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Self-distancing can help you make better decisions (effectiviology.com)
518 points by EndXA on May 25, 2019 | hide | past | web | favorite | 114 comments

Robert Sapolsky touches on this when discussing the effects of glucocorticoids on the prefrontal cortex. A stressed PFC is not an executive functioning PFC. When we're too close to an issue, we process with our periaqueductal gray (key in pain inhibition) and not with the part of our brain more adept at strategizing.

These stress effects on frontal function also make us perseverative—in a rut, set in our ways, running on automatic, being habitual. We all know this—what do we typically do during a stressful time when something isn’t working? The same thing again, many more times, faster and more intensely—it becomes unimaginable that the usual isn’t working. This is precisely where the frontal cortex makes you do the harder but more correct thing—recognize that it’s time for a change. Except for a stressed frontal cortex, or one that’s been exposed to a lot of glucocorticoids. In rats, monkeys, and humans, stress weakens frontal connections with the hippocampus—essential for incorporating the new information that should prompt shifting to a new strategy—while strengthening frontal connections with more habitual brain circuits.

R. Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst 130 (2017).

>When we're too close to an issue, we process with our periaqueductal gray (key in pain inhibition) and not with the part of our brain more adept at strategizing.

This must be what happens when you think of a funny comeback or joke several hours after the opportunity to use it.

The Treppenwitz or l'esprit de l'escalier: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/l%27esprit_de_l%27escalier

Tunnel vision bias

True! Captured very well in the 'Jerk Store' instance in Seinfeld.

So those who opt in for parasitic payday loans are doing so under stress, can we say they opt for that loan in similar conditions like you are influenced by alcohol and therefore the contracts are invalid?

Many people have ruined themselves with such contracts and it's understood that they had full awareness of what they are getting into and that's why they are liable for all the losses.

This is a very difficult area to draw a line on.

Your emotions can effect your actions and decisions like anything else. Are we to apply the same logic to how advertising made me feel a certain way leading to a purchase u wouldn't otherwise have made?

We are talking measures of degree here but it's a spectrum that is incredibly difficult to nail down.

What constitutes being of sound mind?

> Are we to apply the same logic to how advertising made me feel a certain way leading to a purchase u wouldn't otherwise have made?

I agree with your point about there being a line, but: YES!! ! Advertising has gone too far and is now squarely behind that line.

There is an all out war on our brains going on, and we are losing. Modern advertising and "engagement optimisation" is overwhelmingly insiduous and pernicious. People openly lecture about hacking faults in human psychology to make us buy more and pay higher prices, not to mention the new wave of shameless tracking and targeting. It does not move humanity closer to the stars.

Long live price and value based competition. Down with competition based on dirty psychological tricks.

It's a distraction from your main point, sorry for that. I couldn't let slip the opportunity for a call to arms against advertising.

Lumping all advertising into one box isn't just disingenuous, it's harmful.

Is the farmer advertising his grass-fed, hormone-free beef as a better alternative to what's currently standard grocery store garbage, doing harm?

There's a spectrum to everything, including tech.

Where can I get those ads?

> Are we to apply the same logic to how advertising made me feel a certain way leading to a purchase u wouldn't otherwise have made?

A thousand times yes!

People need some protections against bad actors hacking their brains. It wasn't a large problem in the past, but the bad actors are getting better and better at hacking.

It is still a continuous, so it will be hard to place lines. But it is something that must be done.

Even when contacts are found to be void or voidable due to things like unfair bargaining conditions (such as the inebriation of one party) that doesn't allow that party to escape all consequences of the contract if the sober party was acting in good faith (they were unaware of the condition).

> After all, if that party had no way to know that the drunk or impaired person was not sober, it may have suffered a harm by entering into the contract and performing in good faith despite the other party’s impairment. Thus, it may bring claims sounding in equity (i.e., fairness under the law) called “quasi-contractual claims.” Quasi-contractual claims include things like unjust enrichment, quantum meruit, and others. In essence, they are claims that allow a party to recover when it has, in good faith, performed as though a contract existed, even if it did not or if the contract was void or voidable.


A different view is perhaps that there is a system between the individual and the rest of society - there is a line where a person is clearly not of sound mind so cannot be taken advantage of, but then there is another area where the person is of sound mind but it is not in society's interest to allow them to be taken advantage of.

I often find that when (right wing) people say they want to push regulation back they sort of mean the point of "individual sound mind" but we as a society all benefit more when exploitation is prevented in that other grey area of "what benefits us all"

That grey area not only includes preventing usury but immunisation and education and sewage plants.

i have a saying i tell myself every time this happens to me: 'if it's too hard, you're doing it wrong'.

