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Examples of Introspection


What is introspection?

In the previous post, we said that introspection is the attempt to learn about your own mind by directly paying attention to your immediate experiences of your mind. What is this exactly? How does this work?

If you're new to introspection, the first thing to do is to try to get a vivid, concrete understanding of what we're talking about when we use the word "introspection". Questions about how to define "introspection" or how introspection actually works can come later. To get this vivid, concrete understanding, you'll need firsthand experience. How can you get that? First answer: Just jump in. Start paying attention to your mind and trying to describe it. (Actually do this. You can really just start right now.) The second answer is: Get guidance from others. If people give instructions, follow the instructions. If people state results, try to find the same or similar results in your own mind. If people give you questions as prompts, try to answer the questions.

Below, we'll give several examples of introspection. Try to learn from them what you can. In each case, don't worry too much about whether the instructions or questions are phrased perfectly. The point is not to infer from the instructions or questions to facts about your mind. The point is to get you paying attention to your mind, so you can see what you see. (To keep you on your toes, and to prevent you from just copying without thinking, we've purposefully embedded exactly one error below. This means that exactly one thing below in the "Examples of introspection" section is purposefully wrong. Can you find it?)

Examples of introspection

Introspection on perception

Pick up a blank white sheet of paper. Look at it. This will give you a visual perception of the sheet of paper. Pay attention to that visual perception. Now, describe it. In particular, describe the color of the sheet of paper in your experience. (Actually do this.)

At this stage, many people will describe the color of the paper in their experience as being "white". After all, the paper is white. But does it actually appear white? Frequently the lighting conditions are imperfect. In imperfect lighting, white paper may appear gray, or rose, or amber, or some other color. If you thought the color in your experience was white, try again. Describe the actual color you are aware of. (Actually do this.)

At this stage, many people will describe the color of the paper in their experience as being something other than white. This is typically a step forward. But is the description complete? Is the paper simply a single uniform color? Look again. The visual experience of a blank sheet of paper is not actually uniform. Look closer. Describe what you are actually aware of in your experience.

By this process, you can come to have more and more accurate descriptions of your perceptions. This counts as introspecting on those perceptions.

Introspection on mental images

Let's try something similar, but now with mental images. Picture a solid red square. Imagine it as vividly as you can, floating in front of you. Fill it in as much as you can, and make it as uniform as you can. Don't close your eyes; do this while leaving your eyes physically open.

Now, describe your actual experience of the mental image. What color is it? Is it red or pink or some other color? Where is it? Is it situated among the physical objects you are visually perceiving, or is it by itself somehow, not next to anything else? Is it separated from the things you are visually perceiving by some sort of fuzziness or border? How solid is it? Is it full and complete or is it only partially constituted? How stable is it? Is it pretty stable or is it changing fairly rapidly? What else can you say about it?

By paying careful attention to mental images and answering these sorts of questions, you can get better and better descriptions of them. This is another instance of introspection.

Introspection on internal monologue

You can do the same thing to the things you say in your mind. Don't try to force it. Just listen and describe. Some fun questions to answer: How frequently do you say things in your mind? For some people it is constant. For others, it is rare. Do you speak in full sentences or in fragments? We've seen both. Do you speak in your own voice or in someone else's? We have seen a case where the person's internal monologue was in a British accent... despite them being an American and not having a British accent at all. How do you address yourself? We found cases people using "I", "you", "we", addressing themselves by name.

Perhaps more important than frequency and format is the actual content. What specifically do you say in your mind? You may know that your internal monologue is running frequently, but have little sense of what you say to yourself. Sitting back and observing what you say to yourself and how you say it counts as introspection.

Introspection on concepts

Let's get more subtle. Consider the following image:

Is it a duck? Is it a rabbit? First, get yourself to be able to see it both ways. See it as a rabbit. Then as a duck. Then rabbit. Then duck, While doing this, you may be saying words to yourself, such as "rabbit... duck..." If so, stop doing that. Quiet your internal monologue. Without saying any words, watch your mind switch interpretations from rabbit to duck and back.

While this happens, something is changing in your awareness. But your visual field is remaining the same. This means that there is something else in your awareness that is changing, and it's not in your visual field (or in your internal monologue). What is changing is your interpretation, or what concept you are using to interpret the image. This is a different type of content in your mind. It is more subtle than visual or auditory sensations. But it is something else that you can be aware of.

Introspection on subtle phenomenology

Now let's combine some of these things. Relax and quiet your mind. Then propose to yourself, either out loud or in your mind, "Everything is fine in my life." After proposing this, wait and pay attention to what happens in your mind. Do you get visual imagery? Does your mind respond verbally? Do you get some sort of... feeling. Frequently when people do this they find that they get a feeling, typically a feeling of wrongness. Pay attention to that feeling. Allow it to expand and fill up your mind. What does the feeling relate to? Describe as best you can what is happening in your mind.

A first step

Congratulations! You have now received more training in introspection than 99% of the population, are one or two steps further on the long journey to mastery, and have gotten closer to being able to introspect on something crucially important: your beliefs.

We will get to introspection on beliefs soon. First, though, we should talk about the reliability of introspection and how to make introspection more reliable.

Leverage Staff

Compilation piece, written or inspired by several researchers. Opinions expressed represent common views inside Leverage, not necessarily unanimity.

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