I struggle to write. I cannot figure out how to access my own thoughts and ideas. They come in non-linguistic forms—vague feelings, 3D images, animations—with a verbal narrator on top, but my very bad memory, and the fact that my best thinking is done in the middle of the night when I ought to be asleep, means that I end up forming intuitions about things based upon my prior thoughts, but I’m unable to remember what those thoughts were, or even what intuitions have recently formed how. Instead, when something reminds me of a topic, I remember whatever is salient that I’ve already thought of at some unknown prior time.
I don’t possess a map of my own mind, nor even a search function. Just a mysterious black box. My mind is totally disorganized. And when I look at a blank page, I have no idea what to write, where to start. I don’t even know what questions to ask myself to prompt writing, nor how to answer any. I honestly have no idea how to think clearly. Particularly from a blank slate, without prompting or real-time communication with another person, who can dig things out of me I cannot retrieve on my own, by reminding me of things with their questions.
I’ve heard of the concept of “solve the whole problem day”, but alignment itself is not in my wheelhouse—I’m more of a “philosopher” (though that’s much too pretentious to call myself), and my “problems” are vague and undefined—nebulous clouds of concepts on which I fixate, returning again and again, like the nature (or, phenomenology?) of identity, boundaries, emotions—or plans for a digital platform for increasing collective intelligence, rationality, and coordination. And my “plans” are composed of an endless array of disconnected fragments I cannot put together—because, again, specific details only show up in my mind temporarily like electrons falling out of superposition, and then they return to being a cloudy orbital of pure intuition.
Does anyone else know what this feels like and have any tips for me? It’s maddening, and I’ve been suffering from it for basically my whole life. I’ve tried using the Zettelkasten system to “organize” my thoughts but it doesn’t work for me, the result is just a tangled mess as bad as my real brain, no easier to parse through. I want to be of use to this site, providing interesting perspectives, particularly in the search for “True Names” and the design of support structures like the aforementioned vaguely imagined platform—but I can’t do that if I can’t actually pull info out of my head, organize it, and write it up for others to read.
Reposting myself, originally about procrastination but I find this strategy also useful in your situation:
For creative work my favorite strategy is a variation on what is sometimes called the vomit draft in screenwriting circles—intentionally create the laziest, worst version of what you are working on. The original vomit draft strategy is more about writing without stopping to revise or reflect or worry about the quality, but even that doesn’t go far enough to penetrate my procrastination. So I make it my goal to create a bad version of whatever I’m working on. The laziest tropes in writing, the worst programming practices in technical work.
The principal is the same: anything that gets you moving gets you headed in the right direction, even though it may not seem like it at first. But sure enough, at some point I can’t help myself and feel compelled to fix or improve my terrible work.
My other primary strategy is kind of boring, just biking and exercise. Mentally I feel a lot different after a lot of cardio.
I’ve seen the “write something purposefully dreadful” before, and tried it a few times, but never made it a practice. I think one problem I have is that in non-inspired states of mind, even the attempt to brain vomit doesn’t work; nothing shows up to talk about or mention. This could be due to the subconscious strain of knowing that I am writing for a reason, as when I get up and walk in circles I often eventually end up daydreaming about explaining something to somebody. Then, of course, the bottleneck is noticing I am doing so and actually bothering to write it down.
There is one thing that is always available to you as a topic for writing even if you are completely lacking in introspective access: the current physical sensations of your body. When journaling, this is typically where I start. I find it easy to write a sentence or two about the sensation of heat coming from the laptop on my thighs, the breeze coming in through the window on my feet, the disgruntlement in my stomach from chugging a mug of coffee, or the ache in my back. I put something on the page and then more interesting thoughts sometimes come. Sometimes they don’t, and I write about nonsense for a few minutes before getting up and doing something else.
Good idea, thanks! Something I did earlier is just try to list everything I’ve thought about recently. I got a rather long list out of it, actually. It’s a starting point for further thinking, much less scary than a blank page. I should do that more often.
