Software developer and mindhacking instructor. Interested in intelligent feedback (especially of the empirical testing variety) on my new (temporarily free) ebook, A Minute To Unlimit You.

pjeby's Comments

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Eh. Sorta? I've been busy with clients the last few days, not a lot of time for experimenting. I have occasionally found myself, or rather, found not-myself, several times, almost entirely accidentally or incidentally. A little like a perspective shift changing between two possible interpretations of an image; or more literally, like a shift between first-person, and third-person-over-the-shoulder in a video game.

In the third person perspective, I can observe limbs moving, feel the keys under my fingers as they type, and yet I am not the one who's doing it. (Which, I suppose, I never really was anyway.)

TBH, I'm not sure if it's that I haven't found any unpleasant experiences to try this on, or if it's more that because I've been spontaneously shifting to this state, I haven't found anything to be an unpleasant experience. :-)

Speculations on the Future of Fiction Writing

Since you can only nitpick a movie after you've already paid to see it, where is the economic incentive for anyone to do this?

The actual problem is even more complicated than that, though. The movie business is run by producers -- the people who put up the money. They may have experience in the film business, but since there is no universally agreed criteria as to what constitutes a good investment, it is subject to bias, nepotism, superstition, etc. Favors are owed to people, the star or director has a pet issue that must be addressed to get them on board, etc.

This means that to a great extent the artistic direction of a film is determined by committee, many members of which have only the most superficial understanding of what is going on or what the film is about or anything else, and have no real desire to understand more deeply because such an understanding would not do anything useful for their own interests.

IOW, it's a values alignment problem of the same type that produces other forms of civilizational inadequacy, and the mere existence of better writing tools can't help it, for the same reason that the vast storehouse of existing wisdom and literature of telling effective stories on film doesn't help it that much either. The screenplays have to be effectively written to get bought, but once they're bought the connection between what was first written and what actually gets filmed can be quite tenuous indeed.

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

No, that's a good point, as far as it goes. There does seem to be some sort of meta-process that you can use to decouple from craving regarding these things, though in my experience it seems to require continuous attention, like an actively inhibitory process. In contrast, the model description you gave made it sound like craving was an active process that one could simply refrain from, and I don't think that's predictively accurate.

Your points regarding what's possible with meditation also make some sense... it's just that I have trouble reconciling the obvious evolutionary model with "WTF is meditation doing?" in a way that doesn't produce things that shouldn't be there.

Consciously, I know it's possible to become willing to experience things that you previously were unwilling to experience, and that this can eliminate aversion. I model this largely under the second major motivational mechanic, that of risk/reward, effort/payoff.

That is, that system can decide that some negative thing is "worth it" and drop conflict about it. And meditation could theoretically reset the threshold for that, since to some extent meditation is just sitting there, despite the lack of payoff and the considerable payoffs offered to respond to current urges. If this recalibrates the payoff system, it would make sense within my own model, and resolve the part where I don't see how what you describe could be a truly conscious process, in the way that you made it sound.

IOW, I might more say that part of our motivational system is a module for determining what urges should be acted upon and which are not worth it, or perhaps that translates mind/body/external states into urges or lack thereof, and that you can retrain this system to have different baselines for what constitutes "urge"-ency. ;-) (And thus, a non-conscious version of "valence" in your model.)

That doesn't quite work either, because ISTM that meditation changes the threshold for all urges, not just the specific ones trained. Also, the part about identification isn't covered here either. It might be yet another system being trained, perhaps the elusive "executive function" system?

On the other hand, I find that the Investor (my name for the risk/reward, effort/payoff module) is easily tricked into dropping urges for reasons other than self-identification. For example, the Investor can be tricked into letting you get out of a warm bed into a cold night if you imagine you have already done so. By imagining that you are already cold, there is nothing to be gained by refraining from getting up, and this shifts the "valence", as you call it, in favor of getting up, because the Investor fundamentally works on comparing projections against an "expected status quo". So if you convince it that some other status quo is "expected", it can be made to go along with almost anything.

And so I suppose if you imagine that it is not you who is the one who is going to be cold, then that might work just as well. Or perhaps making it "not me" somehow convinces the Investor that the changes in state are not salient to its evaluations?

