Predictable Identities 27: Craving and the Pill

This entry is part 27 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Kaj Sotala suggests a predictive processing-informed model of suffering in which a mind is stuck oscillating between two unpleasant interpretations of the world, each one disconfirming the other’s prediction in a painful way. 

Normally, a brain confronted with two contradicting views will pick the one matching incoming evidence and discard the other. But the brain also generates cravings, and they can break this resolution process.

Desires are manifested in your brain as a prediction. When you want pizza you predict the sensation of pizza in your mouth. If there’s no pizza currently in your mouth you can resolve the discrepance in two ways. Though your action, by grabbing a slice, or by updating and giving up on the pizza prediction. A craving is a desire that you can’t give up on, one that comes from a place too deep to overwrite with disconfirming evidence.

When you’re craving [money/sex/power] you predict strongly that you have them, to the point of almost hallucinating the orgy on your private jet. The lack of a jet or a confident plan to acquire one disconfirms the prediction. But then the craving rises again and overwrites the realization that your goal is unattainable, each prediction and disconfirmation creating mental suffering in an ongoing cycle.

There are two ways to break the loop of craving and suffering. One is to fulfill the desire, which works great (until another craving arises). But there’s another way: if you can convince yourself utterly that what you’re craving is unattainable, then your brain will suppress the loop at the stage of predicting the craved outcome. You will never get what you wanted, but the suffering will ease.

The internet has a term for it: blackpilled. The black pill must be completely impenetrable to work. If your brain can imagine even for a second that your craving is satisfied the cycle of suffering will continue. 

It is almost impossible for people to cleanse their soul of hope entirely unless in the grips of severe depression. Direct evidence of the world is too noisy to conclude anything with such certainty. The black pill requires a community and an identity reinforcing it, to convince one fully of their hopelessness.

Plot Economics

For the fourth time in my adult memory, humanity has collectively, visibly lost the plot at a global level. My criteria are fairly restrictive: The dotcom bust and the 2007 crash don’t make my list for instance, and neither do previous recent epidemics like SARS or Ebola. Global narrative collapse is a fairly severe condition, but apparently no longer as rare as it once was. Here’s my shortlist:

  1. Fall of Berlin Wall (1989, I was 14)
  2. 9/11 (2001, I was 27)
  3. Trump election (2016, I was 42)
  4. Coronavirus (2020, I am 45)

It always seems to happen relatively suddenly (but is not always entirely black-swan-level unanticipated; it is typically a gray swan), and in each of the first three cases, by my estimate, it took humanity 1-2 years to reorient. I expect this one will take about 18 months, unless a bigger gray or black swan eats this one (one I’m watching out for is Trump losing in 2020 and refusing to honor the electoral verdict). We will find the plot again after the first vaccines are administered at a large scale, presumably during the 2021 southern hemisphere flu season. We will learn how effective the vaccines are, and the markets will decide how to reprice modern pandemic risks correctly.

So what do we do in the meantime?

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Predictable Identities 26: Academic Identity

This entry is part 26 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Why do smart kids go to grad school, to be underpaid and overworked for the prime years of their youth in a setting that sextuples their chances of suffering from anxiety and depression?

Scott Alexander posits that academia is like a drug gang: the suffering is worth the 5-10% chance of becoming a kingpin tenured professor. Tenure is pretty great. You get paid six figures to converse with intellectual peers, do research, and have your ideas read by an admiring public. But wait: I get paid six figures, chat with the best shitposters on Twitter during work hours, do research, and you’re reading my blogchain instead of an academic paper. Most people smart enough for a PhD can follow a similar path to corporate sinecure with a much more certain success rate than the academic lottery.

What I’m missing is the identity of an academic. An academic is an intellectual, a truth-seeker and truth-teller, a lifelong learner. Whereas I only do those things, if I feel like it.

An identity gives you permission to do all the above. External permission, such as being allowed in a laboratory if that’s where your interests are pursued. But it’s also about allowing yourself to engage in intellectual pursuits. Or even: being afraid that without the external pressure of people expecting (predicting) novel intellectual output from you, you would not create any.

Consider this tweet:

Who would stay in a job that drives them to anxiety attacks and tearful breakdowns? Only someone who literally put “Scientist” in their name, who made that epithet more painful to lose than their mental health.

The dark irony of this all is: since your identity is in the hands of academic institutions, they exert vast control over you. It could be benign, but it could include demanding that someone betray their actual truth-seeking and truth-telling work if it goes against the institutions interests. The identity is not the thing; sometimes you must choose one over the other.

The New Uncanny Valley

This is a guest post by Jakub Stachurski

Every advancement in communication has overcome distance through the reduction of identity. The mail summarizes us, the phone condenses us into a voice, and the Internet flattens us into profiles. We become the necessary abstractions of our technology, reduced for the sake of ingestion. Increasingly we spend more time in this reduced identity state of incorporeal flatness than we do in the face-to-face dimension.

