Tentatively considering emotional stories (IFS and “getting into Self”)

I’ve recently been getting a lot out of the psychotherapy model of Internal Family Systems, as described in this book. I just wrote a comment on Slate Star Codex describing some of its basics and what I’ve gotten out of it, and thought that I might as well repost it here:


I recommend this book, though with the note that I often don’t need to follow the full process outlined there. Sometimes it’s definitely necessary, but what I’ve found even more commonly useful is something that it discusses at the beginning of the book, which it calls “getting into self”.

Here’s the basic idea. Suppose that a part of your mind is really angry at someone, and telling a story (which might not be true) about how that person is a horrible person with no redeeming qualities. Internal Family Systems says that there are three modes in which you might react to that part:

First, you may be entirely blended with it (for those familiar, this corresponds to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy calls cognitive fusion). This means that you are experiencing everything in terms of the story that it is telling, and have forgotten that this is an emotional reaction. So you feel that it’s just objectively true that the other person is horrible and with no redeeming qualities.

Or you might be partially blended with it. In this case, you realize that you are experiencing an emotional reaction, and that your thoughts and feelings might not be entirely justified, but you still feel them and might not be able to stop yourself from behaving according to them anyway.

Finally, you might be “in Self”, meaning entirely unblended. Here you are still aware of the emotions and thoughts, but your subjective experience is that they’re not your emotions, they’re someone else’s – they’re coming from a part of your mind which is experienced as separate from “you”. In this mode, you do not feel threatened or overwhelmed by them, and you can maintain a state of open curiosity towards whether or not they are actually true.

My experience is that usually if I have an unpleasant emotion, I will try to do one of two things: either reject it entirely and push it out of my mind, or buy into the story that it’s telling and act accordingly. Once I learned the techniques for getting into Self, I got the ability to sort of… just hang out with the emotion, neither believing it to be absolutely true nor needing to show it to be false. And then if I e.g. had feelings of social anxiety, I could keep those feelings around and go into a social situation anyway, making a kind of mental move that I might describe as “yes, it’s possible that these people all secretly hate me; I’m going to accept that as a possibility without trying to add any caveats, but also without doing anything else than accepting its possibility”.

The consequence has been that this seems to make the parts of my mind with beliefs like “doing this perfectly innocuous thing will make other people upset” actually update their beliefs. I do the thing, the parts with this belief get to hang around and observe what happens, notice that nobody seems upset at me, and then they are somewhat less likely to bring up similar concerns in the future.

In terms of global workspace theory, my model here is that there’s a part of the mind that’s bringing up a concern that should be taken into account in decision-making. The concern may or may not be justified, so the correct thing to do is to consider its possibility, but not necessarily give it too much weight. Going into Self and letting the message stay in consciousness this way seems to make it available for decision-making, and often the module that’s bringing it up is happy to just have its message received and evaluated; you don’t have to do anything more than that, if it’s just holding it up as a tentative consideration to be evaluated.

The book has a few different techniques that you can use for getting into Self. One that I often use is to try to get a sense of where in my body the emotional sensations are coming from, and then let my mind create a visualization based on those. Once I have a visualization and a physical location of the part, it’s easier to experience it as “not me”. Another thing that I do is to just make that mental move that I described – “okay, this is a possibility, so I’m just going to test it out”. I find it useful to first stay blended with the part for a while, to get a sense of what exactly is the story that it’s trying to tell, before unblending and getting into Self.

E.g. a while back I was having a sense of loneliness as I laid down for a nap. I stepped into the part’s perspective to experience it for a while, then unblended; now I felt it as a black ice hockey puck levitating around my lower back. I didn’t really do anything other than let it be there, and maintained a connection with it. Gradually it started generating a pleasant warmth, and then the visualization transformed into a happy napping cartoon fox, curled up inside a fireball that it was using as its blanket. And then I was no longer feeling lonely.