The Rubber-Duck Technique: Get a rubber duck (or a figurine of some kind). When working through a problem, or trying to understand a new concept, explain it to the duck. As if it were a person.
Maybe the silent duck isn’t enough. At least try it before moving on. But you can be the other person digging things out of yourself. You can play both roles; wear a different hat; a different mask. Mentally inhabit each role, as in method acting.
Ancient Greek philosophers sometimes wrote dialogs, with one standing in for the philosopher or teacher, and the other a fictional (or fictionalized) foil. These could make good posts in their own right, or at least the start for them.
Explaining things to real people, and to imagined ones, perhaps in the shoes of another imagined character, was very helpful for me in consolidating, organizing, and seeing the implications of my knowledge, internally. Daydream. In this way. Make it a habit.
Make up fictional characters. Write down their personalities and backstory. Maybe base them on people you know, if that’s easier. Maybe they’re based on a shallow single concept. Maybe they have complex inner lives. Have them talk to each other. Explain what they know.
I hesitate to suggest (because I don’t know how safe this is), but consider tulpamancy: create an imaginary friend, capable of acting independently, out of a fragment of your own psyche, one, who by nature would draw the best out of you. Explain things to them. Have them explain things to you. I think, with your unusual mind, this might work well. Perhaps too well. You may not need to go this far. Be careful here.
That’s enough for elicitation, but you also want it recorded. Perhaps, with better internal organization resulting from your self-dialogs, this will become easier. But techniques can help here too.
Keep a notebook by your bed. The electronic kind, if that’s easier, but you must be able to keep it on standby and wake it up instantly to start typing, lest you forget things when waiting. The dead-tree kind might have lower latency, but newer computers, or tablets with physical keyboards can do this.
Speak your dialogs aloud and record the audio (or video too). Use dictation software to automatically write the initial draft. Then explain to the duck what is wrong with it. Or imagine one of your characters shredding it with (concrete, specific) criticism. Or ask your tulpa what’s wrong with it. Fix that, and explain it again. Save versions as you go. Git may be overkill, but perhaps you already know it. Split your screen, or get a second monitor. Read your draft on one side, and note the key points in outline form on the right. Then flesh out the outline. Or just retype a better version using the draft as a reference. Whatever, etc.
With the elicitation taken care of, and the initial draft recording, what remains is simply to revise the writing, because quality writing is revised writing. It doesn’t particularly matter how you do it, as long as you’re iterating, and improving. At some point, when it’s “good enough”, you stop. How do you tell? Explain to the duck why it’s good enough. If you can’t, maybe it isn’t. Inhabit another mask and read it with fresh eyes. What would your characters say? Ask the tulpa. Publish.
Shortly after writing this answer, it occurred to me that you could dialog with GPT-3, rather than another human (or yourself). I’m not sure how accessible this is now, but there are certainly many alternatives. If even a silent rubber duck is useful, perhaps even an ELIZA-level chatbot is more useful, but I think options much better than that are freely available now.
As I mentioned in my other reply, silent ducks are not helpful for me, and similarly neither are chatbots. I indeed have used AI Dungeon for this purpose before and found it to be helpful for fictional stuff (as it’s intended), but less effective as a philosophical conversation partner. I have no idea how to access the real, full GPT-3, but I greatly would like to, for this exact reason.
https://www.eleuther.ai/ released GPT-J, which is supposed to have similar or superior performance when compared to GPT-3′s medium-sized models, although it can’t match the largest Davinci model on some tasks. Might be worth a try, but I’m not sure what kind of hardware you need to run it.
DeepMind’s Chinchilla suggests that GPT-3 was undertrained, so it’s possible to get better performance with fewer parameters. This space has been rapidly evolving, so I’m not sure what the current best free options are.
