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Overcoming suffering: Emotional acceptance

38 Post author: Kaj_Sotala 29 May 2011 10:57AM

Follow-up to: Suffering as attention-allocational conflict.

In many cases, it may be possible to end an attention-allocational conflict by looking at the content of the conflict and resolving it. However, there are also many cases where this simply won't work. If you're afraid of public speaking, say, the "I don't want to do this" signal is going to keep repeating itself regardless of how you try to resolve the conflict. Instead, you have to treat the conflict in a non-content-focused way.

In a nutshell, this is just the map-territory distinction as applied to emotions. Your emotions have evolved as a feedback and attention control mechanism: their purpose is to modify your behavior. If you're afraid of a dog, this is a fact about you, not about the dog. Nothing in the world is inherently scary, bad or good. Furthermore, emotions aren't inherently good or bad either, unless we choose to treat them as such.

We all know this, right? But we don't consistently apply it to our thinking of emotions. In particular, this has two major implications:

1. You are not the world: It's always alright to feel good. Whether you're feeling good or bad won't change the state of the world: the world is only changed by the actual actions you take. You're never obligated to feel bad, or guilty, or ashamed. In particular, since you can only influence the world through your actions, you will accomplish more and be happier if your emotions are tied to your actions, not states of the world.
2. Emotional acceptance: At the same time, "negative" emotions are not something to suppress or flinch away from. They're a feedback mechanism which imprints lessons directly into your automatic behavior (your elephant). With your subconsciousness having been trained to act better in the future, your conscious mind is free to concentrate on other things. If the feedback system is broken and teaching you bad lessons, then you should act to correct it. But if the pain is about some real mistake or real loss you suffered, then you should welcome it.

Internalizing these lessons can have some very powerful effects. I've been making very good progress on consistently feeling better after starting to train myself to think like this. But some LW posters are even farther along; witness Will Ryan:

I internalized a number of different conclusions during this period, although piecing together the exact time frame is somewhat difficult without rereading all of my old notes. The biggest conclusion was probably acceptance of the world as it is, or eliminating affective judgments about reality as a whole. I wanted to become an agent who was never harmed by receiving true information. Denying reality does not change it, only decreases our effectiveness in interacting with the world. An important piece of this acceptance is that the past is immutable, I realized that I should only have prospective emotions, since they are there to guide our future behavior. [...]

More things fell into place in early 2010, during a period in which I was breaking up with Katie at the same time our cat was dying of cancer. I learned to only have emotions about situations that were within my immediate control - between calls with the vet making life-or-death decisions about my pet, I was going to parties and incredibly enjoying myself. This immediately eliminated chronic stress of any kind, which has been greatly beneficial for my overall happiness and effectiveness. I felt alive in a way that I hadn't experienced before, living every moment with its own intensity. I don't (yet) experience this state constantly, but it does seem to happen much more frequently than it used to. This moment-intensity also induces incredible subjective time dilation, which I appreciate quite a bit.

I am not sure exactly when, but sometime during this period I began to develop sadness asymbolia - sadness lost its negative affect, and so I no longer avoided experiencing it. I came to the realization that sadness was precisely the right emotion I needed to internalize negative updates! Being able to internalize bad news about the world without fear or suffering is one of my biggest hacks to date, as far as I am concerned. I think this was related to internalizing the general idea of emotions as feedback, instead of some kind of intrinsic truth about the world.

In April 2010 I came to the realization that my systematic avoidance of certain things was in fact the emotion of fear. It seems obvious when stated this way in retrospect, but for most of my life I had prioritized thought over emotion, and at that time did not have particularly good access to my emotional state. Once I came to this realization, I also realized that my fear pointed towards my biggest areas of potential growth. Although I have not yet developed fear asymbolia, I have developed a habit of directing myself straight towards my biggest fears as soon as I recognize them. [...]

...my subjective experience of the pain-sensation did not seem to change much, what changed was a mental aversion to the stimulus.

Sadness... oh such sweet sadness! My enjoyment of all emotions scales with its intensity, so I actively try to cultivate more sadness when it occurs. I long for the feeling of warm tears rolling down my cheeks, my breath and body racked with sobbing... Emotional pain now feels euphorically pleasurable to release, and in its aftermath I am left with warmth and contentment. It is almost as though the pain realizes I have incorporated its lessons through my acknowledgment and expression, and then no longer demands my attention. The sensation itself is difficult to describe... it is definitely painful, but in no way aversive.

Some other LW posters who've made considerable progress on this are Jasen Murray, Frank Adamek and Michael Vassar. I invite them to post their experiences in this thread, and in future posts of their own.

How does one actually achieve emotional acceptance? It is a way of thought that has to be learned with practice. There are various techniques which help in this: I will cover one in this post, and others in future ones.

Mindfulness practice

"Many [mindfulness exercises] encourage individuals to attend to the internal experiences occurring in each moment, such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Others encourage attention to aspects of the environment, such as sights and sounds ... All suggest that mindfulness should be practiced with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance. That is, phenomena that enter the individual’s awareness during mindfulness practice, such as perceptions, cognitions, emotions, or sensations, are observed carefully but are not evaluated as good or bad, true or false, healthy or sick, or important or trivial ... Thus, mindfulness is the nonjudgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise." -- Mindfulness Training as a Clinical Intervention: A Conceptual and Empirical Review (R.A. Baer 2003, in Clinical psychology: Science and practice).