FTFY if it's too hard, it's fun

Wow. This is something I’ll probably remember for quite some time. It’s intuitive and immediately applicable, and also a dose of awareness I’ve needed recently.

However, there’s a catch to this. By distancing yourself like this, it seems like you may act quite rationally - but perhaps too locally rational. You may be a long time Java programmer and just feel incredibly unfulfilled about your day to day work, and you might be eyeing stuff like Scala and Clojure with dreams of a more fulfilling line of work. Perhaps the distanced rational self would say no, you are well invested in this Java skillset, and these new things could die out, or any new venture like this might not work out, so stick with what you know. But perhaps you take the more emotional route and say no, even if things pan out badly for me, i want a more fulfilling day to day rather than writing so much repetitive code or whatever (no offense to anyone happy with Java). And perhaps you land in a spot where you’re much happier. Or hell, perhaps you really wanted to pursue music, art, etc.

It’s my conjecture, but perhaps it’s most concisely put as: the more you distance yoursef, the less risk you tolerate, and you will take the safe path, precluding the wild possibilities that are the spice of life.

I think you speak here to an important potential misunderstanding about self-distancing. It shouldn’t be about eliminating emotions, it should be about seeing them clearly.

Even the first example quote about LeBron makes the point... he says he doesn’t want to make an emotional decision... he wants to make a decision that will make him happy.

Happy is an emotion too, and a totally valid goal. “Emotional” is really being used as a shortcut to “unconscious”.

Even (perhaps especially) as inputs to the decision, emotions are valuable. If you feel joy at the thought of learning Scala and Clojure, that’s an important piece of information! If you feel depressed and apathetic when writing Java code, that too is very important.

Make conscious emotional decisions, should be the take away here. And self-distancing, to see your own emotions clearly, will help with that.

I had considered this but I felt my comment was getting too long, and I still feel pretty opaque about it. And I might need to read the study itself to get a clearer picture - the article didn't quite answer all my questions.

Basically I feel some friction between distance and self-awareness. It seemed that this study was about choices and action, and that this technique is effective when you have a clear picture of what you want.

But to me, that's the catch: knowing the subjective part of finding out what I really want (beyond the immediate sense) is the hardest, and I feel that the critical self-reflection that requires is something you don't want to be distanced for (how can you understand yourself if you're thinking of yourself as someone else? You can understand your patterns of behavior this way, but that's a small piece of the puzzle). Hopefully this gets you to the point where you come out with exactly that set of emotional criteria, and then you can make well-reasoned decisions based on that, possibly using techniques like distancing.

So there's definitely potential for harmony between the two steps. Trouble is, it seems all too easy to skip or cut short that self-awareness part and go right to the decisions, which is usually what is prompting us to go about these efforts in the first place. So certainly, I can see how a technique like this can help people make objectively better decisions, by some objective criteria. But without that clear picture, applying distancing on its own seems like it would make someone even more prone to neglecting their desires, since they are separating themselves from the decision. But this is all conjecture of someone having only read the article with little background in psychology and being prone to making emotional short-term decisions all the time. Sorry for the post length; since I feel so conflicted about it it was hard to really distill my thoughts.

> I think speak here about an important potential misunderstanding about...

Meta feedback: This strikes me as a great way to open a comment like this. You’re clarifying that you think someone’s wrong on a point of fact/interpretation but that they’ve thoughtfully contributed to the conversation.

This is me. I have a track record of making good, rational decisions that I end up regretting because it wasn't what I actually wanted. recently I've been trying to do a better job of checking in on my feelings to ensure present me don't make logical decisions future me will be aggrevated to follow up on.

Reason is slave to the passions.

It’s neither/nor.

It’s not about acting rationally versus emotionally.

Reason isn’t necessarily good. And emotion isn’t necessarily bad.

It’s a matter of acting unintentionally versus intentionally.

(For some definition of intentionally).

A crude counterexample {

Some people might act rationally out of habit.

And for them, self-distancing might result in listening more closely to emotions which, for them, tend to be crowded out by deeply-ingrained intellectual ideologies.

} And in fact, it’s not about ideology versus non-ideology.

There are people throughout history who have articulated this much clearer than I have.

I hope someone will follow up with links to passages in this vein.

> the more you distance yourself, the less risk you tolerate

The opposite, for me. My logical distanced reasoning tells me to go far away to a country where I know no one, see how it is like to live there, find new friends and colleagues and maybe live there.

Whilst my feelings / intuition? about this makes me anxious and I'd rather stay at home, in "safety".

Turns out in this case, the logic distanced reasoning was right, for me.

