Thursday, April 6, 2017

Eleven Techniques For Emotional Awareness

word count: 1,830

you might like to read this if: you struggle to know what you’re feeling, you want to get better at knowing what you’re feeling, you’re curious about what i’ve been up to for the past year

i am bad at emotional awareness. over the past year, i’ve gotten much better. here are some things that have helped.

  1. instead of asking myself “how do i feel?”, i ask myself “what do i feel?”. when i hear “how do you feel?”, i tend to indicate some point on a linear spectrum from “good” to “bad”. it’s like, “how do you like ice cream?” “oh, i love ice cream!”. i might end up answering “pretty good”. not a lot of info.

    but when i hear “what do you feel?”, it’s more like “what ice cream do you like?”. answering it feels like strolling along beside the counter at Baskin-Robbins, sampling flavors to decide what to buy. “rocky road? orange sherbert? ooo, triple chocolate fudge, yes that.” “what do i feel” might get me an answer like “frustrated, excited, happy, anxious, and annoyed”. for most contexts where my emotions matter, that’s way more valuable than “pretty good”.

  2. i spent a week practicing “emotional inventory”. i set an alarm for every two hours between 8:00 and 10:00. on the first day, whenever it was inventory time, i wrote down at least one thing i was feeling. on the second day, i wrote down two things. after that, i wrote down at least three things each time. (it might be possible to feel fewer than three emotions, but i’ve never run into that so far.)

    it was really hard at first, and it took forever. i remember timing myself, and finding that it took fifteen minutes to report five emotions, some of which were clearly caused by the search process itself.

    but it’s gotten way easier over time. my current inventory is [sleepy, eager, happy, relieved, focused, distracted, calm, hopeful, engaged], and that took me about thirty seconds.

  3. i guess. sometimes when i ask myself “what do i feel?” the only answer i get is “i have no idea”. so i start naming emotions randomly, and checking whether i feel them. “am i happy? maybe. am i angry? no. am i tired? yes, super tired.” early on, i kept a list of emotion words in my pocket (well, on my phone) so i could just go through them and pick out the ones that felt relevant.

  4. i consider emotional quadrants. if i assume emotions can be graphed as measures of arousal and valence, then i can find the rough location of what i’m feeling by checking whether it’s more like happy, sad, excited, or scared.

    the downside of this is that it points me to a single answer, as though i’m only experiencing one emotion at a time, which i never am. but usually it helps me get my bearings by nudging introspection toward emotional identification.

  5. i look for more than one thing. if i assume that i’m only feeling one emotion at a time, i’m super confused, trying to infer a single coherent shape from a collection of apparently unrelated sensations. if i seem to be feeling multiple things, then i probably am.

  6. contrasting emotions can happen simultaneously. “sad” and “happy” are not mutually exclusive in the space of a human mind. emotions are independent, like “sweet” and “bitter”.

    this is an update, not a technique, but i’ve had to remind myself of it often. when i add sugar to my coffee, i get a drink that’s both sweet and bitter. there’s nothing weird about that, even though “sweet” and “bitter” seem kind of like opposite ends of a single spectrum. emotions are like that. i’m frequently happy and sad at the same time.

  7. i progress from easy introspection to difficult introspection. being reflectively aware of emotions is a lot harder for me than being reflectively aware of most other things. it’s easier for me to know what i’m thinking about, or what my body is doing, or what i’m hearing.

    so i have a little meditation i go through sometimes, which feels like gaining control of my mind’s eye, and then turning it inward. first, i name something i see, something i hear, and something i feel with touch: blue shoes, the sound of rain, the texture of my socks. then i name three things i feel in my body: itchy arm, chest moving as i breathe, back muscles holding me upright. then i start asking myself what my emotions are. it’s sort of a warm-up, and seems to help.

  8. i look to my body for hints. emotions are often correlated with specific bodily sensations or movements. if my throat is tight, for example, it’s strong evidence that i’m either sad or afraid. so if i do a body scan and find that my throat is tight, i know to ask myself “am i sad?” and “am i scared?”. if i find that my knee is bouncing, then i might be restless, eager, or anxious. if i find a headache and painfully tight shoulder and neck muscles, i’m probably stressed.

  9. there are also subtler things it took me longer to learn, things that somehow feel part-way between “physiological correlate” and “subjective emotional component”. i think this is what people are usually talking about when they say “what does it feel like in your body?”.

    for example, joy and excitement are so strongly associated with a kinesthetic sensation of upward motion in my torso that the perceived movement feels like part of the emotion. it’s such a close tie that learning to recognize the motion as a sensation in itself took some work. but now that i can do it, it’s sometimes easier to spot that upward-motion sensation before i’ve identified feelings of “joy” or “excitement”.

