Previously in sequence/sequence index: Living Luminously
Next in sequence: Let There Be Light

Luminosity is fun, useful to others, and important in self-improvement.  You should learn about it with this sequence.

Luminosity?  Pah!  Who needs it?

It's a legitimate question.  The typical human gets through life with astonishingly little introspection, much less careful, accurate introspection.  Our models of ourselves are sometimes even worse than our models of each other - we have more data, but also more biases loading up our reflection with noise.  Most of the time, most people act on their emotions and beliefs directly, without the interposition of self-aware deliberation.  And this doesn't usually seem to get anyone maimed or killed - when was the last time a gravestone read "Here Lies Our Dear Taylor, Who Might Be Alive Today With More Internal Clarity About The Nature Of Memory Retrieval"?  Nonsense.  If Taylor needs to remember something, it'll present itself, or not, and if there's a chronic problem with the latter then Taylor can export memories to the environment.  Figuring out how the memories are stored in the first place and tweaking that is not high on the to-do list.

Still, I think it's worth investing considerable time and effort into improving your luminosity.  I submit three reasons why this is so.

First, you are a fascinating creature.  It's just plain fun and rewarding to delve into your own mind.  People in general are among the most complex, intriguing things in the world.  You're no less so.  You have lived a fair number of observer-moments.  Starting with a native architecture that is pretty special all by itself, you've accumulated a complex set of filters by which you interpret your input - remembered past, experienced present, and anticipated future.  You like things; you want things; you believe things; you expect things; you feel things.  There's a lot of stuff rolled up and tucked into the fissures of your brain.  Wouldn't you like to know what it is?  Particularly because it's you.  Many people find themselves to be their favorite topics.  Are you an exception?  (There's one way to find out...)

Second, an accurate model of yourself can help you help others deal with you in the best possible way.  Right now, they're probably using kludgey agglomerations of self-projection, stereotype, and automatically generated guesses that they may not bother to update as they learn more about you.  I'm assuming you don't surround yourself with hostile people who would use accurate data about you to hurt and manipulate you, but if you do, certainly be judicious with whatever information your quest for luminosity supplies.  As for everyone else, their having a better model of you will avoid a lot of headaches on everyone's parts.  I'll present myself as an example: I hate surprises.  Knowing this, and being able to tell a complete and credible story about how this works, I can explain to people who might wish to exchange gifts why they should not spring unknown wrapped items on me, and avoid that source of irritation.  Most of the people around me choose not to take actions that they know will irritate me; but without a detailed explanation of exactly how my preferences are uncommon, they'll all too easily revert to their base model of a generic person.

Third, and most germane to the remaining posts in this sequence: with a better picture of who you are and what your brain is up to, you can find the best low-hanging fruit in terms of hacks to change yourself.  If you keep going from point A to point Z, but know nothing about the route in between, then the only way you can avoid a disliked Z is to try to come to a screeching halt right before it happens.  If you could monitor the process from the start, and determine what pattern your mind follows along the alphabet, you might find that you can easily intervene at G or Q, and never have to deal with Z again.  Similarly, if you try to go from alpha to omega but tend not to wind up at omega, how are you ever going to determine where your obstructions lie unless you pay attention to something other than the bare fact of non-omega?  There could be some trivial omicron-related problem that you'd fix in a heartbeat if only you knew it was getting in the way.  Additionally, your faulty models of yourself are already changing you through such miraculous means as cognitive dissonance.  Unless you find out how it's doing that, you lose the chance to monitor and control the process.

