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.

Spontaneity, Stress, and Emotional Legitimacy

Spontaneity plays an oddly crucial role in our ability to feel legitimate positive emotions.

Consider children. Forcing them to play and telling them that they have to have fun is one of the surest ways of ensuring that they have no fun at all, even if the activity they’re doing is one they’d normally enjoy. Teenagers are the champions of this. Thanks to their drive for a unique personal identity, they absolutely refuse to enjoy anything that seems to be forced upon them. Even in adults it’s much the same, though usually self-inflicted. Trying a new activity while putting pressure on yourself to enjoy it is an easy path to a miserable time.

Insomnia is a bit outside the realm of what we normally consider our emotional life, but falling asleep is another example of a similar pattern in a different form. The more desperately you want to fall asleep, the farther away it seems to be. It’s become practically common wisdom that the least effective way to calm somebody down is to tell them to “just relax”.

The explanation for all this is fairly mundane. Stress in moderation is something which increases our physical and mental responses, and generally improves our performance at most tasks; it’s an evolutionary response which tends to help. But of course it becomes rapidly counter-productive when the “task” we’re stressing ourselves to accomplish is “not being stressed”. Falling asleep and being happy are both fairly dependent on a state of at least moderate relaxation, so when we worry too much about achieving them, nobody wins.

I opened this essay with a claim about legitimacy, so let’s circle back in that direction. In a post a couple of years ago I discussed the concept of preference legitimacy, and the question of what role social conditioning can or should play. We can see a version of this question also arise from the spontaneity/stress issue. If somebody desperately wants to feel a particular emotion for a particular reason, then obviously the stress could impair their ability to reach that emotional state. But even if they do manage it, is that emotion legitimate? Or has the person effectively given themselves Stockholm Syndrome, forcing themselves into an emotional state that is somehow unearned?

The answer seems to depend on one other factor. Just because you want an emotional association, that doesn’t make it impossible to achieve legitimately. Equally however, it is distinctly possible to use various psychological tricks (for example, misattribution of arousal) to trick yourself into “false” emotional states. Now, these emotions aren’t false in and of themselves. But by attributing them incorrectly we are committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty; the goal is not just the emotional response itself but the association with a particular stimulus. Our brain’s notion of causality is flexible enough that we can trick it, but deep down we still know the truth. (In my mind, this is oddly analogous to the Gettier problem in epistemology. Even when all the relevant factors are present, if there is some causal disconnect the criteria fail).

The weirdest and most concerning application of this line of argument is dating. By this logic, going on a date with any desire to further develop feelings for the person you’re dating (which is a pretty normal desire) is in itself sufficient to make that task difficult, and the result potentially illegitimate. In fact the fairly standard dating advice (to do something you’d find new and exciting regardless of the person you’re dating) operates by exploiting exactly this flaw via misattribution of arousal.

It’s relatively easy to rescue dating in itself; treat it as an opportunity to explore and develop your feelings, rather than as a completable task with the end goal of falling in love. Or, as a rather wiser friend of mine called it recently: “emotional horticulture”. This is something I need to remember more often. But even with dating rescued, it does seem to be the case that as a society we’re just… going about it the wrong way. Perhaps we should be giving the opposite dating advice: don’t do anything but sit, and talk. If there’s still an emotional connection, then maybe you’re in business?

A Little Emotional Maturity?

2019 has been a very interesting year so far. I haven’t really blogged much, being consumed with the real world, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot. In May last year I said I wasn’t necessarily happy with how I’d changed recently. I’ve definitely changed again, and while it’s definitely a bit early to say, I think I’m going to be happier with this one.

At the very least, I’ve learned a lot and have an improved understanding of myself, people, and the world. Some of this has been updated mental models, and some of it has been emotional journeys toward things that my brain has known for a while already. For better or worse, a lot of those journeys are still incomplete. At any rate, here’s a sampling:

On Emotions

  • Model emotions as a collection of separate values (a la “Mood” in the various The Sims games), not as a single specific value (“I am happy/sad/etc”).
  • Model the emotional impact of experiences as velocity changes rather than position changes. The concrete example is stupidly obvious, but: something can make you happier without making you happy.
  • Trying to figure out how I feel about a given thing in abstract is actually weirdly difficult because of the above two points. My emotional state at any given time is a complex tapestry of recent experiences and biological signals (hunger, etc), and only truly exceptional stimuli will manage to dominate all that. Most things still move the needle, but expect it to be subtle and hard to pick apart.

