Multiverse of minds

Everyone dwells in their own universe– a dream made up of sense data, culture, beliefs, historical contingencies, and idiosyncrasies. We all share an external reality (as far as we know), but none of us actually lives there. We live in our own universes in our minds.

Dreams, delusion, and psychosis vividly demonstrate the extent to which we can generate our own world. Optical illusions, or even just learning the neuroscience of perception shows us how much of our “external” world is merely the brain’s user interface or evolutionarily educated guess. What we experience is highly constructed, there is no denying, and that goes for all things. Including other people.

There are as many versions of you as people who have met you. You have an avatar in every mind you’ve ever met. On top of that, you see yourself– or a past self– with fresh eyes every so often, so there are many versions of you in your own mind. All these images of you are only inspired by your objective being– primarily, they are the property of the universe they live in. It’s the same for the characters in your universe– they are as much you as they are the minds of other universes.

In a way, we’re all gods made man. Our entire universe is within us, yet we are incarnated in a shared world, as humans among other humans.

It might seem like this view is saying “you are the center of your universe” but I actually feel it says the opposite. When you realize the whole universe is filtered through and filled in by you, suddenly there is no center. You are spread over all awareness just as much as you are the human body feeling self-conscious talking to the person in front of your face. Just like artist renditions of distant celestial bodies, everyone you know is a composite based on evidence from them and conjecture from you. And everyone else you know is equally their own universe, where their awareness represents a version of you.

I’ve always found the idea of making contact across vast gulfs of time, space, or culture deeply meaningful and spiritual. It’s not just because of the distance or the leap of faith on both parts. I think it’s because I saw great stretches of time and space as stripping messages to their core. The most crass or mundane message from ancient Sumeria, for instance– “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.“– becomes a touching testament to the universality of human nature.

And yet I’ve always had some awkwardness in connecting to people right next to me. Perhaps because all the layers of contemporary stupidity and meaninglessness are still caked all over their messages. Or perhaps because I’m holding them too close to myself in my universe. I think I know who they are, and the things I don’t like about them are an awful lot like the things I don’t like about me. The reality, of course, is that in my universe they wear a me-specific skin. The true message they send comes from very far away– another universe. I have to do the archeological work of stripping away my dirt and grime to hear them. When I remember how fundamentally alone we all are and how truly alien another mind is from mine, I remember to treasure whatever fleeting or mundane point of connection we share.

There’s a near and far to every person. Every time you truly see another person across that distance, and not just the nearby film of your own expectations, it is a miracle. You’re communicating with a foreign world! And the real you might be coming across in their universe. There really are other dimensions packed all around us, and we can touch them!

There’s something strangely beautiful, even sacred, about viewing myself as my own vast, spacious universe, yet overlapping with so many others in a crowded multiverse. It makes me feel simultaneously profoundly alone and utterly connected, touching others on all fronts, even in ways I’m not conscious of. It makes me care more for the world to realize that so much of what scares or repels me in it is coming from my own mind. It’s the most relevant way to any human that we are all connected. Loving others is loving yourself and loving yourself is loving others. How can you love others if you hate the skin of your universe that covers them? How can you love the world if you hate its source, yourself?

If each of our minds is an abode for a universe, self-hatred and depression are a house divided against itself. It’s the autoimmune disease of the soul. It’s not the symptoms you observe from the outside, but the mindwarp inside. It’s like fiddling with the hidden variables of reality and experience themselves and watching the whole system start to fade out. It changes everything and everyone. My experience with depression is part of what makes this multiverse of minds idea so intuitive. Coming in and out of depressive episodes makes it so obvious that the most important changes in your world come from within. You can’t love existence and hate yourself, because existence is being one’s self. The only way to love life is by loving what is, which is who you really are.

Advertisements

The Turing Test podcast is back with Bryan Caplan!

Because of my illness and Ales’s graduation, the Harvard Effective Altruism student podcast, the Turing Test, had about a two year hiatus. Julia Edsparr and Jen Eason have stepped up to help me finish what I started. There are several unreleased interviews from before the pause, but one less today, because we released Episode #7 with Bryan Caplan!

Listen here!

Internet identity bag

I think the bulk of online identities are bloated outer bags decorated with chunks of lightly processed recycled images, sounds, and ideas.