Hm. Now that my attention has been drawn to this, it's like an itch I need to scratch. :) I am wondering now, "Wait, why is the Investor so easily tricked?" And for that matter, given that it is so easily tricked, could the feats attributed to long-term meditation be accomplished in general using such tricks? Can I imagine my way to no-self and get the benefits without meditating, even if only temporarily?

Also, I wonder if I have been overlooking the possibility to use Investor mind-tricks to deal with task-switching inertia, which is very similar to having to get out of a warm bed. What if I imagine I have already changed tasks? Hm. Also, if I am imagining no-self, will starting unpleasant tasks be less aversive?

Okay, I'm off to experiment now. This is exciting!

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

This is all very interesting, but I can't help but notice that this idea of valence doesn't seem to be paying rent in predictions that are different from what I'd predict without it. And to the extent it does make different predictions, I don't think they're accurate, as they predict suffering or unsatisfactoriness where I don't consciously experience it, and I don't see what benefit there is to having an invisible dragon in that context.

I mean, sure, you can say there is a conflict between "I want that food" and "I don't have it", but this conflict can only arise (in my experience) if there is a different thought behind "I want", like "I should". If "I want" but "don't have", this state is readily resolved by either a plan to get it, or a momentary sense of loss in letting go of it and moving on to a different food.

In contrast, if "I should" but "don't have", then this actually creates suffering, in the form of a mental loop arguing that it should be there, but it isn't, but it was there, but someone ate it, and they shouldn't have eaten it, and so on, and so forth, in an undending loop of hard-to-resolve suffering and "unsatisfactoriness".

In my model, I distinguish between these two kinds of conflict -- trivially resolved and virtually irreconcilable -- because only one of them is the type that people come to me for help with. ;-) More notably, only one can reasonably be called "suffering", and it's also the only one where meditation of some sort might be helpful, since the other will be over before you can start meditating on it. ;-)

If you want to try to reduce this idea further, one way of distinguishing these types of conflict is that "I want" means "I am thinking of myself with this thing in the future", whereas "I should" means "I am thinking of myself with this thing in the past/present".

Notice that only one of these thoughts is compatible with the reality of not having the thing in the present. I can not-have food now, and then have-food later. But I can't not-have food now, and also have-food now, nor can I have-food in the past if I didn't already. (No time travel allowed!)

Similarly, in clinging to positive things, we are imagining a future negative state, then rejecting it, insisting the positive thing should last forever. It's not quite as obvious a causality violation as time travel, but it's close. ;-)

I guess what I'm saying here is that ISTM we experience suffering when our "how things (morally or rightly) ought to be" model conflicts with our "how things actually are" model, by insisting that the past, present, or likely future are "wrong". This model seems to me to be a lot simpler than all these hypotheses about valence and projections and self-reference and whatnot.

You say that :

  • You witness someone being wrong on the internet
  • The moral judgment system creates an urge to argue with them
  • Your mind notices this urge and forms the prediction that resisting it would feel unpleasant, and even though giving into it isn't necessarily pleasant either, it's at least less unpleasant than trying to resist the urge
  • There's a craving to give in to the urge, consisting of the hypothesis that "I need to give in to this urge and prove the person on the internet wrong, or I will experience greater discomfort than otherwise"
  • The craving causes you to give in to the urge

But this seems like adding unnecessary epicycles. The idea of an "urge" does not require the extra steps of "predicting that resisting the urge would be unpleasant" or "having a craving to give in to the urge", etc., because that's what "having an urge" means. The other parts of this sequence are redundant; it suffices to say, "I have an urge to argue with that person", because the urge itself combines both the itch and the desire to scratch it.

Notably, hypothesizing the other parts doesn't seem to make sense from an evolutionary POV, as it is reasonable to assume that the ability to have "urges" must logically precede the ability to make predictions about the urges, vs. the urges themselves encoding predictions about the outside world. If we have evolved an urge to do something, it is because evolution already "thinks" it's probably a good idea to do the thing, and/or a bad idea not to, so another mechanism that merely recapitulates this logic would be kind of redundant.

(Not that redundancy can't happen! After all, our brain is full of it. But such redundancy as described here isn't necessary to a logical model of craving or suffering, AFAICT.)

