Multiple Meanings in “I don’t know how I feel about that”

I noticed an unexpected form of ambiguity recently in the context of the phrase “I don’t know how I feel about that”. In common English, that sentence and its many permutations and variants have a fairly specific meaning, which is almost but not exactly the literal meaning. I was trying to specifically communicate the literal meaning, and realized I couldn’t without a bunch of explanation. This post is that explanation, for future reference.

As an example, let’s say you were offered a piece of food. We can roughly map your emotional reaction down to a simple scale from -100 (very negative; you would not eat the food under any circumstances) to 100 (very positive; you desperately want to eat the food). A score around 0 would be neutral, or ambivalent. This loses a lot of nuance of course, but that’s OK for the purposes of the example.

Given this scenario, if you say “I don’t know how I feel about that”, that’s generally taken to mean your reaction is around 0; you are roughly ambivalent. But literally taken, you do actually know how you feel: you know that you’re ambivalent. What you’re really expressing uncertainty about is which side of 0 you’ll fall on (ever so slightly positive, or ever so slightly negative), and thus whether you should eat the food.

However, in the specific case I ran into recently, I didn’t want to express “I’m close to neutral on this”. I wanted to express “I literally do not know what number I am feeling”. I could have been anywhere on the scale between -100 and 100, and I simply didn’t know. This not knowing was a very weird experience in itself, since it doesn’t seem common to be that out of touch with your own emotions. But apparently it can happen. Who knew.

A Cautionary Note on Unlocking the Emotional Brain

[Follows from Mental Mountaineering]

In children’s stories, the good guys always win, the hero vanquishes the villain, and everyone lives happily ever after. Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

The world of therapy presented by Unlocking the Emotional Brain reads somewhat like a children’s story. Loosely, it presents a model of the brain where your problems are mostly caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (bad guys). The solution to your problems is to develop or discover a correct emotional belief (good guy) that contradicts your incorrect beliefs, then force your brain to recognize the contradiction at an emotional level. This causes your brain to automatically resolve the conflict and destroy the incorrect belief, so you can live happily ever after.

Real life tends to be somewhat messier than this.

After about a month of miscellaneous experimentation on myself based on this book, my experiences match the basic model presented, where many psychological problems are caused by incorrect emotional beliefs (I don’t think this part is particularly controversial in psychological circles). It also seems to be true that if I force my brain to recognize a contradiction between two emotionally relevant beliefs, it will resolve the conflict and destroy one of them. Of course, as in real life where the good guy doesn’t always win, it seems that when I do this my brain doesn’t always destroy the right belief.

I have had several experiences now where I have identified an emotional belief which analytically I believe to be false or harmful. Per UtEB I have identified or created a different experience or belief that contradicts it, and smashed them together in my mind. A reasonable percentage of the time, the false belief emerges stronger than before, and I find myself twisting the previous “good” belief into some horrific experience to conform with the existing false belief.

In hindsight this shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Whatever part of your brain is used to resolve conflicting emotional beliefs and experiences, it doesn’t have special access to reality. All it has to work with are the two conflicting pieces and any other related beliefs you might have. It’s going to pick the wrong one with some regularity. As such, my recommendation for people trying this process themselves (either as individuals or as therapists) is to try and ensure that the “good” belief is noticeably stronger and more immediate than the false one before you focus on the contradiction. If this doesn’t work and you end up in a bad way, I’ve had a bit of luck “quarantining” the newly corrupted belief to prevent it from spreading to even further beliefs, at least until I can come up with an even stronger correct belief to fight it with.

Mental Mountaineering

Back in November, Scott Alexander wrote a post called Mental Mountains, referring to the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain and this discussion of it over at Less Wrong. I’m halfway through the book itself, and I’ve read both discussions of it including some of the follow-up conversations that happened in the comments. It’s a fascinating model and definitely worth reading if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ve been reading a lot of therapy/psychology books recently and this one does seem to tie a lot of things together very nicely.

One partial comment that stood out to me from the Less Wrong discussion was the following by PJ Eby:

…I didn’t realize yet that hard part 1 (needing to identify the things to change) and hard part 2 (needing to get past meta issues), meant that it is impossible to mass-produce change techniques.

That is, you can’t write a single document, record a single video, etc. that will convey to all its consumers what they need in order to actually implement effective change.

