Observation Mindset: Part 1

When you use mindsets, your mind applies filters to the information your senses provide you. These filters create “maps” of particular aspects of the “territory”—in other words, mental models of reality. Your mind then uses these maps to make predictions about how best to navigate and influence the territory to achieve the outcomes you want. The basic mindsets are processes that create different kinds of filters which in turn create different types of specialized maps.

There’s another very important mindset, though, that I didn’t realize existed until years after I cataloged the basic mindsets. There’s so much I’d like to say about it that I ended up splitting this article into two parts; Part 2 should hopefully follow not too long after this one.

Observation mindset, the zeroth mindset, has a unique approach to filters and maps. It uses guessing and checking to remove as many filters as possible, from both the distinct and subliminal modes. It puts aside most types of map, and looks at the territory as directly as possible. 

The process of using observation mindset clears away the maps created by other mindsets, suspending their judgments and assumptions, and allows your mind to become aware of everything about the immediate situation. It brings you back to the present. In this way, observation absorbs moments

When you use observation mindset, the process of guessing roves over the most basic map fragments and holds them up to the territory, and the checking process judges not only their accuracy, but also how simple they are. It screens out the possibilities and implications that other mindsets attach to the situation, creating a map that does nothing more than turn raw neural impulses into coherent sensations. 

Through the repeated guessing and checking process, things like clothing regress into shapes of cloth, which regress into visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory data. The maps that observation mindset creates from these absorbed moments describe everything about the moment and nothing beyond it. In Part 2 we’ll talk about how this process can be used on its own and combined with other mindsets. 

The guessing and checking processes in observation mindset function in both the subliminal and distinct modes, and enable the two modes to better interface with each other. 

What’s it like to use observation?

Here’s what it looks like when you apply observation: 

First, you experience sensory input, such as using a leaf blower. 

Next, some mindset that you’re running applies guesses and checks and comes up with a map to describe that stimulus in a particular way. For example…

  • Operation would tell you how to use it effectively. 
  • Organization might tell you the things you need a leaf blower for, or who you could sell it to. Analysis would tell you how it works. 
  • Synthesis might tell you that it reminds you of a cyborg arm-cannon, or lead you to daydream about blowing away rush hour traffic. 
  • Semantics could tell you what model it is and who it was made by. 
  • Empathy could tell you how people would feel about it (or whether it needs some coaxing to get started). 
  • Strategy could tell you how to avoid breaking it. 
  • Tactics could tell you of other practical yet unorthodox uses like drying clothes.
How can someone possibly have fun with a leafblower? Our giant cameras will show us the answer.

Then observation mindset peels back all of those thoughts surrounding the leaf blower, putting away the maps created by other mindsets. It uses guessing and checking to find the most rudimentary maps that match the territory and pushes aside the rest, so you can experience the leaf blower as directly and without bias as possible. Not as a tool, or a resource, or a system, or a world of possibility. Not even as a leaf blower—that’s a semantic label. 

With observation mindset you can get as close as possible to the territory that is the leaf blower. You can see its color, and the areas on its surface that are shiny or dull. You can feel the texture and thermal conductivity of the materials that you’ve forgotten are called plastic and metal. The shape of the handle and the nozzle, the tension of the rope start, the weight and how it carries, the sound it makes, the blast of hot air, the smell of the fossil fuels partially burned… Everything that you might normally filter out or overlook becomes available for you to notice. 

As another example, you might skim over a written sentence and read it one way, but then you notice that it doesn’t match your expectations and do a double-take. (“We took the elephant up one floor.”) When you read it over more carefully, without the filters that were letting you skim it quickly, you realize that you had read one of the words wrong. (“We took the elevator up one floor.”) Your skim-reading map gave you incorrect information about the word, so you had to remove the map and start from scratch. 

Wait, this sentence really does say, “We took the elephant up one floor.” What does that mean… oh.

Connecting the subliminal with the distinct

You may be wondering how observation mindset lets you deal with the subliminal mode in any way, as I mentioned earlier. After all, the whole point of the subliminal is that you can’t directly observe it or affect what it does. (If you’re not wondering this, feel free to skip to the next section.) 

The key word in that sentence is “directly.” Exploring and influencing subliminal processes is always indirect, and observation mindset is no exception. 

To figure out what the subliminal mode is doing, you can observe each thought and conclusion that you come to and figure out which ones have a train of thought that can be traced back to a particular source of input. After you have used observation to identify everything in your current mental state that originated from a distinct process, everything that remains must have come from a subliminal process. 

