Where do I fall on the spectrums that define mental illnesses? What traits of my own are exaggerated and pronounced compared to the population average? It's likely that more mental illnesses are spectrum disorders than previously thought. If this is true, maybe there are mental illnesses that can be understood by studying trait behaviors that are present in a much larger portion of the population. Depression, borderline personality, clinical anxiety, paranoia – it's easy to see where common personalities manage to typify the traits of their less-common peers. At least one of my own traits is exemplary: a hoarder's appetite for the seemingly pointless.
For a while now I've considered myself to be somewhere out along the hoarder spectrum. I don't think I'm up for a clinical diagnosis (but somehow something like 5% of people are? ?!), but I bump into the emotional aspects of hoarding on a near daily basis. I understand the deep regret that it's possible to feel when throwing something away that may just be useful in the future, no matter how unlikely that possibility is. I understand the feeling that objects have intrinsic value, and that it does them disservice to cast them aside. I understand that seeing receipts or valueless mementos can trigger a deep catharsis or vivid reliving of the moment associated with that object. This even applies to the digital artifacts that accumulate on my laptop – shards of forgotten projects, screenshots, academic papers whose subject matter I won't possibly be able to understand for months. I understand that discarding trash(is it trash?) robs you of the opportunity to experience those old wonders, now forgotten, like they're new again.
This general understanding of my world as both inherently useful and inherently emotional influences the way that I deal with general reality (as such things are wont to do). I have a hard time leaving places or homes. I have a hard time re-arranging furniture. I get very sad when my belongings first begin to show signs of aging and I do whatever I can to prevent that (curiously I haven't had any trouble with my own aging process, yet, but I'm young). I struggle with making changes to my physical appearance. I hate the weeks of discomfort in my own skin when I get a haircut and I hate the way fashion changes around me, leaving me with clothes I would rather not discard but an appearance that is outdated and shabby. Even while editing this work I've found the process of updating awkward phrases to be difficult: I've already become attached to them.
The changing world makes me say a lengthy goodbye to the way that things once were, goodbye to those configurations of the universe that are never to be experienced again, and goodbye to my gradually earned sense of comfort and routine.
Experiencing the world as thousands of tiny goodbyes can be exhausting. I understand why hoarders just choose to avoid the sensation as much as possible. Still, it's because of this exhaustion that I feel that emotion is just as present in the fabric of reality as space or time, and perceive that in many ways it is just as inseparable from its fibers. It's on rare occasion that emotion seems to precipitate out of reality and coalesce into something tangible, something I can really sink my teeth into, touch, and feel. On these occasions emotion's qualities can be more thoroughly studied, and its hidden potential more thoroughly speculated upon.
Like most of our biological features, emotions are presumed to have had some evolutionary purpose. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists studying emotion have labored to discover what that exact role might be. From my perspective, there's at least one coherent theory that can be synthesized from this effort. Borrowing heavily from the work of Richard Lazarus, this theory, a theory that is adaptive, cognitive, motivational, and relational, posits that emotions function as our interface to our goals, and as a primary driver of adaptive behavior. This explanation seems almost too tidy, but the theory is beautiful and explanatory, and from it we are able to draw out indirect implications that are both interesting and useful.
My rather loose sketch of the theory goes like this: our survival requires us to complete a number of tasks for the sake of our personal wellbeing, our societal wellbeing, and the production/wellbeing of our offspring. The biological imperative springs eternal. Anything that's needed for the completion of these tasks– our order of operations, our priorities, and our understanding of what is necessary (in other words, our strategies) are all chunkable with this conception of a goal. These goals form our goal hierarchy–the requirements for our biological and social success. Any tools that we can evolve to more effectively illuminate and reward the tasks that lead to those goals (and thus increase their chance of completion), will be selected for by evolutionary processes.
Emotions, then, are the tools that we evolved. They help us calibrate both reality and our goals so that they are better aligned. They provide us with invaluable information about ourselves in the world, and how we exist in relation to our goals. In this mishmash theory of emotion the information we receive from our emotions can be clear and helpful. Happiness is understood as a signal that reasonable progress has been made towards a goal, sadness is a failed or otherwise irreparably lost goal, anger is in response to a temporary state of failure (a failed attempt), frustration is a signal that something is blocking progress towards a goal (perhaps unexpectedly), anxiety is vigilance for outside threats to your goals, boredom is a sign that your goals are stale, etc. The fact that some emotions are rewarding and others are punishing does not at all diminish the information-like quality of raw emotions.
Some of these emotions are strong indicators that there is work to be done on the outside world: anger and frustration indicate that we should direct our (sometimes negative) energy at a target or problem for the sake of a goal. On the other hand, some emotions are strong indicators that we should work on our inner world: boredom and sadness (ennui perhaps a subtle mix of the two) let us know when it is time to change course and identify new priorities, goals, and tasking.
