Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind,
Withering my intuition, leaving all these opportunities behind.
— Tool, “Lateralus”
I think most readers of this blog will agree that analytical thinking is a very good thing. Without careful, analytical thinking, it would be difficult for us to reason about the world or figure out which actions to take. Also, thinking analytically is just plain enjoyable; that’s why I’m in academia, where I get paid to do it.
And yet, I think most of us can also agree that it’s possible to be overanalytical: thinking too much can drain our experiences of emotional vividness and make them feel less real. In this post, I’d like to explore overanalysis a bit. Why is it that analytical thought can dissociate us from the world and prevent us from really experiencing our lives?
One answer that I’ve heard, particularly from the mindfulness meditation people, is that thinking is just really distracting. If we get caught up in our thoughts, it means that our attention is directed inwards at the contents of our mind, instead of outwards at the world around us. From what I understand, the point of mindfulness meditation is to quiet our thoughts enough that some of the raw power of experience can get through. Then, we can live in the moment instead of getting caught up in memories of the past and worries about the future.
I think this is part of the explanation, but not all of it. It’s not just that experience and analysis are competing for our limited attentional resources. I think it’s much more deliberate than that, and in fact one of the purposes of analytical thinking is to form a protective barrier that shields us from the full emotional impact of our experiences.
I’ll give some examples of this, but first, it should come as no surprise that we would build a shield against powerful emotions. After all, emotional experiences are dangerous: they have the potential to change and transform us dramatically, and they have far-reaching impacts on our thoughts and beheavior. That’s why we all know to be careful of things, like advertising and political propaganda, that are designed to appeal to our emotions.
So let’s take advertising as an exmple. We all know that ads are trying to manipulate us. By showing us pictures of successful, attractive people using their product, they try to persuade us that buying it will bring us friends, sex, and popularity. In order to resist the ads’ allure, we are taught from an early age to use our analytical faculties, or “critical thinking skills”, when dealing with them. By deconstructing advertisements to understand how they’re trying to manipulate us, we can defuse and deflect their emotional messages before they can get through. This is what I mean when I say that analytical thinking can act as a shield.
It seems pretty clear to me that we should be wary of advertisements and their emotional hold on us. But I think many intellectuals extend that suspicion to any stimulus that appeals to us on an emotional level, even if it might be beneficial. We’re overly defensive; we raise our shields even when it’s not appropriate.
A good example of this is ritual. Many intellectuals seem wary of ritual because of its emotional hold on us, even though ritual is known to have very positive effects. Ritual creates group solidarity, and can help us to emotionally reinforce our existing beliefs and goals. What this feels like from the inside is often euphoria and a heightened sense of connection to those around us.
Now, sometimes we have good reasons to avoid a specific ritual. A religious ritual, for instance, might draw on and strengthen beliefs that we reject. But ritual is much broader than religious ceremonies. In college, for example, I attended a CS competition that could easily be described as ritualistic. Each school sent a team of ten to the weekend-long event, typically dressed up in some costume related to that year’s theme. There were parties with dancing, and whole rooms of people singing bawdy songs together, and a giant trophy cup for the winners that we all drank beer out of.
There was nothing about this ritual that I might rationally want to avoid. “CS student” was a huge part of my identity in college, so I felt like I belonged there, and had a lot in common with the other participants. And there was nothing about the specific rituals that bothered me; actually, there’s few things I love more than shouting bawdy songs along with hundreds of other computer scientists. And yet, when I first attended this competition, I felt a huge amount of resistance towards just letting go and participating in the ritual. In some sense, it required surrendering myself, relinquishing control to the collective energies surging through the room, and letting myself be swept up in the excitement of the event. It involved letting down my normal, analytical defenses against powerful emotional experiences. Once I did manage to let go, I had the time of my life. But I can still remember just how difficult it was to do it.
