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Meditation: a self-experiment

50 Swimmer963 30 December 2013 12:56AM


The LW/CFAR community has a fair amount of interest in meditation. This isn't surprising; many of the people who practiced and wrote about meditation in the past were trying to train a skill similar to rationality. Schools of meditation seem to be the closest already-existing thing to rationality dojos–this doesn't mean that they're very similar, only that I can't think of anything else that's more similar.

People are Doing Science on meditation; there are studies on the effects of meditation on attention, depression, anxietystress and pain reduction. [Insert usual disclaimer that many of these studies either won't be replicated or aren't measuring what they think they're measuring]. Meditation is apparently considered a form of alternative medicine; this is quite annoying, actually, since it's a thing that might help a lot of people being lumped in with other things that almost certainly don't work. 

[There's the spiritual enlightenment element of meditation, too. I won't touch on that, since my own experience isn't related to that aspect.]

Brienne Strohl has posted about meditation and metacognition; DavidM has posted on meditation and insight. Valentine, of CFAR, talked about mindfulness meditation helping to dispel the illusion of being hurried and never having enough time. 

In short, lots of hype–enough that I found it worthwhile to give it a try myself. The main benefit I hoped to attain from practicing meditation was better control of attention–to be able to aim my attention more reliably at a particular target, and notice more quickly when it drifted. The secondary benefit would be better understanding and control of emotions, which I had already tried to accomplish through techniques other than meditation. However, I’d had the experience for several years of thinking that meditation was a valuable thing to try, and not trying it–evidence that I needed more than good intentions. 

The experiment

Sometime in early September, I saw a poster on the wall at the hospital where I work, advertising a study on mindfulness meditation for people with social anxiety. I called the number on the poster and got myself enrolled because it was a good pre-commitment strategy. The benefits were deadlines, social pressure, and structure, with a steady supply of exercises, audio recordings, and readings. This came at the cost of two hours a week for twelve weeks, not all of which was spent on the specific skills that I wanted to learn. Another possible cost could be thinking of myself more as someone who has social anxiety, which might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don’t think this actually happened. If anything, sitting down in a group once a week with people whose anxiety significantly affected their functioning had the effect of making my own anxiety seem pretty insignificant. (I was able to convincingly make the case that I suffer from social anxiety during my interview; I've cried in front of my teachers a lot, including during my last year of nursing school, which caused some adults to think that I wasn't cut out for nursing). 

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The kinesthesia switch

7 NancyLebovitz 04 March 2012 11:46AM

I've been working on improving my kinesthesia for about thirty years (for reasons which are not obvious to me, I've felt a strong motivation to get moved into my body), and I've found something interesting.

I was doing a chi gung exercise [1] which involves going up on the balls of my feet while pushing up with my hands, and I suddenly noticed that my body had mostly blanked out when I was in the extended position, which led to a realization that blanking out was a process rather than a thing [2]. I thought "kinesthesia switch on", and I could suddenly feel a good bit of detail about how I was wobbling-- I mean I could feel some of my bones moving relative to each other, instead of just feeling in a vague sort of way that the position didn't feel very good.

What's better, is that I remembered how to turn on the kinesthesia switch, and have continued to work with it.

A side effect of turning on the switch is that I uncurl my upper body (kinesthesia seems to have something to do with alignment), but deliberately uncurling doesn't work nearly as well as turning on the switch.

At first, I would try to turn on the switch as much as possible, but that began to feel bad-- probably because there was some perfectionism driving that approach. I've tweaked it to "as much as feels good to me".

The most noticeable effect (aside from better spirits and less akrasia) is that going up and down stairs has become a lot easier the vast majority of the time. Down stairs has been a problem for years because of accumulated knee injuries. Upstairs became problematic about 6 months ago because, for no apparent reason, I developed some sort of serious muscle tightness in my right leg. It started with pain in the back of my right heel which was clearly linked to movement, and eventually shifted to pain in what definitely felt like the muscle attachment to my sitzbone on the right.

This days, I'm mostly trotting up and down stairs rather than stepping down a step and then puting the other foot on the same step in order to avoid a good bit of pain.

The reason I'm doing this as a top level post is because I'm pretty sure the kinesthesia switch isn't the only switch-- I think other switches can be found in areas where you've done enough observation to have a chance of finding the path from one state to another, and I'm hoping there will be comments about finding other switches.

Another, and less cheerful switch: I haven't been in that state for a while, but I used to be mildly suicidal-- I wasn't making plans, but suicide was on the table as a possibility. What's more, I wanted it there-- I didn't want to be in a situation where committing suicide made sense, but I wasn't able to get myself to do it.

What I found was that I could chose to have suicide as a felt possibility, and I would deliberately turn that switch back on if it turned off. It eventually occurred to me that my reason for keeping the switch on wasn't good (it was impacting my current quality of life for the sake of something I wasn't sure I'd need), and I left it off.