“He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” — Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

In contrast to Stephenson’s vision of the avatar, our online interactions occur without our bodies in view, lacking gesture, nuance, inflection and all the unconscious bells and whistles that corporeality adds to a conversation. As the propensity for face-to-face conversation decreases, our average interactions are degraded to the primarily text-based messaging and posting that happens through social media platforms. The Internet has become our primary venue for communication but we lack the technology to project our bodies and voices in the manner of Stephenson’s “Metaverse.” 

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Predictable Identities 25: External Control

This entry is part 25 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

My psychiatrist friend deals with a richer slice of New Yorkers, and she describes a common pattern. Her clients recount an abusive relationship or job that is pushing them to the verge of suicide. But they can’t leave, it is the only thing more dreadful than staying. Sometimes they admit the true issue: if I’m not [X], I don’t even know who I am.

Identities can control us. And other people can control our identities, grant them to us and withdraw them. My friend’s clients contemplate death, but the alternative is the death of the story they tell themselves.

Esther Perel describes how identity comes into play in relationships. Historically, marriage used to be about what you do (produce kids and/or feed and clothe them) or what you have (an alliance with the Habsburgs). But modern romance is about being loved for who you really are inside, not trivialities like what you bring to the table. This builds an identity of specialness: soulmate, the missing piece, the only one. As divorce and infidelity are becoming more common than ever they are also more painful, shattering one’s life story along with the relationship.

Not to be outdone by romance, companies also jumped on the identity-producing game. Jobs used to be described in terms of action: “glue together 170 widgets a day”. Now they describe a persona: “leader in the space” / “embodiment of our culture” / “inspiring team member”. You no longer merely work at BigCorpInc; you’re a Googler, Postie, Amazonian.

But these manufactured articles lack the predictive power that imbues identities with potency. Can you tell much about a person from the fact that they’re a Microsoftie? But some identities have predictive associations that were accumulated over centuries. Those who grant and withhold them possess great power, ripe for abuse. 

Yes, we’re going to talk about academia.

Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter

This is a guest post by Aaron Z. Lewis

I grew up in cyber spaces where legal names were few and far between: RuneScape, AIM, Club Penguin, Neopets, and the like. But when I turned 13, Facebook opened up its floodgates to teenagers across America and washed away our playful screen names. My online social life slowly migrated to Facebook’s News Feed and, before long, I stopped thinking about all the alter-egos I had during my childhood. My digital identity became finite, consistent, persistent, unified. I was Aaron Lewis — nothing more, nothing less.

In 2018, I started feeling nostalgic for the pseudonymous internet of my youth. I decided on a whim to create a “fake” Twitter account, a digital mask to temporarily shield my First Name Last Name from the strange spotlight of social media. What started as mindless entertainment slowly morphed into a therapeutic exercise in identity experimentation. I always thought that masks were for hiding, but I’ve learned that they often reveal as much as they obscure. They allow you to explore a new identity even as you retreat from an old one.

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Predictable Identities 24: Anti-Identity

This entry is part 24 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Identity is a set of habits of thought. The very idea of identity is just another habit you picked up. The good news: once you realize that, you can build your own from scratch. The bad news: it will troll you.

Countless clichéd people want to be a writer and start cultivating that identity. They install Scrivener. They read research papers and inspiring novels. They plan how the book’s cover will look. They introduce themselves as a writer. They don’t write much.

There are many diagnoses of this common malaise. The predictable identities one is: adopting X as an identity makes you optimize for being predicted as X, rather than for X itself. If you tell people about the book you’re writing they’ll predict that you’re a writer and will treat you accordingly, reinforcing your identity. If you merely accumulate words in a draft file, they won’t.

If I hear someone identify as a “truth seeker” I know that they’re a devout Christian, devout skeptic, or both (i.e., Jordan Peterson). “Truth seekers” love public debates, they love researching arguments and counterarguments, they love talking about the importance of truth. What they rarely seem to do is actually change their mind about anything — the invisible action that doesn’t reinforce their “truth seeking” identity.

The first step to escaping the trap of identity is to build an identity of fluidity, corrigibility, and small verbs rather than big adjectives.  

—  “Are you a writer?”  

—  “I’ve been writing this blogchain.”   

—  “Will you turn it into a book?”  

—  “Probably not, but I may change my mind.” 

—  “So you’re not really a writer.”

—  “Never said I was.”

It’s hard to go overboard with an identity of breaking-habits and keeping the self small, since your natural inclination will always pull you towards consistency, and others will assign labels to you whether you want to or not. Adopting an anti-identity can get you to a middle ground, and that’s a good place to start.