An analogy: You're waiting to be picked up at the airport.  The designated time comes and goes, and you're sitting by the baggage claim with your suitcases at your feet, your eyes on your watch, and a frown on your face.  The person was supposed to pick you up at the airport, and isn't there!  A clear failure has occurred!  But if you phone the person and start screaming "The airport, you fool!  I'm at the airport!  Why aren't you?" then this will tend not to improve things unless the person never left in the first place out of forgetfulness.  If they're stuck in traffic, or were sent out of their way by road construction, or have gotten hopelessly lost, or have been identified by the jackbooted thugs that keep watch at the airport parking lot as a terrorist, reiterating that you had this particular goal in mind won't help.  And unless you find out what is keeping them, you can't help.  You have to know where they are to tell them what detours to take to avoid rush hour; you have to know what diversions were introduced to tell them how to rejoin their planned route; you have to know what landmarks they can see to know where they've gone missing to; you have to know whether to go make Bambi eyes at the security guards and plead misunderstanding.  Without rather specific, sensitive data about what's gone wrong, you can't make it right.

In the next posts of this sequence, I'm going to illustrate some methods that have helped me learn more about myself and change what I don't like.  With luck, they'll assist you on the project that I've just attempted to convince you to want to undertake.

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From the introductory post:

I have some reason to believe that I am substantially more luminous than average, because I can ask people what seem to me to be perfectly easy questions about what they're thinking and find them unable to answer.

Based on this idea, could you write some kind of luminosity diagnostic? It seems like people would be more likely to want to change if they knew what they're missing (I know I would).

You mean a list of questions such that, if you can answer them easily, you're probably pretty luminous? Possibly. I'll think about it.


Did you come up with anything?

No, but now that you've reminded me, here are a few possibilities - things that, when I go through a chain of reasoning about them and find answers, make me feel particularly successfully luminous and lead to useful results:

  • What changes could be made to this situation I dislike that would make it totally okay? (Partial points if you can come up with mitigating factors that don't completely fix it, but not too many points.)

  • How do I feel about $PERSON? Why do I choose to spend time around $PERSON? Is that a good reason?

  • Am I in some sort of unusual mood, right now? Was I when I took $ACTION? Where did it come from? Can I induce it or banish it on purpose?

  • Am I likely to do this thing I (intend/agreed/plan/want) to do? If not, what would make me likely to do it?

Hmm, someone ought to create an LQ test, and/or a Luminometer app based on questions like that.



Here's a good one: Why do you procrastinate?

The more correct answer is normally hidden by cognitive dissonance or just difficult to discover for inexperienced introspecters.

I think that most people procrastinate for more than one reason. A better question would be "Choose something that you often procrastinate on. Why do you procrastinate on that?"

Or, better (though less generalizable until you've answered it several times), 'why did you procrastinate on this particular occasion?' The thing that I'm procrastinating on is only the reason for the procrastination sometimes, at least for me. It's more common for the procrastination to be caused by the presence of a compelling distraction, or by trying to do the work without the right kind of lead-up or preparation (which is not reliably a function of the type of work; it's more closely related to other aspects of my life).

Asking the right questions is important, and the most common ones aren't reliably right.

(aware that this is 2 years late, just decided to post) I find that I work, on average,somewhere between 2-3 times as fast when I am right up next to a deadline,than when I have plenty of time.

tl;dr: Why study yourself? Because

  1. You're interesting because you're complicated and you're you.
  2. You can convincingly ask people to adjust how they deal with you to your peculiarities.
  3. You can learn how to improve yourself and thus accomplish your goals.

Fair summary?

Would you say that improved self awareness can help you accomplish your goals directly, without the self-modification discussed in reason #3? Something like: learn more about what makes you happy, then do that stuff. This seems like a bigger payoff than #2 to me, worthy of inclusion in any sales pitch for self-study.

Yes, the summary is fair.

Luminosity can be useful for discerning what makes you happy and then doing that stuff, but failure to do that seems to be more often a case of akrasia rather than identification. Fixing akrasia is a self-improvement problem.


Furthermore, learning about the different subselves that you might have (e.g. near/far, remembering/experiencing) and finding good deals between them might be worthwhile.

You appear to be claiming that introspection is: a good route to self-knowledge / better understanding ones mental processes; an effective way to develop a more accurate model of your own behaviour and a good (possibly the best?) source of information to guide effective attempts at self improvement or self modification.