I have often done all the elicitation suggestions you make. I even had tulpas—or more accurately, dissociated alters, since I was quite mentally unhealthy—for years. However, I have much less cognitive empathy than most people and I have never been able to imagine the interior of another person’s mind to any significant extent. Every attempt at writing dialogues, the duck thing, etc has failed. I simply cannot imagine being someone other than who I am. Even when I was dissociative, my “souls”, as I called them, were just aspects of myself with no actual separation. (It is possible I am on the autism spectrum, but for life reasons I’ve never had the opportunity to go to a psychiatrist.)
That said, I’ve been explaining things to imaginary (totally silent and personality-less) people my whole life. I just never seem to write it down when I do it. Getting myself to notice when I’ve wandered into doing that, and force myself to write it down, may be a key here.
The dictation suggestions are good, though due to thin walls and others in the house I could not speak my ideas aloud at night, nor could I type on a keyboard as it makes noise also. I don’t have a tablet computer but that would likely work if I could get one.
Wow, even the tulpas. Autistic people don’t simply lack empathy. It’s more like it’s undertrained and improves somewhat with experience. More exposure helps, even if it’s fictional.
Anime, particularly the kind emphasizing relationships, was helpful for me. “Great” literature, which lets you get inside someone else’s (fictional) head, should be helpful for the same reason. Shallower pop fiction may be less helpful. Quality varies a great deal. As for your case, I’m not qualified to diagnose it.
Theater sports or pen & paper RPGs (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons), which let you try out different roles might help you imagine being someone else. You might be able to find a D&D group online and even participate over the Internet.
Well, I have no idea if autism is the thing I have, of course. Analyzing the feeling of this confusion about people over the years, I’ve developed the suspicion that I actually have an ugh field around the idea of empathizing with people, rather than necessarily an inability to do so. My mind slides off the thought of trying to in the first place, and goes sort of… strategically blank, if I try to force it to empathize anyway, making it look like I’m not good at it. (And I have a long history of not being interested in other people, preferring things or ideas.)
But when I accidentally, passively empathize with people, predicting how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking without any ulterior motive for doing so, I’m usually as good at it as a neurotypical person. This implies (if it’s correct, and not just yet another confabulated explanation for my inexplicable mental patterns) that I will have to figure out the cause of my discomfort around empathizing and dismantle it.
Maybe the best way to explain my situation is that I can understand what people are thinking and feeling easily—as in the context of fiction, which I’ve always loved and read tons of—but I can’t generate it independently—exactly as if I knew a foreign language well enough to understand it when someone else speaks it, but not well enough to speak it myself.
Voice recording and dictation software is probably the easiest, since it doesn’t interrupt your thought process as much. It’s definitely worth a try, but actually writing may slow you down too much. You might consider picking up shorthand to take notes more quickly. I also wonder if a high-gain mic next to your face could pick up a whisper well enough to be intelligible, if not for dictation software, then at least for you. Could be worth experimenting with.
If you do get some good results out of talking with people, I’d recommend trying to talk to people about the topics you’re interested in via some chat system and then go back and extract out useful/interesting bits that were discussed into a more durable journal. I’d have recommended IRC in the distant past, but nowadays it seems like Discord is the more modern version where this kind of conversation could be found. E.g. there’s a slatestarcodex discord at https://discord.com/invite/RTKtdut
YMMV and I haven’t personally tried this tactic :)
I do this. I only started trying to do this extraction recently after accruing years of conversations though, and I quickly realized sorting through it was overwhelming and quit… but I need to suck it up and do more. I constantly drop thought-jewels on random friends and then forget them!
I understand your struggle. I dream of being able to coherently communicate my ideas in a structured, understandable and dare I say convincing manner. I succeed when I start with an idea, write it down and start adding notes, ideas and talking points. Then I start fleshing out the ideas, asking myself how can I explain that concept or idea, whilst building an evolving narrative. Usually what starts as a mess of notes evolves into something coherent when I put myself in the position of the reader, asking myself i) what am I trying to communicate; and ii) am I sure this is clear to the reader.
Reading your post, it’s obvious that you know how to communicate clearly. Half the battle is having the courage (and the time) to get started. Just do it! Hope that helps.