  10. i learned about writing fictional characters. one of the most common pieces of (good!) writing advice in fiction is “show, don’t tell”. in general, it’s a suggestion to move away from “abstract” and toward “concrete”. but a central instance is communicating a character’s emotions to the reader.

    i could “tell” you that John was feeling scared. or, i could show his knuckles going white as he grips the flashlight like a talisman, his breath coming in ragged gasps that the intruder can surely hear through the closet door, a ball of ice in the pit of his stomach that freezes his limbs in place, obsessive visualizations of faceless monsters playing on repeat through his mind, the disorganization of his thoughts as he struggles to form a plan of attack, or time seeming to stretch so far it might shatter.

    setting aside the details of how, when, and why to use this sort of thing in writing, it’s clearly worth storing in my writing toolbox. but how can i actually do it? how can i show the reader my character’s fear if i don’t recognize signs of fear myself?

    it helped to study depictions of emotion in other people’s fiction. it also helped to study the whole of my experience carefully when i noticed i was feeling an especially strong emotion.

    but most of all, it helped to find a wonderful book by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression.

    The Emotion Thesaurus is just a long list of emotions - “adoration”, “agitation”, and “amazement”, through “unease”, “wariness”, and “worry” - with several ways of depicting each. the longest sublist, usually taking up a whole page, is “physical signals”. on the opposite page are lists of “internal sensations”, “mental responses”, “cues of acute or long-term [emotion]”, and “cues of suppressed [emotion]”. for example,“disappointment”’s “physical signals” list has thirty-nine items, and begins with “lowering one’s head”, “lips pressing tight”, and “shoulders dropping or slumping”.

    referring to these lists as i wrote was super handy not just for writing, but for building associations between emotions and other parts of my experience. but i do think the “actually trying to write characters” part was essential. this wouldn’t have worked if i’d just read the book.

  11. i learned how to to figure out what i want. i will talk at greater length about this one in a separate post, but briefly: it is useful to suppose that for every emotion, there is a corresponding desire, and for every desire, a corresponding emotion. if i find myself wanting to sprint up a mountainside, for example, there’s a very good chance that i’m feeling restless.

    if i happen to have an easier time identifying my desires, which sometimes i do, i can use them as a map to my emotions.

  12. i made trigger-action plans. it would do little good to learn emotional awareness techniques if i never used them. although i have, at this point, developed a nearly constant, low-level awareness of my emotional state, there are still times when it’s especially important i snap my attention to what i’m feeling.

    the most obvious triggers for emotional awareness are things like “someone asks me how i feel about something”, or “i’m trying to do a CFAR exercise that requires i know how i feel”. turns out creating TAPs for these was actually necessary, since i otherwise go back to abstractly inferring the answer from a deliberate model of myself, or whatever it is that happens when i don’t actually check.

    but the most important trigger for emotional awareness is “something’s wrong”.

    this trigger is a vague sensation of “feeling bad”, “tension”, or “ickiness”. it’s the sort of thing i might experience right before my mother looks at me and says, “what’s wrong???”. it reminds me a lot of the “confusion” sensation, but it has more to do with me and my relationship to the world than with the world itself.

    “feeling bad” indicates that some concoction of unpleasant emotions is brewing. before i began learning emotional navigation, my default response to this was basically “ignore it”. which makes sense, i think. if your emotions seem unintelligible, and you wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway, then focusing on the bad feels will just make them worse.

    but over the past year, i’ve made my way out of that powerless position. i’ve learned that unpleasant emotions usually correspond to desires to change my behavior or context, and that they happen at critical intervention points. this is most of why emotional awareness is worth gaining.

awareness of my desires proved about as important as awareness of my emotions. in my next post, i plan to talk about “figuring out what i want”, and after that i’ll explain how i’ve come to use awareness of these two things to be more effective in general.

p.s. i have a Patreon now! if you like it when i share the stuff i'm learning, you can provide me with financial incentives to do more of it. to become a patron or learn more about what's up with this, go to my Creator Page, or click the Patreon button in the top right.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


1. Why I Never Go To Dinner Parties

Try to calculate 497x34 and 782+48 in your head, at the same time, as quickly as possible. While you’re at it, imagine that someone is reciting random numbers loudly right beside your ear. After twenty seconds, start calculating the square root of 73, whether you’re done with the last two problems or not.

That’s how group conversations are for me.

I mean, not really. It’s an exaggeration. But it’s the same sort of challenge I face in group conversations much of the time.

Here are my three main struggles in groups:

1: It’s sometimes hard multiple people for talk me at to filter once the sounds.

Sorry, let me break that down for you: Sometimes multiple people talk at once. It’s hard for me to filter the sounds.

I can’t filter out the sounds that aren’t relevant, so they blend together with the ones that are, and I have no idea what’s going on. If I focus really hard, often I can get something like, “it’s SOMETIMES hard MULTIPLE PEOPLE for TALK me AT to filter ONCE the sounds”, and from there I can figure things out. But it’s hard, and slow, and exhausting.

