Naturalist Collection

There’s a kind of rhythm to the four phases of naturalism. To me, they feel a bit like oscillation between zooming out and zooming in, or like inhaling and exhaling. The first phase (Locating Fulcrum Experiences) has a broad exploratory feel, like zooming out; it’s sort of meandering, touching on this and that until I’ve found the right thing to hone in on. The second phase (Getting Your Eyes On) emphasizes focused attention, and involves a lot of precision and detail. It’s more like zooming in.

This third phase, “Collection”, zooms out again. After mining a small number of experiences for all the detail you can perceive, the next step is to train yourself to notice every single instance of your fulcrum experience, no matter when, where, or how it happens.

You may find that the experiences you previously studied in detail represented a narrow subset of all the instances that happen; the modal instance might be far more subtle, might happen in a context you didn’t anticipate, or might be quite different in some other way. By the end of this phase, you’ll likely perceive some large patterns in the way this experience shows up in your life, and you’ll be very familiar with the circumstances that give rise to it.

How To Collect Experiences: Gamified Noticing

In the most basic version of collection, you’ll simply tap your leg (or make some other planned gesture) when you notice the experience you’re watching for. As you may recall from a previous essay, I call this “marking”. You don’t necessarily have to do anything special with your mind when you mark an experience; you can just endeavor to explicitly notice the experience every time (that is, to notice that you’ve noticed it).

But the standard version of collection, the one I do when I’m serious about a study, is a little bit gamified. Rather than just making a marking gesture, you’ll also keep a tally of how many times you noticed over the course of a day. Your goal each day is to beat your high score.

There are a few good ways to keep a noticing tally. One way to do it is just to count in your head, which apparently works fine for some people. Or you could get a little tally device such as a knitting counter[1], a golf counter, or a counter ring[2], and keep that with you. There are also phone apps[3] that mimic golf and knitting counters. Personally, I typically use a tiny notebook[4] these days and make literal tally marks with a pen, since I often like to jot down a few words as field notes anyway.

What I like most about the gamified version of collection is that the people who really get into it tend to find themselves steering toward situations where they’ll encounter their fulcrum experience. You might worry that steering toward fulcrum experiences would skew the data on how the experience shows up in daily life; and that’s true, it does. But I find that the more I notice something, the easier it becomes to notice in the future; and this effect has proven robust among people I’ve worked with. A person who gets a much higher tally in the first week or two of collection will be far better at catching all the uncontrived instances of their fulcrum experience in the third and fourth weeks. You can always stop using the tally once you’re very good at noticing the experience.

I think it’s well worth the tradeoff, so in addition to suggesting this incentive structure, I actively encourage people to design artificial situations where they’ll encounter their fulcrum a lot. (More on that, as well as other concerns with gamification, in “Troubleshooting” below.)

The Noticing Timeline

Tapping your leg when you notice an experience may sound simple enough; but in fact it usually takes people some time before they can consistently mark right as the experience is happening. There’s a progression, which has four stages.

In the first stage of the progression, you’ll be thinking back over your day, or your week, and you’ll go “Oh! The thing! It happened!”. So you mark when you notice a ghost of the experience in your memory. (Yes, you get a tally mark just for remembering!) It’s like finding faded animal tracks that are cracked and partially covered by debris. The animal is long gone, but you can still tell it was here, and you can probably learn something about its gait if you look closely at the footprints it left behind.

Gradually, with mere repetition, the time between the experience and your recognition of it will decrease. Eventually, you’ll realize the experience happened just moments ago, and you’ll be able to mark it before your mind has completely moved on. This is stage two of the progression. In stage two, the animal tracks are so fresh that the mud is still warm, and maybe some fur was left behind. The experience is near. You might even be able to call it back if you try.

In stage three, you mark the experience while it’s still happening. The animal is standing right in front of you, and you gain access to all kinds of rich detail just by looking.

What’s stage four, then? In stage four, you can feel the experience coming, and you’re able to mark it before it even happens. The path is clear, but you hear a rustling in the bushes, and you know just where you’ll need to look.

Stage four isn’t always possible, because some experiences (such as the appearance of shooting stars) arise from virtually random events that are completely outside of your control. But for a lot of things, especially ones that have to do with thought or emotion, reaching stage four is the goal of this practice.