I suspect a lot of rationalists feel this way when encountering rituals. Intellectually, we may understand the benefits of ritual, but emotionally, we have trouble letting go. In a brilliant LessWrong comment, Viliam Bur wrote: “A ceremony is a machine that uses emotions to change people. For some people this may be a sufficient reason to hate ceremonies. Because they are typically designed by someone else, and may support goals we don’t agree with. Or the idea of some process predictably changing my mind feels repulsive.” As rationalists, we tend to be wary of anything that changes our mind, but isn’t backed up with a rational argument. We want to make sure our beliefs are justified, so when we encounter things like ritual, which have a profound emotional impact on us but which are difficult to understand rationally, we very naturally approach these things with caution and even suspicion. But if we avoid rituals, or block out their emotional effects, then we are ignoring a very powerful tool, which could instead be used to our advantage.
Maybe ritual is a bad example to use here, if I’m trying to explain why overanalysis can be a problem, because I think a lot of my readers will say “yep, ritual is dangerous; I’m glad I have critical thinking skills to keep me from falling into its traps”. But I would expect that even the most wary of rationalists wants to let some things effect him emotionally, like powerful music or well-written fiction. The emotional content is precisely what makes these things enjoyable, but overanalyzing them can often severely diminish their emotional effect.
A good example of this is high school English classes. I’ve heard lots of people say that they might have actually enjoyed the books they had to read in high school, if only their teachers hadn’t forced them to dissect every little detail of the author’s symbolism.
I suspect that a lot of us overanalyze our lives the way English teachers overanalyze books. Many of us do this for the reason I described above: we’re suspicious of things that affect us emotionally, so we make sure to keep our critical thinking skills turned on constantly. And some of us do it just out of habit; we work in professions that require us to think analytically for eight hours a day, and once we get home it’s hard to turn that off.
As I said above, some amount of critical thinking is necessary to prevent us from getting seduced by advertisements, or otherwise taken advantage of. But I think that we tend to err on the side of too much analytical thinking, and don’t spend enough time just allowing ourselves to experience our lives. This is a big problem, because overanalysis squeezes our experiences dry of emotional vividness, making life drab and dreary.
One solution to this problem is to learn how to turn off our analytical thinking minds once in a while. But this can be quite difficult, especially for those of us whose professions train us to think analytically all the time. Personally, I’ve been trying for years and years to quiet my mind and just “live in the moment”, and I still find this incredibly difficult.
But fortunately, I think there’s another solution. There are some emotional stimuli which are so subtle that no matter how much we try to analyze them, they still manage to slip through our defenses and affect us emotionally. Even the most intransigently analytical among us can take refuge in stimuli such as these. They are the stimuli that are able to sneak past the gatekeeper.
I propose the following metaphor: we can think of analytical reasoning as a gatekeeper that prevents ideas or experiences from entering the inner courtyards of our minds. When we use our analytical thinking “the right amount”, or apply it to the right things, then the gatekeeper serves us well. It keeps out nasty travelers, like advertisements, that want to pollute the inner places of our minds, or scatter the seeds of weed-like desires in our imaginations. And it lets in the nice travelers, like music and literature and perhaps even ritual; these travelers bring with them gifts that enrich our inner courtyards. But when we overanalyze, this is like having an overzealous gatekeeper, a paranoid and suspicious guard that turns away all guests, even the ones who are clearly carrying invitations. If you have a gatekeeper like this, then no new ideas or experiences will be able to visit your inner courtyard. It will grow dry and barren and the only thoughts you will have will be old, tangled, gnarled ones that circle through your mind like tumbleweed.
If you have a gatekeeper like this, then the only experiences that will be able to get through are those that can sneak past the gatekeeper. At the risk of alerting your (perhaps hypervigilant) gatekeeper to these usually-invisible travelers, I would like to spend the next section exploring what types of stimuli are able to sneak past.
