Empathy and its Tricky Relationship with Goodness

Maybe you're someone with a lot of affective empathy – when you sense other people having feelings, you have a lot of feelings yourself. Or maybe you're more like me, and don't have so much.

A lot of people talk as if empathy is the same thing as goodness. Maybe you've said some things like that yourself without thinking about it. In this line of thinking, saying that someone has no empathy is the same as saying they're an evil person. Naturally, this bugs me because I don't want to be called an evil person. But there are also some subtler problems that you might not think of at first:

  • If being empathetic is automatically good, that makes it harder to talk about how empathy might lead you to hurt people – and how to avoid that problem.
  • If being unempathetic is automatically bad, that forces unempathetic people to pretend to be empathetic, instead of learning the unique ways of doing good that are easier without empathy.

How to stop your empathy from hurting people

If you feel someone else's distress, it can motivate you to help them. Helping people is good! Unfortunately, empathetic people can also have a hard time coping with others' distress. And I've seen a lot of coping strategies that actually end up hurting other people.

You may have used some of these yourself. They're not good, but they are understandable responses. If these sound like you, I hope to offer you a better way rather than judging you harshly.


Alice and Bob are friends. Alice has been [...]

Continue reading...

The Umpteen Senses

In school, they taught me that humans have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.

This is silly. We have many more wonderful senses than that. Some people like to say “and proprioception!”, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. Lately, I've been trying to notice all the various ways I perceive the world.

With my lungs, I can perceive a lot of things about the air in my environment. I can tell the difference between very humid air and dry air. I can sense certain pollutants when I feel nausea, even without smelling them directly. If my airways are blocked, I can feel the low pressure inside my lungs when I try to breathe in, and the high pressure when I try to breathe out.

When I eat something, my digestive system gives me information about which nutrients were in it. Is it satisfying? Does it feel [...]

Continue reading...

What my internal language is made of

This post is part of a series about my internal language. It might help to read the first post first if you haven't.

What is my internal language made of? It's pretty hard to explain.

Normal English has a few words talking about what goes on inside the brain. Think. Feel. Visualize. Imagine. But those words aren't very specific. The brain actually has a lot of different subsystems, which all work in different ways. Scientific language gets into a bit more detail: We have visual processing, spatial processing, language processing, working memory, long-term memory, and a lot of other things. (We know that these are separate because you can damage specific parts of the brain and cause one of them to stop working, while the others work just the same as before!) But even the science is pretty imprecise about a lot of things. I'll have to make up some of my own terms.

All my thinking relies on my main network. Scientifically, I think I'm referring to my long-term implicit memories or maybe semantic memories. (I'm not sure there's actually a distinction between those two things, at least for me.) Most of these memories are about relations between words.

When I say “words”, I don't just mean English words. Everything that [...]

Continue reading...

Brain technique: “Patient problem-solving”

This post is part of a series about my brain training techniques. It might help to read Part 1 and Part 2 first if you haven't.

Here is a trouble I sometimes have: I sit down to solve a problem, but I can't figure it out right away, and I get frustrated. Maybe it's a story I'm trying to write, maybe it's a computer program I'm trying to design, maybe it's a big decision I'm trying to make. Whatever it is, my brain forms this memory:

Try to solve the problem → Argh, I'm stuck

So I come back and try again later. But after one or two attempts, my brain starts jumping straight to “Argh, I'm stuck”, without even making a good try at the problem first. Worse yet, being frustrated makes me more stuck, and being stuck makes me more frustrated. It reinforces the memory that's causing trouble!

To deal with this, I need a technique. The technique needs two things: First, it should avoid triggering the bad memory. Second, it should avoid creating any more bad memories.

I call my technique “patient problem-solving”. The first part of the technique is to [...]

Continue reading...

How to Train Your Brain, Part 2: Memory

This is the second post in a series. You should go read Part 1 first if you haven't.

This post is about how to apply the same techniques to learning and memory.

A simple example

This post isn't just about rote memorization, but talking about rote memorization will help to introduce some ideas. Let's say I'm trying to memorize this quote:

If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.

– Frederick Douglass1

First, I'd read the quote a few times on the page. Then I'd look away and try to repeat parts of it from memory. I'd go back and forth until I could repeat the whole thing.

The obvious way is to memorize the first line, then the first two lines, then the first three lines, and so forth. But some people suggest that you first memorize the last line, then the last two lines, and so forth. This can be a good technique. Explaining why it's good will be a bit more complicated:

I want you to imagine memory as a set of one-way arrows.

  • “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”“Those who profess to favor freedom,”
  • “Those who profess to favor freedom,”“and yet depreciate agitation,”
  • “and yet depreciate agitation,”“are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
  • ...etc.

(It should be obvious that the arrows are one-way: you can't repeat a quote backwards just because you can repeat it forwards!)

