Locating Fulcrum Experiences

Note: There are two appendices at the end of this post. The first contains a summary of the steps I’ve described here. The second is a glossary of key terms I’ve introduced in this essay.

Once you’ve booted up some curiosity and original seeing—perhaps even identified a question that’s crucial to your story—it’s time to start making observations. At this stage, the purpose of these observations is not so much to find an answer to your question, as to get in closer contact with the world so you’re well positioned to ask better questions.

But how do you determine which parts of the world are relevant to your topic, especially when you know that your basic conceptualization of the issue may be flawed?

Standard approaches to this problem include using a working model to make testable predictions, and seeking expert advice. Here we’ll take a more bottom-up approach; instead of investigating large models from the start, or relying on the models of others, naturalism focuses first and foremost on the immediate sense data you can personally gather. You’ll direct your data-gathering (even in the absence of any coherent model!) by identifying something I call a fulcrum experience.

What is a fulcrum experience?

A fulcrum experience is a collection of sensations that would lead you to relate differently to your topic if you observed it closely.

For example, when I studied courage[1], “fear” turned out to be a fulcrum experience for me. After really paying attention to experiences of fear in detail, I automatically thought about courage, bravery, cowardice, and related topics quite differently from how I had before. In the past, I’d implicitly assumed that being courageous meant taking actions I am afraid of. By observing fear, I learned about a range of cognitive reactions to the experience of being afraid; I came to think instead that courage has much more to do with where my actions come from, and how that relates to my overall system of values, than with which actions I ultimately take.

Once I was really paying attention to my experiences surrounding fear, my previous conceptualization simply crumbled. After enough study, a new way of thinking gradually emerged, founded more on direct observation than on vague storytelling. Therefore, fear was a fulcrum experience.

Locating fulcrum experiences is the first main phase of naturalist study. By “locating fulcrum experiences”, I mean 1) anticipating which experiences will have the power to shift your perspective in such a way that key features of your topic become clearly visible to you, and 2) anticipating where to find those experiences so that you can study them in depth. If you’re able to identify and explore fulcrum experiences, you’ll likely find yourself asking questions based on thoughts you were not previously capable of entertaining.

Suppose I’m concerned about something to do with where my beliefs come from. My current story is that, “Sometimes I believe things because I think they’re true, but sometimes I believe things for other reasons than that, and I’m worried about the beliefs that are indifferent to truth.” My current quest is, “What leads me to form beliefs other than attempts to guess the truth?”

It is of course possible to try answering a question like this by just consulting existing models of myself, or of people in general (“Well, probably motivated reasoning!”), but that’s not what comes next in the particular strategy I’m discussing. In this strategy, rather than doing my best to answer the question with whatever information I already have, the purpose of the question is to lead me toward fresh observations.

It’s often easy to make fresh observations: On the chair in front of me, the pattern of the weave makes many little squares. That’s an observation, and it’s one I’ve never made before.

The hard part is figuring out where to look. I’m relatively unlikely to learn much about “what leads me to form beliefs” by admiring the weave of my chair. “Identifying fulcrum experiences” means figuring out exactly when to pay attention so I can make observations that matter.

Guessing Which Observations Will Matter

To begin narrowing in on a fulcrum experience, ask yourself, “Where do the data live?”

If I’m interested in the linguistic features of Hoosier dialects, then the data live in Indiana, and specifically in the conversation of people born and raised there. If I’m interested in what causes some things to float while others sink, crucial data may live near the surface of a pond. Where do the crucial data live when I’m interested in “what leads me to form beliefs, besides attempts to guess the truth”?

Occasionally, a good answer to this kind of question will just spring to mind for me. More often, nothing is forthcoming. When that happens, I usually consult my memory in search of a reference experience: a situation I can walk through in my mind as reference material for generating guesses. I ask myself, “When has something relevant to this happened in the past?”

