On the Regulation of Perception

post by lionhearted · 2019-03-09T16:28:19.887Z · score: 18 (7 votes) · LW · GW · 7 comments

Have you ever had one of those unexpected flashes of metacognition?

It was towards the end of long, successful day. Around 9:30PM.

I’d woken late so I’d be up a while longer, and was sort of lounging for a little while, sometimes reading a little, sometimes half-napping and dozing a bit on the couch.

Then, a simple enough thought: “I’m hungry. Perhaps, Arabic food.”

Suddenly, a strange self-awareness and metacognition kicks in. Wholly unexpectedly, in fact. I wasn’t in any sort of philosophical mood, wasn’t analyzing, it just — there it was.

Wait. What is this “I - am - hungry”? What’s going on here?

Followed by an unexpected and delightful rush of questions — and possibly some answers.


To just cut right to the chase — I’m afraid I’m failing to “show to my work,” but we’re all busy, eh? — it dawns on me that perhaps we’re not regulating our bodies, but in fact regulating our subjective perception.

Hmm. How do I do this in a less wordy way?

I reckon the common perception is something like this —

“We eat because we’re hungry.”

But that’s not precisely true. It’s actually more like this —

“We eat because we perceive we're hungry.”

“Hunger” isn’t a single thing; it’s a rollup of a lot of things.

You could be at low blood sugar or high ghrelin levels; your stomach could be physically empty; or perhaps blood sugar is high, ghrelin is low, your stomach is somewhat full, but you’re mistaking boredom for hunger.

Regardless, the body isn’t quite so precise as the gasoline tank on your car, which a well-calibrated gasoline gauge will tell you is approaching empty.

No, not so. Hunger is a rollup of a lot of factors, and it’s a… perception/feeling/something. In any event, we can safely say it's subjective. Blood sugar levels, ghrelin levels, stomach contents — these are objective enough and could be measured. But you can’t necessarily predict the subjective experience of hunger from them — two people could have identical levels of blood sugar, ghrelin, and stomach contents, and one could be hungry while the other is not.


Stepping back from hunger for a moment, let’s talk about ontology.

Ontology is a fancy word for “being.” Wikipedia kindly informs us that it involves questions like,

"What can be said to exist? What is a thing? Into what categories, if any, can we sort existing things? What are the meanings of being? What are the various modes of being of entities?"

So, there’s that.

I’m only interested in thing from ontology right now —

“I am hungry."

I’m absolutely shocked that I didn’t notice this before, but I just realized that the default description of hunger is so total and all-encompassing


Contrast — 

“I perceive hunger.”

“I analyze and note reasons for hunger.”

“I decide to eat.”


We’ve traversed firmly into E-Prime territory at this point, one of my favorite tools for clarifying thought — albeit an expensive and awkward tool to deploy.

“E-Prime (short for English-Prime or English Prime) is a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be, including all conjugations, contractions and archaic forms."

So the words am, is, be, etc — gone, stricken from one’s vocabulary.

There’s offers some clarity in precise thinking, but writing in E-Prime often feels awkward; the word “is” makes it easier to string sentences together.

But the upside comes from making descriptions less total, absolutely, and all-encompassing —

"Alfred Korzybski counseled his students to eliminate the infinitive and verb forms of "to be" from their vocabulary, whereas a second group continued to use "I am," "You are," "They are" statements as usual. For example, instead of saying, "I am depressed," a student was asked to eliminate that emotionally primed verb and to say something else, such as, "I feel depressed when ..." or "I tend to make myself depressed about …”" 


Back to hunger. 

Re: hunger, there’s no there there.

We perceive hunger rather than are hunger.

Generalizing a bit, among the daily chores for staying alive as a human include eating, drinking, sleeping, etc.

But we don’t typically think or say, “I perceive hunger” and then to choose to eat, nor “I assess my adenosine levels are high” and then choose to sleep.


Rather —

I am hungry.

I am tired.


The first sentence that occurred to me while lazing about with my book was, “We’re not regulating our bodies — we’re regulating our perception.”

It’s even more clear when looking at it from the opposite point of view — non-food substances that increase or decrease perceived hunger.

Ephedrine hydrochloride, especially when mixed with caffeine, is often used by bodybuilders to increase metabolic rate; i.e., it helps you burn fat by metabolizing it. Ephedrine gives you increased capacity for power generation and increased metabolization at the potential downside of increased thermogenesis (it makes you very warm - actually, this is useful in winter but a hassle otherwise) and it taxes one’s heart when consumed, which is the largest downside.

Notably though, ephedrine is also an appetite suppressant. With the same blood sugar, ghrelin, stomach contents, etc etc — whilst taking ephedrine, you’ll typically feel less hungry.

So you’ll probably eat less.

The chain reaction from ephedrine does a lot of things biochemically, but it also changes one’s perception of hunger — or the lack thereof.


I was feeling well-pleased with myself at this point, ready to plant a flag in the ground and and make triumphant declarations.

But then I think, “Well, hold on a minute, is there any time we consume food when we’re not regulating perception?”

The first example of that might be some social setting — a case where you’re not hungry, but it might be rude to decline food. 

I thought about it more, and said, no, this is the same thing — it’s consuming food in response to a perception that it’d be rude not to. Social cues and social settings are probably more complex modes of thought and perception, but it’s still perceived.

