Previously, I described human thought-generation as an adversarial process between a low-quality pseudorandom Babble generator and a high-quality Prune filter, roughly analogous to the Generative Adversarial Networks model in machine learning. I then elaborated on this model by reconceptualizing Babble as a random walk with random restarts on an implicitly stored Babble graph.
Rationalist training (and schooling in general) slants towards developing Prune over Babble. I'm trying to solve the dual problem: that of improving the quality of your Babble.
Although the previous posts listed a number of exotic isolation exercises for Babble, I'm guessing nobody was inspired to go out and play more Scrabble, write haikus, or stop using the letter 'e'. That's probably for the best - taking these exercises too seriously would produce exotic but sub-optimal Babble anyway. For a serious solution to this serious problem, we need to understand Prune at a higher resolution.
The main problem with Prune is that it has too many layers. There's a filter for subconscious thoughts to become conscious, another for it to become spoken word, another for the spoken word to be written down, and a further one for the written word to be displayed in public. With this many-layer model in mind, there are plenty of knobs to turn to let more and better Babble through.
The River of Babble
Imagine that your river of Babble at its source, the subconscious: a foaming, ugly-colored river littered with half-formed concepts, too wild to navigate, too dirty to drink from. A quarter mile across, the bellow of the rapids is deafening.
Downstream, you build a series of gates to tame the rushing rapids and perhaps extract something beautiful and pure.
The First Gate, conscious thought, is a huge dam a thousand feet high and holds almost all the incoming thoughts at bay. Behind it, an enormous lake forms, threatening to overflow at any moment. A thick layer of trash floats to the top of this lake, intermixed with a fair amount of the good stuff. The First Gate lets through anything that satisfies a bare minimum of syntactical and semantic constraints. Thoughts that make it past the First Gate are the first ones you become conscious of - that's why they call the output the Stream of Consciousness.
A mile down the Stream of Consciousness is the Second Gate, spoken word, the filter through which thoughts become sounds. This Gate keeps you from saying all the foolish or risqué thoughts tripping through your head. Past the Second Gate, your spoken words form only a pathetic trickle - a Babbling Brook.
By now there is hardly anything left to sift from. The Third Gate, written word, is no physical gate but a team of goldpanners, scattered down the length of the Babbling Brook to pan for jewels and nuggets of gold. Such rare beauties are the only Babble that actually make it onto paper. You hoard these little trinkets in your personal diary or blog, hoping one day to accumulate enough to forge a beautiful necklace.
Past the Third Gate, more Gates lay unused because there simply isn't enough material to fuel them: a whole chain of manufactories passed down from the great writers of yore. Among them are the disembodied voices of Strunk and White:
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Jealously clutching the 500-word pearls you drop once a month on your blog, you dream of the day when the capital comes through and these Gates will be activated to produce your magnum opus, your great American novel. For now, you can't afford to omit a single precious word.
The Gates of Prune
In the model above, there are many problems with Prune independent of having low-quality Babble to begin with. The Gates are working at odds with each other. They are individually too strict. There are simply too many of them. Lots of expensive mental machinery is not working at full capacity, if at all: if you have four Gates but 99% of the goods don't make it through the first one, that novel-writing factory you've built is not paying rent.
Even worse, there's probably two or three layers of subtlety within each of the big Gates I sketched. What you might whisper on a dark night in total solitude is different from what you might utter to a confidante is different from what you might say to your thesis adviser.
If a balanced Babble and Prune game is supposed to involve one Artist against one Critic, then having an overactive Prune is like pitting a pitchfork-wielding mob of Critics against one Artist. The first three Critics tar-and-feather the Artist and the rest are just there for moral support.
The task of relaxing all of Prune at once is monumental. Instead, relax the Gates individually in order. Simultaneously, shorten the psychological distance between them.
Relaxing and Shortening
At the First Gate, conscious thought, noticing is the way to let through more subconscious Babble. Practice noticing thoughts and sensations (not just confusion) that you never pay attention to. Much of meditation is devoted to relaxing this first Prune filter. Much of art is devoted to the motto: make the familiar strange, where strange is better translated as salient.
Another exercise along similar lines is zooming in on anything, anything at all. Pick up and stare at the whorls and aphids running down that twig on your driveway. Take apart that broken old Canon in the attic. Dissect your aversions toward attending Algebraic Geometry.
At the Second Gate, spoken word, the trick is getting comfortable with vocalizing more of your Stream of Consciousness. I mentioned before that my internal process is very verbal - on reflection I think that whole post is about the maturation of my Prune filter to allow more Babble through. Several features stand out.
One of these features is that I directly mouth or whisper any thoughts that appear in my Stream of Consciousness. Psychologically, this shortens the distance between the First Gate and the Second Gate: it becomes a question of how loud to speak rather than whether or not to speak at all. There's no reason not to be constantly mouthing the things you're thinking, at least when you're alone. Similarly, when lost in thought I make micro-gestures with my fingers to imitate the emphatic ones I would make to convey that point in conversation. These tricks exploit the fact that the psychological distance between 1% and 100% is much shorter than that between 0% and 100%.