In order to memorize the quote, you have to build each of these arrows in your mind. That's what happens automatically when you memorize something. But there are ways to make the process easier or harder.

When you try to look away from the page and repeat first two parts, you're trying to build this:

  • “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”“Those who profess to favor freedom,”

But what if you forget the second part before you get to it? Then you end up with:

  • “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”“Uhh... what was the next part?”

This actually gets recorded as a memory. Remember from Part 1: Your brain will remember exactly how you imagined it, whether it was right or wrong. Later, your brain will sometimes automatically follow the “→ I forget” path, unless the “→ [actual next line]” path is much stronger. In order to memorize things well, you need to make sure that you will still remember the second part when you get to the point where you can record it.

That's why starting from the end can be useful. If you've memorized the first four lines, and you are trying to add the fifth, then you have to remember the fifth line while you repeat the first four to yourself. But if you've memorized the last four lines, you can start with the fifth-to-last, and then proceed into ones you already remember pretty well.

But that's enough about rote memorization. Let's get into the good stuff:

A more sophisticated example

Let's say I'm trying to learn all about how trees work. At some point, I learn that they bring water from their roots up to their branches using capillary action. I obviously want to form these memories:

  • Capillary action → trees use it to lift water
  • How trees lift water → capillary action

Remember, memories are one-way, so these are two separate memories, even if you usually form them at the same time. So when I'm really trying to remember something, I often go over it in my head both ways. Capillary action, trees; trees, capillary action.

Also, what I really want to happen is to remember this a while in the future, when I haven't just been studying it. Recall from Part 1 that you have to wake up the exact part of your brain that you want to change. I want to be able to remember this even without all the other context. So I specifically try to clear my brain of all the other context. I imagine that I've just run into the term “capillary action” and want to remember some things about it, sometime when I haven't just been thinking about trees. Then I lead my brain through the other related knowledge.

And that's not even the good part. If I build the two memories above, it's like using my brain as a dictionary. A dictionary contains lots of information, but it doesn't know how to understand or interpret that information. My goal isn't to learn facts about trees – my goal is to understand the system of trees.

Therefore, when I learn a new fact, I specifically try to build a lot of memories related to understanding the systems behind it. I play around with the fact in my mind, trying to relate it to other things I know. In this case, I might build memories like these:

  • Things that happen in tree roots → collecting water for capillary action
  • Things that happen in tree leaves → pulling water through capillary action
  • Ways various lifeforms transport water → capillary action
  • Ways plants exploit quirks of physics → capillary action
  • Things trees need in order to survive → moving water from roots to branches through capillary action

And when I think of each memory I want to build, I do the “imagining it without context” thing again. I imagine that I have only been asked “what are some things that tree roots do?”, when I wasn't thinking about the other stuff. And so on for each of the others.

(I don't worry about trying to build the reverse memories for these ones. That tends to happen automatically when I'm trying to think of what memories to build. And besides, if I was able to come up with those ideas just now, I can probably come up with them again in the future.)

Forming these the extra memories helps me understand things faster and better. You start with a list of facts. This technique transforms it into a network of facts. That way, you can remember each fact whenever it might be helpful, rather than just when someone asks about that fact specifically.

– Eli

  1. Alas, this quote is still relevant more than 150 years later. I want to say “I'll prove you wrong, Frederick Douglass! I'll seize power and then concede something without demand. That'll show you!” But what Douglass is really saying is that violent resistance can be justified as a way to end injustices, which is something I actually agree with. back

How to Train Your Brain, Part 1

A lot of people assume that you can't train creativity or intelligence. I know that's not true, because I've done it myself. That is, I have improved my intelligence – including fluid intelligence – through deliberate training.

Here's the real reason people think you can't do it: We just haven't figured out the best techniques for training your brain yet. That's understandable, since brains are complicated and different for different people. Since other people haven't invented the best techniques yet, I was forced to invent a lot of techniques myself.

I'm very interested to see whether I can share my techniques with other people. A lot of them are internal and untranslatable, but I think a lot of them can be explained – and they might even be useful for other people. This post is my first attempt to do that.

The basics

I'm going to explain a few of the basic ideas that I always use when I train myself. This is general brain training. It's not specifically “intelligence training” or “anger management training” or “memory training”, although I've used it for all of those things.

To help explain the ideas, I'm going to use a specific example from my life. When I was around 10 years old, [...]

Continue reading...

“Tuning out” and “Dream thinking”

These are a couple of my mental techniques for problem-solving.

Tuning out

Sometimes, I work on the same problem for a long time, but I get stuck. I keep thinking of slightly different solutions, but none of them actually work. Focusing really hard on the specific problem isn't helping me. So I “tune out”. I keep directing my brain to think about the problem, but I relax and don't focus so hard on specific solutions. Doing this often gives me useful new ideas.