2: Sometimes people in

immediately after

and it bounces

one part of the group talk

people in another part,

around like that.

If I’m in a position where I can’t easily see everyone at once, my whole visual experience is in constant motion. That’s very disorienting for me. And I can’t just close my eyes, because lip reading helps me work out what people are saying.

3: The conversation moves quickly and it’s hard to speak and think at the same time so I can't go fast enough especially if I’m trying to track social things simultaneously which is hard by itself I never jump in right after someone stops talking because I’m still comprehending what they’ve said there's no time to have my own thoughts in response let alone put them into mouthwords so by the time I’m ready to speak someone else is already talking or maybe the conversation has moved to an entirely different topic and it's all so fast it makes it impossible to jump in and contribute.

2. How the Columbus Rationalists Solved Everything

Fortunately, it turns out there’s a solution to most of this, and it’s called “automoderation”.

In automoderated conversations, I’m able to participate. It creates discussions that are fluid, patient, and orderly, which accommodates my cognitive style.

Practitioners report that it increases efficiency for other neurotypes, too. But the difference for me in particular is astounding. When I tried it with a group who knew the system well, it made talking with about seven people as easy for me as one-on-one conversation, if not easier.

We’ve used it a little at Godric’s Hollow (my group house), and it did help - but everybody else was new to it, I couldn’t remember all the rules, and I couldn’t find a description of it online. Today I am excited, because yesterday, J posted a clear and thorough explanation of automoderation to his blog.

The rationality community in Columbus, Ohio, found itself in the position of needing a system of moderation for their discussions, in particular for a rationality dojo. A little over two years ago Max Harms along with another member of the community created a system of hand signals supporting moderation in smaller, less formal settings. This system was inspired by the Occupy movement hand signals. When all participants know the hand signals, a moderator may not even be needed. A moderator is still useful, but often does little besides clarifying the system and consequently introduces very little friction. This system of hand signals is called automoderation. It has been used successfully in groups as small as 3 to 4 people and as large as 15 to 20.

It uses a hierarchical system of five hand signals to determine who will speak when. Different signals indicate different kinds of conversational contribution: Raising your pointer finger, for example, means you want to ask a clarifying question, because you didn’t understand something the previous person said. When they’re done, it will be your turn

— unless somebody’s making a triangle with their fingers. The person making a triangle goes before you and your clarifying pointer finger. Triangle has top priority, because it indicates a meta point like “I can’t hear over the sound of the air conditioner. Can we turn it off and open a window instead?”

3. How It Works

The simple version goes like this:

  1. When someone is done speaking, call on people who are signaling a desire to speak.
  2. If two or more people are signaling, call on the one with the highest priority signal; break ties by going in a circle, clockwise from the last speaker.
  3. If someone asks a question (probing or clarifying), the person they ask should respond; flow continues from the question answerer.

J’s post spells it out in a bunch more detail, and I recommend reading through it if you want to introduce this to a group yourself. But that’s the gist.

Here’s a chart with pictures of the signals, from first priority to last, to get you started.

There’s also a version with high enough resolution to make a poster, and another with extra text describing the system. Either would look lovely, I think, in the common area of an office or group house, nudge nudge wink.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

An Empathy Technique

I recently stumbled on a technique for making empathy easier: Get the other person to talk about something that has nothing to do with me.

By default, they'll talk about stuff that involves me, or interests me, for the obvious reason. If I'm not deliberately attempting empathy, talking about something that doesn't involve me in any way will in fact bore me.

But when empathy is a primary goal, I'm a distraction to myself. If I ask them about their experience of the interview I helped them prepare for, or about principles of mind design, or about the time when we went to the Exploratorium with mutual friends, then I can't help spending a lot of precious cognitive resources on things besides empathy.

But if I get them to talk about a time when they went out to dinner with their family, there is nothing whatsoever interesting about what they have to say except what the experience felt like and meant for them.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sentiment Shaping and Tuning

Note: This post makes more sense if you read or listen to Invincible Summer first. On Becoming Poems also helps.

One of the great lessons of mnemonics is “Memorable things are also impactful.”.

You may be riding an elephant that doesn’t care much about your puny reins, but if you’re a master mnemonist, you needn’t rely on reins. Memorable thought is not stored in a card catalog; it sinks deep into your mind where its tendrils intertwine with the rest of your knowledge and experiences. If you can think memorably, you’re an elephant whisperer.

There is a correlate: “If you know how to make something memorable, then you can impact other people, as well.”

This is a principle I ran with when I designed my speech Invincible Summer. I applied a lot of different mnemonic techniques, but most of all, I applied Becoming Poems. I developed a new technique I call “sentiment shaping and tuning”, which is basically Becoming Poems for composition, rather than learning.


