Selfish Endevours

Selfish Endeavours

The collective success of sapiens is undeniable. To say we have conquered the world is, in no way, overstating our achievements. So why do we struggle so much as individuals? Our rapidly increasing intelligence generates as much ability to create problems as it does to solve them. The ability to think about why we do things and the ends that we hope to achieve can lead to questions with no solid answers and feelings of nihilism. Could it be that we weigh too much importance on the quality of individual experience? Perhaps we are only supposed to prosper as a collective like a colony of ants. Does it matter if I eat the same food every day? Does it matter if I travel widely and immerse myself in different cultures? You could argue that if people didn’t travel then the aircraft industry could die out along with any tourism dependent occupations, if people didn’t seek out different foods, farming, catering or food production industries wouldn’t be as prolific but what are people taking from these experiences?

Bearing in mind that many of our endeavours are now known to be detrimental – intensive farming, burning thousands of litres of jet fuel into the atmosphere – and members of our unnecessarily large population partaking in them are only doing so to find some metaphysical fulfilment and enrichment in their otherwise unenriched and unfulfilling lives, why do we plough on regardless? There is a school of thought that we are now so entrenched in the way we live that we have no other alternative. Generations of development have left us with a self-perpetuating machine that will break down if the hamsters stop running on the wheel so us hamsters better keep running if we want the machine to keep going even though emissions from the machine are toxic and getting worse all the time as the machine and the number of hamsters gets bigger.

Most of our experiences as individuals are completely unnecessary for us to survive and, in many cases, harmful to ourselves and those around us. We are, for the most part, aware of this but we do it anyway and therein lies the problem. Pursuing individual pleasures doesn’t actually create the feelings of satisfaction that the pursuer would like, or was lead to believe would be achieved by the, oh so clever, marketing of said pleasures and because it was undertaken for individual gain it carries a side serving of guilt and egocentric feelings.

Initially man wanted to fly because we couldn’t and it was a challenge. Now there are planes filling the skies. Intially man wanted to prepare a delicious multifarious range of foods because leaves, berries and raw meat were dull. Now almost any type of food can be easily bought and prepared by walking five minutes to a shop and Googling a recipe. The point is that doing things that are easy and require no effort generally offer small – if any – amounts of satisfaction and fulfillment. A good analogy is when a film does really well in the cinema and becomes an international hit so the film makers assume this is something people really like and go on to make a sequel, and then another, and then another and each time they generally get worse. Humans need things that are challenging and fresh to keep their minds focused and engaged and also to feel a deep level of fulfillment in what they do. Doing things that are easy and repetitive delivers a constantly deteriorating level of satisfaction.

We have reached a stage of stagnation now in our evolution where we sit and watch our TV as it encourages us to make ourselves feel good by buying some brightly coloured shiny shit or lying on our lazy backs in the sun while some poor sod on a meagre wage brings us drinks and food as he or she watches their country become a playground for people with more money than them to live like kings and offer very little in return. We need to start living in far more communal manner and realising that performing challenging tasks for the good of the many will ultimately make us feel much better in ourselves than being able to access our apps wirelessly on our car’s touch screen.
Dopamine is the motivator our brain provides to make us take action towards our goals and it rewards us with surges of pleasure when we achieve them but like any high you can also get a dopamine hangover when goals are achieved and effort levels drop back down. This can be counteracted with good old moderation. This means breaking your goals down into smaller pieces and receiving constant small surges of pleasure and minimal hangovers. So by remaining proactive and doing things that require thought and endeavour you allow yourself to be constantly rewarded by little chemical surges of pleasure in your brain that you do not get from lethargy and consumption. Those feelings of pleasure are also delivered via positive interactions and reactions from other people when your endeavours deliver rewards for them as well as for yourself and can have the knock on effect of supplying the motivation in them to seek out their own chemical rewards and feelings of happiness by helping you achieve your goals and subsequently adopting corresponding goals for themselves. This is how groups of people bond together with common objectives and overcome adversities, form relationships and build communities. None of this is possible through selfish consumption and games of one-upmanship. Making yourself richer, having more trinkets and feeling that you are superior than others in your locality leads to feelings of jealousy, paranoia and resentment and drive us apart instead of together.