These are all highly controversial claims in psychology and the balance of evidence I've seen leads me to conclude that it is likely that introspection is not a good route to self-knowledge and that it is a poor basis for attempts at self improvement. I've seen a compelling case made that the best way to understand ones own behaviour is to attempt to observe yourself 'from the outside' rather than relying on introspection - you will form a more accurate model attempting to ignore data that derives from introspection and instead judging yourself the way you would judge others based on externally visible actions.

Will you be addressing the standard criticisms of introspection as a source of knowledge as part of this sequence or are you assuming it for the purposes of this sequence? I'm interested to see how the sequence unfolds but I'm concerned that you don't seem to be addressing the controversial status of introspection as a valid source of knowledge.

Pure, naïve introspection is notoriously unreliable, and I'm aware of that. I think you'll be pleased with the supplements thereunto I recommend.

I look forward to the rest of the sequence then.

I like this post, but it feels like it's missing something to motivate the clever title. You didn't seem to identify a "grue" (presumably, some horrible consequence from not being luminous), which doesn't seem terribly difficult to do in this case. Perhaps it doesn't belong in this post, but surely the title demands one.

Also, is "luminous" a modifier for beliefs, people, or both? Should there be two different words? Did I miss that discussion along the way?


The title seemed obvious to me: lacking luminosity you lack light, and, as the immortal text adventure Zork so memorably told us, when...

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

The implication is pretty clearly that you ought to pay attention to this problem.


So, for those of us who haven't tasted the exquisite pleasures of text adventure games, what is the context of the quote?


You are walking around without a light source. Unless you change that you are (in actuality) likely to be eaten by a grue. What exactly a grue is is (at least in some versions?) unspecified.

is "luminous" a modifier for beliefs, people, or both?

Both - it's just easier that way. A luminous person has lots of luminous brain-items (not necessarily just beliefs); a luminous brain-item is known to the person who has it, even if they're not generally very luminous.

I like this post, but it feels like it's missing something to motivate the clever title.

It feels like the title could have been saved for a follow up post. Such a waste!

It's a funny, though in retrospect unsurprising, coincidence that you're using a light-related metaphor. For a while, I was intending to write about "phenomenal transparency", especially as used by Thomas Metzinger. He quotes an early paper by the philosopher G.E. Moore, who spoke of the fact that while we can see e.g. the color blue, we cannot see what it is that makes it blue.

And in general, that which makes the sensation of blue a mental fact seems to escape us; it seems, if I may use a metaphor, to be transparent - we look through it and see nothing but the blue; we may be convinced that there is something, but what it is no philosopher, I think, has yet clearly recognized.

Metzinger notes that the most philosophers now use "transparency" to mean that the "content properties" of our mental states are available for introspection, but not their "vehicle properties". However, he finds this definition unsatisfactory and offers his own:

Transparency in this sense is a property of active mental representations already satisfying the minimally sufficient constraints for conscious experience to occur. [...] The second defining characteristic postulates that what makes them transparent is attentional unavailability of earlier processing stages for introspection. [...] What is attention? In short, attention is a form of nonconceptual metarepresentation operating on certain parts of the currently active, internal model of reality. It "highlights" these parts, because it is a process of subsymbolic resource allocation. The earlier the processing stages, the more aspects of the internal construction process leading to the final, explicit and disambiguated phenomenal content that are available for introspective attention, the more will the system be able to recognize these phenomenal states as internal, self-generated constructs. Full transparency means full attentional unavailability of earlier processing stages. Degrees of opacity comes as degrees of attentional availability.

Definition 2 For any phenomenal state, the degree of phenomenal transparency is inversely proportional to the introspective degree of attentional availability of earlier processing stages.

In other words, the processes in our mind that we are unable to perceive, we take as givens. Were we able to perceive e.g. the way our visual cortex constructed images, or the way our cognitive subsystems constructed beliefs, we'd realize them to be constructions and not take them so easily for granted.

