Mixed feelings

Is the character of our experience purely a function of our attention and, if so, what determines it? Can we experience a mood subconsciously and what would that mean? My friend Scott brought up an example of someone who appeared happy from external physical cues but was surprised to hear that when asked about it. What is going on there? It seems like some part of our mind may be reacting to physiological stimulus yielding behavior that we pattern match to specific emotions, while another part of our mind may be experiencing something else entirely. It is unclear whether attention is rapidly moving back and forth between these experiences of a different character or whether our “background” mood is somehow “coloring” our attention-moderated foreground experiences — perhaps these are two ways of saying the same thing.

When a background emotion is aversive, such as sadness or grief, we often find ourselves seeking to drown it out with a positive stimulus — the proverbial sad person eating ice cream on the couch. Alternatively, you can have different “processes” within the mind fighting over large physical movement rather than merely internally experienced qualia (small movement). A poker player in an intense hand will be physically displaying a mixture of excitement/fear driven by his primal emotional response to the expected win or loss — anything from an elevated heart rate to a nervous tic and vocal changes. At the same time, his reasoning process will be trying to command attention towards trying to counteract these emotional signals — it predicts them to be self-defeating. The subjective experience is one of a battle for stabilizing attention — a feeling of tension or contradiction.

Dissolving mind and body

Differentiating between mind (thought) and body (physical action) can often be misleading. Consider collapsing both of these into the concept of movement. Small movements tend to happen within the mind — mere thought. Larger movements begin to have a more immediate impact on the surrounding environment — displacement of our body in space and the imprint of our language onto surfaces. It seems larger movements tend to dominate smaller ones — our thoughts are derailed far more easily when we move through, and interact with, the world than when we sit quietly with our eyes closed. Dissolving the distinction between thought and action can be useful for understanding habit — the familiar paths that we default to moving along. The domination of larger movements over smaller ones is quite evident when I try to change a habit. Strategizing about how to do it and thinking about my desire to do so seems to have little immediate effect. The surest way to perform habit change is to repeat the physical movement of the body associated with it, in the appropriate context, over and over. Even with a rebellious or wandering mind, it seems the creation of the path with the repetition of the larger movements wins out and the smaller movements begin to follow along over time.

What does attention enable?

Stephen R. Diamond suggests the thought experiment of isolating the effects of conscious awareness by identifying what sorts of actions are only possible — or which experiences only occur — when they are consciously attended to. He raises the example of happiness which appears to be solely a function of the contents of conscious awareness. Consider the pleasure or happiness imparted by being the owner of a luxury car. Upon reflection, you realize that you only experience this feeling when you are actively holding the car, or some side effect of its ownership, within your attention.

What other experiences are only possible when we attend to them? When preoccupied with a task I seem to be able to respond when people speak with me. However, without moving my attention away from the task in order to think through and craft a conscious thought, my responses seem to be quite simple and often illogical or poor. Inverting this example, I can participate relatively actively in a conversation — say a phone call — and still be able to perform simple tasks, especially those that are relatively “mindless” or routine. Interestingly, I seem to also be quite handicapped when it comes to decision making — even simple decisions like what to order for lunch — if my attention is elsewhere. If my hedonic valence — feelings of pleasure or happiness — is controlled by the contents of my attention at any moment, perhaps this suggests that activities or experiences that require attention are dependent on the feedback of hedonic valence to perform the underlying mental moves.

Desire paths everywhere

There is a popular idea of humans being able to adapt to anything. As Nietzsche and Frankl have argued, we can handle any what as long as there is a why. This seems approximately true although it makes me wonder whether certain things are easier for humans to adapt to than others. There is the idea of desire paths (or cow paths) as a response to high modernist top-down planning — when sidewalks fail to capture the desired walking patterns of people to a sufficient degree that new ad-hoc paths start forming through shortcuts taken over the carefully manicured lawns framed by those sidewalks. Perhaps we can look for desire paths — or the resulting venting of frustration that occurs when desire path formation is restricted — across all areas of life and use them as a gauge of how human-compatible (humane?) a given system feels. Humans having a tendency to get stressed and upset about sitting in traffic strikes me as an example of the latter — there is no shortcut they can take, and it becomes sufficiently constraining that their mind seems to start attacking itself, in a sense. On the other hand, the widespread adoption of contraceptive devices seems like an example of desire paths being created successfully with the use of new technology. Given the option to have control over when one has kids, many people seem to strain against the tradition of ASAP and always and leverage technology to “move across the landscape” in ways that were not possible before. There is also an interesting counterargument to the idea that the tendency for people being drawn to constantly stare at smartphones is in some sense inhuman. Now that we have been given an affordance to let our attention easily escape states of boredom, we may merely be drawn to take advantage of it. Of course, not all time sink activities leave us feeling as refreshed as others. Taking a few moments to pay attention to one’s breath has a much better feeling aftereffect than scrolling through Twitter mindlessly.

