Training Reflective Attention

post by BrienneYudkowsky · 2014-12-21T12:53:52.558Z · score: 21 (24 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 30 comments

Crossposted at Agenty Duck

And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry's art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it. —HPMOR, Ch. 3

A rationalist’s art is most distant when it is most needed. Why is that?

When I am very angry with my romantic partner, what I feel is anger. I don’t feel the futility of throwing a tantrum, or the availability of other options like honest communication, or freewriting, or taking a deep breath. My attention is so narrowly focused on the object of my anger that I’m likely not even aware that I’m angry, let alone that my anger might be blinding me to my art.

When her skills are most needed, a rationalist is lost in an unskillful state of mind. She doesn’t recognize that it’s happening, and she doesn’t remember that she has prepared for it by learning and practicing appropriate techniques.

I've designed and exercise that trains a skill I call reflective attention, and some call mindfulness. For me, it serves as an anchor in a stormy mind, or as a compass pointing always toward a mental state where my art is close at hand.

Noticing that I am lost in an unskillful state of mind is a separate skill. But when I do happen to notice—when I feel that small, small note of confusion—reflective attention helps me find my way back. Instead of churning out even more pointless things to yell at my partner, it allows me to say, “I am angry. I feel an impulse to yell. I notice my mind returning over and over to the memory that makes me more angry. I’m finding it hard to concentrate. I am distracted. I have a vague impression that I have prepared for this.” And awareness of that final thought allows me to ask, “What have I trained myself to do when I feel this way?”

The goal of the following exercise is to practice entering reflective attention.

It begins with an instruction to think of nothing. When you monitor yourself to make sure you’re not having any thoughts, your attention ends up directed toward the beginnings of thoughts. Since the contents of consciousness are always changing, maintaining focus on the beginnings of thoughts prevents you from engaging for an extended period with any particular thought. It prevents you from getting “lost in thought”, or keeping attention focused on a thought without awareness of doing so. The point is not actually to be successful at thinking nothing, as that is impossible while conscious, but to notice what happens when you try.

Keeping your focus on the constant changes in your stream of consciousness brings attention to your experience of awareness itself. Awareness of awareness is the anchor for attention. It lets you keep your bearings when you’d otherwise be carried away by a current of thought or emotion.

Once you’re so familiar with the feeling of reflection that creating it is a primitive action, you can forget the introductory part, and jump straight to reflective attention whenever it occurs to you to do so.


This will probably take around five minutes, but you can do it for much longer if you want to.

Notice what your mind is doing right now. One thing it’s doing is experiencing sensations of black and white as you read. What else are you experiencing? Are there words in your inner monologue? Are there emotions of any kind?

Spend about thirty seconds trying not to think anything. When thirty seconds is up, stop trying not to think, and read on.

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What’s happening in your mind is constantly changing. Even when you were trying not to think, you probably noticed many times when the stillness would shift and some new thought would begin to emerge in conscious awareness.

Turn your attention to those changes. When a new thought emerges in consciousness, see if you can notice the exact moment when it happens, becoming aware of what it feels like for that particular change to take place.

If it helps at first, you can narrate your stream of consciousness in words: “Now I’m seeing the blue of the wall, now I’m hearing the sound of a car, now I’m feeling cold, now I’m curious what time it is…” You’ll probably find that you can’t narrate anywhere near quickly enough, in part because thoughts can happen in parallel, while speech is serial. Once narrating starts to become frustrating, stop slowing yourself down with words, and just silently observe your thoughts as they occur.

If you’re finding this overwhelming because there are too many thoughts, narrow your focus down to just your breathing, and try to precisely identify the experience of an exhale ending and an inhale beginning, of an inhale ending and an exhale beginning. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable with it, and then slowly expand your attention a little at a time: to other experiences associated with breathing, to non-breath-related bodily sensations, to non-tactile sensations from your environment, and finally to internal mental sensations like emotions.

If you notice an impulse to focus your attention on a particular thought, following it and engaging with it—perhaps you notice you feel hungry, and in response you begin to focus your attention on planning lunch—instead of letting that impulse take over your attention, recognize it as yet another change in the activity of your mind. If you’re narrating, say, “now I’m feeling an impulse to plan my lunch”, and keep your focus broad enough to catch the next thought when it arises. If you realize that you’ve already become lost in a particular thought, notice that realization itself as a new thought, and return to observing your stream of consciousness by noticing the next new thought that happens as well.