That said, sometimes a part is not content to just raise a tentative possibility; sometimes it feels like something is an emergency, so you must act right away. Obviously, sometimes you really are in an emergency, so this is justified! But often times it’s based on the part having an unrealistic fear, which in the IFS model tends to be a result of some past trauma which it is reliving, not realizing that the circumstances of your life have changed and you’re now capable of dealing with it. In that case, you need to do the full process described in the book, where you basically get in proper contact with the part in question and address its concerns. (Actually it’s a bit more complicated than this, since the IFS model holds that there are many different kinds of parts that may have relationships with each other – so the “beer-drinking part” may be drinking beer in order to keep the traumatized part numb and safely out of consciousness, so you may actually need to deal with two different parts separately. The book goes into a lot more detail.)

Incorrect hypotheses point to correct observations

1. The Consciousness Researcher and Out-Of-Body Experiences

In his book Consciousness and the Brain, cognitive neuroscientist Stansilas Dehaene writes about scientifically investigating people’s reports of their out-of-body experiences:

the Swiss neurologist Olaf Blanke[ did a] beautiful series of experiments on out-of-body experiences. Surgery patients occasionally report leaving their bodies during anesthesia. They describe an irrepressible feeling of hovering at the ceiling and even looking down at their inert body from up there. […]

What kind of brain representation, Blanke asked, underlies our adoption of a specific point of view on the external world? How does the brain assess the body’s location? After investigating many neurological and surgery patients, Blanke discovered that a cortical region in the right temporoparietal junction, when impaired or electrically perturbed, repeatedly caused a sensation of out-of-body transportation. This region is situated in a high-level zone where multiple signals converge: those arising from vision; from the somatosensory and kinesthetic systems (our brain’s map of bodily touch, muscular, and action signals); and from the vestibular system (the biological inertial platform, located in our inner ear, which monitors our head movements). By piecing together these various clues, the brain generates an integrated representation of the body’s location relative to its environment. However, this process can go awry if the signals disagree or become ambiguous as a result of brain damage. Out-of-body flight “really” happens, then—it is a real physical event, but only in the patient’s brain and, as a result, in his subjective experience. The out-of-body state is, by and large, an exacerbated form of the dizziness that we all experience when our vision disagrees with our vestibular system, as on a rocking boat.

Blanke went on to show that any human can leave her body: he created just the right amount of stimulation, via synchronized but delocalized visual and touch signals, to elicit an out-of-body experience in the normal brain. Using a clever robot, he even managed to re-create the illusion in a magnetic resonance imager. And while the scanned person experienced the illusion, her brain lit up in the temporoparietal junction—very close to where the patient’s lesions were located.

We still do not know exactly how this region works to generate a feeling of self-location. Still, the amazing story of how the out-of-body state moved from parapsychological curiosity to mainstream neuroscience gives a message of hope. Even outlandish subjective phenomena can be traced back to their neural origins. The key is to treat such introspections with just the right amount of seriousness. They do not give direct insights into our brain’s inner mechanisms; rather, they constitute the raw material on which a solid science of consciousness can be properly founded.

The naive hypotheses that out-of-body experiences represented the spirit genuinely leaving the body, were incorrect. But they were still pointing to a real observation, namely that there are conditions which create a subjective experience of leaving the body. That observation could then be investigated through scientific means.

2. The Artist and the Criticism

In art circles, there’s a common piece of advice that goes along the lines of:

When people say that they don’t like something about your work, you should treat that as valid information.

When people say why they don’t like it or what you could do to fix it, you should treat that with some skepticism.

Outside the art context, if someone tells you that they’re pissed off with you as a person (or that you make them feel good), then that’s likely to be true; but the reason that they give may not be the true reason.

People have poor introspective access to the reasons why they like or dislike something; when they are asked for an explanation, they often literally fabricate their reasons. Their explanation is likely false, even though it’s still pointing to something in the work having made them dislike it.