It should be fairly straightforward to characterize the stimuli that can sneak past the gatekeeper: if analytical thinking blocks out our emotional experiences, then the things that affect us emotionally will be the ones we don’t think analytically about. Of course, in order for these things to affect us at all, some part of our mind has to process them; I’ll call that part the intuitive or subconscious mind.
So, the things that can sneak past the gatekeeper are the ones we interpret using our intuitive rather than analytical minds. I’ll try to give you some examples.
Narrative is something we tend to interpret more intuitively than analytically. This may be part of why stories have such a powerful effect on us. We read stories for entertainment, but as we read them, we are unknowingly learning more about how the world works. Stories, even fictional ones, have a kind of truth to them, because we can relate them to our own experiences, and they thereby give us insight into our lives.
The less we analyze stories, and the more we just allow ourselves to experience them intuitively, the more powerful their effects will be. The deepest emotional experiences will come when we blindfold the gatekeeper, suspend disbelief, and allow the story to engulf us.
Relatedly, here is a beautiful quote from David Chapman’s Buddhism for Vampires, where a character within the frame story explains why we might tell frame stories in the first place:
[W]hen you listen to a story, you enter a new world, created out of words. And you are willing to let the world be as the teller tells it. But that can only go so far, and if the world does not make sense, you will interrupt the tale and argue. By putting the story within a story, the teller of the inner story becomes only a character himself, so you cannot argue with him. Then the inner story can be less realistic. If you wrap it in enough layers of indirection, you can tell a completely ridiculous story and have it seem somehow believable.
And then, a story always works some transformation in the hearer. It is not ‘information’; it works on the heart. Although it is made of words, the true meaning of a story cannot be put in words. So the story teller has to stop the hearer from using their ordinary mind to listen. When the teller says ‘once upon a time…’, the listener knows it is time to listen with the heart. But the listener’s mind may still get in the way. To confuse ordinary mind, the story-teller wraps worlds in worlds, until the hearer gets lost, and can listen without judgment.
Mythology is a kind of narrative, and so what I said about stories is true for myths as well: they affect us deeply because we interpret them more intuitively than analytically, and they teach us about our lives because we’re able to connect them to our own experiences. But I think mythology deserves its own category, because myths communicate in archetypes and imagery, which do a particularly good job eluding our conscious minds. We can usually understand a narrative analytically if we try hard enough, distilling its plot down into themes and moral lessons. But archetypes are harder to interpret. Submersion in water might symbolize rebirth, for instance, but we’re not usually conscious of this fact as we read the story of Noah. Some deep, intuitive part of our mind does understand this symbol, however, and so the myth is able to convey its message in terms that only the subconscious mind can understand. It bypasses the conscious mind altogether and speaks directly to our intuitions.
Sometimes, I think all myths have two parts: a comprehensible narrative, which keeps the conscious mind occupied, and archetypal imagery, which carries the true meaning of the story without us realizing it.
It’s also worth mentioning surrealist art here, since much like mythology, surrealist art communicates in symbols, archetypes, and dreamlike imagery.
(3) Sigils in Chaos Magick
Many techniques in magick are specifically designed to sneak past the gatekeeper and elude the conscious mind. I’m going to describe one such magickal technique, called a sigil, but first, let me try to explain what magick actually is. There are a bunch of different interpretations of magick, including ones that treat gods, angels, and demons as real, but the one I’ll focus on here avoids any supernatural explanations. It says that magick provides a set of techniques for altering our minds, to make them better at doing what we want them to do. According to this interpretation, then, magick is a lot like rationality, except that rationality typically focuses on altering the conscious mind, while magick focuses on altering the subconscious mind. Since magick and rationality are dealing with two different parts of the mind, they naturally use very different toolkits. Magick’s toolkit typically involves arcane rituals, complex webs of symbols, magickal objects, and the like.
Personally, I’ve dabbled in Chaos Magick, which focuses on techniques rather than beliefs, and encourages practicioners to choose whatever worldview suits their purposes best at any given moment. The standard text on Chaos Magick is a book called Liber Null, by Peter Carroll. Interestingly, the first chapter is basically just meditation exercises: since the goal is to alter your mind, you first need to control your mind. Once you’ve managed to do that, you can begin making sigils.
