[As of February 2017 this post is a repository of my thoughts on introspective vocabulary and any words I coin in the process of doing that thinking. Check back for updates]
Artist and filmmaker John Koenig is inventing a bunch of words to better capture various higher-order emotions. He calls it “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows”. Here, ‘sorrows’ doesn’t have quite the traditional meaning, instead denoting:
- an unspoken intensity of feeling.
- a spark of transcendence that punctuates the flatlining banality of everyday life.
- a healthy kind of ache—like the ache in your muscles after hard exercise—that reminds you that your body exists.
Koenig says that he has chosen to focus on emotions towards the negative, or at least bittersweet, end of the spectrum because positive ones tend to evaporate when we begin to inspect them.
He may or may not know this, but this notion has a basis in neurophysiology. Though it’s been a long time, I recall encountering research in college which claimed that the nervous system has fairly sharp and distinguishable modes corresponding to negative emotions but only a generalized mode for the warm glow of positive emotions.
Why in this subjective landscape is happiness a relatively uniform river flowing amongst sharply-distinguished nations of misery and melancholy?
Venturing some armchair evolutionary psychology, I’d suggest that it’s because negative emotions are more important for survival. When you’re happy things in life are probably going pretty well, and there just isn’t much need to have tools you can use to pick those feelings apart. If you have reason to be sad, miserable, or afraid, however, then having a way to parse these emotions and find their source could be advantageous.
This seems reasonably straightforward, but a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences advances the alternative hypothesis that positive affective states are inherently less variable and more similar than negative affective states, and thus are processed differently.
In addition to being a beautiful project, this has actual research relevance. All the natural languages I’m familiar with are fairly impoverished with respect to the introspective frameworks they provide. Rationality, reflectivity, and secular mysticism would be easier to teach if we had a shared vocabulary for certain kinds of internal experiences.
For example, Koenig made a word for an emotion I previously had to try to describe circuitously:
- gnossienne, n., a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.
This has happened to me a handful of times throughout my life and it has always been an experience so powerful it borders on the religious. I was never able to capture exactly what it felt like, but now that I have a word for it, I can try cultivate it.
What then are some neologisms that might be useful to an aspiring rationalist?
How about a word for what happens when an important piece of information simply fails to make its way up to the level of your conscious awareness?
- agnosis, n., A mental event during which something you should have considered simply fails to occur to you. Not a thought you’re actively flinching away from, but a bubble bursting well below the surface.
Two related phenomena occur when you do manage to avoid agnosis but then you miss some obvious corollary:
- (model/affective) implicasia, n., Also known as implication blindness, implicasia occurs when you fail to consider one or more alternatives or possible outcomes of a situation. These arise from not understanding how a process or device works (‘model’ implicasia), or from emotions like frustration which interfere with cognition (‘affective’ implicasia).
While trying to think of a term for that part of the learning process in which you spend several hours thinking about a difficult problem and find yourself unable to clearly articulate the kind of progress you’ve made I wound up developing a taxonomy of different gnostic states:
- Agnosis, n. — Lacking procedural or declarative gnowledge( ).
- Semignosis, n. — The state in which the seeds of future gnosis are being sown but there is no current, specifiable increase in gnowledge.
- Infragnosis, n. — Gnowledge which you didn’t know you had; the experience of being asked a random question and surprising yourself by giving an impromptu ten-minute lecture in reply.
- Gnosis, n. — Having procedural or declarative gnowledge, and gnowing you have that gnowledge.
- Misgnosis, n. — “Gnowing” something which turns out not to be true.
- Supergnosis, n. — Suddenly grokking a concept, i.e. having an insight. Comes in a ‘local’ flavor (having an insight new to you) or a ‘global’ flavor (having an insight no one has ever had before).
- Misinfragnosis, n. — Gnowledge you don’t gnow you had, but which (alas) ends up being untrue.
- Gnostic phantom, n. — A false shape which jumps out at you because of the way an argument is framed or pieces are arranged; the mental equivalent of a Kanisza figure.
- Saturated gnosis, n. — ‘Common gnowledge’
- Saturated infragnosis, n. — ‘Common sense’, or gnowledge everyone has but probably doesn’t think about consciously unless asked to do so.
(This taxonomy could be extended a lot. If the idea behind ‘semignosis’ isn’t clear read the linked post for an in-depth example)
I’m sure many readers have fallen victim to ‘counterfactual drain’:
- Counterfactual drain, n. — A decrease in motivation or mental energy arising from poring over possible alternatives. Counterfactual drain subsumes the colloquial notion of ‘analysis paralysis’ as a special case, but can also include bigger topics like ruminations over jobs not taken, romantic partners not pursued, etc.
Having long been a fan of Scott Young, Sebastian Marshall, Cal Newport, and similar writers I endeavored to make a label which captures what makes them awesome:
- Ultrapraxists, n., Those who achieve greatness through the conscientious application of basic principles which are commonly known but too-rarely used (as opposed to those who achieve greatness primarily through stratospheric talents not available to more ordinary people.) See Also: “It’s Not Always About the Message”
Do you ever hear the voice of a parent, sibling, teacher, or spouse in your head, even years after they’re no longer a part of your life? What should we call that?
- Soulshatter, n., A simulation of a significant person that you carry around with you. It can be a rich sub-personality that you regularly interact with or just a disembodied voice chiming in here and there with advice, admonishment, or commentary. See Also: Tulpa
Why does any of this matter? For the same reason that words always matter: like inventing a handle you can use to break off and carry around pieces of fog, words limn the contours of experiences, thoughts, and concepts, giving shape to the nebulous and making otherwise hard-to-pin-down things easier to teach, aim towards, or avoid.