Previously, I described human thought-generation as an adversarial process between a low-quality pseudorandom Babble generator and a high-quality Prune filter, roughly analogous to the Generative Adversarial Networks model in machine learning. I then elaborated on this model by reconceptualizing Babble as a random walk with random restarts on an implicitly stored Babble graph.
Rationalist training (and schooling in general) slants towards developing Prune over Babble. I’m trying to solve the dual problem: that of improving the quality of your Babble.
Although the previous posts listed a number of exotic isolation exercises for Babble, I’m guessing nobody was inspired to go out and play more Scrabble, write haikus, or stop using the letter ‘e’. That’s probably for the best—taking these exercises too seriously would produce exotic but sub-optimal Babble anyway. For a serious solution to this serious problem, we need to understand Prune at a higher resolution.
The main problem with Prune is that it has too many layers. There’s a filter for subconscious thoughts to become conscious, another for it to become spoken word, another for the spoken word to be written down, and a further one for the written word to be displayed in public. With this many-layer model in mind, there are plenty of knobs to turn to let more and better Babble through.
The River of Babble
Imagine that your river of Babble at its source, the subconscious: a foaming, ugly-colored river littered with half-formed concepts, too wild to navigate, too dirty to drink from. A quarter mile across, the bellow of the rapids is deafening.
Downstream, you build a series of gates to tame the rushing rapids and perhaps extract something beautiful and pure.
The First Gate, conscious thought, is a huge dam a thousand feet high and holds almost all the incoming thoughts at bay. Behind it, an enormous lake forms, threatening to overflow at any moment. A thick layer of trash floats to the top of this lake, intermixed with a fair amount of the good stuff. The First Gate lets through anything that satisfies a bare minimum of syntactical and semantic constraints. Thoughts that make it past the First Gate are the first ones you become conscious of—that’s why they call the output the Stream of Consciousness.
A mile down the Stream of Consciousness is the Second Gate, spoken word, the filter through which thoughts become sounds. This Gate keeps you from saying all the foolish or risqué thoughts tripping through your head. Past the Second Gate, your spoken words form only a pathetic trickle—a Babbling Brook.
By now there is hardly anything left to sift from. The Third Gate, written word, is no physical gate but a team of goldpanners, scattered down the length of the Babbling Brook to pan for jewels and nuggets of gold. Such rare beauties are the only Babble that actually make it onto paper. You hoard these little trinkets in your personal diary or blog, hoping one day to accumulate enough to forge a beautiful necklace.
Past the Third Gate, more Gates lay unused because there simply isn’t enough material to fuel them: a whole chain of manufactories passed down from the great writers of yore. Among them are the disembodied voices of Strunk and White:
Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Jealously clutching the 500-word pearls you drop once a month on your blog, you dream of the day when the capital comes through and these Gates will be activated to produce your magnum opus, your great American novel. For now, you can’t afford to omit a single precious word.
The Gates of Prune
In the model above, there are many problems with Prune independent of having low-quality Babble to begin with. The Gates are working at odds with each other. They are individually too strict. There are simply too many of them. Lots of expensive mental machinery is not working at full capacity, if at all: if you have four Gates but 99% of the goods don’t make it through the first one, that novel-writing factory you’ve built is not paying rent.
Even worse, there’s probably two or three layers of subtlety within each of the big Gates I sketched. What you might whisper on a dark night in total solitude is different from what you might utter to a confidante is different from what you might say to your thesis adviser.
If a balanced Babble and Prune game is supposed to involve one Artist against one Critic, then having an overactive Prune is like pitting a pitchfork-wielding mob of Critics against one Artist. The first three Critics tar-and-feather the Artist and the rest are just there for moral support.
The task of relaxing all of Prune at once is monumental. Instead, relax the Gates individually in order. Simultaneously, shorten the psychological distance between them.
Relaxing and Shortening
At the First Gate, conscious thought, noticing is the way to let through more subconscious Babble. Practice noticing thoughts and sensations (not just confusion) that you never pay attention to. Much of meditation is devoted to relaxing this first Prune filter. Much of art is devoted to the motto: make the familiar strange, where strange is better translated as salient.
Another exercise along similar lines is zooming in on anything, anything at all. Pick up and stare at the whorls and aphids running down that twig on your driveway. Take apart that broken old Canon in the attic. Dissect your aversions toward attending Algebraic Geometry.
At the Second Gate, spoken word, the trick is getting comfortable with vocalizing more of your Stream of Consciousness. I mentioned before that my internal process is very verbal—on reflection I think that whole post is about the maturation of my Prune filter to allow more Babble through. Several features stand out.
One of these features is that I directly mouth or whisper any thoughts that appear in my Stream of Consciousness. Psychologically, this shortens the distance between the First Gate and the Second Gate: it becomes a question of how loud to speak rather than whether or not to speak at all. There’s no reason not to be constantly mouthing the things you’re thinking, at least when you’re alone. Similarly, when lost in thought I make micro-gestures with my fingers to imitate the emphatic ones I would make to convey that point in conversation. These tricks exploit the fact that the psychological distance between 1% and 100% is much shorter than that between 0% and 100%.
Another feature of my internal process is that I always have a mental audience: a silent judgmental muse, the personification of the Critic. In HPMOR, Harry has a supersized version of this: a whole cast of colorful mental characters that carry out full-length conversations with each other. This kind of dissociation-into-subpersonalities exercise has a whole of great side effects, but the relevant one for us is that it again shortens the mental gap between the First and Second Gate by making thinking feel like conversation.
Onwards to the Third Gate: the written word. Thankfully, modern technology has already radically shortened the distance between the Second and Third Gates for us with the invention of the blog, a medium much more free-form and personal than the book. Your training as a writer has probably erected a tall Third Gate, and successful bloggers have pretty much circumvented it.
What distinguishes blogging from formal writing? One metric is the frequency with which the blogger breaks the Fourth Wall—that poor Wall which is only mentioned when it is broken. Having torn down the Fourth Wall, blogging reduces naturally to a heated and cogent form of conversation, filled with rhetorical questions and injunctions.
Hey, look here, I’m not saying there’s no place whatsoever in writing for formality. But if you’re going to build a wall and call it the Fourth Wall, build it after the Third Gate, you know?