I watched myself make a choice the other night. It was fascinating.
Earlier that afternoon, I was at the park with my daughter. I’d brought her some goldfish crackers as a snack. While she finished them, I picked out two, and ate them. I don’t normally eat that kind of food, but they were right in front of me. I wouldn’t call this a conscious decision; it just happened on autopilot.
Immediately after I ate two of my daughter’s goldfish, I remembered that I don’t normally eat this kind of food, and wondered what it would be like to have such strong agency that I’d never eat food that wasn’t good for me. I wondered if this were even possible. Not knowing if it were possible made the thought of trying appear as a challenge. It sounded interesting. I told myself that I would not put anything into my mouth, unless I were mindful of the decision to do so. About thirty seconds later I realized I had just put another two goldfish into my mouth.
My conscious awareness was directed elsewhere, and I didn’t realize I’d violated the commitment I made to myself until after I’d already done so. My memory of the situation now makes it seem as if the thought “I’ll get some of those goldfish” appeared, in a fleeting instant, and my body moved to act, while my conscious, discursive mind was considering some abstract idea, like it usually is.
It was like being at a loud noisy convention. I was talking with someone I found interesting. In the back of my hearing, I noticed someone mumble, “goldfish are being served”, but I didn’t turn to address this person, and say “no thank you.” And so goldfish were served.
After that second bite of goldfish, I remembered that I told myself, “I will only put things in my mouth that I consciously choose to put in there.” The fact that I’d just acted against this maxim wasn’t really a big deal; I could still refresh the internal conviction of that maxim and try again.
I’ve changed myself many times in the past; I have plenty of historical evidence that “I can change myself” is true, and this belief means that changing myself becomes more doable over time. It’s like the ultimate form of compound interest: the more I change myself, the easier it gets. Even though in that one moment, my behavior didn’t line up with the new concept I’d adopted, the new concept was drawing support from a more deeply embedded concept (“I can change myself”) with enough memories behind it to withstand plenty of prediction errors.
Later that evening, after I’d finished dinner, I got up from my chair and was on the way to the kitchen cabinet to get a small piece of dark chocolate with blueberries in it. I often have a piece of dark chocolate after dinner. I hadn’t consciously made this decision to get the chocolate. My conscious mind was busy, as usual, considering and comparing various abstractions to each other.
The waiter walked by in the background of the mental convention, and said “we’re going to get chocolate”, and we were all of us on the way.
At this moment (a few days later), I can still remember what I was seeing in that moment, and maybe a bit of what I was feeling, but I have no idea what the contents of that thought was. Maybe work. Maybe politics. Maybe consciousness. Maybe death. These are things I often think about. My conscious mind is usually not focused on what’s happening immediately around me. I can hold it there, temporarily, but while doing so, I am almost always distracted by some concept that sounds interesting. I’ve been working to change that habit over the years, and have had some progress. I will have more.
I walked to the cabinet, opened it up, and didn’t see the bag of blueberry-dark chocolate bars. I did see a big of Milano cookies. I opened the bag, took one out, and took one bite of it. Then I remembered my previous decision, to be mindful about whatever I put in my mouth.
A thought came up, “oh well. Too late now.”
And then another thought – “It’s not too late. There’s still half of the cookie left.”
I’m not sure to what extent these thoughts were verbal (i.e., subvocalized in my awareness), and to what extent they were just notions. They’re like the kinds of things I’d produce in my consciousness if I’d want to express myself in a foreign language I barely know. I first assemble some internal mental structure that represents shapes and feelings, and then map this structure onto words.
And a rebellion, come on, you’re not going to make yourself do this, are you? Again, still not verbalized. It was as if I were standing on the beach, and felt a strong pull from the water, trying to take me out to the ocean. Meanwhile, I was holding a rope attached leading to the shore, operated by an old man.
The ocean tugged with energy and fervor, but the rope on the shore was hooked up to a pully system. The old man’s pull was weak but he had leverage and he was using it.
A feeling of “this is inevitable that you will eat the rest of this cookie” came, a big wave crashing over me, knocking me down, and feeling like it’d drag me out to sea. The desire was strong, and then a thought, verbalized, came up, that maybe it was inevitable.