I'm going to try to explain exactly what I'm doing and how it helps. But before I can do that, I have to explain some things about how brains work.

Let's say someone shows me a picture of a bear. I can immediately say, “that's a bear”, without having to think about it. How did I do this?

Somewhere in my brain, there's the knowledge of what a bear is. But there's also a lot of other knowledge. Suppose my brain had a single CPU, and it had to go to all the knowledge one at a time. “Is it a twig? Nope. Is it a sack of potatoes? Nope. Is it the Burj Khalifa? Nope. Is it...” This process will eventually get to “Is it a bear?”, but it will take forever. So that can't be how it works.

Instead, I want you to imagine that my brain has separate processors for every single [...]

Continue reading...

Imagine a ball, but not what color it is.

(I've been thinking about writing a blog post about my internal language. However, that might be a bit too complex for just one post. So this post might be the first in a series.)

Can you imagine a ball, without imagining a ball of the specific color?

Can you imagine a handheld tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver, without imagining which one it is?

Can you imagine a person, without imagining someone of a specific gender or race?

For me, these things are not just possible, they are automatic. If you tell me “imagine a ball”, I imagine the idea of ball-ness. Nothing else is specified. If you ask me, “what color is the ball you imagined?”, that question doesn't make any sense. It's like if you asked me “what color is a crayon?”. There are lots of different colors of crayons. I can't answer unless you ask something more specific.

For a lot of people, if you asked them to think of a ball, they would automatically think of a specific ball. They would have to do extra work to imagine the idea of a ball without imagining a specific ball. Or they might not even be able to do that. For me, it's the other way around – I actually have to do extra work to imagine a specific ball, but imagining a generic ball is trivial.

That's not my only trick, either. Watch this: I'm imagining one of the metal forks from my kitchen. And now I'm imagining that the fork still has some number of pointy tines, but not what specific number of tines it has. But here comes the good part: I'm separating the points from the tines. Now, on the right side of my mind, I have a metal fork with some number of tines, which don't end in any specific way. And on the left side of my mind, I have a row of points, which aren't made of a specific material, and aren't attached to anything.


There's a couple of different things I need to explain [...]

Continue reading...

Story idea: The Power of Love

(I've posted this elsewhere before, but I'm reposting it here because most of my blog audience probably hasn't seen it.)

(Content warning: discussion of abusive relationships.)

A certain individual gains The Power Of Love. Unfortunately, the only thing ze loves is to cause misery, so ze becomes a supervillain. Ze makes people love each other so intensely that it throws their lives into ruin. Ze makes victims love their abusers, and ze makes stalkers love people who fear them. And if any of society's heroes or leaders use their power for good, ze makes them fall in love with someone who will exploit their powers for evil.

To oppose this villain, a new hero arises, who has The Power Of Friendship. Ze can project a magical force field called The Friend Zone. People in the Friend Zone automatically stop, think, and work out their problems with each other as if they are close friends. Our hero tracks down all the people who were influenced by the supervillain, and uses zir power to help them solve the problems the villain created. Despite their intense feelings, the power of friendship lets them pull through and make arrangements that are tolerable for everyone.

Anyway, ze's so successful at helping people that ze ends up with a crowd of admirers following zem everywhere, hoping ze'll friend zone them.


I didn't just write this to make a joke out of the “friend zone” concept. (Don't worry if you don't know what that is – you're probably better off that way.)

On a more serious note, I think there's a problem with the idea of “true love”. The feeling of love, like any other feeling – excitement, anger, pride – can either cause good things to happen, or it can cause bad things to happen, or both. So what is “true love”? Many people think that love only counts as “true love” if it's the good kind. So what should we call the bad kind or the mixed kind?

This isn't just a semantic dispute. Because love can hurt people, people NEED to have a way to talk about the kinds of love that can cause harm. Otherwise, how can they think about it without fighting with themselves? (“But it seems so much like love! But it's hurting me! But it seems like love, and love is good, right?! But...”) This applies to both the all-bad case (“he's only beating you because he loves you!”) and the mixed case, like where people have a loving relationship that is mostly good, but sometimes their love manifests itself as possessiveness that ends up hurting the other person.

If you're talking to someone, and they call this kind of thing “love”, don't say “this is not love”. Say the thing that matters: “this love is not good”.

– Eli

My 0-10 pain scale

If a person goes to a doctor because something hurts, the doctor sometimes asks, “rate your pain on a scale from 0 to 10” (or 1 to 10). This can be frustrating if you don't know what number to give it. If your pain is moderately intense, how do you know whether it's a four or a six?

I thought about this for a while. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to make a pain scale that I could use for myself. Since I have trouble remembering pain sensations, it's hard for me to know whether a pain that I feel today is stronger or weaker than a pain I felt last week. A scale could help with that.

