Roll for Sanity

[This is very much a personal-diary type post, but it ends up touching on predictive processing and other aspects of how our brains work. Feels related to Choosing the Zero Point.]

I. Looking for Trouble

In the card game Munchkin, there is a mechanic called “Looking for Trouble”, whereby if you haven’t yet fought a monster on your turn, you can play a monster from your hand and fight that. You don’t have to do this – it’s optional, and can carry stiff penalties if the monster ends up defeating you – but since killing monsters is one of the key ways to win at Munchkin, it’s an important mechanic.

Obviously you don’t want to fight a monster if you think that you’re going to lose. A brand new munchkin “Looking for Trouble” with a level 20 Plutonium Dragon is literally… looking for trouble1. And even if you think you might win, it’s often a good idea to wait a turn or two in order to try and collect more spells, stronger weapons, etc. It would be a pretty terrible Munchkin strategy to go looking for trouble on every possible turn, regardless of your equipment or which monsters you actually have in your hand.

And yet… this terrible strategy feels like a metaphor for my life recently.

Between work, personal relationships, and the chaos caused by the pandemic, I’ve been dealing with a pretty big set of stressors (monsters) already in my life. But like an incompetent Munchkin, every time I’m not dealing with an immediate personal problem, I find myself Looking for Trouble. And the internet makes this soooooo easy.

Instead of taking a break, relaxing, and recharging my mental and emotional batteries, I find myself checking the latest coronavirus stats, seeing which of my favourite pieces of media have been cancelled, reading hot takes on the death of democracy, or just plain “doomscrolling” on social media. Unsurprisingly, I have not been at my best the last little while.

As best I can tell, this unfortunate behavioural pattern is a classic instance of predictive-processing gone awry. In other words, so much has gone wrong recently that my brain has decided the world must always be on fire, and that’s just the way things are. My subconscious is predicting disaster so strongly that when there’s no evidence of a new disaster, my brain assumes that I’m just not looking hard enough, and I end up on the internet finding new horrors in order to prove myself right. And all the recent stories about doomscrolling make me suspect I’m not alone.

II. Moral Implications

Now obviously predictive-processing gone awry is not the only explanation for everyone’s bad-news obsession. Even if it’s a plausible explanation for me personally (which I think it is), it might not be the cause of the general doom-scrolling trend. Things actually are unusually bad in many parts of the world, and people always tend to pay more attention to bad news than to good. Maybe feeling kind of terrible is just a natural response to things being unusually terrible.

If feeling terrible is in some sense a “reasonable” response to the state of the world, then I worry that my attempts to feel less terrible are morally wrong, since they try to avoid the problem instead of solve it. Am I just doing the global equivalent of pretending not to see the homeless person on the corner? Is the moral thing instead to face the world’s troubles head-on, acknowledge its pain, and try to help?

But this doesn’t seem quite fair; while I might plausibly be able to help a single homeless person, I am largely helpless in the face of the vast issues facing America and the world (at least, in the short term). I’m a private citizen in a relatively small, stable, country; most of the time nobody pays us any attention, for good reason. Feeling stress and anxiety truly proportional to the level of suffering in the world seems in some sense correct; scope insensitivity is still an irrational bias. But like an airline passenger who refuses to put on their own mask first, it would be a mistake in practice. Being insensitive to the scope of suffering beyond a certain point is an adaptive coping mechanism to keep us sane in the face of a vast and uncaring world. As long as we use our sanity to do good in the long run, ignoring pain in the short run seems ok.

III. Reducing the Area of Concern

Given that ignoring global problems in order to conserve our own sanity seems ok, at least in the short term, then how do we do that? By embracing scope insensitivity, and reducing our area of concern.

The human nervous system, grossly simplified, contains a slider switch that runs from “fight and flight” on one end (the sympathetic nervous system) to “rest and digest” on the other (the parasympathetic nervous system). A happy, productive life requires both components; you obviously need to spend some time resting and digesting, but equally you need your sympathetic nervous system to deal with challenges and to accomplish difficult tasks. In other words, it’s almost certainly unhealthy to be stuck at either extreme for any length of time.

Unfortunately, “fight or flight” isn’t just something that your brain does when facing an immediate, concrete threat. Stress, anxiety, and fear all show up whenever there’s a possible threat within some ill-defined “area of concern”. Another war on the other side of the planet? Not a big deal. But heaven forbid there’s been a string of burglaries in your neighbourhood recently. Even if you never see a burglar yourself, just hearing about it on the news is enough to cause some sleepless nights.

