Memory reconsolidation for self-affection

Last Thursday, I realized that none of the people who ever hurt me did it because there was anything fundamentally wrong with me.

I don’t mean that as in “realized intellectually”, I mean as in “realized emotionally so that in any shame-tinged memory that I could think of, the other person decomposed to their inner pain and what they did to me in reaction to that pain and then it became apparent that it wasn’t really about me”.

The way this happened, I had been doing a lot of meditation / parts work and came to an early experience where I thought someone didn’t care about how he made me feel. Then that got juxtaposed with later memories of how he obviously did care and OH at that moment he just didn’t realize how I felt.

Then later I ended up at the memory an unrelated incident where a close friend said something that hurt and then I realized that wait, her words had nothing to do with anything that I’d said in the first place, she was obviously just projecting an unrelated trauma on me.

And then when I saw see her inner pain and words come apart, something clicked and suddenly I could see everyone’s inner pain and words come apart and then that generalized to everything and all kinds of memories started coming up to get reinterpreted.

The process was significantly aided by seeing Nick Cammarata post the following on Twitter:

… unconditional self love is about editing every single memory you have one by one going as far back as you remember to have affection as the principal component. Once you’ve done this, integrating affection into every moment of life going forward becomes effortless. After all, your brain thinks it’s already been doing that for every moment of its life. Why stop now?

It feels like being able to project compassion towards the me in the memories is an important part of the process: first I remember a shameful memory, then I project compassion at the me in the memory, then that kind of shifts into a third-person perspective where it becomes apparent what happened and I can kind of see people’s motivations in my mind’s eye.

And for that, having spent time with children seems to help. There’s a memory that comes up of me as a child or young adult, where it feels like I’m fundamentally bad. And then I kind of ask myself, if this was [some kid that I know and have spent time playing with], would I think of them as fundamentally bad for having screwed this up? Well of course not, I’d just want to comfort them and tell them that it’s alright and they’ll do better next time. And then I just apply that same feeling of affection and compassion towards myself in the memory. And if I’m older and no longer a child in the memory, then I can just think of some adult I care about and don’t feel judgmental towards.

Right now it feels like this particular move – of going into that space where I can see everyone’s motivations in that way, and forgive myself of past shame – isn’t automatic, but neither was it just a one-time thing. I got back to it this morning and worked on some further memories. It requires me to find the original incident that gave rise to the shame, which I haven’t yet managed to do with every variety of shame that I have. But on the flipside, once I started doing this, several incidents that I had previously totally forgotten about came up for reprocessing spontaneously.

I think there’s something really powerful in that “go through all of your memories until you can feel love and affection towards yourself in every single memory” frame. I had previously been doing memory reconsolidation on the model of “seek past sources of trauma and do what you can to heal the trauma”, but the mindset of “change the emotional framing of your memories so that you are no longer traumatized” doesn’t go anywhere near as far as “change the emotional framing of your memories so as to feel unconditional affection towards yourself at all times”.

Things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time

I’ve found it useful to sometimes remind myself that things are allowed to be good and bad at the same time.

Suppose that there was a particular job that I wanted but didn’t get. Afterwards, I find myself thinking:

“Damnit, some of the stuff in that job would have been so cool.”
“But the commute would have killed me, it wouldn’t have been a good fit for me anyway.”
“But some of that stuff would have been so cool!”
“Still, the commute would have killed me.”
“Yeah but…”

It’s as if my mind is trying to decide whether I should be upset at not getting the job, or happy at having dodged a bullet.

And if I pay close attention to what’s happening in my head, I might notice something.

It’s as if my mind is acting in such a way that only one of these options might be true:

Either some of the stuff in the job would been really cool, or the commute would have killed me. When one consideration is brought up, it’s as if it “cancels” the other.

Now if I were trying to decide whether I want the job or not, then this might make some sense: either the work is cool enough to overwhelm the badness of the commute, or the commute is bad enough to overwhelm the coolness.

But I already know that I didn’t get the job, so I don’t need to make a binary decision. And even if I did need to make a binary decision, realistically it’s not that one of the considerations makes the other completely irrelevant. My mind is trying to persuade me that the job is either all good or all bad, and neither of those assumptions is likely to be a healthy basis for a decision.

So there’s a thing where I… let my mind accept that both the good and the bad can be true at the same time, and that that’s all there is to say about it.