Another feature of my internal process is that I always have a mental audience: a silent judgmental muse, the personification of the Critic. In HPMOR, Harry has a supersized version of this: a whole cast of colorful mental characters that carry out full-length conversations with each other. This kind of dissociation-into-subpersonalities exercise has a whole of great side effects, but the relevant one for us is that it again shortens the mental gap between the First and Second Gate by making thinking feel like conversation.
Onwards to the Third Gate: the written word. Thankfully, modern technology has already radically shortened the distance between the Second and Third Gates for us with the invention of the blog, a medium much more free-form and personal than the book. Your training as a writer has probably erected a tall Third Gate, and successful bloggers have pretty much circumvented it.
What distinguishes blogging from formal writing? One metric is the frequency with which the blogger breaks the Fourth Wall - that poor Wall which is only mentioned when it is broken. Having torn down the Fourth Wall, blogging reduces naturally to a heated and cogent form of conversation, filled with rhetorical questions and injunctions.
Hey, look here, I'm not saying there's no place whatsoever in writing for formality. But if you're going to build a wall and call it the Fourth Wall, build it after the Third Gate, you know?
- Keith Johnstone, Impro
(bolding emphasis mine)
I teach a class on Creative Focusing, and it's basically an exercise in lowering the Gates.
The feeling I get is one of knowingly jumping off a cliff into the unknown. I call this "Surrendering to the unknown."
I open my mouth and let my gut generate poetry in real-time, on the fly.
There's still often some Pruning active, but I can move closer or further from the edge—like releasing the water more quickly or slowly, in your metaphor. It's a dial I can tune.
It is a bit similar to putting on masks, as written about in Impro. Also similar to blending in IFS.
Yes, one of the really cool realizations I made trying to write daily, and from tracking my dreams, is that my brain is constantly coming up with imagery and action and comedy in the background and I can learn to access that. I don't have to worry about the river drying up, which was one of my top worries once upon a time.
+1 to impro
You are using interesting symbols that also happen to be the same symbols used by humanity in mythological structures as found in cultures all around the world. There are some great points but I would like to bring up the possibility that you are exhibiting some biases stemming from your current perception of the world. In your words:
The image of water or 'the deep' is universally used in mythology and one of its traditional meanings is the 'unknown' which of course coincides here with the subconscious. Notice that you are painting a picture of it being ugly-colored, littered, half-formed etc. A more useful approach would be to see it, for example, as deeper, less differentiated, ancient and thus shaped by evolutionary time, hiding treasures within dangers etc.
In the same manner you can start understanding in more depth the emerging symbol of the stream. As a rationalist you tend to idealise this part of the metaphor but you need to balance your assessment. Of course it can be seen as a kind of purification but it can also be seen as something that dries out if not kept in connection to the sea or of course littered. There are so many symbolic threads that have been explored deeply in organically evolved mythological structures.
I am barely scratching the surface here but I hope you will find this comment useful.
I'm very much interested in these mythological structures - thank you for adding some depth to the metaphors. One of the big projects the rationalist community is already working on (it seems to me) is the rebuilding from scratch of mythology for the modern era, and hopefully these posts can be a small part of that. It seems that this kind of rebirth and refreshing is necessary as our environment shifts and our understanding grows crisper, but perhaps it would benefit from more dialogue with classical ideas.
In my internal experience, there are multiple sources of babble. A thousand artists crying out at once.
I suspect a lot of neural machinery is at work here, and that the babbler, like the gates, is secretly many many voices speaking in semi-unison. This goes beyond the usual "classifying emotions" and/or "splitting one's thoughts into subpersonas". The implication is that each individual voice within the babble-stream can be enhanced, just like each individual gate can be isolated.
This is intriguing. I want to give it a try sometime. I like the way you set it up. This recommendation naturally follows from the model of the multiple dams, or the multiple tar-and-featherers.
I suspect this mischaracterizes a fair amount of rationality training. I would want to know what you are concretely referring to.
Public school: I recall kindergarten and elementary school encouraged babbling. My recollection is hazy. Your experience may vary.
Them be fighting words (book lover here). This point of contention is unimportant to your thesis.
I like the overall arc, and the metaphor of the river and gates. This accurately captures my thinking processes. The important feature of the metaphor for me: the "river" is large, big, and held back. It gives me glee to think of my babble in that fashion, accurate or not. I enjoy the implication that babble flows freely (uncontrollably?) absent the Three Gates.
Regarding rationalist training, I'm referring to the category of error containing Knowing about Biases can Hurt People and the "Rationalist Uncanny Valley", i.e. that an incomplete random sample of the Sequences will leave the reader with mostly just a toolkit of biases and fallacies to throw at people in debate team, and worse, themselves. This roughly translates to building more logic Gates in your own Prune. I think a substantial majority of rationalist training is this kind of Prune exercise, although there's definitely confirmation bias (see what I mean? That thought almost made me delete the last sentence) going on. Curious to hear the examples of rationalist training encouraging Babble you have in mind.
I'm mostly thinking of: conversations I've had with Rationalists in Berkeley. They encouraged me to do some exercises involving free-association and idea generation. For example coming up with a list of twenty plants as quickly as possible. Or saying 5 words that I do not mentally associate with each other. Improv-style exercises (perhaps excellent method of training some types of babble).
I see where you are coming from. I agree with your comment w.r.t. what you are pointing at :).