Sequence index: Living Luminously
Previously in sequence: Lights, Camera, Action
Next in sequence: Highlights and Shadows

Inspecting thoughts is easier and more accurate if they aren't in your head.  Look at them in another form from the outside, like they belonged to someone else.

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

One problem with introspection is that the conclusions you draw about your thoughts are themselves thoughts.  Thoughts, of course, can change or disappear before you can extract information about yourself from them.  If a flash of unreasonable anger crosses my mind, this might stick around long enough to make me lash out, but then vanish before I discover how unreasonable it was.  If thoughts weren't slippery like this, luminosity wouldn't be much of a project.  So of course, if you're serious about luminosity, you need a way to pin down your thoughts into a concrete format that will hold still.

You have to pry your thoughts out of your brain.

Writing is the obvious way to do this - for me, anyway.  You don't have to publicize what you extract, so it doesn't have to be aesthetic or skillful, just serviceable for your own reference.  The key is to get it down in a form that you can look at without having to continue to introspect.  Whether this means sketching or scribing or singing, dump your brain out into the environment and have a peek.  It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that a given idea makes sense; it's harder to fool someone else.  Writing down an idea automatically engages the mechanisms we use to communicate to others, helping you hold your self-analysis to a higher standard.

To turn your thoughts into non-thoughts, use labels to represent them.  Put them in reference classes, so that you can notice when the same quale, habit of inference, or thread of cognition repeats. That way, you can detect patterns: "Hey, the last time I felt like this, I said something I really regretted; I'd better watch it."  If you can tell when something has happened twice, you can tell when it hasn't - and new moods or dispositions are potentially very important.  They mean that you or something around you has changed, and that could be a valuable resource or a tricky hazard.

Your labels can map onto traditional terms or not - if you want to call the feeling of having just dropped your ice cream on the sidewalk "blortrath", no one will stop you.  (It can be useful, later when you're trying to share your conclusions about yourself with others, to have a vocabulary of emotion that overlaps significantly with theirs; but you can always set up an idiolect-to-dialect dictionary later.)  I do recommend identifying labeled items as being more or less similar to each other (e.g. annoyance is more like fury than it is like glee) and having a way to account for that in your symbolism.  Similarities like that will make it more obvious how you can generalize strategies from one thing to another.

Especially if you don't think in words, you might find it challenging to turn your thoughts into something in the world that represents them.  Maybe, for instance, you think in pictures but aren't at all good at drawing.  This is one of the steps in luminosity that I think is potentially dispensible, so if you honestly cannot think of any way to jot down the dance of your mind for later inspection, you can just work on thinking very carefully such that if something were to be out of place the next time you came back to your thought, you'd notice it.  I do recommend spending at least five to ten minutes trying to write, diagram, draw, mutter, or interpretive-dance your mental activity before you give it up as untenable for you, however.

Once you have produced a visible or audible translation of your thoughts, analyze it the way you would if someone else had written it.  (Except inasmuch as it's in a code that's uniquely understandable to you and you shouldn't pretend to do cryptanalysis on it.)  What would you think of the person described if you didn't know anything else?  How would you explain these thoughts?  What threads of reasoning seem to run in the background from one belief to another, or from a perception to a belief, or from a desire to an intention?  What do you expect this person to do next?  What's your next best guess after that?  And: what more do you want to know?  If you met the person described, how could you satisfy your curiosity without relying on the bias-laden answer you'd get in response to a verbal inquiry?  Try it now - in a comment under this post, if you like: note what you're thinking, as much of it as you can grab and get down.  Turn on the anti-kibitzer and pretend someone else said it: what must be going on in the mind behind this writing?

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The Play: It's Too Dark In Here

The Players:

The Scene:

The curtain opens on a ground level apartment stocked with books and computers. The room is dimly lit by a small lamp and the glow of monitors, revealing a large desk. Rain sits at the desk, rocking.