Reflective awareness in the moments before an experience lets you study the conditions that give rise to it. That’s the sort of information that screens off narratives entirely. You don’t have to guess about how a thing happens when you can watch every detail as it unfolds.

Predict, Observe, Update

If you’ll allow me a small demonstration, let’s try a mini exercise in phenomenology. It takes literally one minute.

  • Imagine in detail what it would feel like to run your left pointer finger over the back of your right hand.

  • Next, physically run your left pointer finger over the back of your right hand, and pay attention to the details of the experience.

  • What, if anything, was different than you imagined? Was your initial prediction off in any way?

  • Now try imagining again. What will it feel like to run your left pointer finger over the back of your right hand?

  • And repeat the physical action: Run your left pointer finger over the back of your right hand.

  • How did you do this time? Was your second guess any better than your first?

This exercise is an example of what I call a POU loop: Predict, Observe, Update.

When working with a student, I tend to introduce POU loops either during Getting Your Eyes On or during Collection. It just depends on the person and when it feels right. In my own practice, I use them off and on throughout all the phases. They’re not always necessary, but they’re a fantastic tool when I’m having trouble noticing my fulcrum experience because my phenomenological model of it is weak; and they’re a good boost for just about anyone who can spare the attention for them.

Here’s how POU loops work:

First, predict what will happen in your mind and body when your fulcrum experience occurs. Your prediction must be an inner simulation—a multi-sensory imagining or other concrete System-1 anticipation—not an abstract conceptualization or a string of words.

For example, “base rate neglect” is just an abstract conceptualization, so it’s pretty useless to predict that something will feel like “base rate neglect”. “Base rate neglect” is an external description of a cognitive activity—and worse yet, it’s negatively phrased: a person engaged in base rate neglect is failing to attend to base rates. It’s especially hopeless to try to notice an external description of an activity that you’re not even doing.

A much better prediction would be an imagined sensation of “diving into the fitting-together-ness of characteristics”—which, in my case, I suspect involves a circular-feeling preoccupation with small bursts of pleasure at each accordance I recognize. This is a solid prediction of what base rate neglect might feel like to me, from the inside, as it’s happening.

Next, observe. When you notice your fulcrum experience (or something that seems closely related), pause to observe your phenomenology in detail. This is what I called “phenomenological photography”, in the previous essay.

Finally, update. Recall your prediction, and compare the prediction to your actual observations. Taking any relevant context into account, use this comparison to update your phenomenological model of your fulcrum experience, and make a new prediction.

POU loops tend to introduce a bit more exploratory wandering, reminiscent of Locating Fulcrum Experiences. Indeed, it’s common for this process to send people all the way back to the first phase of naturalism, though they almost always progress through the phases more quickly the second time through.

Why does this happen? Because it’s not always clear that the experience you’re observing is the one you made a prediction about. Maybe your prediction was so wrong that there simply is no actual experience that even comes close to resembling it. Maybe there are several kinds of experiences that exactly match your prediction, and you can’t at first distinguish the irrelevant ones from the ones that matter. Or maybe it turns out that there are at least five very different versions of your fulcrum experience, all of which matter a lot, and you’re not sure what to do now that they aren’t all lumped together.

All of this is normal, and if any of it happens for you, I recommend that you try not to stress too much about it. Just keep exploring and improving your models as you hone in on whatever seems intuitively connected to the curiosity that launched your study.


Problem 1: I’m worried that gamified noticing will cause more of something that I want less of.

What if you’re studying something like “being so angry that you can’t think straight”? Wouldn’t it be really bad to gamify this in a way that leads to more instances of extreme anger?

Yes, I agree that it probably would! And this is a concern that comes up quite frequently when I’m working with people one-on-one. It’s a perfectly reasonable concern, and if you have it, I don’t think you should ignore it.

However, in my experience, this problem with the incentive structure does not actually seem to occur much in practice. People who are worried about it, but go ahead and try gamification anyway, almost never seem to find that their lives have gotten worse as a result.

I have a theory about what’s going on here.

In naturalism, we don’t start with “Collection”. There’s a ton of careful observation and reflection that comes first. By the time you’ve gotten to “gamified noticing”, you’re already grounded in things like your own values (from “Getting Started”), phenomenological sensitivity (from “Locating Fulcrum Experiences”), and the difference between conceptualization and reality (from “Getting Your Eyes On”).