Also applies to relationships: self-distancing/meditation can allow you to tolerate a lot of things that maybe you'd be better off not having to tolerate in the first place, and keep you from leaving a bad situation.

As the sibling comment by isacikgoz points out, it can also give you time to notice emotions which you might have otherwise suppressed. The challenge is to find a technique which lets you do that without becoming overwhelmed by the multitude of possible interpretations of your situation.

Some people find that journalling helps.

I find that one technique which works well for me is when I can talk with a friend who is very good at a particular type of listening, where they ask calm questions to draw out your thoughts and more concisely restate your thoughts back to you.

Self-distancing is a tool and in this case you are using it wrong.

Often, the problem when making such choices, is that fear short-circuits the thinking process. "I may switch to Clojure and not find a job; NO JOB? POVERTY! POVERTY? DEATH!" whereas a more correct thought process would be: "I may switch to Clojure, enjoy it but not find a job. How long can I do without a job?"

This will allow you to explore and discover the safety nets you have around you. From experience as a former doom-thinker: such safety nets are more prevalent than you'd think.

I know it's just an example, but someone who understands programming work would probably not be against learning another language or two and trying to get more interesting work. They may question whether the language will make you happy. Similarly they'd ask someone switching to art whether that would really be the path to happiness, are jobs available, what kind of salary to expect etc.

I wouldn't tell a friend not to pursue their dreams. But I would look for good arguments that they actually understand what they want.

I think the main motivation of asking yourself those questions with self-distancing is to expose your feelings to yourself. It helps you to state them. You are trying to understand yourself. I guess this is the main reason of this technique. Unfortunately it is not emphasized in the article.

>Self-distancing is the act of increasing the distance from your own egocentric perspective when assessing events and emotions that you experience.

It's odd that there's no mention of meditation as a way to achieve this effect, since that's arguably its biggest benefit.

Put another way, as someone once said: Wisdom is the ability to take your own advice.

Yes, this does seem like it's closely related to a habit you develop through meditation. However, the "self-distancing" seems worse to me than meditation, since it seems to advocate taking a distance from the "true self" of feelings and thoughts. Meditation encourages the [better]route of recognizing that feelings and thoughts are not parts of your true self at all.

What do think is your true self, if not feelings or thoughts?

According to Buddhism there is no true self.

According to Buddhism, is there truth that a self can hold?

No. The separate self is an illusion and can not truly know anything. Only I am is known.

Do Buddhists hold this to be true?

Meditation is not necessarily Buddhist.

Search this source of emotion and thought. Who is it that experiences it. The answer can not come from the mind since what you perceive can not be you. This is self enquiry and can lead to revelations.

I would go further and say that meditation is the only way to reliably and truly actualize such a state of mind.

I consider self-distancing to be one of the things I'm relatively good at. I've hardly ever successfully meditated, though. Furthermore, the article mentions a couple of other techniques that appear to reliably help with self-distancing.

I'm sure meditation helps, but I wouldn't rule out other options for achieving this particular goal.

Can't that just put things in a circle? Where if you are self distancing then you must be doing whatever meditation is?

I always imagine myself in a movie. What would I want the protagonist to do? Usually leads me to be more outgoing and not staying at home.

But what if what you want the protagonist to do is a non-stop 80s montage?

You say that like it's a bad thing.

<turns up the Le Matos currently playing in headphones>

>leads me to be more outgoing and not staying at home.

Leads me to be more impact & big picture driven, less ego zero sum bullshit.

Nice tip. I am going to try this too.

This reminded me of something which made it to the front page a while back about how people came to a different result when they considered Trolley Problems in their second language rather than their first.

But that article framed it as there being benefits to both the emotional approach and the more rational approach, depending on the problem being considered. This one seemed to discount the emotional baggage as totally unnecessary.

Edit: found the article, and now I'm not sure that I read it on HN after all, but for anyone curious (text is in Spanish): https://elpais.com/elpais/2018/06/18/laboratorio_de_felicida...

This is called "detachment" in many areas of leadership like the military.

I'm sure everyone has personally experienced this, for example when giving advice to others. It's usually very rational and practical because you're not personally and emotionally invested in the events of their life.

We’re all scared. You hid in that ditch because you think there’s still hope. But Blithe, the only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function. Without mercy. Without compassion. Without remorse. All war depends upon it.

— Speirs, Band of Brothers (2001)

If you don’t have a need to, I’m not sure that its useful or healthy to adopt coping mechanisms that people use to endure the most traumatic experiences possible.

Just to be clear: I was certainly not making a recommendation. I agree with you.

Speirs is portrayed as somewhat of a broken man during that part of the show. So there is more context there than the quote might imply.