Omega, along with a table holding two boxes, appears behind Rain with an audible poof.


Omega: Hello, Rain. I am Omega. I have before me two boxes, A and B..

Rain: Wait, wait.. you're the Omega? The superintelligent predictor who knows everything and never lies and all that?

Omega: Yes, I'm that Omega. Now, as I was saying, I have before me..

Rain: Honestly, I'm not all that interested in Newcomb's problem, but I would like to ask you some questions, if that's okay?

Omega: Okay. Shoot.

Rain: What should I value? What's the universal, terminal value which all intelligent beings should follow?

Omega: I'm sorry, I don't know of any universal, terminal value.

Rain: What? But I've set my personal, terminal value to "universal, terminal values (even though I don't know what they are yet)."

Omega: I would suggest picking something else. There aren't any universal, terminal values. Are you sure you don't want to pick a box..?

Rain: But if my terminal value is universal value, and.. and you're telling me that the set of universal values is an empty or null set.. my value is a null set.. so how could you put utilons in a box for me?

Omega: I can put utilons in the box using your implicit values, rather than following your lack of explicit values. You may feel and think your value set is empty, but I can still pick something to put in there because you still have values, even if you haven't named them.

Rain: But if it's not what I think and feel that I value, this proper, universal thing, then wouldn't it be some kind of primal, vestigial, evolution-formed, arbitrary, irrational value?

Omega: Why would it be irrational? You've already got all those values. You could pick something from the list and make it explicit, name it and make it your own, but you've chosen not to do that, and you have to live with the consequences. I'd really suggest one-boxing, by the way. You could use a pick-me-up.

Rain: But if I should follow my intuition, if I should trust the values I've been given, the values I feel, then.. why did I choose universal value to be the thing I trust and value above all others? Why did I choose an empty set? Is my intuition broken?

Omega: Look, I'll tell you what's in the box.. it's a brand new laptop! Still wrapped! You love setting up new computers.

Rain: ...and if my intuition is broken, how do I fix it? Once I've cast my value into the void, how do I get it back?

Omega: I don't know, if I knew that I'd..

Rain: Hey! You're not really Omega at all, are you?


The Analysis:

Rain has likely read the metaethics sequence. I think they understood most of it, though they found it hard to apply. It's not exactly their fault, of course. Ethics, morality, value.. this is hard stuff -- it's been debated for millenia. It doesn't help that there are so many answers, none of them quite satisfactory.

But sitting around in a holding pattern doesn't do much good, either. Once they cast their value into the void, they left themselves empty. Something needs to fill them up: they need value to survive and thrive. It doesn't seem they're willing to follow explicitly stated values, though. Why write a play about the problem after they've already recognized other options? Can they really hold onto this "universal" nonsense, knowing, intellectually, the futility of it, and after realizing they do have values which are easier to obtain?

"Universal" must have a strong hold on them; it'd be so much simpler, and so much easier, if there were some kind of Written Law to follow. Not this messy business of thinking, evaluating, and acting subjectively, based on individual understanding. Is it just laziness, then? Akrasia? But they've certainly put a lot of thought and effort into the problem, making that unlikely.

Maybe depression. Ah, that could be the answer. They feel empty, and they think that's what they value, this emptiness, when it's actually some kind of mental infestation. They did have a good question, though.. how to fix it? They don't seem responsive to offers of help. Maybe introspection could bring light to the void?

At the very least, it might be an interesting read.


Time spent writing this post: several hours over a period of weeks. Time spent thinking on this topic: years.

I'd like to especially thank byrnema for providing inspiration and impetus to consolidate my thoughts. Their comments regarding value were very useful to me. I'd also like to thank Alicorn for providing the perfect location and topic to respond to.

analyze it the way you would if someone else had written it

Personal experience suggests this is freakishly hard without a lot of practice, which can mostly be obtained by writing up your introspection for public consumption and getting good, honest feedback. This typically results in improved writing skill. (I can't say for sure it directly results in introspective skill if you're not doing it primarily with that purpose in mind.)

