My portal to sanity
My quest to find portals has led me to work on creating one. I call it my Portal to Sanity. Perhaps you can create your own.
The need for a portal
This post, Building up to an Internal Family Systems model on Less Wrong, written by Kaj Sotala, is a trail marker through the landscape of ideas that led me to create my portal. Perhaps it’s a good place for you to start. Or for Future Me to start, if he loses his way.
Kaja Sotala is a 33-year-old Finish AI Researcher at the Future of Life Institute. I found him through this post, Mental Mountains, at SlateStarCodex. Scott says:
Kaj Sotala has an outstanding review of Unlocking The Emotional Brain; I read the book, and Kaj’s review is better.
That’s high praise: a guy writes a review of a book, and the review is better than the book.
I haven’t read the book, but I found Kaj’s review interesting. It was based on work on memory reconsolidation, a phenomenon that I’d read about before. Memory reconsolidation research proposes that after a memory is reactivated memory, it needed to be rewritten into the nervous system, or the memory is lost. I read about a therapeutic modality called Coherence therapy based on this idea.
About a thousand words into his essay, Kaj references a post he wrote about Internal Family Systems. I jumped there and found he’d written an 8500-word essay. I’ve read it several times, and I am still learning from it.
Kaj builds an architecture for “a robot which avoids catastrophes” as an analog to a human being. I encourage you to heed his advice before considering his model or reading what I’ve written.
I think that, even if not completely correct, IFS is currently the best model that I have for explaining the observations that it’s pointing at. I encourage you to read this post in the style of learning soft skills - trying on this perspective, and seeing if there’s anything in the description which feels like it resonates with your experiences.
The short form of what I learned from him: we humans not only evolve behavior to try to avoid and to escape from catastrophes, we evolve behavior to help us avoid thinking about that behavior.
Dealing with catastrophes
Brains respond to catastrophes in two ways. They create behaviors that rescue the person from the catastrophe as fast as possible. Then they generalize that and create behaviors to guide a person away from the situation that led to the catastrophe and then from the paths that led to the situation.
As we approach paths that seem similar, our minds begin to influence us away from those paths. Initially, the influences are subtle. As the similarity grows, we might become aware of the discomfort that leads us away. When the similarity reaches some threshold, the potential for danger arises in consciousness. Only then can we be aware aware that we are avoiding the path.
But before that, it’s all unconscious. The fact that we are on a path similar to one that led to catastrophe influences the set of actions that might arise—or fail to arise.
We experience the illusion that we’re freely wandering an open landscape of possibilities. The truth is that we’re not as free as we think. We’re being influenced away from some paths and onto others and we have no idea that we’re being influenced.
Procrastination and ADD-type distraction are unconscious schemes for avoiding paths that might lead to discomfort. They’re driven by fear, but the fear is not experienced.
Worse, even thinking about the underlying causes of these kinds of dysfunctional behavior itself needs to be avoided.
Conditioning not only causes people to avoid paths similar to ones that once led to catastrophe, but it also causes people to avoid thinking about the avoidance behavior.
Kaj interprets the IFS model as a catastrophe-avoidance system.
Every situation that causes a childish or adolescent or even an adult meltdown is a catastrophe. That spawns a subsystem designed to deal with the catastrophe.
The subsystem consists of an exile—a part traumatized by the catastrophe—a manager, a part dedicated to avoiding paths similar to the ones that led to the catastrophe—and a firefighter, a part designed to leave the catastrophe situation as rapidly as possible.
When life presents circumstances similar to paths that led to past catastrophes, managers go into action, subtly changing behavior to steer the person away from those paths.
When life presents circumstances similar to the catastrophe, firefighters go into action, causing behavior that leads away from the catastrophe.
Neither is conscious.
And even thinking about the mechanism is itself to be avoided. This makes it hard for a person to self-improve without the help of a therapist or a sensitive friend who can keep them on the path that leads to insight.
When Bobbi and I crossed the Sierras, I realized the constancy of my fear.
It’s taken me all this time to face it.
I’m learning something important: how pervasive the fear that underlies so much of my incomprehensible behavior.
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