Satisfaction Levers

I believe gnawing and uncomfortable sensations (nihilism, restlessness, etc) that one may not quite understand how to resolve are a manifestation of poorly understood desires, and there are concrete practices one can develop to help understand and resolve these sensations. We’ve come to associate certain sensations in our stomach with the idea of hunger because they are resolved by putting certain types of objects into our mouth and chewing. What if we didn’t know about food — how would we understand “hunger”? What does this say about a complex sensation like “anxiety”?

The human mind can be thought of as a machine that produces and satisfies desires. We become familiar with these desires from birth. When we exit the womb we don’t yet know how to breathe, but it is likely that we already desire to. It appears as though the mere exposure to air is sufficient to make the newborn aware that “breathing in” is an option available to it, and that upon doing so it comes to realize that this breathing thing satisfies some gnawing feeling (a desire for air). This is the mind’s first exposure to a “satisfaction lever” — an affordance for desire-satisfaction. As the mind matures it becomes aware of (produces!) new desires for itself: mother, food, stimulus, friends, approval, status, money, expression, meaning, etc. We create habits, both “good” and “bad”, that create their own desires. Pulling satisfaction levers gives us access to objects of desire — the things that can be taken from outside the organism and brought in — which temporarily satisfy some desire.

This may feel strange, but it seems that there is no a priori relationship between the sensations of desire and the corresponding objects that satisfy them. From our point of view, it feels intuitive that the hunger sensation in the stomach would logically be related to a desire for food. But as we can see with children, they often have little sense of when they are hungry or thirsty or sleepy and often adults must force some levers upon them — often in response to crankiness or general antisocial behavior on the part of the child. Over many repetitions, as the sensations of desire present themselves and are then followed by their satisfaction with a familiar pattern of objects — available through the pulling of satisfaction levers — the mind makes the association stronger and stronger until it just “is”. It is hard to imagine alternative manifestations of the feeling of hunger.

As the mind matures and continues to manufacture new desires, we must continue to seek the satisfaction levers that satiate them. Without a parent paying attention to our whining and offering us potential levers, we must seek them out on our own. This becomes especially tricky with desires that only rear their heads every once in awhile rather than on a daily basis. The ability to satisfy feelings of having low energy with exercise is a non-intuitive one, but once a habit is established the lever becomes one we can easily reach for because we know it’s there. However, often minds find themselves experiencing frustrating sensations that they don’t associate with obvious levers. Feelings described with words such as anxiety, restlessness, ennui, or nihilism may fall into this category. To expect to reason from the raw sensations to the corresponding action which would satisfy them seems exceptionally difficult. A more bountiful approach is to find some potential satisfaction levers to pull and pay attention to what happens to these ill-defined sensations.

Furthermore, there seems to be a capacity where we can seek out new levers, even if it is not clear what they may be for. Sometimes we accidentally pull a lever that gives us some unexpected feeling of relief or pleasure. This seems to be the satisfaction of a desire that one was not aware of or could not previously articulate. This is an important feeling. When this happens, one can take note of the relationship and begin building a list of “non-obvious satisfaction levers”. Then, periodically, one can scan this list. By allowing the mind to imagine pulling on one of these levers, it can feel out whether at that time it would satisfy some hidden, poorly understood desire. At the same time, by starting to map which levers satisfy which kinds of feelings, we are able to better understand and describe these amorphous feelings of desire.