3. The Traditionalist and the Anthropologist

The Scholar’s Stage blog post “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are“, quotes Joseph Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success which reports that many folk traditions, such as not eating particular fish during pregnancy, are adaptive: not eating that fish during pregnancy is good for the child, mother, or both. But the people in question often do not know why they follow that tradition:

We looked for a shared underlying mental model of why one would not eat these marine species during pregnancy or breastfeeding—a causal model or set of reasoned principles. Unlike the highly consistent answers on what not to eat and when, women’s responses to our why questions were all over the map. Many women simply said they did not know and clearly thought it was an odd question. Others said it was “custom.” Some did suggest that the consumption of at least some of the species might result in harmful effects to the fetus, but what precisely would happen to the fetus varied greatly, though a nontrivial segment of the women explained that babies would be born with rough skin if sharks were eaten and smelly joints if morays were eaten. Unlike most of our interview questions on this topic, the answers here had the flavor of post-hoc rationalization: “Since I’m being asked for a reason, there must be a reason, so I’ll think one up now.” This is extremely common in ethnographic fieldwork, and I’ve personally experienced it in the Peruvian Amazon with the Matsigenka and with the Mapuche in southern Chile.

The people’s hypotheses for why they do something is wrong. But their behavior is still pointing to the fish in question being bad to eat during pregnancy.

4. The Martial Artist and the Ki

In Types of Knowing, Valentine writes:

Another example is the “unbendable arm” in martial arts. I learned this as a matter of “extending ki“: if you let magical life-energy blast out your fingertips, then your arm becomes hard to bend much like it’s hard to bend a hose with water blasting out of it. This is obviously not what’s really happening, but thinking this way often gets people to be able to do it after a few cumulative hours of practice.

But you know what helps better?

Knowing the physics.

Turns out that the unbendable arm is a leverage trick: if you treat the upward pressure on the wrist as a fulcrum and you push your hand down (or rather, raise your elbow a bit), you can redirect that force and the force that’s downward on your elbow into each other. Then you don’t need to be strong relative to how hard your partner is pushing on your elbow; you just need to be strong enough to redirect the forces into each other.

Knowing this, I can teach someone to pretty reliably do the unbendable arm in under ten minutes. No mystical philosophy needed.

The explanation about magical life energy was false, but it was still pointing to a useful trick that could be learned and put to good use.


Observations and the hypotheses developed to explain them often get wrapped up, causing us to evaluate both as a whole. In some cases, we only hear the hypothesis rather than the observation which prompted it. But people usually don’t pull their hypotheses out of entirely thin air; even an incorrect hypothesis is usually entangled with some correct observations. If we can isolate the observation that prompted the hypothesis, then we can treat the hypothesis as a burdensome detail to be evaluated on its own merits, separate from the original observation. At the very least, the existence of an incorrect but common hypothesis suggests to us that there’s something going on that needs to be explained.

Mark Eichenlaub: How to develop scientific intuition

Recently on the CFAR alumni mailing list, someone asked a question about how to develop scientific intuition. In response, Mark Eichenlaub posted an excellent and extensive answer, which was so good that I asked for permission to repost it in public. He graciously gave permission, so I’ve reproduced his message below. (He otherwise retains the rights to this, meaning that the standard CC license on my blog doesn’t apply to this post.)


From: Mark Eichenlaub
Date: Tue, Oct 23, 2018 at 9:34 AM
Subject: Re: [CFAR Alumni] Suggestions for developing scientific intuition

Sorry for the length, I recently finished a PhD on this topic. (After I wrote the answer kerspoon linked, I went to grad school to study the topic.) This is specifically about solving physics problems but hopefully speaks to intuition a bit more broadly in places.

I mostly think of intuition as the ability to quickly coordinate a large number of small heuristics. We know lots of small facts and patterns, and intuition is about matching the relevant ones onto the current situation. The little heuristics are often pretty local and small in scope.

For example, the other day I heard this physics problem:

You set up a trough with water in it. You hang just barely less than half of the trough off the edge of a table, so that it balances, but even a small force at the far end would make it tip over.

You put a boat in the trough at the end over the table. The trough remains balanced.

Then you slowly push the boat down to the other end of the trough, so that’s it’s in the part of the trough that hangs out from the table. What happens? (I.E. does the trough tip over?)

The answer is (rot13) Gur gebhtu qbrf abg gvc; vg erznvaf onynaprq (nf ybat nf gur zbirzrag bs gur obng vf fhssvpvragyl fybj fb gung rirelguvat erznvaf va rdhvyvoevhz).