I don’t mean that you can’t successfully communicate the ideas or the steps. I just mean that implementing those steps is not a simple matter of following procedure, because of the aforementioned Hard Parts. It’s like expecting someone to learn to bike, drive, or debug programs from a manual.

Let it never be said that I didn’t like a challenge.


I’ve been working on my own brain fairly intentionally for several years now. This process has included traditional therapy with a licensed psychologist, a bunch of reading, and of course just a lot of my own time spent thinking and introspecting and running various thought experiments to see how different hypothetical worlds would make me feel. In this time I have made substantial progress on some problems, and very little progress on others. I’m always looking for more tools to add to my toolbox, and when I first read Scott’s article I added Unlocking the Emotional Brain to my short-list of books to get out of the library.

I’ve read the first three chapters of the book now, and I’ve already paused my reading several times to try and put various pieces of it into practice inside my mind. It’s far too early to draw any reliable conclusions from that, but preliminary results appear promising. I should, however, note that I’m likely to be an outlier in this respect. I’m an introspective and generally self-aware person to begin with, this is an area of general interest for me anyway, and of course I’ve already spent a substantial amount of time articulating and discussing my problems with the help of a real psychologist (though not one who is aware of UtEB). In other words, I have a fairly substantial set of advantages over the average person who might read UtEB and try and self-inflict its particular form of therapy.

At this point it’s too early to know if the internal process I’m going to follow is even going to generate substantive long-term results. If it does however, then I may very well take a crack at generalizing that into a series of posts for do-it-yourself therapy. PJ’s reservations are well-founded but I firmly believe I can explain just about anything to a general audience, and this sure seems like it would be valuable enough to try.

Two More Weird Moral Rules

In my previous post I unpacked a number of moral rules I’d developed as a child trying to be clever and hack adult morality. What I didn’t quite realize when I published it was that the list incomplete – now that I’m actively paying attention to my moral intuitions I keep running across additional things which belong on the list. Here are more things that are still part of my psyche in some way.

Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. I’d originally just edited this into the previous post after the fact, but now that I’ve found more rules it deserves a proper write-up too. This one is really interesting because in practice I’m sure I still hyperbolically discount my choices a lot of the time. However it has led to some weirder personal choices which I’m still not sure are entirely wrong. For example, I don’t drink coffee for largely the same reason I don’t do heroin: the long-term costs of an addiction seem to outweigh the temporary benefits. Clearly most people don’t think this way (or at least don’t bother to think this way), and the cost-benefit analysis for coffee is not as clearly one-sided as it is for heroin, but… it still makes sense in my head. It’s also worth noting that I do drink coffee occasionally, as a tool to stay awake when e.g. driving long distances late at night. But this is reasonable because caffeine is much less addictive than heroin, so it can be more safely used as a tool in certain situations without developing a habit.

Another weird one this short-term-long-term rule has affected is how I listen to music. I’ve noticed that I tend to listen to my music at a much lower volume than other people, I never use earbuds (in-ear headphones) if I can avoid it, and if I’m in an environment that is noisy such as an airplane, I tend to prefer turning my music off rather than turning it up to compensate. My brain tells me I do this because I strongly value my future hearing much more than whatever marginal enjoyment I’d get from slightly louder music. I imagine this is mediated in part because, as a fairly musical person, half the music I “listen to” is entirely in my head anyway.

Never seek status or be seen to be seeking status. My brain argues that it’s a waste of resources since it actually lowers your status among the people who do the real work. I need to get my hair cut right now (it is getting sufficiently shaggy to start being a problem) and I was avoiding it because it felt wrong. Digging into this made me realize that the barber I’ve been going to was “too fancy”, and that I was actively making myself feel guilty for spending money on “status” services that weren’t “practical” enough. There’s a clear kernel of truth behind this one; “shallow”, “vain”, etc. are all pejorative for a reason. And I’m sure a lot of it can be traced back to this Paul Graham essay which I have probably referenced way too much in the history of this blog now. But still, I’m clearly taking this rule too far. A haircut is a haircut.