From self to craving (three characteristics series)

Interesting model. I'm not 100% certain that mere identification+valence is sufficient (or necessary) to create craving, though. In my experience, the kind of identification that seems to create craving and suffering and mental conflict is the kind that has to do with self-image, in the sense of "what kind of person this would make me", not merely "what kind of sensory experience would I be having".

For example, I can imagine delicious food and go "mmmm" and experience that "mmm" myself, without necessarily creating attachment (vs. merely desire, and the non-self-involved flow state of seeking out food).

But perhaps I'm misinterpreting your model, since perhaps what you're saying is that I would have to also think "it would make me happy to eat that, so I should do that in order to be happy."

Though I think that I'm trying to clarify that it is not merely valence or sensation being located in the self, but that another level of indirection is required, as in your "walk to relax" example... Except that "walk to relax" is really an attempt to escape non-relaxedness, which is already a level of indirection. If I am stressed, and think of taking a walk, however, I could still feel attracted to the calming of walking, without it being an attempt to escape the stress per se.

Yeah. So ISTM that indirection and self-image are more the culprits for creating dysfunctional loops, than mere self-identified experience. Seeking escape from a negative state, or trying to manipulate how the "self" is seen, seem to me to be prerequisites for creating dysfunctional desire.

In contrast, ISTM that many things that induce suffering (e.g. wanting/not wanting to get up) are not about this indirection or self-image manipulation, but rather about wanting conflicting things.

IOW, reducing to just self-identified valence seems like a big oversimplification to me, with devils very much in the details, unless I'm misunderstanding something. Human motivation is rather complex, with a lot of different systems involved, that I roughly break down as:

  • pleasure->planning (the system that goes into flow to create a future state, whose state need not include a term for the self)
  • effort/reward (the system that makes us bored/frustrated on the one hand, or go sunk-cost on the other)
  • moral judgment and righteousness (which can include ideas about the "right" way to do things or the "right" way of being, ideals of perfection or happiness, etc.)
  • self-image/esteem (how we see ourselves, as a proxy for "what people will think")
  • simple behavioral conditioning and traumatic conditioning

...and those are just what I've found it useful to break it down into. I'm sure it's a lot more complicated than just that. My own observation is that only the first subsystem produces useful motivation for personal goals without creating drama, addiction, self-sabotage, or other side effects... and then only when run in "approach" mode, rather than "avoid" mode.

So for example, the self-image/esteem module is absolutely in line with your model, in the sense that a term for "self" is in the equation, and that using the module tends to produce craving/compulsion loops. But the moral judgment system can produce craving/compulsion loops around other people's behavior, without self-reference! You can go around thinking that other people are doing the wrong thing or should be doing something else, and this creates suffering despite there not being any "self" designated in the thought process. (e.g. "Someone is wrong on the internet!" is not a thought that includes a self whose state is to be manipulated, but rather a judgment that the state of the world is wrong and must be fixed.)

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

What I feel is different is that the Way provide a mean for systematically findind this underlying should and explaining it from the inside.

I notice that I am confused, because I'm not at all clear how Nate's conceptual model would have helped me find the body-memory of my mother screaming at me about some deadline as a child. In contrast, using the Work to surface my objection to not doing something led me to that memory in a few minutes without me needing to do any particular analysis, consequentialist or otherwise.

This isn't to say that his approach is wrong, just that it's incomplete. Notably, it doesn't provide any guards against confabulating your "explanations" of what your thought process is. When you use analytical reasoning to understand yourself, the answers are often wrong because the thing that is actually causing your response is rarely based on any sort of analysis, rather than simple pattern matching. (In the specific example above, my brain was pattern matching "important thing I'm supposed to do -> stress about it, don't allow yourself to do anything else, and call it taking things seriously, or else you're a bad person".)

Finding patterns like this requires observation of what your body and mind are doing, while disengaging from attempts to logically "explain" things, since patterns like these trivially hijack your analytical reasoning (e.g. by tricking you into defining what you're doing as "taking things seriously" rather than "freaking out").

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

On the other hand, I see this post as more about examining the exact mechanism underlying this error we make.

Yes, though an important part of it is also tackling the means by which the algorithm can be swiftly undone from the inside. Nate's tools are oriented more to the object level of a specific "should", whereas I focus more on exposing the assumptions and social imprints that cause us to develop shoulds in the first place.