I knew this “intuitively”, by which I mean I got it within a second or so of understanding the question, and without putting in conscious effort to thinking about it. (I wasn’t certain I was right until I had consciously thought it out, but I was reasonably confident within a second, and my intuition bore out.) I don’t think this was due to some sort of general intuition about problem solving, science, physics, mechanics, or even floating. It felt like I could solve the problem intuitively specifically because I had seen sufficiently-similar things that led me to the specific heuristic “a floating object spreads its weight out evenly over the bottom of the container it’s floating in.” Then I think of “having intuition” in physics as having maybe a thousand little rules like that and knowing when to call on which one.

For this particular heuristic, there is a classic problem asking what happens to the water level in a lake if you are in a boat with a rock, and you throw the rock into the water and it sinks to the bottom. One solution to that problem is that when the rock is on the bottom of the lake, it exerts more force on that part of the bottom of the lake than is exerted at other places. By contrast, when the rock is still in the boat, the only thing touching the bottom of the lake is water, and the water pressure is the same everywhere, so the weight of the rock is distributed evenly across the entire lake. The total force on the bottom of the lake doesn’t change between the two scenarios (because gravity pulls on everything just as hard either way), when the rock is sitting on the bottom of the lake and the force on the bottom of the lake is higher under the rock, it must be lower everywhere else to compensate. The pressure everywhere else is $\rho g h$, so if that goes down, the level of the lake goes down. Conclusion: when you throw the rock overboard, the level of the lake goes down a bit. When I thought about that problem, I presumably built the “weight distributed evenly” heuristic. All I had to do was quickly apply it to the trough problem to solve that one as well.

And if someone else also had a background in physics but didn’t find the trough problem easy, it’s probably because they simply hadn’t happened to think about the boat problem, or some other similar problems, in the right way, and hadn’t come away with the heuristic about the weight of floating things being spread out evenly.

To me, this picture of intuition as small heuristics doesn’t look good for the idea of developing powerful intuition. The “weight gets spread out by floating” heuristic is not likely to transfer to much else. I’ve used it for two physics problems about floating things and, as far as I know, nothing else.

You can probably think of lots of similar heuristics. For example, “conservation of expected evidence“. You might catch a mistake in someone’s reasoning, or an error in a long probability calculation you made, if you happen to notice that the argument or calculation violates conservation of expected evidence. The nice thing about this is that it can happen almost automatically. You don’t have to stop after every calculation or argument and think, “does this break conservation of expected evidence?”. Instead, you wind up learning some sorts of triggers that you associate with the principle that prime it in your mind, and then, if it becomes relevant to the argument, you notice that and cite the principle.

In this picture, building intuition is about learning a large number of these heuristics, along with their triggers.

However, while the individual small heuristics are often the easiest things to point to in an intuitive solution to a problem, I do think there are more general, and therefore more transferrable parts of intuition as well. I imagine that the paragraph I wrote explaining the solution to the boat problem will be largely incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t studied physics. That’s partially because it uses concepts they won’t have a rigorous understanding of (e.g. pressure), that it tacitly uses small heuristics it didn’t explain (e.g. that the reason the pressure is the same along the bottom of the lake is that if it weren’t, there would be horizontal forces that push the water around until the pressure did equalize in this way), partially that it made simplifications that it didn’t state and it might not be clear are justified (e.g. that the bottom of the lake is flat). More importantly, it relies on a general framework of Newtonian mechanics. For example, there are a number of tacit applications of Newton’s laws in the argument. For example, I stated that the total force on the bottom of the lake is the same whether the rock is resting on the bottom or floating in the boat “because gravity pulls on everything just as hard either way”, but these aren’t directly connected concepts. Gravity pulls the system (boat + water + rock) down just as hard no matter where the rock is. That system is not accelerating, so by Newton’s second law, the bottom of the lake pushes up on that system just as hard in each scenario. And by Newton’s third law, the system pushes down on the bottom of the lake just as hard in each scenario. So understanding the argument involves some fairly general heuristics such as “apply Newton’s second law to an object in equilibrium to show that two forces on it have equal magnitude” – a heuristic I’ve used hundreds of times, and “decide what objects to define as part of a system fluidly as you go through a problem” (in this case, switching from thinking about the rock as a system to thinking about rock+boat+water as a single system) – a skill I’ve used hundreds to thousands of times across all of physics. (My job is to teach high schoolers to be really good at solving problems like this, so I spend way more time on it than most people, so applying a heuristic specific to solving introductory physics problems in a thousand independent instances is realistic for me.)

