The darnedest thing

A rationalist is usually curious. In Toronto, big areas of the city have trees planted along all the streets, and it seems reasonable to wonder why that is. Don’t get me wrong, I like them – but a modern city is subject to a lot of competing optimization processes, and it’s reasonable to ask how trees got a look-in.

(This phenomenon is not the darnedest thing mentioned in the title. How I came across the possible answer to it was).

There’s a philosophical thing where you imagine someone who sees red and green swapped around. The idea is that it’s supposed to be completely isomorphic – the person would still have the same associations with all the colours, but we can exploit the symmetry of the colour cube to imagine that the colour qualia themselves are swapped over.

When stated like that, I’m not really sure what to make of it. But I think it’s possible to make empirical progress, by relaxing the criteria: are there people who perceive the same sensory input differently? And if so, what’s going on there?

I think the answer’s yes. We can either just ask people about their experiences, or (since people might interpret the question differently) we can observe their behaviour. Some people seem to really like art, can stare at it for ages and pay lots of money to have it in their home. You can only go so far by saying that they’re doing it for signaling reasons and that art isn’t really about art – that kind of judgement lacks predictive power because it doesn’t say anything about which behaviours would end up high and low status. It seems simpler to just assume that people perceive the same painting differently.

Some people really love their home town or their country. I’m going to just guess here, but I’m guessing that even when you control for things like career and domestic situation, you’ll still get some people who say their home town is great and others who are pretty meh about it. Again, my explanation would be when you say you love your town what you’re really saying is that you love your experience of that town, and that different people just have different kinds of experience even if the same stuff is happening. (As an example, whenever I visit Manhattan it feels like being in a movie and I love it. But other people don’t get that sense).

This would all be well and good, but these are all fairly shallow insights based around common sense and guesswork. It wouldn’t be reasonable to draw too many specific conclusions out of this.

On the other hand, I totally know that this is what’s going on because I’ve experienced both sides of it.

Each day, the same trees in the same lighting conditions will look more or less beautiful. I haven’t figured out the pattern, except that for most of the time during my psychosis it was way up in the beautiful zone, probably outside of what’s normal. As such I’m always slightly nervous when I notice it happen, because I worry about anything that happens in my mind that seems correlated with my experience of psychosis, even if that thing seems like a good thing on its own.

Let me try and explain a bit more about what it’s like though.

When we think about our vision it’s easy to imagine it like a digital photograph – you have a grid of pixels and each one is assigned a colour (with three colour components), and that’s it, that’s what you see. Something similar to that does happen when the light first hits our retina, but it goes through a whole bunch of processing before it’s available to the rest of our brain, so what we actually perceive visually is a lot more complex than that.

We see these things:

  • colour, including light/dark
  • edges
  • movement
  • some higher-level constructs such as faces, letters/words and a sense of what kind of object we’re looking at

Optical illusions often mess with these, letting us see edges or motion where there is none, or generating confusing and conflicting higher-level interpretations (e.g. the same drawing could be one of two different kinds of object, or we are able to read something as a word even though the individual letters are all jumbled). Taken together, they pretty much prove that we perceive each of the things I mentioned separately, even if they usually work together harmoniously enough that we don’t need to worry about them all.

But what if there’s a whole extra kind of thing?

Usually I perceive beauty as something very ambiguous and not localized. That is, I have a sense that some scenes are more beautiful than others but I would have a hard time ranking them in order, or saying which particular objects the beauty came from.

The effect that I’m describing is different – the beauty is a lot more palpable, and it really looks like there’s a big blob of it surrounding the trees. (When I was psychotic, animals and people and sometimes other objects would have it too).

Two things to clarify though:

  • If you imagine an aura, you might imagine some shimmering colourful thing. That’s not what it is – that would be covered by the colour and movement qualia that I mentioned before. This is a completely orthogonal quale.
  • Sometimes there’s just a hint of it, but when it’s unambiguously present it’s really, really amazing. Imagine the difference between a bare tree and a tree in leaf, and then add that much again. That’s how much difference it makes.

Today it was at “just a hint”, enough to get me to do some neuro-tourism in the form of walking around some streets with nice trees – but not enough to worry that I might be going crazy again. It definitely adds a sense that the place I live is more welcoming and helping me feel at home there, in addition to just looking pretty.

So yeah, that’s the darnedest thing. I haven’t heard anyone describe something like this, but my current hypothesis is that a lot of other people experience this at least somewhat, but without it varying much you would just assume that’s what trees are supposed to look like. If you did, questioning why the trees were put there would seem absurd – they really make the difference between a beautiful place where you feel you belong, versus somewhere barren and concretey.

Rationalists are not generally all that interested in trees and how people perceive them. But anything to do with people is a lot more relevant to the project.

People can be the best toys.

I don’t mean that in a sexual way – while this entire argument has a sexy version that’s pretty much isomorphic, I’m intending to convey the wholesome interpretation primarily.

Another kind of toy is software. It’s a toy for adults: while I started playing with it at the age of 10, I’m pretty sure I was precocious in that regard and also the stuff I was doing was very simple. But developing complex software can be way loads of fun, and it has something to do with learning how complex systems can be made to interact with each other in interesting ways. It’s not so much for kids because their minds haven’t yet learned how to deal with that kind of complexity, and they may not have the emotional maturity or patience to deal with something that’s persistently going wrong in a frustrating way.

Now think how much more complex the human mind is compared to software.