All of these are somewhat embarrassing to admit to because I certainly played The Sims as a kid, so you’d think at the very least I’d have better absorbed its model, but clearly it’s taken me some time to realize how complicated emotions can be. I’ll class this set not exactly as new knowledge, but something I’m trying to remember not to over-simplify from now on.

On Expectations

  • It relieves a ton of pressure on all sorts of things to ask yourself “does this make me happy happier” instead of “is this universally optimal in all possible futures”. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
  • I grew up with a lot of specific cultural narratives about how a lot of parts of life were supposed to work. This has left me with some weird subconscious expectations that don’t really materialize except as cognitive dissonance when they aren’t being met. Noticing these is extremely difficult, but weeding them out tends to be rewarding.
  • I am an introvert, so all people take energy to interact with, despite my occasional expectations to the contrary. Immediate family may be the exception that proves the rule? There’s probably a whole blog’s worth of content here on trust vs familiarity and the interaction of those two things.

My emotions are mostly on board with this set, but my brain still needs to give the occasional reminder.

On Relationships

These ones, on the other hand, are mostly things where my brain has been quietly at odds with itself for a while. Recently my conscious brain has been attempting to drag my emotions through that journey kicking and screaming. Very much a work in progress.

  • There’s no such thing as “The One”. Technically you could take the distribution of “compatibleness” for all people and point to the person at the far end of that distribution, but you’re so statistically unlikely to meet them they might as well not exist.
  • Infatuation is not love. Infatuation has obviously never been sufficient for a happy relationship (c.f. Romeo and Juliet), but neither is it even strictly necessary. People emotionally bond in all sorts of interesting (and sometimes even positive!) ways that don’t require mutual insanity.
  • Piggy-backing on the last one: relationships should not be all-consuming. Even if you somehow meet the person at the very far end of that “compatibleness” distribution, losing yourself so completely in somebody else is not healthy.

This post needs some sort of pithy closer, but I got nothing. The changes I’m aiming for may be positive, but they are not easy. This year has already been stressful and tiring for other reasons (work, etc.), but I guess there’s never a perfect time to do stuff like this.

*shrug*

Performative Emotions and Social Media

Social media has changed the way we relate to each other, and to ourselves. This is not a particularly controversial claim in and of itself; the controversy comes when you attach a value proposition to this change. Even then, “controversy” is perhaps the wrong word. There are a few luddites screaming into the void that social media is ruining kids these days, and by golly in my day we walked thirty miles to school in the snow and we liked it. And then there’s everybody else, who just doesn’t care.

Granted, this isn’t exactly a fair telling. The effect of social media on our relationships, our emotions, and our selves is a hot topic in many social science departments, and has certainly spawned enough TED talks. But there is still a large gap between “we studied this” and “we think this is bad”. Ironically, the talks which are most axiological are the ones most likely to go viral, on the very platforms which they decry.

I would like to reassure you that I’m a young, hip thing and not a luddite screaming into the void, but it isn’t true. Luddite might be a bit strong, but fundamentally this post is about my belief that social media (and reality television, and youtube, and…) are ruining kids these days. How, you ask? By turning us all into actors.

The combination of modern societal/infrastructural wealth and our culture’s obsession with individuality has led to an explosion in the number of people living in the extended adolescence of Paul Graham’s neurotic lapdogs. As in high school, the net result of this is the pursuit of social status for its own sake and beyond any reasonable limits. This would be bad enough on its own, but modern social media amplifies the effect by providing a perfect, shallow, dopamine-inducing medium (is it weird to call “social media” a medium? It feels like I’m violating a plural matching rule somehow) for this pursuit.

What this means is that many people born in the 1990s (and particularly those born in the 2000s) don’t know how to actually feel emotions. I grant this is an unusual claim; it certainly isn’t among the common set of arguments raised against social media. Even so, I believe it is true. Social media and the pursuit of irrelevant status has resulted in a generation and a half of people for whom emotions are performative, instead of felt.

In this world, you can chase happiness, or you can chase the appearance of happiness, and given the distorting lens of instagram only the latter is relevant to the status games we play. Perhaps your sadness is real, but it’s not valuable unless you can ironically caption it with a pithy quote about self-care. Actual felt emotions don’t matter anymore, because it’s become a truth universally acknowledged that “everybody’s a mess on the inside anyway”. This “truth” has somehow simultaneously described the problem and normalized it away, but I believe it’s still a problem. A world in which people are fundamentally unhappy is a bad one, no matter what other nice properties it might have.

