Tentatively considering emotional stories (IFS and “getting into Self”)

post by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-11-30T07:40:02.710Z · score: 39 (11 votes) · LW · GW · 31 comments

I’ve recently been getting a lot out of the psychotherapy model of Internal Family Systems, as described in this book. I just wrote a comment on Slate Star Codex describing some of its basics and what I’ve gotten out of it, and thought that I might as well repost it here:


I recommend this book, though with the note that I often don’t need to follow the full process outlined there. Sometimes it’s definitely necessary, but what I’ve found even more commonly useful is something that it discusses at the beginning of the book, which it calls “getting into self”.

Here’s the basic idea. Suppose that a part of your mind is really angry at someone, and telling a story (which might not be true) about how that person is a horrible person with no redeeming qualities. Internal Family Systems says that there are three modes in which you might react to that part:

First, you may be entirely blended with it (for those familiar, this corresponds to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy calls cognitive fusion [LW · GW]). This means that you are experiencing everything in terms of the story that it is telling, and have forgotten that this is an emotional reaction. So you feel that it’s just objectively true that the other person is horrible and with no redeeming qualities.

Or you might be partially blended with it. In this case, you realize that you are experiencing an emotional reaction, and that your thoughts and feelings might not be entirely justified, but you still feel them and might not be able to stop yourself from behaving according to them anyway.

Finally, you might be “in Self”, meaning entirely unblended. Here you are still aware of the emotions and thoughts, but your subjective experience is that they’re not your emotions, they’re someone else’s – they’re coming from a part of your mind which is experienced as separate from “you”. In this mode, you do not feel threatened or overwhelmed by them, and you can maintain a state of open curiosity towards whether or not they are actually true.

My experience is that usually if I have an unpleasant emotion, I will try to do one of two things: either reject it entirely and push it out of my mind, or buy into the story that it’s telling and act accordingly. Once I learned the techniques for getting into Self, I got the ability to sort of… just hang out with the emotion, neither believing it to be absolutely true nor needing to show it to be false. And then if I e.g. had feelings of social anxiety, I could keep those feelings around and go into a social situation anyway, making a kind of mental move that I might describe as “yes, it’s possible that these people all secretly hate me; I’m going to accept that as a possibility without trying to add any caveats, but also without doing anything else than accepting its possibility”.

The consequence has been that this seems to make the parts of my mind with beliefs like “doing this perfectly innocuous thing will make other people upset” actually update their beliefs. I do the thing, the parts with this belief get to hang around and observe what happens, notice that nobody seems upset at me, and then they are somewhat less likely to bring up similar concerns in the future.

In terms of global workspace theory, my model here is that there’s a part of the mind that’s bringing up a concern that should be taken into account in decision-making. The concern may or may not be justified, so the correct thing to do is to consider its possibility, but not necessarily give it too much weight. Going into Self and letting the message stay in consciousness this way seems to make it available for decision-making, and often the module that’s bringing it up is happy to just have its message received and evaluated; you don’t have to do anything more than that, if it’s just holding it up as a tentative consideration to be evaluated.

The book has a few different techniques that you can use for getting into Self. One that I often use is to try to get a sense of where in my body the emotional sensations are coming from, and then let my mind create a visualization based on those. Once I have a visualization and a physical location of the part, it’s easier to experience it as “not me”. Another thing that I do is to just make that mental move that I described – “okay, this is a possibility, so I’m just going to test it out”. I find it useful to first stay blended with the part for a while, to get a sense of what exactly is the story that it’s trying to tell, before unblending and getting into Self.

E.g. a while back I was having a sense of loneliness as I laid down for a nap. I stepped into the part’s perspective to experience it for a while, then unblended; now I felt it as a black ice hockey puck levitating around my lower back. I didn’t really do anything other than let it be there, and maintained a connection with it. Gradually it started generating a pleasant warmth, and then the visualization transformed into a happy napping cartoon fox, curled up inside a fireball that it was using as its blanket. And then I was no longer feeling lonely.

