I still have a lot of planned COVID-19 lit review posts, but I’m going to take a quick break and go back to my sequence on psychology/cognition.

You might recall that in the first post in this sequence I laid out a framework where the content of our conscious minds is made up of mental objects, much of what we do when we think, act, or perceive is a process of reconciling (apparent) conflicts or contradictions between our mental objects, and suffering is what we experience when we actively refuse to resolve a contradiction or indeed deny its existence.

In the second post I talked about motivated cognition, which is defined as being motivated to have certain beliefs rather than being motivated to achieve certain outcomes “out there” in the world. And I clarified that the problem with motivated cognition isn’t that people have motives, but that they’re in a sense motivated about the wrong things – that it’s dysfunctional to turn your optimization power inward (believing things because you want to believe them) rather than outward (doing things because you want to do them.)

That raises some new questions.

First, how does motivated cognition (optimizing for what internal mental experiences you want to have) relate to suffering (refusing to resolve contradictions)?

Second, what do we even mean by internal vs. external? Isn’t that kind of dualist? Why is it good to optimize for what you want to achieve in the external world, but bad to optimize for what kinds of internal mental states you want to have? A priori this isn’t a really principled distinction.

We can resolve both questions at once.

“Out in the real world”, we saw in part 1, from a subjective perspective, really just means “consistent with the experiences, mental objects, phenomena, etc, that I will have, but haven’t had yet.”

I can’t know anything, yet, about the things I’m still ignorant of, by definition. Those are things that are not currently mental objects in my mind. They are not in my model. They are outside my current cognitive “world.” The unknown. The out-of-frame. The unmapped Universe.

However, if I believe in the Universe, I believe that when I encounter these new, out-of-model, surprising things, I will eventually be able to reconcile them with all the current mental objects in my subjective “world.”

When I am “optimizing for a state of reality”, or “having preferences about reality”, the things I have preferences about are still mental objects – mental objects are all I have subjective access to! BUT, I am trying to achieve a setup of these mental objects that will survive new discoveries, new data, ontology shifts, etc.

If I try to fool myself, usually the false belief is fragile. There is some new data I must not acquire because it would destabilize the belief. If I want to believe I can still make the train, I have to not check my watch.

That’s what it means to not be optimizing for reality; you’re optimizing your subjective world in a fragile way, that would collapse completely if you explored even a little bit in the wrong direction.

As Oscar Wilde said, “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”

It’s actually a surprisingly deep statement. The delicacy, the fragility, is what makes it ignorance.

Why is it bad to try to be ignorant? Well, “bad” may be the wrong word for it, but by our earlier definition of “suffering”, it is suffering.

If you already predict that some new discovery will ruin your desired mental state, and therefore that you must not look over there, then you already have something in your field of consciousness that is ruining or conflicting with your desired mental state. But you’re trying to believe that it’s not yet ruining anything, so long as you don’t look at it. That’s having an internal contradiction and trying not to resolve it. That’s suffering.

If there’s anything in the world that you remember not to pay attention to because it’ll upset you – let’s say you never read anything by a particular author – then, at the moment you choose to look away from the upsetting thing, you already have a thing that upsets you. The upsetting thing may not be, itself, the actual author you choose not to read; it may be your memory or impression of that author, or a thought you had once while reading that author, or something else. But if you are capable of thinking “ew, I won’t read that, it’ll just upset me” then you have a thing that upsets you right now.

But you are confused about how your mind works, and you think that you are actually sparing yourself upset by avoiding the author. You think that this state you’re in now – where you’re going “ew, that’ll upset me” – is what not being upset feels like. But you’re wrong! This is actually an upset state. This is a state of internal conflict, RIGHT NOW.

That doesn’t mean the “right” (anti-suffering) thing to do is to push through and read the article anyway. The “right” thing to do would be to interrogate your current state of upset or inner conflict, see what’s going on there, try to resolve or dissolve it.

Of course, you don’t always have time to do that in practice; it takes time to “untangle” your thoughts, and if you untangled literally everything as it came up, you’d be spending a colossal amount of time in silent contemplation, and sometimes life wants us to respond faster than that. Although I suspect that perhaps if you actually did that colossal amount of contemplation, you’d eventually get faster at the untangling process, and also get rid of the “backlog” of unresolved inner conflicts you’re carrying around, so that afterwards you could deal with the world more or less in real time.

This is what’s going on when we suffer. We think we are avoiding things that could hurt us, but we are actually already hurting, and stubbornly refusing to salve our present hurts.

Noticing More

The macho/stoic “just lean into the discomfort” thing is exactly the reverse of this cognitive-resolution perspective. It sounds similar, in that it also says “avoidance and denial is bad”, but it’s going in exactly the opposite direction. It says to override your sensitivities, rather than to become so much more sensitive that you notice and fix the subtler aversions that come before whatever you’re currently avoiding.

If you get good at noticing the subtle stuff, you’ll see that there are specific, discrete, but kinda…stupid? mental objects that are present in your mind. They’re “stupid” in that, they’re usually nonverbal, and they’re kind of like the cells in DeepDream, they’re sort of shaped like one component of a sense memory. “The way this shadow of a roof beam fell across the room one time on a middle school retreat in the woods, and the sharp smell of bug spray, and the way I had a vague sense of being unprepared to deal with physically challenging activities and being creeped out by the Evangelical Christian mottoes everywhere.” Except that’s one single “note”, one brain-phenomenon, and it gets activated when I think about “why do I feel resistant to doing physically uncomfortable things like jumping into freezing cold water?” I feel like “but ugh, [THIS]” where THIS is the roof-beam-shadow-in-the-lodge thought.

That’s how a big chunk of thoughts are actually shaped, at least in my experience; we may just not talk about them because it sounds too weird.

But I wonder sometimes if dealing with the “associative receptor field” or “emotional-sense-memory basis element” level of thought is actually what needs to happen to resolve a bunch of stuff and actually know what your mind is doing and reprogram it if you want.

For instance. Why am I not going out for a run today? Well, I have a memory – a snapshot sense-memory – of one time five years ago when I tried going out for a run when I was out of shape, and I was really embarrassed and humiliated; my throat was burning and I was almost in tears.

Would I feel that same way if I went running now? I don’t know. The road outside my door today looks different than that road in New Haven, the weather is different, I’m different, so maybe my experience will be different. Intellectually that seems clear. But the loudest “note” in my mind is that full-body memory of it sucking.

I really think the mechanics of why I’m not making the decision to go for that run are at the “evoked full-body memory” level of granularity. It seems kind of…arrogant? to think I can just detect that; outside view, nobody is very good at understanding their “subconscious”, and fake-epiphanies where people think they can intentionally rewrite “subconscious” patterns (but they actually can’t) are a dime a dozen.

But I don’t have the sense that I have mastered self-reprogramming, at all; I just have the sense that I know where my decisions are coming from, and they’re these memory-fragments.

Also, a thing is obviously not “subconscious” if you can literally experience it in consciousness. I suspect that a lot of what people call “subconscious” is totally available to attention, just stuff that we expect ourselves not to attend to, especially because we don’t normally talk to other people about it.

Could it be that attending to more internal phenomena is actually a “spiritual path” or a “self-improvement path” or whatever? There’s so much more attention paid to overriding internal phenomena than exploring them; maybe most people know something I don’t, or maybe there’s a really persistent bias in the world of psychological advice.