On Musical Resonance and Mood Modification

(Epistemic Status: A thing I do and probably something most people do, I just like writing words about things most people do)

Have you ever found yourself waking up, and just knowing it was going to be a bad day? Have you ever just felt, like, tired on an existential level and done with things before the sun has even made it above the horizon? Have you ever just dragged yourself through every minute of your day, kicking and screaming? Have you ever listened to your favorite, most high energy song while in this state and…just gotten nothing out of it? This is a problem I have encountered sometimes and I wasn’t really sure how to resolve it for awhile. I had known for some time that I could meditate on an energetic song and kind of get emotional resonance and energy from listening to it, but this was often when I was in a state with high enough energy to want to listen to music. It mostly was increasing a feeling that was already basically there. It was one day when I started feeling this awful that I discovered the useful concept of musical resonance and opted to play something more in line with how I was feeling – slow, spaced out, depressing to a degree, and felt, if not more energetic, at least a little more at peace.

The interesting thing, was, however, the songs I chose after that. I picked a song with a bit more energy, but still in that lowkey territory. Then something that started a bit slow, but got faster and more intense. Then something mid to high intensity. Then something that resonates most strongly with my high energy state…and I discovered that I was in fact in a high energy, fighty state, right where I wanted to be. It turns out, musical resonance can be used to hack your mood, and in turn change the musical resonance to create a more desireable feedback loop. Essentially, if you create a playlist that gently guides your mood from the undesirable state to the desirable state and double down on it, you’ll generally have good control over how you’re feeling as long as you have enough time to do it properly.

The key to designing a playlist like this is largely noticing how you feel when certain songs are particularly resonant, what songs you are drawn to in certain moods, and how certain songs seem to be pulling you mood wise. Track this information, create a chart of songs for your various moods. Pay attention to songs that seem more mixed or universal – these are the most valuable songs because they form good transitions between states. Once you have enough data, you can design lists that guide you from one state to the other, as well as to various intermediaries. In my case, it’s relatively simple because I often round things to “low energy” and “high energy” and most frequently want to be high energy. For others with a bit more nuance, you might have to create more complex lists.

Overall, musical resonance is generally a feedback loop tool – it focuses attention on a given mood and intensifies it. Using it to guide your mood is a little more intensive and takes some time, but can often be worth it if you need to get into a certain state (hence why various playlists for the gym or for interviews often get made). Tracking your states and their relation to music is generally good practice from a systematizing perspective because it can increase ability to optimize reliably. Music in general has a lot of mind space effects that are worth exploring – it’s best to experiment and find out what works for you personally.

Discussion Questions: Have you ever used music to intensify or change an emotion? How well did it work if so? Is there anyone for which music doesn’t seem to affect valence? What is that like? What sorts of mood transitions are most valuable for you?

On Conversational Flow and Resonance

(Epistemic Status: Speculative, a model I haven’t deeply explored – may actually decrease social skill.)

“So, it was a quiet, cold evening in Boston…well ok, it’s never really quiet. Usually there’s sirens or yelling or train noise – I mean, cities in general don’t get quiet. So ok, it’s a cold evening in Boston…colder than it’s been for awhile honestly – I mean, you heard about that thing with the director of the T, right? (One) The whole “no transit system in North America is made for Siberian temperatures!” thing – kinda unprofessional, but honestly, true. …it’s really weird these days how friggen Twitter has become the Communications Channel of The Serious People. Like, what world do we live in where 140 characters is the limit for political and economic policy discussion? (Two)

Though, honestly, it kinda makes sense, technology is so omnipresent these days…how much time do you spend checking your phone, do you think? (Three) Doesn’t it make it so easy to communicate?

Still, in some ways, I think the ease of communication has made it harder to really…connect (Four). A lot of social media shows us our friends and family all day, so we’re not sure why we’re lonely…well, actually, do you feel lonely? (Five) Does in person connection just…feel different?

I feel like…maybe I’m a little estranged from those who love me sometimes. Do you relate? (Six) Have you ever just felt love and not been able to reciprocate? (Seven).”

Conversational flow is your security certificate. The more conversational flow there is, the faster, broader, and more unguarded the conversation gets. It is a mutual agreement that the connection is Trusted. The start of a conversation, especially with a new person, is very careful. It’s meant to follow scripts – to tell you what scripts the other person is running and to tell them what scripts you prefer. It is a mutual search for resonance within the container of the reason for the interaction.