I'd be genuinely curious to know, did that come easy for you before you started writing for an audience?

I'll hazard one reason why the later posts in your sequence are maybe not having as much success as you were expecting: as I see it, you're failing to follow through on an implicit promise made by the introductory post, which stated "I've made it a project to increase my luminosity as much as possible", implying that you would be recounting personal experience with these various tools.

The Grue post had some personal insights, such as that you hate surprises. Let There Be Light had some tips from personal experience. The ABCs had none, and used mostly the "you" form for introducing examples. It's something of a paradox for a sequence on luminosity to disclose so little about yourself.

I have actually not included any insights about myself that came as a result of my luminosity project. My hatred of surprises, for instance, was manifestly obvious; only the exact mental background, which I did not publicly disclose in the post, was dug up when I started introspecting seriously. The trouble with including personal disclosure is that it would feel uncomfortably like bragging to advertise things I like about myself; meanwhile, things I don't like about myself tend to be obsolete by the time I've properly understood them because I can fix them, and the ones I can't or haven't fixed yet wouldn't be very good advertising ("I discovered I have the following nasty trait which is still there, and you can too!").

In the interest of disclosure, I will brag some:

  • I have raised my happiness set point. This requires some maintenance work, but at a "neutral" time now I am happier than I was at a "neutral" time five years ago.

  • When I identify a mood as being non-endorsed, decidedly useless, and unpleasant, I can often simply get rid of it. This takes a few moments now, although if I leave them to fester too long it can require a night's sleep.

  • I can, with some concerted effort, enforce my desire to like certain people (whether this be for comfort reasons, i.e. I'll have to be around them a lot, or for practical reasons, i.e. it would be instrumental to befriend them). This is more difficult with some people than others but I have yet to try very hard to like someone without being able to sincerely do it.

So, this comment looks kinda popular. What do people think of my writing a sequence followup with a more detailed look at the above "success stories" from my own project? I'm skeptical of it being very instrumentally useful, since I think lots of it is idiosyncratic, but if it'd be useful to present myself as a toy example for people to anchor the ideas to, I'm willing.

I think it would be interesting, regardless of whether it's useful. I'd also like to hear about some non-success stories. It's good to know what to avoid or the limits of one's tools as well.

In re posting about your process of gaining and using luminosity: I think it would be useful and/or interesting to see how you work on a problem while it's still a problem. There may be details of what you were thinking which get smoothed out when a problem is solved.

And as for appearing to be boasting, I should hope that in this crowd, the truth is its own defense.


That didn't strike me as bragging at all! I responded to it emotionally as if it were an assurance that I, too, can improve myself in these ways.

I can't guarantee that I'd respond the same way if your top-level posts contained such advertisements. Perhaps reading it in a comment makes it automatically okay.

I can, with some concerted effort, enforce my desire to like certain people (whether this be for comfort reasons, i.e. I'll have to be around them a lot, or for practical reasons, i.e. it would be instrumental to befriend them). This is more difficult with some people than others but I have yet to try very hard to like someone without being able to sincerely do it.

I have been able to do this for a number of years. Most people don't seem to realize how useful it is to be in control of who you like/dislike. Disliking someone is uncomfortable and it generally doesn't help. Congratulations on teaching yourself to do this; I expect it's difficult when it doesn't already come naturally.

If you didn't see it already, I wrote a whole post about that.

I went and tracked down the link after I made this comment. I'm not sure if I use the same strategy as you...a lot of the time, I don't really need to. I'm not easily annoyed, and my annoyance set-point is pretty malleable if I want it to be. Generally the way I go about liking someone is by having at least one in-depth conversation with them, whether about science or politics or their romantic life or drama at work. Once I convince myself that they're not a shallow, robotic automaton after all, once I can convince myself that they're like me, it feels natural to empathize rather than judge when they do something annoying... But like I said, this has come fairly easily to me. (Not to say that I don't ever feel annoyed at people, or complain about them to friends and family. I do, more than I should. But when I'm actually in the room with them, I can almost always get along civilly and even enjoy myself.)

analyze it the way you would if someone else had written it

Personal experience suggests this is freakishly hard

A few weeks' delay usually helps.

