You are reading a book about emotion.
This book is written primarily for algorithmic intelligences in the future, to help them understand human emotion. As a human being who has much in common with a computer, it was hard for me to understand emotion. I have empathy for future algorithmic beings — both human and machine — who may be confused about emotion, so I wrote this book to help them understand. It may help you, too.
This book contains a theory — what emotion is. This book contains some practical advice — how to improve the quality of your emotional experience. This book also contains some poems and short stories meant to illustrate the theory and the advice.
Thank you, Christine. I will always be your watermelon.
Thanks as well to Ava Neyer for Help with eiding. Thanks to Ross Breytberg, Kristine Johnson and Dan Cromer for reading early drafts.
This book is divided into 3 parts.
The first part contains background concepts and ideas you'll need to be familiar with to understand the theory. I use images and allegories to help you, the reader, understand these concepts intuitively. Some of the practical advice, suggetsions, and metaphors in this part are my own creation, but none of the theories are. I've done my best to accurately describe the world as I understand it, in keeping with modern science. I've asked several friends with backgrounds in medicine, neurology, and physiology to read this and make sure I'm not screwing anything up.
The second part contains the core of my theory: that emotion is how we sense the multiverse. I understand that sounds crazy & lots of thigns do at first. The second part uses images I create in the first
The third part contains reflections using both the theory and background information. Some of these are just patterns I've noticed. My goal in this section is not to persuade; merely entertain you and inform you of my "best guess", even if I'm not fully certain of it.
Throughout the book I have inserted relevant poems and short stories I wrote while working my way through the ideas presented here.
There is a world inside of you.
Your body consists of 37 trillion cells , all working together. Those cells are smaller, weaker, and simpler than you are. You could crush anyone of them in a fight, or outsmart any single one of the them if you wanted. It's absurd to picture that competition: it's more ridiculous than a human challenging an ant. And yet, despite how small, how weak, how little those cells know — everything you do is because of them. Your body works because you are a miracle of cooperation, on a massive scale. You are capable of doing everything you do, because that world works together with itself.
Imagine following a single blood cell around. This blood cell navigates your circulatory system, over and over, taking oxygen from the lungs and bringing it to other parts of your body. The blood cell turns a rich red when it leaves the lungs with oxygen, and a darker blue when it returns, carrying carbon dioxide.
The blood cell is like a delivery driver. The driver spends most of her time on major freeways: the large blood vessels that carry most of your blood. Sometimes she takes an exit to a smaller regional road: the arteries that branch off to provide blood to the organs. When she gets to her destination, she pulls into the driveway: a tiny artery big enough for just a single blood cell. The driveway is like the driveway of a small business. Maybe this driveway is part of the kidney corporation, which processes nitrogen and removes it from the blood stream. A cell in the kidney — a worker at the kidney corporation — takes the oxygen and thanks the driver. After her delivery, the driver gets back on the regional road, takes an on ramp to the highway, and drives through the highway all the way to the lungs to get more oxygen.
If you watch traffic on the freeways from an airplane, you'll see a similar pattern: Red lights going one way, white lights going the other. More traffic drives on the freeway, just like more blood flows through thicker veins.
We can go down the list of biological systems in the body, and see their similarities to parts of our world. It only takes a little imagination. Your lungs are like farms, which grow food for your body: instead of absorbing light from the sun, they absorb oxygen from the air. White blood cells are like police officers, who roam around the body looking for organisms that shouldn't be there. If oxygen is what your cells eat, then the food you eat is what provides your world with power and raw materials. Perhaps your mouth and toungue are like a drill that, instead of drilling oil, mashes up the food. Your stomatch is like a refinery that breaks the crude oil into usable comonents. Your muscles are like workers whose job is to move your body around - they tense and relax upon commands from the nervous system.
You are supported, at all times, by a massively cooperative network of the trillions of cells in your body. Each one of them is much tinier, less intelligent, and weaker than you. When they all work together, you are capable of doing the amazing things you are capable of. When I grew to understand this — to really make sense of it — I resolved to be kind to everything weaker than me, because those tiny, weak little things are what make me up. I grew to see myself as the leader of a multiplanetary civilization that I call "my body". My body isn't just mine; in reality it belongs to my toes who hold me up, my knees who keep my balanced, my intestinal bacteria who break down my food, and my fingers who help me write these words. Thanks, fingers.
If you start to think of yourself in this way — not as a single thing, but as a huge cooperative network of trillions of things — you can start looking out for all of you. It's often easier for me to give advice to other people than it is for me to follow my own advice. When I look at my body as "a bunch of tiny people that I am responsible for," it makes it a bit eaiser for me to make choices that will improve the quality of my experience.
The core thesis of this book is that emotion is sense which helps you make choices. In order to share this idea, I'll need to introduce you to complex systems that you are famililar with and work with every day: your brain and your body. When you walk on two legs and don't fall over, you are doing something amazing, and probably don't even realize it. Getting computers to walk on two legs is extremely difficult; we are just now getting to a point where we can do that now. It is a very hard problem, and you don't blink an eye at the marvelous complexity required for you, or any adult, to be able to walk on two feet.
Yes, there is a world inside of you. We'll call this world "You-World." We'll see that You-World and "Humanity-World" have a lot in common: the key difference is that the individual pieces of You-World are much simpler. Yes, Blood cells travel through blood vesels in a way that seems quite similar to the way cars drive on roads. It even looks similar, with traffic flowing in different directions having different colors. We have thick and thin roads, and thick and thin blood vessels. There are intersections and traffic jams in both worlds. The difference is that cars are wildly complex pieces of equipment with tens of thousands of parts that have actuated pieces and move in many complex ways. Cars are very different, and made from different materials than, roads. Blood cells, on the other hand, are substantially simpler, and made of largely the same materials as the walls of the blood vessels they travel through. You-World is made of of much simpler pieces than the Real World — but it is just as complex, if not more so, because those pieces are all interacting with each other.
You are far more complex and intelligent than you realize — so is everyone on Earth. We all sell ourseslves short when we don't acknowledge the intricately interconnected economies and systems operating inside our bodies. These worlds operate cooperatively, on a massive scale, and enable us to do the things we do. I believe emotion is how we detect what is going on in part of that world — the nervous system. Let's look at that next.
Your nervous system is like a social network in You-World. We can call this network "NeuroNet" for short. Just as Twitter and Facebook contain a bunch of people who share messages with each other, NeuroNet consists of a bunch of specialized cells called neurons, who are all connected to other members of NeuroNet. In the last chapter, I mentioned that You-World is made up of simpler pieces than Humanty-World. NeuroNet is much simpler than human social networks — it's so powerful because it's so much bigger. On Humanity-World social networks, each person posts about all kinds of topics that interest them. In You-World, members of NeuroNet only post about on topic. They really only have one kind of post. A user interface for NeuroNet would just be a button that each neuron presses when it wants to post.
You can think of neurons as being little detectors: each member of NeuroNet senses exactly one condition, and "fires" when that condition is met. The simplest neurons have nerves which detect signals from the senses. One neuron, connected to a nerve in your toungue, might only say "this tastes hot!", and that's it. The neuron can't say "This is really hot!", or "this is a little hot" — but it can vary how often it posts. A substance which is only a little hot might cause the neuron to fire every few seconds. A habnero-pepper, which is very hot, very cause the same neuron to fire mutiple times a second, pulsing rapidly to tell NeuroNet "oh wow, this is so hot."
If the job of a blood cell is to be a delivery driver, the job of those sensor nuerons is to sit still and do nothing, unless its nerve senses whatever it's supposed be sensing. Some nerves sense pressure, some nerves sense temperature, and some sense taste. There are many different types of nerves. When a neuron fires, it sends a signal out along its body, which reaches the other neurons it connects to. Because a neuron signals other neurons when it fires, a neuron firing is like a person posting on NeuroNet. When a neuron fires, all of that neuron's followers get the message. Some of those neurons may decide to fire in response.
In Humanity-World, we do the same thing. Suppose you like to shop for shoes, and you see a coupon offering half off of purchaes at Bob's New Shoe Store. You might decide to post this coupon on your social networks, so your friends can use it. Maybe one of your friends, Bob, sees this coupon and decides to share it with his friend Grant.
How do neurons decide when to fire, if they aren't hooked up to nerves? The neuron that senses "sweet" may have one follower on NeuroNet. Think of that neuron as being like a social comentator. We'll call him Chuck. Check isn't connected to any nerves directly —rather, he follows hundreds of neurons with nerves that detect sweetness. If you eat some candy, many of those will neurons pulse, firing rapidly in sequence. That means Chuck's newsfeed is full of neurons basically just saying "sweet". Chuck, depending upon his biology, has some threshold & perhaps he needs to see 30 posts a second before he fires.
If that happens, Chuck the neuron fires. The more rapidly the neurons he follows fire, the faster chuck will fire. his posts mean something like "many people think it's sweet over here." Chuck's followers might include a "critic" neuron that listens only to the commentator neurons. The critic neuron's job is to determine if there actually is something good to eat. Sweet is good, but not if it's coverd with biternes at the smae time. The Commentator neuron's internal rules (determined by genetics) tell her: only fire if Chuck fires at least five times more than Betty, "bitter commentator" neuron.
Just like social networks in the Humanity-World, some members of NeuroNet have many followers, and other members have only one or two. People on human social networks talk about all the things that happen in our world. Likewise, members of NeuroNet talk about all of the things that happen in You-World. The neurons deeper in your brain stem talk about your heart rate, breathing, and other biological systems. Those are the parts of your brain that you share with simpler animals. Neurons "higher up" in the brain deal with your memories and thoughts and feelings. In the same way, most humans on social networks talk about their day, and share cat pictures, only a small number of people talk about abstract ideas like philosophy and physics.
In the next few chapters, we'll look at when at why neurons on NeuroNet follow each other, and why different neurons and groups of neurons represent different concpets. My goal in this chapter is not to tell you "this is exactly how your brain works." I am not a neuroscientist, although I have asked a few to review this book. My goal is to explain what emotion is and how it works. As a result of my thinking about these subjects — especially the notion of neurplasticity — I have found new ways to use my brain which have dramatically improved the quality of my life. A key thing that you should understand from these chapters is that you are constantly changing, all the time. When you learn something, you are not merely changing the way you think — you are changing the physical world. You are changing the connections between your neurons and the way they operate. You are doing this constantly. You are doing it right now .
I mentioned in the last chapter that neurons can 'follow' each other on NeuroNet. The way this works is that neurons who pulse (firing rapidly) at the same time begin connecting after a few seconds. The exact physical mechanism isn't important & imagine each neuron as looking at both a feed of the neurons she fellows, as well as a "What's trending" feed. Whenever she pulses, she also starts following neurons that are whatever is trending. Let's look at a simple example.
People often suggest that you suck on a peppermint while studying for an exam. If you have one during your exam, the claim goes, this will help you remember what you were studying. Imagine that scenario from a NeuroNet perspective. There is a group of neurons that fires when you taste pepperment. If you suck on the peppermint while you study, those neurons will constantly be pulsing. Let's suppose you are studying something important, such as memorizing a list of bridges built in Germany in the period 1372 to 1544. As you look at the image of each bridge, neurons representing "bridge" fire. The same happens with neurons representing the individual syllables in the name of the bridge. Neurons in the portions of your visual neurons that let you picture things in places are also firing. Since the "peppermint" neurons are also firing at the same time, all of the neurons in those groups will start following each other.
When you eat the peppermint during the exam, those "pepermint" neurons start firing, and this causes some of the neurons that follow the 'peppermint' neurons to begin firing. Some of those the follower neurons represent bridges, their names and locations. As those neurons fire, those symbols and images start becoming active in your mind. If you've learned other memorization tricks — such as creating mnemonics or telling weirds stories, you can see why these methods work. When you create mental assocatinos between different conecpts, you are creating new pathways towards "the answer" that you want. These new pathways are all different "routes" for your brain to find what it's looking for.
Just like human relationships, relationships on NeuroNet are different. Some relationships are stronger than others. Just like in real life, the more frequently a relatinship is active, the strongre it grows. If your parents make you a special dinner of sweet potatoes with marshmallows and walnuts ever thanksgiving, you will strongly associate that dish with your parents' house and november and thanksgiving. If sweet potatoes are outlawed, and you stop having that meal, that association will gradually and slowly weaken.
Repetition helps when you study because it strengthens the connections between the neurons representing the topcics. I have said it a few times in this book, and I will said it once more here: the key to getting good at anythign is to repeat it. The key to being happy is to repeatedly practice a positive mental attitude, until those happiness neurons become so connected to everything else that you find it hard not to smile. If you do that, constnatly and repeatedly trying to see the good in things, you will be much happier.
Earlier, I referred to Neurons as 'detectors'. In a sense, some neurons detect things going on in your body, and other neurons detect things that are happening outside, as reflected by other neurons. Very simple things (sweetness) can be represented by single neurons, but more complex ideas and concepts are detected by groups of neurons working together.
Have you ever noticed that when you learn a new word, suddenly you start seeing it everywhere? That's becuase learning a new word stiches together neurons representing the syllables in that word with neurons representing the meaning of the word. When you learn a word, you may repeat the word out loud while reading its definition. As I explained in the previous chapter, that causes the neurons invovled in those processes to link together.
You can imagine that all of the neurons who are linking together for a purpose might join under a hashtag, like people on twitter do. This group of neurons "listens" for the syllables of the word, or the concepts that make it up, and now that new detector can start firing. You didn't notice the word before because even though you were seeing it, there was no group of neurons detecting it, and so nothing that pulsed when you saw or heard the word.
Because the new detector isn't hooked up to the other detectors in your brain — new accounts on NeuroNet don't start with m any followers — it sticks out as something new. We like new things; novelty gives humans a slight sense of pleasure. After the word stops being new to you — because it's connected enough other networks, it will stop seeming like it's everywhere.
The detectors aren't just detecting what happens outside of you. If you read the word "marshmallow", that group of neurons will start pulsing in your brain. Related neurons will fire as well. If you want, you can think of concepts as existing like "hashtags" in your brain. Of course, there are probably not marshmallows in your external environment. The neurons for "marshmallow" detected the concept marshmallow because you read the associated word.
These detectors enable you to use the same group of neurons to think about an actual marshamallow right in front of you, as well as to imagine one just in your mind. The more vividly you imagine the marshmallow, the more intensely that group pulses, and the more you can taste and feel and smell the marshmallow, even if it's not really there.
The 'detector' concept is what enables you to recall names so quicky. You see something you regonize, and the group of neurons which detects that thing start pusling, which triggers the group of neurons representing its name. For the rest of this book, I may refer to "symbols" firing in your brain; what I mean by symbols is "neurons representing these symbols." Using the idea of NeuroNet, we can talk about conceptual thinking as a process of activating symbols, which activate other symbols, and so on. We no longer need to consider wheter these symbols are represented by Neurons or microchips, or even people. I'll get to those concepts later. For now, just rmember that if I talk about "activating symbols", i'm referring to the idea that specific groups of neurons pulse when you are thinking about a specific concept.
Let's suppose you see a marshmallow, but you cannot remember what it's called. Seeing the marhsmallow would activate groups neurons representing memories you have with it, and perhaps one of those memories is walking through a store, where you see the bag of... what.. what is it.. what's written on the bag? If your memory works well, the word will come to you suddenly, and you'll know it's there. Otherwise, it takes a while. What's going on there? Let's explore that in the next chapter.