When I look for a reference experience in my own memory related to “forming beliefs in ways other than guessing the truth,” I’m reminded of the time when I got a bad grade on my very first logic exam in college. I was pretty scared of math-like things due to awful experiences in highschool math classes, but this logic course was a requirement for the philosophy major, so I’d enrolled anyway. Since I was accustomed to getting straight A’s and I was also pretty set on majoring in philosophy, the poor test result hit me pretty hard.

After class, I remember going to the empty chapel across the street to be alone and cry. I had thoughts like, “I’ll just have to drop this class,” “I can’t be a philosopher,” and “If I just focus on religious studies [my other major], I’ll have a much more reasonable reading load anyway.”

Beck Chapel at IU Bloomington

I think I was trying to find a shape for my mind to rest in that might comfortably accommodate this new information that I can’t automatically ace all my logic exams. I was forming beliefs about my abilities and best options, and whatever was driving that process had a lot to do with attempting to relieve psychological discomfort.

This reference experience suggests that if I want to learn about what leads me to form beliefs, besides attempts to guess the truth, crucial data might live in my attempts to relieve psychological discomfort[2].

Rather than stopping with your first guess at a reference experience, it’s usually worthwhile to search for several different reference experiences, then to make a list of possible fulcrum experiences suggested by them. There might be several places where crucial data live, and it’s often worthwhile to consider a range of options before narrowing in on just one.

When I make a list of guesses about where I might find data on truth-indifferent belief formation, here’s what I get:

  • attempts to relieve psychological discomfort

  • decisions made while I’m feeling pushed or yanked around by something

  • attempts to reason while I’m aware that other people are watching

  • times when I’m considering multiple possibilities, some of which seem much better or worse than others

  • arguments on the internet

  • times when I’m receiving critical feedback

I often check how fulcrum-y a certain experience seems by using it to fill in the exclamation, “If only I really understood what was happening in the moments when __!” For example, “If only I really understood what was happening in the moments when I’m attempting to relieve psychological discomfort!” When I’ve chosen a really fulcrum-y sort of experience, completing that sentence tends to create a feeling of possibility; sometimes it’s almost like a gigantic tome falling open. Not always, but often.

Preparing To Recognize Experiences As They Happen

Once you’ve got at least one guess at where the data live, the next question to ask is, “How will I know when I’m having the experience I’ve identified?” How will you know when you may have entered the natural habitat of crucial data?

To be clear, I’m talking about observing experiences in the wild, as they naturally occur. I’m not talking about designing experiments to elicit the experiences. By “How will I know when I’m having the experience I’ve identified?”, I mean, when you are going about your day and not thinking at all about this essay or your chosen quest, what could tip you off that it’s suddenly time to pay attention?

In the case of the example, what could I notice in my immediate experience, while I’m doing the dishes or talking to someone at work, that would suggest I might be attempting to relieve psychological discomfort?

To answer this question, I typically use two different strategies, which approach the issue from opposite directions.

1. Consult the Reference Experience

The first strategy is to review the same reference experience(s) you used before. Play back through the experience in your mind, paying extra attention to what exactly the most important moments in the memory felt like from the inside. What was the character of your thoughts? What were you paying attention to? What sort of emotions were you having? Was anything notable going on with your body?

In my memory of the logic exam, the moments that seem most important happened in the chapel. The character of my thoughts and emotions was writhing, reaching, and contorting. So I might be able to recognize a similar experience by a feeling of writhing, reaching, or contorting inside my mind.

However, my reaction to the exam result was an especially intense version of the kind of experience I’m interested in. That is why it stood out to me as exemplary, even a decade later. I may be unlikely to encounter an experience with quite the same phenomenological character in the upcoming week.

2. Consult the Present Moment

To find the other end of the intensity spectrum for a given experience type, employ a different strategy: Identify the nearest analogue of the experience that you’re able to perceive right now.

At the moment, I’m definitely not in crisis the way I was after the exam. Overall, I wouldn’t describe my mind as writhing, reaching, and contorting. But that doesn’t mean there are no similarities between my current experience and that one.