Beyond those two additions, I want to leave one more thought on a group that showed up in my previous post: don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t double down, don’t learn things the hard way. These four rules are all underpinned by a pretty fundamental intuition which is: you are not as smart as the system. Other people know what’s what, and if you try and cheat them (or even just ignore their advice) it will go badly for you. What’s weird about this one is how false it seems to be in practice now. It was certainly true when I developed it (I was a kid, my parents are both very smart, and my mother at least is also very perceptive (hey dad!)) but now I’m fairly certain that I could lie and cheat circles around most people without getting caught. I don’t. And anyway the people I actively spend time with tend to be just as clever as me and unlikely to be fooled. But it’s weird to think of an alternative evil version of myself that has a very different social circle and is a creepy manipulative bastard, and gets away with it. I don’t want that life, but it seems achievable, which is scary enough.

A Meta-Morality Tale

As a child, you hear a lot of fables and morality tales. Most stories aimed at children have a moral of some sort, and even stories that aren’t explicitly aimed at kids typically have some sort of morality baked in. It’s hard to avoid when writing.

As a child, I noticed this and thought I was being very clever by trying to pattern-match my way from the collection of these morality tales to “general rules for life”. I didn’t frame it in quite this way at the time, but it seemed obvious that adults were trying to teach kids certain things about the world using repetition and variation on a theme, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just formulate the rules into English and tell me them already. But I liked puzzles and so if they wouldn’t tell me I’d just figure it out myself. As I formulated my rules, I promised myself that I would follow them unconditionally. After all, I was being clever and unlocking the secrets to life “early” somehow, so if I just always did the right thing that should clearly be an advantage. Spoiler: it wasn’t.

Considerably rephrased for clarity, this is what I remember coming up with:

  • Always put the tribe first (I was later delighted when I found out that Star Trek did in fact state this explicitly as “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few”).
  • Always default to trust. Many more problems are caused by good people not trusting each other than are caused by bad actors.
  • Never try to cheat any system, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never lie, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never double down on a sin. Fess up and accept the smaller punishment instead of having to deal with the bigger punishment that inevitable comes when your house of cards collapses.
  • Never learn things the hard way (In other words always trust other peoples’ tales of their own experiences and lessons learned. If they say it was a bad idea, it really was a bad idea).
  • Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. [edited to add, then just moved to a whole new post]

Seeing them written out like this I’m still kinda impressed with young me. Some of these are actually pretty solid and most of them I still follow to some degree (I was and still am more of a deontologist than a utilitarian). But I’ve run into enough problems with them that of course I was not nearly as clever as I thought I was. In particular the issues I’ve run into most are:

  • “Put the tribe first” has led me down a fairly guilt-ridden self-sacrificing route a few too many times. If I had to pick a better alternative I’d hazard a guess that “Always cooperate” would address the same kinds of morality tales and prisoner’s dilemmas without casting as wide a net.
  • “Never lie” hasn’t caused me so many direct problems, but mostly because I did figure out pretty early that in fact there are higher ethical concerns. I’d still wager that I lie a lot less than the average person, but I am capable.
  • “Never learn things the hard way” has been a big problem in practice, though fairly subtly. The problems are that a) Not everyone has the same set of values, so what may be a bad idea for you might be a good idea for me, and b) Second-hand knowledge may substitute well for first-hand knowledge in abstract decision making, but it really doesn’t substitute at all in terms of life skills or self-actualization.

In summary: ethics is hard. If my parents had known this was going through my head at the time they probably could have saved a lot of trouble by just giving me Kant and Hume to read.

P.S. Now that I’ve given this a title I wish I had the energy to go back and rewrite it in the actual structure of a morality tale. Alas it is late and I am lazy.

Book: The Need for Roots

The true definition of science is this: the study of the beauty of the world…

That being so, how should there be any opposition or even separation between the spirit of science and that of religion? Scientific investigation is simply a form of religious contemplation.

Simone Weil

Just about done reading this book (written by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills). It’s a fascinating book for a bunch of reasons: Weil packs a ton of insights into a fairly unstructured text, often without much justification. And yet, the whole thing hangs together in a remarkable way. It would be easy to bore oneself by picking nits with the wild leaps of intuition every other sentence, but as soon as you get on board then you find yourself looking back at a path whose every step was actually correct, given the whole picture. Perhaps it is simply history being kind in validating many of Weil’s intuitions after the fact, but that does not detract from the fact that, justified or not, she speculated correctly on many facts of human nature and social behaviour which are only recently being proved out.