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You might need to practice this many times before you get the hang of it. I suggest trying it for ten minutes to half an hour a day until you do.

Once you feel like you can recognize the sensation of reflective attention and enter that state of mind reliably given time, begin to train for speed. Instead of setting a timer for fifteen minutes or however long you want to practice, set it to go off every minute for the first half of your practice, spending one minute in reflective attention, and one minute out. (Don’t do this for all of your practice. You still need to practice maintenance.) When you can consistently arrive in reflective attention by the end of the minute, cut the intervals down to 45 seconds, then thirty, fifteen, and five.


In real life, the suspicion that you may be lost in an unskillful state of mind will be quiet and fleeting. “Quiet” means you’ll need to learn to snap your attention to the slightest hint of that feeling. For that, you’ll need to train “noticing”. “Fleeting” means you’ll need to be able to respond in less than five seconds. You’ll need to begin the process in less than one second, even if it takes a little longer to fully arrive in reflective attention. For that, training for speed is crucial.

30 comments

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comment by efim · 2014-12-22T14:01:43.764Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Upvoted! Rather concise and clear 'no bullshit' introduction into meditation.

I've practiced meditation for a while now, from my experience this post could be very good entry point.

Excercise for speedy induction of mindfull state is a new idea for me - thank you very much - I'll try it, and maybe in six month report my data point.

comment by katydee · 2014-12-23T08:26:51.399Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Great post! I'd love to see this in the Main section.

comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2014-12-22T13:47:33.593Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This series of posts on noticing, attention, metacognition, and so on, is really great and smart. I think it's profoundly important stuff. I hope you keep posting on this.

To what extent are you including this material in CFAR classes?

comment by BrienneYudkowsky · 2014-12-23T13:50:34.458Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Not at all yet, though some of it is inspired by CFAR material. I'm not a CFAR staff member, just an occasional guest instructor. I'm in Chile for four months developing this stuff so I've had almost no contact with them for that time. But who knows, maybe they'll find some of it useful and pick it up.

comment by shminux · 2014-12-21T17:23:53.690Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Weird, I tried the first exercise: closed my eyes and waited for the first thought to emerge. Nothing (as far as I could tell) happened for a few seconds, so I tried paying more attention. Then I noticed that, as soon as a thought started to form (always in a non-verbal and not-visual way, more like a mental nudge), it got almost instantly dismissed, apparently without any conscious effort on my part beyond the initial "let's relax". After a minute or so the new thoughts got farther along, as if my inner whack-a-thought'er got tired or something. Is this the opposite of the standard reaction, or do I misunderstand something?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-12-23T23:46:00.007Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure of how common the thing that you're describing is, but I would just point out that "nothing seems to be happening, I'll try paying more attention" is a thought.

comment by shminux · 2014-12-23T23:56:30.031Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I guess it is a thought. Does it mean that I am not doing this meditation thing right?

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-12-24T00:00:08.682Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I wouldn't consider myself qualified to say what is or isn't doing meditation right, but to me it mostly suggests that you're not yet very sensitive at actually recognizing thoughts as thoughts. That's normal early on, though: my experience with meditation is that I've gotten better at noticing more and more subtle thoughts as I've gotten more practice.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T10:10:02.574Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This looks like a rerun of Meditation Trains Metacognition.

I tried your exercise again and apparently I can go into noticing within about one second (tried that repeatedly; when starting to count mentally I almost instantly notice my counting and the resulting noticing the noticing).

In particular I noticed that each change of thought is accompanied by a 'halo' where the new focus of attention (a sound, a feeling, a visual impression) is kind of highlighted, attenuated. For visual features I almost think I can see the halo (as if a contrast enhancing filter were put upon the feature). But I have to add a disclaimer: This could all be an artifact of my noticing.

If you goal is to improve heated dialogs I'm not sure this will help or rather I'm unclear what your next steps after noticing are. Sure you state your feelings. And then? It probably depends on your partner but for me my noticing didn't help much. Actually it made matters worse. My ex-wife was frustrated that she couldn't reach me with her emotions. She could have better dealt with me mirroring her anger and 'fighting it out'.

Emotions have one important function: Emotions measure subjective importance. It is not possible to objectively discuss importance. It is possible to give factual information like: "X is cheaper", "Y is more beautiful", "Z is nearer". But how to weigh these remains subjective. Even if you try to assign weights. And then there is not always time to enumerate all the factual points much less the weights. So I learned that apparently some things are more important to her than to me by the strength of her emotion.


