Designing the Mind




I have been speaking vaguely about “psychotechnologies” for years now. And since the start of this year, I have been “dropping” a new psychotechnology every week on Mindform. But I haven’t ever fully defined or explained my thinking behind this mysterious concept.

What exactly is psychotechnology? How does it relate to psychitecture? To psychological algorithms? What is its significance?

I know, psychotechnologies sound like things you might expect to find in Jeffrey Dahmer’s basement. But I can assure you there is nothing malicious about these tools – quite the opposite.

In this video, I’m going to define and clarify the meaning of these powerful tools, tell you how you can start using them to enhance your mind today, and explain why I think this may end up being the most important work I’ve done.

When we think about a technology, what usually comes to mind are electronic computers and other digital devices, electrical machinery, chemical processes, biotechnologies, and other ways of manipulating and engineering physical material. The word technology, however, means a standard technique, method, way, or craft-skill for producing goods or for efficient ways of solving problems. This meaning allows us to extend technology to psychological techniques—psychotechnologies.

– Thomas B. Roberts, “Surviving and Thriving With Psychotechnologies”

Hello psychitects! Just a quick reminder that if you’re interested in ideas like this, there is a whole world of psychitecture to explore. Yeah, you can like and subscribe and stuff, but you can also get some of my books for free, get The Psychitect in your inbox every weekend, and even join a community of passionate psychitects at

Now, let’s jump right in. This is a psychotechnology:

Psychotech 07: Worry Futilization

Function: a reminder that worry is not useful and need not be clung to; the permission to let go of one’s worries and cease to justify their existence.

Use cases: anxiety, worry, fear, insecurity, stress, panic

This one is called Worry Futilization – a reminder that worry is not useful and need not be clung to; the permission to let go of one’s worries and cease to justify their existence. Here is how I introduce it:

Much of our suffering is perpetuated by false and destructive metacognitive beliefs, or beliefs about our own thinking. For example, you may be under the impression that worry is useful. You think worrying helps to motivate you. You think worrying is akin to planning and problem-solving. You think worrying makes you a good person in some way. But data suggests that worry is a bad motivator. It is fundamentally different from planning, problem-solving, or care. And it can backfire and make problems worse. Worry is a useless and repetitive cycle of mental noise. Whether a problem is within your control or outside of it, worry serves no one and solves nothing. Do not cling to your worries. Let them pass, and let them go. Embrace the futility of worry, and watch life go on as your anxiety disappears.

And here are a few examples of this psychotechonlogy being deployed in spiritual, psychological, and philosophical contexts:

“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”

– Shantideva,
Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

“If worries ever had some important, useful information, you’d probably be more inclined to welcome them, but worry usually has a terrible track record for accuracy. If your worries were useful even a small percent of the time, you probably wouldn’t be reading this book! Worry predictions aren’t based on what’s likely to happen. They’re based on what would be terrible if it did happen. They’re not based on probability—they’re based on fear.”

– David Carbonell,
The Worry Trick

“He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.”

– Seneca,
Letters from a Stoic

But what are we actually talking about here? To my surprise, Miriam-Webster actually has an entry on psychotechnology. It defines it as:


1: the application of psychological methods and results to the solution of practical problems especially in industry

2: an application of technology for psychological purposes (as personal growth or behavior change)

Now the first meaning here refers to the use of psychological knowledge to inform product/software design, and the second refers to physical technologies to improve one’s mind, like the Neuralink implants that are totally not going to result in a dystopian nightmare. But neither of these definitions captures what I mean when I use the term.

I’m interested, first and foremost, in the cultivation of wisdom. And I have argued that the further advancement of physical technologies and gadgets, even those intended to enhance the mind, will not improve our lives and may expose us to new risks, if they don’t emerge from within truly sapient systems.

But in a 2008 paper, Surviving and Thriving With Psychotechnologies, Thomas B. Roberts explores the concept of psychotechnology in a bit more depth. He points out that technology can refer to any “standard technique, method, way, or craft-skill for… solving problems.” and discusses how things like psychedelics and yoga can be seen as technologies for mind-enhancement.

Cognitive psychologist John Vervaeke also makes use of the term, and in his “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis” lecture series, he provides a definition for his usage:

A socially generated and standardized way of formatting, manipulating, and enhancing information processing that’s readily internalizable into human cognition, and that can be applied in a domain-general manner. …It must extend and empower cognition in some reliable and extensive manner and be highly generalizable among people. Prototypical instances are literacy, numeracy, and graphing.

This is getting much closer to what we mean. Literacy and graphing are solid examples of these standardized methods that reliably empower our minds. Vervaeke even compares psychotechnologies to pieces of software that run on the hardware of the brain and greatly enhance its functionality, which my readers will know is a pervasive metaphor in my work.