Mindfulness techniques are very useful in realizing that your thoughts and emotions are just things constructed by your mind:

"Several authors have noted that the practice of mindfulness may lead to changes in thought patterns, or in attitudes about one’s thoughts. For example, Kabat-Zinn (1982, 1990) suggests that nonjudgmental observation of pain and anxiety-related thoughts may lead to the understanding that they are “just thoughts,” rather than reflections of truth or reality, and do not necessitate escape or avoidance behavior. Similarly, Linehan (1993a, 1993b) notes that observing one’s thoughts and feelings and applying descriptive labels to them encourages the understanding that they are not always accurate reflections of reality. For example, feeling afraid does not necessarily mean that danger is imminent, and thinking “I am a failure” does not make it true. Kristeller and Hallett (1999), in a study of MBSR in patients with binge eating disorder, cite Heatherton and Baumeister’s (1991) theory of binge eating as an escape from self-awareness and suggest that mindfulness training might develop nonjudgmental acceptance of the aversive cognitions that binge-eaters are thought to be avoiding, such as unfavorable comparisons of self to others and perceived inability to meet others’ demands."

"All of the treatment programs reviewed here include acceptance of pain, thoughts, feelings, urges, or other bodily, cognitive, and emotional phenomena, without trying to change, escape, or avoid them. Kabat-Zinn (1990) describes acceptance as one of several foundations of mindfulness practice. DBT provides explicit training in several mindfulness techniques designed to promote acceptance of reality. Thus, it appears that mindfulness training may provide a method for teaching acceptance skills."

It also has clear promise in reducing suffering:

"According to Salmon, Santorelli, and Kabat-Zinn (1998), over 240 hospitals and clinics in the United States and abroad were offering stress reduction programs based on mindfulness training as of 1997. ... The empirical literature on the effects of mindfulness training contains many methodological weaknesses, but it suggests that mindfulness interventions may lead to reductions in a variety of problematic conditions, including pain, stress, anxiety, depressive relapse, and disordered eating."

I recommend the linked paper for a good survey about various therapies utilizing mindfulness, their effects and theoretical explanations for how they work.

While I haven't personally looked at any of the referenced therapies, I've found great benefit from the simple practice of turning my attention to any source of physical or emotional discomfort and simply nonjudgementally observing it. Frequently, this changes the pain from something that feels negative to something that feels neutral. My hypothesis is that this eliminates an attention-allocational conflict. The pain acts as a signal to concentrate on and pay attention to this source of discomfort, and once I do so, the signal has accomplished its purpose.

However, often I can do even better than just making the sensation neutral. If I make a conscious decision to experience this now-neutral sensation as something actively positive, that often works. Obviously, there are limits to the degree to which I can do this - the stronger the discomfort, the harder it is to just passively observe it and experience it as neutral. So far my accomplishments have been relatively mild, such as carrying several heavy bags and changing it from something uncomfortable to something enjoyable. But I keep becoming better at it with practice.

Comments (44)

Comment author: anotheruser 30 May 2011 05:08:26PM 9 points [-]

A technique that I have been using for several years to great effect is the following:

Whenever I think my decision making is affected negatively by an emotion I go through these steps:

  1. Identify the exact nature of the emotion.
  2. From an evolutionary point of view, what was the emotion's original purpose?
  3. What has changed since then that makes the emotion no longer useful today?
  4. Internalize this and "convince" the emotion to stop.

I basically try to "talk" to my subconscious and convince it to stop. I don't try to fight my subconscious or get it to accept reality but just mentally repeat those findings to myself until the irrational impulses of my subconscious are drowned out by the more rational response I designed.

I basically tell my subconscious that if it wants to help, it should just stop interfering with things that it is incapable of understanding.

Using this technique I have virtually eliminated all grief, resentment and desperation. I won't try to eliminate pain as this can actually be quite useful. I have also used it to turn hatred into spite, as the later has less of a destructive effect (it is more passive and far less likely to result in an outburst).

I don't know the reason why it works so well for me, but I could imagine that it is because I treat my subconsciousness's irrational impulses not as obstacles to overcome but as a machine that is outdated and broken.

Essentially, instead of telling my subconsciousness to "shut up!", I tell it to "stop helping me!"

Comment author: SilasBarta 31 May 2011 03:44:33PM 3 points [-]

Can anyone confirm whether this works? It's easy enough to be worth trying, but it would be very surprising and force a more general update if it did work, because it sounds like trying to argue away an optical illusion.

Comment author: MaoShan 05 June 2011 11:08:05PM 2 points [-]

That's because it is--it's arguing away a psychological misunderstanding. I can confirm that it works for me. I have tried to explain this to people in terms of warning alarms: Most of the alarms for your body and mind are set WAY below threshold to avoid you only changing your behavior when it's already too late. It's like a low battery light that comes on six months before the battery dies, or your alarm clock telling you WAKE UP NOW WAKE UP NOW, when it doesn't actually know if you (currently) want to wake up. If your "Check Engine" light is on and you know it's because the tech forgot to reset it, you're not going to troubleshoot your engine every time you drive. Your stomach will tell you you're dying of hunger long before you starve; Your hands will tell you to drop that hot plate even though it will not cause tissue damage; Your muscles will tell you that you can't lift a certain heavy object, and you stop because you're listening to the alarms instead of using rationality to assess the actual situation. The trick to these problems is not to ignore or suppress the alarms, but to think of them as helpful suggestions; this can serve to disconnect them from the emotional connotations that these simple alarms carry with them. Hunger doesn't hurt me, because I know that it's just a reminder to eat. Physical pain doesn't cause me to panic if it's to accomplish a goal and I know it won't damage me. This surprisingly quiets a lot of the psychosomatic responses, at least in my case. Emotions follow the same pattern, but are easier to tackle when you first become accustomed to this type of override maneuver on your body.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 May 2011 04:01:33PM *  0 points [-]

Interesting, I'll try using that for my anxiety to work on projects. I have successfully negotiated with fear and sadness before, so maybe I should use that more often. I will report back my results.