When I’ve talked about memorable thought in the past, I’ve mentioned that sticky things are “story-like”. “Shaping” refers to one central feature of stories: their emotional arcs.

I started with a couple of rough ideas, which I threw together into a draft. I edited the draft in the usual way until it made conceptual sense, more or less. Then the shaping began.

In terms of Becoming Poems, “shaping” corresponds to the step where you identify the structure of the edifice. The idea is to get an emotional handle on each block.

In composition, it includes the additional step of moving the blocks around. After all, a rough draft is a giant heap of bricks.

So I mashed everything together into a single block of text with no paragraph breaks, like laying the bricks out side by side. Then I read through, and inserted a line break every time I felt an emotional transition trying to happen. This left me with chunks of text organized by emotion.

Next, I labeled each chunk of text according to the main emotion(s) it wanted to express. I might have labeled this paragraph “presentation and invitation”, for example, because right now I have a feeling of showcasing a technique in a transparent way.

Then, I looked inside the chunks of text for smaller scale emotional transitions (like lines in a poem, rather than stanzas). The previous paragraph labeled “presentation and invitation” might have a more specific flow of “discernment, demonstration, illumination, explanation”.

Thus concludes the descriptive portion of shaping. So far, this is just what I would do if I were going to memorize the text.

Now for the exciting part.

I took all those labels and made a list, in the same order as the text but without any content. So it was just a list of emotions, something like


I walked through that list, simulating each emotion as I went, and attending to the overall effect of experiencing those emotions in that order.

Vonneghut famously identified eight emotional arcs for stories. A “man in hole” story is one with emotional valence that rises, falls, and then rises again at the end. A “rags to riches” story starts low and ends high.

So I thought about story arcs, and how mine might be shaped. My list looked like it wanted to be two man-in-hole arcs in a row, which a sentiment analysis of novels suggests is one of the most popular shapes. (It’s also my favorite.)

But the actual list didn’t have quite the smooth, satisfying, rise-fall-rise-fall-rise shape I imagined, so I rearranged the list items until it did. When I was done, I had two clear man-in-hole arcs, with the second bigger than the first.

Then I walked through the list again, and made a few more adjustments. Some places felt jarring - horror followed immediately by curiosity was difficult, for instance - so I inserted a new emotion that smoothed the transition: horror, grasping, curiosity.

And in some places there was a long string of similar emotions, which I knew wouldn’t work so well. So I kept the most important emotion in the string and cut the rest, or I combined them into a single, more complex emotion.

At the end, I had a list of a bit over 30 emotions, which sketched an emotional arc I was happy with.

But a list is not a speech.

So I re-arranged the original text blocks into the order of the desired emotional arc (having already conveniently labeled them by emotion). Then things got cut, combined, and added, to reflect changes I’d made to the original list.

Making sense of the concepts in the new order took some doing, but when I was done, the draft was far more fluid and satisfying than before.


0) Make a draft.
1) Label the emotions.
2) Write the emotions as a list.
3) Simulate the emotions in order.
4) Find a satisfying story shape that reminds you of the list.
5) Modify the list to match the chosen shape.
6) Make a new draft to match the list.


Next came tuning. (This corresponds to “diving” in the Becoming Poems method.) I tuned everything, but focused on the points that mattered most, so they’d each be strong enough to carry the weight of the entire speech.

Under each emotion label, I looked at the phrases. Anything that didn’t cause me to feel the emotion I was going for got cut, or (where necessary) modified.

For the remaining phrases, I took anything that tried to point at the emotion abstractly, and replaced it with an image it would be easy to “dive” into if I were memorizing the text. “Boats are exciting” might become “the wheel’s kick, and the wind’s song, and the white sails’ shaking”.

Specifically, I made things concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, story-like, and personally engaging. Here’s an example.

Desired emotions: Loss, hollowness, horror.
Original text: I have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Winter after winter, I forget who I am. I lose sight of my values, passions, aspirations, for months at a time.
Tuned version: I have Seasonal Affective disorder, so for me, this season really sucks. What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

The original text invites the audience to share a certain emotional experience with me. It’s like handing someone a flute and a piece of sheet music. The tuned version, though, is like sitting right next to them and playing the flute myself. There’s no question about whether the experience will be active in their minds, so I know there’s something solid to build the rest of the speech on.

I kept doing this with each section until System 1 groked every piece, until every phrase made the elephant move.


1) Know what emotions you’re going for.
2) Cut or modify anything that’s out of tune with the desired emotions.
3) Concertize every abstraction, and otherwise push toward memorability.
4) Keep at it until your elephant groks the whisper.


I’ve gotten more intensely positive feedback for Invincible Summer than I have for anything else I’ve created so far. I think shaping and tuning was around a third of what caused that.