Jocko Podcast talks about this A LOT. Such a good podcast just in general. A bunch of prevailing themes but can take a little bit out of each.

This is such a simple and effective trick to think about problems involving you. It's very easy to do, for example you imagine how somebody else who is standing next to you can see you, like if you were that person. Sometimes I imagine how my grandpa would see what I do if he still would live and he could be proud of me or not.

I figured out for myself a while back, that if I suspect I’m taking the “easy” choice or making excuses for myself, if I imagine there was a great coach standing next to me who knew my mindset & goals and had my best interests in mind, what would he tell me to do right now. The right action will often become surprisingly clear.

This partially explains why many have epiphanies while on shrooms...you will experience "ego death" that lets you think much more objectively about issues affecting your life.

Tried to get the primary source for the study behind the graphs there, links through to a paywalled study - so I can’t find the sample size, methodologies used, how the study was controlled etc... I’m not disputing anything - I am however cautious of drawing conclusions from articles / posts without proper citations and primary source data. Paywalled study: https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0035173

It is promising however that this blog as a section on logical fallacies, without going through more articles I can’t comment if they adhere to avoiding them or not, still - good to see.

Google Scholar pulls up many PDFs of it: https://scholar.google.com/scholar?cluster=18169154965353534...

>The researchers then measured participants’ self-distance during their recollection of their past experiences

How exactly did they perform this measurement?

> self who is analyzing the event is considered to be distinct from the self who experienced it

I have hard time following this, how can there be two selfs in a single mind.

Is the observer more nobler entity with higher self restraint than the entity being observed who is more emotional and lower self control?

One of the goals of mindfulness meditation is the "realization" that your stream of consciousness—the output of the "self who is analyzing the event"—is essentially just a sensory stimulus like any other. There is an agent in your head, thinking—an agent you have raised and constantly train and identify with very much, sure—but then there is you, separately, observing that thinking coming out of that agent. You, the thing that experiences qualia, would still exist even if that agent didn't! You just wouldn't be able to ponder or focus-on or decide-to-react to anything; only to passively sense and experience things as they happen. From your perspective as the perceiving agent, it'd just seem that a sense was shut off.

Once you have this perspective, you become aware that you don't have to identify with the thoughts coming out of the thinking-agent, or even to listen to them. You, the perceiving agent, can "tune out" the thinking agent's train of thought, just as well as you can tune out a five-year-old babbling in your ear. (And, helpfully, the brain has feedback mechanisms that make tuning out the thinking agent cause it to "speak" less. Unlike the five-year-old.)

As someone who doesn't have a "speaking agent", that's not exactly how it works. I still have the thoughts, I just don't narrate them to myself. I can still think fine, the thoughts happen before the narration anyway. Your CPU doesn't stop processing just because you turned off the screen.

You're talking about a separate thing.

The "speaking agent", or the analyzing agent, is also the predictive agent, and the goal-biasing agent. These are all one "thing." That "thing" is the subsystem of the brain that gets woken up by activity on dopamine receptors, and attempts to model the world (with a bias toward predicting world-states it would like to see, and can make real by predicting a future that requires it to have enacted certain motor commands, which it then enacts to attempt to unify this prediction with reality. Further reading: https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/03/06/book-review-behavior-t...)

We have drugs that lower the activity level of this subsystem—dopamine antagonists (i.e. antipsychotics) and, at a lower level, AMPA-receptor antagonists (i.e. anticonvulsants.) At high doses, these drugs produce a state called "delirium", where the affected person will just sit and stare at the wall (or whatever you put them in front of), doing something if they are coerced to, but otherwise doing absolutely nothing—not blinking, not changing their visual focus, not shifting due to discomfort. You can also get a state of delirium from brain damage, or in some forms of depression.

That is what I mean when I describe the effect of having your analyzing-agent cut out. "You" are still there—you are still conscious, and can still perceive the world!—but no thinking is happening. No predicting, no world-modelling, no goal-pathing or choice-weighing or executive-function-ing. You are a passive, judgement-less qualia sponge.

(Technically, this isn't even the "true" death of the thinking agent. These people can think; they can respond to direct questions, they can solve problems if you force them to do so with threat of immediate harm, etc. What's actually happening is that the goal-biasing is gone, so their perceptual-control agent is just attempting to predict the future that'll happen if it does nothing—and then unifies the motor-command stream with that future by doing nothing.)

(Amusingly, a Buddhist would say that a person in a state of acute delirium has attained enlightenment.)

No Buddhist would say that, so clearly there's some misunderstanding. There is no Buddhist claim that the true self is an inert observer. Fixating on any aspect of your experience as true or authentic is the problem, not the solution. Enlightened people in Buddhist traditions are functional, happy, active; they don't just sit and stare blankly.