Cross-posted from Seven Shiny Stories

4. Typing

George is trying to figure out who he is. He's trying really hard. But when he tries to explain his behaviors and thoughts in terms of larger patterns that could answer the question, they inevitably sound suspiciously revisionist and self-serving, like he's conveniently forgetting some parts and artificially inflating others. He thinks he's generous, fun at parties, a great family man, loyal, easygoing. George decides that what he needs to do is catch what he's thinking at the moment he's thinking it, honestly and irrevocably, so he'll have an uncorrupted data set to work with. He fires up a word processor and starts typing, stream of consciousness. For a few paragraphs, it's mostly "here I am, writing what I think" and "this is kind of dumb, I wonder if anything will come of it", but eventually that gets old, and content starts to come out. Soon George has a few minutes of inner monologue written down. He writes the congratulatory things he thinks about himself, but also notes in parentheses the times he's acted contrary to these nice patterns (he took three helpings of cake that one time when there were fewer slices than guests, he spent half of the office celebration on his cellphone instead of participating, he missed his daughter's last birthday, he dropped a friend over a sports rivalry, he blew up when a co-worker reminded him one too many times to finish that spreadsheet). George writes the bad habits and vices he demonstrates, too. Most importantly, he resists the urge to hit backspace, although he freely contradicts himself if there's something he wants to correct. Then he saves the document, squirrels it away in a folder, and waits a week. The following Tuesday, he goes over it like a stranger had written it and notes what he'd think of this stranger, and what he'd advise him to do.

Sure, let's try.

okay, writing down my thoughts. seems easy enough. reminds me of this exercise where we needed to write down our thoughts without thinking about it and i was mad because I kept thinking private thoughts and writing "can't write this" but in a very pleasing way and i liked being liked and that's a pattern which characterizes me well and i stopped- why? to catch my breath. not to think about the next sentence? are you sure? I put a lot of importance on writing down clearly and smartly I want readers to feel how smart I am, I want to be appreciated, I need to be appreciated, I am appreciated but still not enough yet. private thoughts again. girls. I hate how "boy thinks private thoughts about girls" tends to be interpreted as sex thoughts by default.

Wow. "This person" seems to care a hell of a lot more about the opinion of others than I thought I did. Among my friends, I am known as the clown, the person who will readily wear the hat of ridicule if the situation arises. It seems like this might be a front after all. I need to find a way to confirm this.

I will definitely perform this exercise again in the future. It was easy to perform, and the results surprised me, so in terms of information, I had a very high return on investment. Thanks, Alicorn!

I feel relaxed in a very sublime, restful, restless, tired way. the glass of water in front of me helps. It also feels very uncomfortable to be writing this as a public comment. I am uneasy and restful at the same time, but I think it's fluctuating sort of depending on what my current focus of writing is, and my mood has a little constructive anxietish when I intend to type something new. I still feel that restful relaxed tiredness. I love it, even though stating this publicly makes me uncomfortable.

Something I've noticed in this vein over the years is that the results of this sort of exercise depend on the output mode I'm using.

That is, I come out with different things when I'm writing a stream-of-consciousness journal entry than when I'm free-associating in speech than when I'm building a nodemap than when I'm writing fiction than when I'm writing poetry, all of which tell me different things about what's going on in my head when I look at them.

Not mutually exclusive, or anything, just different... written SoC has more internal coherence than spoken, for example; I am more likely to stay with one subject for longer. Poetry does better at exploring connections that don't make any sense to me... that is, it makes me realize that thing A is associated in my head with thing B, even when there doesn't seem to be any content or structure to that association.