You’ve probably heard of caddisflies or bagworms. The larvae of these two groups always carry around encasements (“bags”) which they build up with found objects. If you supply caddisflies with cool jewelry pieces like this guy did, you get cool bejeweled cases.

TlTtHTG.jpg

Here’s one from nature:

Dicosmoecus-sp-from-Camas-Creek-2009_3in_caddisfly_960pxwide_v2.jpg

Caddisfly larvae live at the bottom of rivers, so you’re more likely to have come across bagworms in the wild. This is one way they can look like in Florida. You can see they tile the bag in a log cabin fashion.

39357381144_af8c48fd29_z.jpg

I see a parallel between these encased larvae and online identity. While I was on Facebook (my social media drug of choice), throughout the day I always had a scavenger program running in my mind, and everything was screened for how it might look as part of my online identity. There were times when I wasn’t able to read an article or watch a show without scheming the entire time how I would add my spin when I posted about it on Facebook. Everything I took in was filtered through the lens of how it would look on me, as part of my exterior bag found art collage.

I think the bulk of online identities are bloated outer bags decorated with chunks of lightly processed recycled images, sounds, and ideas. Even though I’m sure we’d all agree that people are much more than their interests and affiliations, I think it’s common to lose sight of that in an online world that increasingly occupies our social lives.

I don’t have any hate for highly culturally referential identities or personae. I think it’s beautiful that our thinking and creativity are so interconnected through culture. It would be tragic not to swim sometimes in our shared cultural soup (if it were even possible). I freely credit the people and works that have influenced me on a deep level. But those things aren’t the superficial merit badges of identity I wish to leave behind. Ideas and works that affect our deepest selves penetrate the bag and mark the fly. I just want to be the fly now, the living thing inside the flashy wrapper. Let my beauty come from my deepest nature– not the bag I festoon in recycled ideologies and shibboleths.

I don’t think there’s any way to avoid signaling, and I’m not putting down the bag because its a patchwork of signals. I’m putting down the bag because its a patchwork of borrowed signals that don’t feel authentic to me. I had no hand in the authoring of Harry Potter, for example, but it truly affected who I am. Sharing hot takes from centrist internet commentator #17, however, feels more like wallpapering myself in discarded advertisements. Cheap identity bluster. The more that I’m drawn to that kind of identity, the more that the living being in me is just the legs dragging around a bloated, undigested pastiche identity bag.

A caddisfly larva or bagworm can’t actually shed the bag*, and I’m sure I never will, either. But I can keep it from obscuring or crushing my real self. That’s why it’s worth restricting my access to garish materials, such as contentious thinkpieces, and arenas, such as social media, to show off my reactions. It’s the hygiene of the identity for me. If it’s too easy to pick up pieces of other people and incorporate them into your outer self, it’s too hard to be your inner self.

*A convenient oversimplification for the sake of my analogy. Caddis flies lose the bag when they metamorphose and male bagworms leave the bag to mate. Female bagworms usually live their entire lives in the bag, from what I understand.

Lessons from leaving facebook

I deactivated facebook in mid-November 2018, and so far it’s going pretty well. It feels like I’ve been off long enough now to share some takeaways:

  1. As much as I would have protested to the contrary before, I was severely addicted to facebook. The withdrawals made this crystal clear. When I conceived a shareworthy sentiment after deactivating (which, due to combination of desperation to post and low quality standards, happened every few seconds), the need to share it is was like a wild animal throwing itself against restraints. The chatter of things that were just too good not to share drowned out most of whatever else I doing for about a week. After 3 weeks I felt I was out of withdrawals. 4 months later my temptation to use facebook is more out of curiosity about what others are doing.
  2. The nature of my withdrawals made it clear(er) to me that I get addicted to approval and attention. I thought I liked facebook for the salon environment and as a place to sound my ideas. I knew I also liked whatever attention and praise it brought me “as a byproduct.” During the withdrawals, I kept having these ideas that NEEDED to be shared, yet I could barely stand to entertain them for their own sakes for a few minutes. I couldn’t go more than 30 seconds down most lines of thought before my mind said “that’s enough to post– hurry!!” At least at that time, my motivation was obviously not to explore ideas, but to get my squirt of juice for sharing them.
  3. I used facebook to cope with anxiety. For a few days a couple years ago, I actually recorded what prompted me to go to facebook every time I found myself there. The results were very eye-opening to me– 90% of the time it was feeling a spike in anxiety. I would get an email that stressed me out, and instead of riding that wave for the 20 seconds it would take to break, I was automatically prompted to turn to my comfort object. Attention- and approval-seeking are also based in anxiety. Not having anywhere to sink that anxiety has been quite difficult at times. I still scrounge around for some kind of mindless activity that will do it for me like facebook, but I’m glad I haven’t found one. My dream is to be able to sit with discomfort when it arises an watch it pass. I think it’s difficult to learn that if you’re constantly leaning on something to take the edge off. The battle is long and leaving facebook is only a part of it.
  4. The experience of deactivating convinced me that being off Facebook is right for me. I would need to grow significantly with regards to attention- and approval-seeking to consider going back. Add the ease with which it becomes an unhealthy anxiety coping mechanism and I don’t know if it will ever be a good idea.
  5. I have a lot more time. Facebook was one of the only places for me where time was guaranteed to melt. I would spend a day on facebook, look up, and wonder what happened. The day feels much longer, fuller, and more real without facebook melting away every train ride or work break or every time I got home and sat with my phone on the couch for “just a minute.”
  6. I thought facebook riled me up, but it was more complicated than I thought. One of the reasons I stated for leaving facebook was how it brought out my hostility. Facebook whipped me up, no question, and it supplied me with bugaboos. But unlike the need for approval and attention, which calmed down a lot after I had “prevented my response” for several weeks, my anger actually got worse. Based on Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, I believe I was using Facebook to vent in a way that just preserved the status quo causes of anger in my life. Venting gave me temporary relief and kept me from looking more deeply into the patterns that were maintaining this steady supply of rage. Facebook was definitely a source of rage but in hindsight I’m more concerned with the way it allowed me to offload feelings of frustration and helplessness as rage instead of addressing them head-on. Since venting is the norm on Facebook, I didn’t see the true issue until I got off and I couldn’t start taking a big step toward peace and happiness in my life.
  7. Facebook filled my head with crap. This is probably the most obvious one. But I’m not just talking about memes and getting into strangers’ personal dramas. I’m talking about politics. Facebook kept me in this dumb soap opera people use to feel important and a dozen more gossip-y stories (like what Elon Musk is up to) at any given time. Not keeping up with politics day-to-day has given me so much more room to breathe. And guess what? It hasn’t changed my actual impact at all. I still vote, which was about all I did on a regular basis before. Unless you just love posting about politics on facebook, please don’t let yourself believe that you’re doing anything useful. (You might even be doing something harmful by sucking everyone into this drama and causing division.) If you’re worried about being out of the loop politically if you leave, I suggest implementing a monthly issue round-up that focuses on action items (such as bills or policies being considered) at your local, state, and federal level, then making a call to your representatives if you feel strongly about one of them. You’ll be lightyears ahead in political involvement than you were when your main political activity was to keep up with the news.
  8. I got a lot of praise on facebook, but I see now how little it had to do with me. I got a lot of praise for my posts. It seems to me now, though, that a post exemplifying the need to overshare would get effusive praise from other oversharers, a post fueled by anger at my rejection by old leftist friend groups would get “THIS.” from other scorned comrades, and some scrupulous expression of how hard people should be on themselves would be vaunted by others afflicted with scrupulosity and self-judgment. I think the whole world is a mirror where we only see ourselves reflected if we’re not careful. But facebook and social media are worse. It’s particularly stark online how much praise tends to tell you only about the praiser. Unfortunately, it seems like the strongest praise on social media is in support of shared vices or hatreds.
  9. I turned back to my blog and more polished writing. It’s in most ways more satisfying, though I still miss a casual way to publish short, low-effort writing. I don’t know if I can have that right now without being addicted to it, which is why I’ve kept the blog a little formal. I also miss how easy it was to get blog views by posting to facebook, but whatever. Tradeoffs.
  10. FOMO didn’t amount to much. I have missed some stuff because of being off facebook, but none of it was a big deal and I would not trade all the time and effort I used to put into facebook to have heard those things in time. This is the most legitimate-feeling reason to stay on/return to facebook, but I promise that the people you really need to be in contact with have a way of finding you. I had a handful of meaningful acquaintanceships that I lost because we didn’t text, email, or have other friends in common. I’m confident they don’t want me to sabotage myself by feeding a facebook addiction solely for them when the bond between us wasn’t even strong enough to exchange email addresses.
  11. They say no one else really cares about your presence on social media, but that wasn’t true for me. Cal Newport says no one will miss you if you leave social media, and that any belief to the contrary is grandiose. I was counting on this so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on individualized attention by leaving. But actually people did tell me how sad they were that I had left. They emailed me a few a weeks later like, “OMG, did you deactivate?!” or told me in person. Just a few days ago I was contacted by someone through this blog asking if I had saved an old post. I’d say it was less than 10 people out of my 1000+ friends and followers, so Newport may mostly have the right of it, but, still, people missed me. Facebook was my little salon that I lavished huge amounts of time on. It turns out other people did notice. This makes it a lot harder to leave, and people who use facebook the way I did should be prepared for that. There will be peer pressure and temptation.