I don't have a theory of mind or brain which does a good job of explaining switches. This is all just observation.

In Move into Life, there's a description of a learning switch. The book is by Anat Baniel, a Feldenkrais teacher who found that her students would become more vital and who decided to directly cultivate various aspects of vitality. In particular, she noticed that was a shift when her students became interested in learning. In her opinion, the major reason people stop learning is that they believe they already know enough.

The learning switch is related to letting yourself believe that you don't already know the answer, allowing in new information, and letting your mind drift to other areas of knowledge to see if there's a connection to what you're interested in. I haven't been able to get results from Baniel's description-- I'm just mentioning this as another example of a switch.

It's possible that my learning switch is already on, but my problem is finding my "do something useful" switch.

More generally, my impression is that once you find a switch, it makes accessing a different state easy. This doesn't mean it's easy if you haven't yet found the switch or if you don't have the motivation to turn it.

[1] This is part of the eight brocades set from The Way of Energy-- this book is a solid introduction to standing meditation.

[2] Recognizing that something you thought was static and simple is actually made of moving parts is probably in the sequences somewhere, but I can't think of anything in particular.

Teaching Introspection

23 Swimmer963 01 August 2011 01:10AM

As Yvain pointed out in his recent post The Limits of Introspection, humans are not naturally good at inferring our cognitive processes. We resort to guessing with plausible-sounding stories about ourselves, and we aren’t very accurate.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching a swimming lesson. (You'll understand later why this reminded me.) A recurring problem that I’ve noticed with both children and adults is that it isn’t obvious to them what their bodies are doing. Feet go in strange directions, hands fail to lift above the water, and they literally can’t describe what it feels like. It’s pretty much impossible for a novice swimmer to watch the instructor demonstrate front crawl and then imitate it perfectly–muscular control isn’t that perfect. That’s why there are swimming instructors: because it’s very, very hard to learn swimming (or dance, or soccer, or a martial art) by reading a book, even if that book has illustrated diagrams. Two friends reading the book together and watching each other’s attempts in the pool would probably do better, but that’s still a case, metaphorically, of the blind leading the blind. Most sports have instructors and coaches who are, relatively speaking, experts. (I competed at the regional level in swimming for something like five years and trained five to seven times a week the whole time, which pretty much qualifies me to teach eight-year-olds. An Olympic coach would need a much higher level of mastery.)

The most basic thing a coach provides that the two friends practicing together don’t have is relevant feedback. I watch a young swimmer demonstrating her front crawl, and I can immediately chunk my observations into “what’s done properly” and “what’s done wrong” and translate the latter category into “things to change.” And the easiest way to learn perfect front crawl isn’t to do it over and over again with tiny changes, but to practice exaggerated and simplified “drills” that teach particular fragments of muscle memory. Faced with a given stroke problem, I can look over a list of about eight different front crawl drills to find the one best suited for fixing it. To place some objective measure on the improvements, I can time my swimmers or count their strokes per length The coaches of more elite swimmers have even fancier tools in their hands: videotaping, fins and hand paddles, and the flume, basically a wind tunnel in the water. (I wish I had one of these in my basement!) All to provide better feedback: even Olympic-level swimmers don’t automatically know what their bodies are doing wrong or what needs to be fixed. (I’m assuming this is true of sports other than swimming, too.)

Granted, human muscles do start out under some voluntary control. A baby learns how to walk with no instruction, only the feedback of trial and error. (And of seeing adults walk? I seem to remember reading that some feral children crawl on hands and knees, and seem to prefer this method to walking.) But even apparently involuntary skills can be learned, with the help of creative technology. With biofeedback, people can control their blood pressure and anxiety levels and apparently various other processes . The parallel should be obvious here. Introspection, like physical coordination, is only imperfectly under conscious control…but there is some control. That’s what consciousness is: self-awareness. Most people are aware that they have emotions, and that they make decisions because of their emotions, i.e. “I didn’t mean it, I just did it because I was angry!” Likewise, most people are aware of their likes and dislikes. It’s only a small leap to recognize that these kinds of preferences are malleable facts about the state of the brain, not immutable facts about the outside world. People do succeed in wrestling with their uncooperative minds, fighting akrasia and making deliberate and reasoned decisions.