Resonance in and of itself is an important concept – it’s the idea that you can feel things in a very similar way to your conversation partner. That the paths your thoughts take are similar to your conversation partners. That you can model their thoughts and status and feelings without much interpretive work – and that that goes both ways. Resonance is part of the thing that tells you someone is Ingroup. On the flip side, if someone is NOT resonating with you, there’s a sense of awkwardness and anxiety – an aversion to the conversation continuing.

Once resonance has been hit, conversational flow starts, at least a little. You have verified the certificate and now it’s time to determine permissions. You also need to determine who is receiving requests and who is answering them – this changes throughout most conversations, but the ways it changes can be (incompletely) codified. The move of the initiator is creating flow (in the above example, One) and deciding how to drive that flow. The moves available are attempting affect spread (Moving from One to Two by talking about Boston stuff and doing a test of political discussion – might not have worked so well given the tangent seized upon instead; the abstract case is basically starting from one thing and tying another thing into it to see how far out you can broaden a topic while staying resonant), drilling down resonance (going from Two to Three above, finding that shared point about technology and inquiring more about it – Four to Five is also using this move; the abstract case being you found a resonant thing and want to increase flow, so you push deeper into that specific thing), maintain the flow (what’s happening between Three and Four – it’s not really pushing the point deeper, but it’s keeping in the same thread at about the same level), making a risky disclosure (this is what’s happening from Five to Six to Seven – the speaker is both asking for a risky disclosure and making one themselves; abstractly, this is actually kind of tricky because it’s worth a lot of resonance and deep conversation if done right, but if you miss the mark it can almost completely kill flow and affect the overall relationship – I mean, it is a risky disclosure), and backing off (this is turning down the flow, ideally to bring the conversation to a conclusion – I didn’t create an example here.) I’m pretty sure there are other moves, but this tends to be what I’m semiconsciously doing as an initiator when I want to serve conversational flow.

Now, the other side of this is the responder side of things – the moves here are generally simpler but also say a lot about what you’re willing to talk about what you’re not willing to talk about. When a resonance is attempted to create to flow, the responder can choose to accept the resonance (this generally entails just settling into the frame of the conversation, information is largely going to be outflowing from the responder and not much will be coming from the initiator), reject the resonance (this drops the conversational flow and can outright kill the conversation – it might look like giving a very brief answer, or changing the subject suddenly – anything that makes the conversation suddenly awkward – the initiator can then choose whether to back off or create a new resonance), change the resonance (tentatively accept the frame, but then flip the roles to you initiating and putting the other speaker in the responder position – this might look like starting to answer a given question, but then steering to a new topic or a previous topic that focuses more on getting the previous initiator to give information – the information outflow is going to be on the initiator here once you make the change – this is also where backing off as a responder goes), and build the resonance (acceptance of the frame, but basically doing an initiator move like drilling down the resonance or a risky disclosure that provokes the other speaker to want to talk more about their relation to the topic – the information inflow and outflow tends to be egalitarian with this move).

Conversational flow has so many checks placed into it because the more there is, the faster the conversation is (even if it might not be literally faster – someone may be deep in thought while a conversation has powerful flow). When the conversation is faster, the less vetted responses and information sharing is – the trust level of the connection is what allows you to engage is the positive feelings of connection without worrying about it being used to hurt you. Unfortunately, conversational flow is also hackable – we say more online because our conversation partners have much longer to think about a resonant response. I don’t even think it’s a conscious choice to aim for resonance, it’s just the thing you want to have happen and the narrow band and time delay of online interaction makes flow significantly easier to reach. In person, it’s a little harder, but there’s a concept I call a “port scan” that is actually kind of socially aggressive – it’s basically systematically finding someone’s resonance. It seems relatively innocent because conversational flow is in fact the stuff of closeness and connection and generally feels good for all involved, so systematizing a way to find the resonances to reliably create flow should be prosocial; however, it’s also what is politely called “social engineering.”

Overall, conversational flow and resonance are difficult for me to fully understand, but the more I apply the “security certificate” model to it, the more things line up and the scarier flow and resonance become. I’m sure there are other models that are less cynical and might be more useful, but I suppose the lesson here is beware of flow because it’s fun and also how you leak your deepest secrets.