Some ideas for satisfaction levers that may relate to complex, hard to describe desires:

  1. Cultivating presence and mindfulness: paying attention to the moment on a purely physical level rather than to thoughts and ideas generated
  2. Creating objects: anything from abstract art to software to social experiences
  3. Destroying objects: getting rid of stuff, tearing something down into its parts for potential reuse, clearing away or reorganizing space
  4. Taking physical or social risks: seeking out unfamiliar manifestations of fear

All soup is tasty soup

The sun is crawling its way above the horizon behind me as I wait in a queue with about a dozen other people. We assemble in front of a shipping container advertising Soup Flavored Blankets. Nothing but desert surrounds us for hundreds of meters. It looks like they’re giving out soup, and my associate and I are quite hungry after the previous night’s festivities. Blasting from behind the soup box, on comes an untidy man haphazardly steering a bicycle with one hand. Singing an unrecognizable song in a hoarse voice, his eyes wandering about in their sockets. He carries a 30-pack of Tecate beer in his lap. “Come get a beer!” he shouts at us. The people in line interrupt their conversations  and shift around a bit nervously. Even for Burning Man, the guy seems a little messed up. Awkwardness indeed, but I’ve been trying to practice dealing with these very situations. “Excellent!”, I run over to him. “How about a hug?” he asks. I hesitate for a moment and oblige. He’s quite intoxicated and needs a hand with getting his jacket off, and assistance pulling out his giant foam honey bee wings that are tucked under his sweatshirt. But of course, I will help…  “I also have some homemade jerky and honey” [surely made out of mescaline], which he immediately pulls out of a backpack, “and you will try some!” Everyone is staring at us a bit nervously at this point, and so I must dig right in. “My name is Bee Chaser” he declares, before sitting down on a rock and starting back into his indecipherable verse.

Just short of a Michelin star

Three weeks later I’m sitting very, very still. My eyes are closed, and my legs are crossed, in a room with about 40 others. We have been doing a lot of this — 12 hours a day for the past week. My attention is on my right thigh. Deep inside of it, I feel what must be a ball of knives, about 3 inches in diameter, burning with the heat of the sun. Saying it hurts is an understatement — this is one  of the most painful sensations I’ve ever felt, and yet it doesn’t bother me as much as I expect. I know that if I uncross my legs the pain will immediately disappear. But, from experience, I also know that if I don’t uncross my legs the pain will eventually disappear. A few seconds later, although it feels like an hour, a bright white spot appears within the center of my closed-eye visual field. It grows from a small dot to quickly encompass the blackness. The pain climaxes and then begins to disintegrate into the sensation of lightning shooting throughout my body. I am overwhelmed with warmth and drowsiness.

The typical Burning Man encounter — a meeting with Bee Chaser — illustrates the inherent choice available to embrace or avoid feelings of discomfort, anxiety or uncertainty. Similarly, an intense experience with pain at a meditation retreat highlights the primary role of our expectations and interpretations in defining how we experience reality — even the most intense physical pain. By pushing ourselves to experience these kinds of situations and practicing our responses to them, we can learn to appreciate the full range of experiences life has to offer: pleasure, pain, ambiguity, inevitability, and much more.

There are two widely adopted, and largely self-sabotaging, approaches to making sense of life’s experiences. Most people attempt to fixate meaning with a permanently stable and coherent grand narrative. Unfortunately, this is accomplished by ignoring the bits that don’t quite fit together. David Chapman refers to this stance as eternalism and it is commonly associated with religions and political ideologies. The diametrically opposed approach is to take the perspective of materialism (or physicalism) and view the world as uniformly, objectively devoid of meaning. This is typically referred to as nihilism. Both of these stances are probably wrong or confused. Meaning seems to be something that we can actively create, observe and lose. We experience it coming and going, and specific to the details of any given situation.

I think of our perception of reality as a kind of constantly evolving multi-dimensional alphabet soup that we are observing, swimming through, and interacting with. At any given time, we can find some pattern or another that strikes our fancy. Sometimes we squint and let our minds fill in the gaps since everything is moving around and a bit nebulous. Some patterns will last longer than others, depending on how quickly the soup is being stirred, but inevitably the letters will shift and patterns will dissolve into the noise of the background. In this metaphor, eternalism implies the tendency to fixate on and grow attached to patterns found in the letters. We may develop a single, all-encompassing theory that explains the soup and its messages. Soup behavior that does not fit our framework may be ignored, or interpreted in a way to make it fit. Alternatively, with enough cogitation we can realize that this is just the random shifting of graphemic pasta in liquid, how can it possibly mean anything? It must all be random and empty — nihilism.