Okay, maybe I didn’t use the right term. I wasn’t referring to spiritual enlightenment (bodhi), but rather spiritual emancipation (moksha).

Let me rephrase more clearly: a person in a state of (permanent) delirium has achieved Nirodha—that is, reached nirvana and thereby escaped dukkha and the cycle of samsara by no longer possessing any earthly desires, and so no desirous soul to reincarnate.

Delirium seems to be precisely the state that the Gautama Buddha was suggesting people attempt to achieve to escape human suffering: one where their soul has been erased while they still yet live. This isn’t the same thing as the state he was suggesting people achieve to become better human beings while yet they lived as one—the state of being a Buddha, essentially—but rather, was the state he advised people in the depths of suffering seek, to find release from their suffering.

Of course, the concepts are not so distant; spiritual enlightenment (bodhi) is simply the freedom and clarity that comes from the knowledge that one has ultimate control over the fate of one’s own soul—the knowledge that one is effectively free from samsara already, because one can be free from it (through nirodha) at any point in the future as one so chooses. Certainly, these people are happy and functional. But in nirvana they ain’t.

Delirium seems like quite a strange and unusual description of the refined mental states achieved through meditation and the subsequent extinguishing of suffering. Like this dictionary definition of delirium:

> an acutely disturbed state of mind characterized by restlessness, illusions, and incoherence, occurring in intoxication, fever, and other disorders.

That’s quite the opposite of jhana, nirodha, or nirvana, right?

Ah, well, that’s a dictionary definition reflecting lay usage of the term (i.e. how people use it in novels and the like), but it’s not the clinical definition. Delirium is a specific medical syndrome (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delirium).

The simplest way to explain it is a double definition-by-contrast:

1. You’ve got https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locked-in_syndrome, where people have thoughts and intent but (mostly) can’t translate them to motor commands. But these people are clearly trying to do things, as evidenced by the fact that they can often (learn to) move their eyes to communicate what they want.

2. You’ve got https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akinetic_mutism, which has similar symptoms to locked-in syndrome, but is due to a lack of will to move rather than a lack of ability. (Or—since that sounds a bit like a free-will thing—they have a lack of ability to induce the cognition required to conclude that movement is desirable.)

3. Then you’ve got delirium; delirium is a syndrome [cluster of symptoms] like akinetic mutism, and both have nearly identical symptoms in acute presentation—but very different symptoms when only in partial presentation, which is why they’re not the same syndrome. The syndromes are somewhat hard to tell apart, but once you’ve figured out which one someone has, it’s usefully diagnostic, leading you to a different etiology (i.e. helping you tell what the root of the problem is.)

The syndrome of akinetic mutism is pretty much only caused by specific physical brain damage (like a stroke.) You can think of it as some part of the brain necessary for the “thinking” and “wanting” process, just dying, breaking that mechanism irreversibly. Usually this is damage to a pretty large region of brain tissue, and may indeed involve loss of experience of conscious qualia as well. (It’s hard to tell, since an akinetic mute is hard to interview.) But they’re not in a https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistent_vegetative_state, since they do autonomic things, often enough to keep themselves alive (but only barely.)

Delirium, meanwhile, isn’t caused by physical brain damage, but rather by some other organic (physiological) process that results in electrochemical changes to the brain which then result in a similar symptom profile as akinetic mutism. This is often reversible and doesn’t actually involve the death of any part of the brain, which is why it’s helpful to think of this as just a “state of mind” that is next-to-impossible to achieve without weird chemistry happening in the brain—sort of like the states of mind found under the influence of psychedelics.

But—and this is just me going out on a limb—I have a feeling that delirium is one of the many altered states of consciousness that can be achieved through meditation (since it can also be achieved by letting oneself sink into the depths of major depression, and that sinking-into is—in theory—an entirely psychologically-driven neurochemical process, just like meditation is.) And, if it’s possible for a regular, healthy human being to put themselves in an acute delirious mental state (recall, this matching the symptom profile of akinetic mutism—a complete lack of desire) then I do believe that this is an entirely sensible thing to “prescribe” to people as a technique for avoiding earthly suffering, if one is trapped in it (e.g. if one is a prisoner of war being tortured—as the samsara conceptualization of naraka is likely a metaphor for; or if one is born into famine, poverty, and strife, never knowing any goal beyond animal survival—as the preta realm is likely a metaphor for.)