Edit 2 weeks later: didn't really get into any emotionally problematic scenario, so I couldn't test it.

Comment author: PeerInfinity 29 May 2011 11:22:01PM 4 points [-]

To me, it still feels Wrong to not feel bad when bad things are happening. Especially when bad things are happening to the people you know and interact with.

I suspect that the reason why it feels Wrong is because I would assume that if someone you know was in a really bad situation, and they saw you not feeling bad about it, they would assume that you don't care about them. I was assuming that "feeling bad when bad things happen to someone" is part of the definition of what it means to care about someone. And I'm naturally reluctant to choose to not care.

oops, I just realized... if the rule is "only have emotions about situations that were within my immediate control", and you know that the other person will feel upset if they don't see you feeling bad about their situation, then that counts as something that's within your immediate control... though something about this seems like it doesn't quite fit... it feels like I'm interpreting the rule to mean something other than what was intended...

Also, I'll admit that I have almost no idea how many people believe "if you aren't sad about my bad situation then that means you don't care about me", and how many people don't believe this. I'm still not sure if I believe this, but I think I'm leaning towards "no".

but if you happen to have the "gift" of "sadness asymbolia", then you can go ahead and show sadness about other people's bad situations, and not experience the negative affect of this sadness. And of course it also has all those other benefits that Will mentioned.

"fear asymbolia" also seems like it would be extremely helpful.

Something also feels Wrong about enjoying sadness. If you happen to enjoy sadness, then you need to be really careful not to deliberately cause harmful things to happen to yourself or others, just for the sake of experiencing the sadness.

and yet somehow "nonjudgemental acceptance" doesn't feel wrong... these mindfulness techniques seem like an entirely good idea.

Comment author: fr00t 01 June 2011 12:23:31AM *  3 points [-]

Something also feels Wrong about enjoying sadness. If you happen to enjoy sadness, then you need to be really careful not to deliberately cause harmful things to happen to yourself or others, just for the sake of experiencing the sadness.

When you deeply grok that you are not the world, I don't think it's likely that relishing emotional turbulence will encourage you to deliberately cause harmful things to happen.

What it may (hopefully) do is encourage you to be more curious and less risk-averse. Personally, I have found that I tend to slip into a sort of autopilot, where I stagnate, become emotionally numb, and lose effectiveness as a person. Unfortunately this also causes me to lose the impetus for introspection. In periods of clarity, I can easily see that emotion is a tool I should be using, but I've gotten so good at ignoring it, I feel trapped.

So this article was particularly relevant and helpful to me. I'm also interested in more specific strategies/affirmations/examples for reconciling emotion as a feedback mechanism rather than a source of anxiety to be swept under the rug.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 30 May 2011 08:05:34AM *  8 points [-]

I was assuming that "feeling bad when bad things happen to someone" is part of the definition of what it means to care about someone. And I'm naturally reluctant to choose to not care.

You still have preferences in addition to emotions. Say you have a strong preference for bad things not to happen to someone. Then you do whatever you can to prevent bad things from happening to them, and if something bad does happen to them, you help them out to the best of your ability. In my book, that counts as caring about someone. Not caring would mean that you didn't do anything to stop them from experiencing bad stuff, nor did you help them out if something bad did happen to them.

Now people have various definitions of caring, and some probably do think that "feeling bad if something bad happens to someone" is required for genuine caring. But I would disagree. From an evolutionary point of view, emotions exist to motivate behavior. If you behave like a caring person would but don't feel bad, then in reality you care more than someone who feels bad but doesn't actually do anything. And if you end up feeling bad, then that may distract you and cause you to make worse decisions or temporarily paralyze you, which reduces your ability to actually help. (Also, evolutionarily, feeling bad about someone suffering probably also acts as a costly signal: if they're hurt, you suffer, so they have unfakeable evidence of you actually caring and not just pretending to care. But you have no need to prove to yourself that you care in such a perverse way, and you can also prove your caring to them with your actions.)

From a consequentialist point of view also, what matters is your actual behavior. The less time you spend feeling bad, the more time you can spend things that actually make people better off.

Also, not feeling bad doesn't mean that you can't express sympathy. You can still honestly say things like "I wish things got better for you". For most people, it's the notion that you don't care what happens to them that is bothersome. You can show with both your words and actions that you do care, that is, have a preference that things go well for them and are prepared to spend time and effort to help them out if necessary.