I do like the honesty in your question, and reading it does remind me a bit about myself. Even though what you are describing sounds like more than what I am naming here—parts of it sounds like you are a creative person, and an intelligent one. A part of being creative is having ideas spontaneously. I do not believe there is a one-size-fits all in this department.
A violin-teacher and an ex-partner, both stayed up late. They noticed that they had ideas in bed or at night, and forgot them in the morning. So, they wrote them down then and there. I’m not sure that can work for you, but I’m still letting you know.
The other part about intelligence, that it might seem like if you are intelligent you filter out more. I believe this is dependent on your personality-type which information is filtered out, but it might also be a sign that you are changing fast, and what you have learnt so far isn’t working, so you are making room for something new. This assumption is also based loosely on the start of the other post you wrote, (I read a bit), as
growing up with narcissism is no joke, no fucking joke, and is not conducive to clear thought. The logic there would be that you are expecting too much of yourself, all the time, that even when you actually do think something clearly—it isn’t clear enough, and it is drowned in emotional-reactionary noise.
I can relate to returning to concepts, with a vague and undefined problem, over and over again. In my life it has shown to not be a sign of wasted energy, but simply a natural process of focusing on meta-problems. If you are doing the same, it might be a kind of important meaning/sense making background process. And so you are using some of your energy on trying to solve a complex problem, and you are doing it every day.
This sounds pretty accurate. I am an extreme perfectionist. I tend to get lost in details (which I hate—in general, I hate details! but I still get lost in them!) trying to reach some unknown standard of “good enough” that is totally unmoored from reality. It’s particularly a problem on here, since I feel less intelligent than most other LessWrongers, or at least less rigorous of a thinker, and feel like I have to figure out how to say everything in a Smart Like Eliezer sort of way before I have the “right” to post. And I’m just… not like that. I’m a poet, not an engineer lol.
Yeah, I can relate to the general feeling—but not quite the particular comparison, since I haven’t been here very long and have already earned down-votes on my posts—So, that should be a clear signal I am not close to Eliezer or some kind of minimum entry level yet.
Its not like I do not have high standards and—ambitions, but then I am aware of my comparatively big weaknesses and limitations as well. Growing up getting compared to others, without actually doing it in my favour or even to my contemporaries, has taken me many years to heal. Sadly, if you have been hurt like it seems you have, you are starting out harder than someone with just slightly better parents. You physical health and your psychic health might be worse than you want to admit, and you might not want to ask for help or support. That you are here, showing yourself—Even though it is only from the keyboard sidelines, I want you to feel seen and heard.
I’m not someone who likes to wallow in my suffering and feel sorry for myself / like a victim, so you don’t have to worry about me needing to feel “seen and heard”—though I do appreciate your care and concern! What I really want is to become good enough, not to be given a handicap or treated like I’m innately less capable because of things that happened to me.
I agree, I am not feeling sorry for you. And I am not urging you to give yourself a handicap or to keep an excuse lying around in case you need it.
What I am pointing out, is that if you have lived in a less than ideal environment, there will probably have been some damages. And to not hide from discovering your weaknesses and limitations, as knowing them is not only part of who you are and makes you more human, but it also helps you make better plans and find out what actually works for you, instead of insisting on trying what should work for you. If you are different, the standard approach might not work as the ‘book’ says.
And that is not feeling sorry for yourself. That is digging out any courage you have to face the music about what life so far has done to you, in detail. Sorrow, pain, hurt, depression and feeling dejected… - is the natural and healthy reaction to seeing/feeling inner mayhem.
Giving yourself care, warmth and understanding is not feeling sorry for youself, but actually giving your wounds space to heal, increases your well-being and makes it so that you have more focus and energy long term. It is acknowledging that any wound, physical, psychological, emotional and relational, not only needs time, but a certain environment to heal.
Not that you actually said otherwise.. Guess I just got worked up, sorry about that. I hope you create you inner good enough too, whatever that might look like.