For example, I’m certainly experiencing something I’d describe as reaching: I’m reaching for the next words to write, stretching forward toward my understanding of my topic, language, and the mind of the reader. Now that I’m tuned into that, I can even tell that this sort of “reaching” is a dominant part of my current experience; I just didn’t recognize that at first because it’s so much quieter than the version in my reference experience.

I’m also aware of some discomfort: Physically, I’m a little restless. While I’m paying attention to it, I can even notice myself making tiny adjustments so that I can continue writing for a while longer despite this. I’m adjusting (a tiny version of contorting, perhaps) by taking sips of water, changing the way I lean in my chair, and exerting a sort of squeezing pressure on my thoughts to “stay focused” on my task. The adjustments feel a bit like running away, or like trying to ignore something.

Considering these subtle sensations beside the much louder ones from my reference experience, I can make a well informed initial guess at what “attempting to relieve psychological discomfort” might feel like in the most typical instance: I may notice that I’m trying to ignore something or that part of me is running away, and my mind might be reaching toward a certain direction at the same time.

So in this case, my answer to the question, “How will I know when I may be in the presence of crucial data?” is “I may notice ignoring, running away, and reaching.”

Choosing Among Possible Fulcra

If I’ve used a few different reference experiences to identify possible fulcra, then I probably have a list of sensations I could watch for.

When I extend my own list a little bit for “signs that I may be attempting to relieve psychological discomfort”, I get this:

  • ignoring something

  • running away from something

  • reaching for a particular outcome

  • a wrenching feeling accompanied by time pressure

  • puppeteering myself

I’d never watch for all of these at once; it’s usually better to choose one to three. There are a few good ways to choose.

1. Choose an experience that’s common and obvious.

One way is to choose something that will definitely happen, and that you think will be pretty easy to notice.

The benefit of using this criterion is that you’ll get in close contact with some bit of territory quickly and easily. Making some kind of contact, any contact at all, is the most important thing in naturalism, so picking the easy thing tends to be a solid strategy. The main downside of picking something certain and easy is that it’ll likely happen very often, in which case you’ll need to start narrowing your focus almost immediately, or else be overwhelmed.

In my list above, I’d choose “reaching for a particular outcome” if I wanted to go with something easy. I expect that some version of this is happening almost all of the time, because I think it’s probably central to the experience of decision making. If I’m right, I’ll have as many opportunities to notice it as decisions to make.

2. Choose an experience that excites you.

A second way to choose is to pick something that feels bright, juicy, or exciting.

The benefits of this criterion are that 1) you’ll be more motivated to keep an eye out; and that 2) the thing seems juicy for a reason, and the reason might be a good one. The downside is that exciting things seem exciting from your current perspective, which might not be very trustworthy. Sometimes picking the exciting option biases you toward thinking about things in a way that’s already familiar. Still, I don’t think the danger is all that great most of the time, and going with whatever feels brightest is usually a solid option.

A juicy item on the list, for me, is “a wrenching feeling accompanied by time pressure”, but note that compound experiences like this present a special kind of challenge: To get good at noticing “a wrenching feeling accompanied by time pressure”, I would likely need to train attention to “wrenching” by itself, then “time pressure” by itself, before I began combining. This takes a bit longer, but it’s frequently worthwhile. Often I find that I’ve learned a lot from studying just one component that didn’t seem interesting at first on its own.

3. Choose an experience that confuses you.

A criterion I use a lot, but that I think of as more advanced, is to choose one of the poorly formed guesses.

Take “puppeteering myself” from the list above, for example. This was my guess at what it would feel like to try to reason while I’m aware that other people are watching; but I’m not very clear on what I mean by it. It’s an extremely hand-wavy sort of guess. I wrote it on the list anyway because it seemed important, even though I couldn’t easily pin down what it might feel like in the moment. If I’d written this by hand to myself (instead of for an audience), it’s likely I would have written “puppeteering myself(??????)” instead of “puppeteering myself”, since I’m aware that I don’t really know what it is. This uncertainty indicates a known unknown, a clearly marked hole in my map where I’m pretty confident I need to fill things in.