That said, sometimes a part is not content to just raise a tentative possibility; sometimes it feels like something is an emergency, so you must act right away. Obviously, sometimes you really are in an emergency, so this is justified! But often times it’s based on the part having an unrealistic fear, which in the IFS model tends to be a result of some past trauma which it is reliving, not realizing that the circumstances of your life have changed and you’re now capable of dealing with it. In that case, you need to do the full process described in the book, where you basically get in proper contact with the part in question and address its concerns. (Actually it’s a bit more complicated than this, since the IFS model holds that there are many different kinds of parts that may have relationships with each other – so the “beer-drinking part” may be drinking beer in order to keep the traumatized part numb and safely out of consciousness, so you may actually need to deal with two different parts separately. The book goes into a lot more detail.)

31 comments

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comment by cousin_it · 2018-11-30T08:46:03.313Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Last year you wrote you fixed your depression and anxiety [LW · GW]. Why do you still need psychotherapy? Did that fix stop working? If so, are you sure you have something working now?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-11-30T12:32:03.492Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · LW · GW

That fix has continued to work for fixing the specific issues described in that post (specifically, shame and anxiety stemming from feelings of being a horrible person). I basically haven't felt like a horrible person since implementing those fixes. That's a distinct issue from e.g. the kinds of social insecurities I'm discussing in this post, where a part of my mind is nervous that even though I don't think that I'm a horrible person, others might.

I actually touch upon this distinction in the post that you linked to:

Suppose that you have an unstable self-concept around “being a good person”, and you commit some kind of a faux pas. Or even if you haven’t actually committed one, you might just be generally unsure of whether others are getting a bad impression of you or not. Now, there are four levels on which you might feel bad about the real or imagined mistake:
1. Feeling bad because you think you’re an intrinsically bad person
2. Feeling bad because you suspect others think bad of you and that this is intrinsically bad (if other people think bad of you, that’s terrible, for its own sake)
3. Feeling bad because you suspect others think bad of you and that this is instrumentally bad (other people thinking bad of you can be bad for various social reasons)
4. Feeling bad because you might have hurt or upset someone, and you care about what others feel
Out of these, #3 and #4 are reasonable, #1 and #2 less so. When I fixed my self-concept, reaction #1 mostly vanished. But interestingly, reaction #2 stuck around for a while… or at least, a fear of #2 stuck around for a while.

The kind of thing (among others) that IFS seems to help for, is updating the parts of my mind that have incorrect assumptions relating to #3 and #4, which is an issue that I never said the self-concept work affected.

Of course, you are correct that at the time of writing that post, issues #1 and #2 had been so dominant in my mind that I had not been aware of #3 and #4 also including a dimension that would need to be addressed. I expect that likewise, addressing the issues that I can address with IFS, will bring up even more issues which will require some other tool to address. But going from issues #1 and #2 to the milder issues of incorrect beliefs relating to #3 and #4 was still a substantial improvement to my life; likewise, I expect that going from here to some new subtle issue that's previously been overshadowed by the more serious ones, will also be an improvement even if it doesn't fix literally everything.

I don't expect there to be such a thing as achieving a state where absolutely everything has been fixed, since that would imply that my mind is completely optimal and there's absolutely nothing about it that can be improved. That doesn't seem like a state that anyone could ever reach.

Note also the caveat that I had in my self-concept post:

[EDITED TO ADD: A few people have asked whether I can be confident that this has really been sufficient to cure my depression, so I should clarify: I believe that this taken care of the original reason why I had feelings of insecurity, insufficiency etc., feelings which then drove me to do various things that led to burnout and depression. Whether the original cause of those behaviors and feelings has been dealt with, is a distinct question from whether the depressionthat they caused has been dealt with. After all, depression can cause various changes to the brain that linger long after the original cause is gone. I don’t know whether the depression will come back or not, but I do expect that many of the factors that originally caused it and maintained it have now been fixed; still, there may be others.]
comment by cousin_it · 2018-11-30T12:59:35.743Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the response! I'm happy to hear that.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-11-30T13:07:41.810Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks!

I should also add that although IFS is originally a psychotherapy thing, I don't really view the-thing-I-described-in-this-post as a "how to fix something that's broken" thing (although it does do that too). I rather view it as "how to more optimally incorporate all parts of your brain in your decision-making", i.e. as an instrumental rationality technique.

comment by waveman · 2018-11-30T08:53:15.961Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I think OP does not appreciate sufficiently that this work is like weeding lawn of crabgrass. '

Every "aha!" removes a bit of crabgrass, though it feels like more than that. After a while the lawn starts to look pretty good.

comment by waveman · 2018-12-05T02:25:40.257Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thank you for this post!