There are story shapes that fit snuggly in human minds. They evolved along side us, inside us. They’re part of what we are. When you hear them, you’re a hunter on the savanna at night, enthralled from across a campfire, while someone recounts a legend your tribe has told for ages.

It may be magic, but it’s not mysterious. The shapes are learnable. There are six of them, more or less.

Nonfiction is made from a tougher wood, but you can carve it all the same. You can shape and tune it like the fiction we’re built to love, if you learn the craft.

And when you whisper, minds will move.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Invincible Summer

I gave a speech at the 2016 Bay Area Secular Solstice ceremony, which I'm quite proud of and seems to have been well received. You'll probably like it if you think the world's in grave danger and are into saving it.

Here's a video of the whole Solstice. I start at 34:46, and go for about ten minutes. It cuts out for a few seconds toward the beginning, but comes back.

Content note: This is quite dark, involves depression, and mentions suicide.

And here's the (approximate) text. I do strongly recommend the video over just the text, though, because it's very much designed to be performed in bodyspace.


A stained glass palace hangs in the sky at dawn. I watch from below, circling, as wind caresses the feathers of my wings. The clouds, parting to flow around the Eastern tower, burn red-orange where they catch the sun.

This is a vision of Victory. A fantasy of how life might be, when humanity is safe, and free. A Dream.

I have dozens of Dreams: Ballets choreographed for free-fall. Base jumping without injury or death. Intellectual intimacy with friends, without the barrier of symbolic language.

But here on Ancient Earth, we’re not safe. Not yet. And I am especially unsafe in the Winter. I have seasonal affective disorder, so for me, this season can suck.

What it sucks, specifically, is my soul, out through my mouth, then hides it in tattered robes, while I become an empty shell of a person, who doesn’t miss what they’ve forgotten they ever had.

I remember a time, when I was very depressed, lying on the basement floor and staring at the ceiling. As I had been, for hours. It was like my veins were full of lead.

The line between obsessive thoughts and hallucination blurs at times like these. I saw ice water. I felt it, covering my body. And concrete pressed into my back, where I lay heavy at the bottom of a well. A deep well. Above me were miles of murky water. And I was drowning.

But even through all that water, I could see to the surface, if I tried. And above the well, filtering through the icy sludge, points of light swam into focus.

Not just above the surface, but lightyears away. They were the stars. And they grew brighter as I focused on them, their hearts igniting, and burning through the darkness, with an intensity I’d forgotten was possible.

And in the fire of those distant stars, I saw visions of myself. In one star, I was a professor, teaching logic to freshmen at a university. I could feel the chalk on my hands. In another, I was learning to paint.

And in a third star, the Summer sun warmed my face, and I was laughing, freely. Like that was… just… a normal thing to do.

I’d been very close to dying on that day. Winter had almost consumed me.

But when I saw the stars, when I felt them burning in the night, despite their impossible distance, despite the expectation that I’d never lift my arms, much less climb out of that well into the sky, I realized that I. Had. To live. I had to protect the possibility that I might teach. That I might paint. That I might feel the sun, one day, and laugh.

Today, I’m much more robust against the Winter. But I also see more darkness than I ever have before.

I see the darkness of an empty future. Of the stars grown cold, having meant nothing to anyone for more than one beat of a fragile heart.

It is hard to strive on empty. It’s hard to breathe another breath, and keep on breathing, when your lungs don’t know the taste of laughter.

And I don’t know that we can win. In fact, in the vast majority of timelines, we lose.

Because humanity is fragile and heavy, full of lead at the bottom of a well that seems far too deep to climb out of in time. Nobody’s gonna reach down from the sky to save us. There is no natural law saying that things must turn out ok in the end. No rescuer hath the rescuer. No Lord hath the champion, no mother and no father, only nothingness above. Nihil supernum.

And when I feel the depth of that darkness, smothered by despair at the challenge we face, sometimes it is tempting not to look so far ahead. To look at my feet, at just the next few years. To let myself drown.

Nihil supernum. Nothing above.

But with nothing above us, with nothing but ourselves holding us down, how high might we reach, if we manage stand at all? With what might we fill all that potential? Nihil supernum, absque capacitas crescendi - nothing above, except room to grow.

Dreams are not predictions. They’re by nature inaccurate and fanciful. But they are symbols of what we strive for. And we need them. We need to share them, to ignite each other. To forge the future in the furnace of our shared visions of Victory. We need, in the depths of Winter, to find within ourselves an invincible Summer.

However cold the night, however sharp the bitter winds of Winter, I will fight, forever, as long as I know the taste of Victory.