I am willing to cop to some significant bias in that the topics she discusses (the nature and construction of healthy human communities, and how people needs roots in such a community to be happy), are under-served in modern discourse in my opinion. And there are definitely claims and sections long past their best-before date which would not survive modern scrutiny. Still, The Need for Roots goes up beside The Righteous Mind (Jonathan Haidt), and The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) as a book that more-or-less captures another critical aspect of human nature.

Oddly, the book it reminds me most of is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, or more accurately the non-fiction summary Beyond Civilization that Quinn wrote a decade after exploring the ideas in Ishmael more fully. What’s also oddly fascinating in The Need for Roots is the extent to which the political and socio-ethical concerns Weil presents are just as evident today. Widening economic inequality, the urban/rural political divide, and a general dissolution of national spirit are maybe not as new as I’d previously assumed.

This has been a rather unstructured summary, but I think I can wrap it up fairly succinctly anyways: Simone Weil was exactly my kind of crazy.

Narrative Distress and Reinvention

This is the third post in what has been a kind of accidental series. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, and Where the Narrative Stops.

While my previous two posts on narrative identities were fairly broad in scope, exploring some general cultural patterns, I now want to focus in a little more closely on what it feels like to not have a narrative. Unsurprisingly it can be quite distressing, so I’ve been referring to it mentally as “narrative distress”. This is importantly distinct from “narrative dissonance”, where you have a narrative but decide to do something counter to it, although dissonance can also be distressing in its own right.

In Where the Narrative Stops I wrote a lot about how the default narratives are breaking down under modern society’s emphasis on individualism, and how that can be harmful for young adults who haven’t yet discovered an overriding passion. When I wrote that post I was a step away from the problem; I knew a lot of people in this situation, but I had been living the same narrative for most of my life at that point so it was all a bit abstract. In the six months since I’ve had the most peculiar experience of, in some ways, running out of the narrative I was living. Every story has an end, and when you unexpectedly achieve that ending (or, as in my case, realize you no longer want that particular ending) then you suddenly find yourself without a narrative at all.

Finding myself without a narrative after so long living in a very specific direction was a remarkably weird feeling. It felt in a lot of ways like being burnt out; general disengagement, ennui, etc. Unsurprisingly it produced a very existential feeling of “now what”, but more surprising to me it also produced a significant amount of anxiety, because without a narrative to guide me, every single decision became the seed of a new identity crisis.

Fortunately, once I finally realized what had happened it wasn’t terribly difficult to reinvent my narrative in the shape of something that was still ongoing. This was reasonably easy for me because I’d already done a lot of thinking about what I value in the abstract, but of course that can be a major project in its own right.

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as just picking a new narrative and pressing “play”. As I discussed in Narrative Dissonance, our life narratives are tied up in our identities and every single one of our choices; it takes time and commitment to gradually shift something like that. So that part of the project for me is still ongoing. But such is life: a constant process of change and growth.

Naming Feedback Loops

I’ve often thought that the terms “positive feedback loop” and “negative feedback loop” are poorly named. The words “positive” and “negative” have such strong emotional valences that it’s hard not to get confused when trying to talk about, for example, the positive feedback loop of a being in a bad mood. Instead, I’d rather use the terms “explosive feedback loop” and “stabilizing feedback loop”. They seem to capture the relevant characteristics more clearly.

I care about these words because I’ve found myself stuck in a couple of explosive feedback loops recently due to meta-emotional worries. I notice myself feeling bad for one reason or another, and this worries me, and the worry makes me feel even worse. Rinse and repeat. I’ve poked at this behaviour before (primarily in my post on worrying two years ago), but it’s reared its head again recently, and I’m finally noticing the same general pattern in other aspects of my life. For example, I’m not typically a hypochondriac, but as soon as one aspect of my health comes to my attention it’s a short spiral to internalized histrionics.

Typically self-awareness is counted as a positive trait, but there is a very real sense in these situations where it is an active problem. I’m self-aware enough to send myself into these meta-emotional spirals, but not generally self-aware enough to pull myself out of them. The fact that I’ve noticed it as a pattern now produces some measure of hope, but honestly I noticed it two years ago in that other post as well, and I don’t think I’ve applied it once since then. In a lot of ways, half-way up the mountain is the worst spot to be.