Fred and his friends know it's time to work when the alarm rings. Let's go! They slide down a metal pole and hop onto a big red truck. They ride the red truck to work. It makes a loud noise on the way, so that everyone knows Fred and his friends are coming. When Fred and his friends arrive, people are unhappy. Now, they are happy to see Fred and his Friends. Fred likes making people happy.
What does Fred do for a living?
If you guessed "Firefighter", why? I said nothing about fire, and didn't describe anything about the way Fred works or what he actually does. I just gave you information about Fred's routine and described that people were unhappy until Fred showed up. If you guessed firefighter, it's because your brain filled in the blanks for you. When you read the paragraph, symbols associated with alarms, sliding down a metal pole, loud trucks, alarms, and unhappy people all became active. Your symbol for 'firefighter' probably connects to all of those symbols, and so your brain said "hey, I think this is what you want."
You didn't even stop to consider whether perhaps Fred and his friends were entertainers that specialize in cheering up unhappy people, and that the truck they ride is part of their act, and that the loud noise was the truck advertising "Here come Fred and His Friends, the Depression Rescue Squad." You didn't think of that possiblity, because those type of people aren't too common our world. If we lived in a world where fires weren't a big problem, and instead depression was seen as the greatest risk, and that was how we treated depression, then you'd think the firefighter thing was odd.
Our minds are wired in a model of what is common and what isn't. We change that wiring through our experinces: the first few times you hear a new world, it feels novel and unexected, until starts to blend into the background and just feel normal. Our brains use the sense of what is normal and common to figure out what things are, and to quickly find solutions to our problems.
When you look at an object and struggle to remember its name, your mind searches for something that fits. Sometimes it offers half hearted suggestions: it knows these don't quite fit. Mashnelow? Shamshallow? It puts togther sounds that it's heard together before, and sees if they work: Smarshmaw? Marshmellon? When it finally gets the answer, the reason you know it "clicks" is because this answer also lines up with all the times you've heard the word before, stored in your memory. Every time you saw the word written or heard it pronounced, that impression left a record in your memory, (again, encoded by the wiring between your neurons), and so the simplest answer is one that matches with all of your previous experiences.
What if both firefighters and depression rescue squads were common in our world? What if they were both known for sliding down metal poles, to get on a screaming truck at a moment's notice? What would your brain do then? If you're familiar with fights on twitter, it kind of works in the same messay way. Two groups square off against each other, each one trying to say "what you want is this!". The group that proposes the simplest explanation — the one that fits best with what you know — wins. Let's look at an example:
You are probably familiar with optical illusions like this one:
This image could either be a duck looking to the left, or a rabbit looking up and to the right. When you look at this image, there are groups of neurons in your brain that are trying to represent both possibliies. Which one you see depends upon which group is winning.
Just before, the neurons in your brain are trying to represent what you're experiencing, in terms of what you've already seen. Because there are two ways to interpret this image, the two different representations conflict with each other. This ability of ours, to form different representations which compete with each other, is essential for making choices.
When you are considering between two choices, neurons representing both of those choices and their outcomes form off into separate groups. You can think of them as being like people on twitter linning up behind hash tags. Suppose you are deciding whether to have a burger or salad for lunch. The #GoTeamBurger neurons might pulse together, getting you to imagine the taste of delicious meat, crisp lettuce, and the tangy barbeque sauce you like. On the other sand, the #SaladSquad neurons are making you to think of how healthy the salad is. Whichever team wins — by proposing the simplest plan that fits with what you know and what you want, — that's the choice you end up making. That signal passes through to your motor cortex, and you start moving to eat your lunch.
If the decisions you make are actually the result of neurons fighting each other, what role do you actually play? I'll explore that question a bit more in the next chapter.
What role do you play in all of this? If your neurons don't have free will — they are just following their instincts — then how do you actually make choices? In the previous chapter, I suggested the idea of neurons on NeuroNet rallying around hash tags while you were making choices. Of course, there are no hash tags, but a similar mechanism is at play: neurons do form into groups that compete to signal the benefits of different choiecs.
I think of myself as having the ability — a superpower in Me-World — to reach out to any group of neurons and make them fire. You can do this right now, if you want. Just picture something in your mind, something that you like and enjoy. Just by doing that, the neurons which represent that concept will start to fire.
How is that a superpower? If we go back to the burger example, and you know the salad is healthier for you, you can help out "#TeamSalad" by reminding yourself of why the salad is better for you. When you do this, you help push #SaladSquad closer to the victory goal, of getting the pleasure neurons to start firing, signifying that this is the way you should go. You activate the symbols in your mind about what you know and want: to be healthy. When you do that, TeamSalad wins because its proposed solution fits best with what you know and want.
One way of accomplishing that goal is to give #GoTeamBurger something it wants. Perhaps team burger is your body's way of telling you that you are low on iron. The blood in meat is rich in iron, and perhaps that's what your body really wants right now. You could crumble some bacon on top of your salad, to make it more delicious and give team burger a bit of what it wants — which is also what your body wants.
When I started seeing My body as a world, I started to see myself as a politician. My job is to get disparate groups that often have their own desires to work together for the common good: the healthy and vitality of my whole body. That often means compromise. I try to identify the needs and concerns voices by various parts of my body, figure out what they really want, and to work for the benefit of my entire being. I am much happier now as a result.
When I want to get out of bed in the morning, instead of thinking, "Ugh, I need to get out of bed," I think about why I need to get out of bed. I think about what I plan to do today. If I think about why for long enough, my body gets up on its own. I didn't do that, my legs and feet and back and arms and toes and fingers did. My role was simply to inspire them to act in ways that benefit all of us, together.
I think of my body as donig almost all of the work, in everything that I do. Even writing this book. The thoughts that I observe moving through my brain are the product of billions of neurons on NeuroNet, all of them communicatng with each other about their experiences and of the world. My fingers move fluidly, with loving kindness for the toes who keep them up and the core that keeps us balanced. All I can do is gently remind parts of me when they go astray.
In the past, I was like a dictator who priviledged capital development over all else. The word capital comes from the word "head", and that's where I lived. I was focused on ideas and concepts, so I didn't notice the pain of having my feet crammed into shoes that didn't fit. I was so detached from my body that I had no experience of consciousness as anothing other than a constant stream of thought. When I started thinking of my body as a corporation, and myself as the CEO, I did everything I could to support the rest of my body, and to focus on their needs, rather than ignoring my needs until they grew loud, and then identifying with the loudest one that presented itself.
I don't get hungry any more; my stomach does that for me. I don't get tired any more; my brain and muscles do. I don't feel sad; my heart does. I don't feel angry, my sense of fairness does. Sometimes I forget, and feel sad or tired or angry, and then I rember, I'm not my thoughts or feelings. My job is to help them all work together. Like any job, it gets easier the more you work at it.
In the previous chapter, I suggested that your body makes choices, and you act as a sort of politician. When you focus on some aspect of a choice, you can tip the scales towards that choice. I think it's vitally important to understand that you are making the choices in your life. For several decades, I didn't believe I was doing that. I thought my body's behavior was entirely determined by the laws of physics, and this belief was intensely depressing and debiliating. I was wrong, and I suffered for it. When I finally understood and focused on the fact that I do have control, life gradually got better. I want to explore this a concept further, because I went through horrible experiences as a result of that false belief, and I don't want you to suffer as I did.
What determines what you focus on? Isn't that also a function of the physical laws governing neurons? On the one hand, yes it is. But on another had, it's you that determines what you focus on. Just try it. Think of something and see if you can focus on. Click a random link on wikipedia and see if you can't think about it. At first, you may find there are limits to how long you can focus on a topic or a concept, before you start to get distractd or fatigued. Prayer or meditation — sustained focus on a concept — can help you strengthen your ability to direct your attention.
Is that just an illusion? Are you just fooling yourself? Are you fooling yourself into thinking that you have choices and that life is meaningful? Well, what determines the meaning of this book? Do you think "The precise and exact ordering of its letters and symbols" is a meaningful answer? Or would you say that I , the author, my life experiences and desire to share them — that is what determines the meaning of the book? Or is it also meaningful to say that both are true?
Yes, your choices are a result of the arrangement and position of all the atoms and molecules and neurons in your brain. How did those atoms, those molecules, those neurons get to be that way? Most of them are there because of evolutionary history. Your brain being shaped that way helped our ancestors. Some of them are there, however, because you put them there. Your history, your life, your experiences, the things you've seen and observed and the ways you've thought about them — all of those things are the cause of some of the atoms in your brain being arranged the way they are.
The neurons that relate to your heart beating and your breath were put there by the millions of years of human history. You don't have much control over there — although with practice you can get there. The neurons you did place are those that relate to how you see the world, who you are and your identity. Those abstract ideas — who you are, and what you want — those are very powerful concepts indeed.
Archimedes once claimed, "Give me a big enough lever, and I'll move the earth." What lever is larger than philosophy? Being able to contorl your heart isn't all that useful. Being able to control the meaning you assign to your experiences, and to select a distant goal that you want — that is amazing leverage.
Your experiences and choices cause the arrangement of some of atoms in your brain. The arrangement of all of the atoms in your brain determines your exierciences and choices. Each one causes the other. There is a feedback loop effect at work here. Entire books have been written on the idea that consciousness is caused by a feedback loop. One of them, "Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Brain" changed my life completely and started me on the intellectual journey which lead me to writing this book. I was inspired to write this book after seeing how much that book changed my life. I hope this one is a bit eaiser to understand — not offense intended to it's author, Hofstadter.
This book would be devoid of meaning if you just took all of the letters and put them in the book, in alphabetical order. It is the arrangement of the letters that gives the book meaning. Likewise, your choices are what they are because of your experiences and the ways you've thought about them.
You can't re-arrange all of the atoms in your brain at will. But you can gradually strengthen neural connections that help you. By focusing on your goals, and how to accomplish them, and what kind of person you want to be, you make it easier for those neurons to fire, and thus gradually change who you are. We'll explore that in the next chapter.
If you try to ride a bike nine times, and you fail each team, you should still try again. Why? Because each time, a slightly different person gets on the bike. I wanted to use physics to understand people. Learning that my brain — a physical object — constantly changed as I used it was one of my first clues to this puzzle. The reason you succeed on the tenth time after failing nine times is because you are different each time . You, your phsical body, has a different stucture to it, every second of every day. When you know how to ride a bike, it is because a massive symphony of simpletons is doing it for you. Neurons connected to your ears that help you stay balanced are connected with just the right neurons in your motor cortex, to push the pedals just the right way to keep you up. None of those neurons understand what a "bike" or "balance" is — but because they all work together, you can ride a bike.
If you put the same key into the same lock nine times, and the lock fails to open, putting the same key in again won't change anything. Your brain isn't a key, though. Your brain changes as you use it. Failure is only temporary, so long as you learn from it and keep trying. If the key changes in response to the lock, learning a bit time you put it in, then it's actually a different key every time. Eventually, the key will learn enough about the lock to open it: as long as the key faithfully learns more and more about the lock, until it perfectly reflects the structure of the lock. Once the two are mirror images of each other, the lock opens.
I was an unhappy man for a long time. "We are all just a bunch of lifeless bits of stuff, following empty mathematical rules. There is no meaning or purpose. Love is just an illusion caused by a bunch of chemicals" — that's how I felt, and it was awful. I think a lot of people sometimes feel the same way. While I was thinking that way, I was structuring my brain to continue thinking that way. I was making myself even more unhappy. Then I read about neuroplasticity — that neurons which fire together, wire together. I learned I could change the way my brain worked. After years of effort, I've managed to re-organize the way my brain works, so that I default to a happy mindset.
For a long time, I figured if I could just get a good job, I'd be happy. Then I got a great job and I still wasn't happy. Then I thought if I could just start a company, I'd be happy. Then I started a company and still wasn't happy. For a long time, "obtaining happiness" seemed like trying to throw a rock up to the moon. I'd take any rock I could, and hurl it as hard as I could, but the rocks never seemed to reach the moon. Often they'd hit me on the head afterwards. I was exhausted, embarrased, and in pain. Nobody else who had things as good in life as I did seemed to struggle so hard to be happy.
I grew to understand that happiness is like building a fortress out of pebbles; You just have to keep stacking them up. Each second, I try to approach the world from a positive perspective, and that wires these neurons tightly together, while the other connections atrophy. My default view of the world is much more posiitve than it used to be. I can go outside and be thrilled that the sun exists, or feel grateful that gravity didn't get turned off today, because that would be a complete mess.
It's an amazing feeling, to default towards positive and happiness. My Grandfather is a wise man. He often talks about "positive mental attitude", as something you have to work on and now I understand what he means.
You may be familiar with a children's game called "Red Light, Green Light." The game works as follows. One player is "It", and they stand on one side of a field. The other players, the "runners" all start on the other side of the field. Their runners' goal is to run up and tag the player who is "it." The runners are only allowed to move when the "the light is green", as determined by the it player . If the it player calls "green light", The runners run as fast as they can until the it player calls "red light." If any players don't stop on the red light, the "it" player calls them out, and they are sent back. to the start
Your brain has a similar mechanism: pleasure and pain. Pleasure generates a "green light" signal in your brain, which makes you want to keep moving forward. This signal operates with the help of dopamine, and it plays a key role in a number of processes. Earning lots of money, or winnign a contest will generate a hit of dopamine, making you feel great. Dopamine is also important in moderating attention and focusing: when you are focused on a subject, neurons representing that subject pulse. These pulsing neurons release dopamine, which feels good and helps you continue focusing. It's easier for them to keep pulsing when the dopamine is flowing. Drugs to help with attention deficit disorder, like adderall, work by increasing the amount of domapine in your brain.
The "green light" and "red light" mechanisms in your brain are often referred to as "positive responses" and "negative responses." The exact mechanics of how they work are not super important, because our goal is not to understasnd the Human brain, or even the human experience of emotion, but what portion of reality emotion reflects.
For the purposes of this book, we can think of the positive response, the "green light", as being a single "pleasure" neuron that makes you feel good when it pulses. When that neuron pulses, you want to do more of whatever it is that you are doing. When you are about to obtain something good, like winning a contest, the pleasure neuron pulses slowly, to get you to keep going. When you obtain the thing that you want, the pleasure neuron pulses even more intensely, so that you keep getting this sort of thing in the future.
Likewise, we can think of the negative response or the "red light" as being caused by a single "pain" neurno that makes you feel bad when it pulses. When that neuron pulses, you stop doing whatever your are doing, or pull back from whatever you are thinking about. It's important to note that this pain neuron is "louder" than the pleasure neuron. It was much more important to our ancestors to avoid danger than it was for them to seek pleasure. It's better to avoid eating a meal if that means you also avoid being the meal.
I've notied the importance of havingn a positive mindset multiple times in this book. Here is another chance to do so. Your brain is naturally more sensitive to negative events than to positive ones. If a person wins $200 and then loses $100, he is generally less happy than if he merely wins $50. That is not rational — a person should be happier if they are win $100 than if they win $50. If you don't constnatly work to see the positive side of things — to strength neural pathways that lead to the green light neuron — you will be more upset than you need to be.
I try to be rational and logical in how I view the world. When I learned that my neural hardware is biased to see the negative side of things, I decided it was rational to work hard to change my default perspective on things to be positive. All it takes to do that is consistnt practice over a long period of time. It will take a while, and it won't always be easy, but I promise it's totally worth it.