In other words, delirium is a—perhaps healthier—alternative to entering a dissociative fugue state, as a coping strategy for intense trauma. Delirium involves neither depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself) nor derealization (feeling detached from reality), but instead just involves detaching oneself from one’s desires. “You” are still there, and “reality” is still there; you are mindful, there, in the moment. The only thing that is gone is the agent that was dissatisfied with the present relationship between you and your reality.

I think I see what you're saying. I wonder what you think about the descriptions of the deepening levels of dhyana which do involve "detaching from reality" in some sense. Even the one-pointed concentration needed to approach the first dhyana stage involves tuning out almost all normal perceptions, for example by sitting in a candle-lit room and concentrating fully on the breath in the nostrils. But you keep a strong and stable kind of agency in order to maintain your concentration and to progress in the dhyana series. It seems different from being a "qualia sponge" with a delirious lack of desire or intent. The Wikipedia page for clinical delirium describes distractibility and failure of attention as a primary symptom, whereas deep meditation is almost always described as a result of non-distractability and highly trained attention...

> you don't have to identify with the thoughts coming out of the thinking-agent,

I really have hard time with this . What is the difference between thinking and perceiving agents. Both entities are doing thinking and perceiving. One seems to be passing some sort of value judgement on the other self. Why would some thoughts be "invalid". They are coming out of you for a reason, why should those reasons be ignored.

How precisely is the self( the one we are strongly identifying with) coming up with validity criteria for other self's thoughts. Surely its your own ambitions. right? eg: Ignore the thought of eating icecream.

Wouldn't this process create some sort of constant internal conflict where two self are fighting and passing value judgement on each other.

One way to put it that I've heard from meditation teachers is that it's very nice and useful to have your mind be a bit more "spacious." So you practice a kind of distancing where you let everything like thoughts and perceptions sort of just glide by. One way is to anchor your attention to your breathing and then get into a relaxed flow state. Most meditators report that this does not impair their normal functioning but gives them a beneficial clarity and peacefulness. It doesn't mean that you need to constantly second-guess your thoughts in everyday life; you should rather just be as you are, with just normal self-restraint, not add more "knots" to your mind.

Something that happens in daily life can invoke emotions but it doesn’t mean one has to react with an immediate emotional response. Instead accept the input for what it is and choose how to act on it.

It’s rational versus emotional

shouldn't unifying those two be the goal, instead of creating more distance.

I don't see how having a constant internal conflict between two selfs is a good idea.

Sometimes it's not the content of a thought that is the problem, but the way a thought affects other thoughts. In other words, often the goal of controlling your perception of your train-of-thought, is to use the feedback mechanism of quieting and negatively-training ignored thoughts, to prevent and discourage your thoughts from spiralling (as in panic disorder) or to prevent thoughts detached from a referent (as in schizophrenia) or to prevent thoughts from over-staying their usefulness (as in OCD.) In each of these syndromes, the analyzing-agent is freaking out due to something, and the perception of the freak-out is painful for the perceiving-agent, just like having someone shout into your ear is painful.

As well, in some psychological paradigms that people tend to intuitively use (at least in Western culture), some thoughts that diverge greatly from the "motivational base" of other thoughts—thoughts that aren't coherent with the rest of the self—are deemed to be "intrusive" or "ego-dystonic." (This doesn't make as much sense when you model your self as containing multiple agents with distinct preferences, as in the Internal Family Systems model, but I digress.) In such cases, mindfulness meditation can be used as a tool to silence incoherent thoughts, since they often trigger a crisis of self whenever they occur (e.g. "I keep thinking about what would happen if I stabbed people; does that mean I want to stab people?" or "I keep thinking about stepping out into traffic; does that mean I want to die?" when often these are just the ramblings of an internal agent obsessed with not doing those things who really wants to make sure you're aware that the consequences would be bad if you did do them.)

In either case, there's nothing wrong with thinking certain thoughts. It's really just that your analyzing-agent thinks there's something wrong with those thoughts that it is thinking, and this makes it do very useless and annoying things (from the perspective of the perceiving agent), like repeating the same thought over and over, or being unable to focus on or interpret what's in front of it, etc. These are "bad" inputs to thought-perception, just like clashing, atonal noise is "bad" input to sound-perception. (It's really the thinking agent that notices that the perceiving agent is experiencing pain qualia due to its output, and who then decides to do something about it by modulating the perceiving agent such that the thinking agent gets less CPU-time to run. Other than autonomic stuff like breathing and hardware-accelerated stuff like forming phoenemes with the mouth, it's only the thinking agent that ever "does" anything at all. But it's helpful to model the things it does because of the preferences of other agents, as being done by those other agents.)

There can be at least two selfs very easily.

There is me, the wise guy who set the alarm so I can wake up early tomorrow and is distinct from the lazy me who won’t wake up the next morning.