Why then do computer nerds not enjoy social situations very much? I’m not really setting out to answer that particular question here, but keep it in mind as a thing because it’s relevant.

Often if you ask somebody weird questions, they will run out of patience pretty soon or at least not make a genuine attempt at answering them. There’s a big space in between what people normally talk about and what’s clearly outside social norms, and in that space is all the things which ought to be OK to discuss but we just don’t. It’s a really fun space to play in.

The dynamic I’m describing is two-way – I’ve mentioned before that I really like it when someone is curious about me, and that means asking me questions that I wasn’t expecting. I like to ask them too. It seems like you can get some good riffing going that way and really learn a lot about how the other person works and get some new ideas from them too. I know that it’s possible, and it bothers me that there isn’t more of this dynamic in the rationalist or EA communities.

Rationalists tend to have stiff upper lips and aren’t in the mood for play. So what’s going on?

Two possible answers:

  • This preference is just a weird quirk of my own, other people get just as much or more value out of interacting the way they normally do
  • Other people just aren’t as much fun

I’m not happy with the first answer, just because so many conversations sound like rehashed Less Wrong posts – they don’t seem set up for generating thought leadership or new ideas, and I don’t see how someone can identify as a rationalist and be satisfied with that.

I’m not happy with the second because I have the feeling that I’m just as bad as everyone else in this regard – you could basically get me talking to an exact copy of myself and there would be the same problem.

So what’s my answer? And what does it have to do with the first half of the post that was about trees?

There are introverts and extroverts. It’s reasonable to suppose a lot of them have different kinds of experience when they meet other people.

My usual experience of interacting with people… it’s not that they’re objects that talk. They definitely carry a sense of personhood that means I wouldn’t be inclined to just push someone if they were standing in the way or something. But they’re essentially opaque. Any sense of what a person is feeling, what they want and so on is something that I have to guess based on the available clues, it’s not information that I just have directly available.

At times during my psychosis it was different. People would carry around a blob of personness that was somewhat similar to the aura of beauty I described for trees. It was beautiful in the case of people as well, but more person-like.

In particular I came up with something I called “soul sight” which involved (with their permission) staring into somebody’s eyes and basically reading off whatever emotions seemed to be there. I don’t know if it was at all accurate, but it was interesting that I even had a sense of that. By default, though, the soul sight window is closed and if I look at someone’s eyes I just see their surface, there’s no sense of them providing a window into anyone’s soul. If I were to try and name emotions it would just feel like guessing.

Even without much eye contact, though, psychotic me would often me more comfortable and friendly around people, and it had to do with perceiving them as more person-like, and also more interesting (remember this isn’t about attitude, it’s about how I would directly perceive people). If you’re automatically interested in what someone is saying because they’re a person then things are likely to go a lot more smoothly – you not only straight away have a better time listening to the person talk, but also the other person will pick up that you’re interested in what they’re saying and might be more open in return.

Of course I don’t really know how to engineer that. It’s not like that for me right now.

What I’m describing is somewhat of a spectrum.

  • At one end the world is bleak and devoid of beauty and meaning, and it’s hard or impossible to fit in.
  • Somewhere above that is where I normally reside – things aren’t actively bleak but generally neutral, beauty and meaning are vague and fleeting.
  • Somewhere above that is what I’d guess is normal for a typical person – concepts like beauty and the soul of another person are at least somewhat tangible, not things you’d ever doubt the existence of
  • People who are particularly spiritual might be next, perceiving these kinds of structures a lot more strongly and maybe others besides. They might directly experience a sense of God’s existence.
  • Various of my experiences during psychosis would be at the next level, where household lighting with an orangish spectrum seems warm and comforting, red traffic lights glower with a kind of hostility, twisty mushrooms are perceived as protrusions from some n-dimensional manifold, etc.
  • Anyone who’s experienced psychosis with more pronounced hallucinations, or who has taken big doses of LSD, would be beyond this.

As you approach the esoteric end of the spectrum, there’s a sense in which concepts and experiences bleed into and rotate around each other, and entirely novel kinds of experience are possible. At the boring end everything is pretty flat, concepts are sharply defined and even finding things like a sense of meaning or belonging can be a struggle.

I’m not saying the esoteric end isn’t fun (the experience of all this during my psychosis happened to be very positive most of the time, with just a few hideously scary bits. It wouldn’t be like that for everyone). I don’t think it’s optimal if you have important stuff to do, but it doesn’t mean the exact opposite end is optimal either though, or the point I labeled “where I normally reside” which is close to that end.

Being at the point where trees carry around fuzzy blobs of beauty and people carry around a sense of being intrinsically interesting, seems like a step up, purely in terms of being able to do useful stuff. Practicalities may guide us into locations that are not especially beautiful, relative to what else is available on planet Earth. But if we perceive them to be, it can generate more of a sense of caring and belonging that I think is valuable.

The social aspect of this would open up a lot more possibilities. Relative to where I am now, something which makes interacting with others seem more enjoyable – especially if it comes with a sense of openness and finding the other person interesting – seems like a win.

The problem of course is that I don’t know how to engineer any of this. I don’t want to make myself crazy again and I don’t want to do drugs, and I don’t know other techniques for getting from where I am to where I describe. The fact there’s a bit of daily variability is in some sense encouraging, but I don’t know yet what influences it or how closely it’s coupled with all the other things that go with psychosis for me.

It may be that if I want to nudge subcultural social norms more in the direction I enjoy, I’ll have to stick with approaches that don’t involve any direct changes in perception.


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