Nevertheless, most people aren’t even at the same level, metaphorically speaking, as a non-swimmer trying to learn from diagrams in a book. The literature on cognitive biases and Alicorn's sequence on luminosity are a start on the ‘book of introspection’ and some of the Less Wrong groups that meet in person are trying to help each other master these skills. The various schools of meditation are arguably about teaching introspection, and clinical psychology could be seen the same way. Is it possible to go further? Olympic coaches have probably maxed out how fast an unmodified human can swim; your technique can't be any better than perfect; but I would like to think that we haven’t even scratched the limits of how well a completely unmodified human brain can understand itself. As far as I know, most traditions of meditation are just that: traditions, often ancient, that don’t accommodate recent discoveries about the brain and about thought processes. And psychology is limited by the focus on fixing ‘problems’ and returning patients to ‘normal.’ (And if you are ‘normal’, you don’t need a psychologist!) But everyone is affected equally by our apparently-innate inability to notice what our brains are really up to, and normal isn't a very ambitious standard. 

What does a cognitive bias feel like? I can’t look back on my actions and say “yeah, I’m pretty sure I said Tide was my favourite detergent because I was still thinking about oceans and moons.” Or at least, I can’t do that automatically. But if a scientist can predict that participants in an experiment will choose Tide when thinking about oceans and moons, then I can predict that about myself, too, and look back on all my decisions, trying to infer what factors were present at the time that could have primed my choice. It’s still a guess, but it’s an informed, useful one. And with practice, with an expert instructor to point out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, maybe a given cognitive bias does feel like something recognizable. Maybe the hidden secrets of your thought processes would become transparent and obvious. The next problem is finding instructors who are sufficiently advanced, and teaching exercises to use. The repetitive and level-based nature of video games would make them ideal as “thinking drills" training "neural memory" instead of "muscle memory."

I don't know enough to guess at the specifics of what this kind of school might look like, but I would definitely take lessons in introspection if they were available…I can’t really see a downside. Finding out that my decisions were due more often to random factors unconnected to to the Great Story That Is My Life might be unflattering, but it's equally awful whether I know about it or not, and knowing gives me a chance to fix those decisions that might otherwise turn out damagingly irrational. Anyone, or any group of people, willing to take on the task of becoming expert instructors in this field would hugely help those of us who have trouble learning procedural skills from books. 

Shifting Load to Explicit Reasoning

13 Vladimir_Nesov 07 May 2011 06:00PM

Related to: Which Parts Are "Me"?, Making your explicit reasoning trustworthy, The 5-Second Level.

What's damaging about moralizing that we wish to avoid, what useful purpose does moralizing usually serve, and what allows to avoid the damage while retaining the usefulness? It engages psychological adaptations that promote conflict (by playing on social status), which are unpleasant to experience and can lead to undesirable consequences in the long run (such as feeling systematically uncomfortable interacting with a person, and so not being able to live or work or be friends with them). It serves the purpose of imprinting your values, which you feel to be right, on the people you interact with. Consequentialist elucidation of reasons for approving or disapproving of a given policy (virtue) is an effective persuasion technique if your values are actually right (for the people you try to confer them on), and it doesn't engage the same parts of your brain that make moralizing undesirable.

What happens here is transfer of responsibility for important tasks from the imperfect machinery that historically used to manage them (with systematic problems in any given context that humans but not evolution can notice), to explicit reasoning.

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The 5-Second Level

112 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 May 2011 04:51AM

To develop methods of teaching rationality skills, you need to learn to focus on mental events that occur in 5 seconds or less.  Most of what you want to teach is directly on this level; the rest consists of chaining together skills on this level.

As our first example, let's take the vital rationalist skill, "Be specific."

Even with people who've had moderate amounts of exposure to Less Wrong, a fair amount of my helping them think effectively often consists of my saying, "Can you give me a specific example of that?" or "Can you be more concrete?"

A couple of formative childhood readings that taught me to be specific:

"What is meant by the word red?"
"It's a color."
"What's a color?"
"Why, it's a quality things have."
"What's a quality?"
"Say, what are you trying to do, anyway?"

You have pushed him into the clouds.  If, on the other hand, we habitually go down the abstraction ladder to lower levels of abstraction when we are asked the meaning of a word, we are less likely to get lost in verbal mazes; we will tend to "have our feet on the ground" and know what we are talking about.  This habit displays itself in an answer such as this:

"What is meant by the word red?"
"Well, the next time you see some cars stopped at an intersection, look at the traffic light facing them.  Also, you might go to the fire department and see how their trucks are painted."

-- S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action


"Beware, demon!" he intoned hollowly.  "I am not without defenses."
"Oh yeah?  Name three."

-- Robert Asprin, Another Fine Myth

And now, no sooner does someone tell me that they want to "facilitate communications between managers and employees" than I say, "Can you give me a concrete example of how you would do that?"  Hayakawa taught me to distinguish the concrete and the abstract; and from that small passage in Asprin, I picked up the dreadful personal habit of calling people's bluffs, often using the specific phrase, "Name three."

But the real subject of today's lesson is how to see skills like this on the 5-second level.  And now that we have a specific example in hand, we can proceed to try to zoom in on the level of cognitive events that happen in 5 seconds or less.

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