Then there is me, the nice guy who deserves to sleep in this morning and is distinct from the malicious beast who set the damn alarm last night and is intent on ruining my morning.

Completely different people.

I completely concur with dual-think/multiple selves, but your example talks about two different selves at two different _times_, not at once as OP assumes.

If I understand correctly, you don't need to think these two (or more?) selves as mutually exclusive. It's just that when in certain contexts, e.g., when one is setting the alarm, this self has the appropriate conditions to be the dominant one (the laziness feeling bundle is not yet present). The other self, the lazy one, is still there, but its voice is not strong enough to overpower the first.

By contrast, in the morning, the reverse is also true, only this time the lazy voice is completely empowered by the comfy environment -- the other self just not having enough power to break through through the thick wall of comfort attached feelings the body is experiencing at the moment.

To put more simply, both (or more?) are there at the same time. but one is active, the other latent.

I was looking at it as time causing neurotransmitter changes (leading to sleep) and the resulting self being manipulated due to being in a sleepy state, but I see now how your explanation makes sense too.


"That's a problem for Future Homer! Man, I don't envy that guy!"

It’s really system 1 and system 2 fighting, the temporal aspect just makes the drama more striking.

It is actually even better. The "Samkhya System" from Hindu philosophy posits a three-layer mental model as follows;

1) Buddhi - This is is discriminating and reflective part of consciousness. This can be called as the "observer".

2) Ahamkara - This is the individual ego part of the consciousness. This is the "I" which gives you identity.

3) Manas - This is the part of consciousness which takes in the sensory inputs, forms the impressions and feeds it to "Ahamkara".

"Samkhya" is THE oldest of the ancient Hindu philosophies and hence its mental model has influenced Vedanta, Buddhism, Yoga etc. which all came after it.

No, i don't think so. But, dictionary definition, popular opinion, respectable / appreciated opinions. I can identify the impossiblity of objectivity inherent in the question, but doing so is dismissive. Sometimes sure, people are immature, unreasonable, careless.

I can't understand the mentality that acts with malice to others out of what comes from hatred of the self. Your statement does not imply the this but it suggests it.

The philosophy of self acceptance is pure torture, but it would be less so if thought - obvious effort - was itself valued. It being non obvious affects some, not others. Someone said preaching is moral violence, once.

A puzzle with no solution, or identification of solutions yield, possibly, equivalent problems. Tautological to suggest the solution can not be identified by the observer, but, provably incomplete, yet, believed to be the standard to measure against.

I think the wording should be taken literally. It isn't that there actually are two selves, it's that there are considered to be two.

Obviously on some level you know the selves are one and the same. The idea is: don't apply this knowledge within the thought process about whatever issue you're trying to decide.

In other words, you can integrate / resolve all this knowledge into one cohesive whole (person X needs to decide whether to buy a new car, person X is me --> I need to decide whether to buy a new car; what should I do) or you can block that resolution process and proceed as if it is not yourself (person X needs to decide whether to buy a new car --> what should person X do).

I suggest you skim through these lectures.


It touches on the connections between mindfulness and modern understanding of the mind. Most important, it talks about this problem, that you are not aware of the amout of decisions and input/output data is hidden from you, and how much of your life is narrating outcomes, rather than deciding them.

Fascinating stuff. Makes me feel like a batch of hidden layers struggling for consensus with one tiny human-interaction module that tells a consistent story about why certain outputs are weighted, and that story is called "free will and personality".

> how can there be two selfs in a single mind.

Oh wow, do I have a YouTube video for you:


(You Are Two, by CGP Grey)

You've never had the experience of reflecting on an action you took in the past and felt a tinge (or worse) of regret? It's the same thing.

The self analysing the event, as I understand it, is considered to be reasonable. The self who is experiencing it is emotional.

It is the same distinction between “heart” and “mind”.

I wouldn’t call either of them nobler, depends on the situation.

Sam Harris's Waking Up is actually a great short read about both the neuroscience behind the self and meditation and how meditation can help you become more aware of how the self is more a useful fiction than an irreducible thing.

Huh. I've known this as "standing back from oneself" - I've naturally used this technique for a long time when assessing a customer's situation/requirements.

Also comes in handy when assessing... onself, and one's needs and requirements.

I used to do that. But people are dangerous, they just want to take benefit of others. So in some cases, if you self-distant, you won't see what could affect you, as outsiders are just outsiders.

A balance is needed, self-distant is not enough to deal with people.

I'm not sure you mean the same thing by self-distant as what the article is talking about.

It seems like you are talking about altruism, or looking at situations with an eye towards acting selflessly. Taking actions that will benefit others without regard to how they affect you.