Rewards through self obsessive consumption seem appealing to those who have the means as they require very little effort and they enable the participants to achieve a subjective pretense of being someone who is enjoying the chemical rewards and fulfillment that a happy life brings. They can post pictures of them driving their new car or enjoying their Caribbean holiday on social media and tell their friends about it making them appear to be happier than the person who desires what they have. In reality though they are actually becoming bound by the things that they own and the debts they are accumulating. They are restricting their own personal freedoms and constructing a personality that depends on them constantly renewing and maintaining this lifestyle in order to continue appearing to be happier and more fulfilled than their peers. They are also driving others further away from themselves and nurturing feelings of superiority and entitlement that they don’t deserve. Ever noticed how very wealthy people often look angry and stressed? I wonder why….

As I spoke about in a previous blog, the human brain is lazy in nature and seeks out easy ways around things – the path of least resistance. I believe it is this that makes us look for quick and easy ways to achieve good feelings. It is up to the individual to suppress this desire to take the easy road and be aware that, often, the more challenging options deliver the greatest rewards and the deepest levels of satisfaction and emotional fulfillment and acting in an altruistic way enhances those feelings and extends the desire to seek them out to others too and builds more connected and engaged communities for us all to live in.

Soul Music

SoulDo we have a soul?  An internal essence that makes us who we are?  A single self that contains all of our morals, ethics and personality.  Or are we just a calculating machine that functions almost entirely on autopilot and picks from a variety of different selves to suit the requirements of the current environment?  It’s a very human thing to feel like an individual and have control over who we are and what we do but you are not as in control as you think you are.  Your brain is lazy and, given the opportunity, it will always take the path of least resistance.  Rather than looking at hard evidence and statistics on a given subject and forming sensible conclusions.  The right – and fully automated – side of your brain provides intuitive heuristics.  These are short cuts that it uses based on previous experiences you have had of a similar type (intuition is just recognition or familiarity) and, provided the left side of your brain – the bit you control – agrees that there is enough coherence between these shortcuts and the problem at hand, that’s what is offered up as the truth.  It’s a lot like complex versions of the algorithms Facebook or Spotify use to decide what you like  and what might be of interest to you.  If your brain feels cognitive ease (low work load) and the associative coherence is solid, that’s good enough.  It doesn’t matter if actual evidence says otherwise.

If your brain is this lazy it seems unlikely that it is going to carve out a fully functioning, one of a kind self or accommodate an entirely separate spirit or “soul”.  Your morals and ethics are mostly just ideas that appeal to you from various sources such as your parents, teachers, TV, books…etc and these are fluid and change all the time when you find new options that take your fancy more.   Your “self” is just the same.  An ever-changing entity that serves the purpose required at the time.  A famous Thomas Cooley quote says,

“I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am”.

When you are around other people the automated right side of your brain is constantly monitoring the situation as it happens and making adjustments.

“Do the people around me seem happy?”, “are they interested by what I am saying?”, “Do I look good in what I’m wearing?”, “Does that guy think I’m chatting his girlfriend up?”, “Do I like the people around me?”, “Those people over there look more fun”, “I’m bored with this conversation, maybe it’s time to leave”.

All of these perceptions are taking place without your control but they are also shaping the person you are at any given moment.   I am not the same person when I am talking to an attractive single girl in a bar as I am when I am talking to a potential employer in an interview or if I am being condescended to by someone who I don’t really like or if I am trying to comfort a frightened child.  You are basically a biological robot who makes constant calculations and adjustments to who you are and what you believe all the time.  This process enables us to mould ourselves to suit the environment and is one of the many reasons we are so much more successful than other animals.

This behaviour is very tribal, dates back a long way and has its roots in our attempts to work our way up the tribal hierarchy by behaving in ways deemed favourable by our tribal superiors in the hope that we might make our way up the ladder of power and gain preferable choices of partners to mate with and earn more influential and useful friends.  We still do it now except it’s usually in the pursuit of “likes” for pictures depicting us having better lives and being more attractive than our peers that we post on social media.

The feeling of having a soul is, most likely, the best explanation we have as to why we are conscious.  Consciousness make us aware of ourselves almost like we are the pilot of our own bodies and minds.  It has been defined variously in terms of sentience awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel wakefulness having a sense of selfhood or soul.  There is, as yet, no solid explanation for it.  It is both the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.  There is certainly a large debate as to what degree other species experience consciousness and because of this we humans consider ourselves to be superior and we like that feeling.  The soul is what makes us different to them.  So much so that we often find it hard to think of ourselves as being animals at all.  Religion has a huge presence in human history and teaches us that our soul was a celestial gift that God gave to man as he created us and that eternal bliss or damnation awaits it after the physical body dies.