If your very first move is “I’ll give myself a point whenever I get really angry”, then yes, perhaps you’ll be in danger of increasing unwanted outcomes.

But deconfusion is a powerful mitigator of disaster. The better aligned you are both internally and with external reality, the more that reflective awareness in the relevant moments will tend to suffice for causing your desired outcome. If you’re sure through and through that you don’t want to spend more time being so angry that you can’t think straight, even for a little while in the interest of science, then your desire to get a high score will not in fact overpower your desire to be angry less of the time.

But of course, my anecdata set is small and heavily biased toward people who want to study naturalism with me. If the stakes seem too high from the outset, or if you try gamified noticing and find that things are in fact getting worse, then I think you should probably stop, and look for a version that makes more sense for you instead.

Problem 2: What if I hate “marking”?

When I first introduced “marking” to other people, it was during a workshop with many participants, in the context of an original seeing exercise. I had everyone pick up an object, then snap their fingers whenever they noticed something new about it.

Part of why I wanted them to snap their fingers is that I needed information about how quickly each person was noticing new things. I could literally listen to the room, and then walk around performing my teacherly duty of helping people who were stuck. Finger-snapping worked as an announcement about the experience of each student.

In the context of independent study, finger-snapping can also work as a self-announcement, to similar effect. A zoomed-in part of your brain sends up the signal “Hey! I noticed something!” and then a zoomed-out observational part of your brain can receive that signal and do some metacognition about it.

However, not everyone is comfortable making public announcements about the private workings of their minds to anyone who happens to be in earshot. “What do the other monkeys think about this?” is rarely a clarifying thought when you’re trying to figure out what your own mind is up to.

So a lot of people, myself included, benefit more from a private announcement, something that no one else can hear or see. A tiny tap of my fingertip to my hip works well for me, but there are many options. For example, you could touch the back of your teeth with your tongue, cross your fingers in your pocket, or wiggle your big toe inside your shoe. Find your own favorite way to signal to yourself, unambiguously and memorably, that you’ve just noticed something.

For me, and for many others, a silent mental note doesn’t work as a private announcement, because it just doesn’t stand out enough from the ambient mental chatter. However, if physical gestures of all types just aren’t your cup of tea, then try experimenting with mental gestures instead of physical ones. What matters is that you figure out a way to reliably notice that you’ve noticed. Perhaps in your case, the best way to do that is to say in your head, “I notice.” Or maybe you could visualize something, such as a firework.

Problem 3: I want a higher score. Can I somehow cheat?

Yes, absolutely. Let’s talk about using lab work to supercharge collection.

It’s ideal to collect most of your data in the field, but daily life doesn’t always cooperate.

Sometimes your target experience crops up when you’re in the middle of something you cannot pause, so a full POU-loop isn’t really an option. Sometimes it happens at the same time as five other distinct experiences that you can’t sort out in the moment. Sometimes you’re just so focused on something else that you miss the experience altogether. And sometimes the stakes are so high that all of your attention goes to choosing your response, with none left over to observe the experience itself.

The real world is messy. That’s the trouble with field work.

It is often valuable, especially in the middle phases of a naturalist study, to isolate an experience and observe it in a controlled setting. Capturing field mice might be easier than capturing psychological phenomena, but it can be done. Usually, the trick is to build what I call a “toy”.

A toy is a manipulable low-stakes situation that reliably yields desired experiences as you interact with it.

Some toys are just objects you found lying around and realized you could play with, like a stick for decapitating daisies.


While I was studying self control and the way I sometimes “hold myself in”, I noticed I was doing quite a lot of that while listening to someone’s long explanation. “Holding myself in” seemed to have something to do with not wanting to get in their way as they explain, and it came out as failing to interrupt or to ask questions.

To turn that found object—my friend’s long explanation—into a toy, I made an agreement with my friend that I could say “pause” at any time during an explanation, and they’d pause whatever they were saying until I said “resume”. From then on, I could ask for an explanation from that friend whenever I wanted to, pause it whenever I wanted to observe my mind without distraction, and trust that the other person was on board with my plan.