For example, with Nate's tools I could have deconstructed the idea that "I should be doing something right now", but they would likely not have led me to discovering the underlying idea of "I should be taking things seriously", and the underlying imprinted-by-example meaning of "taking things seriously = freaking the fork out about them".

To be fair, I'm sure there's context to Nate's tools I'm leaving out, and I occasionally do use things somewhat like them with clients, not as an ongoing approach but more as a preparatory stage in learning the Work, to show them the illogicality of a "should" they might be clinging to. (e.g. to demonstrate why "I should have done X yesterday" is based strictly on imaginary hypotheticals)

But in the long run, I consider logical disputation to mostly be useful as a tool for identifying experiential counterpoints to the emotion-backed aliefs that drive the process. You can't (directly) reason yourself out of what you were never (directly) reasoned into.

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

The punishment response is beneficial for attacking others with; that it can also be self-directed could be viewed as a bug, but it's also a feature: self-punishment lowers the motivation for others to punish us. The counterfactual part exists because you have to be able to compare behavior against what a social standard is, in order to know what to punish. And being able to consider counterfactuals at all is evolutionarily-useful for learning.

In general, I view the way modern societies treat their children as an unintended exploit of the machinery. If you're more concerned with your children's compliance than growth, social punishment is an extremely easy stick to reach for that creates high compliance, at the cost of stunting personal growth in adulthood. If you compare to how hunter-gatherer tribes raise their children, "modern" childraising appears shockingly abusive, invasive, and neglectful, all at the same time. So it probably wasn't so problematic in the ancestral environment.

In modern societies, children's public (and to some extent private) behavior is considered to reflect on the parents, which provides immense pressure for parents to make their children pretend to be more mature than they actually are, and social punishment allows you to make children act more mature, while silently depriving them of the experiences they need to actually become mature.

The Curse Of The Counterfactual

The actual research can be found here, and it makes for much more interesting reading.

Notably, the researchers were surprised to discover that students taught to use the Work procrastinated less no matter their level of test anxiety post-intervention. They concluded that this was likely due to the fact that since they taught the students how to apply the technique to relieve anxiety, the students may have taken it upon themselves to keep using the technique after the intervention to reduce anxiety, and thus procrastination:

Therefore, when confronted with the unpleasant state of test anxiety after the IBSR intervention, IBSR participants might have no longer felt the need to withdraw from the situation through procrastination. Rather, they might have applied the IBSR method as an alternative coping strategy to deal with unpleasant physical arousal and worry thoughts. Nevertheless, additional data is needed to confirm this assumption.

While I'm happy to see the Work getting more attention, I find it mildly distressing that virtually nothing in the paper (or the article you linked to) mentions Byron Katie at all, unless you dig into the citations a bit. (To further confuse matters, the "IBSR" acronym also stands for some other technique created by a completely different person that I don't think is at all related.)

I'm also a bit worried that once this becomes a "thing" endorsed by science, that people are going to be exposed to a degraded version of it, as it's altogether too easy for someone who doesn't understand the technique to turn it into a weapon, even if entirely unintentionally (let alone deliberately).

Actually, you don't even need another person to do it: I've seen so many different ways for people to distort the process themselves that all it requires is a lack of sufficient instruction for somebody to hurt themselves with the tool.

OTOH, the actual paper indicates that students were given six full hours of training on both identifying thoughts and applying the technique, including some individual instructor attention, which, if the instructors were good, should be sufficient to both keep most people from shooting themselves in the foot and get a significant percentage of the students to be reasonably proficient. I imagine that framing it specifically in matters of test anxiety probably also helped; it's easier to give Work instruction in a specific problem area than to teach it generically.

CFAR Participant Handbook now available to all

It's really interesting to see how many bits of what's in this handbook match important skills I either use with my clients or teach them to do. Focusing and Inner Simulation, obviously. But also bits of Socratic Ducking and Polaris. (On the other hand, I have reservations with some parts of IDC and "Understanding Shoulds", in that most of the time, the problems I help people overcome are rooted in utterly useless shoulds that they are taking far too seriously, not in the desires they're failing to take seriously enough.)

Quick question though: what is the copyright and/or licensing status of this document? (It also appears to be using copyrighted artwork from various outside sources, such as xkcd, without even crediting those creators, let alone affirming their copyrights.)

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