You should note that a "red light", or negative response, is also sometimes referred to as a "threat response." When we feel threatened, it's harder for us to think clearly, because the fight or flight mechanism kicks in. Imagine a portion of NeuroNet that consists of guys with guys, and their job is to protect your body. When they are talking on NeuroNet, they take up so much bandwith that they drown out the people whose job it is to talk about philosophy or kittens or big ideas.
Reduced ability to think abstractly when you feel threatened was quite helpful to our ancestors, who constantly faced physical threats to their survival. We don't face those threats, however, and so this negative response can be destrutive because it can make problems worse.
The good news is that the "limited bandwith" works both ways. When you feel angry, you can consciously try to activate the part of your NeuroNet that involvs abstract thought. Doing that will actually take bandwidth away from the big guys with guns, and as a result you'll be able to respond to your anger in a way that's appropriate for modern society. It is very difficult to pull that off at first, but with practice you can get good at it, to prevent yourself from being carried away with anger.
A simple "red light, green light" mechanism is way too simple for human beings to surive. Because NeuroNet is so complicated, there are many different ways these red and green lights can be triggered. Let's look at a well known model for human emotion, which has been
There are many things that give us pleasure and pain. Aside from simple pleasures like food and sex, more complicated things can make us feel happy, such as winning the respect of our peers. In this chapter I'll present a model of emotion from a book called Your Brain At Work , which I highly recommend. The SCARF model says there are five different aspects of human social experience that can lead to pleasure or pain. This model is backed up by experimental evidence.
The five apsects are:
This model was proposed by researchers in social neuroscience. The model is useful when dealing with other people, particularly in a work setting. When you micro-manage an employee, telling them exactly what to do and how to do it, you threaten their sense of autonomy and actually generate a threat response. If you know what these triggers are, you can avoid setting them off.
Knowing what generates a positive emotional response also allows you to approach difficult converstaions more safely. "Let's talk about Difficult Subject X right now" is a way that threatens a peron's sense of certainy (they don't know how the conversation will go) and autonomy, becuase you aren't giving them a choice.
You can instead say, "Hey, I'd like to talk about X because I think it would help our relationship. It shouldn't take more than a half hour. Would you prefer to talk now, after dinner, or later this evening?" Saying you want to help your relationship will generate a positive response for relatedness. Giving your partner a choice of when to have the conversation gives them a positive response for autonomy, and telling them how long you think the conversation should last will give them a positive response for certainty.
I should note, again, that this book is not specifically about the human experience of emotion, but about the portion of reality that our emotions reflect. This model will be useful later in the book, because I will show how these emotional responses can be derived from my model. A book about sound will probably include references to ears and microphones, but it isn't about those: it's actually about how pressure waves travel through the air. This book is about emotion: specifically, it advances a theory of what part of reality we are sensing when we experience emotion. As such, you should not put too much stock into the exact accuracy of my descriptions of the brain, and current theories of human emotion. I have done my best to vet this book, but it is not meant to be a guide to your brain or body. This book aims to advance a theory, and all of the pieces in Part One of the book were necessary for that theory to even make sense.
We are nearing the end of Part One. I've done my best to prepare you with the background material you need, to be able to understand the theory that this book aims advance. Along the way I've presented some advice that will help you improve the quality of your life.
Throughout this book I will repeatedly refer to "models." You may be familiar with the idea of a model airplane or a model bridge, built to test some principles of a physical object. There is another meaning of the term "model". Sometimes a "model" is a simplified way of looking at lots of things. That's the meaning mathematicians and scientists often use, and it's the main meaning I use in this book.
You can think of a model as being like a story. Some stories are real, and some stories are just pretend. Some stories, even if they aren't real, are internally consistent: they don't have characters who come back from the dead with no explanation. Other stories can be wildly inconsistent: a good character does something horrible, and nobody is surprised or responds. We reject those narratives because they don't make any senes to us.
Stories that claim to describe reality are often called "narratives." An example of a "narrative" might be "America is the land of the free." I'm not saying that story is true or not; my point is that this is what Americans tell themselves about America. Another narrative might be "I am a failure and cannot accomplish anything." If you believe that narrative, you are un likely to try anything because you already believe you are going to fail. That narrative, if you believe it, protects you from the pain of failure, at the cost of preventing you from experiencing the job of accomplishment.
Scientists work to develop acurate narratives about reality. They refer to these models as "narratives", but they're basically the same thing: a story about how things work. Just as some narratives describe reality and some don't, some models are accurate, and some models are not. A scientist aims to tell a story about how the world works, with the hope that other scientists will be able to use that story and have it work for them.
For example of a model, imagine a cow being dropped out of an airplane. We could use physics to figure out when the cow would hit the ground. To do that, we would model the situation, which means to convert reality into a much simpler story that we can work on.
A "first approximation" model would be to treat the cow as being like a marble, and just measure the effects of gravity on it. That approximation would give us a rough guess at how long Bessie's flight would last. That model ignores air resistance, which will eventually slow the Cow's fall. The first approximation a much simpler version of reality, and gives us an answer that's roughly close to the truth. It's still wrong, but its terribly off. If the answer is "three minutes", the model might say "five minutes", or "sixty seconds", but cetainly not "300 years". The narrative being used in this first approximation is "all objects fall to earth at the same speed; the only thing that matters is their initial height." This narrative ignores the cow's weight and shape.
A "more precise" model would be to treat the cow as a large, smooth sphere. This model is based on a narrative that says "the air pushes back on falling spheres, slowing the rate at which they fall. The pushing force depends upon the size of the sphere, the speed at which it is falling, its mass, and what it is made of." Then the narrative would give an equation relating all of those factors, which allows us to compute the time it would take the cow to fall. This time, we'd get a more precise answer than before. It would still be off, but maybe by a few seconds instead of a few minutes.
A lot has been written about narratives and how they shape our perception of ourselves. My goal in this section is to get you to see models and narratives as being two forms of the same thing: stories that we tell ourselves about the way the world works. Just like all other thoughts, narratives are represented by teams of symbols in neuro net. The more often you tell yourself that you can accomplish anything you want, the more likely you are to believe that. The more often you tell yourself, "I am hopeless and cannot be happy", the more likely you are to believe that as well.
In this book I am presenting a model of emotion. This book is also a narrative. It's up to you to decide if this narrative matches reality; it's for you to determine whether this model is accurate. The story I have about emotion is that our emotional experience is a result of all the stories that make senes to us. When our story changes; when we pick up one story and drp another, our emotional experience changes. This first Part of the book was an attempt to lay out all of the "necssary pieces" for my model to make snse.
A tree is a reflection of its own history - and the history of the entire world. The same is true of you.
If you cut open a tree, you can count its rings to see how old it is. You can also measure the thickness of the rings over the years. In years that are better for the tree — warmer years with more rain, the tree will grow more; those rings will be thicker. If a fire burns through the forest and the tree survives, a record of this fire will be burned into the tree.
Why is the tree shaped the way it is? Because of its genetic code. Why is the tree's genetic code the way it is? Because of the history of that particular species of tree — which is just one branch of the tree of all life growing on planet Earth. You are cousins with that tree —in a very literal and scientific sense.
Your body is a reflection of the history of the human species on Earth — including our ancestors. You walk on two legs because that helped our ancestors somehow. You have two legs because that was helpful to an even more distant ancestor. Your body is like a history textbook, written in a complex language — but it is a history of the world, nonetheless.
Every moment, a tree draws nutrients from its environment and adds them to its structure. The shape of the tree is dynamic, a function of its experience, integrated over time. If the tree gets lots of nutrients, it will grow faster, and that faster growth will be reflected in the shape of the tree. Think about Chess City, and the way the streets gradually grew thicker.
Your mind works the same way. Every moment, you take in information with your senses, and you think about it, changing your physiology in the process. When you think in terms of a specific narrative, that way of thinking becomes easier and more automatic for you, because the neurons involved in those thoughts start wiring themselves together. When neurons are wired closely together, thoughts that activate one of those neurons immediately starts to activate the other. Those automatic thoughts require less energy. In the same way that lifting weights repeatedly strengthens your muscles, solving problems repeatedly strengthens your body's ability to solve problems. Smiling regularly and frequently makes it easier for you to smile. The tendency of neurons to wire together is called neuroplasticity. Because our brains change as we use them, the shape of your brain and the way you use it are both reflections of your personal history.
When you understand neuroplasticity, you can see that the key to being happy all the time is to work constantly at being happy, until it becomes easier and easier. If that sounds like a lot of work and makes you feel crappy — those are just automatic thoughts. You don't need to believe them. That's just a narrative you are hearing: it probably isn't true. You can focus on the amazing potential for happiness in your life, that requires only effort to find the good in things and time for that habit to sink in and become automatic. I have gotten myself to a point where I can feel immense gratitude for living on a planet with breathable oxygen. Let me tell you, it's amazing to walk outside and be immediately grateful that the sun exists. That doesn't mean I no longer get angry or frustrated or sad — it just means that I am surrounded by reminders of the good things in the world, and they come up often because I have trained myself to be that way.
My mindset is a reflection of the history of my thoughts. The structure of my brain is a reflection of the history of my thoughts. The physical structure of my body, then, is a reflection of the history I have of acting a certain way. Thinking is just one function of my physiology. The shape of my body — including my brain — is a reflection of my own personal history, but also the history of the human species.
The size of your muscles is a reflection of your personal history of working out — and of life's history of using muscles to accomplish goals. Life uses large muscles to signal to itself that this particular set of genes is capable of surviving and providing for life. The way you look at the world is a reflection of your personal history of thinking — and of life's history of using nerve cells to respond to and anticipate changes in its environment. Life signals to itself that it should keep going in this direction by flexing its muscles in the mirror, telling itself jokes, or buying itself flowers. Try changing "Chess City" to "Genetics City", and think about what dead ends are. Extinction is Game over, man.
The genetic code of one organism is a narrative: here is a way to survive and tell your story over again. The genetic code of all life on earth is another narrative: here all many different ways to survive, all of which depend upon and feed off of each other.
Your tendency to think of yourself as different from other people — well, that's also a reflection of your personal history and the history of life. That is also a narrative. It might not be true — and believing that might be contirbuting to your unhappiness.
We don't often think of the world this way. Most people don't think of their pets as family members. I believe the story of science, because that's the simplest way I can integrate my sensory experiences. Therefore, I think of my cats as distant cousins who like to sit on my lap and chase away the other cousins who come sniffing around the back yard. This way of thinking is both scientifically accurate, and a great reminder to care for all living beings, because we're all family even if we don't always act like it.
My wife and I went on a hike in Glacier National park on our honeymoon, and I felt like I was walking through the pages of a book. We saw layers of rock, split open and spilled on their side, each layer telling a history of millions of years. The whole world is doing this — reflecting itself and its experience over time. Gottfried Lebniz wrote about this concept in his text La Monadologie . Hindus have the same concept, expressed in the idea of Indra's net. Indra's net is a huge, infinite net, containing jewels wherever two threads cross. Each jewel contains a reflection of all the other jewels in the net.
Buddhists often use the metaphor of water for the mind. If a bowl of water is full of mud and dirt, the way to fix those impurities is to let the mud and dirt settle to the bottom of the bowl. If you keep poking at the bowl or shaking it, trying to get the dirt out, that won't help. It'll just make things worse. Once the mud and dirt settle to the bottom, you can see yourself reflected clearly in the water.
I am writing this book because I see this process of reflection carrying itself out in my own mind, and in the minds of people I've met. I think we have a tendency to reflect the habits, tendencies, and beliefs of the people around us. We have a tendency to share in their narratives. This reflective tendecy has its own mechanics and principles of operation — many of which show up in the computer science theory of distributed systems.
I want to use physics to understand people and their motion. You cannot explain a person's motion without accounting for their physiology's reflection of its environment — without acounting for their mind. When you understand what a person cares about and how they see the world, you can predict their motion much more effectively. When you understand that people are all reflecting their history and each other, you can understand why the motion of the world much more readily
I wanted to use physics to understand people.
I could use the same physical models to explain why the Earth is round, and why the moon orbits the Earth. I wanted to use those same physics to explain why people ended up on the moon.
I wanted to use physics to understand why people move the ways they do — and ended up developing a theory of Emotion. When you understand what someone cares about, it’s a lot easier to predict how they will move.
The theory of emotion in this book integrates recent attempts by Physicists to explain both the nature of intelligence and the origin of life in terms of thermodynamics. My theory of emotions relies on the same thermodynamic principles expounded in the two articles linked from this paragraph.
The theory is simple, at its core: Emotion is how we sense the multiverse. In trying to share this theory, I’ve failed to explain something very basic along the way — which I will attempt to fix in this chapter.
An analogy is helpful here. When your friend says “It’s quiet in here,” what is she saying about air pressure?
She’s saying, “I am observing a reduced amplitude in the temporal variance of localized air pressure, as measured over frequencies between 20 and 20,000 hertz.”
Of course, she probably isn’t thinking that. You probably aren’t thinking that. She’s not saying anything about air pressure explicitly. She says “It’s quiet in here”, and you interpret this as a statement about her internal experience — which yours probably matches, if you’re in the same room.
The reason your internal experience matches hers is because you are both in roughly the same location, measuring the localized air pressure the same way — with human ear drums. Because you are both making the same measurements, you both experiencing the same internal sensations.
When we hear, we are experiencing, internally, the fluctuations in air pressure.
Likewise, when we see: When your friend says, “This apple is red,” what is he saying about the electromagnetic field around him?
He’s saying “I am observing a stream of photons with wavelengths on the order of 700 nanometers, being emitted by the surface of the apple in response to incident photons with wavelengths in a distribution roughly matching that of a black body at 5,778 degrees Kelvin.”
Of course, he isn’t thinking that. You’re not thinking that. Nobody thinks that when they see a red apple in the afternoon sun — unless you are weird like me, and want to apply your understanding of physics to regular, every day statements.
When you tell someone else what you are hearing, you are making two statements. The first statement — the only one that most people consider — is statement about internal psychological experience. The second statement — one that most people don’t think of — is a statement about measurements your ears have taken of localized air pressure.
When you tell someone how you feel, you are making a statement of the first category — you are describing your internal experience.
I believe you are also making a statement of the second category — you are describing your observation of an external reality. In the case of hearing, that external reality is changes in air pressure. In the case of seeing, that external reality is changes in the electromagnetic field.
In the case of emotion, I believe that external reality is the multiverse — not “parallel, alternative worlds” — but in a much simpler, more practical sense: possibilities. The way things could be.
When I try to explain this theory to people, they often reject it because “emotions are how we sense the multiverse” sounds ridiculous. It sounds as ridiculous as telling someone, “hey, do you mind not changing the local air pressure by such a large magnitude in the frequency range 120–600 hertz? I’m trying to focus.”
But that’s exactly what you’re saying when you tell someone “Please be quiet, I am trying to focus.”
Why do our emotional experiences differ? Why does one event make some people happy, others said, and cause others to feel nothing?
Light and Sound work the same way. Distant planets are red shifted, which tells us they are moving away from us. We observe their color differently than we would if they were moving towards us. The doppler effect makes an approaching siren sound higher-pitched than the same siren moving away from the listener. If one person is riding in the car with the siren, it sounds the same, regardless of its position. To a listener on the street, the siren first increases and then decreases in pitch. The two people, observing the same phenomenon from a different perspective, have different internal experiences. Why would emotion be any different.
