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Training Reflective Attention

3 BrienneStrohl 20 December 2014 09:46PM

Crossposted at Agenty Duck

And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry's art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it. —HPMOR, Ch. 3

A rationalist’s art is most distant when it is most needed. Why is that?

When I am very angry with my romantic partner, what I feel is anger. I don’t feel the futility of throwing a tantrum, or the availability of other options like honest communication, or freewriting, or taking a deep breath. My attention is so narrowly focused on the object of my anger that I’m likely not even aware that I’m angry, let alone that my anger might be blinding me to my art.

When her skills are most needed, a rationalist is lost in an unskillful state of mind. She doesn’t recognize that it’s happening, and she doesn’t remember that she has prepared for it by learning and practicing appropriate techniques.

I've designed and exercise that trains a skill I call reflective attention, and some call mindfulness. For me, it serves as an anchor in a stormy mind, or as a compass pointing always toward a mental state where my art is close at hand.

Noticing that I am lost in an unskillful state of mind is a separate skill. But when I do happen to notice—when I feel that small, small note of confusion—reflective attention helps me find my way back. Instead of churning out even more pointless things to yell at my partner, it allows me to say, “I am angry. I feel an impulse to yell. I notice my mind returning over and over to the memory that makes me more angry. I’m finding it hard to concentrate. I am distracted. I have a vague impression that I have prepared for this.” And awareness of that final thought allows me to ask, “What have I trained myself to do when I feel this way?”

The goal of the following exercise is to practice entering reflective attention.

It begins with an instruction to think of nothing. When you monitor yourself to make sure you’re not having any thoughts, your attention ends up directed toward the beginnings of thoughts. Since the contents of consciousness are always changing, maintaining focus on the beginnings of thoughts prevents you from engaging for an extended period with any particular thought. It prevents you from getting “lost in thought”, or keeping attention focused on a thought without awareness of doing so. The point is not actually to be successful at thinking nothing, as that is impossible while conscious, but to notice what happens when you try.

Keeping your focus on the constant changes in your stream of consciousness brings attention to your experience of awareness itself. Awareness of awareness is the anchor for attention. It lets you keep your bearings when you’d otherwise be carried away by a current of thought or emotion.

Once you’re so familiar with the feeling of reflection that creating it is a primitive action, you can forget the introductory part, and jump straight to reflective attention whenever it occurs to you to do so.

This will probably take around five minutes, but you can do it for much longer if you want to.

Notice what your mind is doing right now. One thing it’s doing is experiencing sensations of black and white as you read. What else are you experiencing? Are there words in your inner monologue? Are there emotions of any kind?

Spend about thirty seconds trying not to think anything. When thirty seconds is up, stop trying not to think, and read on.




What’s happening in your mind is constantly changing. Even when you were trying not to think, you probably noticed many times when the stillness would shift and some new thought would begin to emerge in conscious awareness.

Turn your attention to those changes. When a new thought emerges in consciousness, see if you can notice the exact moment when it happens, becoming aware of what it feels like for that particular change to take place.

If it helps at first, you can narrate your stream of consciousness in words: “Now I’m seeing the blue of the wall, now I’m hearing the sound of a car, now I’m feeling cold, now I’m curious what time it is…” You’ll probably find that you can’t narrate anywhere near quickly enough, in part because thoughts can happen in parallel, while speech is serial. Once narrating starts to become frustrating, stop slowing yourself down with words, and just silently observe your thoughts as they occur.

If you’re finding this overwhelming because there are too many thoughts, narrow your focus down to just your breathing, and try to precisely identify the experience of an exhale ending and an inhale beginning, of an inhale ending and an exhale beginning. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable with it, and then slowly expand your attention a little at a time: to other experiences associated with breathing, to non-breath-related bodily sensations, to non-tactile sensations from your environment, and finally to internal mental sensations like emotions.