Discussion questions: Does this make sense as a model of conversational flow? Have you ever experienced conversational flow? When resonance occurs, do you find yourself saying more than you intended? Do you notice the moves you make in a conversation? What would you add to this model if it doesn’t fully match your experience?

On the Aesthetic Layer

(Epistemic Status: Speculative, takes time and effort to enact, may be a misattribution of something else)

I wake up. I linger in bed a few moments, before I push away the covers and shiver as I make my way to the bathroom. I brush my teeth, shivering as the New England winter air pervades my drafty apartment. My bed clothes are fairly simple, a long T shirt and some yoga pants. It’s not particularly defining or striking as I make my way back to my room to get dressed in my proper clothes – a pair of black slacks, black socks, a button down shirt, a blazer, my hat, and a long jacket. I feel warmer, but that makes sense because I’ve added 3 layers and my house isn’t that cold. I head out to the bus, into brisk winds and freezing temperatures, but I feel fine. On the bus, those around me are wearing heavier jackets, scarves, gloves, and wool hats. They have at least one additional layer and sometimes two. But things are fine for me – I would rather look like me than maximize warmth.

I have a very strong aesthetic – I have for 3 or so years. It’s very much this kind of androgynous, business casual look that I really just don’t see with most people. I’m very used to how I dress to the point that I really don’t have casual clothes or lazy outfits. I don’t really understand dressing down, or feeling the need to strip off all the clothes the minute you step in the door. I drop my jacket and sometimes my blazer for climate control reasons, but overall, I continue looking like me rather than changing into loungewear. The interesting thing about this is, I also don’t change into activewear when I practice parkour. The only thing I shift is my shoes so that I’m not wearing loafers when trying to have sure footing. I don’t add layers to match frigid temperatures when winter is being cruel. I don’t change my clothes to suit the situation. Interestingly, this doesn’t inhibit me nearly as much as it should. I am so adapted to my clothes that I seem to move in ways that should be difficult for other people dressing like me. I am so adapted to my clothes that they generally feel like they are protecting me more from the elements than would otherwise be expected.

So, what I suspect is happening here is that after several years of wearing the same general genre of clothing, my body is extremely used to this genre of clothing to the point it is almost like a second skin. My muscle memory assumes I’m going to at least be wearing a button down and slacks. It feels wrong to not wear a hat. I’m just comfortable in what I wear to the point that making alterations to adapt to the environment actually feels like it would take more adjustment. I think it is possible that other people with strong aesthetics might experience similar things. I also suspect that there are more intangibles that are carried in the aesthetic layer – ability to wield presence, access to various body language things, etc. Gestures and motions have more power when enhanced by aesthetic. It becomes part of your story, in a way.

I don’t honestly have a great method for developing an aesthetic – I lucked into mine by trying on a short sleeve, button down shirt that was really pretty, and felt a deep resonance that I explored more and more until my wardrobe basically became 7 summer outfits and 7 winter outfits. I think the key is trying different styles and feeling out what lines up with your movements and story best – but the thing is, it could easily be reverse causal. The clothes could in fact influence your story more than the story influences the resonant clothes – and if that’s the case, you’d basically want to optimize for clothes that fit the story you want to be in best.

Overall, the aesthetic layer can be modeled as effectively giving a +1 to various movement, social, and physical tasks – when you’re used to what you’re wearing and have such a deep ease with your style, it makes things flow better and feel better. It doesn’t replace having the right clothes for a given job (if I added 2 layers, I would be warmer even if I didn’t look the way I want to – if I am trying to blend into a social clime where my clothes are out of place, that +1 isn’t going to override the -4 I’m facing, etc.), but it can give an edge in some contexts. Developing an aesthetic layer is likely an individualistic task with an unclear causal flow. Lastly, it takes time to get to the point where you are reaping those bonuses – I’m not sure if this worthwhile to try, but it might be helpful for modeling purposes.

Discussion questions: Do you have an aesthetic? How does it alter the way you go through your day to day life? Do you notice other people with aesthetics? Does the concept of the aesthetic layer resonate?