An important note when it comes to sadness: to some extent, it seems like sadness is the appropriate response when e.g. someone close to you dies. "You're never obligated to feel bad" means that you have no moral obligation to suffer, it doesn't mean that you should try to push away or suppress negative emotions. Remember, trying to do that is exactly what causes the negative emotion-related suffering in the first place. So if you feel sad about someone dying, say, that's perfectly appropriate! It's what your brain needs to do in order to adapt to the loss. But even then there's no obligation to suffer from the sadness.

oops, I just realized... if the rule is "only have emotions about situations that were within my immediate control", and you know that the other person will feel upset if they don't see you feeling bad about their situation, then that counts as something that's within your immediate control... though something about this seems like it doesn't quite fit... it feels like I'm interpreting the rule to mean something other than what was intended...

In principle, that's correct, though you're right that it's a bit different from what I was intending. Here's something closer to what I was thinking about.

Here, I'm going to use the expression "feel bad" to refer to feeling emotions that are usually considered negative. I don't mean that one should actually find them aversive or suffer from them. More on this below.

Suppose something bad happens to person X, who you care about. The bad thing wasn't anything you had control over, so you have no reason to feel bad about it. But now you have a chance to help X. Whether you help them or not is something you do have control over, so if you do help them, you should feel good about it.

But suppose that you fail to help them. Now it may or may not be appropriate to feel bad, depending on why you fail to help them. For instance, maybe you are driving to their home, but on the way there your car breaks down. Presuming you hadn't ignored clear signs of an immediate breakdown or otherwise clearly neglected the maintenance of your car, then it breaking down wasn't really under your control. This prevents you from helping them, but it still isn't something that you should feel bad about. Feeling bad is a feedback mechanism to teach you lessons about what you did wrong, and there are no useful lessons to be learned here.

You should only feel bad if you failed because of something that was under your control. Maybe you were going to take a bus to them, but got stuck online and missed the last bus. Or maybe you drove your car carelessly and got in an accident. In that case it's okay to feel bad, as your behavior mechanisms need feedback.

Still, even if you feel bad, ideally you shouldn't suffer from it. Blaming yourself accomplishes nothing. Your attitude should be "okay, I now made a mistake, so I'll gladly embrace this momentary pain and be happy over the fact that it will teach me to act better in the future". This is always a good mindset to have, because it will increase the odds of you actually acting better in the future. Being prepared to accept any pain without needless guilt is good, as it makes it easier to internalize the actual lessons of your mistake without wasting energy on needless suffering. And if the attention-allocation theory of suffering is true, then suffering is always needless, because it means that your brain is wasting energy and resources being pulled in opposite directions.

If you screw up and feel bad, you may think something like: it's a bad thing that I screwed up, but it's also a good thing that this pain is teaching me not to do it anymore. Now I'm going to feel good and happy about this enjoyable pain, because it means I'll do better in the future.

But be careful not to mix in feelings of martyrdom, self-pity or anything like that. The lesson is not "I'm a terrible person and I deserve all this suffering I got so I'm going to revel in it". Nobody ever deserves to suffer. The lesson is "I did a mistake but that doesn't affect my worth as a person. Next time I'll do better". If you're a utilitarian seeking to increase well-being or decrease suffering, that includes your own well-being and your own suffering.

Something also feels Wrong about enjoying sadness. If you happen to enjoy sadness, then you need to be really careful not to deliberately cause harmful things to happen to yourself or others, just for the sake of experiencing the sadness.

There is probably some risk of this, yes. But ideally, your behavior should be driven by your preferences. This becomes a lot easier once emotions stop being your enemy and you don't need to avoid feeling any particular emotion. When all your emotions are your welcome allies, then it's also easier to let your preferences guide your behavior in everything. That means that you've accepted feelings such as sadness as appropriate error messages that pop up when things haven't gone as they should. Then you won't be actively trying to cause those emotions, instead concentrating on seeking pleasure from doing things right.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 May 2011 08:30:13AM 19 points [-]

"And yet... and yet..." said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, "even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?"

"Would you rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life."

"Well, no. I suppose I don't want that that."

"What then?"

"I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the final loss of one's soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved."

"Ye see it does not."

"I feel in a way that it ought to."

"That sounds very merciful, but see what lurks behind it."

"What?"

"The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven."

"I don't know what I want, Sir."

This dialogue follows the most compelling (to me) scene in C. S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce". A saved woman is trying to coax a man she knew in life to join her in heaven while the narrator and his guide look on. She clearly acts in such a way as to reveal a preference that the man join her. But nothing he does, not even remaining in Hell for all eternity, makes a bit of difference to her emotional state.

Do I want her miserable? No. Do I think she cares, really cares about the man she's trying to help? Well... no. I don't think that's what "care" means; she lacks empathy for him. I recently acted in such a way as to get myself a baked potato. I don't really care, in the deep and meaningful way I care about other people, about having gotten a baked potato - and I'm not even devoid of potato-related emotional feelings, I would have been disappointed if it had caught fire and I was pleased when it turned out nicely.

Do I like being sad when my friends are sad? Well, no, not really, I don't have sadness-asymbolia. Would I rather not be sad when my friends are sad; do I want to deny them that power, as C. S. Lewis suggests would be only just? No! I don't want to go around helping people just because this is written somewhere on my abstract list of preferences, acting in numb glee and feeling nothing that responds to my environment.

I don't know what I want, Sir.

Comment author: cousin_it 30 May 2011 09:13:23AM 4 points [-]

Your comment has frightened me, confused me, and made me think. Thanks.

Comment author: Alicorn 30 May 2011 09:15:34AM 1 point [-]

You are most welcome.

