Magic Brain Juice

Link post

Shorter and less Pruned due to CFAR.

A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, the one you feed.

I circumambulated the idea of meta-processes with the wonderfully inscrutable SquirrelInHell recently, and a seed of doubt has been circling in my head like a menacing sharkfin ever since.

At grave peril of strawmanning, a first order-approximation to SquirrelInHell’s meta-process (what I think of as the Self) is the only process in the brain with write access, the power of self-modification. All other brain processes are to treat the brain as a static algorithm and solve the world from there.

It seems to me that due to the biology of the brain there is a very serious issue with isolating the power of self-modification to the meta-process. After all, every single thought and experience causes self-modification at the neural level.

This post is another step towards a decision theory for human beings.

Unintentional Self-Modification

There is a central theme buried in my post The Solitaire Principle about building habits across time: human beings are not rational agents. We are not even “bounded-rationality agents,” whatever that means. We are agents who cannot simply act because every action is accompanied by self-modification.

Every time you take an action, the associated neural pathways are bathed in the magic brain juice [citation needed]. When you go to the gym, it becomes easier to decide to go to the gym next time. The activation energy for the second blog post you write is lower than that of the first. Acquired tastes are a real thing. After repeating a habit for a month, it is practically free.

Due to magic brain juice, every action is accompanied by an unintentional self-modification.

Let that sink in.

Every action you take is accompanied by an unintentional self-modification.

In an iterated game involving human beings, the choices made in each round influence not only their scores but their utility functions in perpetuity. Even disregarding sunk costs and irrational attachments etc etc, it literally becomes easier for Brain 1 to press Button A the second time around.

The Ten Percent Shift

The Ten Percent Shift is a thought experiment I’ve successfully pushed to System 1 that helps build long-term habits like blogging every day. It makes the assumption that each time you make a choice, it gets 10% easier.

Suppose there is a habit you want to build such as going to the gym. You’ve drawn the pentagrams, sprinkled the pixie dust, and done the proper rituals to decide that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs and there’s no superior alternatives. Nevertheless, the effort to make yourself go every day seems insurmountable.

You spend 100 units of willpower dragging yourself there on Day 1. Now, notice that you have magic brain juice on your side. On Day 2, it gets a little bit easier. You spend 90 units. On Day 3, it only costs 80.

A bit of math and a lot of magic brain juice later, you spend 500 units of willpower in the first 10 days, and the habit is free for the rest of time.

So the thought experiment is this: feel how difficult going to the gym is once. Call that x units of effort. Now, imagine you get to trade 5x that total effort for the results of going the gym for a year. Decide whether you go today based on your reaction to the Ten Percent Shift.

The exact details of the Ten Percent Shift don’t matter—the goal of the Ten Percent Shift is to convince System 1 that a single act of installing individual daily activities has far-reaching consequences. Thus:

  1. Pick a time horizon that feels real to you.

  2. If the exact numbers bother you, insert your own model of decaying effort curves. Realistically, the effort cost will decay to a positive constant rather than zero.

  3. Notice the effect I called magic brain juice actually decomposes into multiple psychological factors, some of which decay over time. Thus, daily habits benefit more from magic brain juice than do every-other-day habits, which are in turn vastly easier to build than weekly habits.

  4. During the new routine, practice noticing and mindfulness to amplify the effects of magic brain juice.