Yes, that stuff would have been really cool. And yes, the commute would have killed me. And there doesn’t need to be an “overall goodness” of the job that would be anything else than just the combination of those two facts.

This can feel a bit like there’s an electrifying zap in my mind, the two facts merging together into an overall judgment, and then there’s nothing more to consider. It doesn’t exactly feel good, the way it would have if I’d concluded that I never should have wanted the job anyway. But it also doesn’t feel bad, the way it would if I’d concluded that I actually really would have wanted it.

It just is what it is: a job that would’ve had some really cool aspects, where the commute would have killed me.

And then there’s so obviously nothing else to say about it, and I can move on.

Other uses of the principle:

My friend Marras describes finding relief from chronic pain through a similar dual acceptance: “Yes, my shoulder is in pain. Other parts are not. I can enjoy the other parts while I suffer from the small but upsetting bad aspect. I don’t need to argue for or against either.”

Anders Sandberg notes that this is also a good way for thinking about the state of the world in general: “a lot of things are going really well and a lot of other things are going badly.”

Public transmit metta

Metta, or loving-kindness meditation, involves picking a person and wishing them good things. In the same way as other kinds of concentration practice condition your mind by letting it notice how it feels good to be able to concentrate, I think of loving-kindness meditation as conditioning your mind by letting it notice how pleasant it feels to experience metta.

What is metta? Psychologist and meditation teacher Ron Crouch describes it as follows:

In English “love” is an emotion that comes with attachment built-in. We love another person and we want to be with them. We view our lives, and in some cases even ourselves, as incomplete without the other person. This kind of love is not bad or unwholesome, far from it. Falling in love and being in love is great (if a little crazy). But it is not the same kind of love that is referred to by “metta,” which is love without clinging or attachment. In this sense it is very pure.

The Buddha evoked the image of a mother’s love for her newborn as an analogy for metta. A mother’s love for a baby is completely unconditional – there are truly no strings attached. The baby can be totally cranky and ridiculously self-centered (as babies tend to be), but the mother will still love the baby and expect nothing in return. If the baby does show love in return, well, that’s just a nice bonus but not expected (most people with a kid will know intuitively what metta feels like). With metta there is no sense that the other person needs to do something to fulfill one’s needs or complete the love – this kind of love is complete all by itself.

I generally like how I feel after I’ve done metta “right”, but I find I often have self-centered motives sneak into it that make it hard to reach that attitude of completely unconditional love. For instance, if I’m sending metta to a friend, I might hope that they are happy because I like it when people around me are happy, or even because just imagining someone happy makes me feel safe. Then my focus starts alternating between the feeling of safety – something that is about my own needs rather than about the other person – and the actual loving-kindness. While there isn’t anything wrong about enjoying a feeling of safety, it tends to be conditional on the other person being around and acting in a particular way. As a result, focusing on it usually doesn’t leave me with a more lasting sense of well-being the way that successfully focusing on metta does.

But there’s a fix to this: sitting on public transit and sending metta to any strangers I see. First I’m in all likelihood never going to see these people again, so them being happy isn’t going to benefit me. Also, they usually have basically neutral or slightly stressed-out expressions, and I make it a point of sending them goodwill exactly as they are, without asking them to change. This seems to have the consequence that the actual metta gets easier to tap into.

I have also found it useful to combine metta with an Internal Family Systems style attitude. Anytime I get bored and distracted by the practice, I send metta towards the part of my mind that is making me feel distracted or bored, and give it appreciation for whatever its positive purpose in distracting me was.

Attention to snakes not fear of snakes: evolution encoding environmental knowledge in peripheral systems

Sinking In: The Peripheral Baldwinisation of Human Cognition. Cecilia Heyes, Nick Chater & Dominic Michael Dwyer. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2020.

Some theories have proposed that humans have evolved to experience some stimuli (e.g. snakes, spiders) as more potentially frightening, so that a fear for these entities is learned faster than a fear for more neutral things. In evolutionary psychology, there has been talk about modules for a fear of snakes, for example. However, research suggests that rather than “the fear system” itself having innate biases towards picking up particular kinds of fears, humans are evolutionarily biased towards paying extra attention to things like spiders and snakes. Because of these stimuli being more attended than others, it also becomes more probable that a fear response gets paired with them.

The authors call the attention system “peripheral” and the fear system “central”, in that the attention system brings in information for the fear system to process. (This is in analogy to the peripherals of a computer, where e.g. the keyboard and mouse are used to deliver information to the central processor.) They argue that in general, while it is possible for responses to specific environmental stimuli to become genetic as sensitivty for those stimuli is selected for, this learning will be more likely to get encoded into “peripheral” than “central” systems.