Comment author: Strange7 12 April 2012 08:16:43AM 2 points [-]

In numb glee I suspect you wouldn't act at all, or have preferences in any meaningful sense.

From a very scattered and informal study of the modern concept of the Christian god, it seems to me that He's up to something like this: 1) Fabricate or otherwise acquire a large batch of souls for some unknown larger purpose. 2) Realize the manufacturing process may be flawed or contaminated somehow. 3) Set up a procedurally-generated test environment (aka observable reality) for the souls, complete with self-replicating interface shells (aka human bodies). 4) Set up "good enough," "repairable," and "reject" bins, labeled heaven, purgatory, and hell respectively; souls in the first and third bins get put into stasis by what amounts for all practical purposes to sensory deprivation. Sit back and watch the test process run. 5) Double-check the specs for the unknown larger purpose, and pass/fail rate for the already-sorted souls, realize that tolerances have been set way too strict. Possibly also some sort of problem with other gods sneaking in and stealing the goods? Unclear. 6) Set up a temporary avatar in the test environment (aka Jesus) to announce the new, lower standard, since it's qualitatively rather than quantitatively different, and yet-unsorted souls can partially reconfigure themselves to adapt. 7) Eventually, full batch will be incarnated and test environment will go through an elaborate self-destruct sequence.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 31 May 2011 12:23:19AM *  1 point [-]

acting in numb glee and feeling nothing that responds to my environment.

Sure. "Acting in numb glee and feeling nothing that responds to one's environment" is rather far away from what I was advocating, though. Quite the opposite: at best, this is about fully embracing pretty much all of one's emotions. (Possibly excluding a few that seem purely harmful to me, though that's everyone's own decision.)

Comment author: Multiheaded 12 April 2012 05:45:27AM *  0 points [-]

Frankly, I've always found this story one of Lewis' most sick, disgusting and unethical ones - and that's for an author who had many moments that come across as sick, disgusting and unethical to many.

Comment author: Nornagest 12 April 2012 06:31:25AM *  1 point [-]

When you share a bond of emotional contingency with someone, it sometimes happens that features of their style of living are so incompatible with yours as to destroy more of your own personal utility than the bond can generate. It's a nasty situation, which we often adapt to by laboriously self-modifying the bond away. Colloquially, this is called "getting over someone".

It's quite a reasonable response -- but it's also a voluntary one. I'm considerably less thrilled by Lewis including it as part of the salvation package by default. That seems -- well, manipulative is one word for it, but convenient might be an even better one. It's as if he's resolved a conflict between human emotion and his religious beliefs by declaring that the conflict magically won't exist in any sense that matters long-term.

Of course, that's not much comfort to the living people whose loved ones he's implicitly condemned to Hell.

Comment author: Multiheaded 12 April 2012 12:41:48PM *  0 points [-]

Agreed. Although it feels to me like there are other appalling things about the situation in the story; I'll reflect some more and say what those are.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 08 October 2011 04:10:19PM *  0 points [-]

Mathematically speaking, let U1 be the woman's utility value if the man is in Hell, and U2 is her utility value if the man is in Heaven. What does the story tell us about values of U1 and U2?

At first sight it says that U2 is greater than U1, because the woman really wants the man to join her, but also U1 is not less than U2, because she is not sorry that her attempt failed. This is mathematically impossible.

I suppose a Christian reader could suggest that both values U1 and U2 are infinite, because she is in Heaven. So it's like she was trying to increase U to U+k, because increasing U is the natural thing to do, but it does not matter that she failed, because if U is infinite, then U is not smaller that U+k.

Now I am not sure, does this interpretation mean something, or is it just explaining away? I can't even imagine the very large values of U, nor infinite ones.

Another explanation could be based on "predestination" at the moment of one's death. (The story happens in the afterlife.) It was already decided whether the man will choose Heaven or Hell, but until the moment of his choice, nobody else can know the result. So the woman comes with hope that the man will choose Heaven, but he chooses Hell. She is a perfect rationalist, so she immediately realizes that the uncertaintly existed only in her mind, she discards her mental sunk costs, accepts the reality and moves on.

This explanation suggests that she was unable to change his decision, but she still tried to convince him, so why was she trying? Maybe at that moment, she wasn't behaving as a perfect rationalist, and his decision somehow woke her up. (She is in Heaven, perhaps between rationality and irrationality she always chooses the variant that makes her more happy at the given moment.)

Back to the Earth... Our empathy motivates us to help our friends. This is why we feel that empathy is morally good. When we realize it is impossible to help our friends, it would be rational to lose empathy. It goes against our intuition, because empathy does not work this way, because in most situation there is something we can do to help our friends. (Even if they have an incurable illness, we can increase their utility function by talking to them.)

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 08 October 2011 04:43:41PM 2 points [-]

Mathematically speaking, let U1 be the woman's utility value if the man is in Hell, and U2 is her utility value if the man is in Heaven. What does the story tell us about values of U1 and U2?

At first sight it says that U2 is greater than U1, because the woman really wants the man to join her, but also U1 is not less than U2, because she is not sorry that her attempt failed. This is mathematically impossible.

I think this mostly tells us that your model doesn't actually model humans very well.

A simple explanation is that there's a system in her brain that guides her action towards making the man join her, but the success or failure of this system doesn't affect her emotional state.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 08 October 2011 05:12:37PM 0 points [-]

Oh yes, "adaptation executers vs utility maximizers".

