"Which chains-of-thought was that faster than?"

post by Emrik (Emrik North) · 2024-05-22T08:21:00.269Z · LW · GW · 4 comments


  TAP: "How could I have thought that faster?"
    Example: To find the inverse of something, trace the chain forward a few times first
  TAP: "Which chains-of-thought was that faster than?"
    Example: Sketching out my thoughts with pen-and-paper
    Why is it better?
  TAP: "What's the appropriate scope?"
  TAP: "How can I make this advice better?"

Here's some good advice from Eliezer:

TAP: "How could I have thought that faster?"

I really like this heuristic, and it's already paid its rent [? · GW] several times over for me. Most recently today, so I'll share the (slightly edited) cognitive trace of it as an example:

Example: To find the inverse of something, trace the chain forward a few times first

  1. I was in the context of having just asked myself "what's the set of functions which have this function as its derivative?"
  2. This is of course its integral, but I didn't want to use cached abstractions, and instead sought to get a generalized view of the landscape from first-principles [LW · GW].
  3. For about ~10 seconds, I tried to hold the function  in my mind while trying to directly generate the integral landscape from it. 
  4. This seemed awfwly inefficient, so I changed tack: I already know some specific functions whose derivatives equal , so I held those as the proximal thing in my mind while retracing the cognitive steps involved in their derivation.
  5. After making those steps more salient in the forward direction (integral→derivative), it was easier to retrace the path in the opposite direction.
  6. And once the derivative→integral trace was salient for a few examples, it was easier to generalize from the examples to produce the landscape of all the integrals.
  7. There are multiple takeaways here, but one is:
    1. "If you struggle to generalize something, find a way to generate specific examples first, then generalize from the examples."

TAP: "Which chains-of-thought was that faster than?"

Imo, more important than asking "how could I have thought that faster?" is the inverse heuristic:

Although, ideally, I wouldn't scope the trigger to every time you complete a thought, since that overburdens the general cue. Instead, maybe limit it to those times when you have an especially clear trace of it AND you have a hunch that something about it was unusually good.

Example: Sketching out my thoughts with pen-and-paper

  1. Yesterday I was writing out some plans explicitly with pen and paper—enumerating my variables and drawing arrows between them.
  2. I noticed—for the umpteenth time—that forcing myself to explicitly sketch out the problem (even with improvised visualizations) is far more cognitively ergonomic than keeping it in my head (see eg why you should write pseudocode [LW · GW]).
  3. But instead of just noting "yup, I should force myself to do more pen-and-paper", I asked myself two questions:
    1. "When does it help me think, and when does it just slow me down?"
      1. This part is important: scope your insight sharply to contexts where it's usefwl—hook your idea into the contexts where you want it triggered—so you avoid wasting memory-capacity on linking it up to useless stuff.
      2. In other words, you want to minimize (unwanted) associative interference so you can remember stuff at lower cost.
      3. My conclusion was that pen-and-paper is good when I'm trying to map complex relations between a handfwl of variables.
      4. And it is NOT good when I have just a single proximal idea that I want to compare against a myriad of samples with high false-positive rate—that's instead where I should be doing inside-head thinking to exploit the brain's massively parallel distributed processor.
    2. "Why am I so reluctant to do it?"
      1. This seems related to the brain's myopic tendency for hastening subgoal completion.[2]
      2. So I resolved to try to notice exactly which subgoal(s) my brain biases motivation toward, so I can trigger this concept specifically in the contexts where top-down override is most needed—instead of relying on an overly general sense of "uuh I gotta do this more somehow".

Why is it better?

While obviously both heuristics are good to use, the reasons I think asking "which chains-of-thought was that faster than?" tends to be more epistemically profitable than "how could I have thought that faster?" include:

TAP: "What's the appropriate scope?"

Especially notice that there's nothing about the structure of "how could I have thought that faster?" that implies it's only usefwl in the domain of specific short chains-of-thought. "Thought" here is an unconstrained variable. It generalizes to everything where the trace of specific examples is likely to contain information which profitably generalizes to other examples. The general pattern is: 

So let's propagate this pattern across some domains:

TAP: "How can I make this advice better?"

