If only someone had said this to Stoic!Teenaged!Leah

If only someone had said this to Stoic!Teenaged!Leah July 26, 2012

I’m still at Rationality Camp, and I’ve noticed that a subset of classes all fall into a category of something I might call “Mitigating How Weird You Are.”  There are some people talking about body language, clothing style, and other ways to smooth your relations with other people that LessWrongers could probably do better.  I read Tom and Lorenzo, so I’ve got a pretty good data base to induct heuristics from.

The discussion in this genre I liked best so far was called Emotional API.  (An API is an Application Programming Interface — when Twitter lets people make third party apps, they release an API to developers so the app can talk to the Twitter software with capacities that go beyond the user interface).  The talk was about using your emotions as data, a kind of inside track to understanding and/or modifying your behavior.  It was a rebuke to the “Straw Vulcan” model of a strong rationalist — someone who can be confused, frightened, or defeated by emotion.

That wasn’t exactly my problem, but I did have strong Stoic tendencies when I was younger.  My tendency toward deontology made me very worried about being swayed by emotion instead of duty, so I relished any opportunity to practice disengaging from an emotional response.  (There was also an extent to which I liked Stoicism because most people found it hard, and I was equating effort and discipline with goodness).  Ultimately, it was just hard to believe that emotions were very useful.  They might be nice to experience, but they didn’t have a trustworthy signal to noise ratio.

I ended up moving on from this stance, but I still default to feeling a bit suspicious of strong feelings.  There were two comments during the lecture that I found quite helpful and think might have made an impression on younger!me.  I don’t think they would have changed my general disposition, but I think it would have made me thing more about strong emotions as something to be studied, not just withstood.

The first point the instructor made that resonated with me was that the limbic system is responding to different information than your more logical brain is analyzing, and it can parse its data faster.  This is part of what always made me suspicious; I was worried my passions could outrun my judgement.  But what I realized during the lecture was that, if I could access the analysis of the limbic system outside of my brain, I’d be interested in reviewing that data and factoring it into my decisions.  That meant I really ought to do more to integrate those instincts into my decision process, instead of quarantining them.

The other helpful comment was that it made sense that most of us had a shuddery reaction to needing to send all our cool, super abstract thoughts through such a buggy, antiquated piece of machinery for implementation.  The instructor reminded us that we all do most of our typing through QWERTY keyboards which are really not optimized for typing speed.  There might be a better way for us to interface with the world, but big, awesome ideas weren’t choked off or damaged by passing through this chokepoint.  It made much more sense to decide what parts of emotional instincts really needed guardrails than to assume a kludgy mechanism couldn’t be useful on net.  After all, a big, jerry-rigged mess seems as appropriate a description of my mind as a whole as my hindbrain.


I’m not sure how applicable this is to the general readership, but these reframings would have been a big help to me when I was an even-more-absolutist-than-now teen, and I figure I’m weird, but I’m not weird enough to be totally sui generis.


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