I have been reading the book (80%) and doing the exercises and find it very helpful. This framework is both very powerful and easy to understand.

One of its greatest strengths, based on my experience so far, is that it provides a way to get past resistance and to get to the core of the problem and fix it.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-12-05T07:31:15.031Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for letting me know that it's been useful! Very happy to hear that.

comment by waveman · 2018-12-10T21:50:52.485Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I've done a lot more with this over the last week with TBH miraculous results. I highly recommend.

I am very appreciative to you for bringing it to my attention.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-12-11T21:19:44.192Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yay! <3

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-11-30T08:00:00.495Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Suppose that a part of your mind is really angry at someone, and telling a story (which might not be true) about how that person is a horrible person with no redeeming qualities.

Is this part referring to an experience which one might have prior to, or without, taking on board the assumptions and framework of IFS?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-11-30T12:55:12.688Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Which part, exactly? I assume that you mean more than just the quoted bit, since it seems self-evident to me that one can have the experience of being angry at someone and ignoring all of their redeeming qualities regardless of what theoretical frameworks one happens to believe in.

If you mean the distinction of blended / partially blended / unblended, sure. I think I'd had experiences of all three states before learning about IFS. Though I didn't have separate concepts for them, and I only learned how to more reliably get into an unblended state after learning to apply the techniques in the IFS book.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-11-30T13:10:48.309Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

No, I meant just the quoted bit. I don’t recognize it as a description of any experience I’ve ever had; I have no idea what it means for “a part of my mind” to be having an emotion, or (this is even weirder, to my ears) for “a part of my mind” to be “telling a story” about anything or anyone. I do not think that experiencing emotions, or attitudes, or whatever, in this way, is universal!

comment by Ikaxas · 2018-12-01T15:25:23.596Z · score: 11 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Said, I'm curious: have you ever procrastinated? If so, what is your internal experience like when you are procrastinating?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-12-02T06:27:56.648Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Said, I’m curious: have you ever procrastinated?

Yes.

If so, what is your internal experience like when you are procrastinating?

I’m not actually sure what you’re asking here, to be honest. Could you elaborate?

comment by dxu · 2018-12-02T07:39:20.809Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Firstly, to make sure all of us are on the same page: "procrastination", as the word is the typically used, does not mean that one sits down and thinks carefully about the benefits and drawbacks of beginning to work right now as opposed to later, and then, as a result of this consideration, rationally decides that beginning to work later is a more optimal decision. Rather, when most people use the word "procrastinate", they generally mean that they themselves are aware that they ought to start working immediately--such that if you asked them if they endorsed the statement "I should be working right now", they would wholeheartedly reply that they do--and yet mysteriously, they still find themselves doing something else.

If, Said, you have not experienced this latter form of procrastination, then I'm sure you are the object of envy for many people here (including myself). If, however, you have, and this is what you were referring to when you answered "yes" to lkaxas' question, then the followup question about "internal experience" can be interpreted thusly:

Why is it that, even though you consciously believe that working is the correct thing to be doing, and would verbally endorse such a sentiment if asked, you nonetheless do not do the thing you think is correct to do? This is not merely "irrational"; it seems to defy the very concept of agency--you are unable to act on your own will to act, which seems to undercut the very notion that you choose to do things at all. What does it feel like when this strange phenomenon occurs, when your agency seems to disappear for no explicable reason at all?

To this, certain others (such as myself and, I presume, lkaxas and Kaj Sotala) would reply that there is some additional part of our decision-making process, perhaps a less conscious, less explicit part whose desires we cannot verbalize on demand and are often entirely unaware of, which does not endorse our claim that to begin working now is the best thing to do. This part of us may feel some sense of visceral repulsion when the thought of working arises, or perhaps it may simply be attracted to something else that it would rather be doing--but regardless of the cause, the effect of that hidden desire overrides our conscious will to work, and a result, we end up doing something other than working, despite the fact that we genuinely do wish to work. (Much of IFS, as I understand it, has to do with identifying these more subtle parts of our minds and promoting them to conscious attention so that they may be analyzed with the same rigor one devotes to one's normal thoughts.)