Even when our subliminal mode creates subtle feelings, impressions, and distortions of our thought patterns instead of specific conclusions, observation mindset can notice this output by remembering and comparing our reasoning processes in different contexts or under different emotions. 

That’s not quite good enough for our purposes, though. We also want to know what prompted these subliminal processes to give us certain conclusions. To do that, you can observe all of the input from the world around you, and from your memories and other thoughts, and deliberately focus on one of them to see what associations it prompts. By deliberately focusing on the feedback that you feel from sensations and thoughts, it is possible for you to piece together what your subliminal mind is responding to, at which point analysis mindset can help you figure out likely reasons for its responses.

You can tell what the water is doing by the way the tree’s reflection changes.

As far as influencing subliminal processes using observation mindset goes, it’s the same as getting the subliminal to do anything: have the distinct mode practice a technique consistently and with reliable feedback, and the subliminal will pick up the pattern. 

You don’t always have to actually perform an action in order to train it into your subliminal processes, though. Your distinct mode can also feed your subliminal mode thoughts about what the input is and thoughts about what the output should be, to associate those together in the subliminal mode. Think of it as training the subliminal mode with simulation data. Observation mindset makes this training easier by giving you a better sense of what the subliminal mode is already doing and enabling you to clear your mind of noise and deliberately focus your thoughts on a particular stimulus and response in order to develop a subliminal association between them.

You can also counteract distortions in your thought patterns by remembering what you have observed of your thought patterns under different circumstances, and either accounting for the distortions (e.g. acknowledging you feel something is more or less likely than it actually is) or imagining a different context and getting the subliminal mode to accept it as input so it will produce different feelings as output. 

The learning and application attitudes

Observation mindset is not a binary, on/off state. Like all other mindsets, it has a shape. The trick is to direct observation towards the most useful aspects of your life. It’s somewhat like breathing. Everyone breathes, but when you breathe skillfully and you recognize when to set aside a moment to focus on breathing, it helps you better face the world. 

Although observation seems mutually exclusive with other mindsets because it counteracts their filters, it is actually an invaluable supplement to all other mindsets individually and collectively. 
You may have noticed that you have a learning attitude and an application attitude, and what you do with new information depends on what attitude you’re using.

In the learning attitude, you’re still figuring things out, still building and calibrating your map. When you encounter a part of the territory that doesn’t match your map, you’re more likely to assume that your map is wrong or incomplete and needs to be updated, rather than assuming that something unusual is happening in the territory. You hesitate to make predictions, and the predictions you do make are uncertain, because you work with the premise that there is much you don’t know.

In the application attitude, you’ve got plenty of experience and your map is well and solidly formed. You make many predictions, with more certainty, and commit to decisions based on them. When you encounter a mismatch between the map and the territory, you’re more likely to count on the map being correct and frame the mismatch from that perspective: it may be an insignificant anomaly, or a defect in the territory compared to how it ought to be. 

When you enter an unfamiliar context, your mindsets will usually start out in a learning attitude, absorbing as much information as possible with as few assumptions as possible, but over time the map you build of that context becomes better calibrated and more trusted. You can use it with greater ease and confidence. Your attitude gradually transitions from learning to application. 

Occasionally a large mismatch between the map and the territory, one that stymies the predictive process, may force your mindsets to go back to the learning attitude and correct the map. By default, though, mindsets with extensive maps will attempt to use them anywhere that seems familiar. However, some familiar-looking situations may be different enough that application fails. 

When the territory changes in a way that is not obvious, that’s when application becomes a dangerous attitude. Even a subtle change can throw off your predictions significantly, but a mindset in the attitude of application may not recognize it. That’s where observation mindset comes in. 

Imagine if maps were never updated after this one was made.

Observation mindset deliberately engages other mindsets in the learning attitude, forcing them to review their maps before they make any further predictions. You can intentionally relearn and recalibrate to varying degrees depending on what you think the situation calls for. 

Sometimes you only need to reevaluate a few mistaken assumptions, and sometimes you may just want to leave observation mindset running to keep an eye on changing aspects of a mostly-stable situation. If you find yourself losing your way, though, you may want to user observation mindset to a greater degree by taking some time to shed your accumulated maps and conclusions and start from scratch. 

This concludes the theoretical overview of observation mindset. In Part 2 we’ll look at how to use it and its advantages and disadvantages. 

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