See also the related links Two Weeks of Meditation can Reduce Mind Wandering and Improve Mental Performance and Meditation: a self-experiment.

comment by SilentCal · 2014-12-22T18:01:33.760Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

What's novel about this post on meditation is that it taboos the word 'meditation'. I kinda like that.

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2014-12-21T15:35:03.073Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Emotions have one important function: Emotions measure subjective importance.

The entire continent of Australia is more important to me than my little toe, but guess which one has more sway on my emotions? Emotions are behavior-modifiers - they approximate "rational" behavior in the ancestral environment. [lesswrong's definition of rational as goal-optimizating behavior. Emotions are irrational as per the normal definition because they are involuntary and don't involve deliberative reasoning].

My ex-wife was frustrated that she couldn't reach me with her emotions. She could have better dealt with me mirroring her anger and 'fighting it out'.

It's up to your meta-cognition to decide when it's best to clamp down on emotions and when to ramp them up. The instinctive thing to do for most people is to clamp down as much as possible and then give up at some point, and I'm guessing evolution selected on negative-emotion-intensity and emotion-clamping-ability under the condition that everyone maximally clamps negative emotions because they hurt. As a result our clamping abilities are exactly, slightly under, or slightly over the maximum clamping strength we need in life.

I think this, combined with the fact that the modern environment is more stressful means, means most people aught to try to train themselves to strengthen that clamp down that muscle more, and correctly so. But there are some whose clamping muscles are just fine, and now they're ready for Step 2 which is learning when the correct time to not clamp is.

comment by alex_zag_al · 2015-01-08T23:13:10.626Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This reminds me of hitting Ctrl+C, but on a thought process or object of focus instead of a program. After reading, I do it when i suspect I'm about to voluntarily do something I'm going to regret.

EDIT: At least, I think I'm doing it... I haven't done any training approaching the amount of time the training in your post takes.

comment by Yuu · 2015-01-02T19:59:34.317Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

How can I distinguish between reflective attention and common attention?

comment by MrMind · 2014-12-24T09:46:29.211Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Are we overestimating the importance of meta-cognition?

comment by Gurkenglas · 2014-12-24T10:08:42.761Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In any random given magic system that wasn't balanced against this, focusing yourself on Metamagic is a semi-reliable way of finding gamebreakers.

I daresay nobody balanced the Universe.

comment by MrMind · 2014-12-29T11:15:08.862Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

While metamagic is a causal level below magic, meta-cognition is a causal level above cognition.
You cannot really dictate the state of your neurons through meta-cognition. It seems to me extremely unlikely that something very valuable would come from this.

comment by gothgirl420666 · 2014-12-22T01:08:17.093Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

This is interesting to me. It seems like you are using meditation to more frequently engage in self-reflection, meta-cognition, introspection, etc. I'm trying to meditate (in part) to do the exact opposite - I think I'm far too self-reflective to my own detriment, and the only way to stop the endless cycle of thought loops is to get better at clearing out my head.

The point is not actually to be successful at thinking nothing, as that is impossible while conscious

[citation needed]

comment by chaosmage · 2014-12-23T15:57:18.803Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

For reducing self-reflectiveness, mindfulness is not the most effective form of meditation. I suggest you try the following: It is super easy - although with your specific problem, it might be harder for you - so if it doesn't work you'll have wasted much less time than if mindfulness doesn't.

Your conscious mind has a limited cognitive capacity, and thoughts need it to run, which is why you can't have ten thoughts at the exact same time. This capacity is not reserved for reflective thought, which is why anger, for example, can use it up, to the point where you can't run self-reflection anymore.

Say you can have seven items in your working memory (very smart!), and it takes your working memory a seventeenth of a second to switch contents (very awake!) - that means you get 119 working memory contents per second. It is like bandwidth. The numbers vary, the principle doesn't. So all you need to do to starve your self-reflection of bandwidth is to flood your cognitive capacity with lots of items that are unrelated to reflection.

And that is really easy. All you need to do is look at something (or listen, if blind) and try to notice as many details as you can. I recommend looking at a tree and trying to see every single leaf like you would if you focused on a single one - but anything with some visual texture and no text on it works. If you want to keep it up for several minutes straight, I've found the key is to continually attempt to see even more details. Maybe that's because each of the details is kept as a seperate item, so they don't coalesce into self-perpetuating thoughts. Contents of working memory that don't self-perpetuate deteriorate quite quickly, and will be replaced with new ones - so you need to make sure they're again nonreflective perceptions.