One of their other examples is that the central mechanisms of language learning seem theoretically and empirically unlikely to be affected by the environment – there are no genes for learning English grammar better than Chinese grammar. However, there are indications that the peripheral mechanisms of language have been more affected. E.g. some languages use lexical tone (where word identities are partly defined by pitch contours), and genes that seem to make lexical tone easier to perceive seem to be more common among speakers of those languages.

Seligman’s account suggested that specialised, central mechanisms of fear learning more readily connect aversive events, such as electric shock, with fear-relevant stimuli, such as snakes – which presented genuine threats to our evolutionary ancestors – than with ‘fear-irrelevant’ stimuli such as geometric shapes or flowers. This account predicts that fear of fear-relevant objects should be learned faster, and be extinguished more slowly when shock no longer occurs, as well as being resistant to topdown modification, for example, by instructions indicating that shocks will not occur.

The results of early experiments were consistent with some of these predictions (e.g., [50,51]), but none has withstood extended experimental investigation. Faster or better conditioning with fear-relevant stimuli has rarely been observed, and there is ample evidence that, like most associative learning (e.g., [52]), it can be modified by instruction (reviewed in [53,54]). Initially it seemed that responses to fear-relevant stimuli might extinguish more slowly. However, a recent systematic review [55] found that most positive findings came from a single laboratory, and a large majority of the full set of studies had failed to find differences between fear-relevant and fear-irrelevant stimuli in the rate of extinction.

These results suggest that fear of snakes and other fear-relevant stimuli is learned via the same central mechanisms as fear of arbitrary stimuli. Nevertheless, if that is correct, why do phobias so often relate to objects encountered by our ancestors, such as snakes and spiders, rather than to objects such as guns and electrical sockets that are dangerous now [10]? Because peripheral, attentional mechanisms are tuned to fear-relevant stimuli, all threat stimuli attract attention, but fear-relevant stimuli do so without learning (e.g., [56]). This answer is supported by evidence from conditioning experiments demonstrating enhanced attention to fear-relevant stimuli regardless of learning (Box 2), studies of visual search [57–59], and developmental psychology [60,61]. For example, infants aged 6–9 months show a greater drop in heart rate – indicative of heightened attention rather than fear – when they watch snakes than when they watch elephants [62].

In sum: early research on taste-aversion and fear learning launched the idea that animal minds are populated by adaptively specialised central learning mechanisms – that were later cast by evolutionary psychologists as ‘modules’. Over the past 50 years careful experimental work with rodents, using the original methods, has confirmed the occurrence of adaptive specialisation, and more recent studies on Drosophila have shown that it is likely to have occurred via a Baldwinian process. However, the rodent work has also shown that the changes are in peripheral rather than in central cognitive mechanisms. […]

Why might selection operate primarily at the cognitive periphery? A parallel with the evolution of other biological mechanisms is suggestive: internal physiological processes and anatomical structures are remarkably well-conserved. The organisation of the digestive, circulatory, and respiratory systems is similar across vertebrate species, and they are so deeply interconnected that modifications beyond changes of size and shape may be difficult without causing substantial collateral damage. Moreover, even such modest changes to central systems will impact on a wide variety of functions and may therefore not be under strong selection from any one function. By contrast, interfaces with the external environment (jaws, teeth, digestive enzymes, bone and muscle structure) can be adapted to local circumstances (e.g., food sources) without interfering with central systems. The central machinery of cognition is less well understood, but may be equally interlocking, with widespread functional ramification, and a consequent resistance to evolutionary change.

Alternatively, it is possible that central cognitive processes are fully evolvable, but, at least in the human case, tend to be adaptively specialised by cultural rather than by genetic selection [101]. In domains such as language, imitation, mathematics, and ethics, changes to central mechanisms can be acquired through cultural learning. Cognitive skills that are taught, and those that are learned from others through more informal social interaction, do not need to sink in. Baldwinisation would bring little if any fitness advantage for skills that are reliably inherited via a non-genetic route [17], and specialised central mechanisms may be more teachable than specialised peripheral mechanisms. Plausibly, it is easier to learn grammatical constructions than vocal control through conversation, and, in the case of imitation, easier to learn sensorimotor mappings than intrinsic motivation through non-vocal social interaction.