Shalom, brethren and sisthren! It’s quite nice to be writing another one of these. I’ve been working on four major projects over the last several months, so that’s been eating up a healthy chunk of my time. And frankly, I wasn’t sure that the utility all you schmeags derive from this blog was worth the effort of writing posts, so my incentive for writing has been fairly low.
However, I’ve actually spoken to a fair number of people over the last month or so that have expressed their enjoyment in partaking in XFA. To all of you who enjoy observing my mind soup, a most heartfelt thank-you.
Now then, let’s get down and dirty with the notion of Desire (not the sexual type, just your average “I want that car cause it looks cool” desire), and why I’ve boldly associated it with Tension. But before we really dissect this bad boi, I’d like to talk about why this is even on my mind in the first place.
Actually, a more honest answer than the one I’ll provide is that Desire is fundamentally tied to the notion of goal-formation, and I’ve actually been thinking a good deal about goal-formation in relation to the nature of human intelligence. While we typically take our ability to formulate goals (even subconsciously) for granted, attaining a bio-mechanical understanding of the neural dynamics of goal formation is comparable in complexity to achieving an understanding of the nature of consciousness, which anyone who is anyone agrees is pretty fracking hard problem.
Anyway, I’ve been extensively studying the formation of intelligence over the last months, and this has led to me to frequently contemplate the nature of goal-formation. However, the last two paragraphs actually have nothing to do with where I was originally going with the train of discussion in the third paragraph. Wow, how’s that for a cohesive narrative. Anyway, let’s get back to where I was originally going with this post.
The other main reason I’ve been really thinking about Desire is because of my current situation. Here’s what’s going on in my life. First, I’m almost finished creating a social media platform that I believe might actually fundamentally improve how people interact on the internet. If it works, it also might be incredibly lucrative. Second, next week I’m heading to Detroit to meet with some incredibly powerful individuals to pitch them on a project I’ve been working on with a couple of buddies. While the project is itself exciting, the more exciting aspect is that this could actually potentially provide me with an opportunity to successfully drop out and work full-time on an awesome project, and get paid, baby! Third, a good friend of mine has had an app idea that seems remarkably promising, and at this point, I’m pretty much confident in my ability to throw this new app together fairly quickly.
Ok, so why am I saying this? Am I trying to sloppily flex on the haters? Well, not quite. My current life situation is somewhat interesting because even though some of the stuff I have brewing is pretty exciting, there is absolutely no guarantee that any of it will pan out. And if it doesn’t, I’ll be back at square one.
But what does this have to do with Desire? Well, several times over the last couple months, I’ve been hit with such a strong confidence that my social network will make it big that my brain just assumes it’s going to happen. And in those moments, I’ve been possessed by some of the most potent anxiety I’ve ever experienced. And that’s weird.
Before we go any further, some of you might note that it’s incredibly presumptuous for me to assume a new social network is actually going to take off. You’d be absolutely right, of course. However, the aforementioned confidence I felt was more a remnant of my extremely turbulent emotional cycles, and less a function of the logical deduction. For reference, typically when I get extremely excited about a new idea working, I can almost guarantee that I’ll be hit with a wave of existential depression the following day. Isn’t life fun?
Anyway, the whole point of this lil story is that there frequently seems to be a strong correlation between Desire and anxiety in my life. Also, I’m only capitalizing Desire because it’s the subject of the post. Just thought I should make that clear.
So then, why are Desire and anxiety seemingly linked? An even more interesting phenomenon is that gratitude seems to have an opposite effect from Desire. Frack it, I’m going to stop capitalizing desire. It seems weird.
Specifically, as you’ve undoubtedly experienced, achieving a state of gratitude for the good aspects of life seems to assuage my anxieties tremendously. Gratitude journaling also seems to be rampantly taking over the self-health community, so I’m not the only one thinking about this.
At this point, you might be wondering, “…Hey Danny? Are you just trying to say greed makes us sad, and gratitude makes us glad?” (couldn’t resist the rhyme) “Isn’t that totally obvious?” Well, yes, reader, I suppose you’re right, but I’d like to take a deeper dive into this phenomenon from a quasi-rigorous neurological perspective. Prepare yourself for a classic Danny Boi G stream of consciousness, because I haven’t really fully fleshed out my thoughts on the subject.
Ok, let’s start with what our brain is even doing in the first place. One of the most important jobs of the brain is to form an efficient representation of reality. Let’s take that statement apart, shall we?
First things first, what do I mean by an efficient representation? A representation is a structure that exhibits similar characteristics and behaviors as some other structure. So a lego human being is a representation of a human being, because it shares some of the same rudimentary characteristics of a full-fledged biological human being. So what do I mean by efficient? By efficient, I mean that the representation is able to evolve far more rapidly than the structure it’s representing.
For an example of an efficient representation, think of a billiards video game on your computer screen. If the person who programmed the game did a good job, then the computer game should be a good representation of a real, physical game of billiards. Now then, unlike in real life, we can speed up the computer game, which allows the state of the computer game to evolve faster than actual game. Thus I would call the billiards video game an efficient representation of an actual billiards game.