Lastly, another generally usefwl heuristic, which also happens to have caused the insights which led to this post:

  1. ^

    Formatted as a trigger-action-plan (TAP) to make the cue more separately salient, so you're more likely to notice the event that should trigger the action.

  2. ^

    We asked university students to pick up either of two buckets, one to the left of an alley and one to the right, and to carry the selected bucket to the alley’s end. In most trials, one of the buckets was closer to the end point. We emphasized choosing the easier task, expecting participants to prefer the bucket that would be carried a shorter distance. Contrary to our expectation, participants chose the bucket that was closer to the start position, carrying it farther than the other bucket. Pre-Crastination: Hastening Subgoal Completion at the Expense of Extra Physical Effort


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comment by keltan · 2024-05-23T06:32:01.762Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I’ve been thinking about “shortening the way” a lot lately. I’m really glad to see someone else is too.

I did a super rapid, 20 minutes, collect as many data sources about this as possible a few weeks ago. I still haven’t audited them. But there they are anyway. They’re all markdown still bc I’m typing on mobile. Apologies.

  1. "How could I have thought that faster?" [LW · GW]
  2. Tuning your Cognitive Strategies [LW · GW]
  3. What's up with psychonetics? [LW · GW]
    1. deconcentration-of-attention
      1. Deconcentration of Attention: Addressing the Complexity of Software Engineering
      2. Psychonetics: a methodology to work with mind and perception
    2. Ithkuil
  4. Notice your everything [LW · GW]
  5. "Focusing," for skeptics. [LW · GW]
  6. Babble and Prune [? · GW]
  8. "Fractal Strategy" workshop report [LW · GW]
  9. The 5-Second Level [LW · GW]
  10. Meditation: a self-experiment [LW · GW]
  11. How and Why to Granularize [LW · GW]
  12. Native mental representations that give huge speedups on problems? [LW · GW]
  13. Brienne Strohl on Hacking Memory
  14. What It's Like To Notice Things
  15. Agenty Duck
Replies from: Emrik North
comment by Emrik (Emrik North) · 2024-05-23T21:53:02.745Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know some ppl feel like deconcentration of attention has iffy pseudoscientific connotations, but I deliberately use it ~every day when I try to recall threads-of-thought at the periphery of my short-term memory. The correct scope for the technique is fuzzy, and it depends on whether the target-memory is likely to be near the focal point of your concentration or further out.

I also sometimes deliberately slow down the act of zooming-in (concentrating) on a particular question/idea/hunch, if I feel like zooming in too fast is likely to cause me to prematurely lock on to a false-positive in a way that makes it harder to search the neighbourhood (i.e. einstellung / imprinting on a distraction). I'm not clear on when exactly I use this technique, but I've built up an intuition for situations in which I'm likely to be einstellunged by something. To build that intuition, consider:

  • WHEN you notice you've einstellunged on a false-positive
  • THEN check if you could've predicted that at the start of that chain-of-thought

After a few occurrences of this, you may start to intuit which chains-of-thought you ought to slow down in.

comment by Emrik (Emrik North) · 2024-05-23T22:07:45.086Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

you hunch that something about it was unusually effective

@ProgramCrafter [LW · GW] u highlighted this w "unsure", so to clarify:  I'm using "hunch" as a verb here, bc all words shud compatiblize w all inflections—and the only reason we restrict most word-stems to take only one of "verb", "noun", "adjective", etc, is bc nobody's brave enuf to marginally betterize it.  it's paradoxically status-downifying somehow.  a horse horses horsely, and a horsified goat goats no more.  :D


if every English speaker decided to stop correcting each others' spelling mistakes, all irregularities in English spelling would disappear within a single generation
 — Jan Misali

Replies from: programcrafter
comment by ProgramCrafter (programcrafter) · 2024-05-24T03:27:18.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm unsure in whether that point should be in condition, actually; for me, it feels like very few chains of thoughts will be considered for optimization then, so the advice would be useful only for already self-improving people. I would try to replace that point so that it doesn't trigger too often in the same area of life, maybe.