You may feel upset by this — am I really suggesting that there is a 'correct' emotoinal response to a given situation? First, if you're upset, notice that you are exhibiting an emotional response. Where is that coming from? Second - yes, I believe there is a 'correct' emotional response to a given situation, and tha's whatever respone a person has. The person in the car isn't wrong to say that the siren emits noise at a constant pitch, and the person on the road isn't wrong to say taht the pitch of the siren she heard first increased, and then decreased. As long as they account for the doppler effect, there is no real disagreement between the two of them.
Understanding the internal experience of sound — the first meaning — is essential in relating to other human beings. That understanding alone is not enough to build a better pair of headphones, though. We made music long before we understood air pressure — but once we started to understand how sound actually worked — the second meaning — we could build all kinds of elaborate technologies and devices.
We had amphitheaters before we understood how they worked. We could build much bigger, better ones afterwards. Once we understood the mechanics of sound, we could improve the quality of our auditory experiences.
Understanding the internal experience of light — the first meaning — is essential to interacting with other human beings. That understanding alone is not enough to build better visual displays. We made paintings and stained glass windows long before we understood optics. Once we started to understand what light was, and how it worked, we were able to build electronic devices, radios, and the internet.
The quality of our visual experience has improved substantially and dramatically as a result of being able to understand the mechanics of light — to understand the second meaning when someone says “It’s bright in here.”
Much of modern physics came about because scientists were unable to explain why some gasses lit up in peculiar ways when you shone electricity through them. These new theories did not just improve our ability to make visual displays — they improved our ability to communicate with one another, and to understand our world.
Just as with hearing and vision, we humans have been trying to improve the quality of our emotional experience for Millenia. We have had plenty of success thus far — but we still have a long way to go.
In order to further improve our emotional experience — and to build better emotional mechanisms — it is essential that we understand the mechanics of emotion. I believe I have pieced together what exactly is being observed, in a physical sense, when a person starts to feel sad. I believe this understanding will not not only help us improve the quality of our emotional experience — but that it will also help us understand the broader world as a whole.
My theory is an attempt to understand emotion from this physical perspective. I have used the theory to improve the quality of my emotional experience, and the quality of my decision making, because the two are intrinsically linked.
Our choice-making is often driven by emotion, just as our navigation is often driven by light. When we are ignorant of how emotion works, and we just follow our impulses, we are like moths batting at a flame. When we understand the basics of emotion — in the first sense — we are like people who can stop at a red light and go at a green light.
When we understand the reality behind emotion, and we use it to navigate the world, we will be like people using the fixed stars to find our way home.
Alice and Bob played chess together every day, at the corner of first and main. They'd sit at a table on the sidewalk and use a faded green chess mat. They liked the familiarity of their daily game, but they eventually grew tired of the scenery.
"We always sit in the same spot while we play. Wouldn't it be nice to go for a walk, as well?" Alice leaned back in her chair as a bus pulled up to the stop near them. Bob waited for the passengers — mostly pawns — to get off the bus before he answered.
"Yeah, it would be nice to go for a walk. I'd rather not carry this board all over the city, though. We might drop some pieces." He pondered his move as a bishop darted diagonally across the intersection, hurrying after a pawn.
"I've thought of that," grinned Alice, "and I have a solution. Normally when we play chess, we sit still and move the pieces. Instead, we can have the pieces sit still, and move ourselves."
"How can we have a game if the pieces don't move?" asked Bob, knowing that an answer was coming — that this was how Alice liked to converse.
They watched a knight arresting a pawn for illegally moving two spaces. Clearly this pawn had been around a few times, but thought he could pass as a first-mover. The knight hopped off, and Alice continued.
"We'll need more chess boards. We'll have one board set up here, at this intersection, with the pieces set up to start a game of chess. Instead of moving the pieces, we'll glue them in place. Then, we'll set up other boards with the pieces in different positions at other intersections. To play the game, you and I will start here at this board, and then take turns choosing which direction to walk in. To move the pawn from here to there," she explained, as she touched a pawn with her index finger, and pointed to a nearby square, "We'll walk over to the chessboard that is exactly the same as this one, except it has that pawn in its new position. This way, we can walk while we play. Whoever's turn it is gets to choose which direction we go at the next intersection. If we end up at a board where white is checkmated, then black wins. If we went up at a board where Black is checkmated, then white wins."
"Exercise would be good", thought Bob, as he watched a queen smack a pawn who was trying to corner a king. "Is it OK for us to leave these chess boards laying all over the place?"
"Ahh, I'm friends with the Mayor, so we can do whatever we want," replied Alice.
Alice and Bob set to work using city funds, and soon had covered the streets of Chess City with their boards. There are a lot of these boards, so they had to expand the city, building new roads as they went.
Chess City now contains all possible boards of chess, arranged in a grid. Each intersection in chess city has a board, and the intersections are all one meter — two steps — apart from the others. This means if you start at any board, and walk just two steps, you'll bump into another board. Each street connects two boards, and represents the specific move to get from the first board to the second.
Chess City is now four hundred light years across: twice the size of our entire galaxy. That's how big the game of chess is.
The intersections in Chess City are crazy. You may be used to intersections where two streets cross; sometimes four. A typical intersection in Chess City has around 30 roads leading into and out of it. Some intersections have far more roads coming in and out. Other intersections lead to one way streets, such as when the white's king is in check and white has only one move. The dead-ends in Chess City correspond to boards where games end. Some dead ends are boards where white has won, others have boards where black has won, and other dead ends have boards where both players have stalemated.
You'd think it would be easy to get lost in this place. You might think a city in the size of the galaxy, with 32-way intersections would be a confusing place. When you lay it all out, it does sound imposing. I'm sure it looks fascinating. The thing is, you already know how to navigate Chess City, as long as you know the rules of chess.
Isn't that wild?
In a sense, when you are playing a game of chess with your friend, the two of you are going for a walk in Chess City — which is much larger than our galaxy — and yet you have a map of this city laid out in your head.
What is the benefit of talking about 'all possible games of chess' as a giant city?
Complex systems are hard to think about. As humans, we have rich vocabularies and strong intitutions for dealing with space and time. For example, suppose we follow a game between Alice and Bob. Bob gains an early lead, and it becomes clear that Bob will eventually win, it's just a matter of time. If we view that journey through chess city, we'll see Alice and Bob gradually move towards a part of the city that's filled with dead ends in Bob's favor, and has very few nearby dead ends in Alice's favor. As Bob takes more and more of Alice's piece, there are fewer and fewer ways for Alice to win.
Our imaginations are primed to deal with certain ideas, things like people and places. Let's say that Bob builds a bookstore at all the of the dead-ends that represent Bob's victories. Alice builds a little park with apple trees at all of the boards where she wins. Can you imagine "a neighborhood with lots of book stores, and only a few apple trees?" What about "a neighborhood with lots of apple trees, and only a few book stores?" Isn't that much easier than trying to imagine "A bunch of chess boards all lined up, with many of them representing whtie victories, and some representing black victories?"
We could talk about 'neighborhoods' of Chess City, which are groups of boards that are similar to each other and can be reached from each other in a few moves. It's much easier to think about 'a neighborhood with lots of bookstores' than it is to think about "a large set of possible turn-sequences which eventually lead to victory for Bob."
Chess City is an intuitive way of thinking about the configuration space of chess. A configuration space is a mathematical structure of a system, describing the ways it could be, and how it can transition between them. You can draw a configuration space for any game. You can talk about Tic-Tac-Toe City or Checkers City or Go City, Poker City, or even Starcraft City. You can do the same thing with physical systems as well; If you want to explore all physical configurations of two point-masses with no charge, you could draw a city for them as well.
The configuration space of tic-tac-toe is much smaller than chess. There are about 4000 possible boards of tic-tac-toc. That means Tic-Tac-Toe City could fit in two football fields. Checkers is bigger. There are 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible boards of checkers. Checkers City would fit neatly in the area inside the Earth's orbit around the sun. Mathematicians have to estimate the number of boards for a game like Checkers or Chess, because they rapidly become too big to get an exact count. The number of valid boards of a chess is estimated to be 10 followed 40 zeros. Chess City would take up the entire milky way galaxy. Even very simple rules can give rise to enourmously complex configuration spaces.
Using the concept of "configuration space" allows us to think about chess — or any system system where people make choices — in a simple way. A space with hundreds of dimensions is extremely difficult, if not impossible for people to consider. When you map that space onto just two dimensions, you're going to have a much easier time visualizing and thinking about the space. Yes, there will be some errors - but as long as you don't take the simplification literally, you can get value out of it. A two-dimensional map of the Earth must have errors as well — there's no way to represent the surface of the Earth on a flat plane without introducing distortion. That doesn't mean maps aren't incredibly useful. I believe our world needs a simple way of talking about emotion. Emotion is so powerful, and plays such a huge role in our lives, and yet it is so poorly understood.
The thesis of this book is that emotion is a sense which we — both individually and as a species — use to make choices and accomplish our goals. The theory is that Emotions allow us to detect the structure of configuration spaces: ways things could be. Hence the subtitle: "The structure of possibility."" One configuration space you may have heard of is called the multiverse. The multiverse is just "the structure of the different ways the physical world could be". The multiverse contains all configurations of the physical universe which are possible , and the relationships between them. Chess City contains intersections representing all configurations of a chess board which are possible , and streets representing the moves between them.
You can think of the multiverse as being "Physics City." Instead of starting with an empty board of tic-tac-toe or a shuffled deck of Poker cards, we started with the big bang. Making choices and accomplishing goals, viewed through the lens of the multiverse, are as simple as navigating towards places where our goals have been accomplished. If Bob wants to win the game of chess, he just needs to walk them towards a bookstore before Alice gets them to a park with apple trees. A person who accomplishes their goals navigates the multiverse just the same as someone who successfuly plays chess navigates Chess City.
In this part of the book, I will explore in detail how emotion is connected to configuration spaces, or structured possiblities. I will integrate the advice of ancient philosophies such as Buddhism, which advises people not to become too attachd to things that might happen. In the next part, I will connect this model with new theories in physics, and use it to explain phenomena in field such as economics and politics, and offer some speculation on the nature of being.
My goal is to live in a world where emotion is understood and considered in the same way we consider light and sound — as informaton conduits from the outside world. My goal is to live in a world where everyone believes accomplishing your goals is a sign of health, and that a person who fails isn't a failure — they must be young and learning, or injured and hurting. My goal is to live in a world where people recognize the harm they cause when they hurt someone's feelings, but they aren't afraid to speak the truth, because nobody who is healthy is injured by facts. The truth is only painful to people who are injured — and I believe that most people in our world today are injured. My goal is to live in a world where politicians strive for honesty, because attempts too manipulate emotions are seen for what they are — a form of dishonesty worse than lying. My goal is to live in a world where power and responsiblity are seen as intrinsically linked, and the social systems we construct are designed to empower all individuals to freely make their own choices.
With this book, I hope to navigate towards the existing destinations where those invariants are true. I understand that the above goals may seem like pipe dreams — impossible wishes. Try explaining the internet to someone who comes from a time before electricity is understood. It sounds like a beautiful dream, too — and yet here we are.
The Multiverse: The Structure of Possiblity
You may have heard of the multiverse. Perhaps it was described as "there are other worlds, just like this one, but not this one. Maybe in one of those worlds, we're all cats, but everything else works the same way. Pretty wild, stuff man."
That's not what I'm talking about. I say that "emotion is how we sense the multiverse" because "the multiverse" is the both a succint way of expressing "the configuration space of all possible states of physical reality", and already exists in many people's thoughts. When I talk about the multiverse, I do not mean the idea that "there are other realities which are full of conscious observers" — I mean the idea "possibilities can be given meaningful positiions."
For example, consider "Chess City." I am not claiming "Chess City is a real place that exists". I am claiming that "thinking about games of chess as pathways through the complex topology of Chess City can be helpful." Thinking about Chess City won't help you become better at chess, specifically — any more than understanding newtonian physics will help you throw a better football. Thinking about Chess City can help you understand configuration spaces and choices in general — just like understanding newtonian physics can help you understand why a spiralling football flies straight for the same reason a moving bicycle doens't tip over. Understanding physiscs probably won't help you throw a spiral, but it's crucial for building staidums.
A beginning player of chess must always look a the rules of the game, at each turn — to see which moves are valid and which ones aren't. This beginner is like a tourist, new to Chess City, who relies on a printed map to navigate. A chess expert is like a local of Chess City — she has an intituive feel for which part of the city she is in, and how to get where she wants to go. Just as Alice and Bob have modified the roads in Chess City, so that the better moves are represented by thicker roads, an expert chess player has done the same thing. They don't consider bad moves and discarrd them — they intuitively know where the good moves are becuase they've learned.
By laying out all the Chess Boards, we can talk about 'regions' of the city, some areas where black pieces out number white ones, and some where white pieces outnumber black ones. We could imagine 'checkmate' boards as 'dead ends', and talk about how natives of Chess City learn to spot dead ends in the distance, and avoid them.
People have a rich vocabulary — and a lot of intituition - around places, and navigating them. Choices and emotion, meanwhile, are critical for having a good life experience, and yet are very poorly understood. What is emotion? There is no generally accepted clear answer the way there is for light or sound. Yet there plenty of people who are blind, or deaf, or both - and happy. Do you want to be happy? Everyone wants to be happy. From the multiverse perspective, we can say that everyone wants to navigate to a region where they are happy, the same way a chess player wants to naviate to a region of chess city where she has more pieces in play than her opponent - with the ultimal goal of arriving at a check mate destination.
The concept of the Multiverse — the configuration space of physical reality - allows us to use our intitution and vocabulary for describing places, paths, regions, distances, density, boundaries, and borders - to talk emotion, choices, possibilies, and outcomes.
Instead of asking "Is the world a good place?", what you can ask instead is "How can I navigate towards a better place than the one I'm in? How can I help others navigate towards these better places as well?"
I think of "now" as being where I am currently located, and choices I might make as being different pathways out of now. I am able to accomplish large goals I have by breaking them down into smaller goals, the same way — literally - a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
This book is not an argument that "there are other worlds, where everyone is a cat" It's an argument that it can be useful to think a certain way about what is posisble. That the "useful way of thinking" happens to line up with a theory in modern physics — just as the earlier articles I've linked show that my model lines up neatly with other recent theories about the origin of life and the origin of intelligence - is just more evidence to me that I am on to something, that I have discovered some aspect of Truth.
It doesn't matter whether the multiverse is real, for the purposes of this book. The presence of absence of other inhabited universes is irrelevant to the utility of thinking about "possibliities" as having positions and distances form where you are now.
A good example here is atomic theory. Atomic theory has been around since the time of the greeks. If nobody had believed in it, we would never have been able to get to a point where we could do experiments to confirm that atoms actually exist. You don't need to believe in a theory to find it useful. I often thought of electrons and protons in terms of high school sexuality, not because I believed that electrons actually were sexually charged pubescent boys, but because that way of thinking made it easier for me to understand the mechanics.
If you are unable to suspect disbelief, feel free to engage in word substition, and every time you see "the multiverse", you can replace it with "the configuration space of physical reality" — you're taking the long way around, but the scenic route is enjoayble at times.