Side effect: After a few minutes, this makes whatever you're looking at really fascinating and beautiful. This is because your brain uses the self-observation that it isn't experiencing distraction as a proxy for how important the thing you're not distracted from is.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-12-24T00:04:44.290Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

A variation on this technique is not to focus on any particular object, but to keep actively noticing and naming every mental sensation that comes to your head: e.g. within a few seconds, my mind might bounce from the weight on my right buttock, to the feel of my toes against my left thigh, the slightly tense muscle on my right thigh, to the sensation of saliva in my mouth, to the feeling of my lips pressing against each other...

It gets pretty exhausting pretty quickly, though.

comment by gothgirl420666 · 2014-12-23T18:26:16.554Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the advice, noted.

comment by BrienneYudkowsky · 2014-12-23T13:52:39.120Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It doesn't need citation. How would that help? It just needs clarification. Which will be easier if you'd tell me what you think might be wrong about it.

comment by gothgirl420666 · 2014-12-23T18:35:33.215Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, I was being kind of snarky, I should have explained further. My point is that the other meditation instructions I've seen have said that it is in fact possible (but very difficult) to be successful at thinking nothing while conscious, and to a certain extent that is the point. So I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that it is impossible. I think Eliezer has written a lot about prematurely concluding that things are impossible, when in fact they are merely very difficult.

comment by BrienneYudkowsky · 2014-12-24T21:11:02.558Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I said it because of how I think about thoughts. When i say "thought", I mean anything that is happening in consciousness. Any sensation, any mental event that you're subjectively experiencing. When I say "conscious", I mean "you're experiencing things" (and maybe also you're awake). So if you're not experiencing things, you're not conscious. So if I taboo "thought" and "conscious", then I'd express this bit as "Try to stop having mental events. (You can't actually do that while in a state that affords trying, of course. Trying is a mental event.)"

comment by gothgirl420666 · 2014-12-25T07:26:59.973Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, okay. To me a thought means something more along the lines of the things the little voice in your head says to you.

comment by brazil84 · 2014-12-21T16:10:48.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When her skills are most needed, a rationalist is lost in an unskillful state of mind. She doesn’t recognize that it’s happening, and she doesn’t remember that she has prepared for it by learning and practicing appropriate techniques.

Would you mind providing a couple examples of some of the worst decisions and/or actions taken while in such a state of mind that you later regretted?

comment by BrienneYudkowsky · 2014-12-21T18:56:23.916Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If I answer that question honestly, it means I'm telling you the decisions I've made that I regret most. Mistakes like that pretty much don't happen when my mind is in good condition. I'm pretty sure I'm willing to do that, but I'd at least like to make sure first that trivial mistakes won't do.

comment by brazil84 · 2014-12-21T19:08:32.611Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If I answer that question honestly, it means I'm telling you the decisions I've made that I regret most.

Whatever, I don't need to probe that deeply. It just occurs to me that there is an easier and simpler solution to this problem, which is to avoid making important decisions in the heat of the moment. As your mother used to say, "always sleep on an angry letter."

In order to give this hypothesis some context, I thought it would be helpful to shine the spotlight on some specific actions and decisions which turned out to be especially poor in terms of consequences.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-21T09:39:40.646Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When I am very angry with my romantic partner, what I feel is anger. I don’t feel the futility of throwing a tantrum, or the availability of other options like honest communication, or freewriting, or taking a deep breath. My attention is so narrowly focused on the object of my anger that I’m likely not even aware that I’m angry, let alone that my anger might be blinding me to my art.

This reminds me of what my ex-wife sometimes said after a dispute with me (which could get quite heated on her side):

"During the dispute I know in the back of my mind what I should say - the right thing to do."

Does this sound familiar?

comment by hesperidia · 2014-12-22T07:47:01.759Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Is/was she a truth-shouter or a cutlery-loader?

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-12-22T09:03:53.154Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting typology. I can't exactly place us. But if I'd say that she was rather cutlery-loader in the sense that in our arguments she vented frustration and the things she said were often more about the effect than about truth. And if I said anything that hurt her it were truth I indeed wouldn't say because I knew them to hurt her.

See this for more context.