Predictable Identities: 23 – The Self

This entry is part 23 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

In reality there are only atoms and the void, but in our mind exists the self. This thing here is part of me, this thing there isn’t. The concept of self serves the same purpose as all others: it makes good predictions. Or perhaps it made good predictions at some point, and got stuck.

Self-identification gets off to a good start. A baby notices that when it wants the toy to move by itself the toy doesn’t budge, but when it wants its hand to move the hand immediately obliges. It begins to identify the body: that which is immediately moveable in the intended way by thought alone.

As a child grows, more and more things are reinforced by the world as part of its identity. This toy is yours, the other one isn’t: one can be grabbed with predictable good consequences, while grabbing the other one will trigger unpredictable retaliation. This essay was written by you and this is your grade for it, go back to your seat. The process is extended to one’s mind: the thoughts and feelings you recognize in your mind are yours, and other people have their own.

It is at the level of thought that the model of the unified self starts to buckle under the strain of contradictions. Careful introspection reveals that your mind comprises a multitude of independent subagents influencing your behavior and emotions in ways that your conscious self can’t access, let alone control. Careful study of societies reveals that our thoughts are shaped by memes, myths, and egregores, cognitive processes that run in vast groups, not individuals. This post was written by my conscious model of the self, a mild anxiety in my stomach, Alberto Albero, and Buddhism. In what sense is it mine?

Once we notice the breakdown of the rigid self as it relates to thought, we can see it in other contexts as well. Roles, blame and praise, personalities — these are merely conventions, as is private property. This even extends to the body: partnered dancers have as much control of their partner’s limbs as their own, while the most control you can exert over your appendix is chopping it off.

None of this means that drawing a circle around some things and calling them “myself” is always wrong. Just that there’s no clear “self” that matches reality in all contexts. This is good news, it means that the self is a thing to be played with.

Mediating Consent

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Feed

When theologian Martin Luther debuted his Ninety-five Theses in 16th-century Germany, he triggered a religious Reformation — and also a media revolution.

1630 map of the Maluku Archipelago (Moluccas, or Spice Islands)

The printing press, invented approximately 50 years before the 95 Theses,  extended Luther’s reach from the door of the cathedral to the entirety of Europe. His criticisms of the Church were the first use of mass media: critiques of Catholic doctrine in pithy, irreverent pamphlets, produced at scale and widely distributed. As a result, Luther ushered in not only Protestantism, but an entirely new media landscape: one in which traditional gatekeepers — the church, wealthy nobles — no longer held a monopoly on the information that reached the people. The Catholic Church responded, of course, with pamphlets of its own — defending Catholic doctrine, refuting the new heretics, fighting the battle for hearts, minds, and Truth. 

The battle for control of narratives persists today, though the speed and scale have changed.

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Predictable Identities: 22 – The Entropic Brain

This entry is part 22 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

Brain researcher Robert Carhart-Harris and physicist Karl Friston suggest that psychedelics will save humanity. They are, of course, far from the first people to do so. But they’re the first to explain how psychedelics will save humanity using the theory of predictive processing, which was developed in large part by Friston himself. And so with my interest sufficiently piqued, allow me to condense a decade of research on the Entropic Brain Hypothesis into a few paragraphs.

Our brains evolved to model the environment and minimize surprise and uncertainty. Since our environment is complex and dynamic, so are more evolved brains. fMRI allows us to measure brain entropy, how unpredictable is one’s brain state in the future based on its current state. It’s a proxy for a brain’s flexibility and complexity. 

Human brains are more entropic than those of our animal relatives, which in turn have more entropic brains than phylogenetically distant species. But humans have also developed a brain structure that suppresses entropy: the default mode network (DMN). According to Friston, optimal prediction is achieved when the brain is finely poised between order and disorder, rigidity and entropy. The DMN is less developed in children, and is suppressed in REM sleep, the onset of psychosis, and by psychedelics — all the above states are characterized by wandering thoughts, creativity, and magical thinking (hello, Ribbonfarm!) that isn’t strongly constrained by reason and prior experiences.

The DMN is also overactive in people with depression. This manifests in two features of depression: “depressive realism” (a capacity to judge reality more accurately) and rigidity of thought (the mind is stuck in a negative bias that doesn’t respond to changes in the environment). In fact, many other mental disorders can be thought of as disorders of mental rigidity. For example: addiction (the brain is stuck in loops of craving and indulgence), autism, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Psychedelics increase brain entropy and “shake it out” of its rigid habits, allowing it to settle into more salubrious patterns (especially if guided by a good therapist).

There’s another effect that psychedelics cause by inhibiting the DMN — the dissolution of ego and the sense of self. Should we think of self-identity too as a disorder of mental rigidity? Stay tuned.