Sigils are a method of planting a suggestion in your mind, and then forgetting you planted it there. You have some wish or desire, and so you make an image, called a sigil, representing that desire. Then, you deliberately forget the connection between the image the desire. Or at least, you forget it consciously. Your subconscious mind remembers, and so you look at the sigil frequently to remind your subconscious to carry out its appointed task. Thus, the sigil bypasses the conscious mind and its gatekeeper, and allows the subconscious mind to operate without interference.
In Liber Null, in the section on sigils, I found the following paragraph on the importance of eluding the conscious mind:
The magician may require something which he is unable to obtain through the normal channels. It is sometimes possible to bring about the required coincidence by the direct intervention of the will provided that this does not put too great a strain on the universe. The mere act of wanting is rarely effective, as the will becomes involved in a dialogue with the mind. This dilutes magical ability in many ways. The desire becomes part of the ego complex; the mind becomes anxious of failure. The will not to fulfill desire arises to reduce fear of failure. Soon the original desire is a mass of conflicting ideas. Often the wished for result arises only when it has been forgotten. This last fact is the key to sigils and most forms of magic spell. Sigils work because they stimulate the will to work subconsciously, bypassing the mind.
(4) Cognitive Science
(This is not an example, but an anti-example.)
I’ve been reading a lot about cognitive science lately, but for the longest time, I avoided studying it, since I thought it would be very dangerous. After all, the whole point of cognitive science, in some sense, is to use conscious, analytical reasoning to understand the workings of the subconscious mind. This does two things: it gives the conscious mind access to subconscious processes that are usually hidden, and it might actually interfere with the subconscious mind’s functioning.
Regarding the first: if we give the conscious mind access to subconscious processes, this is like strengthening the gatekeeper, or perhaps equipping him with better security tools. Now, in addition to eyes, he has security dogs and infrared scanners and so on, which means that much less can sneak through. The average person’s gatekeeper is not very well-trained at security, but the skeptic’s is, and the cognitive scientist’s even more so.
Regarding the second: studying cognitive science might actually alter the mind’s functioning. If this sounds odd, I think it’s because our standard cultural models for understanding science blind us to the possibility. The scientific mindset perpetuates a division between the self, who is doing the studying, and the other, which is out there, and must be studied. Even with all the reminders from quantum physics that observing something can alter it, we still think of the scientist and the object of study as distinct. But this is very much not the case in cognitive science, where the mind studies itself.
It’s not unreasonable to think that, by studying ourselves, we could alter ourselves in the process. Watching our own cognitive mechanisms tick requires a mental contortion of sorts, turning our eyes backwards into our heads to watch our thoughts as they unfold. Sometimes I fear that this vivisection of my thoughts will leave me unable to think, like pulling apart the fibers of a muscle as it’s trying to run. Could it be that studying cognitive science because I find the mind’s workings beautiful is like dissecting my own eyes to understand how they comprehend beauty, only to find that I have blinded myself?
I feel like studying cognitive science has already damaged me. I think it’s exacerbated my hyperanalytical tendencies, and armed my gatekeeper so well that even narrative and mythology can no longer make it through. As a result, the world has become hollow and meaningless; I’ve drifted towards nihilism.
So I find myself asking, how can I reverse the damage that cognitive science has done to me so far? And how can I continue to study cog sci without letting it destroy me? I’m drawn to the field like a moth to a flame. As usual, I think the answer probably involves learning meditation. That way, I could clear my mind of unwanted, overanalytical thoughts when necessary, but allow them at times when I’m actually studying cognitive science.
What kind of analysis is overanalysis?