Then there may be more meta-level skills and heuristics that you develop in solving problems. These could be things like valuing non-calculation solutions, or believing that persevering on a tough problem is worthwhile. It’s also important that intuition isn’t just about having lots of little heuristics. It’s about organizing them and calling the right one up at the right time. You’ll have to ask yourself the right sorts of questions to prompt yourself to find the right heuristics, and that’s probably a pretty general skill.

There is a fair amount of research on trying to understand what all these little heuristics are and how to develop them, but I’m mostly familiar with the research in physics.

In the Quora answer kerspoon linked, I cited George Lakoff, and I still that he’s a good source for understanding how we go about taking primitive sorts of concepts (e.g. “up” and “down”) and using and adapting them, via partial metaphor, to understanding more abstract things. For a specific example that’s well-argued, see:

Wittmann, Michael C., and Katrina E. Black. “Mathematical actions as procedural resources: An example from the separation of variables.” Physical Review Special Topics-Physics Education Research 11.2 (2015): 020114.

They argue that students understand the arithmetic action “separation of variables” via analogy to their physical understanding of taking things and physically moving them around. However, I think Wittman and Black’s work is incomplete. For example, it doesn’t explain why students using the motion analogy for separation of variables do it correctly – they could just as well use motion to encode algebraically-invalid rules. Also, they don’t explain how the analogy develops. They just catalog that it exists.

A foundational work in trying to understand the components of physical intuition is:

DiSessa, Andrea A. “Toward an epistemology of physics.” Cognition and instruction 10.2-3 (1993): 105-225.

This work establishes “phenomenological primitives”; little core heuristics such as “near is more”, which are templates for physical reasoning. Drawing from these templates, we might conclude that the nearer you are to a speaker, the louder the sound, or that the nearer you are to the sun, the hotter it will be (and therefore that summer is hot because the Earth is nearer the sun – a false but common and reasonable belief).

That’s a long and somewhat-obscure paper. I really like his student’s work

Sherin, Bruce L. “How students understand physics equations.” Cognition and instruction 19.4 (2001): 479-541.

Like Disessa, Sherin builds his own framework for what intuition is. His scope is more limited though, focusing solely on building and interpreting certain types of equations in a manner that combines “intuitive” physical ideas and mathematical templates. He spells this out in detail more in the paper, and it’s incredibly clear and well-argued. Probably my favorite paper in the field.

A more general reference that’s much more accessible than Disessa and more general an overview of cognition in physics than Sherin is
“How Should We Think About How Our Students Think” by my advisor, Joe Redish http://media.physics.harvard.edu/video/?id=COLLOQ_REDISH_093013 (video) https://arxiv.org/abs/1308.3911 (paper).

The actual process of building new heuristics is also studied, but over all I don’t think we know all that much. See my friend Ben’s paper

Dreyfus, Benjamin W., Ayush Gupta, and Edward F. Redish. “Applying conceptual blending to model coordinated use of multiple ontological metaphors.” International Journal of Science Education 37.5-6 (2015): 812-838.

for an example of theory-building around how we create new intuitions. He calls on a framework from cognitive science called “conceptual blending” that is rather formal, but I think pretty entertaining to read.

A relevant search terms in the education literature:

“conceptual change”

but I find a lot of this literature to be hard-to-follow and not always a productive use of time to read.

On the applied side, I think the state of the art in evidence-backed approaches to building intuition, at least in physics, is modeling instruction. I’m not sure what the best introduction to modeling instruction is. They have a website that seems okay. Eric Brewe writes on it and he’s usually very good. The basic idea is to have students collaboratively participate in the building of the theories of physics they’re using (in a specific way, with guidance and direction from a trained instructor), which gets them to think about the “whys” involved with a particular theory or model in a way they usually wouldn’t.