The benefit of choosing a poorly formed guess is that there’s a very good chance I’ll make important progress right away, provided I manage to find any traction at all. The downside, of course, is that finding any traction at all with a poorly formed guess tends to require a lot of skill, and sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Basically, it requires that you practice every piece of the first phase of naturalism all at once and continuously. I use this criterion all the time myself, but I almost never recommend it when I’m guiding someone else through their first naturalist study.

Once I’ve chosen a possible fulcrum experience, what do I do with it?

At first, all you do with a possible fulcrum experience is watch for it. Try to notice when it happens.

I always make a plan to physically mark the event in some way, though this isn’t right for everyone. For example, I could tap my leg when I notice it, or wiggle my fingers. I call this action a marking gesture. Whatever my default response to the experience might be, taking some time to mark the experience with a neutral motion creates an extra little moment in which I can just observe. Many people also find that the right marking gesture makes it much easier to remember they’ve noticed, when looking back over their day.

But if you don’t like making a physical gesture, you can try using a phrase in your head, such as “I noticed.” What matters is that you notice that you’ve noticed.

Marking gestures (or marking thoughts) are especially valuable if you’re studying an experience that’s associated with unpleasant emotions, or with an urgency to fix or change something. For example, someone who’s studying experiences related to criticizing their partner might by default try to ignore the experience, perhaps because they’re ashamed of it. If you tap your leg when you notice “criticizing”, then there’s at least a moment where you get to remind yourself that an act of criticism and an act of observation are distinct, that the observation indicates success in one realm, even if the criticism indicates failure in some other realm.

In this earliest stage of observation, you might not stay with a particular plan for more than a day or two. Your guiding star during this phase should be a question like, “Is there something critical here?” or “Does this feel bright and shining to me?”

Suppose that on day one, I snap my fingers whenever I notice “ignoring something”. But by the end of the day, I suspect that I haven’t chosen quite the right thing to pay attention to. Perhaps what matters isn’t so much ignoring as something to do with “actively looking away” or maybe “struggling not to see”. So I make a new plan: I’ll tap my leg whenever I notice that I’m “actively looking away”.

There are a few ways you might end up suspecting that you haven’t been studying quite the right thing. Often, the way this happens is that you’ll find yourself tapping your leg for some other kind of experience instead, something that you think probably “shouldn’t count” as whatever you’re watching for. In the moment, you might have no idea why you’ve tapped my leg; but in my experience (both personally and with students), the experience frequently turns out to be more crucial than whatever you’d planned to study.

(I think this “marking things that shouldn’t count” phenomenon is an especially excellent example of contact with the territory at work. I have a story that it happens when your perceptions are updating faster than, and largely independently of, of your conceptualizations, in response to relatively unfiltered observations.)

The other main way you might end up switching focus in this phase is by some kind of daily or weekly check-in, where you just ask yourself what has happened so far and how you think things are going. If your study feels dull and unfruitful, that’s probably a sign you should try something different.

You could pick your next focus by asking yourself what key features were missing in the experiences you’ve studied, or what features they could conceivably have had that might have made them bright instead of dull. Make your next guess at a possible fulcrum experience by studying something that might have whatever the previous experience lacked.

This guess-and-check process is how you’ll navigate toward a fulcrum experience. Even if your first guess isn’t quite right, over time you may be able feel your way toward a true source of crucial data.


Note: Many of these essays have a “troubleshooting” section. For the sake of brevity, I’ve chosen to shoot only three troubles per essay. If your main concern is not among them, I assure you that this probably does not mean you are uniquely confused or incompetent; it only means I ran out of space.

Problem 1: What if I’ve chosen a reference experience that I don’t want to pay attention to?

Although the ability to observe anything and everything with clarity is an extremely naturalism-flavored aspiration, getting there doesn’t necessarily mean staring directly at the most painful stuff from the outset. Gentleness and patience tend to prove more effective than ruthlessness with this kind of thing, especially in the long run.

When my topic is emotionally fraught and I don’t much feel like torturing myself with it, here are a few approaches I’ve found useful.