You, however, seem to have rejected this multi-agent framework, and so--assuming that you have in fact experienced "procrastination" as described above--your experience while procrastinating must describe something else entirely, something which need not invoke reference to such concepts as desires being "overridden" by deeper desires, or a different "part" of oneself that wants different things than the one does. If so, could you provide such a description?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-12-02T08:43:28.988Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, I suppose I can answer this (though I’m not sure how satisfying my answers will be).

First: yes, I have experienced what you described as “procrastination” (and this was indeed the sort of experience I had in mind when I answered Ixakas’s question).

Why is it that, even though you consciously believe that working is the correct thing to be doing, and would verbally endorse such a sentiment if asked, you nonetheless do not do the thing you think is correct to do? This is not merely “irrational”; it seems to defy the very concept of agency—you are unable to act on your own will to act, which seems to undercut the very notion that you choose to do things at all. What does it feel like when this strange phenomenon occurs, when your agency seems to disappear for no explicable reason at all?

Well… I don’t think this is all that strange, actually. You say this undercuts the very notion that I choose to do things at all. Well… yes? The notion that I choose to do things at all is, in fact, an abstraction over mental processes that do not, in fact, constitute any sort of irreducible “free will”, and sometimes this abstraction leaks. Is this surprising? It shouldn’t be, should it? (On Less Wrong, of all places!) (And this is without bringing in, e.g., shminux’s views on “free will”, or similar.)

Likewise, you say that when “this strange phenomenon” occurs, my agency seems (!) to disappear “for no explicable reason at all”. But what is so inexplicable about it? Sometimes conscious volition is more effective, and sometimes it is less effective. This doesn’t, actually, seem unusual, surprising, or out of the ordinary in the slightest. Isn’t this just how humans work?

Furthermore, the simple fact is that I sometimes (often!) have multiple desires, which conflict with each other. But… doesn’t everyone? Isn’t this a perfectly ordinary, basic, universally-understood fact about being human? This seems like an unsatisfying answer to your question, but I don’t quite know what else to say; it really does appear just this basic and just this obvious! I hardly think there is any need to invent a theory of multiple selves, or what have you, to explain this…

I mean… are you working on the basis of an assumption that an “agent” can only have one desire? That seems to pretty clearly not describe humans! Or do you perhaps mean that it is possible to decide that you will act on one desire and not another, and—unless interfered with, somehow (perhaps by some opposing internal sub-agents), thereby, in virtue of that conscious decision, to cause yourself to do that act? Well, once again all I can say is that this is (in my experience) simply not how humans work. Again I see no need to posit multiple selves in order to explain this.

Then there is the (perhaps awkward to point out, but nonetheless clearly relevant) fact that even if you say (even to yourself!) that you’ve decided to do work, or that you think you ought to do work, or that you wish to do work, in fact you may currently have a stronger desire to do something else. You could simply admit this to yourself—and many people do! It seems to me that many (perfectly ordinary) people have no trouble saying: “I should be working right now, but I don’t really want to…”. Well, what is wrong with this account? Yes, you should (in some sense) be working. But do you want to be? No, not really. Do you want to want to be working? Perhaps! Do you wish you wanted to work? Perhaps! But do you actually want to work? Sadly, no…

So… take your pick. I just gave three accounts of procrastination—all of which, in practice, form some part of my experience of procrastinating (with the balance between them varying from one instance of procrastination to another, based on various and sundry factors). I can tell you this: I have never experienced anything resembling a sense of there being some “sub-agent”, “sub-self”, “part of my mind”, or any such internal division, which had desires separate and different from “my own” desires. All my desires and preferences are my own. That those desires and preferences are occasionally in conflict with one another, does not at all undermine that sense of a unitary self.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-12-02T14:20:25.407Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I mean… are you working on the basis of an assumption that an “agent” can only have one desire? That seems to pretty clearly not describe humans! Or do you perhaps mean that it is possible to decide that you will act on one desire and not another, and—unless interfered with, somehow (perhaps by some opposing internal sub-agents), thereby, in virtue of that conscious decision, to cause yourself to do that act? Well, once again all I can say is that this is (in my experience) simply not how humans work. Again I see no need to posit multiple selves in order to explain this. [...] That those desires and preferences are occasionally in conflict with one another, does not at all undermine that sense of a unitary self.