I didn’t invent explanation. I didn’t have to engineer the situation to bring it into existence. I just happened to notice a pre-existing event that reliably affords many instances of the experience I was studying. Then I put that event under my control in a way that lowers the stakes and gives me more room to observe, turning it into a “found toy”.

But not all toys are found just lying around. They can also be crafted from artificial materials, like a Hot Wheels set. These usually look like an “exercise” of some kind, and more forethought goes into building them.

To design a toy, I ask myself a series of five questions:

  1. What experience would I like to cause?

  2. What sort of situation would definitely cause that experience?

  3. Are the stakes uncomfortably high in that scenario? If so, what would cause a somewhat similar experience, but with lower stakes?

  4. What could I do to easily start or stop the situation at any time?

  5. How might I insert more space for reflection and curiosity into the exercise?

I’ll design a brand new toy right now, so you can see what it’s like at each step of the process. I’ll go back to the example of “base rate neglect”—or, positively stated: “preoccupation with accordances[5]”.

1. What experience would I like to cause?

I would like to cause an experience of “preoccupation with accordances”, which I expect will be something like “circular-feeling preoccupation with small bursts of pleasure at each accordance I recognize”. That is my target.

2. What is a situation that would reliably cause that experience?

I’m currently pregnant, and the first thing that comes to mind for me is something that involves a potential risk to my fetus. There’s something about my position of power over the fragile creature I’m hosting that makes risks I consider introducing for them feel oddly large, and the largeness certainly seems to have this circular, self-reinforcing preoccupation quality. It’s like there’s a pressure to send all of my attention toward thoughts that resonate with “riskiness”, with none left over for other considerations. A specific example that’s on my mind lately is “deciding whether to use THC”.

There are large benefits for me personally to taking small doses of orally ingested THC; I ordinarily use cannabis gummies to prevent autistic meltdowns and shutdowns in especially difficult situations, such as dental cleanings or public transit. Neglecting this tool during pregnancy has so far been a big sacrifice, especially because pregnancy has made my sensory problems worse. But also, when I consider THC as a member of the class “recreational drugs”, which includes more clearly harmful substances like cocaine and tobacco, my parental instinct to “minimize risk to the fetus at any cost to myself” begins to kick in.

So I expect I’d hit my target reliably while doing research into the risks of THC use during pregnancy.

3. Are the stakes uncomfortably high in that scenario? If so, what would cause a somewhat similar experience, but with lower stakes?

The stakes are indeed pretty high for this decision. If I get it badly wrong, perhaps I could end up causing life-long problems for my child, as though I’d been binge drinking.

In this case, the danger seems to come from making the decision, and not directly from evaluating the evidence. So to lower the stakes, I could shift my focus away from decision making, and toward evidence assessment: I could set out to write a fact post that attempts to answer, “How dangerous are THC gummies during pregnancy?” I would focus only on “What can we actually know, how can we know it, and how certain can we be?” Questions about what to do with that information would wait for a later project.

4. What could I do to easily stop or start the situation at any time?

When I imagine writing a fact post, it already seems pretty easy by default to stop whenever I want.

However, I do tend to get sucked into a zombie-like state while browsing Google Scholar, so one thing I could do is set a “reflection timer”: Every twenty-five minutes, the timer would ding, reminding me to pause and ask myself what’s going on for me. If nothing else, this would remind me to eat, drink, and pee, all of which help my brain work better.

I could also refrain from setting myself any kind of deadline for publication. I could plan to let the process take however long it takes, reducing the pressure to keep going when I’d prefer to stop.

5. How might I insert more space for reflection and curiosity into the exercise?

Setting the reflection timer already helps a lot with this.

A second idea is to keep a running list of questions in a notebook off to the side. I find that explicitly stating questions makes a lot of space for curiosity, because it separates “wanting to know” from “trying to find out”. Without that distinction, I sometimes fail to recognize a desire to know when I naively expect it will be hard or impossible to find out.

Finally, I could try writing a fact post about CBD rather than THC. CBD is another cannabinoid that I use for similar purposes, but it seems a bit less scary to me than THC, because it’s not psychotropic. Even if I’m wrong to be less worried about CBD, it’s still true that I feel less intense worry when I think about it. Lower emotional activation tends to create more space for patience and reflection, so a CBD fact post might be more appropriate if my main goal is to study my experience of base rate neglect.