Alice and Bob loved playing their new version of chess. It was still the same old game, of course — still the same moves, the same rules, and the same choices to make. The difference is that now there was much more exercise involved. Sometimes, when Alice made a move, they'd have a relatively short walk — from one planet to another. Other times, they'd have to cross halfway to the other side of the galaxy, just to get to the right board. There's a lot to see along the way!
Chess City soon became a popular tourist destinaion. The new traffic started being a problem, because all of the streets they'd built into Chess City, connecting the different boards, were just two-lane streets. Remember, each street represents a single move, from one board to another. Not all moves in chess are equal, though. Some moves are terrible, and others can can be "obvious" — grabbing your opponent's queen if it doesn't put you at risk. The more popular moves needed thousands of lanes because so many people took those moves, especially at the start of the game. Other streets represented very poor moves, like sacrificing a queen for no reason. Those streets were almost always empty, and so a simple dirt path would do just fine
To fix the traffic problem, Alice and Bob designed some technology to make the streets adjust over time. All of the streets were made of material that gradually shrunk. Whenever someone walked down a street, that street would expand a tiny bit. If nobody walked on a street, it would gradually shrink until it was very skinny. When many people walked on the same street, it expanded until it was wide enough to hold all of that traffic.
The initial chess board was placed at the center of the the galaxy, since there's black hole there, which is convient for travelling. The streets spread out from that inital board, big and thick at first, but gradually getting smaller and smaller. If you viewed chess city from high above, it would look like the roots a giant tree, thick at first, but gradually branching and getting thinner and thinner. The futher a player got from the center of the galaxy, the thinner the streets became, because few people had walked on them.
At first, the streets changed width almost every day. After a few years, however, enough people came to chess city that things settled down, and most of the streets stayed a consistent width. The city started looking like a tree.
Of course, there are many possible different games of chess, and so the branches further out tended to grow more than the branches at the center. Whenever two players reached a set of dirt roads, they knew they were playing a new game — that nobody else had followed their path before. Over time, the City of Chess gradually grew thicker and broader, just like a tree.
Need a drawing here!
One neat side effect of having the streets get wider as people walk on them: someone who doesn't know anythign about chess can actually play a decent game. When it's their turn to make a move, the only have to choose the widest road leading out of their current destination. Doing that, they piggyback off of the choices previous players have made. As long as most of the players know what they are doing, and the good ones keep coming back, the most popular moves will also be the best moves. Because the most popular roads are the widest ones, the roads that are wider will represent better moves.
In the first part of the book, I talked about how your mind reflects the world you live in. We collect narratives that reflect the structure of the external world. The reflection of the world stored in your brain is encoded as the relationships between concepts. Your brain reflects the patterns your body observes in the world: that things fall down, but not up. Cars drive on roads, not on water. People stand on floors sit on chairs, and sometimes do the opposite. Those are all narratives about how the world works.
Scientists have done studies with babies, showing that infants as young as 2 months old understand basic physics . The scientists tracked what babies looked at, and for how long. When the scientists used tricks to make it look like objects were dissappearing, or falling up a hill, the babies looked at these scenes for much longer than normal scenes.
The "rules of the world" in your head say what can and can't happen. They probably say, "people don't give out money for no reason." They probably say, "Judges don't wear t-shirts in court," and, "children don't speak eloquently about complex topics." If any of those things happened to you during the course of a regular day, you would be surprised, to say the least.
You can think of the narratives of the world in your head as being like the rules of chess: they also give rise to a configuration space. The rules of chess, which can be written down in just a few pages, contain all the information of Chess City, which fills an entire galaxy. Likewise, the rules of the world in your head give rise to their own configuration space. Let's call that city "You-World City." That city is much, much larger than the galaxy. It might be the size of the entire universe.
You-World City contains the ways your internal world could go, so it includes things like your heart rate, your blood flow, and how tired you are. Because NeuroNet is a huge part of You-World, that's also included in You-World City. As I stated before, NeuroNet is a refelction of the outside world: when you learn about parts of the world, these parts are reflected in NeuroNet. This means You-World City also reflects the ways the world could change, as you understand it.
In chess city, streets represent moves that players could take, and each intersection represents a possible board configuration. In You-World City, streets represent changes that could happen in your world, and each intersection represents a possible moment. In Chess City, some roads are wide and others are narrow, depending upon how often the moves they represent are used. The same is true in You-World City: wide roads represent changes you believe are likely to happen. Narrow roads represent changes wich you think could happen, but are unlikely.
Remember earlier how I said that your brain remebers what's likely and what's not? It keeps track of these things with the width of the roads in you-world city. When you find yourself walking down a narrow path, you get the feeling that something new and interesting is happening. You know you are playing a new game now, one you've never played before.
You-World City branches out just the same as chess city does: there is a consitsency to much of what we experiene. When you move to a new city, You-World City changes. You feel a sense of loss as your old habits and familiarties fade away. You feel a sense of newness and excitemnet in the new city. Generally, the newness gives you energy at first, and it takes longer for the sense of loss to fade away.
When you are walking in a part of You-World City with big thick roads, sometimes you don't even have to think. You can just take the biggest road available: the one you normally take. That's how habits work, and why habits are so easy to fall into. When you cultivate good habits, you don't have to think as much or make so many choices: you just automatically do what makes sense because that knowledge is built into You-World City. I'll talk more about auto-pilot in a later chapter.
Imagine that all the signals which come into your body, through your nerves, are like people who walk through You-World City. When those people walk over roads that are big and wide, it's because you expect those sensations. When you are experiencing something new and interesting, it's like traffic over some dirt roads: you've never seen this before. All the time, your body is absording these experiences and gradually updating itself. Signals come in over NeuroNet, and roads between likely events get a little thinner, or a little thicker.
The city consantly changes and updates around you, as time passes. If live goes according to your plan, then it's liek you walk along the main road, looking off into the distance, and the details of further off things gradually become clearer.
If you once planned to be an astronaut, but changed your mind and became an accountant instead — that other career path is like a fork in the road that you passed over. When you think back and wonder "What would my life be like now, if I'd taken that other path" — it's like you are looking far over to your left, at a distant road, and wondeing what it would be like if you were on that road instead.
The thesis of this book is that your emotional experience includes the construction and demolition work being done on You-World City. As you learn and grow and understand, You-World city grows into an increasingly accurate map of the the actual ways the world could be — the multiverse. Let's explore this thesis with some examples. Through the rest of this book, I will refer to this idea — that our emotions reflect changes in the map of You-World City — as the "Structure of Possiblity" model of emotion.
I remind you, the reader, that this is merely my own hypothesis. This book contains a narratve that makes sense to me and helps me navigate the world. Pleae don't believe this is true merely because I'm writing it, or because the rest of the book makes sense. I do not have any evidence outside of my own experience to support this claim. I hold this hypothesis because holding it has improved the quality of my emotional experience and allowed me to better understand and anticipate emotoinal responses, both in me, and in other people.
Suppose that Katie's husband Andy has traveled out of town on a business trip. He's on the way back to see her, and she's been preparing a surprise for him: a photo collage of their latest trip to the mountains. She is are hurrying to get it finished. Katie feels worried because she doesn't think she'll have time to do the job she wanted before gets here.
In Katie-World city, she's standing at an intersection where she is assembling the photos. Katie plans to move through intersections that represent trimming the photos and arranging them, until she gets to the place where the collage is finished. She isn't sure if the neighborhood where the collage is finished begins before the part of Katie-World City where Andy has returned. Katie's desired path through Katie-World City may not exist. Katie feels anxious because of that. If she knew there were a way to accomplish what she wanted, she wouldn't feel anxious.
Katie considers taking different paths, so that she can pass through "finishing the collage," before she passes through "Andy is home." She could take a shortcut, but that would mean skipping places where she trims some of the photos — the collage wouldn't be as nice at the moment she enters "The Collage is finished." Because she had to take a shortcut, the collages in that area are not as good.
Need a picture here
As Katie is thinking about these different possible choices, neurons in her brain representing the photos, collages, and time pulse rapidly. She thinks of removing photos from when she and Andy cooked marshmallows. Groups of neurons representing "marshmallows", "campfire", "warm", and "tasty" start pulsing in Katie's brain. The neurons representing "marshmallow" are connected to the neruons with nerves that go off when she eat marshmallows, and she can faintly taste the s'moores. The neurons representing "campfire" start pulsing, and she feels warmth. Whoops! She got distracted, thinking about s'moores. She need to make a choice whether to include those photos.
Neurons in NeuroNet now divide into two different groups: some of them are advocating for her to include those pictures, because Andy loves s'moores and laugh his big hearty laugh when her marhsmallow fell off, but she picked it up and ate it anyhow. Other neurons are advocating that she doesn't include the pictures, because she won't have time, and she wants to surprise him with the finished collage. Those neurons pull of the memory of when she wanted to surprise him with a gift on his birthday, but it wasn't ready in time. Each team in Katie's NeuroNet is trying to find the simplest explanation of why it's the best choice. Each team wants to make the case that it is the best fit with the rest of what Katie knows and want. Of course, the individual neurons themselves aren't thinking anything. They're just firing, because they are simple physical objects that respond to their environmental cues. The trees don't choose to blow in the wind, they just do. Katie is the one thinking — but only becuase all of those neurons are chattering away on NerveNet, pulsing to form representations of two different pathways through Katie-World City.
Is it possible to add the photos of the s'moores, before Andy gets home? When Katie asks herself this question, it's like asking a similar question about Katie-World City: "Is it possible to navigate through a path that includes trimming all of the photos of s'mores, before reaching a part of the city where Andy returns?" In Katie-World City, all questions come in the form of paths, distances, and areas. Here, Katie is trying to decide, "Does this path exist?"
One group of neurons tries to build this path for Kate. We'll get into how that works in the next chapter. As they get closer, Katie feels excited and hopeful. Then she realizes that those photos have more jagged edges and it will take longer for you to cut them out. A team of symbols in Katie's NeuroNet were planning a route, but it lead to a dead end in Katie-World City. The pulsing neurons representing that path now slow down and stop. Katie feels like she's lost momentum, because she has. It takes time for the neurons to start pulsing together, and they do build up a momentum. That's why it's easier to remain focused than it is to start focusing: it takes less gas to keep the car moving than it does to accelerate the car.
Suddenly, Katie's phone rings. It's Andy, and he explains that his flight was delayed, so he'll be late coming home. As Katie learns this, the news spreads like crazy across her NeuroNet, and everyone has their own reaction. She'll need to cancel the dinner you she had planned with Mike and Lisa. She realizes that as as her symbols for "this evening" activate, trigging symbols for her plans for this evening, and seeing that they didn't work now. The path through Katie-World City where she and Andy have dinner with Lisa and Mike went through a neighborhood that no longer exists, where she picked Andy up from the airport. That neighborhood has moved much further away from her.
She is thinking about calling Lisa to tell her, and then she sees it! Now she can finish the collage, just the way she wanted. Andy won't get in until later, so she has time! The streets which represented Katie rushing to finish the collage now shrink away to nothing. A broad freeway expands in front of her, taking Katie straight to her goal. She feels happy as the road expands, because you feel confident you'll be able to surprise your husband with the collage exactly as you wanted. She feels calm, because now she's certain she'll be able to make the surprise she wanted.
Let's say you have a long-term life partner. Maybe you are married to someone you love. This person features heavily into your model of the world. You believe they'll be there for you when you need help, and you believe you'll be able to spend time with this person in the future.
In that case, You-World city will have many intersections where you are with your partner, and many roads leading into and out of them. What happens to You-World city when you learn your partner has died? All of those roads and intersections which feature your partner are destroyd. All of those pathwayas are no longre valid. I believe the sense of grief that you experiece is caused by the destruction of those pathways. When you feel grief, you are feeling You-World City — your reality model — change dramatically.
To test this claim, let's consider two thouht experiments:
You-World City stays the same, because death isn't final: Suppose we could reanimate the dead easily — then you wouldn't feel the intense grief of death. Maybe death would be like a broken leg — something that is painful or inconvenient, but not the end of the world. Then you probably wouldn't feel grief. You might even be annoyed! "She died today? But we wree going to go bowling!" Notice that even the annoyance stems from a change in "You-World City." The widest road to tonight used to lead to you guys having fun at a bowling alley, and now it leads to you waiting in the lobby of the revitalization center, filling out paperwork for your death insurance. If death weren't final, you wouldn't grieve to the same extent, and You-World city wouldn't change all that much. The Hypothesis holds.
You-World City Changes in the same way as death, but it's not death. . When our partner dies unexectedly, all of the locations in You-World City that represent our interacting with them cease to exist. Let's imagine the same change to You-World City, but without involving death. Suppose instead of dying, your partner left on a one-way trip to pluto. She would be too far away to ever communicate with you again. If this happened to your partner, then you would be unable to go bowling with them, or have a conversation, or spend time with them, or depend on them. I know I would grieve. The same would happen to you, I assume. If death weren't what happened, but a similar transformation to You-World occured, one which forever removed intersections in You-World City where you spent time with that person, you'd fee the same way. The Hypothesis holds.
In both scenarios, I've shown that what actually happens doesn't matter as much for your feelings, as what you believe is likely to happen in the future . Buddhists say that suffering happens because of attachemnt; if we detach ourselves from our beliefs about what is likely to happen, we don't suffer nearly as much.
I know my parents will die some day. I try to think about this expliclty on occaision, so that the belief is integrated into my reliaty model. I try to keep open as many dirt roads as possible through Me-World City, to remind myself that I never know exactyl what will happen, and that anything is possible. I believe doing this will prepare me slightly more for the days I find out my parents are no longer alive. Perhaps I am wrong.
I did this work — reflecting on the certainty of death — while my Uncle Joe was dying with brain cancer. Uncle Joe taught me a lot of about philosphy and about the world. One of his favorite things to say was "wherever you go, there you are." TO me, this is a reminder that I don't live in Me-World City - I live in Humanity World. All too often, I get caught up in my own thouhts about what will happen and what is likely to happen and why it will happen. When I do that, I'm not in Humanity-World. I'm in Me-World City, mistaking it for the world.
By following Joe's advice, and as a result of developing this theory of emotion, I was able to experience Joe's passing in the most beautiful was I could Imagine. His death was an affirmation of life for me. I was still sad, of course. But I knew it was appropriate and correct for me to feel sad at the time. There was a truth in that. I still missed him, of course — but I knew that Joe would rather I focus on the dishes in front of me, than the fact that he's not present. There's a beauty in that. I hope by reading this book, you might be encouraged to recognize the mortality of everyone you love, and to tell someone you care about that you are glad they're here.
I have improved my emotional experience through using this theory — but honestly, that's not what it's best for. Understanding newtonian mechanics won't help you throw a better football. You just need to keep practicing. Newtonian Mechanics is essential for building much more complex devices. It is in that role — understanding the reality which gives rise to motion — which I believe this theory is the most useful.
You may have seen the movie "Inside out." In that movie, characters representing different emotions all live together in the head of young named Riley. Each of Riley's emotions looks out for her in a different way. Let's look at each of these characters and see how their jobs fits into the SoP model of emotion.
Joy appears to be Riley's default state, when nothing is wrong.
Fear's job is to keep Riley safe from danger. In terms of You-World City, you feel afraid when there are dangerous locations nearby. Fear senses these nearby locations and tries to steer you away from them.