Some extra-strange letters are bound to sneak through quality control

Even if we intellectually deny eternalism and nihilism, it is inevitable to struggle with the inherent instability of pattern. Our brains are tuned to detect pattern,. We have a tendency to cling to structure and predictability. Being able to rely on the stability of the familiar gives us a sense of security, whereas change and ambiguity can trigger anxiety and fear of loss. This bias towards seeking stability in pattern, structure, and form is a powerful motivator for action. It drives the creation of, and attachment to, expectations and cravings for pattern to persist or be recreated.

Often our attachment to pattern comes in the form of pleasurable physical sensation. When they first taste ice cream, many babies react with mild skepticism and confusion, which then quickly transforms to utter delight. Thirty years later, the ice cream enthusiast may continue to chase the pleasures he remembers to be encapsulated within the cold creamy treat. At best he will be satisfied for a brief period, and at worst he may experience disappointment and frustration when the ice cream fails to materialize (god forbid the ice cream store is closed when they arrive), or it is not to his expectations.

As we grow up, we start to substitute our attachment to physical pattern with more complex, indirect (instrumental) mental structures. At some point, many of us realize that rather than worrying about the day-to-day acquisition of ice cream, feelings of belonging, and sex, we can scale up our ambitions with bigger, longer-term goals — often the acquisition of money and power — which in practice are mostly just useful for experiencing lots of ice cream, feelings of belonging, and sex in the future. As a result, individuals amass fortunes, raise armies, build monuments, and create machines to help extend our reach beyond our planet. Setting a big goal and striving towards it actively creates structure for our minds to operate with — meaning, purpose, and reality made legible. At least, until the goal is achieved (or we fail), the form dissolves, and we are left with uncertainty, disappointment or even suffering.

This is what we live for: playing Lego with giant blocks of marble

Inevitably, we develop attachments to experiences we seem to naturally enjoy, and aversions towards experiences that are not so nice. So what? One response is that this isn’t a problem to be solved but rather an integral component of what it means to experience life. We should set expectations, strive for things, and occasionally sit in disappointment, flail in anxiety and wallow in suffering. This seems like a perfectly valid approach to life, but not one I’m particularly interested in. As someone with a relatively high emotional setpoint (I am almost always pretty satisfied) –I very rarely experience anxiety and have never suffered to any memorable degree — these are things I would prefer to not experience given that I have the choice. Indeed, there is a choice to be made here: to suffer or not to suffer, and how to avoid it.

Buddhism offers at least two distinct paths for solving suffering. Both function by giving us techniques to build intuition for the impermanence of all experience, amongst other insights. Sutrayana, the renunciative path, solves the problem of suffering by teaching us how to stop experiencing craving and aversion. It shows us that all expectations inevitably lead to disappointment given that all experience is impermanent. Even when things go our way, it is only a matter of time before our luck runs out. This leads to the realization that one stable solution is asceticism: withdraw from the ups and downs of experience, snuff out aversion and desire, and eventually all feeling starts to take on the same character of satisfied indifference. Stop chasing the momentary structure that forms in the soup, for it is in constant flux and it is no better than any old mishmash of letters. This works but is kind of a bummer. Tantrayana, the transformative path, offers a slightly different take. Rather than seeking to silence the passions and experiences of life, it helps us develop our capacity to transform experiences of negative or neutral valence into positive ones. It suggests that we can learn to enjoy failure, anxiety, and ambiguity in the same way that we naturally enjoy success, stability, and clarity. Delight in occasions when the letters in the soup line up and spell something interesting but also learn to appreciate the movement and confusion of the swirling chaos, the moments in between the clarity.