As you can see, designing toys can take some work; but you don’t always have to go through all the steps. You can ask yourself, “What would cause the experience I’m interested in?” and then if your answer seems really safe, just dive right into it. For example, I once studied experiences of failure by trying a phone-based strategy game that I hadn’t encountered before; the stakes were low enough there that I went from imagination to execution in about the time it took to download the app.

When should I go back to an earlier phase? When should I move on?

If things are going really well with Collection, I usually recommend sticking with it until your daily tallies have leveled off and your POU-loops have largely stabilized. This could take anywhere from a week to a few months, depending on your skill level, what you’re studying, and how many times you loop back to previous phases.

From there, ask yourself whether there are any big holes you’d like to fill in. Maybe you’ve set aside a certain large confusion for later, or maybe there’s a crucial swath of your map that’s mostly blank because you need to try another perspective. For example, perhaps I have a decent grip on base rate neglect, but along the way I’ve come to suspect that confirmation bias is the same thing from another angle; if so, I might not be satisfied until I’ve also studied confirmation bias by similar methods. Filling in remaining holes means moving back to an earlier phase, and it seems like almost everyone benefits from at least a little of that before moving on.

Collection tends to be the phase where the whole naturalism process begins to feel sort of cyclical. Jumping back to some part of Getting Your Eyes On, or to Locating Fulcrum Experiences, feels like backtracking to many people the first time they do it; but they tend to find that they move through the phases faster each time, and eventually each phase becomes a skill set to be woven into a smooth pattern of naturalist study.

A lot of very successful naturalist studies never even progress beyond the Collection phase. Sometimes it turns out that all you need is to see more clearly what’s already in front of you, and once you’ve managed that, you find that the tangle you started with has completely dissolved.

But sometimes one further step is necessary. You can tell that you should move on to “Experimentation” if you feel grounded about your study topic, if you think you’ve really trained yourself to notice and directly observe what’s there in whatever realm you’ve focused on—but you still have an unsatisfied curiosity about how to behave around your topic.

Appendix 1: Process Summary

For Collection in general:

  • Gameify noticing.

    • Make a marking gesture when you notice your fulcrum experience.

    • Each day, keep track of how many times you marked.

    • Try to beat your high score.

  • Progress through the noticing timeline.

    • Learn to notice your fulcrum experience in distant memory.

    • Learn to notice your fulcrum experience in recent memory.

    • Learn to notice your fulcrum experience while it’s happening.

    • Learn to notice when your fulcrum experience is about to happen.

  • Improve your phenomenological model with POU loops.

    • Predict what will happen in your mind and body when your fulcrum experience occurs.

    • When you notice your fulcrum experience (or something that seems closely related), pause to observe your phenomenology in detail.

    • Compare your prediction to your observation, and update your model of your fulcrum experience.

For toy design:

  1. What experience would I like to cause?

  2. What sort of situation would definitely cause that experience?

  3. Are the stakes uncomfortably high in that scenario? If so, what would cause a somewhat similar experience, but with lower stakes?

  4. What could I do to easily start or stop the situation at any time?

  5. How might I insert more space for reflection and curiosity into the exercise?

Appendix 2: Glossary

POU loop: Stands for “predict, observe, update”; an empirical strategy used to improve phenomenological models.

Toy: A manipulable, low-stakes situation that reliably yields desired experiences as you interact with it.

  1. ^

    I’ve used this one. It’s flimsy, but it can attach to a necklace and makes a satisfying click.

  2. ^

    Requires knowing your ring size, but I like these.

  3. ^

    There used to be a wonderful Android app called “Tap Log” that let you keep multiple tallies at once and jot down a note each time, but it no longer exists, and I’m still on the lookout for a decent replacement. Please let me know if you find one!

  4. ^

    Here’s the one I’ve got right now. It’s a little bulkier than I’d prefer, but it doubles as a wallet.

  5. ^

    Let’s assume for the sake of illustration that I’ve got a correct handle on the phenomenology of base rate neglect. Since I haven’t actually been through “Finding Fulcrum Experiences” or “Getting Your Eyes On” for this particular phenomenon, I probably have it at least a little wrong.