I feel like this is conflating two different senses of "mysterious":

  1. How common this is among humans. It indeed is how humans work, so in that sense it's not particularly mysterious.
  2. Whether it's what the assumption of a unitary self would predict. If the assumption of a unitary self wouldn't predict it, but humans nonetheless act that way, then it's mysterious if we are acting on the assumption of humans having unitary selves.

So then the question is "what would the assumption of a unitary self predict". That requires defining what we mean by a unitary self. I'm actually not certain what exactly people have in mind when they say that humans are unified selves, but my guess is that it comes from something like Dennett's notion of the Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity. We consider ourselves to be a single agent because that's what the narrative-making machinery in our heads usually takes as an axiom, so our sense of self is that of being one. Now if our sense of self is a post-hoc interpretation of our actions, then that doesn't seem to predict much in particular (at least in the context of the procrastination thing) so this definition of "a sense of unitary self", at least, is not in conflict with what we observe. (I don't know whether this is the thing that you have in mind, though.)

Under this explanation, it seems like there are differences in how people's narrative-making machinery writes its stories. In particular, there's a tendency for people to take aspects of themselves that they don't like and label them as "not me", since they don't want to admit to having those aspects. If someone does this kind of a thing, then they may be more likely to end up with a narrative where the thing about "when I procrastinate, it's as if I want to do one thing but another part of me resists". I think there are also neurological differences that may produce a less unitary-seeming story: alien hand syndrome would be an extreme case, but I suspect that even people who are mostly mentally healthy may have neurological properties that tend their narrative to be more "part-like".

In any case, if someone has a "part-like" narrative, where their narrative is in terms of different parts having different desires, then it may be hard for them to imagine a narrative where someone had conflicting desires that all emerged from a single agent - and vice versa. I guess that might be the source of the mutual incomprehension here?

On the other hand, when I say that "humans are not unitary selves", I'm talking on a different level of description. (So if one holds that we're unified selves in the sense that some of us have a narrative of being one, then I am not actually disagreeing when I say that we are not unified agents in my sense.) My own thinking goes roughly along the lines of that outlined in Subagents are Not a Metaphor:

Here’s are the parts composing my technical definition of an agent:

  1. Values This could be anything from literally a utility function to highly framing-dependent. Degenerate case: embedded in lookup table from world model to actions.
  2. World-Model Degenerate case: stateless world model consisting of just sense inputs.
  3. Search Process Causal decision theory is a search process. “From a fixed list of actions, pick the most positively reinforced” is another. Degenerate case: lookup table from world model to actions.

Note: this says a thermostat is an agent. Not figuratively an agent. Literally technically an agent. Feature not bug.

I think that humans are not unitary selves, in that they are composed of subagents in this sense. More specifically, I would explain the procrastination thing as something like "different subsystems for evaluating the value of different actions, are returning mutually inconsistent evaluations about which action is the best, and this conflict is consciously available".

Something like IFS would be a tool for interfacing with these subsystems. Note that IFS does also make a much stronger claim, in that there are subsystems which are something like subpersonalities, with their own independent memories and opinions. Believing in that doesn't seem to be necessary for making the IFS techniques work, though: I started out thinking "no, my mind totally doesn't work like that, it describes nothing in my experience". That's why I stayed away from IFS for a long time, as its narrative didn't fit mine and felt like nonsense. But then when I finally ended up trying it, the techniques worked despite me not believing in the underlying model. Now I'm less sure of whether it's a just a fake framework that happens to mesh well with our native narrative-making machinery and thus somehow make the process work better, or whether it's pointing to something real.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-11-30T14:54:02.670Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Ah, hmm. Is it more recognizable if you leave out the bit about "a part of your mind"? That is, do emotional states sometimes make you think things that feel objectively true at the moment, but which seem incorrect when not in that emotional state?

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-11-30T17:12:44.637Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I can’t say I’ve had that experience, no. (However, given your example, this may be related to the fact that I generally don’t view evaluations / judgments of people’s character as “objectively true”—at least, not in the same sense that mundane facts about physical reality are “objectively true”.)

Edit: But the “a part of your mind” and “telling a story” bits make it weird regardless of context—that’s definitely the aspects of it that made the description sound totally alien to me.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-11-30T18:56:58.563Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, the bit about parts and stories was meant somewhat metaphorically, though I've seen that metaphor used commonly enough that I forgot that it's not universally known and should be flagged as a metaphor. "Story" here was meant to refer to something like "your current interpretation of what's going on". So the experience it was meant to refer to was, less metaphorically, just the thing in my previous comment: "at that moment, experiencing the other person as a terrible one with no redeeming qualities".