That’s all for now, but I’ll add to this list as new lessons become apparent.

Humility

True humility is not a character trait but wisdom, an apprehension of the facts. It’s when you have a psychological need for the facts about you to be different that you veer into arrogance or self-effacing. I have yoyo’d between these two throughout my life, but I was by far the happiest at times and in areas where I was humble. Humility is its own reward, because it’s the result of self-acceptance and self-love.

Lately I’ve observed how much energy it takes to be obsessed with being better than other people. Suffice to say I’ve not been in a humble place and time for some while. I’ve been in an immensely insecure place and grasping at whatever strategy promises to deliver me. I constantly catch myself feeling threatened by someone else’s brilliance or discipline or achievement (not coincidentally areas where I feel like I have to be better than I am).

For example, I was in an academic meeting the other day with a friend of mine, and he was fluidly discussing issues fundamental to our topic of debate. I noticed I was having a hard time listening to him. I was so preoccupied with coming up with my own unique insight (about this topic he’s much better acquainted with) that my mind was constantly spinning off in the direction of possible impressive comments to make myself feel less stupid. I also noticed that I was suffering. It’s new for me to be able to recognize this kind of mental hustling for the misery it is, and I’m proud and grateful that I can do it now. It’s the reason I’m telling this story and it has a happy ending.

I was suffering because I felt not good enough. I felt self-conscious and on guard. His mind is clearly very sharp, and mine hasn’t felt that way for a long time. He’s got a better head for numbers and theory than I’ve ever had. Most of all I was resentful of his obvious love for his studies. I knew he wasn’t trying to impress us– his drive and fascination with the topic just make his thoughts impressive.

When I caught myself, I practiced a little self-compassion for my suffering. Then I asked myself, “What’s wrong with him being smarter and a better student? Does that take anything away from me?” My instinct has always been that it does take something away from me when other people are better than me at the things I think give me value. That’s because I’ve always been vulnerable to believing my self-worth was contingent.

But this time, I just looked at my friend and thought, “[He] is brilliant and dedicated.” Instantly, my glutes unclenched, my lower back relaxed, the nape of my neck and the base of my skull released (making a few characteristic tension-release-pops I recognize from meditation), and my face and jaw seemed to lengthen and let go. The desperation and storminess in my chest started to subside. Worrying about being outdone had been costing me immense tension and energy. I now had an easy feeling of peace and lightness.

Suddenly I was seeing it all clearly. He was smarter than me, he was a better student, he was far less ego-driven in this meeting than me. And that was okay! In fact, I was happy for him and his gifts. Honestly, though, I was happier for myself for being able to let go of my shame-fueled jealousy and competitiveness, for however long it would last. I was released from the suffering!

His brilliance didn’t take anything from me. All those qualities that he was exemplifying, the intelligence and diligence and sharp mind, bothered me so much because I have believed since I was a child that if I could just be impressive enough in those ways (among others), it would undo my inherent inadequacy and I would be good enough. But that’s not true, and so I don’t need to see myself in zero sum competition with anyone whose strengths overlap with my insecurities.