Overall, I think this gatekeeper metaphor is pretty sound. But I’m worried I’m committing a dangerous oversimplification here: I’ve treated all types of analytical thought the same way, when in fact, some might lead to a deadening of experience, while others might not. As far as I can tell, the type of analysis that most drain the vividness from experience is a sort of “dissective”, deconstructive analysis, the kind that takes a third-person approach to a first-person phenomenon.
For instance, when I was a kid, and I got hurt, my dad would say to me, “Don’t worry, pain isn’t real; it’s just a nerve signal that your body sends to your brain.” This argument has all sorts of flaws (define “real”, for instance), but that’s not the point. The point is that when I was a kid, this argument worked on me. Somehow, thinking about the pain in that sort of detached, analytical way actually lessened its effect.
I suspect that in general, thinking about our own experiences this way dulls them. And thinking about other people’s experiences in this way probably reduces empathy. I seem to feel much more empathy for other people when I understand their actions in terms of their subjective experiences, instead of understanding their actions in terms of e.g. brain chemicals or evolutionary psychology. I’m talking about stuff like “she destroyed a bunch of his stuff because she was angry at him for cheating on her”, vs. “she destroyed a bunch of his stuff to disincentivize him from investing emotions and resources in other potential mates”.
So why does this kind of analytical thinking decrease empathy? This article gives one explanation: we have one brain circuit for empathy, and another for analysis, and the two inhibit each other’s activity. We can also think about it in terms of concepts activating one another: when we describe this woman’s response as “anger”, it activates the concept of anger in our minds, which activates the feeling of anger, leading us to empathize. The evolutionary psychology explanation, on the other hand, does not activate any of our emotions, so we don’t have an empathetic response.
(Yes, I recognize the irony of using a detached analytical explanation to explain why detached analytical explanations might be bad.)
A Final Thought
A final thought, before I conclude. This essay has played on a popular dichotomy which pits reason (and particularly analytical thinking) against intuition and emotion. It’s not unreasonable that this dichotomy should have arisen in popular thought. After all, strong emotions often prevent us from thinking rationally, and (as we have seen in this essay), thinking analytically can prevent us from feeling emotions.
But the popular dichotomy is harmful, because it suggests that reason and emotion cannot coexist, and so we need to pick one and completely ignore the other. Thus, many of us have opted to join “team reason” and ignore our emotions, while others have joined “team emotion” and refused to listen to reason.
What we really need is a balance between these two things. Reason and emotion are not opposites or enemies; we need both of them in order to function in the world. The problems arise when we favor one over the other. Too much emotion, and our actions will become erratic and irrational. Too much analytical thinking, and we’ll lose the ability to feel.
So I’ve written this post not because I think we need to abandon analytical thinking altogether, but because I think the readers of this blog probably err on the side of overanalysis, and need to be pushed in the other direction.
I suspect a lot of readers of this blog probably come from the LessWrong rationalist community. To their very great credit, the rationalists of LessWrong are not Spock-clones at all, and they fully acknowledge the need for balancing emotion and reason. They emphasize that rationality is about “winning” (that is, actually achieving one’s goals). Whatever method helps us achieve our goals, whether it’s emotional or rational, that’s the one we shuld follow. And on LessWrong there’s also a widespread recognition of the importance of emotion in our lives.
And yet, reading LessWrong and talking to members of the community, I often get the sense that while rationalists think it’s perfectly sensible to embrace emotion, they just don’t know how to do it. I should say “we”, because this description has definitely applied to me too, at many points in my life. It’s a constant struggle for me to embrace emotional experiences without trying to analyze or control them. I think that a lot of us, for whatever reason, have armed our gatekeepers very thoroughly, and it’s hard for anything to sneak through. And so I hope that this post, this metaphor, and these examples will help to give people who want to embrace their emotions a foothold into changing how they interface with the world.
In conclusion, then, I leave you with the following two pieces of advice:
- Do not let your emotions drown out your ability to think.
- Do not let your thoughts drown out your ability to feel.
Particular thanks to Justin and to Aaron for many enlightening discussions on this topic.