To be clear, this is not a matter of religion or spirituality. Buddhism is a good case study because it lays out a relatively straightforward and established process (that works for many people!) for changing how one’s mind functions. In a nutshell, these are ways of living and have been on offer with varying degrees of clarity, along with many other solutions, from wise folk for all of recorded history. However, Buddhism is one of the few (Stoicism does this to some extent as well, among others) that offers practical solutions to a problem often overlooked in other schools of thought: the sharp distinction between knowing how and knowing that. It is one thing to tell us how to behave. The hard part is actually modifying our behavior and ways of thinking — meditation is a tool for doing so. This can be roughly mapped onto the Kahneman/Tversky framework of System 1 (S1) vs System 2 (S2) thinking where knowing how becomes S1 — intuition, emotion, reaction and subconscious belief — and knowing that becomes S2 — reason, cogitation, and conscious belief. It appears that in order to experience the benefits of being comfortable with nebulosity (uncertainty, instability, ambiguity, change, etc.) we must acquire S1 knowledge of impermanence, and an S1 desire to experience the typically-defined negative emotions as well as the positive.

Reading the words above enables one to know that (S2). You may come to agree with them, but this doesn’t bring you meaningfully closer to realizing the changes suggested. Reading words and grappling with ideas won’t help you to actually feel that all experience is impermanent, and react in ways in accordance with this belief. Perhaps this is what is going on with experts in ethics not behaving any more ethically than the average person. You must have many experiences,reflect on their impermanence and your will to choose how you react, and over time develop the knowledge intuitively. Buddhism offers the tools of Vipassana — insight meditation — to develop the knowledge required to make progress. For example, in body scanning meditation we get dozens of opportunities per hour to observe the arising and passing of physical sensations (both pleasant and unpleasant) on our bodies. By paying close attention to these sensations, we are also able to witness them transform and disintegrate, e.g. pain may decompose into pressure and heat, then move around a bit and disappear. Some of these experiences will be quite profound, and after enough of them, we start to notice our reactions to and intuitions about physical reality changing. This is not about stopping and thinking about how to ideally act or react (S2), but the way our minds behave when left to their own devices — the mind of emotion and intuition (S1).

We can understand a silent meditation retreat — an approximation of monastic life — as an intensive period of S1 training for our minds. We pause the quotidian matters of life in order to train our ability to react to them. Meditative practice is often designed to eliminate thought (S2) and focus the attention on experience, over time developing subconscious intuitions (S1) about reality. The concentrated period of practice ends up leading to superlinear learning due to increased focus and a higher concentration of examples to learn from. A week of intensive meditation can result in progress that would otherwise take months or years of daily sittings.

The same lens can be applied to the Burning Man (BM) experience. BM creates an environment where one is encouraged to disconnect from the familiar patterns of everyday life and be pulled into a chaotic flow of intense and ephemeral experience — from the pleasurable and serene to the overwhelming and uncomfortable. In meditation, it is easy to “meditate” and just sit there thinking, remembering and fantasizing. Similarly, one can experience BM on “easy mode”: spend time with your friends, go to a concert by a big-name DJ, or get drunk at the bar. But if you push yourself you have the opportunity to do the kind of S1 learning facilitated by a meditation retreat. By paying the right kind of attention to its brief and strange encounters we can come to better feel the ephemerality of our realities. We can push ourselves to sit and appreciate the moments of uncertainty and confusion or to find delight in the initial discomforts of some interactions we are invited into. A week dedicated to transforming our initial negative responses to these intense moments can lead to (S1) learning that would normally take months or years. However, until we take the stance that every moment can be viewed as a chance to learn how to react with positivity and delight, and put in the effort to do so, nothing fundamental will change.

In support of Trump

We thought we as a society had advanced beyond the beliefs and attitudes espoused by Trump and his followers — we thought that we were better. We were wrong because there is no universal we, and there probably is not even a good way to know what’s better. Elections are not about policies or facts. They have always been about values. Values and morals evolve unevenly across populations and time. With more rapid economic or moral upheaval comes a larger gap between those leading the charge — progressives — and those valuing stability and what once was — conservatives. Stretch the rubber band far enough, quickly enough, and it snaps.


Trump wouldn’t be my first choice for a president, but he’s been able to accomplish something that no one else seemed to be: making a large faction of our society — the rural, Evangelical, and blue collar — feel heard by acknowledging that their plight is real and it matters. Losing something is subjectively much more painful than an equivalent gain (this can be witnessed through loss aversion). Unfortunately, in addition to raising the status of, and granting rights to, those that were previously downtrodden by the white male majority, we have simultaneously rubbed it in the faces of rural white men, who enjoy Jesus and NASCAR, that their world is backward and they’re stupid. It’s no coincidence that everyone feels OK using them as the butt of jokes (which still pass for being politically correct).