I have written some about why I think things like checking the extreme cases of a formula are powerful intuition-building tools. A preprint is available here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1804.01639.pdf

However, I think it’s dangerous to have rules like “always check the dimensions of your answer”, “always check the extreme cases of a formula”, or even “always check that the numbers come out reasonable.” The reason is that having these things as procedures tends to encourage students to follow them by rote. A large part of the cognitive work involved isn’t in checking the extreme cases or the dimensions, but in realizing that in this particular situation, that would be a good thing to do. If you’re doing it only because an external prompt is telling you to, you aren’t building the appropriate meta-level habits. See https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09500693.2017.1308037 for an example of this effect.

See papers on “metarepresentation” by Disessa and/or Sherin for another example of generalizable skills related to intuition and problem solving.

Unfortunately, I don’t think writing books well or writing courses of individual study is something we know much about. I don’t know anyone who has a significant grant for that; the most I’ve ever seen on it is a poster here or there at a conference. Generally, grants are awarded for improving high school and college courses, or for professional development programs, supporting department or institution level changes at schools, etc. So adults who just want to learn on their own are not really served much by the research on the area. If you’re an adult who wants to self-study theoretical physics with an eye towards intuition, I recommend Leonard Susskind’s series of courses “The Theoretical Minimum” (the first three courses exist as books, the rest only as video lectures). He approaches mathematical topics with what I find an intuitive approach in most cases. Of course the Feynman lectures on physics are also very good.

I’ll be building an introduction to physics course at Art of Problem Solving, starting work sometime this winter. It might be available in the spring, although students will mostly be middle and high school students (but anyone is welcome to take our courses). I currently teach an advanced physics problem-solving course at AoPS called “PhysicsWOOT”. I try to support intuition-building practices there, but the main aim is in training these many small heuristics which students need to solve contest problems.

There should be something like modeling instruction for adult independent learners, but I don’t know of it.

On insecurity as a friend

There’s a common narrative about confidence that says that confidence is good, insecurity is bad. It’s better to develop your confidence than to be insecure. There’s an obvious truth to this.

But what that narrative does not acknowledge, and what both a person struggling with insecurity and their well-meaning friends might miss, is that that insecurity may be in place for a reason.

You might not notice it online, but I’ve usually been pretty timid and insecure in real life. But this wasn’t always the case. There were occasions earlier in my life when I was less insecure, more confident in myself.

I was also pretty horrible at things like reading social nuance and figuring out when and why someone might be offended. So I was given, repeatedly, the feedback that my behavior was bad and inappropriate.

Eventually a part of me internalized that as “I’m very likely to accidentally offend the people around me, so I should be very cautious about what I say, ideally saying nothing at all”.

This was, I think, the correct lesson to internalize at that point! It shifted me more into an observer mode, allowing me to just watch social situations and learn more about their dynamics that way. I still don’t think that I’m great at reading social nuance, but I’m at least better at it than I used to be.

And there have been times since then when I’ve decided that I should act with more confidence, and just get rid of the part that generates the insecurity. I’ve been about to do something, felt a sense of insecurity, and walked over the feeling and done the thing anyway.

Sometimes this has had good results. But often it has also led to things blowing up in my face, with me inadvertently hurting someone and leaving me feeling guilty for months afterwards.

Turns out, that feeling of insecurity wasn’t a purely bad thing. It was throwing up important alarms which I chose to ignore, alarms which were sounding because it recognized my behavior as matching previous behavior which had had poor consequences.

Yes, on many occasions that part of me makes me way too cautious. And it would be good to moderate that caution a little. But the same part which generates the feelings of insecurity is the same part which is constantly working to model other people and their experience, their reactions to me. The part that is doing its hardest to make other people feel safe and comfortable around me, to avoid doing things that would make them feel needlessly hurt or upset or unsafe, and to actively let them know that I’m doing this.

Just carving out that part would be a mistake. A moral wrong, even.

The answer is not to get rid of it. The answer is to integrate its cautions better, to keep it with me as a trusted friend and ally – one which feels safe enough about getting its warnings listened to, that it will not scream all the time just to be heard.