So she has followed the algorithm: "if there is a chance to help, try to help / if there isn't a chance to help, ignore".

And the creepy part was how she perfectly knew which situation is it now, and how she accomodated so quickly.

Comment author: loqi 30 May 2011 10:50:13PM 0 points [-]

Ceteris paribus, I would prefer not to be sad when my friends are sad. But this is incompatible with empathy - I use my sadness to model theirs. I can't imagine "loving" someone while trying not to understand them.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 30 May 2011 09:55:13AM *  10 points [-]

Suppose something bad happens to person X, who you care about. The bad thing wasn't anything you had control over, so you have no reason to feel bad about it. But now you have a chance to help X. Whether you help them or not is something you do have control over, so if you do help them, you should feel good about it.

But suppose that you fail to help them. Now it may or may not be appropriate to feel bad, depending on why you fail to help them. For instance, maybe you are driving to their home, but on the way there your car breaks down. Presuming you hadn't ignored clear signs of an immediate breakdown or otherwise clearly neglected the maintenance of your car, then it breaking down wasn't really under your control. This prevents you from helping them, but it still isn't something that you should feel bad about. Feeling bad is a feedback mechanism to teach you lessons about what you did wrong, and there are no useful lessons to be learned here.

You should only feel bad if you failed because of something that was under your control. Maybe you were going to take a bus to them, but got stuck online and missed the last bus. Or maybe you drove your car carelessly and got in an accident. In that case it's okay to feel bad, as your behavior mechanisms need feedback.

This reminds me of a video game that I used to play. In Creatures 2, the player takes care of several artificial animal-ish creatures called norns. Interestingly, norns actually learn - they have a simulated brain with simulated reward and punishment chemicals, and whatever 'neurons' are firing when there are 'reward chemicals' fire more often in the future and whatever 'neurons' are firing when there are 'punishment chemicals' fire less often in the future, causing them to show more of certain behaviors and less of others.

Unfortunately, the game was released without adequate playtesting, and the default norns' learning systems turned out not to be calibrated properly. Individual norns seemed to learn fine at first, but eventually turned stupid as they aged, jumping off of cliffs and refusing to eat. With some work, the player community figured out what was wrong: The default norns' punishment and reward chemicals had too long of a half-life, and tended to stay in the norns' systems long enough to affect several brain-states. Fortunately, once this was discovered, it was easy for some of the more advanced players to design norns without the issue (yes, the game allowed for genetic engineering!) and release them to the public, and the new norns learned just fine.

Comment author: PeerInfinity 29 May 2011 11:22:27PM *  2 points [-]

I'm going to try to apply some Bayesian math to the question of whether it makes sense to believe "if you aren't sad about my bad situation then that means you don't care about me"

In this example, Person X is in a bad situation, and wants to know if Person Y cares about them.

To use Bayes' theorem, we are interested in the following probabilities:

P(A) is 'Person Y cares about Person X'

P(B) is 'Person Y feels sad about Person X's situation'

P(C) is 'Person Y expresses sadness about Person X's situation'

Let's use P(B) as an abbreviation for either P(B given C) or P(B given not C). Because we're doing these calculations after Person X already knows whether or not Person Y expressed sadness. In other words, I'm assuming that P(B) has already been updated on C.

Bayes' theorem says that P(A given B) is P(B given A) times P(A) over P(B).

P(B given A) and P(A) make it go up, P(B) makes it go down.

Bayes' theorem says that P(not A given not B) is P(not B given not A) times P(not A) over P(not B).

P(not B given not A) and P(not A) make it go up, P(not B) makes it go down.

So this tells us:

The more uncertain Person X is about whether Person Y cares about them, the more they'll worry about whether Person Y feels sad about any specific misfortune Person X is experiencing.

Different people probably have different beliefs about what P(A given B) is. Someone who thinks that this value is high will be more reassured by someone feeling sad about their situation, and someone who thinks this value is low will be less reassured. So this value will be different for a different person X, and also for a different person Y.

Different people probably have different beliefs about what P(not A given not B) is. Someone who thinks that this value is high will be more worried by someone not feeling sad about their situation, and someone who thinks this value is low will be less worried. So this value will be different for a different person X, and also for a different person Y.

If Person Y somehow feels equally sad about the misfortune of people e specifically cares about, and people e doesn't even know, then P(B given A) is equal to P(B), and whether they feel sad about any particular misfortune of Person X doesn't give any new information about whether Person Y cares about person X.

Similarly, if Person Y never feels sadness about anyone's misfortune, then P(B given A) is equal to P(B), and the fact that Person Y doesn't feel sad about any particular misfortune of Person X doesn't give any new information about whether Person Y cares about person X.

And if Person Y is somehow less likely to feel sad about the misfortunes of people e cares about, than people e doesn't care about... then all this would be reversed? This isn't really relevant anyway, so I won't bother checking the math.

I am very likely to have made a mistake somewhere in this comment. Halfway through writing this comment I started to get really fuzzyheaded.

Most of this was already obvious before doing the math, but I think there was at least some value to this exercise.

Also, I very strongly suspect that I'm completely missing the point of... something...

oh, right, I was trying to answer the question of whether it makes sense to believe "if you aren't sad about my bad situation then that means you don't care about me"

and the answer is... sometimes. It depends on the variables described in the math above.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 31 May 2011 10:40:13AM 3 points [-]

This may or may not be useful in general, but I find that the Garry Jules cover of Mad World evokes explicitly asymbolic sadness. (I also vaguely remember having heard songs that evoke non-asymbolic sadness in a similar way. I don't remember any specific ones offhand, though.)