So I pluck the stars from my sky, the ones that burn brightest for me, that show me what might be, and why we have to live. I tuck them into the pockets of my soul, where I keep the precious things I’ll fight to protect, so that whenever I decide whether to drown or to blaze, in all the little choices made on ordinary days that lead toward or away from Victory, I find myself already on fire.

This is the fire that I share with you: A stained glass palace in the sunrise. The wind caressing my wings.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How Studying Mnemonics Changed the Way I Learn

I have found myself repeating in conversation that studying mnemonics has changed my understanding of “learning”. I want to express what learning means to me now.

I’ll start with the basics, and lead you through my development. Say you want to remember the list “quail, Mars, roller coaster”.

The first mnemonic technique I learned was “linking”, and using that, I’d memorize the list thusly: First I imagine a quail. Then I link it to Mars by concocting an imagined scenario that includes both a quail and Mars. For example, perhaps the war god Mars, with his helmet and shield, impales the pet quail I’m holding and and waves it about on the end of his sword, leaving me scandalized, grief-stricken, and suddenly empty-handed.

Then I link “Mars” to “roller coaster” (sans quail). So now I and all the god-planets are lined up riding a roller coaster, and Mars has his arms in the air and is drunkenly bellowing Gustov Holst’s “Mars” at the top of his lungs as we go over the hills, to the dismay of the other planets (and myself).

After that, I might link “roller coaster” to “quail” so that I can start anywhere in the list and still retrieve all the items.

The linking technique is cute and sort of clever, and it’s handy for memorizing lists (which is in fact, on rare occasion, a worthwhile activity). And there are lots of other clever techniques that do similar things, all of which ultimately depend on linking.

But far more useful than linking per se proved my experience of failure to recall list items I’d attempted to link.

I failed a lot when I first started doing this.

Suppose that instead of the links I just described, I imagined a quail sitting beside the planet Mars. That’s still a link between “quail” and “Mars”, but it’s not a particularly memorable link, and there’s a good chance I’d drop it. I’d get to “quail” and go, “shit, I know the quail was sitting beside something, but what is it???” So then I'd go back, consult my written list, and make a new link between "quail" and "Mars", hoping this one would work better.

Just as knowing grammar and vocabulary isn’t enough to be an inspirational speaker, memorable thought is deeper than the tricks of the trade. It’s discovering that depth that has made all of this mnemonics stuff worthwhile for me.

As I’ve said in the past, I found I remembered more, and more easily, if my imagined scenarios were concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and story-like. “A quail beside the planet Mars” is at most one of those things. “Mars impaling my pet quail on a sword and waving it around while I cry about my loss” is all of them.

An even deeper mnemonic principle than the terms of System 1 language is conceptual confluence. Conceptual confluence is the way systems of concrete symbols can flow together with the structure and significance of the abstract concepts they represent.

If I’m memorizing a recipe, for example, rather than learning one long list of ingredients, it might be good to group all of the wet ingredients separately from the dry ingredients. (In case you’ve never baked from scratch: making a wet mixture and a dry mixture before combining wet and dry causes more even blending.)

I might also want to include the concepts “wet” and “dry” in the method of grouping. Perhaps the eggs, water, oil, and vanilla are all in a kiddie-sized blowup swimming pool, being sucked into a spinning vortex by a giant whisk. Meanwhile, the flour, baking soda, salt, and sugar are playing in a sandbox, when a spoon comes out of nowhere, buries them, and mixes them all together with the sand. Then a flood pours in from a kiddie pool and fills the sandbox with a sticky dough.

Now when I recall my recipe, rather than just having all the ingredients lined up on the table, it will be natural to put the wet and dry ingredients in separate bowls before mixing them together.

Additionally, the chunking of the information in my head corresponds to my external behaviors and experiences. As I go about my baking, associations with the relevant information lead me to access what I’ve stored exactly when I need it. “I seem to have laid out two bowls. Why two? Oh, because one is a pool, and the other’s a sandbox.” The mnemonic has a built-in trigger-action plan.

When I say that mnemonics has changed my understanding of learning, I mean that these deeper mnemonic principles have seeped into every educational thought I ever have. Any time I notice myself struggling even the slightest bit while trying to learn something - be it a skill or the point of a philosophical argument - I automatically reach for the structure and significance of the information, and try to express it in concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, engaging, and story-like terms - just as if I had dropped a link.

For example, I was just reading about control theory, when I came upon this sentence in the fourth paragraph:

“The thing we're measuring is the input (to the controller), the level we want it to be at is the reference, the difference between those is the error, and the adjustment the control system makes is the output or feedback (sometimes we'll talk about the actuator as the physical means by which the controller emits its output).”

There are six central abstract concepts of control theory accompanied by seven terms, all of which are new to me, just in that one sentence. “That,” thought I, “is an Important Sentence. If I don’t make it a part of myself, the rest of this essay is going to be nonsense.”