We are lucky to live in a country that celebrates diversity and freedom. Not everyone will share each other’s values, and that’s fine as long as we can continue to find ways to compromise. The first step of compromise is acknowledging your adversary’s perspective and values. Cries of outrage, demands for secession and threats of individual exit (renunciation of citizenship) will not help bridge the rift that has formed between large factions of our society. Congratulations to those that participated in the democratic process. The system has done its job and selected a candidate which is probably a good reflection of the makeup of our current society. The way forward is only through compromise and communication, specifically with those people that you find alien and unrelatable. The next four years will be a good opportunity to practice our ability to appreciate those with different systems of values — perhaps we can learn something from them and similarly they can learn something from us. Together the country can come out stronger than before.

Experience Machines

How much do we care about the world beyond our subjective experience of it?  Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine thought experiment suggests we do seem to reject hedonism — most people care about things beyond their direct hedonic experience. A weaker version of the argument introduced here makes the conclusion more obvious: Consider a futuristic “experience machine” which plugs directly into your brain and can simulate any experience in a way that is sensorily indistinguishable from the way you previously experienced reality. If all you care about is the subjective sensorial experience of reality, you should be willing to plug into such a machine as long as it is capable of replicating the experience of the life you would have lived outside of it (with no other physical  side effects). However, “faced with the choice of a life in the Experience Machine and a qualitatively identical life in reality, most people would prefer the latter”. Since most people seem to prefer their original life, the thought experiment suggests we care about other things besides hedonic experience.


In his original essay, Nozick proposes reasons for why we refuse to plug in. He also suggests that it may be helpful to consider other types of machines, perhaps used in conjunction with the original Experience Machine, to try to better circumscribe our preferences. Nozick’s conclusion is, in my words, that we are repulsed by the idea of using devices to live our lives for us — we would like to do it ourselves, in contact with reality. To the extent this is true, we are still faced with the challenge of defining precisely what this implies. Perhaps we can partially accomplish this by continuing to explore our intuitions about various hypothetical situations and other machines.

A good place to start is with one of the machines suggested by Nozick himself. One of his hypotheses for why we would refuse to plug into an Experience Machine is that it may frustrate a desire for having a tangible impact on the real world. Nozick suggests the idea of a Result Machine which, used in conjunction with an Experience Machine, “produces in the world any result you would produce and injects your vector input into any joint activity”. My interpretation of this is the Result Machine would operate a “zombie version” of you in the real world which acts as your proxy — anything you do in the Experience Machine would be mirrored by your zombie, and hence you would indirectly impact the underlying reality through your virtual actions. As far-fetched as this may sound, perhaps a realistic analogue is possible. Consider the idea of a drug which enables us to feel whatever we want while still being an actor in reality. Further, it would not incapacitate us, nor have other obviously negative side effects which are typically associated with pleasure-inducing drugs we are familiar with. Presumably many would refuse, perhaps because of a concern that the emotional state created by the drug would indirectly impact our desires and actions in a way that our sober mind does not want. In other words, under the influence of the drug or analogously via the Experience + Result machine combo, we are no longer perceiving direct control over our actions.

Next, consider a world where you develop evidence that you live in a simulation, and are further presented a means by which you can communicate with the agents administering the simulation. All other people around you are now known to be simulated, presumably in an equivalent sense as you are being simulated, but still you feel like a mind from the inside — a conscious being. Now consider if you are the only person in this simulation that is able to communicate with the alien agents — are you more likely to feel like you are connecting with an underlying true reality, or that you are simply crazy? Barring the scenario where the aliens give you information which allows you to demonstrate your newfound knowledge to others without stepping on the toes of those in power, it seems your perception of reality might not change. This reveals an intuition that reification is intersubjective. In practice, what seems real to us is what we agree upon with other seemingly conscious beings around us.