I really saw that in the time it took for my friend to make his comment. And I think that’s humility. It’s not putting yourself down or thinking little of yourself, but simply being aware of and accepting of the truth about yourself. Realizing you don’t need to be anything more or less than you are to love and accept yourself. And I vouch that accepting yourself as you are is its own reward!

What does it mean about me that I hate tattoos so much?

Apologies to my friends with tattoos. I’m outing myself as a tattoo hater. I’m not trying to hate them, and I don’t judge anyone on an intellectual level for making that decision for their own body, but I just cringe at the whole idea of tattoos and I don’t really know why. I’d like to be more at peace with them as other people’s business, so I explored my feelings about them below in this stream-of-consciousness post.

Aesthetics
Part of it is that I’m a bit of a visual art snob and I hate the aesthetics of 80% of tattoos right off the bat. I roll my eyes at at least half of tattoo tropes and artistic conventions. I find it super-corny and embarrassing that people want to give parts of their own bodies to this silly culture. Classic, cartoon-y tattoos are okay for, say, wall art or on the side of your purse, but I think they look terrible on the body.

I have seen beautiful tattoos that are works of art in their own right, but I rarely think that the human body is the right canvas. That’s the other part of my aesthetic distaste– tattoos almost never fit harmoniously into the look of the entire body. Especially when they are large, over curving surfaces, and not naturally self-contained (i.e. a face that just fades out at the neck as opposed to a heart shape, which has natural boundaries). Beautiful realistic art just does not nestle easily onto most of the available body surfaces. Stupid cartoons fit best but are stupid. Line art can manage to look good enough as art and work with the body overall. Maybe .01% of artistic tattoos I’ve seen online I thought were a visual improvement that worked with the person’s entire body. The vast majority just look like islands of cheesy art disrupting the natural masterpiece of the human body.

BUT even a beautiful tattoo that’s beautifully placed is one note to play for the rest of your life. Why?

Body Purity
But I don’t just think tattoos look bad. I think they look like a horrifying violation of bodily integrity. I’m fixated on bad tattoos in the same way I am on extreme plastic surgery or true crime. “How could they do it???” is the question that obsesses me.

I think the thing that really gets me is how so many people don’t share my level of concern for body integrity and purity. There’s something that doesn’t compute about it for me. It’s like other people de-valuing their bodies (or having extremely misguided, imo, ideas of what improves their bodies) cheapens the value of mine. I sound like someone opposing gay marriage because their own hetero marriage would be threatened somehow by it when I see the tattoo issue this way, and I know it. But norms do matter and, honestly, I do think a norm of tattooing encourages people to profane their bodies and treat them cheaply.

I’m overboard on bodily purity and I know it. I even think of hair dye and makeup as cheapening the body. Somehow costumes are okay, though. This hang-up doesn’t make complete sense. But I’m not ready to let go of it, either. I feel defenseless without it in a world that wants you to touch everything up. I guess I’m afraid of getting fooled into ruining my body. Might be my prefectionism plays a role here. I think I’d make a terrible mistake if I didn’t have the purity perfectionism to force me to do things right.

The Horror
I imagine the unveiling of a tattoo as a horror scene. I imagine the moment of realizing what a terrible mistake I’ve made and how a part of my body is ruined, the shame I know I would feel the rest of my life, and I have to protect myself somehow. This is, I think, is why I feel so tragic about and disgusted by tattoos. If I didn’t, I’d feel vulnerable.

I never let the tape keep playing, though, never see how I would inevitably adjust to it, get it removed, whatever. I never see how life would go on, because tattoos are not inherently fatal. I’m just stuck at this catastrophizing moment. And I always assume that people who never felt this way about their tattoos are just deluded and will have the same horrible realization I project if they ever wise up. It’s extremely condescending, but I pretty much always think people with lots of tattoos would regret them if they knew any better. I don’t really take seriously the idea that people might be happy with them and not regret their choices because they are not me.

Conclusions
I’m not comfortable just letting other people screw up in their own lives. I feel responsible for their feelings and behaviors (overresponsibility/omnipotence), which here comes out as judging. I think paternalistic judging is nicer than thinking “Pfft, idiot,” but I’d rather avoid both. It would be best to respect the autonomy of others enough to let them make their own mistakes, if that’s what they are. I don’t have to take on the horror I think they are supposed to feel and then resent them for it. And I can calm the hell down and not treat viewing a dumb or ugly tattoo as witnessing violence against the body, which I sort of do now with my inflated sense of body sacredness.