So often, when one mode isn't getting me anywhere, I will switch modes -- in particular, I will often switch to poetry when I'm struggling with thoughts that I seem to be actively skipping over. And sometimes I'll just switch modes out of curiosity.

Also, different modes sometimes dovetail... I'll come out with things in one mode that surprise me, and then work them through in a different mode.

OTOH, some modes just don't mean anything to me at all. I like to draw, and I can sit down and let images just come out of my pencil, but the results fail to communicate anything to me about my own head. It seems likely that there's some information there, but I haven't been able to translate it.

Ditto for music, for example (though I have no actual skill there).

The key is to get it down in a form that you can look at without having to continue to introspect.

Korzybski puts it as turning the dynamic process of thinking into a static object that can then be interrogated.

Once you have produced a visible or audible translation of your thoughts, analyze it the way you would if someone else had written it.

I've thought of that as the benefits of multiple personality disorder. Taking on another persona to do some thinking is helpful. Isn't there a metaphor of "wearing hats" for the same thing thing around here?

The kind of self-observation you're recommending is also a sort of thought, and I think the intent to get accurate information and the emotional neutrality-to-compassion range needed make useful changes in themselves.

That you're intending to actively use luminosity as a tool to improve your life presumably also flavors the process.


So, in other words, try to think about yourself as though you were a character in a play?

Specifically, try to think about yourself as though you are a character in a play on whom you are to write an essay with lots of supporting evidence.

Unfortunately, pretending that a thought or action came from someone else will probably not allow you to analyze it from a neutral perspective because it was still recorded from a biased perspective. It's like how people can be encouraged to cheer for the protagonist in a novel or movie without evidence that they are doing something worth doing. Looking at thoughts from an outside view might make luminosity easier, but not easy.

It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that a given idea makes sense; it's harder to fool someone else. Writing down an idea automatically engages the mechanisms we use to communicate to others, helping you hold your self-analysis to a higher standard.

I have definitely seen the benefits of dumping out my thoughts to look at them but I have a problem with the part of the process: if I'm writing down my thoughts, I feel Iike I need to choose an audience that I'm writing for, which brings about this weird dichotomy between ... "arrogance" and ... confidentiality?

If I'm writing for myself, then my writing won't make any sense to other people. Like, I'll write "but then I saw that the blue civic was there, so I decided to not leave my apartment that whole evening." This makes perfect sense to me because the significance of the blue civic is pretty accessible in my memory right now. But another person reading it won't be able to follow the causal links. So instead I can write in a way that another person would understand. But then I just start feeling weird explaining something that I don't need an explanation for and other people aren't going to see it and might not even care about it if they did and etc etc. (Like people with personal blogs -- why do they assume they have readers?) Or is it a good idea to unpack those weird causal things that are non-obvious to other people each time I encounter them?

But also, writing for yourself -- with the assumption that no one is going to see your writing -- brings up the issue of being too open? Like, if I'm writing for myself and I have weird, sketchy thoughts about my friend that I want to document, I'm going to write "Joe" because I think of that person as Joe. But if Joe ever finds my writing, he might be horribly upset to find out that I think something bad about him that I haven't talked to him directly about, etc. Confidentiality! So I need to censor names. But then I'm already no longer writing for myself, but writing for an audience that I'm trying to hide information from. Which brings up all those other audience-related considerations.

I suppose I have some issues. =P

Help! How should I write things?

Separate your problems. If you need to keep your nasty thoughts about Joe private, find ways to keep things private: an easy-ish way is to type your thoughts and put them on an encrypted flash drive. Or write them as emails to yourself in an email account set aside for that purpose. Joe's not going to hack into your computer (I hope, and if he is you should be calling the police not reading LessWrong), so security-through-obscurity is more than enough.

I'm thinking about why I care about why I care about what I'm thinking, and I'm realizing that I have other things that I need to do, and that realization is not helping me get past this moment.