On The College Application Process

(Epistemic status: Really not my usual fare, more a reflection on a thing)

The date is December 30, 2017. I’m frantically writing a pretentious essay about hypnosis to impress admissions officers. I’m poking everybody who’s even slightly good at writing desperately hoping they have 15 minutes to spare to read my bullshit. I finally consider it acceptably reviewed and upload it – I click submit on the Common Application and breathe a sigh of relief. Sure, technically I had 30 hours left but I had already run far closer to the deadline than I ever should have. But with that final click, half of my college applications are taken care of – the other half aren’t due until March.

The above was the least stressful day of this entire quagmire.

College applications are hard – or at least, prestige college applications are. What was initially a hypomanic plan, almost a joke that was supposed to take 10 minutes, became this wild and crazy rabbit hole into the insane standards that high school students are held to for college applications these days. I am not a high school student, so in some ways it was a little easier, but in other ways it was immeasurably harder. Harvard and MIT are not particularly open to nontraditional students, so to speak – their application process is pretty tailored to the best of the best type A crazy overachiever type. I decided I’d apply anyway in a fit of pique, because the idea was that I basically had nothing to lose besides the application fee and it’d be hilarious if some cobbled together application got me in.   The first thing I ran into was the fact I apparently needed to take standardized tests. Now, if you’ve never actually taken either of the SAT or the ACT (I hadn’t, actually, before this), it turns out they’re pretty mindnumbing. You get up at 0800 on a bloody Saturday, shuffle about in a crowded high school that has no right being open on a Saturday, and eventually sit down in too tiny desks, and fill in bubbles. But you can’t fill them in too fast, you see – they have to walk you through each step or there might be an Irregularity, which is a Very Serious Issue and you don’t want that to happen. Once they finish teaching Bubble Filling 101 with your demographics and various numbers to identify your test, they let you loose on the actual material which is largely just endless questions verifying yes, you CAN in fact read, do arithmetic, and if it’s a REALLY good day, write. You sit there for 4 hours, being watched the entire time to make sure you don’t do anything Untoward like Cheating on this Very Meaningful Test, and after your hand has fully cramped up from the Bubble Filling Final, you finally get released into the glorious sunlight. Now, like, apparently classes are taught in these Bubble Filling rooms normally so geez do I feel bad for kids these days. No idea how they deal with it.

Anyway, that was the first sign that these applications might take more than 10 minutes – I in fact lost 4 Saturdays to all these Very Meaningful Tests. Next was the demographics information. This should have been easy, but it turns out prestige schools are not just interested in you, but also your family. So I had to dig back in the family tree and see exactly how colleged my immediate relations were. This wasn’t too hard, exactly, but it was an unexpected barrier. It only got worse from there – I had to dig out my high school transcript, because that is Clearly The Most Relevant Thing to someone who has been out of high school for some time and is largely leaning on community college grades. I then had to figure out what exactly in my crazy, amazing, and novelty seeking life pattern matches to Extracurricular Activities – fortunately, between improv, parkour, and hypnosis I cobbled together something that actually looked cool. Overall, this section was busy work and storytelling checks – not the worst of it, probably only took 2-3 hours total.

The worst of it was recommendations. While the schools were happy to accept recommendations from my teachers at the community college, they were just fascinated to find out more about my high school years – so it’s like November and I’m realizing that, hey, wait, maybe I should actually contact my high school about this. It turns out that high school counselors actually help people through the college application process as part of their jobs. Weird, I know. So I get in touch with a counselor I’ve never met, find out almost every teacher I had doesn’t actually work at my high school anymore, and more or less beg for even the slightest lead to pull a high school rec for the schools I’m applying to. I somehow manage, by December, to get a rec from a high school teacher as well as get all the various high school reports; I’m still not sure how this actually worked but I am grateful for everyone at the high school who worked with me on this. Now, you’d think by November I’d have learned that “Hey, maybe I should use those structures that are in place to help people apply to colleges” is a good plan – except I didn’t contact my community college advisor until December. Turns out she had a wealth of information for doing exactly what I was trying to do and could provide additional reports and transcripts to reflect the proper part of my academic career. Fortunately, with her help, I was able to pull together the rest of my external documentation to fulfill the requirements of these applications – total time spent making calls and sending emails and having meetings was probably a good solid 4-6 hours.