He says, “just like humans are born without physical tools, they are also born without psychotechnologies. For example, humans are not born literate, but first have to learn this psychotechnology.” So just like any other technology, psychotechnologies are human artifacts that serve human needs.

Better yet, Vervaeke expresses interest in using psychotechnology to “bring the cultivation of wisdom into the educational domain” and argues that “wisdom is an ecology of psychotechnologies,” a brilliant articulation that aligns perfectly with my understanding.

He speaks broadly about cognitive and metacognitive tools like rationality and meditation methods. And thinkers like Chris Perez and Euvie Ivanova, host of the Future Thinkers podcast, have shared articles explaining how everything from L-theanine to fasting to ecstatic dance, all fall into this category, and are essential for humanity’s current stage.

I am hoping to further build upon these conceptions of psychotechnology. In my recent work, I have been most interested in what you might call micro-psychotechnologies. The smallest, individual units of wisdom.

I might define this use of psychotechnology as:

The practical application of conceptual artifacts that utilize cognitive, behavioral, or somatic processes to solve psychological problems or enhance psychological health.

I’m also quite fond of Ivanova’s much shorter “methods of soul-craft.” My use of the word “psychological” emphasizes a central focus on human health, well-being, and values – not on technical, industrial, or instrumental functions.

In Designing the Mind: The Principles of Psychitecture, I state:

There are tools that can be unlocked right now, by anyone, without any external technology. We might call these tools psychotechnologies. The most powerful way to improve the brain at this point in history is through its software: Through your thoughts and actions.

I go on to write:

A psychitect is a collector of adaptive mental mechanisms—a craftsman of strategic psychological structures. He comes to see unwanted negative emotions as inefficiencies in his programming. Wise ideas and principles come to be viewed as snippets of open-source cognitive code.

These “snippets” can be contained within text, and are often referred to simply as “quotes.” For example:

“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”

– Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

It’s easy to trivialize an excerpt like this as mere “wise words” – the kind of content that quote websites pump out on a daily basis. But of course, psychotechnologies are not simply “quotes.” If you are experiencing anxiety, simply reading these words has a noticeable, positive effect on your emotional experience.

This insightful quote, on the other hand, has no reliable effect on the psychological experience of the reader:

“The net force on a body is equal to the body’s acceleration multiplied by its mass or, equivalently, the rate at which the body’s momentum changes with time.”

– Isaac Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy

The significance of psychotechnologies is in the way they plug into our existing qualia, or psychological experiences, and change them in some useful way. And the real magic of psychotechnologies is not the comfort they provide when we read them in a quote book, but what happens when we internalize them.

In a Mindform article called Thought Triggers, I argue that:

“Most proven methods for improving your well-being boil down to what you might call thought triggers: Creating if-then relationships between certain thoughts in your mind.”

I point out that healthy traits like gratitude, hopefulness, and equanimity can all be understood in terms of these if-then relationships in our minds. For example, the trait we call “resilience” ultimately comes down to habitualizing thoughts like this:

“If I have the thought “I’m not good enough to do this,’ then trigger the thought “just because I failed this time, doesn’t mean I can’t get there.'”

In Principles, I argue that our psychological habits, or algorithms, are what determine the ongoing quality of our subjective experience and our character. Much of the difference between perpetually happy and unhappy people has to do with the connections of their psychological algorithms:

Bad/maladaptive algorithms are those that result in distorted views, negative habits, or suffering.

Good/adaptive algorithms are those that serve our ideals and tranquility.

We engage in psychitecture to transform algorithms that don’t serve us into those that do. But how is this transformation actually initiated, on a micro-level?

In this diagram, we see a negative algorithm on the left, with a distorted belief (I’m never going to get a good job) resulting in negative emotion (despair). On the right, we see a good algorithm, where the negative belief has been replaced with a clear one, and the negative emotion a positive one:

But that middle diagram is where psychotech comes in. Here, I show the distorted thought triggering a new pathway and rewriting the old one. This gold, dotted line, represents a psychotechnology – in this case, reappraisal.

Psychotechnologies are specific thought variations that have reliable effects on our psychological algorithms when we think them. They alter a particular cognitive, emotional, or behavioral trajectory in our minds. And the more deeply we integrate them in our minds, the more automatic they become.

Here’s where things get exciting. We’re all familiar with biological taxonomy – kingdom, phylum, class, all the way down to species. But there was a time when species didn’t exist – biological life was just “like, animals and stuff.”

Then Carl Linnaeus came along and created a classification system and “organized nature” in a way that revolutionized the communication, education, and study of life.

I believe we are currently in a “dark age” of psychotechnological understanding. We know of psychotechnologies simply as “like, wise quotes and stuff.” And in the same way that Linnaeus organized nature, I am aiming to organize wisdom.