I came up with a reference point for each number on the scale. These reference points are based on how my brain works, so they might not work for everybody. They are useful to me. Your own pain scale might put them in a different order, or use different reference points altogether.

0. There is no pain, and no uncomfortable sensation at all.

0.5. There is no pain, but there is some sensation that makes me worry anyway. Maybe a muscle feels stiff or overworked, so that I expect it might start hurting if I used it more.

1. There is some pain, but not enough to be unpleasant. It's just a curiosity. If I had a magic switch that could turn the pain on and off, I usually wouldn't even bother to turn it off. (I might still worry, because the pain could get worse if I do the wrong thing, but the pain itself is not a problem.)

2. The pain is enough that I would usually choose to turn it off, but not enough to be distracting.

3. The pain is distracting. If it goes on for a long time, I eventually [...]

Continue reading...

In which I rant about the study of English

So, I had my first classes today – a math class (Ordinary Differential Equations) and the first-year English Composition class. The math class was awesome. The English class wasn't.

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I'm not picking on this class or this professor in particular; I'll be naming specific things from this class, but I'm mainly doing that in order to talk about a general attitude about the study of English composition.

Item 1: What Is Good Writing?

First, the professor said that good prose was “a lot less subjective than you think”. That's a laughable claim, for two reasons. First, it assumes [...]

Continue reading...

Some thoughts about expressiveness, socializing, and honesty


I once had a conversation with two friends. At some point, we said something like this (I don't remember the exact words, since this was more than a year ago and I didn't write it down):

Me: This is kind of an oversimplification, but: Privileged people make statements about the world, and oppressed people make statements about themselves.

Friend 1: I hadn't thought about it that way. I can see how that relates to my experiences.

At which point Friend 2 pointed out how I'd made a statement about the world, while Friend 1 had made a statement about zemself! (I'm pretty sure I'm more privileged than Friend 1, so this matches what I said.) The theory goes [...]

Continue reading...

Imagining pain

Remember when I said we should talk about how we experience the world? This post is me doing that.

I can't imagine pain. At all. Or, since even the word “imagine” might have slightly different meanings to different people, let's be more specific:

There's something I can do that I call “imagining”, which works very well for sight, and sound, and physical touch, and a few other things. I can conjure up the feelings in my head, and feel almost as if the thing is actually happening. But this doesn't work at all for physical pain. I can try to conjure up the feeling of pain, but nothing happens. I can imagine reacting to the pain, but I can't imagine the pain itself.

The same is true in my dreams and my memories. Even if I've actually experienced pain recently, like if I stubbed my toe, I can't remember the actual feeling of pain afterwards, not any more than I could normally imagine it.1 My dreams usually have visual images in them, and occasionally have sounds or touch-sensations. They try to be semi-realistic, so, for instance, if someone hits a gong in my dream, the dream provides the sound of a gong. But if someone drops something on my foot, then the dream tries to provide a pain sensation, but fails.

Since I've never been anyone but myself, I don't automatically know whether anyone else shares this quirk. So, after I was thinking about this yesterday, I decided to ask my biological parents.2 And that was interesting, because one of them said ze could imagine pain as easily as anything else, and the other said ze couldn't.

So, dear readers, I'm curious: Does your imagination work this way? Please leave a comment if you feel comfortable doing so!

– Eli

  1. As far as I've heard, when the brain remembers a sensory experience, it uses pretty much the same process that it does to imagine one. So this shouldn't be too surprising. back
  2. Who are also my legal and social parents. I say “biological parents” because the genetic relation is probably the most important thing here. back

Story idea: The shell

I had an idea that doesn't fit into any of the current stories I'm developing, and basically wants to be a novel in its own right, so I'm probably not going to be able to write it. So I'll write about it here instead. For fun, I'm going to describe it in the order I thought of it.

It started with the idea of destroying a person's mind. Zir body still functions, and ze can even still talk a little and give basic replies, but most of zir personality is gone, ze doesn't recognize people ze used to know, ze's completely cold and unfeeling, and ze barely bothers to fulfill zir basic needs. This kind of thing can happen in real life, but it's more common in fantasy settings, especially horror-fantasy; I was thinking about it because something similar happens in HP:MoR.

I've got a lot of respect for good horror stories. After all, what is writing if not an attempt to effectively convey an image or idea, and what is horror if not a [...]

Continue reading...


I've been using the word “neurodiversity” a lot on this blog. I always meant to write a whole post about what it means to me. However, I hadn't gotten around to it until a reader asked me about it this afternoon.

It's finally time to write that post!

What neurodiversity is

The word “neurodiversity” means two different (but related) things.

The first meaning is the idea that different people's brains work differently. This is just a fact. Human brains have many variations. Some of them, we understand scientifically. Others, we don't.

The second meaning is the neurodiversity movement. This says that brain differences don't just exist – they are natural and [...]

Continue reading...