Intro—Looking Back on Looking Back
At a CFAR event, Anna once (iirc) put forward the following idea: when you notice that you are distracted, try to think back to when you were last paying attention, recalling as much as you can of the sequence of where your attention went as it wandered. At first you might only be able to think back a couple of steps: “I was thinking about trains just now; why was that? Ah, it was because I was thinking about how I have to catch the train later, and started thinking about trains in general. I don’t remember what got me on that topic.” However, if you keep trying the exercise, you may eventually be able to recall all the way back to what got you off-track in the first place. Once you have a habit of recalling what got you distracted, you can start to see patterns. “Ah, I was hungry, which made me start thinking about food. Being hungry seems to distract me a lot.” Then you can keep peanuts at your desk, or whatever.
At one point a couple of years ago, I noticed that I was using a particular visual analogy to think about something, which didn’t seem like a very good analogy for what I was thinking about. I don’t recall the example, but, let’s say I was using a mental image of trees when thinking about matrix operations. I got annoyed at the useless imaginary trees, and wondered why I was imagining them. Then, I noticed that I was physically looking at a tree! This was fairly surprising to me. Some of the surprise was that I took a random object in my visual field to use for thinking about something unrelated, but more of the surprise was that I didn’t immediately know this to be the case, even when I wondered why I was imagining trees.
After I noticed this once, I started to notice it again and again: objects from my visual field end up in my imagination, and I often try to use them as visual analogies whether they’re appropriate or not. It quickly became a familiar, rather than surprising, event. More interestingly, though, after a while it started to seem like a conscious event, rather than an automatic and uncontrollable one: I’ve become aware of the whole process from start to finish, and can intervene at any point if I wish.
This idea of making mental processes conscious rather than unconscious, simply by paying attention to them over time, seems interesting.
I was recently thinking about what I might do to more fully install the Replacing Guilt skillset. (I’ve had success with it for a single week after doing an internal double crux about it, but it didn’t stick… which was sad, because it was really nice.) After some thinking, I settled on a short list of priorities. At the top of my list was “looking back to see how I arrived at a cognitive state”—a skill which seems necessary for staring into regrets to work well. I remembered Anna’s idea. I was initially planning to make a set of TAPs for whatever skills I decided were most critical, but in this case, practicing the skill as a meditative technique seemed appropriate.
Why Try This?
Besides helping you stare into regrets and reach the strategic level, and bringing unconscious processes into conscious awareness over time, the skill of tracing back your thoughts could be good for memory. I don’t have any studies to back this up, but I’ve heard from a couple of people that remembering things is a skill which improves from use: if you are patient with your memory and wait for it to work, rather than giving up right away, it starts getting noticeably better.
(There are studies which show that practicing memory skill does improve it, but, the ones I know of involve memorizing lists for later recall rather than recalling thinks more randomly without knowing what you’ll need to remember.)
I also think this is good practice for defusion, the skill of de-identifying with your thoughts and feelings. Tracking back on your distracting thoughts helps you shift from thinking “X” to thinking “I had the thought X”. This is helpful for avoiding temptations and managing reactions (basically, willpower), as well as metacognition more generally.
Recalling rapid chains of thought which got you to where you are is also a necessary subskill of the tuning your cognitive strategies skill at bewelltuned. The practice I’m about to describe is actually pretty close to the one at bewelltuned, so that may be good reading material to help with this meditation. Differences:
Bewelltuned is describing a more active exercise which you do while solving a puzzle. I’m doing it with my eyes closed and no task at hand.
Bewelltuned is combining the skill of rapid metacognition about how your thoughts got to where they are with the problem of credit assignment, noticing which thoughts were useful.
The idea is simple: every time you notice that you’re distracted, track back mentally. What sequence lead you here? Try to recall in as much detail as possible.
What is the “central focus” which you are trying to attend to, so that you know when you’re distracted? There are a couple of options here.
You could choose to focus on your breath, as is common, and only do a track-back when you notice that your attention has strayed from your breath. I did this a little, but it really means you’re switching between two primary objects of focus: the breath, and the track-back mental motion. This can be a little confusing.
Alternatively, you can think of the track-back mental motion itself as the object of focus. When I do it this way, the object of meditation which I return to when I don’t have any distractions to track-back is a track-back of the fresh moment I find myself in. How did I end up here?
A third option is to do absolutely nothing when there aren’t any distracting thoughts. Rest in the peace of your mind. Unless you are an experienced meditator, you will very soon find yourself distracted again, so don’t worry that you’re not practicing track-back for a few moments. This option is really hard (at least for me); it is difficult to keep meditating with no focus to return to. However, I do find that I can sometimes switch to this after I’m a few minutes into the meditation.