The article is talking about visualizing a situation from a third-person perspective, so that "you" are an object to be analyzed in an emotionally detached way. Rather than viewing a situation from "your" perspective. The idea is looking at your 'self' as some other person helps you to detach from the emotions you feel internally. And this leads to making decisions based on reality rather than how you feel.

All the factors that might lead to you being exploited by other people are still visible when you self-distance. You can still see the co-worker waiting in the wings to throw you under the bus. But rather than _feel_ the discomfort and rage of knowing that the person is after you, you see objectively how you stand in relation to that person. This makes it less likely that you will take impulsive actions driven by instinct, and more likely to take a well-reasoned path that minimizes the likelihood/impact of being exploited.

Someone gave me a tip to being CTO: consider what the ideal CTO would do here and see why you can't. Surprisingly, I found it effective. Odd but I'm not one to throw out a functioning tool.

I'm in the midst of a major decision... Just quit my job with a year of runway and I'm either considering putting that towards graduate school abroad or settling down, finding a better job, and buying a home. My emotions tell me to go study, but my rational mind tells me to settle down and buy a home.

Drop your burn rate to zero, or as low as you can manage.

And consider spending a month abroad, investing in meditation and self-understanding. Can be done cheaply and is super rewarding. I recommend hridaya yoga center in mazunte, from my personal experience doing just that, earlier this year.

Same here. I have two ways, either go into tech leadership or go down the path of research in theoretical computer science. It's a tough choice to make as it will consume the next few years of my life.

Rational advice from a complete stranger; settle down, study, and consider buying a home. Buying a home can consume a year of runway quickly depending on how you go about it.

I like this advice. Unless you have a very large capital base, houses are a great way to reduce your optionality in many ways.

Owning Home is a liability, not an asset unless you see it as an investment. Finding a job and/or Study -> Settling down is something you should be considering.

I’m surprised a year of runway could mean a house...?

I meant a year of runway as my current expenses renting... owning a home would come after finding a job/saving :) I wasn't clear on that. Sorry!

I wonder if return1 can benefit from this. He also wonders if it helps other people to refer to them in the 3rd person.


Isn't this related to how often we find people closer to the psychopathic part of the mental spectrum in leadership positions ? That distancing themselves from suffering and emotions of others comes naturally to them ?

AA members (Alcoholics Anonymous) or any addicted people are doing the opposite. They talk about drinking, they're celebrating round dates. I think the approach in the article is more effective for them.

With all due respect, you're wrong.

In AA there is celebration around milestones (first days, then months then years of sobriety) and there is some discussion of past drinking. You'll often see a lot of both in movies, newcomer meetings or early treatment.

But substance abusers are selfish so a core function of working an aa program aside from trying to help others quit (objectively using ones own experience to help another) is actively taking inventory of past and present resentments, fears and selfishness to determine "what was/is your role in X?" and then making an amend to correct the wrong.

This is similar to Kahneman's "take the outside view" advice. It helps us distance the decision from our (self-)imperceptible biases.

You may find it worth the time spending an hour reading through the work done by Yaacov Trope in this space, some that are referenced in the article

What a great concept, article and discussion.

They key is to understand who you are. That is more difficult than one might expect.

This platitude paints a very shallow picture of human decisionmaking. Tecnically, eating oranges "can help you make better decisions" because getting scurvy is distressing.

Looking at yourself like an alien is not a catchall which will lead you to make 'better decisions.'

This feels like Western science finding its own way towards the lessons already learned by Buddhist meditation. A lot of the same ideas, framed quite differently.

Over 2000 years back at that

This is really a powerful and understudied phenom that's very well exemplified in a very simple form of advice I once read concerning making decisions, self assessment:

Instead of thinking "what should I do in the situation?", consider "what advice would I give myself in this situation?"

It's almost a trivial differentiation, and yet, if one applies this concept immediately for any reason big or small, one will be astonished at how the answers are different. It's really amazing.

It's hard to put data behind it, but if you just try it, I suggest you'll probably see a difference as well. I can't think of any other psychological technique which yields 'results' (at least in terms of having different ideas given framing) for basically zero effort or practice. It's not even a 'learned skill', it's just framing. It's amazing.

I suggest more intellectual people, who might be more deep in their own thoughts, might make even better use of this than more gregarious 'in the moment' people who's attention is in the 'here and now'.

Often times when faced with a tough decision, I pretend I have a friend in the exact same situation and I think about what advice I without give them. It would actually take the form of a conversation and is quite productive.

Yes, that's it. So simple, so powerful.

As I read this article, I thought to myself, "oh, this must be why we must make such good decisions, huh?"

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