This thought was interesting. Fascinating, even. Was it really inevitable? Ding! I realized that I was in the process of making a choice. I had wanted to catch such a moment in the wild for a long time, and I finally had it. What was going to happen? I tried to see as much as I could of all my internal mental activity.
The water was still going back out to the sea, the undertow still tugged – and I had a gentle, but firm grasp on that rope, which was pulling, ever so gently, back to shore.
The convention floor was now segregating into two distinct groups, each advocating for a different course of action. One group was a loud mob, no leader, all unruly, insisting, DEMANDING, that of course they’d get their way.
And the other was organized. They were wearing suits. They had plans.
No, came an instinct – but also a voice – “it’s not inevitable. I doubt it. There’s got to be some chance that I don’t eat the rest of this thing.”
And suddenly, instead of standing on the shore, trying to persuade myself not to be pulled out to sea, I was watching both of these internal signals propagate in search of support, competing with each other to attempt and best predict the most likely outcome.
The unruly mob tossed up the sensory signals that matches memories associated with Milano cookies. Sweet and bitter dark chocolate, crispy cracker, sugar, warm blood to the tongue, saliva, a faint smile, and a bit of regret.
The organized group with suits was just curious. “Just asking questions, you see. Is it really inevitable? Or just highly likely?” They made no demands. They didn’t insist.
There was no thought of “I really shouldn’t,” or “I want it”, or “It would be bad for me.” The convention hall clamored with the taste of chocolate, and pure curiosity about what was going to happen. There was desire for chocolate, pitted against desire to understand. Somehow, the desire to stop myself was completely lacking. I didn’t feel that I should or that I ought to stop. I was simply fascinated by the question, “could this process stop?”
And then, someone in that organized pack of suits asked, “Ok, but what would be the necessary thing to make me not eat the rest of this cookie?” And their assistants scurried off, not in search of memories, but in search of concepts that might explain a future they – and I – considered possible, if not very likely. They were trying to predict an outcome, and it was working.
I wasn’t trying to make anything happen at this moment. I was curious. This was fascinating. The pull to eat the rest of the cookie had felt so strong just a moment before, but now it wasn’t something I felt so much as observed happening. That crowd wasn’t clamoring at me, they were clamoring at… the convention hall. At each other. Trying to get every member of the convention hall to join in their riot. Their clamoring stopped feeling like an input from outside the convention walls, and became more clearly visible as coming from inside.
And the other group was just curious about what was going to happen. They were at the edge of their seats, whispering quietly to each other, not at all bothered by the roar of that crowd.
It was as if I were in a dark room, thinking it were a narrow hallway. And suddenly I’d found an edge, a place to make a turn. That turn seemed a bit narrow at first. The odds that I wouldn’t eat the cookie seemed small, but when I my attention moved onto the question “What would make me not eat the rest of this cookie”, it was as if the edge grew larger and more salient.
“You would ask, ‘which choice has the highest long term expected value?’,” an internal voice said. That sounded correct. And an immediate response came, “eating the cookie will make you feel better now, feelings are important, give yourself a break” and then another response, doubt, and the words “that answer came too fast to be reliable. I bet that was system two. I bet I’d feel really good if I dropped the cookie into the sink right now.”
A smile curled on my lips, as I felt the momentum build. I knew what was happening. I was watching the agency concept achieve stronger predictive resonance. I felt a warmth in my heart, my back against the wall, the AGENCY concept awaked with fire, and said NO!, I will not go where you want me to, and I watched the agency coalition WIN, as the quiet, curious, whispering group at the edge of their seats suddenly stood up and roared, ROARED, tore off their suits and exposed muscular chests achieved through months of progressive overload, and every memory of past ANGER, at injustice, at unfairness, at things I wanted but couldn’t have, EXPLODED into the room, along with the PRIDE at how I have changed and JOY of being free from past pain and LOVE for my PARENTS and FAMILY WHOM I WILL PROTECT, and this vortex of energy carried away even the most previously excited members of the cookie coalition, who were now DEMANDING that OF COURSE we put that cookie into the sink because FUCK YES WE ARE IN CONTROL!
The convention hall roared unanimously, the most likely predicted outcome directed signals to my motor cortex, and my body moved in accordance with my brain’s predicted outcome.
I put the cookie into the sink, and I felt proud.