Aside from being merely convenient for the sake of entertainment, why might the computer game be helpful? Well, let’s say that you want to figure out where the eight ball will go if you hit the cue ball in a certain way in the actual game of billiards. You basically have two options. First, you could just hit the ball in real life and see what happens. Second, you could set up an analogous situation in the video game and watch the video game play out. If you go with the second option, you reap all sorts of benefits. First things first, you can speed the video game up, which allows you to figure out what’s going to happen faster. Not only that, you also figure out what’s going to happen without ever hitting the cue ball in real life. That’s big. Basically, the efficient representation of the pool table (ie, the video) gives you “knowledge of the future” before the future even happens.
Ok, so let’s go back to my original statement about the brain. I’m essentially asserting that one of the brain’s principal functions is to construct efficient representations of perceivable reality. And just like in the billiards game, this efficient representation allows the brain contemplate and simulate future situations before they’ve even occurred.
Why is this a big deal? I use this example all the time, but bugger me bloody, here we go again. Let’s say you look up, and you see an asteroid falling toward your head. If this asteroid hits you, you are going to die. Let’s carefully take apart what happens next.
For your entire life, you’ve been watching objects fall. Whenever an object is unsupported it falls towards the ground. This happens in such a consistent fashion that our brain is able to form an efficient representation of the process. This efficient representation of falling objects allows our brains to simulate situations faster than they actually evolve in real life. This ability to simulate allows our brains to make predictions about the future state of reality with remarkable accuracy. So if your cousin Davy throws a football, you have a pretty good idea of where the football is going to land before the football actually lands. While this sort of cognitive process probably doesn’t sound that exciting, I’d like to humbly submit that this is one of the most miraculous aspects of our present reality. Ok, but let’s get back to the asteroid, because it’s actually quite important.
So there you are, looking up at the asteroid. If you were a jelly fish or a rock, the perception of an asteroid above your head isn’t going to change your behavior. However, because you’re a human with a brain that has formulated a good representation of falling objects, your brain can rapidly play out what is going to happen in the next several moments, before it happens. So basically the brain can determine that a sizeable object is about to fall on your head, and if you don’t get out of the way, you’re going to die. And thus, you get out of the way, and you don’t die. Ta-da.
It seems like people frequently refer to “knowledge” as this nebulous entity that grows and changes over time. If we’re getting technical, however, “human knowledge” is basically just the sum total of efficient representations of reality the brain has acquired over its lifetime. And as we’ve just seen, the reason why our brains even form efficient representations in the first place is because it greatly benefits our ability to contend with threats, thus markedly improving our stability as individuals and as a species.
Ok, I certainly could go off on some unreasonably long tangents about this, but let’s try to get back to the subject at hand. What does all this business about efficient representations have to do with desire and/or gratitude?
Our brain’s ability to construct efficient representations of reality not only allows us to better comprehend the state of the present moment, but it also allows us to simulate hypothetical scenarios. Our brain also has functionality to evaluate the quality of these real or hypothetical scenarios. Our brain might attempt to determine if a hypothetical scenario might involve pain, or if it might trigger pleasure receptors. Basically, the brain can determine if a hypothetical scenario is better or worse for us than the present scenario. Finally, the brain can determine if a hypothetical scenario is actually in sync with the present state of reality.
Ok, I’m kinda running out of steam here, but I’ll just try to finish my train of thought. In terms of evolutionary fitness, it would make sense that whenever the brain simulates a hypothetical scenario that is of higher perceived utility than the present situation, the brain induces a certain amount of anxiety. This anxiety would be the impetus for us to attempt to manipulate the state of the present to become more like the hypothetical, “simulated” state of reality. This mechanism would allow the brain to help move a human being towards states of greater utility.
On the contrary, if the brain determines that the present state of reality sufficiently meets the requirements of stable survival, it would make sense for the brain to “turn off” anxiety so that the human doesn’t make any changes to their situation to compromise the state of stability.
Ok, so what about desire and gratitude? Well, under this reframing, desire can be thought of as the brain attempting to move the human being toward a state of greater perceived utility. And in order to do that, the brain would naturally want to induce some level of discontent/anxiety about the present situation. Likewise, gratitude is basically the process of recognizing the beneficial aspects of the present state of reality. If the brain is able to decide that the present state of reality is sufficiently beneficial, then the brain should remove feelings of discontent and anxiety to preserve the current state.
So yeah, not particularly difficult to see, but here’s a reasonable explanation of why desire induces anxiety, and gratitude induces peace. So yeah, give gratitude a try.
To finish out, let’s get a bit soppy. Basically, yeah, there are a couple things in my life that are kinda exciting at the present moment. However, I’ve found that it’s imperative to my mental health to recognize that even if all of them don’t pan out, there’s so much about my present state that allows for stable survival, and thus tremendous cause for gratitude.
So yeah, in case you were wondering why gratitude is so important, these are my two cents. Peace.