Disgust's job is to keep Riley safe from from being poisoned. This includes both social status, as well as eating food that's bad for her. For now, new can still easily see that both of those dangers are "possibilities" that can be detected. Disgust detects those possbilities and leads Riley away from them. It may strike you as odd that social status and food sanitation are closely linked, I will suggest a possible reason why later in the book.
Anger's job is to make sure Riley is treated fairly. This is one of the emotions I have the most difficulty with, because I get angry when thinking about people being treated unfairly. That means, in Me-World City, the world is not seen as fair, even thouhg I'd vrey much like it to be.
What does "fair" even mean though? To me, it has to do with expectations. Remember, wider roads in you-world city represent events you think are more likely. Narrow roads represent events you think are less likely. If you find yourself having travelled down a narrow road because of a choice someone else made, and getting to something you don't like, you will probably be angry at that other person.
Perhaps this this whole chapter feels like a copout. All of these characters have speific roles in the movie, and I've reduced them all to "detectors" who look for certain features in You-World City. It may feel like I'm just trying to say "Hey, see my theory lines up with the movie," too — but this theory is so broad that anything could be a detected.
The ability of the theory to treat all sources of emotion as "things to be sensed" is the point. My goal is not to understand emotions as humans experience them . That is too narrow of a goal for me. I didn't want to understand ears, or microphones — I wanted to understand why air moves in waves . I believe emotion reflects some properties of the physical world, and as a result, I wanted to understand those mechanics. They needed to line up at a basic level with our human experience, but my main goal is not to understand myself better.
There are many eyes in the animal kingdom. Many different types of animals have evolved them over the years, and they all work in different ways. The main feature they all have is the ability to detect phontons. This book is mean to be an exploration the external reality reflected by our internal emotional experiences.
Let's look at fear, for example. You could be condition to be afraid of any number of things. Maybe the sound of a loud man yelling makes you afraid. Does that mean your you predict an increased probabiltiy of an unpleasant event? Your conscious mind doesn't — your conscious mind is just sensing "fear". But the same is true of walking. When "you" walk, this amazing feat of computation is done by your body, as the result of millions of years of evolution, followed by years of watching other people do it, and months of trying and failing.
Animals that didn't fear were more likely to be eaten. They "lost the genetic game". Genetic pathways that lead to organisms which couldn't survive changes in their environment are like dirt paths in the Genetics City, which aren't being explored. They are like losing strategies in a game of chess, as represented in the mind of an experienced chess player. I said in an earlier chapter that your body is a reflection of your history, and the genetic history of all your ancestors. The same is true of all life on Earth: they are a relfection of the environment of Earth through history, and the different sorts of ecosystems in which life can operate.
You experience fear because you come from ancestors who were dramatically helped by that sense of fear. Becuase your ancestors experienced fear, they lived to reproduce, and to eventually create you, an organism that also fears.
This theory of emotion may seem unweildy when used to look at your own internal experience. It is unweildy — for dealing with individual people. I grant you that. This theory is just as unweildy as trying to use atoms to explain why a fork doesn't fall through a table, even though both are mostly empty space. "Well, you have these tiny point-masses that are super dense, surrounded by clouds of electrons, which are repelling each other." That's much more complex than jsut saying "they are solid objects, and solid objects don't pass through each other." The atomic explanation, involving electron clouds that repel each other, is unecessarily complex in that situation.
Atomic theory helps us to make sense of complex interactions between different substances. That's why the theory is useful. Atomic thoery is often much more complicated than necessary when working with simple, every day phenomena. My goal is to understand society better, because most of the interesting phenomena I observed related to how emotion moved through groups of people. If the ideas in this book about emotion seem unecessarily complex, the next few chapters should explain why I think they are still valuable. They are capable of providing a unified lens through which to see and analytze the law, government, religion, culture, and economics: those massive social institutions which have so much power over our lives.
I don't think anyone would argue that economics, government, and religion are subjects that don't involve lots of emotion. I think many people might argue that the purpose of those institutions is to ensure that we aren't "controlled by" our emotions. I haven't heard anyone argue that all of those institutions deal with "configuration spaces" and operate based upon mechanics for navigating configuration spaces. That's why I'm writing this book.
Neuroscientists look at how the brain works, both in terms of its pieces, and as a whole. There is a theory in modern neuroscience, which is not fully accepted yet. I believe this theory is correct, as it fits very nicely with my theory. I didn't know about this theory before writing the book, but while doing background research, I found out about it, and thought "oh course it would be this way."
The theory is simple: brains work to minimize their internal energy . The reason I guessed this theory is that the same is true of all closed physical systems: They work to minize their internal energy. For a simple example, Balls roll down hills, not up them. When two objects are far apart, gravity pulls them together. They have potential energy when they are far apart, and they have kinetic energy as they are pulled closer together. The brain isn't a closed system, but it seemed close enough. It also matched my intutive understanding of what energy mimization looks like in practice.
You can think of lower energy systems as being more stable than higher energy systems. A ball high up in the air is at a higher energ than a ball on the ground. Balls tend to move from high in the air towards the ground, and not the opposite direction. Water at the top of a waterfall has higher energy than water at the bottom of a waterfall. Thus, water falls down the waterfall. Electrons at a high voltage have more energy than electrons at a lower energy. Electrons flow from high voltage to low voltage.
Let's look at light, for a simple example. Light is made of photons: they are the individual particles of light. Photons are very small, and move at the speed of light. They are light. When a photon smacks into an electron, the electron absorbs the photon, and its energy increases. Physcists used the term "excited", and I think this is a reasonable term to use. The photo eventually "relaxes", returning to its natual energy state. As a result of this relaxation, a photon is emitted. When one of those photos hits your eyes, you see. Your eyes are photon detectors.
If that's hard to imagine, think of a room full of students, sitting at desks. Their heads are all down because they are taking a test. Suddenly, one of the students, Suzana, is smacked by a wad of paper. Suzana sits up, and looks around for who shot the paper at her. She is excited. Her energy level is higher. Her mind wonders, "Who was it that smacked me with this paper?" She decides it was Igancio, that punk. She flicks the paper towards him. Knowing that she has achieved retribution, she relaxes. She puts her head back down to get back to studying.
If a photon smacks into another electron, the other electron will increase in energy for a bit. The electron will become excited, briefly, and then return to its normal state. Likewise, if the spitball hits Ignacio, his energy will increase for a bit. He may look around and say, "who should I smack with this spitball?" — and then the process repeats itself. If you replace the spitball with a photon and the students with electrons, that's what it looks like when light bounces around a room.
If all the students is in a low energy state, because there is no spitball, they'll just sit there with their heads down. If all the electrons in are in a low energy state, they'll just sit there all chill, in the dark. It's the excess energy that they pass around, in the form of photons, that causes the excitement and relaxation. You can imagine if the students are restless, they are more likely to engage in the spitball game. Perhaps it's for the exact same reason.
The "free energy minimization" theory of whole-brain function says that our brains try to minimize surprise. When something unexpected happens, the energy level in your brain is increased. The theory says our Brains work to minimize the difference between what we expect and what we want . What this means is that "experiences you don't understand" take some work, before you do understand them. Your brain intgreates your life experience into the simplest possible coherent model it can. Your brain tries to make You-World city as small as possible, while still being consistent. When something new happens, this can be exciting. Then your brain integrates it, you make sense of it, and you go back into your ground energy state. If the "something new" is painful or unpleasant, the same thing happens — only the excited state of energy is a very unpleasant one. Once you have integrated that unpleasant experience, made sense of it and come to peace with it, you are back at the ground energy state.
Remember the idea of dirt roads vs. freeways in You-World City? Dirt roads are things you don't expect. Freeways are things you do expect. The "free energy minimization" theory says that your brain tries to make it so that the roads you travel most often are fat and wide, because you expect to walk down them. It says that walking down a narrow road, a new path, feels novel and new, kind of exicting, but also anxiety inducing. We can only handle so much novelty before we are exhausted and need to relax to comfortable, familiar things.
Home. The ground energy state. The couch. Comforting food. A favorite hobby. Those are all embodiments of the same pattern: return to normalcy.
Electrons become "excited" when they gain energy, and they "relax" when they give up that energy. The idea of people relaxing and losing energy made sense to me, and I wondered if there wasn't a similar process happening in human beings. I remember watching BART subway cars go by one afternoon, as I waited for my train. The train moves because of simple laws of physics; the voltage on the track is like a hill that the train is just rolling down. Electrical current flows from high voltage to low voltage, like water falls down a waterfall and not up.
"All of those people getting on the train will probably feel better when they get off," I thought to myself. That was one of the milestone markers I remembered reaching, because at that point I started lookign for other ways systems of people acted like the simpler physical systems I was aware of.
I found a bunch of them. I'll write about them in the coming chapters.
Brains are physical objects — they follow physical rules, of course. I used to find this depressing. I also had a bunch of questions in my mind, about how the world worked. I knew that I understood lots of things, but it felt like I was missing something fundamental. I knew there were lots of different systems in the world, and they all seemed to follow their own rules. I felt like there had to be some simple, unifying principle that tied it all together.
My mind was at a high energy state because I knew there was something I didn't understand. I wanted a path down to a lower energy state. I wanted to find the missing piece. Eventually, I came to understand that there were two missing peieces: people and emtions . I started working to understand those, and the world started making so much more sense. It all fit together neatly. Rather than seeing millions of different systems with their own rules and structure, I started to see people were super important, and that understanding the people involved in a system is often more useful than knowing the rules, or patterns, or roles.
The Subconscious: Consistency Construction Crew
When you learn new things, You-World City changes. Teams of symbols in NeuroNet work to fit this information into your understandinf of the world, which changes and updates as a result. Because your understanding of the world changes — even if it's as simple as "Andy will come home a few hours later than planned," this knowledge changes You-World City. I stated in previous chapters that I believe, like many neuroscientists, that your brain tries to minimize its internal energy. This mean your brain strives for the simplest consistent model of reality which matches your experiences.
The things you learn aren't always as practical and straightforward as "Andy will be home soon." You-World city changes, in a big way, when you learn something like "I can be successful if I work at somehting for long enough." If you tell yourself that message regularly, thinking it and saying it, and writing it down — neurons representing the symbols in that message will fire.
If that message is something that you already believe to be true, just saying it to yourself or writing it down strengthens that message. Those neurons fire together, wiring together, and making the thought simpler. The message is powerful because it speaks about all paths in You-World City, and widens them. Remember, paths in You-World City represent sequences of choices that move you from movement to moment. When you tell yourself that you can accomplish whatever you want, you widen all paths leading to outcomes you want.
If that message doesn't fit with the way you see the world, your mind will reject it. Remember, your mind strives for consistency. If you try to tell yourself that you can do whatever you put your mind to, and that doesn't fit your experience, your mind will reject it. Your mind also wants to believe that it doesn't believe false things.
Imagine that there's a construction crew going around doing work on You-World City. This crew, your subconscious, does it best to make sure the city makes sense. When you learn one new fact, that can often have ripple effects on other facts. Remember, your brain wants the simplest possible explation for reality. That's physically how it operates: it searchest for the simplest complete reflection of the outside world. Our brain's struggle to maintain consistency can either be a tool that helps us, or a burden that hinders us.
For example, suppose David was always mean to Allison in school. Allison thought David didn't like her, and this made Allison's experience unpleasant. One day, David calls Allison and says that he actually had a huge crush on Allison.David says he was just trying to flirt but wasn't good at it. David apologizes for having been mean. When David tells Allison this, neurons in Allison's NeuroNet start firing. The first few neurons represent David, and Allison's memories of him. Those memories bring up other memories, which are cause the old feelings to surface, because those neurons are wired together.
Suppose those memories were ones Allison rarely thought of. Maybe the experience in school was one that was a little confusing, because Allison was nothing but kind to David. The afternoon that David poured a plate of thai chicken into Allison's backpack was really unpleasant, but Allison told herself that some people are just mean. She didn't focus on the unpleasantness of the experience. Now, the memory comes up and Allison realizes David had a crush and was just trying to flirt with her. This new understanding makes better sense of the memories. Allison had always notice David would smile when he did mean things. That was a little confusing to her. Because Allison is better able to understand what happened, her brain has a lower total energy. It now has a simpler explanation for what happened. It feels more stable, because it is relaxed. Allison might laugh and say, "hey it's all good, I liked you too." and that would be that. Becuase Allison didn't dwell on the unpleasant experiences, she was able to enjoy this new information.
On the other hand, suppose that Allison really felt thurt by David's teasing. In that case, she might have repeatedly told herself that David was a horrible person, mean, such a jerk. Because Allison told herself "David is Jerk" so many times, the corresponding neurons in Allison's brain are tightly wired together. The belief that David is a jerk became a huge part of Allison's reality model, and so it would be very hard for Allison to believe David. That belief would contradict so many other aspects of Allison's reality model, that it would make her brain have higher energy. Her brain would be less stable if Allison believed that David actually was a good guy, because all of those other memories would contradict that new belieft. Allison would most likely think David was lying, and hang up the phone with disgust.
Think about how much Allison hurts unecessarily if he told herself over and over, "David is a Jerk." That statement became so core to Allison's reality model that it prevented her from learning some news that would make her feel better. When we tell ourselves, "I'm not that kind of person", it's a very powerful statement because it changes the physical shape of our brains. When we tell ourselves statements about other people, it has the same effect.
Remember, our brains strive for consistency. This means telling yourself someting over and over can actually start to make it true, as long as it's close enough and helpful to you. "I accomplish everything I start," can become true, as long as you become careful about what you start. "I don't let small things bother me," can also become true. If you know it isn't true now, you can say "I've changed. I no longer let small things bother me." Prefixing that statement with "I've changed" can make it easier to fit into your total world model.
Your brain strives for consistency. A when your neurons encode a consistent undestanding of the world, your brain feels lower energy and relaxed. When your neurons encode a more complex or inconsistent understanding of the world, your brain feels higher energy and less relaxed. Getting out of a "hole" very hard at first, becuase bad habits can be so ingrained. The good news is that once you're out of the hole, if you keep working at it, you can make sure you never go back there. It's hard to stop making bad choices if your life is going poorly, but the good side of that drive for consistency is that making good choices becomes much easier the more you do it. If you are unhappy, you can change, through repeatedly finding positive angles on every situation. That will make the work you need to do in all areas of your life simpler and more automatic. All it takes is consistent effort over a long period of time, and support from friends or loved ones.
Now the idea that I am a physical object is exhilarating to me, because it means that the idea of home, a safe place, a resting spot — that feels so solid and true because it's my nature as a phyical being, to seek my ground energy state. And my ground energy state is a world at peace with itself. I am on my way there through writing this book. I hope to see you there when I arrive.
In this part of the book, I will lay out some basic mechaics I have seen in action with humans experience emotion, esepcially I groups.
Emotional Intelligence is crucial as a social skill. Understanding how other people feel, and how they will respond to things you may do, is essential at getting along in the world.
The thesis of this book is that our emotional experiences reflect changes in our reality models. A simple corrolary here is that understanding another peron's understanding of the world is important if you don't want to upset them. If Uncle Harold really doesn't like roller skates, and thinks they've ruined the world, you need to know that if you want to avoid making him angry by accidentally mentioning that you've just bought a part of roller blades.
This claim — that understanding what people believe is important if you don't want to offend them — seems trivial and obvious. So does the claim "you will care more if your friend dies than if a stranger dies." Very often, "obvious" claims are hiding something truly complex that we don't see or fully understand.