Approach 1: Study the opposite. Rather than observing “running away from something”, try observing “running toward something” instead. Rather than observing “the sinking feeling of realizing you’ve failed”, try observing “the uplifting feeling of realizing you’re succeeded”. Crucial data often live in inverse experiences as well.

Approach 2: Study something related but more pleasant. You might make a lot of progress by gradually circling around your topic, studying the systems surrounding it rather than the thing itself. If you’re interested in motivated reasoning, you could circle around that by studying reasoning more generally, motivation more generally, or goal-directed action. You’ll probably find components of motivated reasoning in these related topics, so that by the time you turn your attention to motivated reasoning in particular, much of what you find will be familiar, and perhaps not so hard to cope with.

Approach 3: Take a step back and study the resistance itself. If there’s some kind of powerful cognitive force compelling you not to observe something, it may be extremely valuable to get to know that force intimately. I’ve found that almost nothing is more likely to shift my relationship with a topic than closely observing the way my mind behaves around it. Try setting aside your curiosity about the topic itself for a while, and get curious about your own patterns of experience around the topic instead.

Approach 4: Build a toy. I’ll talk about toys in depth later in the sequence, but here’s a preview. A toy is a low-stakes scenario that affords opportunities to observe a chosen experience in a way that’s thoroughly under your control.

While studying experiences of failure, for example, I played 2048 on my phone, and paid attention to all of my tiny mistakes. It didn’t really matter much that I was messing up, and it was easy for me to pause and resume at any time; yet there were many opportunities to observe a small, relatively innocuous version of the experience I wanted to study.

Sometimes, starting with a toy is a good way to begin, because it lays a foundation for observation without throwing you straight into the deep-end of real-life experience.

Problem 2: What if I can’t find the right memory to use as a reference experience?

A reference experience doesn’t really have to be a memory. Memories are best when they’re available, but when they’re not, you can use anything that allows you to walk through an imagined scenario vividly, paying attention to the details of the experience. The core of this technique is about booting up System 1 and inviting those processes to steer, rather than leaving everything to explicit modeling, so the presence of phenomenological detail is more important than accuracy.

Option 1: Try making up a scenario that could happen, as though you’re telling a story, even if nothing like that has really happened to you before. Let it play through your head like you’re watching a movie, and let that movie be the reference experience that informs your guesses.

Option 2: See if you can remember a relevant scenario from a work of fiction, such as a scene from a book or movie. Imagine yourself inside the head of one of the characters, and ask yourself what exactly is going on for them.

Option 3: Talk to other people about their experiences. Try to get them to tell you relevant stories from their own lives.

I sometimes find that supplementing my work with a combination of these options is valuable even if an appropriate memory sprang to mind for me immediately.

Problem 3: What if I think my fulcrum experience will never happen, or that it will happen too infrequently to be useful?

For example, what if I’m watching for experiences of “running away from something”, but I’m skeptical that this will happen to me much in the upcoming week?

Option 1: My first recommendation in this case is usually to wait three days, just in case you turn out to be wrong by at least an order of magnitude (which people sometimes are). If you’ve already spent your entire past failing to observe a certain experience, you probably won’t lose much on the margin by continuing to fail for three more days. You can always make a new plan after that.

Option 2: Plan to look for smaller versions. Rare experiences are usually composed of common components. Their novelty almost always comes from the particular arrangement or intensity of their component phenomena. By studying component phenomena piecemeal, or by studying similar experiences that are lower on the intensity spectrum, it is frequently possible to find crucial data on rare experiences while observing the phenomena afforded by just a few days of ordinary life.

To increase your sensitivity and observe lower-intensity versions, use the exercise I describe above: Identify the nearest analogue of the experience that you’re able to perceive right now. Or, use an evening check-in to expand this exercise: Think back through your day and identify the nearest analogue you’re able to perceive in the memories you’ve formed since waking up.

To study smaller components of a large experience, take a guess at which parts the large experience is made of, then pick just one little piece to watch for. Rather than the compound experience “writhing, reaching, and contorting”, try to watch only for “writhing”.