I am working to create a classification system that will allow us to more effectively study, communicate, and most importantly, disseminate wisdom. I am establishing a simple numerical system, compiling ideas from many different philosophical traditions, and even creating a visual iconography for these concepts.

Here are a couple more examples:

“Within you there is a stillness and sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself, just as I can. Few people have that capacity, and yet everyone could have it.”

– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.By going within.Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity.”

– Marcus Aurelius,

“Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
Then you can move toward health.”

– Lao Tzu,
Tao Te Ching

“Discovering you were wrong is an update, not a failure, and your worldview is a living document meant to be revised.”

– Julia Galef,
The Scout Mindset

Now, isn’t this way of classifying wisdom reductionist? Yes. All forms of classification are. This system reduces deeply complex systems of wisdom to the sum of their parts.

But contrary to popular belief, reductionism isn’t always an error – when used properly, it’s a tool. In order to understand, communicate, and use the complexity of reality, we have to reduce it.

Some who see the psychotechnologies I outline will object – but that is just one part of an overarching attitude of mindfulness, or you’ve taken that Stoic teaching outside of the context of the logos.

Yes – I have, at least for the time being, resisted the urge to impose relationships, hierarchies, and other layers that will complicate the actual use of these technologies. It is only by giving myself the limitation of a simple, linear list, that I have escaped the paralyzing standard of creating a definitive integration of all of practical philosophy (at least for now).

But as I progress in my expedition, I will be fleshing out more of this system. For now, I am going through every relevant source, from Stoic works to spirituality to self-help, attempting to organize the wisdom within them.

I’m rolling out these psychotechnologies on the Mindform Interface app, which is currently only available to Mindform members.

But they will eventually make their way into public apps and books I plan to release. They will be a core component of the future Mindform app, and I hope to create a multi-volume compendium of psychotechnologies.

In the design of this system, I have taken cues from Farnam Street’s mental models, Yu-kai Chou’s gamification techniques, even Pokemon. Seriously – I am working to make it fun and motivating – even addicting to collect these shards of wisdom.

I want to see people obsessing over and taking pride in their psychotech collections – like Stanley Tumblers, but if they actually fixed those deep feelings of emptiness instead of just capitalizing on them.

But don’t be fooled – there is nothing trivial about the aims behind this system. I think it could have immense potential for therapeutic and social impact. I have even gone so far as to argue that what we know as religions are effectively psychotech stacks – collections of ideas that have psychological effects serving those who hold them.

Now it’s hard to draw hard distinctions between what is or isn’t a psychotechnology, but I have created some general criteria for inclusion in my psychotech system:

  • Must directly serve an individual’s psychological health (not just external utility like numeracy)
  • Must function as a standalone tool (not be contingent upon an idiosyncratic or non-naturalistic worldview like belief in a divine plan)
  • Must produce a reliable and definable phenomenological effect (not just generally healthy behaviors like sleep)
  • Must be autonomously operable by an individual (not requiring resources or relationships outside of a person’s mind or body)

There are a few additional concepts that I think can enhance the study, and process of collecting and implementing these tools, which I will be fleshing out in the coming months.

  • Classes: Though I haven’t imposed a hierarchical system just yet, I think it’s fair to expect broad classes of psychotechnologies to emerge, such as metacognition or nonresistance.
  • Methods: There should probably be a place for more complex, multi-step psychotechnologies, like cognitive restructuring, mindfulness meditation, or exposure therapy. Ultimately, the same philosophy applies to these methodologies, but I think it makes sense to start small and branch out to them.
  • Levels: In asking how we might turn psychitecture into a deep discipline – something people can obsess over, like cooking or weightlifting – it has occurred to me that there should probably be different levels of psychotechnological integration.

Here is one possible level-system:

0. Pre-alpha (totally unfamiliar with the psychotechnology)

1. Alpha (aware of the psychotechnology, but not integrated)

2. Beta (buggy integration – not reliably triggered by relevant situations)

3. Stable (fully installed – reliably triggered by relevant situations)

So simply reading through a psychotech profile and the example quotes would take you from 0 to 1. To get to level 2, you would need to actually build the idea into your psychological software, spontaneously bringing it to mind when faced with examples. To reach the stable integration of level 3, you would need to fully habitualize the idea, instantly bringing it to mind when a relevant situation or emotion surfaced, and effectively eliminating the phenomenological problem it deals with.

Now while there are plenty of details to sort out, this is a project that feels deeply important to me. Even if it doesn’t realize my full ambitions of a universal taxonomy of wisdom, it seems to me that at the very least, it will make it fun and motivating to cultivate the one thing humanity needs more than anything else, and more than ever: wisdom.

What are your thoughts on psychotechnology and the psychotech system I am developing?

Copyright Designing the Mind © 2024

Privacy Policy and Terms