Psychology

Experience as interpretation

Our own nature, in fact, is defined by the tiny fraction of possible interpretations [of the world] we can make, and the astronomical number we can’t.- Hans Moravec

Consciousness as story

Our consciousness may be primarily the continuous story we tell ourselves, from moment to moment, about what we did and why we did it. It is a thin, often inaccurate veneer rationalizing a mountain of unconscious processing…

On the one hand, our consciousness may be an evolutionary fluke, telling an unreliable story in a far-fetched interpretation of a pattern of tiny salty squirts. On the other, our consciousness is the only reason for thinking we exist (or for thinking we think). Without it there are no beliefs, no sensations, no experience of being, no universe. – Hans Moravec

A list of human universals

Things that everybody does, in every culture worldwide: Human Universals

For example:

  • Dance
  • Jokes
  • Language
  • Laws
  • Planning for future
  • “Snakes, wariness around”
  • Tickling
  • “Weather control (attempts to)”

via Alan Kay, who says “Suppose you want to make a lot of money. Well, just take the top 20 human universals and build a technological amplifier for them.”

Why Elon Musk is working on brain interfaces

Because any other way of evolving humans isn’t fast enough:

Genetics is just too slow, that’s the problem. For a human to become an adult takes twenty years. We just don’t have that amount of time. – Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future – Wait But Why

You are where your attention is

This line has stuck with me since first reading Andrew Sullivan’s excellent article on distraction last week:

You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

Fear and loathing in U.S. politics

Fascinating in-depth look at the most interesting part of the Trump phenomenon–not the man, but the supporters.

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality.

Essentially, fear of change (especially related to physical threats) leads to desire for authoritarian leadership.

Conversation — is there an app for that?

Smartphone usage is changing our face-to-face conversations–even when the phones are hidden:

[Her impatience] is characteristic of what the psychologists Howard Gardner and Katie Davis called the “app generation,” which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.

I’ve always thought that it was the act of programming computers that made tech geeks (like myself) talk like robots. Turns out the cause may simply be using them.

Theses of Technology

Some surprisingly good theses of technology by Alan Jacobs. He’s really not a fan of Kevin Kelly. A few of my favorites:

  • To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.
  • Mindfulness reduces mental health to a single, simple technique that delivers its user from the obligation to ask any awkward questions about what his or her mind is and is not attending to.
  • The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.
  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • [Kevin] Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
  • The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.
  • What does it say about our understanding of human intelligence that we think it is something that can be assessed by a one-off “test” [the Turing Test]—and one that is no test at all, but an impression of the moment?
  • The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.
  • Embrace the now intolerable.
  • Everyone should sometimes write by hand, to recall what it’s like to have second thoughts before the first ones are completely recorded.
  • To shift from typing to (hand)writing to speaking is to be instructed in the relations among minds, bodies, and technologies.
  • The always-connected forget the pleasures of disconnection, then become impervious to them.

How my 2-year-old son taught me to focus

I didn’t expect that having a toddler would improve my focus. After all, aren’t they supposed to be chaos embodied, a frenzy of activity, spraying attention in all directions? And certainly they take time and energy to raise, teach, and protect.

Yet toddlers also haven’t yet learned the cognitive mistake of trying to juggle more than one thing at once. Sure, my son plays with 20 different toys in 20 minutes. But he does so one at a time, first playing with a train, then putting it down and playing with a car, then putting that down to play with a different train. For him, attention moves smoothly between objects, without attachment and with total focus each time. While he is playing with a train, he has no thoughts or plans about the car right next to it. When he picks up the car, all thoughts of the train disappear.

He expects this of others, as well. My wife and I have been intentional about how we use technology around him, but sometimes the infinite abyss of a smartphone tempts me away for just a moment. My son has no tolerance for this split attention, and quickly corrects me: “Dada, will you put that down! Come sit right here!”

I’ve been working through the Focus series in my daily meditation this month. One of the key concepts introduced is that focus is not a static experience, but a dynamic one; moving from object to object, sensation to sensation. What matters most is not absolute sterility, but a robust and flexible flow that can adapt to changing circumstances.

What my 2-year-old son taught me about focus is that while the object of your focus might change, the quality and intensity shouldn’t. It is possible to focus completely on one thing at a time, and be completely present in each moment. It’s so easy, in fact, that a toddler can do it. What’s my excuse?

Questions That Lead to Love

An interesting article has made the rounds recently, detailing the story of a couple who fell in love through answering a set of questions to each other.

The list of questions is now online and ranges from polite dinner conversation:

Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?

To deeply personal:

What is your most terrible memory?

And truly existential:

If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?

Seems like a worthy, though intense, exercise!