Comment author: rhollerith_dot_com 31 May 2011 03:15:08PM *  1 point [-]

The best song ever for evoking sadness in me was Chopin's Nocturne #14 in F Sharp Minor. It was most effective when I was not paying attention to anything, e.g., resting in bed.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 31 May 2011 11:10:22AM 0 points [-]

For me, it's either of the sad songs from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 May 2011 01:00:34PM 3 points [-]

Great post!

As a reference, some hardcore meditators have tried a more extreme version of this under the name "Actual Freedom" with the goal of essentially eliminating all affect and ending suffering in that way. The name comes from this site, which originated the approach, but it's, well, a bit on the nutty side of the sanity spectrum. (I mean, just look at it.) Better information is available on the Dharma Overground, a meditation site run by Daniel Ingram who's been mentioned already a couple of times here.

As far as I understand Actual Freedom, the idea is basically to trace exactly moment-to-moment the emotional changes one is going through. That way, one can perceive exactly when emotions arise and they can be directly attended to and stopped.

I'm not endorsing this, but I thought that a more extreme view of this kind of method might be interesting. I'm mostly distancing myself because, even though some people seem to have achieved good results (e.g. Tarin Greco), almost all of them seem like nutjobs to me, but maybe they are really happy nutjobs. Also, they haven't yet managed to provide clear, comprehensive descriptions of what they are actually doing and attempts of doing in-depth discussions have so far led to a lot of internet drama.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 30 May 2011 08:19:09AM 1 point [-]

That sounds bad. Wanting to eliminate negative affect I understand, but eliminating positive affect too sounds pointless and probably harmful.

Comment author: Jack_Smith 11 June 2011 09:20:41PM 1 point [-]

Disclaimer: I practice this method myself.

That sounds bad. Wanting to eliminate negative affect I understand, but eliminating positive affect too sounds pointless and probably harmful.

Although the end goal is that of peace and harmony as evidenced by the Pure Consciousness Experience, the method to get there requires seeing three kinds of feelings: good feelings, bad feelings and felicitous feelings. The intent is to minimize the good and bad feelings, and maximize the felicitous and innocuous ones.

Some examples of -

good feelings: love, compassion, sympathy, belonging

bad feelings: anger, fear, sadness, boredom, hate, loneliness

felicitous feelings: joy, delight, fun, marvel, wonder

Comment author: [deleted] 13 June 2011 12:33:23PM 0 points [-]

A few questions, as I find Actual Freedom fascinating and actually meeting a sane practitioner is so rare.

So am I understanding you right that you are essentially replacing your emotional defaults, but you aren't getting rid of emotions as a whole?

What distinguishes good feelings from felicitous ones? Why do you intent to get rid of compassion, for example? Is this basically an equanimity thing, were you realize that the "good" feelings still have the dukkha characteristic and so hanging out there won't work (like the A&P), but the other ones don't?

Another reason I ask is that I suspect that I do not (or only barely) have any of your example good feelings. I never felt I belonged, I don't have compassion, and even though I experience something I'd call love, it isn't about other people (long, messy story), so I doubt that's what most people mean. Are there simpler, not-about-other-people feelings that belong in the good category?

Also, how exactly do you practice? Naively, I'd go into a high jhana, note my emotions and when an unwanted one arises, I'd take it apart (by seeing the three characteristics and enforcing equanimity), otherwise I'd try to solidify it. Is it something like that? I could never really understand the AF descriptions or methods.

If you don't mind me asking, how did you get the PCE and what are your other attainments, as far as you know?

(If you do have experience with dissociative drugs, I'd love to hear how they relate to AF. There seems to be a special kind of equanimity I can get to through DXM that I can't reach from the normal jhanas/nanas, but I'm currently having problems navigating the higher territory, so it might not be something special. There's a distinct lack of emotions and fundamental worry and push/pull just go away. They don't just become something-to-be-observed-but-not-identified-with as in normal equanimity, but they just... aren't there. It is so tremendously peaceful. While lots of hardcore dharma folk have been acid heads, I barely know anyone who used dissociatives or even something like ayahuasca. I find this completely mysterious.)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 May 2011 08:54:06AM 1 point [-]

Well, there's a difference between "bliss" and "equanimity". The first is arguably "happier", but the second much more peaceful. I'm not sure I agree with the idea of eliminating positive affect, but I can certainly understand where they are coming from. I've been bored with happiness myself and was at times relieved to return to a dissociated state that wasn't clouded by emotion, regardless how positive. "Bliss", "excitement", "love" and so on have all, at times, done bad things to me, so getting rid of them at some times seems useful.

My main objections are that this a) looks like a false dichotomy (proper dissociation doesn't have to eliminate emotion, just its "stickiness") and b) it's outright irreversible wireheading. It might be good, but if it turns out that there are better options, then you just screwed yourself out of them.

Comment author: Swimmer963 30 May 2011 09:23:27AM 0 points [-]

it's outright irreversible wireheading. It might be good, but if it turns out that there are better options, then you just screwed yourself out of them.

Why should it be particularly irreversible?

Comment author: [deleted] 30 May 2011 09:58:48AM 1 point [-]

For one, they report emotions simply not coming up anymore without having to apply any method. There doesn't seem to be an obvious way to undo that.