Note that I am not interested in memorizing the terms. I don’t need to rattle them off in a hurry as a list. There will be no vocabulary test with bubbles darkened by a number two pencil. I do not need to memorize this sentence.

What matters is that I arrange some part of my mind into a coherent model of a “control system” - one that includes all the major components, their relationships to each other, and their impact on the system - with associations that will call the relevant parts to mind any time I see a word like “reference” in the text.

I paused, looked toward the meaning of the sentence, and began to associate.

I imagined a pot of heated water sitting atop a coal-powered stove. I’m holding a sensor that looks like a cross between a kazoo and a remote control for a television. I use an eye dropper to put a few drops into one end of the kazoo control, which happily gobbles up its input while making contented yum yum noises.

In my other hand, I am holding a large reference book, and I refer to a page on which is written a temperature that is the reference for this system. The control... defecates, I suppose, a bit of ticker tape out its other end, declaring the temperature of the input water. I compare the reference to the ticker tape number, and if they don’t match, I press a big red button on the kazoo control, which makes a grating “errrrrr, wrong!” buzzer sound, louder for greater differences between the numbers, indicating the error.

Startled by the sound of the button, a mechanical arm with an ax-like shovel on the end (the actuator) begins to act, shoveling coal, feeding it into the stove, grumbling as though it’s a bit put out by all this work it has to do (this behavior is the feedback or output). It shovels coal faster the louder the sound. The stove, exhilarated by its meal, burns hotter, returning the water's temperature to the reference written in my book.

Ok. At this point, I have explained control systems to the parts of my brain (and yours!) that actually matter for real learning.

I can tell because if that crucial sentence were suddenly deleted, I could compose something equivalent on my own, even if the lingo that comes out isn’t quite standard.

But I wouldn’t need to write down an equivalent sentence anyway, because my comprehension is beyond words now. The words have done their job, and I can leave them behind. They’re just triggers. I have built inside my mind a structure that directly supports further understanding of anything and everything about control systems.

If it turns out that there’s something wrong with my understanding of control systems, I’ll be able to notice because my control system will fail to behave the way it’s supposed to, and then I’ll adjust the structure. (…I’ll adjust it as much as is needed to align it with the reality of control systems, but will otherwise leave it be. Hey look, a control system! Yeah? Maybe? I guess I’ll find out when I read the rest of the essay.)

This is just how I think about things now, when my goals aren’t being effortlessly met. I think like this when I listen to people explain things, when I reason about problems, when I consider gaining new abilities, when I hear a poem that I want to fully experience, when I want to communicate with other people in a way that will help them hold onto the things that I tell them.

And yes, I can meet twenty people in five minutes and remember all of their names, if I want. Or recite a memorized speech. Or count cards. And that’s fun.

But it’s all silly party tricks compared to the deeper art of memorable thought.

Bonus problem:

To think memorably, you need to associate with abstract concepts in was that are concrete, emotional, multi-sensory, vivid, dynamic, personally engaging, and storylike; while encoding the structure and significance in your system of symbols; with links to experiences you’ll have when you most need to call on what you’ve learned.

What structure can you build in your mind that will support the application and development of your art of memorable thought?

Friday, August 12, 2016

How To Be My Guide Dog

There are a lot of things I need to be happy that feel unreasonable to me.

For example, it’s usually not possible for me to be comfortable in chaotic environments, like bus stations and sports bars. Or when the refrigerator is buzzing at the wrong pitch. Or when someone says words near me that require a response when I wasn’t prepared for language.

If it were just a few things, I imagine I’d be ok with it. But it’s a lot of things. They’re things that interact with nearly every aspect of daily life, imposing all sorts of constraints on my existence, and especially on socialization. Imagine being invited to meet friends you like a lot for lunch, but the place they’ve chosen has five car alarms going off inside. Or always having to speak a second language, any time you want to communicate in bodyspace, that you aren’t close to fluent in. Or a party where people whack each other with baseball bats at random. “What’s wrong, don’t you like parties???”

I’ve just spent a month doing a lot of traveling to visit family. As a result, I’ve had much less control over my experiences than I usually do. I’ve had little control over where I sleep, where I work, what I eat, who I talk to and when and how, what I hear, what I see, what I smell, etc. For a whole month. It's been... stressful.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about my responses to these things. By default, it seems I try to ignore or endure all this stuff. In the company of others especially, I try to behave as though everything is fine. “I’m going to run away because there is a light flashing in the window of the building next door” is not a thing I enjoy saying to people who don’t know me well. “Omg she’s such a prissy little princess.”

And I’ve noticed I’m really not being very agenty about any of this, partially because I’ve only recently recognized that it’s even a thing, and largely because I’m ashamed of my weaknesses. (And we all know that if you ignore something you’re ashamed of, it goes away.)