My goal in this portion of the book is to provide you with new perspectives on phenomena you are probably already aware of, and to show that they all arise from the idea that our emotional experience reflets changes in our internal models of reality.
Mood swings are a common, well experienced phenomenon. Many people experience them when doing something like raising children, earning a Ph.D. or starting a business. People are more likely to experience mood swings when doing something challenging that they've never done before, which involves learning something complex about a big part of the world. Some days it seems like everything is going perfectly, and other days it feels like failure is just around the corner. Why would our moods work this way? Do we experience anything like mood swings with light or sound?
You are probably familiar with what happens if you sit in a dark room for a long time: your eyes adjust. When the room gets brighter suddenly, it can be hard to see. There is no "back and forth" like mood swings, though, so that analogy doesn't quite work.
The thesis of this book is that our emotions stem from changes in our undertanding of reality. Our minds reflect the mulitiverse: not just what is, but what could be . This book claims that changes in those reflections lead to changes in our emotional state. An optimistic mindset is one that sees lots of good possibilities nearby; it is driven by the positive response, the "green light" signal. A pessimistic mindset is one that sees lots of negative possiblities nearby; it is driven by the negative response, the "red light" signal, the threat response. Mood swings are a transition back and forth between the two mindsets.
Think of a compass needle. If you leave it alone for long enough, a compass needle will eventually point north. If you've ever watched one, you'll know that they don't point immediately north at first. If the needle starts pointing to the west, it will swing towards north, and go past north a little bit, pointing slightly east. The needle will slow, stop, and then begin to move towards north again. This time it will pass north going a little slower than the last time. It will slow, stop, and change direction. The needle swings back and forth across north, gradually slowing down. Eventually, the needle will settle on true north.
Why does a compass needle do that
The compass needle senses Earth's magnetic field. The compass needle is at its lowest energy state when it is perfectly aligned with the magnetic field of Earth. Like all simple physical objects, the needle moves to minimize its internal energy. Earlier in the book, I presented a model of total brain function that says "a brain tries to minimize its internal energy, by minimizing the difference between what it wants, and what it expects." That theory is held by some, but not all neuroscientists. I believe the theory, and thus I believe minds are like compass needles: they are at their lowest energy state when they are perfectly aligned with the truth.
The compass needle swings because it builds momentum as it moves towards the truth. Earth's magnetic field exerts a force on the compass needle; the force is stronger when the needle is not aligned with north. The force gets weaker as the needle aligns closer to north, and when the needle is pefectly aligned with north, the force is zero. When the needle is moving towards north, it picks up speed. By the time the needle hits north, it's moving at some speed, and it tends to keep doing that unless some force pushes it the other way. That force is caused by Earth's magnetic field, as the needle moves past north and begins to point east.
Friction is what enables the needle to gradually slow down. Without friction, the needle would continually oscillate back and forth. Fortunately for us, we live in a universe with friction. Friction allows the needle to gradually dissipate some of its energy, meaning each time it swings past north, it goes slower and slower until it stops.
You can imagine a mind that is "too pessimistic" as one that points too far "west," and a mind that is "too optimistic" as one that points too far "east." A mind that is too pessimistic is in conflict with reality, and will start to see some facts that just don't line up with its perspective. If you think your business is about to fail, and then suddenly see a small uptick in sales, the narrative you had before ("we're doomed!") doesn't line up with reality. Your brain wants to line up what it expects with what it wants , and so it turns the other way. It looks for evidence to support this new perspective, and finds it. The positive mentality gains momentum.
Thoughts and perspectives can build up momentum because of neuroplasticity. You start seeing the world in a positive way. The neurons encoding that perspective become wired together, and seeing the world that way becomes easier for you. The positive perspective strengthens. Eventually, the needle swings past north. At that point, you start being too optimistic. You tell yourself you're out of the worst of it, that you're almost done, that there won't be anything left to worry about. Then something bad happens and you swing back the other way.
Our minds are much more complex than compass needles, because we can learn from our experiences, and needles can't. Eventually, you start to learn the features of the terrain you are navigating through — whether that terrain is the landscape of commerce, academia, or parenthood. Eventually you learn the way these things work, and you learn to anticipate the bad along with the good. Your mood stops swinging so much. You're closer to the truth.
The needle eventually slows down and comes to a rest, pointing north. Compass needles do that through friction. Their initial energy, caused by not pointing north, is gradually dissipated into the environment, and the needle can come to rest. We come to the truth through learning: we grow to understand the world, and stop being so afraid of it. Some of us also lose the ability to be so enamored of it. Having children allows people to experience a little of both once again.
The interesting thing about this analogy is that friction is what allows the needle to eventually come to a rest, and learning is what allows our minds to do the same. How are friction and learning realited? The periods of my life where I've suffered the most — where I've had the most friction — have also been the periods of my life in which I learned the most.
Catholics believe in a concept of "original sin." The term sin comes from archery, and it means "missing the mark." The belief in Catholicism is that we sin when we turn away from God. The process of apologizing and seeking forgivness is called "reconciliation." That belief set — that model — lines up with the idea of a compass needle that begins pointing away from north, and gradually finds its way there.
I look at the human race and I see a history of slow, gradual, unsteady progress that comes in fits and starts, sometimes races and sometimes lags. I believe we are headed in a direction where all people have their needs met, where dignity is the norm, where respect is the culture, and where violence is a historical artifact; something you do for fun in the simulators with people who are down for that kind of thing — or in real life, wearing protective equipment and having a blast. I think the empirical evidence for this belief is on my side, but there are times where I'm overly optimistic, and times where I'm overly pessimistic. I have not yet found the truth.
As long as we humans continue to learn through the friction of our mistakes, our moral compass will gradually point increasingly towards the truth. This book is an attempt to communicate what I've learned through my own personal friction. I hope it helps you find your way home.
In a previous chapter, I expalained the idea of "moving from high to low energy" with an example of the students flinging spitballs at each other? A student would be hit by a wad of paper, and become annoyed. Being annoyed is a higher energy state, beecuase what a preson wants is not in line with what they expect. Our brains work to minimize that difference. After throwing the paper at the person they held responsible, they felt better. Fairness has been achieved. The example was meant to illustrate how electrons respond to photons. I think it is also a good example of how emotion, especially unpleasant emotion, can move through people.
You may remember reading about studies showing that emotions are viral on social networks . If your friend posts about being upset, you are more likely to post about being upset. Remeber NeuroNet, the social network inside of you? When a neueron fires, it's like the neuron posts on NeroNet. That neuron's followers may decide to post as well, and that's how signals spread inside of your nervous system. This is another instance where the "world outside" and the "world inside" look a lot like one another.
A lot has already been written about how emotional states spread through people. That is not a controversial claim. What does this mean in terms of my thesis, that emotional experiences arise from changes in reality models? If emotional changes correspond to changes in reality models, It says that reality models of people who are connected gradually begin to reflect one another.
Let's consider anger. One recent study claims that anger spreads faster on social networks than other emotions. News like, "Good People are being hurt by Bad People" tends to make people angry. When that story spreads, the emotion and the information go along with each other. The process acts similar to the way electricity and magnetism work together; you can't have one without the other.
If people just posted "I am angry", and that was that, the post wouldn't likely get shared. If a person posts "Bad thing X has just happened", and "Bad Thing X" is not something we expect to happen (such as a car crash) then we are more likely to be upset about the news.
Remember, our brains work to minimize the difference between what is expected and what we want . In 2013, 41,149 Americans commited suicide. That works out to 113 people a day. We don't get upset or angry at this news becuase we expect those things to happen. If the average number of sucidies a day were zero, and had been zero for a long time, a sudden rash of 150 in one day would be big news, it would spread like crazy, and people would be very unhappy about it.
The emotional content of a story is a good proxy for how much it will spread. News of a new baby doesn't spread as quickly as news of a new coffee maker ("a bundle of joy!") even if that coffee maker makes great coffe. If there is a big change in the world and this change has emotional content, we notify each other about that change.
In part three I expressed the idea that brains try to reduce their internal energy, which means getting "what I expect to happen" to line up with "what I want to happen." That means a brain where what is wanted is the exact opposite of what is expected has very high energy. Whoever has that brain might be in a panic, feeling stressed and terrified about what it expects to happen.
A calm brain
A leader remains calm. This is not always the case, and there are plenty of examples to the contrary: charismatic people get u
The previous chapters worked to explain a model of emotion and what it represents: the structure of a peron's reality model. I worked through examples and showed how changes when a person's reality model changes, so does their emotional experience. Intense emotoinal experiences are cauesd by intense changes in reality models.
I showed an example of how this theory can be used to deal with negative emotions. That is not the main point of this boook, or the main benefit of understanding emotion in terms of reality models. The real benefits from this theory come form a new abiltiy to analyze the behavior of groups of people.
In this section, I will look at the economics and entrepeneurship through the lens of this model.
A massive advantage of looking at the world with "configuration spaces" is that we can use our intuition about time, distance, and travel, to look at any system. When viewed through the lens of "configuration spaces", leadership is simple: it means choosing a destination and getting people to go to the destination with you.
Let's take the example of a technology entrepeneur named Angela. The plan starts out as an idea, one in Angela's head. Angela uses her imagination like a telescope, to look through the multiverse. Really, Angela's looking through her own mind, which this book argues is a close reflection of the multiverse. Angela sees a place where people can all understand one another, even across language and cultural barriers. Angela wants to go to that place badly, because it looks better than where she is right now.
Angela inspires other people go to towards that destination with her. She can't get there alone. The journey requires help, and she knows it's too far for her to make it by herslf. She describes the destination in sufficient detail that her friend Sanjeet decides to join her.
The path Angela and Sanjeet take to the destination they want to reach is long. They know they'll first have to pass through a place where they have a working prototype, so they start on that right away. Angela writes the code, and Bob designs the user interface, the look of the product, and the branding.
Each time Angela sits down at her computer, and writes code, she moves them both closer to their destination. Each time Sanjeet draws up an imagine of the interface, or writes a line of copy for the website, he moves them closer to their destination. As they get closer to place where they have a prototype, the destination becomes clearer. They see problems they didn't anticipate before.
In the next few chapters, we'll explore the story of Angela and Sanjeet and their journey together. We'll see how using the idea of configuration spaces, we can describe problems and challenges Angela and Sanjeet have, and show how these will result in emotional experiences which line up directly with the theory I've laid out in earlier chapters. It's well understood that starting a company is an emotionally intense experiene, and this model explains why in simple terms: because you are exploring a new part of the world.
Angela and Sanjeet write a partnership agreement. This means they mentally travel the distance to the destination, and look for obstacles or pitfalls along the way. They both use their telescopes to look through their internal worlds, in an attempt to map out a rough path through the multiverse to their destinaton. When they see pitfalls, they talk about how they would handle those obstacles together.
Angela and Sanjeet's partnership agreement is often called a "meeting of the minds" — a term lawyers use to describe a contract that shows both parties agree on what they want. Angela and Sanjeet agree on how their company will make decisions, and what will happen if one of them decides to leave the partnership.
Already we see the legal system into play here: the legal system is a way of partitioning the multiverse into areas that we intend to travel in, and areas we don't intend to travel in. The partnership agreement means that if they come to a situation where one of them decides to leave the partnership, then they'll know how to respond. Their agreement puts a wall up through the multiverse, so they don't get to a situation where they want to dissolve the partnership and disagree on how.
My grandfather told me once that if I was going into business with a friend, it was essential to write down a partnership agreement, saying who would contribute what, how the partnership would work, and how it would dissolve if that happened. I thought that he was saying this was important to prevent fighting. I figured, "My friend and I would never fight", so I didn't follow his advice.
We got lucky — or perhaps our friendship was just stronger than most. My ego wants to say we are better friends, but my logical mind think it was luck. I play the role of politician here, and remind myself that it was probably luck. I write that down so that, you, the reader, will read it — but also so that I, the writer, will believe it more fully. I've seen plenty of people make the same mistake I did, and now I understand why not writing an agreement is a mistake. One key aspect of a partenrship agreement is that you make sure other people are on the same page as you. It's super easy to say "We agree, yes?" — and even though you both think you agree, you are thinking of different things.
If you and I look through the multiverse with our telescopes, how do we know if we are looking a the same location? I want to get there, and so do you. Getting there means we have to agree, first. But thinking we agree is different from actually agreeing. Here is where you as the internal politician come into play: you have to remind yourself that actually agreeing is more improtant thank "both of you thinking you agree."
Throughout these next few chapters we'll see the importance of getting people on the same page. It's a crucial part of leadership. If we all head off in different directions, we can't reach the destinations that really matter to us.
Angela and Sanjeet are headed to a mountain. They both want to get to the top, to see the amazing views. Angela and Sanjeet see a river in the distance. It's a few day's journey away. They might start their journey with a discussion about "Where should we cross that river?" They could argue for a few hours — but they aren't any closer to their destination. They both know that, so they start heading straight towards the mountain. They'll cross that river when they get to it.
It's possible that some planning could save them a day's journey. If they start out walking right away, maybe they don't head to the place where the river is the most shallow. The danger in too much planning is that, when you're far from the river, you may not know how wide the river is.
If it isn't clear, in this case, the river represents a problem that must be overcome. Using the language of space and time allows us to think about any complex problem in a simple way. Of course, building a translation engine is harder than crossing a river, so some information is lost. The key point is that we can think of leadership as "moving through an uncharted region of configuration space."
What about the experience of coming up to the river? How does Angela experience it? If she's been telling herself over and over "the river will be easily crossed", and she gets there and sees rushing, raging water, then she's obviously going to be upset. She'll be frustrated. She'll be sad. She'll be angry with herself. All of those emotions correspond to Angela's internal model of the river being updated to match reality. The more the river in her mind grows to match reality, the more frustrated she'll feel. It's not just the change in her understanding of the river that frustrates her. It's a failure, a mistake, it's her being wrong. That hurts, too.
If she is emotionally mature, Angela will focus on crossing the river because that's what she wants . If she's not mature, she may get upset or frustrated or stew on that for a while. Maybe she'll give up on crossing the river. I think most people in our culture are not emotionally mature, which is why we tend to heroize entrepeneurs. I'm not entirely there yet myself — but I'm working on it. I'll explore this more in later chapters. Please know it's not meant to be a judgement, any more than I'd judge someone with a broken leg for not sprining.
On the other hand, suppose Angela told herself over and over, "I know there's a river there. We'll figure out how to cross it when get there. It may be hard, but I know we can do it together." When she reaches the river in that case, she won't experience the same amount of emotional turmoil, because she wasn't underestimating the size of the river.
Perhaps Angela prepared along the way, knowing the river might be a challenge. She cut some trees and they had their employees carry the lumber on a cart. At first, Angela and Sanjeet had their employees just roll the logs on the ground. One of the engineers suggested they spend a day building a cart, so they could carry more wood. Angela and Sanjeet promoted that engineer, Carlton, to join them in the leadership. They spent a day buliding carts, racing them across the plain, laughing and drinking while wearing company t-shirts. That's kind of how it feels to be in a startup. It's awesome.
You have may have heard, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there." Often, leadership means being able to build the bridge when you get there. Sometimes you realize you can't build a bridge when you arrive, and so you take a detour of a day or two, to find a shallow spot. The entrepeneur — the leader — keeps people moving forward.