I meta-worry about all my worries and then I worry over how to stop meta-worrying and then my head explodes.

Me

A Living Wage

A couple of unrelated trends clicked together in my brain this afternoon in an unexpected way and I thought I’d share. In case it needs to be said, this is interesting but wild speculation and not meant to be taken very seriously.

One trend is the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family over the last several decades. Another is the more recent economic anxiety in the era of Brexit and Trump. And finally, we have a push from liberals in the last twenty years to raise the minimum wage to what is known as the “living wage“.

As a single adult with no dependants who keeps a comprehensive budget of my finances, I know both what I spend each month, and roughly what it would be possible to live on if times suddenly became tight for me. Interestingly, a full-time job at the minimum wage where I live would be more than enough for a pretty decent single life, since until recently I was living below that line more-or-less by accident. However, it’s also clearly not enough for a family, nor even necessarily enough for a family with two income-earners at that level given the costs of transportation and child-care.

My core speculation is as follows: what if the gradual dissolution of the nuclear family has increased the “supply” of single workers and decreased the “supply” of workers with families, thus driving down the market price for labour and making it even more difficult to have a family. This would be a very unfortunate negative feedback loop, if true.

Maybe somebody with more economic/demographic expertise can dig into this more or tell me where I’m making an obvious error?

3(ish) Rules for Life

I realize I’m quite late to the party with this one, but I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”. My initial verdict is that it’s neither quite as insightful nor as ethically terrible as the controversy around it had let me to believe. Peterson has a very flowery writing style, with extended metaphors and a lot of repetition. I’m sure the joke’s been made somewhere already, but this really could have been just a list of the twelve rules, with maybe a paragraph of explanation each and a few footnotes to the relevant studies.

All that said, insight is somewhat a matter of perspective. I’ve dug enough into philosophy and psychology already that some of his points which I took as given are probably surprising to a good chunk of the population. And per the title of this post, I did take away three ideas that genuinely changed how I think in minor ways. Not that two of them were actually from the titular rules, but still.

Rule #1: Risk violence to assert your preferences.

This is not one of Peterson’s twelve, and the wording is distinctly counter-intuitive, but it captures two related ideas that Peterson puts a lot of emphasis on throughout his book (largely in rules #1, #8, and #10). First, it captures the idea that all conflict is founded on the threat of violence. Without that threat looming in the distance, there is never any incentive to back down, and no way to escalate. No conflict would ever resolve.

Second, it captures the idea that people need to assert their preferences to be happy, and thus occasionally cause conflict. This is, I think, fairly trivially true, though of course Peterson goes into some depth on the psychological problems that occur when somebody never asserts their preferences and becomes a complete and total pushover. It was still interesting to me, because despite being fairly obvious-sounding, a lot of the examples and verbiage he used to back up his point didn’t harmonize with how I view myself. So this one triggered an examination of how often I stand up for myself and assert my preferences, which has been interesting.

Rule #2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

This is straight from Peterson (and in fact it is conveniently his rule #2 as well). This is the only one of the titular twelve that directly made me sit up and metaphorically smack myself on the forehead in dramatic fashion. For those of a slightly more analytical bent, he also rephrases this as the idea that the so-called golden rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) in fact works in both directions. This one is straight from the text, so I won’t elaborate here.

Rule #3: Be prepared to change your goals.

This isn’t straight from the titular twelve, and it isn’t really a theme throughout either, it’s just a throwaway mention in the middle of Peterson’s rule #8. He’s talking about lies, and the concept of a “life lie”, and writes that “a naively formulated goal transmutes, with time, into the sinister form of the life-lie”. This is just mumbo-jumbo for the idea that the goals you set yourself today might not actually be goals you still want to accomplish in five years, and that clinging to those goals eventually results in simple unhappiness as you push yourself to do things you don’t really want to do.

Again, it sounds fairly obvious but the extended examination of it in the book made me re-examine a few of my own life goals in a slightly different light.

Bonus

I’ll leave you with a bonus extract which isn’t really a rule so much as a pithy paraphrase of an observation that Peterson makes off-hand in the midst of rule #10: a happy couple is two people animated by a shared adventure.

There’s a lot more that I could write about this book, but this post will have to do for now.