Archives for October 2013

Other People’s Emotional States

Last week I posted as my Facebook status that: “Someone else’s emotional state is almost always a terrible optimization target.” I got a couple of requests to expand the thought to the length of a blog post, so here I go!

I’ve been thinking since I posted it, and I think there are two fairly separable reasons that I think the mental representation of another person in a particular emotional state isn’t a productive thing to focus my mind on. First, how other people feel isn’t something I can control. And second, it’s a metric that is easy and harmful to game.

Let me start by saying how I think intentionality works in the human mind. (These ideas are not original to me, but I also haven’t ever heard anyone articulate them in quite the way I do.) Intentions are represented as pictures of how we want the world to be. I think they usually have more influence over our behavior when they’re represented vividly. Pictures are almost always involved, words may be involved, feelings in our body are often involved. Smells and tastes may be involved too. They have size, color, and position. They may be moving or static. 

And ultimately, we try to make these pictures come true. Of course it’s somewhat more complicated than that. And we’re certainly imperfect at fulfilling our intentions, but that’s the basic idea. I won’t link to The Secret because that seems embarrassing and I haven’t actually read it, but I think that book says the same thing in more woo-woo language.

To break it down more, I think correspondence between our mental representations and our perceptions is reinforcing, and more so for the more vivid ones that are represented in many modalities. So approaching intentions shapes our behavior.

And it’s worth saying that the intentions that have most powerfully shaped our behavior aren’t necessarily ones that are aligned with our explicit goals. As the saying goes, “we’d rather be right than happy.”

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Religious Fasting Traditions

If you’ve ever talked to me about nutrition, you would know that I’m a huge proponent of fasting. I knew that cultural and religious traditions throughout the world had incorporated some form of fasting practice into their doctrines, though I had not systematically tried to document it myself at the time. There may be a decent review article on this somewhere, but I decided to sit down and do a little research myself last year, and these are my notes from that exercise.

tl;dr: there are lots of different kinds of fasting. Some commonalities include the use of sunrise/sunset, fasting as a spiritual practice (opposed to mere starvation) including prayer and charity, proscribed feasting days/periods, and not drinking water either. Longer-term fasts usually restrict eating during daylight hours and/or restricted types of food during the night, and these appear to be the most common. Fasts of 1-2 days can involve complete cessation of both food and water. The strictest fast is 2 meals over 5 days. Fasting is at most 250 days/year, and 1-2 times per week or month is very common. Exceptions for the young, the old, the sick, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, laborers, and travelers are relatively common. Not every religion has a fasting tradition.

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Memorizing Emotionally Salient Quotations

One of the more unusual projects I undertook a few years back was memorizing a bunch of quotations. In particular, I mostly picked ones that seemed emotionally salient.

I love it when I read something that lets me glimpse a truth about the world that I hadn’t quite noticed or thought of in that way. And typically, the clue that I’m realizing something is that I have an emotional reaction.

I did find that if I spent enough time with the quotations, I was able to grok them more fully. I could update my model of the world and internalize the meaning that I had been reacting too. I was still able to recognize the words as beautiful afterwards, but the character of my appreciation for them had changed to something softer.

Looking back at some of the passages I memorized at the time, I thought I’d share a few and what I think I learned from them.

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Parenting and the Non-Shared Environment

There is a major thread in the parenting literature that claims, in short, that parenting (short of outright abuse) has little to no effect on adult outcomes that we care about. Two exemplars in this category include The Nurture Assumption and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. This claim is largely based on twin and adoption studies, which allow us to attribute the observed variance in traits to genetic, shared environment, and non-shared environment factors. The general pattern is that lots of traits are about half genetic and half non-shared environment, with little contribution from shared environment. There is a major embedded assumption in this line of reasoning: that parenting effects are mainly in the shared environment. It turns out that this assumption is not a particularly good one.

A review article on research into the non-shared environment was released about two years ago, and it provides some fascinating data on this subject. I will quote some sections at length, but the entire paper is worth reading. Here is the first excerpt of interest:

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Suffering is Created by Resistance

I got an email a few days ago about a card from one of my Anki decks that says “Suffering is created by resistance.”

I wanted to explain what that statement meant to me. To start, in my mind there is a companion phrase: “Pain is not suffering.” 

Here’s what I’ve written about that statement. I hope it makes sense.

But suffering seemingly exists, and so if pain doesn’t account for it, what does?

This post is a more complete and articulate presentation of the idea that suffering results from conflict between two subsystems. 

And sometimes I do put it that way. I think there’s another card in the same Anki deck that says something about how internal conflict results in suffering. Saying that suffering is created by resistance is a slightly different framing, and one that I think is useful.

Physical suffering is a lot about tensing up, which seems to go along with the framing of suffering being resistance. Suffering comes from wanting the world to be different, and making some mental or physical motion that sort of kind of almost works on the margin but is actually ridiculous.

A very rough idea of how I think our brain works is that we hold in our mind a mental representation of how we want things to be, and then move towards that goal state. It seem to be strongly reinforcing to have our external experience match our internal pictures. But when we resist, we’re trying to hack this system. Like closing our eyes to prevent someone from seeing us.

Or trying to ignore and silence disturbing thoughts because that better fits our mental picture of health and happiness.

Pretending not to be angry because I don’t know what to do with anger. Slumping and having bad posture to dampen my feelings.

All that stuff feels bad, and I would call it resistance.

Feeling Better than Other People

This post will just be a quick note based on a conversation I had with someone recently on the subject of feeling superior to other people. I’ve been there before, as I suspect many people have. If you find yourself simultaneously thinking you’re somehow better than other people and thinking it’s wrong to think that way, here are some distinctions that may make the issue less loaded.

  • The question of how much net value you are providing for the world is a legitimate one, in my opinion. And the answer may be that you’re providing more than most, especially if you’re optimizing for it. 
  • If you’re feeling a sense of entitlement that seems less than pro-social, remember that most things aren’t zero sum. If you want more attention from others, influence in the world, money, etc., that’s legitimate! But these things don’t have to come at other people’s expense.
  • People are pretty different from each other. You may be more intelligent, powerful, aware, etc. than many people. And you are almost certainly less of all the above characteristics than others. It can be polite to ignore differences in ability between people, but there comes a time when you may also want an accurate assessment of where you are. Make it okay to think about these things as objectively as possible when you choose to focus on them. It’s okay that differences exist, and if you try to repress your desire to discern them, you might get messy side effects.. Sometimes these differences have far-reaching implications, and often not. 
  • The capacity to feel respect and compassion for all people is a really important one. Some thinkers say that we get our gut-level feeling of self-worth primarily from recognizing this particular capacity, and this seems plausible to me. Whatever causes you to lose track of this ability is worth reconsidering.

I think I had more thoughts there, but that’s a brief partial brain dump.