A few words on programming yourself

Over breakfast I skimmed most of the book Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain, by Tom Stafford & Matt Webb. It explores the functioning of our brain, hearing, vision, and the combining of these and other faculties in a way that enables us to more efficiently exploit them. Similar to my previous experiences with the book, I found most of the material intriguing, but too psychologically in-depth for my immediate interest, and therefore unworthy of “head space” for the present moment. It draws too heavily on theory, whereas my attitude across the Psychology discipline and brain functioning is entirely pragmatic.

I also reread the sister book, Mind Performance Hacks: Tips & Tools for Overclocking Your Brain by Ron Hale-Evans (note the subtle difference in title). Surprisingly, I find it not only intriguing, but heavily applicable, synthesizing strategies in powerful memory usage, creativity, discipline, communication, cognitive biases and such. The book references theory, but in a manner comparatively light and unimposing to the former. I return to this book on a yearly basis to find myself newly inspired.

The guide talks of one strategy, the building of an Exoself (hack #17 in the first edition), that parallels the programming and reprogramming I’ve employed from time to time on myself. The Exoself calls upon “programming” a set of instructions on index cards for yourself to follow daily or at a particular time, similar to computer instructions. These instructions comprise the stack. It’s not quiet a to-do list, which, in fact also serves a role in the Exoself, although consisting of instructions without an immediate deadline, destined to eventually transition to the stack.

What aligns the stack with the rigor of a computer program, for one, is the usage of index cards. Similar to the computer, which processes the present instruction without sentiment, prejudice, nor curiosity for what follows later, the index card is designed to serve the same function. You simply follow the present instruction without further consideration, nor clouding of judgement with debugging or meta program analysis.

Two, the stack can contain recursive or self-referential instructions. A traditional to-do list doesn’t generally take advantage of this paradigm. You could leverage such programming as

You could also employ conditional logic and early termination. Anyway, as long as you have the means to utilize read/write memory, be it in your head, on the cards, or by means of another device, this form of programming is equivalent in capacity to any Turing-complete computational model. But I slightly digress.

I want to further explore self-programming. Now, the Exoself builds upon the programming of a set of instructions to follow without question. Can this programming change the person’s preferences, beliefs, or core values? Can the set of instructions not only develop (or eliminate) a habit, but entirely redefine what you consider good or bad? For that, we need to explore the basis for an instruction.

What sort of an instruction can we write? We could certainly instruct ourselves to “exercise for 20 minutes”, to “write for an hour”, or to “telephone a long-neglected relative”. These types of instructions could eventually form a habit if performed with enough consistency. Yet I’m skeptical on the extent to which this programming changes us in any permanent way.

I’ve been more curious on the effectiveness of instructions such as “dislike the color red”, “be passionate about butterflies”, or “daily stretching is compulsory to your survival”. The first two call to adapt a particular emotional disposition towards an idea. The last one instructs to assimilate a certain belief.

Instructions such as these aim to enforce a set of core principles, similar to the three laws of robotics. If plausible, they could result in far more effective behavioral changes than a rote to-do list. The remaining question is whether this actually works.

Rather than appeal to studies, statistics, and external sources, which would make this writing academically tangible, yet too conclusive and unimaginative for my purposes, I would rather leave more open questions. However, I want to survey a few beliefs I have cultivated by means of such reprogramming (without a conscious understanding of what I was doing at the time). There are more that I prefer not to share.

The above statements probably sound entirely biased and contrived. You bet they are! There’s no space for opinion or doubt. Yet such is the nature of firm instructions. Programming that employs constructs among ‘sometimes’, ‘mostly’, ‘try to’, ‘with some exceptions’, or ‘9/10 of the time’, has a name in Computer Science - Randomized Algorithms, or alternatively stochastic/probabilistic algorithms. This area has been noted for promising results in Machine Learning, AI, creative pursuit, or mental re-seeding, but has no place in deterministic programming. Personally, I don’t see how you could circumvent a deterministic outcome in the cause-effect chain for a change of belief to occur.

Furthermore, the more concrete the instruction, the more likely the change will stick. The above statements, for example, are not necessarily what I evoked in the initial stages. Rather, they reflect the behavior and belief patterns I had ultimately adapted. I had to define ‘poor nutrition’ and ‘good nutrition’, and I did, with time, giving a concrete form to these abstractions. Until then, I accumulated firm, binary instructions among ‘processed foods = bad’ (further defining this), ‘flour = bad’, ‘soda = bad’, ‘pasta = bad’, etc, ‘green vegetables = good’, ‘fruit = good’, ‘walnuts = good’, ‘dark bread = good’, etc. I followed a similar strategy for the concepts of ‘overconsumption’ and ‘simplicity’.

About the language learning. I decided there was no benefit in believing that language learning is complicated, which an incredible majority of people swear by in regard to native and foreign languages alike. This belief served no function but to deviate energy from language learning and further propagate negative preconceptions. The belief that it’s easy, without exception, I found to have severely simplified the process. Rather than wasting energy dealing with imaginary beliefs, I could focus on the simple task of language learning. If I wasn’t making notable progress, I was either wasting time with something irrelevant, didn’t want it enough, or prematurely desisted. This has always held true in my experience.

An instruction must be algorithmically plausible and well-defined to impact.

Be more kind to your neighbor” or “be more humble” are not plausible instructions, but abstractions. After all, could you program these statements into an AI and expect it to understand the meaning? As a rule of thumb, if there’s more than one way to interpret an instruction, it needs refinement. By the way, the three laws of robotics may work in fiction, which still remains questionable for those familiar with the works of Asimov, but in reality, entirely suffer from imprecision.

With regard to how I programmed myself for certain behavior-changing instructions, I lack a good explanation. A behavioral psychologist would be a better source. Some swear by hypnosis. Perhaps I incidentally applied a variant of self-hypnosis?

In any case, this is a dangerous tool, so use at your own risk. Once you adapt the new belief, it becomes part of you. Your friends, family, may not sympathize with certain behavioral patterns of yours, so that’s one parameter to consider. I employed this programming only a handful of times for behaviors I felt crucial for my lifestyle. I wanted to develop solid behaviors and not lose further time and energy on continuous cycles of making exceptions, falling off-track, stress with re-discipline, etc. As a consequence, you may spend years rationalizing or justifying doing the things a certain way, not being flexible, not making exceptions, etc. Yet I consider it a smaller price to pay. These aren’t just arbitrary behaviors, but those you deem essential for your existence and want permanently assimilated into your character.