But I got to hang out with one of my friends who knows me well while I was visiting the Midwest, and he was proactive about helping me be comfortable. It was amazing. He did things like not talk to me while I was reading the menu, suggest that we go for a walk in a quiet park, and make simple decisions on my behalf when I was too overwhelmed to think.

I’ve come to think of it as “being my guide dog”, and I was immensely grateful.

I suspect I have a lot of friends who would be eager to help me in similar ways if only they knew how. One step toward a more agenty approach is to create affordances for those friends to make things easier for me when we’re together.

So I’ve compiled a list of behaviors that constitute “being my guide dog”. I’ll try to add to it over time as I learn more about myself.


Travel is the most stressful thing I do regularly. It tends to involve high-stakes decision making under time pressure in extremely chaotic environments while people try to talk to me and ask me questions. (Think of airport security, or a subway station with crucial announcements over a shitty loud speaker.) Intervening in this area is very high leverage for increasing my comfort.

  • Literally guide me around.
  • Meet me at the airport or bus station and tell me you'll take it from here.
  • Know how to get where we’re going.
  • Choose streets with fewer cars and less chaos.
  • Take my hand and decide when we cross the street.
  • Coordinate transportation for me.
  • Hail the Uber and identify it when it arrives.
  • Tell me where to be when, how to get there, and when to leave my house.
  • Prevent me from having to drive at night, or in the rain.
  • Prevent me from being rushed.
  • Offer to drive me.


I am almost literally never in an environment that makes me feel really safe. The safest environment I've ever been in was a Zen temple on top of a mountain in rural North Carolina during a silent retreat. "Make things more like a monastic retreat" is a good rule of thumb when crafting a Brienne-friendly environment.

  • Choose a calm and quiet meeting place.
  • Choose restaurants with no TVs or loud music.
  • Turn off the TVs.
  • Only play music that lacks lyrics.
  • Play rain and thunder sounds (you have no idea how soothing this is to me).
  • Take me to a lake, river, creek, or garden.
  • Pay the bill and send me a reimbursement request via Square.


Talking out loud is hard for me. I try to think the thoughts, and the feedback from my mouth and throat and ears distracts me. Parsing speech is also hard. So being asked a simple question can be a bit like, "Quick, what's 345 times 78?"

  • Speak slowly, clearly, and at a moderate volume.
  • Use a direct communication style (be blunt), to minimize the cognitive resources I have to spend on figuring out what you actually mean (odds are good I just won't spend them, and I'll fail to understand you entirely).
  • Avoid sarcasm and other humor that relies on awareness of deception.
  • Relax and be comfortable with silence (don’t talk just to fill silences).
  • Don’t interrupt me.
  • Don’t expect me to interrupt you when I want to get a word in. I'll get frustrated and just stop trying to talk.
  • If you want to show me text on your phone, read it to me instead of handing me your phone. That's probably a little counter-intuitive, but it's some kind of switching-modes thing that is really hard for me.
  • Ask me specific questions (less like “what have you been up to?”, more like “what poetry have you been learning?”).
  • Prevent me from having to make phone calls.
  • Don’t talk to me while I’m reading (as from a menu).
  • If I’m reading or have been silent for a long time, text me the first line of what you want to say (it gives me time to adjust, and gives me the option of responding via text). This is especially good for questions.

Group Contexts

People are chaotic. More people are more chaotic. I'm often debilitatingly overwhelmed in groups.

  • Speak to me only when nobody else is talking; don’t start a side conversation with me.
  • Don’t invite more people at the last minute.
  • Use hand signals to auto-moderate group conversations (ask me how if you’ve never done this).
  • Give me the end seat at the table so I hear fewer discussions at once.
  • If you're high status in the group or are otherwise the center of attention, set an example of conversing clearly and patiently.

Self Awareness

The more overwhelmed I am by external stimuli, the less likely I am to be aware of my own internal state. I'll also be less aware of your internal state, even though I'm perfectly capable of empathizing with you when I manage to devote resources to it.

  • Remind me I have noise-canceling earbuds.
  • Remind me I have night glasses for bright lights.
  • Remind me I can go somewhere else.
  • Ask me how I’m feeling.
  • Tell me how you're feeling and what you want, at the slightest provocation.
  • Ask me how I think you’re feeling. Connecting with you empathetically can actually be grounding, especially if you're feeling calm and confident.

To be clear, you don’t have to do any of these things when you’re hanging out with me. I'm not even making a request. I've gone my whole life without people catering to my pesky little preferences in every interaction, so I'm not depending on you to do this. I'm just providing an opportunity.

But if you’re actively looking for a way to make my life easier, doing any subset of these thins will help. If the spirit of the entire list appeals to you, you can tell me, “I want to be your guide dog” when you see me (or beforehand), and you will probably find that I’m much more relaxed around you.