Leverage Research
Exploring the mind and society

Ways to Learn About Your Mind

Introspection

Nine ways to learn

If you want to learn about your mind, there are many things you can do.

(1) You can pay attention to your behavior. Before starting work you always check Facebook. Why? What does this tell you about your mind? What does it mean about what you believe? What does it mean about what you want?

(2) You can look at your verbal behavior in particular, i.e., what you say. You find yourself saying "Winter is coming." What could this tell you about your mind? Do you like quoting Game of Thrones? Or do you simply believe that winter is in fact coming?

(3) You can consult general theories about what humans are and how humans' minds work. There's a general theory that says that you're programmed by evolution to maximize the spread of your genes. Maybe that's why you always check Facebook and then tell people that Winter is Coming.

(4) You can study other people's minds and then hope that your mind is relevantly similar. "Everyone else seems to want to be in a romantic relationship. So I must want that too! And if not on the surface, then deep down somewhere."

(5) You can break into a lab and try to use an fMRI to scan your brain and then try to figure out what the scans tell you about your mind. (Be sure to take into account what the fMRI will detect by default!)

(6) You can study neuroscience more generally, and try to infer from general facts about brain structure to facts about your mind. A quick Google search reveals that you apparently have approximately 100 billion neurons, each of which is connected to 1000 other neurons, firing an average of 200 times per second. This undoubtedly tells you something about your mind.

(7) You can describe your sociological circumstances and try to infer from those to facts about your mind. You're sitting in a chair in the Bay Area, working at a tech startup that uses machine learning to something something. Probably you think Elon Musk is pretty cool.

(8) You can try to derive facts about your mind by analyzing the ground of the possibility of the unity of the manifold of experience (Kant), or at least understand the concept of "mind" by conceptually separating it from all of your other concepts (Descartes). Think of this as the deep philosophy approach.

Some of these methods are probably more effective than others. We took an internal poll. For understanding our own minds, Jasen and Anja favored (1), (2), (3), (4), and (6). Lippmann preferred (1), (6), and (8), Geoff favored (1), (2), (3), (7), and (8), and Miya wanted to stick with (1) and (2). We all thought breaking into a neuroscience lab was prohibitively expensive, and we all acknowledged that at least most of the methods were useful in the right contexts.

Notably, though, all of these methods are indirect. They all involve trying to learn about your mind by looking at something other than your mind. This leaves another method:

(9) You can try to learn about your mind via introspection, i.e., by directly paying attention to your immediate experiences of your mind.

What is it to "directly pay attention to your immediate experiences of your mind"? Well, sort of what it sounds like. But since a shockingly large number of people haven't looked into introspection almost at all, we should definitely look at some examples. That's the topic of the next post.

How do you understand yourself?

People get really different answers when they use different methods to understand themselves. Which of the above nine methods do you use? Why? Would you understand yourself better if you switched methods, or added some? Are there ways of understanding the mind that we missed?

Leverage Staff

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

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