The interesting thing to note is that in this world, nerds are at an advantage. I don’t mean the popular, “everybody’s a nerd” modern pop culture version which has lost any useful semantic content; I mean the original version, the people who had just completely given up on social status altogether in pursuit of other interests. Only by detaching yourself from the status games can you start to worry about how you actually feel, instead of how you appear to feel in 10-second snaps. This is something I’ve lost sight of in the last six months, and something I’m trying to recover.

And oddly, on some definitions, going back to my stereotypical nerd roots is going to make me more cool, not less. Either way, I hope it makes me a better person.

On the Appropriate Labelling of Emotions

Emotions suffer from what I like to think of as “the colour problem”. It probably has a proper name in philosophy circles (related to, but distinct from Wittgenstein’s “private language”) but I think of it as the colour problem because the easiest example is to do with colours. A fancier name would probably be the experience-description problem or something.

Anyway, the easy example goes roughly as follows: presumably we both agree on what is meant by the colour blue. I can point to a blue sky and you will agree that the sky is, in fact, blue. You can point to a green plant and I will agree that it is not blue. We use this word the same way, to refer to the same property of the same things in the real world. But that says nothing about how we actually experience the property of blueness. Perhaps for me, the visible colour spectrum is reversed; I see violet as red and red as violet. I see blue as orange, and orange as blue. To the outside observer (and in fact to me myself) there is no way to tell. How I perceive a particular wavelength of light doesn’t change the categorization of real objects, or the words that we use.

When I see a blue sky, I might experience what you consider the sensation of orangeness But to me, that’s what blue is. All the things that generate that sensation have always just been called blue, and all the things that generate a sensation of blueness have just been called orange. I know no differently, and short of some miraculous yet-to-be-invented mind-reading technology, there is no way for anybody to detect this issue, because practically it’s not an issue. The only thing it could possibly have implications for is aesthetics, and that’s incredibly subjective anyway.

But enough with colours. They’re the easy example. The thing I want to actually talk about today is emotions, because they suffer the same problem but with much more serious implications. Like colours, emotions are internal experiences which we can describe only indirectly. We learn to associate smiling and other physical cues with happiness, and so as children the feelings that produce those physical reactions in us we start to call happiness. But of course, we can also lie about our emotions: we call it acting.

Consider as a thought experiment, two children raised separately by two very bizarre parents. Parent A raises child A almost perfectly normally, except for one thing: parent A lies about the name of emotions. When they are feeling happy, or talking about being happy, they use the word “sad”. When they are feeling angry, or talking about being angry, they use the word “calm”. Etc. Etc.

Parent A is a little weird, but parent B is even weirder. Parent B doesn’t lie with words: they lie with body language and facial expression. When parent B is feeling happy, they use the word “happy”, but they *act* like they’re sad. When they’re feeling angry, they use the word “angry”, but they *act* like they’re calm. Etc. Etc.

In theory, the end result is exactly the same. For both children, their internal mapping of words to external cues is reversed from what we consider normal. They could probably even talk to each other about their emotions, and understand each other perfectly, though everybody else would end up quite confused. All of this simply to show that we have no certainty that, when we use a given word to describe an emotion we’re feeling, it lines up with how other people use that word at all. All we have to go on are easily faked or confused external cues.

For colours this wasn’t a problem; aesthetics are subjective anyway. But for emotions, it’s rather more serious, because we frequently attach ethical weight to our emotional states and the communication thereof. These range from the mundane (feigning enjoyment of an awkward social situation) to the serious (telling someone you love them when, in fact, you don’t feel any such thing).

Now, hopefully nobody does the latter on purpose; that would be an incredibly nasty thing to do. But we just got finished talking about the fact that we can’t really be sure about our emotional labels anyway. Maybe through some confusion of cues and feelings, the emotion you describe as love is just different than that of your partner. You say you love each other, but you mean different things by that statement. This is not only practically dangerous, but ethically complicated as well. In a certain sense, your relationship is built on a lie; not an intentional one, but a lie nonetheless.

I completely lack a conclusion, but I’ve run out of things to say. Hope everyone’s had a merry christmas.