But more importantly, I strongly suspect it changes your values. Once you wirehead, you won't want to un-wirehead. (Though a benevolent mad neuroscientist might still 'save' you.)

Comment author: MixedNuts 30 May 2011 10:48:00AM 1 point [-]

I accidentally lost emotions (disgust, then sorrow). They came back spontaneously once I got out of the situation that caused it, with only rather ordinary and reversible-seeming changes in when I feel them. Don't know if this applies to generalized emotion-nuking.

Comment author: jimmy 30 May 2011 05:48:12PM 0 points [-]

Are you willing to share some of the details or at least methods? That sounds like an interesting story.

Comment author: MixedNuts 31 May 2011 07:43:48AM 6 points [-]

What do you want to know? The methods are probably partially reproducible (though I'd expect high variance), but you seriously don't want to.

I was under pretty heavy stress during my whole childhood and early adolescence, and gradually lost things as a result (self-control in many areas, some intelligence, some memory). I was also a neat freak and hated e.g. showering in a dirty bathtub (plus some mild sensory issues), but normal habituation tempered that. In mid-adolescence I found a way out, but it blew up on me and I went depressed/emotionally numb for a few years.

At one point I started being completely unaffected by disgusting things I had to do, even though I consciously knew I'd normally be. At one point I was perplexed and went digging for something in a trash bag mostly as a test. Moral disgust was also decreased, but didn't completely disappear.

One or two years later, I also lost sorrow. When bad things happened, I felt indignation and anger and guilt and compassion and self-pity if applicable and all the rest of my usual reaction, but with a big gaping hole in the middle saying "Sorrow goes here". It was confusing.

A few months after that, I moved, changed schools, and started work on a big plans, with the expectation I would get better and regain some of the lost functions. Sorrow came back in a few weeks - I was mulling over an unrequited crush, noticed I was sad, and was happy about being sad for the day. Disgust came back sometime later, slightly more gradually.

Now I have about normal (though wildly varying depending on body awareness) levels of disgust. My reaction to bad things has changed (roughly, I want to fight, not mourn) so it doesn't include sorrow, but it doesn't feel like "Error: emotions/sorrow not found" either. I think I could train to feel sad about bad events, but it doesn't seem productive (I'm prone to self-pity). Sorrow is a pleasant emotion, a kind of luxury, to revel in over a crush or after a play with failed heroic sacrifices - not appropriate for 150000 deaths. Obviously this comes from my glee over getting sorrow back.

Comment author: jimmy 31 May 2011 06:11:31PM 0 points [-]

Interesting.. Thanks for the reply.

I think I'll pass on replicating it :p

Comment author: handoflixue 01 May 2012 10:04:49PM 0 points [-]

There doesn't seem to be an obvious way to undo that.

blinks I've built emotions by observing that others have them and seeking to emulate it. The clearest example for me is that I didn't use to have any real empathy/sympathy responses - people's emotions were as meaningful to me as the state of a toy; it bothered me insomuch as it might mean my toy was broken, that's it. These days I have a fairly robust sense of empathy, but I can still turn it on and off fairly easily, and I don't let it interfere with exploration of more useful responses.

I've also done experiments with removing entire emotions for ~24 hours, setting specific external triggers that will snap me back (and making sure at least one person knows some of what I've done, so they can try to talk me out of it if I've accidentally wireheaded myself in to a state where I want to stay wireheaded)

Comment author: Jack_Smith 11 June 2011 09:24:46PM 0 points [-]

I'm mostly distancing myself because, even though some people seem to have achieved good results (e.g. Tarin Greco), almost all of them seem like nutjobs to me, but maybe they are really happy nutjobs.

Exactly. Other than Tarin, Trent, Stephanie and maybe Peter, others don't seem pleasantly normal to me at all. I'm glad that I experienced PCEs, else I would have easily turned away from Actualism with much haste as there is much to detest the way it is presented.

Comment author: katydee 30 May 2011 07:10:19AM 1 point [-]

What's the source on that quote from Will Ryan?

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 30 May 2011 01:54:12PM 0 points [-]

E-mail to a private mailing list where some of these issues are discussed. (Shared with permission.)

Comment author: atucker 30 May 2011 12:49:34AM -1 points [-]

Do you know of any particular ways to keep score on your ability to manage suffering? Particularly if you don't have recurring or frequent sources of negative feelings?

Comment author: jimmy 30 May 2011 03:41:43AM 2 points [-]

Particularly if you don't have recurring or frequent sources of negative feelings?

It sounds like you're doing it right already..

Comment author: atucker 30 May 2011 03:48:17AM *  -1 points [-]

Heh. Well, I still do feel pretty bad about some things -- they just don't pop up often. I was wondering because I don't want to start fights in order to have things to worry about.

Comment author: jimmy 30 May 2011 05:47:12PM 1 point [-]

You can imagine what you'd do and actually get some useful information. If you don't like the way you react in your imagination, fix it, and it can actually apply in real life too.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 30 May 2011 08:17:27AM 0 points [-]

You could simply have a file where, for each day, you mark off whether you've gone the whole day without suffering or not.

Note that suffering doesn't have to be anything extreme. Suppose you have to carry some heavy, uncomfortable bags, or you feel mild annoyance about somebody saying something inappropriate. Those are still sources of suffering, if only mild ones.