I've been meaning to write more about this, but have never gotten around it.

I find that introspecting tends to makes me feel bad, because I don't feel as though I am the way I "should" be - but I don't really want to be the way I feel obligated to be. So I try very hard not to think about it, because when I'm not thinking about it, I'm not experiencing any distress.

Maybe you can unpack why you feel obligated to be a way you don't want to be.

Do you want to want to be the way you feel obligated not to be?

One reason is that, well, I want to live up to my parents' expectations and desires. It feels wrong to live off the charity of others (specifically, my parents) and refuse to look for a job, but I don't want to work and don't feel as though I am even capable of working. My father warns me that not working now will greatly reduce my future employment prospects, and that I'll eventually have to find work or starve after they retire and can no longer support me. (So I guess I'll starve, then?)

If I don't feel like doing something, I literally can't do it, and threats don't help very much; they just get processed as sunk costs, something to be endured rather than fought against. I also don't want to be the kind of person who does things he doesn't feel like doing - that way lies madness, drudgery, and wasting your life on things you don't care about.

Though you might have heard it before, the solution is most likely to find a way to support yourself through the things you already enjoy doing, and/or cultivate an interest to the point where you will be able to make money with it.

Doing so would surely be more effective than beating your head on the wall of "I can't do it".

You may want to look in to the disability options available in your country, depending on the reasons you feel unable to work. Alternately, you might try experimenting with a job if you haven't already - you might find it more bearable than expected. Nanani's suggestion of alternate employment options are also probably worth looking in to.

Figure out why you don't want to work, and then see what options exist that are compatible with that, basically. A lot of my friends don't have jobs, and a number of them suffer in ways that make future employment fairly unlikely. There are ways to live with this :)

Since in general I have to analyze my actions to even see my emotions, I'd like to know how to become more luminous just to increase my shared vocabulary with people.

Ecclesiastes 2:14

The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.

I always interpreted "eyes in his head" as introspection; the literal meaning is obviously redundant.

Suppose you're extremely powerful. Then the only self-knowledge you need is about what most pleases you. If it turns out that additional self-knowledge is what pleases you, great.

Suppose you're extremely weak. You can barely stay alive; self-knowledge is useful when it can help you stay healthy, and useless when it merely spends glucose without any material reward.

Between those extremes, it seems like increased self-knowledge might be pleasing or empowering (depending on the specific individual+circumstances). But I think that when it's actively sought, it's hard to sift the truth from the confabulation.

I've always been interested in knowing and improving my habits and tendencies. It seems like what I'm passively aware of shows just a small portion of my present brain state, and whatever more I can actively trace is disappointingly little.


The reason I perform introspection is because I like closing doors. Every question I've answered to a satisfactory degree is a closed door, and the more I close, the more complete everything seems. Questions about the self and other complex topics in first order philosophy are particularly interesting, and great fun to pursue.

I'm rather happy with my Zs and omegas, but some of my dear ones aren't.

I expect that this sequence will allow me to give them more educated suggestions about how to fix themselves up, but based on past experience, they will most likely nod in agreement, yet go on using the dysfunctional coping method they've been using for years. This expected lack of result will, of course, not prevent me from eagerly awaiting the next instalment of your sequence.

Right. Sometimes well-meant but unsolicited suggestions don't do anyone any good.

I think luminosity is very important as making conscious and self aware decisions instead of simply responding to external stimuli mindlessly is what seperates humans from being a very complex robot. The more conscious we are the better decisions we can make as we can analyze our thought processes and eliminate biases and emotional flaws in our thinking. In my opinion, consciousness and rationality are directly proportional in humans. In short, any human who wants to become a more rational thinker would be well advised to take steps to increase their consciousness or luminosity if you want to call it that. That is certainly what I am trying to do. Great series by the way.

Great airport metaphor.

Sounds promising - I like the conceit.