“It would be rude of me not to eat here.”

I’d contend that, most of the time, that’s still regulating perception. Not the perception of hunger, but the perception of social decorum, or the perception of appropriate behavior, or something like that.

Still though, most of the time, regulating perception.


But then an actual counterexample came to mind — what about a person who puts together a detailed nutrition and meal plan, either to gain weight or lose weight, along with detailed recipes and meals to be consumed at certain times each day?

If someone pre-cooks a week’s worth of healthy food, and pre-commits to eating it at certain times, and to not skip those meals even if they’re not hungry, and to not have extra food that’s off the plan even if they’re hungry — this seems like something else entirely, does it not?


Someone more well-versed than me could weigh in on the relevant neuroscience — I’d imagine that detailed planning of nutritional consumption over time would include much more use of the neocortex than the limbic system.

But neuroscience and brain regions aside, it seems to me that moving off “I am hungry” offers some great possibility for better health, wellness, and control over one’s life.

The default inclination seems to be,

1. Some perception occurs to us. (Hunger, let’s say.)

2. Uncritically, we think, “I am hungry.”

3. We eat.

Whereas, with a bit of foresight, we might do this —

1. Do some research to figure out what nutrition and life patterns we’d like to live.

2. Get those plans to the right mix of optimal for health and sustainable.

3. Build those plans out so they’re easily runnable.

4. When later noting perceptions (ex, hunger), simply note them and then carry on with the plan as before.

Perhaps easier said than done!

At the very least, though, I think that replacing “I am hungry” with “I perceive myself to be hungry” has gotta offer some profit in terms of increased control and awareness.

Having a highly-imperative and all-encompassing nature of one's perceptions seems to be a major liability in the modern world.

So, perhaps a better title of this piece could have been, “On the Regulation of the Regulation of Perception”...

Nevertheless — interesting topic, eh?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some shishtaowk, rice, hummous, and olive oil to attend to…  


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2019-03-10T19:53:48.282Z · score: 17 (5 votes) · LW · GW

You may be interested in "Behavior: The Control Of Perception" by Will Powers, which has been discussed here a few times.

comment by lionhearted · 2019-03-10T23:05:17.212Z · score: 14 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Useful post, cheers — it seems someone has tread this ground before.

Just got the book, it's on archive.org incidentally —


comment by jmo1013 · 2019-03-18T17:35:11.712Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I like the parallels between E Prime and the Buddhist idea of no separate self and the 5 skandhas / helps - they both result in the same kind of adjustments to language, moving away from a static identity to creating more of a causal process that allows for closer questioning

comment by tmv · 2019-03-14T23:01:16.618Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting; I can think of three things to add; the first one, is that just as I was starting to read I was starting to think of commenting about Korzybski, mainly for a peculiar reason, I'm very interested in Scientology and LRH supposedly in the first editions of his books said he took a lot of his theories from General Semantics; I know that religious movement is peculiar but the way they structure some stuff about reality is interesting (i.e. they have 'ideas' about how we perceive things). Then I saw you mentioned it. Take a look at the 'TR's' (https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/Secrets/TR/critique.html); I'm not an expert, but see how they 'train' by words. Hope you can get my idea.

Second, I haven't read it, but it's definitely on my TBR; the works of the philosopher Jesse Prinz, maybe "Gut Reactions"; he follows a line of thought where our feeling and reactions come from a very basic part of ourselves; I actually think your ideas fit well into the animal comment someone wrote; it's a basic perception that comes from basic instincts, basically, emotions. I have one paper, but sadly is in Spanish; I can post it if you want to check the references or key ideas.

Finally, I think it all correlates with this: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gut-second-brain/.


comment by TheWakalix · 2019-03-09T23:02:21.349Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If hunger is a perception, then “we eat not because we’re hungry, but rather because we perceive we’re hungry” makes much less sense. Animals generally don’t have metacognition, yet they eat, so eating doesn’t require perceiving perception. It’s not that meta.

What do you mean by “when we eat we regulate perception”? Are you saying that the drive to eat comes from a desire to decrease hunger, where “decrease” is regulation and “hunger” is a perception?

comment by lionhearted · 2019-03-10T18:01:17.756Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW
What do you mean by “when we eat we regulate perception”?

I think most people think of hunger like a gas gauge on the car — eating because the gas gauge is on "Empty" to fill it out.

But, actually, we're eating to change our perception — changing from the "I perceive myself to be hungry" to that not being the case any more.

The problem is that that might not map to actual nutritional needs, desired life/lifestyle, biochemistry, body composition, etc etc.

comment by TheWakalix · 2019-03-10T19:45:27.589Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But isn’t the gauge itself a measurement which doesn’t perfectly correspond to that which it measures? I’m not seeing a distinction here.

Here’s my understanding of your post: “the map is not the territory, and we always act to bring about a change in our map; changes in the territory are an instrumental subgoal or an irrelevant side effect.” I don’t think this is true. Doesn’t that predict that humans would like wireheading, or “happy boxes” (virtual simulations that are more pleasant than reality)?

(You could respond that “we don’t want our map to include a wireheaded self.” I’ll try to find a post I’ve read that argues against this kind of argument.)