If you notice an impulse to focus your attention on a particular thought, following it and engaging with it—perhaps you notice you feel hungry, and in response you begin to focus your attention on planning lunch—instead of letting that impulse take over your attention, recognize it as yet another change in the activity of your mind. If you’re narrating, say, “now I’m feeling an impulse to plan my lunch”, and keep your focus broad enough to catch the next thought when it arises. If you realize that you’ve already become lost in a particular thought, notice that realization itself as a new thought, and return to observing your stream of consciousness by noticing the next new thought that happens as well.




You might need to practice this many times before you get the hang of it. I suggest trying it for ten minutes to half an hour a day until you do.

Once you feel like you can recognize the sensation of reflective attention and enter that state of mind reliably given time, begin to train for speed. Instead of setting a timer for fifteen minutes or however long you want to practice, set it to go off every minute for the first half of your practice, spending one minute in reflective attention, and one minute out. (Don’t do this for all of your practice. You still need to practice maintenance.) When you can consistently arrive in reflective attention by the end of the minute, cut the intervals down to 45 seconds, then thirty, fifteen, and five.

In real life, the suspicion that you may be lost in an unskillful state of mind will be quiet and fleeting. “Quiet” means you’ll need to learn to snap your attention to the slightest hint of that feeling. For that, you’ll need to train “noticing”. “Fleeting” means you’ll need to be able to respond in less than five seconds. You’ll need to begin the process in less than one second, even if it takes a little longer to fully arrive in reflective attention. For that, training for speed is crucial.

[Link] The Dominant Life Form In the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots

1 Gunnar_Zarncke 20 December 2014 12:28PM

An Article on Motherboard reports about  Alien Minds by Susan Schneider who claiThe Dominant Life Form In the Cosmos Is Probably Superintelligent Robots. The article is crosslinked to other posts about superintelligence and at the end discusses the question why these alien robots leave us along. The arguments puts forth on this don't convince me though. 


Velocity of behavioral evolution

3 Dr_Manhattan 19 December 2014 05:34PM

This suggested a major update on the velocity of behavioral trait evolution.

Basically mice transmitted fear of cherry smell reliably into the very next generation (via epigenetics). 


This seems pretty important.

Weekly LW Meetups

3 FrankAdamek 19 December 2014 05:27PM

This summary was posted to LW Main on December 12th. The following week's summary is here.

Irregularly scheduled Less Wrong meetups are taking place in:

The remaining meetups take place in cities with regular scheduling, but involve a change in time or location, special meeting content, or simply a helpful reminder about the meetup:

Locations with regularly scheduled meetups: Austin, Berkeley, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Buffalo, Cambridge UK, Canberra, Columbus, London, Madison WI, Melbourne, Moscow, Mountain View, New York, Philadelphia, Research Triangle NC, Seattle, Sydney, Toronto, Vienna, Washington DC, and West Los Angeles. There's also a 24/7 online study hall for coworking LWers.

continue reading »

Letting it go: when you shouldn't respond to someone who is wrong

3 [deleted] 19 December 2014 03:12PM

I'm requesting that people follow a simple guide when determining whether to respond to a post. This simple algorithm should raise the quality of discussion here.

  • If you care about the answer to a question, you will research it.
  • If you don't care about the answer, don't waste people's time by arguing about it, even if someone's post seems wrong.
  • If you don't care and still want to argue, do the research.

Why should you follow these rules?


It takes very little effort to post a contradictory assertion. You just have to skim a post, find an assertion (preferably one that isn't followed or preceded immediately by paragraphs of backing evidence, but that's an optional filter), and craft a sentence indicating that that assertion is wrong or flawed. Humans can do this almost by instinct. It's magical.

Refuting a contradiction takes effort. I typically spend at least five minutes of research and five minutes of writing to make a reply refuting a bare contradiction when I have already studied the issue thoroughly and know which sources I want to use. I go to this effort because I care about these statements I've made and because I care about what other people believe. I want to craft a reply that is sufficiently thorough to be convincing. And, I'll admit, I want to crush my opponents with my impeccable data. I'm a bit petty sometimes.

If I haven't researched the issue well -- if my sources are second-hand, or if I'm using personal experience -- I might spend two hours researching a simple topic and ten to fifteen minutes creating a response. This is a fair amount of time invested. I don't mind doing it; it makes me learn more. It's a time investment, though.