Finally, let us explore a machine which we could use in our current world. The Skills Machine would supercharge our capabilities: it would allow us to become effortlessly good and successful at anything we try, thereby becoming a magical device for making progress or bringing about results in our current reality. I predict many people would reject such a machine. To the extent that this is true, we reveal a preference for the experience of growth and mastery through our own efforts. In a similar vein, consider a Mind Control Machine which allows us to precisely influence the minds of others to think or act in specific ways. In some sense, using this machine reduces the extent to which the other person is behaving with what we perceive as free will. To the extent we refuse to use this, and I predict many would upon consideration, we reveal a preference for interacting with agents that seem to possess free will.

There is a big caveat in this analysis which is presented in a slightly different context in How the Experience Machine Works (also linked above). The problem is we are subject to a status quo bias when considering decisions of the sort presented by these thought experiments. We are likely more biased to reject an intervention into our existing reality to the extent that it has larger or more unusual repercussions. I’m not really sure to how to deal with this, but perhaps we can consider what sorts of machines we would use and see what that reveals about the problem.

How to steer your subconscious

You may notice that some of your best ideas come to you in the shower, while driving, or when you’re taking a walk. You may also know that these are likely coming from parts of your brain beyond conscious access and that those parts are constantly at work — you only become aware of it when something interesting bubbles up to your awareness.

What you may not know is that this mechanism can be steered. Depending on your line of work, you may already be meaningfully guiding it. It is no coincidence that when you spend all of your conscious effort thinking about a tough problem, further insight pops into your head at times when you explicitly weren’t thinking about it.


I propose that explicitly trying to guide your subconscious to focus on things you care about is a worthy task. And I have a simple 3-step system to help facilitate this process:

  • Capture – Whenever you find yourself thinking about something that seems big and deep and you wish you could put your subconscious on the task, start by recording it with a short sentence or two. Keep an easily accessible mechanism handy to capture these recordings. I used to use a small notebook, and now rely on Google Keep notes. Your capture method should satisfy these two criteria:
      1. Make it easy to access and add new things — make this low effort, or you will stop doing it.
      2. Keep this list separate from other lists that may distract you when you look at it (to-do lists, shopping lists, etc).
  • Quick Review – When you have some free time or are in the middle of a monotonous task and notice your mind wandering, glance through your capture list, and acknowledge each item. Beyond reading each note and acknowledging it, you shouldn’t have to put in time to actively ponder. Just refreshing your mind with your capture list will often be enough to prime your subconscious.
  • Cleanup – On a regular schedule (I do it as part of a weekly review), go through the list, and clean it out. Most items you will be able to quickly delete. Some you will want to think about more. For those items, I suggest using some kind of future reminder to review them again: FollowUpThen, a calendar event, or even an Anki card. But either way, I recommend clearing your list completely. If it is something that keeps gnawing at you, you will find the urge to organically re-add it. If you let items pile up and keep rolling over, the mechanism seems to lose its effectiveness

You may find the idea of trying to influence your subconscious mind repugnant or overbearing. I am sympathetic toward this view. However, perhaps this is one of those things where if you don’t choose to exercise some control, then someone or something else will — perhaps to your detriment.

If you do try this mechanism or if have a different one, please let me know!

Open-minded Delegation

If you’re anything like me, you love finding solutions to problems. When faced with a challenge, your mind starts racing to find potential paths to take, hypotheses to test, and solutions to build. This is exciting, but this is also very dangerous! Once you have a potential solution, you may not want to give it up.

Now add a team to the mix. In an ideal world, you could clone yourself and get twice as much done, right?  Unfortunately, we need to work with other people. Despite our best cloning efforts, those other people will be different. At the outset of all new projects, I instinctively present my (coveted) brilliant solution and lay out my grand plan for success. Then, I realize that not everyone sees things my way.

open-minded delegation.png

At first, this sucks. But sometimes I remember to open my mind. Delegation and teamwork can lead to outsized rewards, not despite the differences between the collaborators but because of them. In finance, diversification is basically the only free lunch. Value comes from adding imperfectly correlated assets to a portfolio. The strengths of one asset can more than make up for the weaknesses of another asset.

Good collaboration is about exploration. Often, what feels like compromise ends up being a better solution. If you can enter the process with an open mind, you have the potential to combine the best of one person’s perspective with the best of another person’s ideas. Understand that your way may not be the best way, even if (or especially if) you have more experience than someone else.