Beeminder Forum

"The Willpower Instinct" Book Club, Intro and Ch. 1

I just finished Chapter 1. This prompted me to

  1. start a nebuminding goal (I’d link to the forum post on this if I weren’t commenting on my phone) for taking notes and working through the exercises.

  2. to actually restart my meditation goal. For several years now it seems that every time someone mentions meditation I’ve thought to myself “Oh yeah. Meditation seemed to help me with a lot of things back when I was doing it regularly. I should do it again.” So this time I had that thought I restarted the goal.


Unfortunately, it looks like my beeminder forum summaries are inconveniently timed – I just got the notification that this thread exists today. I’ll see if I can get ahold of the book (I hate ebooks for useful information, but that might be the only way to get it quickly) and catch up this week!

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Dear Queen Bee, what is nebuminding?

Bees doing meditation - PLEASE be really careful with that stuff. Meditation techniques were intended to destroy the sense of self and reach enlightenment, and have been developed for that purpose. They consequently can be extraordinarily destabilizing and can lead to some extreme side effects like depression, panic attacks, psychosis, delusions, megalomania, and losing touch with reality.

Please make sure you are seeing a qualified therapist and/or working with an experienced meditation teacher. This stuff isn’t just for fun and it isn’t just some relaxing time - please be responsible and careful and please read up on it. Look up the “Dark Night” for more on the negative and dangerous side effects.

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:grimacing: Oh! Sorry folks, I didn’t intend to zoom ahead – I misunderstood the schedule. I’ll refrain from getting ahead further. I would rather have the discussion when everyone feels ready for it! :zipper_mouth_face:

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I’ve read the first chapter! Here was my favorite quote:

Before you saw the outrageous price, you would have needed some serious prefrontal cortex intervention to shut down the spending impulse. But what if your brain registers an instinctive pain response to the price? Studies show that this actually happens—the brain can treat a hefty price tag like a physical punch to the gut. That instinctive shock is going to make the job easy for your prefrontal cortex, and you’ll barely need to exert any “I won’t” power.

That’s some good Beeminder apologetics! Here’s me in “Ego Depletion Depletion” saying something similar:

With the right inducement (say, continued employment) you can exert superhuman willpower, like waking up early and going to work every day for years or decades. Which is to say that with the right incentives, willpower doesn’t even need to be invoked. You can route around it and find creative ways to induce yourself to do what you really want to do.

Note that this book was written before Ego Depletion (“willpower is like a muscle”) was debunked (in fact it was published 2 months after Beeminder launched), so that’s something to keep in mind in later chapters probably. See also my followup to “Ego Depletion Depletion”, “What Is Willpower?”.

Willpower Trichotomy

Back to chapter 1, I like McGonigal’s willpower trichotomy, which I’d translate into Beeminderese as:

  • “I will” power = what you’d use a Do More goal for
  • “I won’t” power = what you’d use a Do Less goal for
  • “I want” power = keeping your long-term goals in focus so you make the right tradeoffs in the moment

Maybe “I want” power is like meta-willpower that, if mastered, makes Beeminder superfluous? Something to think about as I read further…

Contra Meditation

Also I have some extremely half-baked (epsilon-baked?) thoughts on meditation:

Remember Dual N-Back? My tentative conclusion on that was that you can practice that game and it makes you better at the game but it doesn’t transfer very well to other domains and so it’s probably not worth the time if your goal is to be smarter or have better short-term memory or whatever skills that game reinforces. Might as well get the practice following intellectual pursuits that have intrinsic value.

So my (highly tentative) theory is that meditation is similar. Practice will make you better at using your prefrontal cortex to redirect your attention back to your breath as it wanders (this was an excellent explanation of the value of meditation) but I don’t expect it to transfer especially well. Or not enough to offset the opportunity cost of meditating. I feel like there are things you can do that kill two birds with one stone. What about exercising and practicing redirecting your attention to the skating / pedaling / whatever motion?

Or what about targeting willpower even more directly? Put a bowl of jellybeans or whatever on your desk all day and find some way to not eat them (presumably with a commitment device, or maybe it would work better if you gradually trained yourself to ignore the jellybeans despite no immediate negative consequences for eating them). I’m interested to hear why meditation proponents think meditation beats those less time-consuming alternatives.

(I might argue that it needs to beat them by a lot, given the time cost.)

PS: Enlightenment, Nebuminding, and SuperBetter Twin Power

Slate Star Codex’s review of “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” makes for fascinating reading (as always) and may address @zedmango’s worry about meditation.

What @bee’s calling nebuminding is this:

How weird is this: McGonigal has an identical twin sister who also does seemingly very Beeminder-relevant work on improving humans via games. She’s the creator of SuperBetter, which I don’t understand but seems Habitica-like.


Awesome that you brought up DNB - I made a goal for it the other day and I want to get up to doing it every day.

As I understand it there is some solid evidence that DNB does increase working memory in general (basically giving you more RAM) and may also increase fluid intelligence as well, and these are pretty transferable. I have found it to be helpful in general but I need to get back into it.

That itself is a form of meditation, not an alternative to meditation. Walking meditation, for instance, is one of the traditional forms, and you can meditate while doing any kind of exercise.