So, let's compare. Half a second of thought and two minutes to craft a reply containing nothing but a contradiction, versus two hours of unpaid research. This is a huge imbalance. Let's address this by trying to research people's claims before posting a contradiction, shall we?


You are convinced that someone's argument is flawed. This means that they have not looked into the issue sufficiently, or their reasoning is wrong. As a result, you can't trust their argument to be a good example of arguments for their position. You can look for flaws of reasoning, which is easy. You can look for cases where their data is misleading or wrong -- but that requires actual effort. You have to either find a consensus in the relevant authorities that differs from what this other person is saying, or you have to look at their specific data in some detail. That means you have to do some research.


If you want people to stick around, and you're brusquely denying their points until they do hours of work to prove them, they're going to view lesswrong as a source of stress. This is not likely to encourage them to return. If you do the legwork yourself, you seem knowledgeable. If you're careful with your phrasing, you can also seem helpful. (I expect that to be the tough part.) This reduces the impact of having someone contradict you.

Advancing the argument.

From what I've seen, the flow of argument goes something like: argument → contradiction of two or three claims → proof of said claims → criticism of proof → rebuttal → acceptance, analysis of argument. By doing some research on your own rather than immediately posting a contradiction, you are more quickly getting to the meat of the issue. You aren't as likely to get sidetracked. You can say things like: "This premise seems a bit contentious, but it's a widely supported minority opinion for good reasons. Let's take it as read for now and see if your conclusions are supported, and we can come back to it if we need to."

Bonus: "You're contradicting yourself."

Spoiler: they're not contradicting themselves.

We read here a lot about how people's brains fail them in myriad interesting ways. Compartmentalization is one of them. People's beliefs can contradict each other. But people tend to compartmentalize between different contexts, not within the same context.

One post or article probably doesn't involve someone using two different compartments. What looks like a contradiction is more likely a nuance that you don't understand or didn't bother to read, or a rhetorical device like hyperbole. (I've seen someone here say I'm contradicting myself when I said "This group doesn't experience this as often, and when they do experience it, it's different." Apparently "not as often" is the same as "never"?) Read over the post again. Look for rhetorical devices. Look for something similar that would make sense. If you're uncertain, try to express that similar argument to the other person and ask if that's what they mean.

If you still haven't found anything besides a bare contradiction, a flat assertion that they're contradicting themselves is a bad way to proceed. If you're wrong and they aren't contradicting themselves, they will be annoyed at you. That's bad enough. They will have to watch everything they say very carefully so that they do not use rhetorical devices or idioms or anything that you could possibly lawyer into a contradiction. This takes a lot more effort than simply writing an argument in common modes of speech, as everyone who's worked on a journal article knows.

Arguing with you is not worth that amount of effort. Don't make it harder than it needs to be.

Weekly LW Meetups

2 FrankAdamek 19 December 2014 05:17PM

Post Resource Request

1 Minds_Eye 19 December 2014 05:04PM

After having viewed a recent post by Gworley I noticed that the material was deliberately opaque*.  It's not as complicated as it seems, and should be able to be taught to people at lower than "Level 4" on Kegan's Constructive Developmental Theory.  The only serious block I saw was the ridiculous gap in inferential distance. 
With that in mind I was hoping someone might have recommendations on even tangentially related material as what I have now appears to be insufficient.  (Simplifying CDT appears to be manageable, but not particularly useful without further material like Kantor's Four Player Model and Subject-Object Notation.)

*edit: Not Gworley's, it was Kegan's material that was opaque.

Munchkining for Fun and Profit, Ideas, Experience, Successes, Failures

4 Username 19 December 2014 05:39AM

A munchkin is someone who follows the letter of the rules of a game while breaking their spirit, someone who wins by exploiting possibilities that others don't see, reject as impossible or unsporting, or just don't believe can possibly work.

If you have done something that everyone around you thought would not work, something that people around you didn't do after they saw it work, please share your experiences. If you tried something and failed or have ideas you want to hear critique of, likewise please share those with us.

