would ask me questions that forced me to completely rethink what I was saying. I would occasionally relate these conversations to her; she seemed to find them amusing.

Like many others, my thinking is also internal discussions, whether with just one voice or multiple. The interesting thing to me is that while in my mind these 'discussions' feel complete and like regular conversation, when it comes to verbalise them I find quite often there's huge and often unjustifiable gaps and leaps in the thinking. If discussing a problem with a colleague, I'll often find that either the answer is obvious, or often that I need to take more time to come up with a coherent way of explaining it.

I don't do it often enough, but often I try to safeguard against this when coming to conclusions by forcing myself to say them aloud.

So, I'm taking the low karma score of this post as a signal that people are losing interest in the luminosity sequence and I should shut up instead of posting the remainder. Would anyone care to confirm or deny?

Please keep posting anything you've already prepared. I'm just skimming the more recent posts in the series but mostly because I have already spent years on luminosity and have discovered what works for me. (Which is somewhat different from what works for you due to different personality types.) I still find skimming your posts useful because it adds some insights that I hadn't considered and serves and a reminder of others.

I certainly wouldn't discourage you from posting more even if I found them useless. They aren't interfering with anyone else, the act of posting things like this is of huge benefit to the author if not anyone else and I know reading this 10 years ago would have changed my life significantly.

I hope you'll post about your angle on luminosity.

I would be totally thrilled to start a pattern of posting with the tag "luminosity". I'd feel like I'd parented a movement.

This is a good meme, I hope it generates more posts.

I want to see the rest.


I think they were posted too quickly, and other articles are competing for people's limited time. The Recent Posts bar only goes back 4 days right now.

I certainly want to hear everything you have to say on the subject, which is generally a fascinating one. But there's not much to discuss in this particular post - it's a checklist.

I haven't read it yet; the past few days have had more top-level posts than usual, so I've had to put it in my 'read later' queue. Others may have done the same.

So apparently I should not shut up instead of continuing with the sequence. That leaves the score of this post in need of explanation (people haven't read this one yet? this one in particular is inferior to the others? people have a limited number of upvotes they're willing to give to a single sequence and have already used them up?), and if I shouldn't be going by karma in gauging how fast to post, I don't know how I should dole them out. Anybody want to propose a schedule?

One or two a week seems like a temperate pace.

The karma system isn't perfect. Maybe this post did worse because it was made on a weekend? Having said that, I think Robin's suggestion of one or two a week is good.

Alternate hypothesis: people see the sequence as worth a fixed number of post-upvotes (short of 8 per reader).

(As for me, I'm not gaining too much from this sequence, but all the same I'd prefer that you post the full sequence.)

This post does not immediately seem hugely useful to me. I'm waiting for the rest of the sequence to see how it fits in.

No, I find it very interesting. It's very enlightening to hear somebody else's view on introspection. I tend to introspect a lot (sometimes maybe too much). I always had a bit of a double relationship with it as you are never sure about your conclusions about yourself and I dislike uncertainty rather strongly.

However, I can't see another way how know to yourself better. You can use evolutionary psychology & psychological studies but they only provide very broad strokes. You could go to a psychiatrist but there are a lot of different schools to chose from so you are still not sure (and also expensive off course).

I'm curious, are you also planning to write something about doing something with the conclusions reached through introspection ? I never had much problems analyzing myself but don't have a lot of motivation to act upon it.

I wrote a little bit on what to do with your conclusions in "Lampshading".

I am very interested. My brain and I are ships passing in the night as it stands.


I've been too busy lately to give them the attention (I predict) they deserve. I'll probably upvote them when I read them.