I deal with depression and meditation is the only thing I’ve found that actually treats it. There’s a huge difference in my mood when I meditate vs. when I don’t. It’s incredibly helpful in making things less sticky and bringing me back to a state of sati (often mistranslated ‘mindfulness’ but really more like ‘taking note of the present moment as if trying to remember it’) - it just brings more peace and calm in my life. So very transferable.

Since virtually everything you do is about attention and the direction of attention, it’s hard for me to see how meditation could possibly not transfer. But again, remember, the main point of meditation is to become enlightened.

I’m also happy you linked to Scott’s review of the first edition of my favorite book ever, MCTB, by the Enlightened One and Conqueror of Foes, Daniel Ingram, MD (the second edition just came out). It was indeed MCTB’s warning about the Dark Night that I was thinking of - he’s very careful about warning people of the risks. Of course if you’re like me there’s no way you could possibly stay away from trying to become enlightened in any case.


You need to read her book, then play the “game” (although last time I tried to login it was not working)

My extremely introductory/amateur-level of meditation and the related physiological effects, is that a good, focused run/skating/biking/whatever would have similar results in the ability to concentrate, willpower, distraction avoidance, etc

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Which HRV wearable do you have? I have a vivosport which is…fine I suppose. I wish the HRV indicator would notify me when my HRV spikes.

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I’ve had great results from 5-15 minutes of meditation, but only after doing so daily for a few months. I tend to engage in mental loops of overthinking, get distracted by spontaneous thoughts, or focus on negative thoughts. After meditating regularly I noticed a drastic difference in my ability to notice when I was getting distracted from my main task and just generally to avoid engaging thoughts that weren’t helpful.

I’ve also done a lot of guided meditations that focus on specific mental skills, noticing specific thought patterns. So I do think the skills in meditation are highly transferable, more so than I’ve noticed from exercise. If your goal is to establish or modify habits, you have to notice when you’re engaging in automatic behavior, and meditation is great for that.

But your mileage may vary - you may already have the mental habits I’m talking about. I tend to have attention issues in general, so I think it’s more valuable for me than most. I think if you’re skeptical and think meditation is a waste of time, you will probably prove yourself right. But you might not be able to properly evaluate the opportunity cost without sticking to a meditation routine for 1-3 months first and seeing the benefits first-hand.


Oh damn, I missed this. I’m in and will work on catching up, stat.


Bees doing meditation - PLEASE be really careful with that stuff. Meditation techniques were intended to destroy the sense of self and reach enlightenment, and have been developed for that purpose. They consequently can be extraordinarily destabilizing and can lead to some extreme side effects like depression, panic attacks, psychosis, delusions, megalomania, and losing touch with reality.

Please make sure you are seeing a qualified therapist and/or working with an experienced meditation teacher.

I appreciate the concern, but I can’t help feeling like this seems overblown. If I can make an analogy to playing the piano (something I have a lot of experience with), it seems to me like it’s as if someone said “I heard that playing scales on the piano for 5 minutes a day can improve your singing ability, so I’m going to try that” and I were to respond by saying “PLEASE be really careful! Piano practice techniques are intended to strip down your finger muscles and replace them with more fast-twitch muscle, and to build up insane amounts of stamina. They can lead to extreme side effects like cramps, permanent muscle damage, and even complete finger paralysis. Please make sure you are working with a qualified and experienced piano teacher!” While not necessarily false, this statement would be unhelpful since the person is not intending to pursue the piano seriously and is not going to get anywhere near to the sorts of practice techniques that could cause muscle damage.

However, I am willing to be convinced that this is a bad analogy.


A better analogy - in fact, one that the Arahat Dr. Ingram uses - would be a medication that generally has good results but sends 1 out of 1000 people to the psych ward. Shouldn’t people be warned of these kind of side effects?

Worse yet, there are few people who understand or are familiar with the Dark Night and not really any good ways to treat it.

Meditation has side effects at least as serious as any medication, and yet people treat it like candy as though there were no risk of serious harm.

There really is no risk to practicing the piano for 5 minutes a day, whereas there is a serious risk to doing certain kinds of meditation 5 minutes a day.

And a bigger part of the problem is that most people don’t really understand or believe in enlightenment, and see meditation just as a relaxation exercise, taking the false impression that it’s just a matter of getting more and more relaxed, calm, and centered, instead of all the crazy loops and whirlwinds that it takes you on.

OK, thanks, I buy that.

Can you clarify? Which “certain kinds” of meditation do you mean? Are there any simple types of meditation which carry little or no risk?

Zedmango, do you believe the steps outlined in the chapter have a serious risk? If you are talking about things that are not in the reading, it would be very helpful to clarify. The word meditation is greatly overloaded. If it’s not related to the reading, it may be best to make a new thread and link to it from here.

I’m looking at this thread and I’m not really excited about where it will end up after another 8 chapters! If anyone has any thought about managing this, please let me know!


It might make sense to create one thread per chapter instead of one for the whole book! That will also make it clear what is being discussed and make it easier for folks who are a bit behind or ahead of schedule, because conversations about multiple chapters can be going on in parallel instead of being all mixed together.


I have the Vivosmart 3… same engine as the Vivosport, I think.

I also wish it had real time alerts!

I also had reservations at this point in my first reading due to ego depletion, and I was pleasantly surprised that when she gets to talk about it explicitly later, she has some reservations about it. Spoilers, I guess :stuck_out_tongue:


I am also late to the party but going to jump in to catch up