Lastly, of course, I’m sure you all are wondering where I talk about the essays. The essays were both very easy and also the most elusive and frustrating part for me. It turns out a personal essay just feels awkward to write – I’m facing both a word limit and a sense that I’m telling a story to someone who’s aesthetic I don’t know. It’s a blind shot at resonance in a way that’s almost alienating. Pouring your heart out to the impersonal void of admissions, more or less. In a way, the practice I’ve gotten writing this blog made the essays I wrote possible – without being used to having a certain voice, I would have been a lot more stressed about how to write. Even with the experience I’ve accumulated, it just felt…awkward. Overall, the personal essays and MIT short answers probably took me about 10-15 hours, between reviews, rewrites, and time spent pondering how to tell a consistent story.

So, that was my college application adventure – I think the most depressing part is my plan was to do some social engineering and also do an additional supplement to make my application stand out further. It turned out I flat did not have the time to play these cards properly between work, college, and my existing social life. All those extracurriculars I listed got in the way of some possible optimizations paths. I did end up going on a few college tours which was fun because I was literally the only person asking questions on my own behalf – and frequently the first one to even ask questions (another 4 hours). I got into some interesting social scenes (I’m not going to count this time, I would have done it even if I weren’t trying to drastically alter my life course). Overall? A process that was supposed to take 15, maybe 30 minutes, be a funny joke, and be forgotten about after ended up taking up around 40 hours of my life.

Now here’s the thing I’m not mentioning with that hard number of 40ish hours. This process wrecked my Cognitive Credit Line. Almost every hour, idle thoughts would go to how I was handling part of my applications. Every conversation would inevitably turn into a progress report on my college apps. I was in a sea of advice on how to approach various things (for which I’m thankful – seriously, all my friends reading this, you were invaluable in your support and advice on this). I had probably 20-30% of my cognition spent on the hard problem of getting into a prestige school – and I’m not even done yet. I’d idly research What A Good Score On The Very Meaningful Test looks like, I’d look at sample essays, I’d run numbers on my odds, I’d stress myself out over something that was basically a whim. This wasn’t efficient – it might pay off big, but it wasn’t efficient.

Still, there’s an upside to all this – I learned a lot during this process – on the object level, I understand the college process way, way better than I ever did before. I know who to talk to about what things and how to get around weird situations (of which I had several just by being a nontraditional student). I also have the fulfilled feeling of having Completed A Project which I didn’t expect to get (I’m still technically not done but, like, at this point my other 3 applications will be a breeze. The hard part was building the process – I’m basically just iterating that process at this point.) I got to explore the concept of conversational refinement – talking to people in succession and basically having my ideas/approach refined by additional information and pitching the new versions to people. I managed to pull off the applications while working, schooling, and socializing. That’s actually much harder than I thought it would be. Overall? I feel like I grew, but it was costly.

The lessons I’d take from the college application ordeal are largely:

  • Know when to stop. Know when you aren’t going to make things better by fretting more about them. My essays were more or less fine after two or three rewrites but I still ran them by way more people than I needed to because I was fretting. I also worried way too much about Very Meaningful Test scores when there was nothing I could realistically do about them after I took the tests.
  • Know your dependencies – I didn’t take the high school reports being requested seriously, and I didn’t line up my rec letters until the last minute. I also didn’t leave myself time for an SAT Subject Test retake (this was probably one of my biggest errors).
  • Know how to take risks – I think I could have gotten a 5-10% boost to my odds by making a good pitch to an existing faculty member at any institution I applied to – I may still want to do this; what I fixated on, however, was the risk of blowing my shot by being too awkward around someone way more academically high status than I am and it somehow impacting my application.
  • Know who you are – I learned a lot about what approaches are aligned with who I think of myself as, and which ones weren’t. I tried several kind of awkward things that would have worked in the hands of a different person.

So, college applications these days are largely a slog – I have no idea how high school students do them but I respect them all the more for dealing with this ridiculous stress. More concerningly, I think it just gets worse from here – college is an increasingly broken institution and the applications are mostly just a symptom. I don’t know how to fix it…but hey, maybe after 4 years in the system I’ll have a solution.


Discussion Questions: If you are in college or applying to college, what aspects of the process were toughest for you? Which ones were easiest? Do you think you’ve managed to learn any useful lessons going through this? How would you change the process so that people are better matched to a college that would lead to their thriving?