I’m focused on the ugliness or stupidity of tattoos and the loss of a harmonious natural look, but those are red herrings. I’m trying to figure out whether people have my permission to get a tattoo, which is not the issue at all. Other people have the right to make decisions about their bodies, even if it scares me to contemplate doing those things to myself. The issue is not whether others are “right” to get a tattoo on aesthetic or practical grounds, but whether it’s any of my business, which it is not. I’m already feeling relief having thought this out. It’s not just out of my control what other people do with their bodies and aesthetics, it’s actually not my business to worry about them or offer my judgment. I can have more respect for people on their own terms AND let this gripe go.

Last Piece Fallacy

I’ve been very into self-compassion lately, because it feels like the thing I didn’t know I was looking for all of my life. It’s a balm that made it possible for me to relax in my skin again. But when I evangelized the panacea of self-compassion, my friends’ efforts made me realize that it does not work in a vacuum. I was only able to have such rapid success with self-compassion because I had a lot of practice with its pre-requisites. In fact, self-compassion wasn’t the single cause of my enhanced wellbeing.

I want to propose something called the “Last Piece Fallacy*,” which is when you attribute an effect entirely to the addition of the last ingredient that was added. (If this is already a named fallacy, please point it out, because I couldn’t find it.) It’s a special case of the “Single Cause Fallacy” because all the ingredients are necessary, work together to create the effect, and it’s the addition of the last cause that creates the full effect, so it is fallaciously considered the only cause as opposed to one of several not necessarily interdependent causes being implicated as the one true cause. I’ve seen it in many places, but it looms particularly large in matters of the mind.

For instance, I think this is why mindfulness meditation is such a revelation to some people and not to others. For some people, noticing your thoughts and getting distance from them is the last piece. The implications of mindfulness are obvious to them as soon as they experience it. I have put a lot of time into developing mindfulness skills and challenging myself with meditation, but at no time did the practice feel like a revelation. However, the skill massively contributes to my ability to recognize my thoughts and feelings somewhat objectively, which is is so important to the practice of self-compassion that it’s the first of the three elements of self-compassion. The other two elements, self-kindness and common humanity, were new to me. When they clicked into place, the way was paved and self-compassion felt like the final piece in discovering a new way to relate to myself and my experience.

But it could easily have happened the other way. In fact, I would probably have picked up mindfulness faster if I had really understood or believed in self-compassion first. My reaction to catching myself distracted was always harsh for about the first two years I did serious meditation. I knew I wasn’t “supposed” to react like that, but, sadly, I didn’t know any other way. In parallel to strengthening mindfulness, I was developing moral and philosophical beliefs that allowed me to appreciate the moral importance of all conscious beings without exception. That belief never gave me psychological comfort because it just feels like a fact. (Usually thinking about it more deeply would just lead me to feel an outpouring of grief for all the suffering in the world.) But it laid the groundwork for me to grok the common humanity part of self-compassion, which is a source of spiritually meaningful connection. Finally, I went through some very hard things in the last two years that finally convinced me that I was trying the best I could and I was allowed to stop whipping myself. And then I was ready for self-compassion, and it felt like it changed everything.

I think a lot of mental health interventions are thwarted by Last Piece Fallacy. Either because it makes scientific study results inconclusive or because it makes your own personal experimentation more difficult. If something doesn’t work for you, that might not always be the case with more learning and practice. Conversely, if in the realm of mental health something does work for you, it’s probably not sufficient on its own to give you your result.

I’ve framed this in terms of mental and emotional health, because that’s where the cost of this fallacy has been most obvious to me. But Last Piece Fallacy could be about anything in this world of so few necessary and sufficient single causes. Respecting the complexity and interconnectedness of all things might even be good for your mental health.


*I think the “Catalyst Fallacy” would be snappier, but since the catalyst is not part of the final product, it doesn’t technically apply to all the situations I have in mind. Another candidate I came up with, the “Trigger Fallacy” implies the result is an event, and I have more in mind a product.