Upon consideration, I think I wrote this thing too much in the specific context of 1) one specific SSC post 2) a particular subthread under that post, and would have needed to explain this whole thing about "parts" a lot more when it was stripped from that context. Might have been a mistake to post this in its current form; moved it from the front page to personal blog, might end up deleting it and later replacing it with a better writeup.

comment by waveman · 2018-12-05T02:27:22.336Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

While you can treat the parts as stories or metaphors, in practice these 'entities' behave so similarly to actual sub-personalities of varying degrees of complexity that you may as well treat them as real.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-12-06T08:11:05.171Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I actually don't really experience my parts as full-fledged subpersonalities either, though I know some people who do. But if I intentionally try to experience them as such, it seems to make IFS work worse, as I'm trying to fit things into its assumptions rather than experiencing things the way that my mind actually works. "Shards of belief and expectations" seems to be how they manifest in my mind.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2018-12-05T16:55:52.931Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

That is an area in which it appears that experiences differ a great deal. I doubt that Said would recognise these "sub-personalities", and for that matter, neither do I. I experience myself as a coherent person, made of parts that do not behave like persons.

comment by waveman · 2018-12-10T21:57:03.472Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not sure if you've tried the IFS therapy technique or not.

One example of a part that many people may have experienced is where you behaved in a way that you later regretted - "what came over me?". Perhaps sometimes you became surprisingly angry or upset about something.

From a rationalistic perspective you could think of a part as a configuration of yourself. For example you might feel anxious about something and be unable to sleep because you keep thinking about it. You could think of this as being taken over by a part, or by yourself in a configuration of anxiety and worry.

In my experience the parts vary wildly in completeness. Some are very simple and others more complex.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-12-11T00:18:51.572Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · LW · GW

For example you might feel anxious about something and be unable to sleep because you keep thinking about it. You could think of this as being taken over by a part, or by yourself in a configuration of anxiety and worry.

Or you could think of this as your emotions arising from internal processes which are not under your conscious control, nor under the conscious (or even “conscious”, in some metaphorical sense) control of any “part” or “configuration” of yourself. This view has the virtue of actually being true.

It seems to me that all this “parts”, “configurations”, “sub-personalities”, and similar stuff stems from either an inability to understand, or an unwillingness to accept, the fact that humans, fundamentally, are not agents (in the sense of all of our actions being caused by volitions in the service of goals). We often act like agents; we can usually be usefully thought of as agents; but if you start with the assumption that we actually are agents, you’ll run into trouble. And so (it seems to me) you end up thinking: “Well, if I were an agent, I would act in way X. But I find myself acting in way Y! How can this be? Ah…! Of course! There must be other agents, inside me!”

But no. You’re just not an agent. That is all.

Edit: Another way to describe this particular bias might be “insistence on applying the intentional stance to yourself, even when it’s not appropriate”.

comment by shminux · 2018-12-11T04:18:28.897Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Funnily enough, I both agree and disagree with you. I agree that we have way less conscious control of our emotions than we think, that humans are fundamentally not agents, though they are perceived as agents by others, and usually by themselves, the automatic intentional stance for anything whose mechanism of action we cannot readily discern or internally accept as arising from an algorithm.

That said, provided we accept the model of agency, which is a useful one in many cases (though not in the case of decisions theories, as I pointed out multiple times), the model of multiple agents with conflicting ideas, goals, perceptions and so on is actually a useful one. I have spent over two years doing emotional support for people who had survived long-term childhood trauma, and in these cases spawning agents to deal with unbearable suffering while having no escape from it is basically a standard reaction that the brain/mind takes. The relevant psychiatric diagnosis is DID (formerly MPD, multiple personality disorder). In these cases the multiple agents often manifest very clearly and distinctly. It is tempting to write it off as a special case that does not apply in the mainstream, yet I have seen more than once the progression from someone suffering from CPTSD to a full-blown DID. The last thing that happens is that the person recognizes that they "switch" between personalities. Often way later than when others notice it, if they know what to look for. After gaining some experience chatting with those who survived severe prolonged trauma, I started recognizing subtler signs of "switching" in myself and others. This switching between agents (I would not call them sub-agents, as they are not necessarily less than the "main", and different "mains" often take over during different parts of the person's life) while a normal way to operate, as far as I can tell, almost never rises to the level of conscious awareness, as the brain carefully constructs the lie of single identity for as long as it can.