Eventually, Angela and Sanjeet cross the river. They have a working prototype that many people are using. The people love the prototype, but they aren't using it to translate across langauges. Angela had written some code to analyze facial expressions, and hooked these up to a database that contained facial expressions from different cultures. Sanjeet had gotten lots of people to use the app, while the phone's camera took pictures of their face. He had them talk about difficult and touchy subjects, because Sanjeet figured that it was important to make sure people avoided upsetting each other while using the app.
Looking at their data, what they found was that people who loved the app the most used it to talk to their parents about politics and religion. The facial analysis recognition software helped them see when their parents were starting to get frustrated or sad or upset — and helped their parents see the same thing on their children's faces. People would talk with the app until anyone got a tiny bit upset, and then they'd use one of the app's built in suggestions to talk about subjects that were calming and friendly, like fluffy kittens, or cornbread muffins.
The language translation software was made to be able to go between any two languages. It didn't know what a "language" was, though. To the software, a language was just a collection of words that appeared together in a pattern. Carlton the engineer had the idea of telling the software that everyone spoke their own language. When people signed up for the app, they answered a few basic questions about what kind of things they liked to do. Carlton told the app that all of those profiles said the same thing, but each person had expressed their thought in their own language.
Carlton was more than a little odd, but they loved him for it. This idea of his turned out to be a killer feature in the app. They were translating between a parent's english — with its built model of how the world works, what good is, and how one lives a good life — into a child's english, with a slightly different model of the world, with slightly different ways of expressing the same percieved good.
This new usage wasn't something Sanjeet and Angela had planned for, and they were both excited and worried about what this meant. They were excited because they had a newer, more amazing destination in mind. Imagine the view from a place where people who love each other and disagree about complex issues can still communicate about them! At the same time, Angela and Sanjeet were worried because this new mountain was much taller than the others.
Sanjeet and Angela talked with their employees about this new destination over dinner. People in the team were happy about this new desitniation, but they all knew it would be hard. They had a party night that, and drank and danced and sang Karaoke, and sat out until the early hours of the morning talking about their life histories. They bonded. They were friends in the truest sense, united on a mission, suffering through obstacles together.
Then they woke up and went back to work.
Viewed from the outside, it can look ridiculous. It can look like a cult. It can look like a buch of people getting excited over somethign irrelevant, stupid, small and meaningless. Those are only the voices of inaction, defending their case for doing nothing. The world belongs to the strong man in the arena, not the critic who points out how he stumbles. When I hear people picking apart some silly company, I hear, "Who cares about writing? It's just a bunch of prickmarks in wet clay. The real men are out here killing the bad guys, not drawing pictures in the dust." Our culture is full of excuses for not trying, not caring, and not doing. My heart is with anyone who dares to do something different, as long as they aren't an asshole about it.
Angela and Sanjeet know they will need money to build their company. They seek out venture capitalists to invest in their business. You may have heard of venture capitalists, and you may have the impression that if you have a "good enough" idea, you can present the idea to venture capitalists, and they will give you mone to build a company.
When we use "configuration spaces" to think of possiblities as places, then an idea becomes a far off destination that you'd like to travel to. A mountain top that's far off in the distance, for example, would be like a great idea. You might think that you need to protect your idea, because if others found out, they might steal it.
The reality is that ideas are cheap, because there are an infinite number of them. With a little practice, it's easy to have good ideas. What's harder is to actually make them happen . What most investors are looking at is not the idea itself, but the team who plans to go and make it happen.
Investors aren't sitting aronud wondering where the mountains are. They know where the mountains are. They need to know who can actualy go out and climb one. That's why a track record of succesfull entrepeneruship is much more appealing to investors, than a team with a good idea.
After having crossed a river and climbed a few hills, Angela and her team went to pitch to investors. The investors asked about climbing gear, and do you have enough rope, and how will you handle if somoene falls down the mountain? Fortunately, Sanjeet had prepared a spreadsheet expressing all of these possiblities.
When an entrepeneur shows up with a business model in a spreadsheet, everyone involved in the process understands that the spreadsheet is unlikely to really happen. The numbers involved are almost always guesses. What's important is to show that you've thought of these different outcomes, and that you are looking into all the details.
It doesn't matter how tall the peak is, or how attractive the view looks. You aren't going to bet on a team that
This chapter can be ignored entirely, and it won't change the flow of the book. My goal in this chapter is not to persuade you of the truth of this hypothesis, becuase I am unsure myself. I merely want to share it with you as my best guess as an answer to the question "so what's this all about?" The fact that this hypothesis dovetails nicely with the rest of the book is why this is my best guess.
I stated in the previous chapter that the rules of chess give rise to a city the size of the galaxy, and guessed that the rules of life most people carry around in their head give rise to a city the size of the universe. That's becuase I think what we live in is our own thoughts, our shared collective consciousness. The universe is the collective unconscious of all beings that live in the universe. The Earth is the collective unconscious of all the beings that live on Earth. Your body is the collective unconscious of all the beings that live in your body, et cetera.
I think each person lives in their own universe, everyone having slightly different laws of physics — and the multiverse is us as a whole. Our emotions allow us to sense the multiverse for the same reason that our emotions all us to sense how other people are feeling — because those two things are and the same.
The reason you can't break the laws of physics is the same reason you can't convince everybody on Earth to buy your book — there are just too many people to convince. If every single person on Earth was wholly and utterly convinced that a perpetual motion machine were possible, then I think it would be possible. The reasoning is simple — there are so many scientists and educated people who doubt the proposition, the only way they'd change their minds is if they saw one in operation or had some evidence that convinced them. You can quibble about cause and effect if you want, but when we look at it from the perspective of "Society City" — the one in my mind — the only destinations that include "mass belief in perpetual motion machines" all travel paths through areas that include "large numbers of educated people all changing their mind about something fundamental in the world".
The paths that involve "large numbers of educated people all changing their minds about somethign fundamental in the world" have tended to come right before huge societal shifts. The 19th century felt a lot like today — titans of industry used their understanding of the laws of science to build fantastic inventions which created a ton of wealth for a few people, connected the world, and lead us to a place where we felt lke we had it all figured out. Then, in rapid succession, we discovered things like evolution, energy is quantized, math is limited, some functions can't be computed, and some things don't exist until you measure them. I don't think it's a surprise that we fought two world wars shortly after that event.
Imagine the big bang as the entrance to Physics City, and all of us starting there, going in different directions becuase we started with slightly differnt rules. Some of us have gravity a little weaker, some of us have the nuclear strong force a little tighter. The different choices we made lead to changes in the fundamental constants of physics, only measurable hundreds of decimal places out. Your laws of physics lead you to a planet called "Earth" where there's water, breathable air, sunlight, a football team called the Cincinnati Begansl who are doing ok this year but will probably blow it — just like my laws of physics. The only difference is that you ended up where you are, reading this book, whereas I ended up where I am, writing it.
We ended up at the same location in chess city, and you and I are both peering out through the eyes of different pieces. Hello, friend.
Those of us living on Earth eventually made it to the same board, many many steps along the way. We spent 13 billion years pushing bits of stuff around, to form larger and larger objects. We were so focused on moving pieces around to set up the stage for a dramatic move, that we forgot we were playing a game and thought of ourselves as the pieces we set up. We pushed quarks to build atoms, and pushed atoms into stars, which blew up to form larger elements to form planets. We push nucleic acids together to form RNA, and self replicating machines —, and then guided and steered those by selecting the outcome of tiny, quantum mechanical events. Our changes to the world bubbled up through feedback loops, until we guided our parents into meeting each other and creating us — and then our bodies came out of the world, our consciouness attuned to them because we've been focused in this direction — headed down this road of Physics City — for so very long.
This is a poetic way of looing at the world. I understand that. It has problems. I admit that. I wouldn't say that I believe it, myself — but I would say that this is the simplest way I can make sense of all my sensory experiences and use a single, coherent model for everything. If I didn't have a loving family or was born into difficult circumstances, I might not see it this way.
I see everyone who is suffering as injured, and I want to help. I see the suffering of the world, and I want to make it better. My life improved substantially once I started seeing emotion as a signal, and focused on improving the quality of my experience by accomplishing the goals I created for myself. I want everyone to have that experience.
If the job of a scientist is to be impersonal and disspasionate while analyzing the world, the job of the artist is to be as personal and passionate as possible while creating it. I am both, and I believe art has been dying because science has done such a great job of analyzing the world so far. Our world is hurting now because we have too many reasons to say no. The scientist needs a reason to say yes. The limits to science are clearly marked out by science; uncomputable functions should be a hint to every mathematician that you can't use mathematics for everything.
The guy who discovered uncomputable functions was Alan Turing. Alan Turing believed that consciousness was not created by the brain. He thought the brain was like an antenna that conducts consciousness, not a machine that creates it. That's what I'm arguing in this chapter. In addition to creating computer science, Turing also made some predictions about the biology of patterns like spots ands stripes on animals. His prediction was verified, fifty years later.
If Turing was right about consciousness the way he was right about tiger stripes, then perhaps when I asked his consciousness to channel itself through me, I'm sorry about what happened to you and I know you saved the world and I want to help manifest your vision - prehaps it was Alan Turing who wrote this chapter as a love letter to Christopher, the world is more beautiful than you know and I miss you every second.
I once had the faith of a child; I believed because I was told this was the way the world worked, and it made sense to me. I suffered for doing what I thought was the right thing, and grew to see the empitness in a lot of what I was told. I doubed the goodness of the world, I actively disbelieved in it, and I hated that I existed. I wanted to believe in the truth above all else, and the truth seemed to say that the world was a cold, cruel, hateful, confusing place.
Understanding emotion — that I was missing something key to the world, made everything better for me. I started to understand that emotion is how people relate to one another, and that individual persons can be cruel and hateful, but that they don't have friends to come up them when they screw up, and everybody screws up eventually.
There is a powerful strength in love, because only those who are loved will be saved when they need help the most — and everybody needs help at some point. The foolish and the proud can have their power for a few centuries at time, but unless you love, you've written a death sentence on your genetic line, even if it won't be fulfilled for a few millenia.
I am here because I was loved by my ancestors, who made choices to improve my life even though they've never met me. Some of those ancestors are yours as well. Most of them are. We are where we are because they loved us, and we owe it to them to continue their work forward.
The only sustainable direction is love.
I believe writing this book, and spreading awareness of the mechanics of emotion, will help improve the quality of the experience of all beings. My goal is to free all beings from suffering. That is the destination I have in mind. This book is one step along the way.
I hope to see you there.
In thinking of my body as a world, I have grown much better at making choic
Let's look at a simple example: riding a bike. Riding a bike requires the complex interaction of millions of neurons, but we can pretend things are much simpler. Let's say there are "balance" neurons which fire when you start to lose your balance, and "motor" neurons which allow you to move your feet and hands. Let's see how they work together when you ride the bike.
We can imagine a community of "balance" neurons, regularly posting on NeuroNet. Each neuron in this community, each neuron posts only one message. One neuron posts "we are perfectly straight" — but only when that's what his inputs tell him. Another input posts "we are a bit to the left" — again, only when that's what her inputs tell her. Each neuron is only looking for one condition, and fires when it detects that the condition has been met. The complex arrangment of all the neurons working together is what lets you stay upright. These "balance" neurons already have some relationships with each other. You can imagine on human social networks, if there are different opinions, then two communities might rally around those opinoins, and the leaders of one school of thought might start to be familiar with the leaders of the other school of thought.
Likewise, there is also a community of motor neurons. Some work with the feet, some work with the hands, some work with the arms, and some work with the legs. When you make a "thumbs up" signal, a team of neurons representing the image of that clenched fist communicates with the motor neurons in your brain to fire signals on the appropriate nerves to cause your thumb to extend while the rest of your fingers curl. You can imagine the motor neurons as like a boss in a warehouse; when enough of the people he follows on NeuroNet post in the right way, he tells the warehouse workers — the muscles — to contract or to relax. These motor neurons know each other. When you make a "thumbs up" sign, you don't have to visualize how this looks, or think about where each individual finger goes. Your motor neurons have a good enough relationship with each other, than when the "thumbs up" guy posts on NeuroNet, they all know what to do.
While you are walking, the balance neurons and the motor neurons are communicating — they already know how to work together. When you're riding a bike, those groups have to learn to work togther in a new way. The existing relationship those two communities had was based upon walking. Let's use an example from the human world here:
Think of two companies that normally have an existing relationship, and try something new. Phone Corporation pays Components Corporation to make the cell phone radios in Phone Corporation phones. This means Phone Corporation has a relationship with Components Corporation — or, more accurately, people in Phone Corporation have multiple relationships with people in Components Corporation. . The hardware engineers in both companies have to be in commmuncation about how much power the radio needs, and where the best place to mount the phone is. The software teams in both companies have to be in communication about how the phone and the radio communicates. The finance teams in both companies have to be in communication about how many radios will be purchased, and what the prices will be, and how the taxes are paid, when money is exchanged, and so on. The quality of the relationship between the two companies depends upon the quality of all of those individual relationships.
After a few years of a good relationship between the companies, Components Corporation decides to start manufacturing phone displays as well as radios. If Phone Corporation wants to use these displays in its phones, it will need to grow its relatinoship with Components Corporation. The Hardware engineers were already talking to each other, but now differnet hardware engineers will need to be in contact, and they'll have to talk about different things. The same is true of the software engineers — the people who write the code that controls the modem are different from the people who write the code that controls the screen. Because the two companeis begin working together in a new way , they will need new relationships .
The different communities in your NeuroNet work the same way. The "keep the body balanced" community of neurons is used to working with the "move the body" in one way. The neurons in the two communities already have relationships: some of them follow each other onNeuroNet. When certain "balance" neurons post on NeuroNet, other "move" nuerons are used to responding. Theses communities will need to form new relationships in order to work together to accomplish the new goal. That means individual neurons in the "balance" community will need to form new relationships with individual neurons in the "move" community.
You can imagine conflicts caused by these new relationships. If the new Component Corp Screen needs more power than the old screen Phone Corp used, the hardware guys inside Phone Corp may be upset. They might fight with each other over the best use of power, or how to meet the new screens. Likewise, Maybe the new Screen product inside Component Corp makes more profit than the old Mode, and so the display finance team inside Component Corp wants a different billing arrangement than the radio finance team.
You can also imagine conflicts inside the motor neuron community. When you are riding a bike, if you start to lean too far to the left, your instinct might be to shift your body to the right. When you're walking, that's what you would do. On a bike, however, shifting your weight to the right actually makes the problem worse; the best solution is to pedal harder, and actually lean with the bike. The neurons in the "balance" community all agree: we are leanign too far to the left! If the neurons in the motor community haven't ridden a bike, they may all instinctively tell the muscles to lean right. Once the neureons in the motor community have learned how to ride a bike — by forming the appropriate relationationships with the balance community — they will send signals for your body to turn left.
I've spent plenty of time with homeless people, and plenty of time with Billionaire CEO's of tech companies. Sometimes on the same day. They have more in common than you'd think, and they are more similar to each other than to the many other kinds of people who make up much of our world. The world needs people of every kind, and I try to have love for them all. Of course I fail at that somtimes, and get agngry at this group or that group. I try my best not to do that. I have seen enourmous improvements in the quality of my life because I've worked on serving the needs of my whole body. I believe the people of the world will see enourmous improvements in the quality of the world when we work to serve the needs of everyone in the world.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one lambda/2 out of phase.
And that has made all the difference.