Option 3: Study something related but more common. Rather than studying a rare experience like “doubting your sanity”, try studying related every-day experiences like “feeling confused” or “being uncertain”. Even if you start out with something quite far from the experience you’re interested in, you might be able to move toward more closely related experiences once you’re in touch with better data.

What does this part of the process feel like?

“Locating fulcrum experiences” is characterized by meandering and honing.

When studying something that involves a lot of unpleasant experiences, this phase can feel like confronting a hopelessly tangled mass. One person I was working with described this approach as “massaging conditioner into matted hair and carefully teasing out the knots, when part of me just wants to get a razor and cut it all off”.

At other times, it feels to me a lot like walking a labyrinth (the spiritual kind, not the maze kind), moving toward the center and then looping back out again, working my way inward in a series of patient spirals. You’re getting in contact with pieces of the territory, one after another, feeling around in a sensitive and direct way for what matters. Sometimes the meandering goes on for just a few days, but it’s common for this phase to continue for two to four weeks before you find something worth studying in depth.

The whole time, it’s good to check back in with earlier parts of the process: What is my story? What does it rest on? What is my quest? Where do the data live? What is it like there? Is there something to learn here? Could this impact my story?

When should I move on?

I said at the beginning that in phase one, you’ll begin observing, not so much to find an answer to your question as to position yourself to ask better questions. That position is one of closer contact with the territory, and you’re ready to move on when you have made some contact.

There’s rarely a sharp distinction between phase one and phase two of naturalism. It all blends together. But insofar as there’s a distinction, you are probably ready to move all the way into phase two when you seem to have latched onto a certain kind of experience. One way to tell you’ve latched on is that you have a lot of questions, and the questions are all about what’s going on with [whatever]. When you ask yourself whether you’d like to continue studying that experience, or to keep poking around elsewhere some more, you find that you want to stay with it.

When that happens, it’s time for phase two: Getting Your Eyes On.

Appendix 1: Process Summary

  1. Guess which observations will matter.

    1. Ask, “Where do the data live?”

      1. Ask, “When has something relevant to this happened in the past?”

    2. Test your guess by filling in, “If only I really understood what was happening in the moments when __!”

  2. Prepare to recognize your fulcrum experience in real time.

    1. Ask, “How will I know when I’m having the experience I’ve identified?”

      1. Review your reference experience, and pay attention to what the most important moments felt like from the inside.

      2. Identify the nearest analogue of the experience that you’re able to perceive right now.

  3. If you have a list of guesses for how to know you’re having a fulcrum experience, choose one that

    1. is common and obvious,

    2. excites you, or

    3. confuses you.

Appendix 2: Glossary

Fulcrum experience: A collection of sensations that would lead you to relate differently to your topic if you observed it closely; the location of crucial information.

Reference experience: A situation you can walk through in your mind, and use as reference material for making guesses.

Marking gesture: A neutral action you take when you notice the experience you’ve been watching for, to help you notice that you’ve noticed.

Locating Fulcrum Experiences: The first phase of naturalism, in which you make informed guesses at which subjective experiences intersect with crucial information.

  1. ^

    I think that courage is among the most foundational skills of epistemic rationality; but I suspect this is not immediately obvious to many readers, and I didn’t want to make this sequence mainly an attempt to communicate about courage. I decided to mostly use examples that are more obviously rationality-flavored. I left in this one last courage-related example because it feels important to me to point out the following: Inasmuch as rationality involves thinking clearly while uncertain or otherwise threatened, the ability to act with integrity while afraid is indispensable to a rationalist.

  2. ^

    You may recognize that “attempts to avoid psychological discomfort through directed belief formation” is basically another way of saying “motivated reasoning”, the first hypothesis my existing model supplied in the previous section. But can you see how this new way of expressing it comes at the phenomenon from a different direction? From the inside, perhaps, instead of from the outside. Or from the bottom up, instead of from the top down. For this reason, it will prove far more valuable in a naturalist-style study.