“Track back” can mean several things. One interpretation is by-the-clock back-tracking: recall the sequence of moments leading up to this one, as best you can. Another option is causal back-tracking: look for the origins of the thought. For example, if you remember a late bill, a causal back-track might go to the image of the bill sitting on your desk (which you might have seen earlier in the day, setting up the thought of the bill as an open loop in your mind). You might then think further back to putting it on the desk, and so on.
I suggest that you back-track in whatever way feels natural and relevant to you.
[ETA: I now think that causal back-tracking practices long-term memory, whereas temporal back-tracking practices short-term memory. Practicing short-term memory, if it works, effectively expands your working memory; if you can quickly “touch” a lot of thoughts to maintain them in short-term memory, you will lose less in your train of thought. I find that this also helps me to maintain productivity on a task. Very short-timespan temporal back-tracking also seems most useful for tuning cognitive strategies. Practicing long-term memory helps to maintain broad rather than narrow context; it might end up being more compatible with an exploratory rather than focused state of mind. Causal back-tracking seems most useful for the strategic level. Nonetheless, I would recommend aiming at whichever mental motion feels more amenable to improvement. If you are doing this with the goal of extending the set of mental processes which you are conscious of, orient toward whatever you are not currently very conscious of.]
It’s very important to keep a non-judgemental attitude toward your distracting thoughts and back-tracks. I’ve previously done a meditation in which I tried to “go meta” on every thought which arose, meaning take the outside view and think about the thought as a part of a policy. This involves looking toward the source of each thought, like the meditation I’m describing now, but it also involves judging each thought. I found that this exercise left me in a manic state, which is a bad sign.
The tuning your cognitive strategies exercise which I mentioned earlier also involves judging the thought-patterns, but they give a warning to stick to positive judgements to reinforce good patterns; punishing useless thoughts is unnecessary, and more dangerous than positively reinforcing the useful ones. This also seems fine, but since my exercise is the track-back activity itself, other thoughts are all distractions anyway.
If you get distracted while you’re in the middle of back-tracking a different distraction, should you try to return to back-tracking the earlier distraction, or start back-tracking the new one?
If you let yourself keep switching which thought you’re back-tracking, you’re not training yourself to finish back-tracks, which is the goal. That being said, if I find that I’ve been distracted from the back-track for a while without noticing, it may be too hard to pick up back where I was, so I’ll just start back-tracking from the present.
Also, some things seem more inherently interesting to back-track than others. As long as you’re not letting a distraction be a distraction, I think it’s fine to follow your interest. Just try to keep with the back-tracking mental motion, rather than allowing yourself to get involved in interesting thoughts in other ways.
How do you start? I don’t have any distracting thoughts right when I start, so I don’t know what to do.
I set a timer right before starting, so I tend to think back about how I set the timer, how I sat down before that, how I got to the room I’m in… (I usually don’t get that far before noticing I’m distracted.)
I have totally random thoughts or images which come in. They don’t have any identifiable source, so I can’t back-track.
Me too! Be patient with your memory, though. If you gently ask “where did that come from?” and wait, an answer may come, even if the thought initially seems really random. Also, you can start analysing parts of the thing. Maybe you had a random flash of a soldier with black and white face paint standing in a river. Where might the black and white face paint have come from? What might have made you you associate face paint with warriors? (Can you recall instances?) Do you think of “standing in a river” as a soldier sort of thing to do, and do you know why?
Or, you could do a temporal track-back rather than a causal track-back, so you just have to try to remember what you were thinking right before the soldier thing.
What about false memories? There are many studies showing that we confabulate, and especially that we confabulate our reasons for doing things. Why should I trust the back-traces which my mind gives me when I try to recall what happened leading up to a certain thought?
I think this is an interesting question. It seems to me like it isn’t that hard to avoid false memories. A false memory seems like the result of a mistake in figuring out what happened. In some cases I’ve generated a chain back from a thought, and then asked myself “is that really what happened?”—and the answer sometimes seems to be “no”. So, there is a difference between what my brain thinks just happened and what it thinks when I ask it whether what it thinks is right. So the situation isn’t hopeless! In fact, I would be surprised to learn that people can’t detect their confabulations in ordinary situations (IE, excluding brain damage), in which there aren’t any real stakes motivating the confabulation, if they actually try.
But then, I would think that, wouldn’t I?
I’ve found this meditation to be particularly easy to motivate myself to do. After trying it, I generally feel… energized?… well, it’s hard to describe, but I think it’s a more successful meditative experience than other things I’ve tried. Hopefully someone else finds it useful.