Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inhibition: Game Plan


  • I benefit a lot from “rest days” that are more about acting on my immediate impulses than about resting physically or cognitively.
  • Sometimes a rest day is an emergency, because I’ve completely exhausted myself in a particular way that makes the prospect of serving others feel threatening.
  • On rest days, I often find that I’ve suppressed an impulse that I should obviously have acted on, or that I’m in the process of suppressing such an impulse. (Example: I realize that I’ve been thirsty for the last half hour and have repeatedly denied the urge to get a glass of water because I wasn’t done reading an article I set out to read.)
  • I find social interaction exhausting, especially social interaction with large groups of strangers, even when I’m enjoying myself.
  • I find social interaction much less exhausting when I drink alcohol.
  • I am happier when I drink alcohol in a way that feels more like a barrier to emotion being removed than like any particular extra sensation being pleasant. (I sometimes end up sadder if I start out sad.)
  • I am smarter, in a certain sense, when I drink alcohol. Ideas come more easily, combine with other ideas more easily, and inspire actions (like expressing ideas) that I immediately execute.
  • A successful rest day feels a lot like being slightly tipsy.
  • Both rest days and the effects of alcohol feel like they have something in common with the creative state of mind I enter when thinking of a mnemonic image.

Inferences and Speculation:

  • I ordinarily waste a lot of cognitive resources inhibiting impulses unnecessarily.
  • Social exhaustion is caused, at least in part, by the same inhibitory patterns that can cause rest days to be emergencies.
  • I have gained a little control over inhibition under some circumstances (rest days and mnemonics).


  • I will be substantially happier, smarter, and more socially resilient if I learn to be less inhibited.
  • I can learn to be less inhibited.


What does a failure to apply the skill look like? It looks like subconsciously exerting control to prevent an action whose outcome would be neutral or beneficial. Concretely: I’m riding my bike when I see a certain plant, and want to know what it looks like up close. I don’t slow down to find out, even though I don’t have any time constraints or other reasons not to slow down besides “I am biking”.

(Hm, this suggests I’m attached to my current activity, whatever that might be, by default. And looking at that thought is slightly painful. I’m afraid that if I believe my problem comes from being attached to my current activity, I’ll start to frequently tear myself away from my current activity, which will hurt. Message received: If this comes down to needing to frequently pull myself away from my current activity, I’ll be sure to find a pleasant, non-damaging way to do so. And I don't actually expect this to be a big problem. Remember what rest days are like? They're happy, not painful. Am I still clinging to being attached to my current activity even given that? No, I think I trust myself with this.)

Success will probably come in two stages. In the first stage, I’ll bring my impulses into direct conscious examination, choosing deliberately whether or not to act on them. That would be like noticing I want to know what the plant looks like up close, asking myself whether I should stop to look at it, and then stopping to look at it if I get a “yes”. In the second stage, I’ll have eliminated the bias toward inhibiting impulses, and I’ll act on impulses that seem beneficial or neutral without need for conscious effort. That would look like a smooth motion from wondering what the plant looks like to stopping to look at it.

My first hypothesis for a trigger is “wanting something”. I’ll tap my fingers together every time I notice myself wanting something (even when I’m not taking the day off). I expect this to be sufficient for the first stage of success; once I’m aware of wanting something, I expect deliberately choosing whether to have it will be easier than not deliberately choosing.

I'll also try exploratory study pf the phenomenology of wanting and inhibition under the influence of alcohol, and during a mnemonics exercise.

I won’t be surprised if the second stage of success just comes with practice, but training may turn out to suggest faster or more reliable ways of internalizing the habit.

Do I risk losing important abilities I won't be able to get back if I succeed at this? Yes. I risk automatically acting on impulses it would have been better to inhibit. But this only seems like a risk with the second stage of success, and not with the first. With the first stage I'll be deliberately choosing. To mitigate this, I'll look for sensations that can distinguish helpful inhibition from harmful inhibition that happen before I have an opportunity to notice actual wanting. My goal will eventually be to be able to predict when an impulse I should deny is about to occur, and when an impulse I should indulge is about to occur. The risk isn't obviously worse than the current state of affairs. I'm happy to cross that bridge when I come to it, so I'll go ahead and begin to train "noticing wanting".

Results will be in the next Tortoise Report.

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