An explanation of the 'Many Interacting Worlds' theory of quantum mechanics (by Sean Carroll and Chip Sebens)

4 Ander 18 December 2014 11:36PM

This is the first explanation of a 'many worlds' theory of quantum mechanics that has ever made sense to me. The animations are excellent:



Bayes Academy Development Report 2 - improved data visualization

4 Kaj_Sotala 18 December 2014 10:11PM

See here for the previous update if you missed / forgot it.

In this update, no new game content, but new graphics.

I wasn’t terribly happy about the graphical representation of the various nodes in the last update. Especially in the first two networks, if you didn’t read the descriptions of the nodes carefully, it was very easy to just click your way through them without really having a clue of what the network was actually doing. Needless to say, for a game that’s supposed to teach how the networks function, this is highly non-optimal.

Here’s the representation that I’m now experimenting with: the truth table of the nodes is represented graphically inside the node. The prior variable at the top doesn’t really have a truth table, it’s just true or false. The “is” variable at the bottom is true if its parent is true, and false if its parent is false.

You may remember that in the previous update, unobservable nodes were represented in grayscale. I ended up dropping that, because that would have been confusing in this representation: if the parent is unobservable, should the blobs representing its truth values in the child node be in grayscale as well? Both “yes” and “no” answers felt confusing.

Instead the observational state of a node is now represented by its border color. Black for unobservable, gray for observable, no border for observed. The metaphor is supposed to be something like, a border is a veil of ignorance blocking us from seeing the node directly, but if the veil is gray it’s weak enough to be broken, whereas a black veil is strong enough to resist a direct assault. Or something.

When you observe a node, not only does its border disappear, but the truth table entries that get reduced to a zero probability disappear, to be replaced by white boxes. I experimented with having the eliminated entries still show up in grayscale, so you could e.g. see that the “is” node used to contain the entry for (false -> false), but felt that this looked clearer.

The “or” node at the bottom is getting a little crowded, but hopefully not too crowded. Since we know that its value is “true”, the truth table entry showing (false, false -> false) shows up in all whites. It’s also already been observed, so it starts without a border.

After we observe that there’s no monster behind us, the “or” node loses its entries for (monster, !waiting -> looks) and (monster, waiting -> looks), leaving only (!monster, waiting -> looks): meaning that the boy must be waiting for us to answer.

This could still be made clearer: currently the network updates instantly. I’m thinking about adding a brief animation where the “monster” variable would first be revealed as false, which would then propagate an update to the values of “looks at you” (with e.g. the red tile in “monster” blinking at the same time as the now-invalid truth table entries, and when the tiles stopped blinking, those now-invalid entries would have disappeared), and that would in turn propagate the update to the “waiting” node, deleting the red color from it. But I haven’t yet implemented this.

The third network is where things get a little tricky. The “attacking” node is of type “majority vote” - i.e. it’s true if at least two of its parents are true, and false otherwise. That would make for a truth table with eight entries, each holding four blobs each, and we could already see the “or” node in the previous screen being crowded. I’m not quite sure of what to do here. At this moment I’m thinking of just leaving the node as is, and displaying more detailed information in the sidebar.

Here’s another possible problem. Just having the truth table entries works fine to make it obvious where the overall probability of the node comes from… for as long as the valid values of the entries are restricted to “possible” and “impossible”. Then you can see at a glance that, say, of the three possible entries, two would make this node true and one would make this false, so there’s a ⅔ chance of it being true.

But in this screen, that has ceased to be the case. The “attacking” node has a 75% chance of being true, meaning that, for instance, the “is / block” node’s “true -> true” entry also has a 75% chance of being the right one. This isn’t reflected in the truth table visualization. I thought of adding small probability bars under each truth table entry, or having the size of the truth table blobs reflect their probability, but then I’d have to make the nodes even bigger, and it feels like it would easily start looking cluttered again. But maybe it’d be the right choice anyway? Or maybe just put the more detailed information in the sidebar? I’m not sure of the best thing to do here.

If anyone has good suggestions, I would be grateful to get advice from people who have more of a visual designer gene than I do!

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