Learned Blankness

Related to: Semantic stopsigns, Truly part of you.

One day, the dishwasher broke. I asked Steve Rayhawk to look at it because he’s “good with mechanical things”.

“The drain is clogged,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

He pointed at a pool of backed up water. “Because the water is backed up.”

We cleared the clog and the dishwasher started working.

I felt silly, because I, too, could have reasoned that out. The water wasn’t draining—therefore, perhaps the drain was clogged. Basic rationality in action.[1]

But before giving it even ten seconds’ thought, I’d classified the problem as a “mechanical thing”. And I’d remembered I “didn’t know how mechanical things worked” (a cached thought). And then—prompted by my cached belief that there was a magical “way mechanical things work” that some knew and I didn’t—I stopped trying to think at all.

“Mechanical things” was for me a mental stopsign—a blank domain that stayed blank, because I never asked the obvious next questions (questions like “does the dishwasher look unusual in any way? Why is there water at the bottom?”).

When I tutored math, new students acted as though the laws of exponents (or whatever we were learning) had fallen from the sky on stone tablets. They clung rigidly to the handed-down procedures. It didn’t occur to them to try to understand, or to improvise. The students treated math the way I treated broken dishwashers.

Martin Seligman coined the term “learned helplessness” to describe a condition in which someone has learned to behave as though they were helpless. I think we need a term for learned helplessness about thinking (in a particular domain). I’ll call this “learned blankness”[2]. Folks who fall prey to learned blankness may still take actions—sometimes my students practiced the procedures again and again, hired a tutor, etc. But they do so as though carrying out rituals to an unknown god—parts of them may be trying, but their “understand X” center has given up.

To avoid misunderstanding: calling a plumber, and realizing he knows more than you do, can be good. The thing to avoid is mentally walling off your own impressions; keeping parts of your map blank, because you imagine either that the domain itself is chaotic, or that one needs some special skillset to reason about *that*.

Notice your learned blankness

Learned blankness is common. My guess is that most of us treat most of our environment as blank givens inaccessible to reason[3]. To spot it in yourself, try comparing yourself to the following examples:

1. Sandra runs helpless to her roommate when her computer breaks—she isn’t “good with computers”. Her roommate, by contrast, clicks on one thing and then another, doing Google searches and puzzling it out.[4]

2. Most scientists know the scientific method is good (and that e.g. p-values of 0.05 are good). But many not only don’t understand why the scientific method (or these p-values) are good—they don’t understand that it’s the sort of thing one could understand.

3. Many respond to questions about consciousness, morality, or God by expecting that some other, special kind of reasoning is needed, and, thus, walling off and distrusting their own impressions.

4. Fred finds he has an intuition about how serious nano risks are. His intuition is a blank for him; something he can act on or ignore, but not examine. It doesn’t occur to him that he could examine the causes of his intuition[5], or could examine the accuracy rate of similar intuitions.

5. I find it hard to fully try to write fiction—though a drink of alcohol helps. The trouble is that since I’m unskilled at fiction-writing, and since I find it painful to notice my un-skill, most of my mind prefers to either not write at all, or to write half-heartedly, picking at the page without *really* trying. Similarly, many pure math specialists avoid seriously trying their hand at philosophy, social science, or other “messy” areas.

6. Bob feels a vague desire to “win” at life, and a vague dissatisfaction with his current trajectory. But he’s never tried to write down what he means by “win”, or what he needs to change to achieve it. He doesn’t even realize that he could.

7. Sandra just doesn’t think about much of anything. She drives to work in a car that works by magic, sits down in her cubicle at a company that makes profits by magic, and thinks through her actual coding work. Then she orders some lunch that she magically likes, chats with coworkers via magically habitual chatting-patterns, does another four hours’ work, and drives home to a relationship that is magically succeeding or failing.

I’m not saying we should constantly re-examine everything. Directed attention, and a focus on your day’s work, is useful. But the “learned blankness” I’m discussing is not goal-oriented. Learned blankness means not just choosing to ignore a domain, but viewing that domain as inaccessible; it means being alienated from the parts of your mind that could otherwise understand the thing.

Analogously, there are often good reasons not to e.g. seek a new job, skillset, or romantic partner… but one usually shouldn’t be in the depression-like state of learned helplessness about doing so.

Reduce learned blankness

There are many reasons folks feel helpless about understanding a given topic, including:

  • A. Simple habit. You aren’t used to thinking about it; and so you just automatically don’t.

  • B. Desire to avoid initial blunders that will force you to emotionally confront potential incompetence (as with my fear of writing fiction);

  • C. Avoidance of social conflict, or of status-claims; if your boss/​spouse/​whoever will be upset by your disagreement, it may be more comfortable to “not understand” the domain.

So, if you’d like to reduce your learned blankness, try to notice areas you care about, that you’ve been treating as blank defaults. Then, seed some thoughts in that area: set a ten minute timer, and write as many questions as you can about that topic before it beeps. Better yet: hang out with some people for whom the area isn’t blank. Do some mundane tasks that are new to you, so that more of your world is filled in. Ask what subskills can give you stepping-stones.

If fears such as (B) and (C) pop up, try asking “I wonder what it would take to [hit my goals]?”. Like: “I wonder what it would take to feel comfortable dancing?” or “I wonder what it would take write fiction without fear?”.

You don’t even have to try answering the question; if it’s a topic you’ve feared, just asking it will open up space in your mind. Then, look up the answers on Google or Wikipedia or How.com and experience the pleasure of gaining competence.

[1] Richard Feynman, as a kid, surprised people because he could “fix radios by thinking”; apparently it’s common to not-notice that reasoning works on machines.

[2] Thanks to Steve Rayhawk for suggesting this term. Also, thanks to Lukeprog for helping me write this post.

[3] Eliezer’s Harry Potter suggests that *not* having learned blankness be pervasive—not having your world be tiny tunnels of thought, surrounded by large swaths of blankness that you leave alone—is what it takes to be a “hero”. To quote:

“Ah...” Harry said. His fork and knife nervously sawed at a piece of steak, cutting it into tinier and tinier pieces. “I think a lot of people can do things when the world channels them into it… like people are expecting you to do it, or it only uses skills you already know, or there’s an authority watching to catch your mistakes and make sure you do your part. But problems like that are probably already being solved, you know, and then there’s no need for heroes. So I think the people we call ‘heroes’ are rare because they’ve got to make everything up as they go along, and most people aren’t comfortable with that.”

[4] Thanks to Zack Davis for noting that the “good with computers” trait seems to be substantially about the willingness to play around and figure things out. If you’d like to reduce the amount of cached blankness in your life, and you’re not already good with computers, acquiring the “good with computers” trait in Zack’s sense is an easy place to start.

[5] One way to get at the causes of an intuition is to imagine alternate scenarios and see how your intuition changes. Fred might ask himself: “Suppose nanotech was developed via a Manhattan project. How much doom would I expect then?” or “Suppose John (who I learned all this from) changed his mind about doom probabilities. Would that shift my views?”.