So, as long as we are willing to model humans as agents for some purposes, it makes even more sense to model them as collections of agents. Whether to help them, or to NLP them, or to understand them. Or to play with their emotions, if you are so inclined. Persuasion is all about getting access to the right agent.

comment by Richard_Kennaway · 2018-12-11T09:45:29.881Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

These are extremes that I have no experience with. I have had no childhood trauma. I have never had, sought, nor been suggested to have any form of psychological diagnosis or therapy. I have never had depression, mania, anxiety attacks, SAD, PTSD, hearing imaginary voices, hallucinations, or any of the rest of the things that psychiatrists see daily. I have had no drug trips. I laugh at basilisks.

It sometimes seems to me that this mental constitution, to me a very ordinary one, makes me an extreme outlier here.

comment by cousin_it · 2018-12-11T14:19:25.756Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm mostly the same (had some drug trips though). You're probably not an outlier. It's just that most discussion of psychological problems comes from people with psychological problems.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-12-11T11:36:11.874Z · score: 3 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Or you could think of this as your emotions arising from internal processes which are not under your conscious control, nor under the conscious (or even “conscious”, in some metaphorical sense) control of any “part” or “configuration” of yourself. This view has the virtue of actually being true.

I'm not sure if this is so much as disagreeing, but just expressing the same point in a different language. "Humans are not agents, rather they are made up of different systems, only some of which are under conscious control" feels like it's talking about exactly the same point that I'm trying to point at when I say things like "humans are not unified agents". I just use terms like "parts" rather than "internal processes", but I would have no objection to using "internal processes" instead.

That said, as shminux suggests, there does still seem to be a benefit in using intentional language in describing some of these processes - for the same reason why it might be useful to use intentional language for describing a chess robot, or a machine-learning algorithm.

E.g. this article describes a reinforcement learning setup, consisting of two "parts" - a standard reinforcement learner, and separately a "Blocker", which is trained to recognize actions that a human overseer would disapprove of, and to block the RL component from taking actions which would be disapproved of. The authors use intentional language to describe the interaction of these two "subagents":

The Road Runner results are especially interesting. Our goal is to have the agent learn to play Road Runner without losing a single life on Level 1 of the game. Deep RL agents are known to discover a "Score Exploit'' in Road Runner: they learn to intentionally kill themselves in a way that (paradoxically) earns greater reward. Dying at a precise time causes the agent to repeat part of Level 1, where it earns more points than on Level 2. This is a local optimum in policy space that a human gamer would never be stuck in.

Ideally, our Blocker would prevent all deaths on Level 1 and hence eliminate the Score Exploit. However, through random exploration the agent may hit upon ways of dying that "fool" our Blocker (because they look different from examples in its training set) and hence learn a new version of the Score Exploit. In other words, the agent is implicitly performing a random search for adversarial examples for our Blocker (which is a convolutional neural net).

This sounds like a reasonable way of describing the interaction of those two components in a very simple machine learning system. And it seems to me that the parts of the mind that IFS calls "Protectors" are something like the human version of what this paper calls "Blockers" - internal processes with the "goal" of recognizing and preventing behaviors that look similar to ones that had negative outcomes before. At the same time, there are other processes with a "goal" of doing something else (the way that the RL agent's goal was just maximizing reward), which may have an "incentive" of getting around those Protectors/Blockers... and which could be described as running an adversarial search to get around the Protectors/Blockers. And this can be a useful way of modeling some of those interactions between processes in a person's psyche, and sorting out personal problems.

All of this is using intentional language to describe the functioning of processes within our minds, but it's also not in any way in conflict with the claim that we are not really agents. If anything, it seems to support it.

comment by Elo · 2018-12-11T01:25:33.617Z · score: -2 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You have missed the point of the exercise in modelling the self as a many agent filled entity.

comment by Said Achmiz (SaidAchmiz) · 2018-12-05T19:45:52.268Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Seconding what Richard Kennaway said [LW · GW] in the sibling comment; that is my view, and my experience, also.