Given that mere bad news can cause a fight or flight response if your brain judges it “in scope”, and the fact that the world is absolutely full of bad news on a regular basis… if you start to think of the entire world as “in scope” then you’re going to have a bad time of it. The internet, news, politics… they’re all global arenas now, and it’s incredibly difficult to engage with them in a way that doesn’t increase your area of concern. Engage too much, and you end up permanently stuck in “fight or flight”, killing yourself with stress.

In recognition of where my slider switch has been sitting recently, and in order to metaphorically “put my own mask on first”, I’ve been trying to reduce my scope of concern. I’ve blocked a bunch of sites from my work laptop. I’ve uninstalled a few apps from my phone. I’ve tried to spend less time reading the news, and more time reading things that I find valuable and relaxing. If I’m helpless in the face of things anyways, then it doesn’t serve me to know about them at all, does it?

Early results are promising, but early. I suspect the hardest part will be sticking to it, and finding other sources of stimulus since much of my local life is still in pandemic-induced lockdown. If my immediate scope of concern is utterly static, and the global scope of concern is a panic-inducing nightmare, is there an intermediate scope? With the internet at our fingertips, I’m not sure that there is.

  1. Yes, technically a Plutonium Dragon won’t pursue anyone below level 5, so you’d be able to run away… but still.

Spontaneity, Stress, and Emotional Legitimacy

Spontaneity plays an oddly crucial role in our ability to feel legitimate positive emotions.

Consider children. Forcing them to play and telling them that they have to have fun is one of the surest ways of ensuring that they have no fun at all, even if the activity they’re doing is one they’d normally enjoy. Teenagers are the champions of this. Thanks to their drive for a unique personal identity, they absolutely refuse to enjoy anything that seems to be forced upon them. Even in adults it’s much the same, though usually self-inflicted. Trying a new activity while putting pressure on yourself to enjoy it is an easy path to a miserable time.

Insomnia is a bit outside the realm of what we normally consider our emotional life, but falling asleep is another example of a similar pattern in a different form. The more desperately you want to fall asleep, the farther away it seems to be. It’s become practically common wisdom that the least effective way to calm somebody down is to tell them to “just relax”.

The explanation for all this is fairly mundane. Stress in moderation is something which increases our physical and mental responses, and generally improves our performance at most tasks; it’s an evolutionary response which tends to help. But of course it becomes rapidly counter-productive when the “task” we’re stressing ourselves to accomplish is “not being stressed”. Falling asleep and being happy are both fairly dependent on a state of at least moderate relaxation, so when we worry too much about achieving them, nobody wins.

I opened this essay with a claim about legitimacy, so let’s circle back in that direction. In a post a couple of years ago I discussed the concept of preference legitimacy, and the question of what role social conditioning can or should play. We can see a version of this question also arise from the spontaneity/stress issue. If somebody desperately wants to feel a particular emotion for a particular reason, then obviously the stress could impair their ability to reach that emotional state. But even if they do manage it, is that emotion legitimate? Or has the person effectively given themselves Stockholm Syndrome, forcing themselves into an emotional state that is somehow unearned?

The answer seems to depend on one other factor. Just because you want an emotional association, that doesn’t make it impossible to achieve legitimately. Equally however, it is distinctly possible to use various psychological tricks (for example, misattribution of arousal) to trick yourself into “false” emotional states. Now, these emotions aren’t false in and of themselves. But by attributing them incorrectly we are committing the sin of intellectual dishonesty; the goal is not just the emotional response itself but the association with a particular stimulus. Our brain’s notion of causality is flexible enough that we can trick it, but deep down we still know the truth. (In my mind, this is oddly analogous to the Gettier problem in epistemology. Even when all the relevant factors are present, if there is some causal disconnect the criteria fail).

The weirdest and most concerning application of this line of argument is dating. By this logic, going on a date with any desire to further develop feelings for the person you’re dating (which is a pretty normal desire) is in itself sufficient to make that task difficult, and the result potentially illegitimate. In fact the fairly standard dating advice (to do something you’d find new and exciting regardless of the person you’re dating) operates by exploiting exactly this flaw via misattribution of arousal.

It’s relatively easy to rescue dating in itself; treat it as an opportunity to explore and develop your feelings, rather than as a completable task with the end goal of falling in love. Or, as a rather wiser friend of mine called it recently: “emotional horticulture”. This is something I need to remember more often. But even with dating rescued, it does seem to be the case that as a society we’re just… going about it the wrong way. Perhaps we should be giving the opposite dating advice: don’t do anything but sit, and talk. If there’s still an emotional connection, then maybe you’re in business?