I would argue that what we think is our soul is actually just the narrating left side of our brain doing it’s best to make sense of the constant stream of thoughts and information churned up by the automatic right side.  The left side of our brain, as well as maths and logic, handles what is called ‘thinking in words’ where we think about things linguistically which could appear to be another internal entity talking to you.  We literally live most of our lives on autopilot and our brain does nearly everything we require itself.  Seeing colours, recognising objects, having spacial awareness, hearing sounds and identifying them, making us feel fear or joy or hunger, choosing what or who we like or dislike the look of.  It just gathers up information as it goes and pieces it together to form a bank of data that can be accessed almost instantaneously when needed.  The slower left side of the brain that we control gives us the ability to pick through that information, analyse it and form opinions thereon.   It’s limitations would explain why we feel “human” and not like an infallible computer that never makes errors.  There are, however, many new technologies and ideas emerging that allow us to tamper with the human brain doing such things as controlling which neurons are firing by delivering small electrical currents to certain parts of the brain to do such things as curing depression or giving individuals much longer and more intense attention spans to make high stress tasks more easy to do.  These will bring many moral dilemmas as technologically enhanced humans may start to look down on less efficient basic humans and then we really are facing selling our souls to the devil.  If we have one to sell…



Too Much Choice

choiceBack when Steve Jobs first told us that we could have a thousand songs in our pocket it seemed like a music revolution.  I suppose it was.

I bloody hate when you’re in a room full of people, telling you to put some music on, and you stand staring blankly at Spotify unable to decide what to play, and sometimes even worrying that I play a few favourite songs too often, when the choice available to me is (give or take) about thirty million songs!  Or when a customer asks,

“Is this all the washing machines you have?”,

while they look at the thirty, or so, on display or when you decide to buy a new pair of shoes or a new set of pans.  There is an infinite array of stuff to buy, download, eat, listen to, watch, smoke, drink, date, adopt, shag, marry…etc

On the surface this seems brilliant but a quick flip through any book about buddhism will tell you that a clean uncluttered mind is the path to contentment and, maybe even, enlightenment.   I don’t think we even asked to have this much choice, a lot of it is forced upon us by our culture of nonstop consumption and the need for economic growth.  If there were only a few things out there for us to buy soon everyone would have all that they required and the only necessity to buy again would be when something needed replacing.  This isn’t going to stimulate growth.  We shouldn’t just be buying one item.  We should be buying the item that we like in three different colours and with all the additional accessories that are available to go with it and then when we’ve got better at what ever activity these items were bought to assist us with, we should upgrade the items.  Entry level stuff is no good if your now an intermediate and as you upgrade things become more expensive.  Not so easy to make the purchase now, you don’t want to waste a load of money on the wrong thing!  Enter people like Revoo, Which, Trivago, Trusted Traders and others to help you make the ‘right’ choice.  Is there a ‘right’ choice?  Is it possible to find a washing machine that is custom designed for your specific needs and out of all other the options out there you must to pare it down to this one?  Or is there a song on your IPod that will fit this moment perfectly, if only you could find it?  We convince ourselves that the answer is ‘yes’ and that having every single option immediately available to us will make it easier to find.

The brain, like any other part of your body, becomes tired with over use and by pondering so many choices all the time each and everyday what we are actually doing is fatiguing our brains which eventually exhausts us, makes us angry and, ironically, makes us make bad choices.   This mental fatigue is also what makes you put stupid purchases into your trolley when you are walking around places like B&M where you see things and think,

“That looks like a good idea!”,

even though it is something that you will never use and never wanted.  Our brains are busy enough and throwing a wall of a thousand options at ourselves every time we go looking to buy trivial shit or want to relax with some music is making it do work that is wholly unnecessary and leaves it with less energy for the good stuff.  Is it just coincidence that many times when choosing something we go back to the very first option we looked at?  Maybe instinct is as strong a tool now in modern society as it ever was.  Many animals depend on it.  Maybe we are stifling instinct with too many choices and fear of making the wrong decision in the same way we are stifling our immune system in our over sterile society.   Your instinct learns if you use it regularly and when you make a choice with a positive outcome you get a positive feedback.  The natural reward your brain gives you when you overcome obstacles by yourself.

Having lots of different things to choose from certainly seems great but it has reached obscene levels and is certainly impacting on our mental health and our ability to feel content and happy with the choices we make and – very importantly for some – other people’s opinions of the choices we make.  There is even an argument that people who are given fewer options are more creative as they have to be able to do more with less so as well as making us feel tired, angry, inferior and confused too much choice can make us less creative too.