We can see these signals in situ with the five stages of grief. We will initially deny the information from our emotions, hoping that it may just be noise in the signal, a misreading. After you are convinced of the information, anger and bargaining are two halves of the same coin – alerting you that reality could better fit your goals, that you could overcome the source of grief, that you can strike out against whatever it is that's in your way. Depression is sadness, a signal to move on when the object of your goal is irreparably lost. Acceptance, finally, is the indication that, having exhausted your options, you can resume with your other goals. I don't mean to dismiss loss as "just" the loss of goals. In fact, if this particular blend of theories of emotion is true, I find it quite beautiful that one of our most instinctual, basic goals as human beings is to find and love one another, and to care for and protect each other. It's intensely poetic that in order to adequately signal to our brains that all is lost and that we can move on, our body has to cripple us with sadness for days, weeks, months, or years.
Since I feel like reality has inherent emotion and inherent usefulness, and since I feel like emotion and use are both proxies for something else, maybe what is present in the fabric of reality is, in fact, goal.
Goal manifests as a dimension outside of the three that we're used to thinking about, or like the ethereal plane from the pathfinder canon. It's easy to forget that there even is a goal plane (the extra layer of reality, or "surreality" to borrow a term from Robert C. Solomon), perhaps until we experience loss. Sadness and frustration make the goal more obvious. Again thinking in Solomon's terms (from "The Passions"), it's these moments of transition between goals (values and meanings) where we are most often confronted with some absurd reality, that we did not recognize until this very second to be the goal plane. Without sadness and the other hints that we've lost something, there'd be little reason to believe that there was anything there at all. Like wandering a darkened room, it's smooth traveling in any direction while there's nothing in the way, but without clues about what lies ahead it's easy to become disoriented, hands flailing for purchase. The bump, when it happens, is both unpleasant and orienting, helpful and hurtful.
Within the dark room of this surreality, this goal plane, it becomes apparent that our emotions function like sensors, like an actual perceptual faculty for investigating and navigating the darkness. This inverts our usual thinking. We think about emotion as something that happen to us in response to thought (a purely cognitive model of emotion) or in response to physical perception (a purely somatic model), when in reality even the combination of the two is only half of the picture. In order to make sense of the world around us our minds (both conscious and unconscious) process information about goal, courtesy of our emotions, alongside information from our physical senses. The synthesis and transcendence of these multiple sources of information ultimately guides our action.
Consider, by way of example, the venerable list of "Pros and Cons". If you've ever written one you may recognize that the actual numerical number of pros and cons–the "sizes" of which are subjective, and the consequences of which are often incomparable–have little to do with the decision you make. Making the list is a way of systematically observing emotional information about the different consequences of a choice (a "choice" here having very little representation in the physical dimensions, but having a significant presence within goal itself). Our observation of goal resembles our observation of a physical reality. The topology of the goals–as we sense it–is reflected in the emotions it activates, like how frequencies of light activate rods and cones as they strike the retina. Modern cognitive behavioral therapy, classical Stoicism, and many lines of Buddhism all understand that emotion is something that can be observed, understood, and acted upon–just like our physical reality (although they may not say so in as many words).
Our goal plane is incredibly personal, like a fingerprint of our values. Goal uniquely affects our individual realities like gravity affects our shared one. Goals exert their forces on us, and with the help of our emotions we follow: like a rock resting in a local minimum as it rolls down a hill. Or, at an astronomical scale: like an asteroid captured as it wanders lazily into a planet's gravitational pull. Anger and obsession encourage you to spiral in, borne by your own momentum. You can work to change course, but it requires conscious effort. Through overcoming sadness or enduring boredom, you can work to change goals. Even then the attachments of your previous goals (relationships? routines? precious moments?) prevent you from totally settling at the bottom of a new goal-well, an inflection point in your surreality, until the force of time overcomes the old force of goal.
The way that I've mourned as I've departed the old homes of my childhood, refused to erase whiteboards containing sentimental notes, or kept tickets from events that happened months ago only serves to illustrate how intensely the ripples of yesterday's goals still influence me today. Peoples' blind rush to throw away the ephemera of old relationships is another potent example. What is it about an object or place that warrants its destruction or preservation? What about its conception in your mind conveys any value, both positive and negative? These questions are perhaps especially notable when the object itself is innocent of any crime against you, and absent of any particular favor.
This kind of attachment seems like a fundamental human experience. While not exactly obvious, these attachments are our personal directives, our biological incentives, and more. These individual goals (and realities), while sticky and fraught, are still relatively easy. A significant portion of interest and conflict occurs where realities overlap: when we find ourselves occupying the same time and space as others, but with disparate sentiments and intentions attached to our surroundings, our physical bodies, the physical bodies of others, and our mental orientation.
In these circumstances we can attempt to communicate our differences and provide a dialectical, communal, revision of goal. Language is a primary tool for this sharing and realigning process. There are also coarser grained emotional tools like violence or physical isolation, and more impressionistic tactics like weeping openly, scowling, laughing, etc. These are often seen as a last resort for our communication. The ability to coordinate without open displays of emotion or coerce without shows of strength is part of what makes us uniquely human.
If we have our own goals, and we occasionally try to use language and other tools to influence the goals of others, it seems to follow that even though every little critter has its own little goal-plane (goal dimension?) that it comfortably wanders about, sensing lazily – every little critter's plane is also hopelessly intertwined with the goal-planes of everyone else. Our families, our tribes, and our cities all behave the way that they do because of our goals, now entangled with the goals of our neighbors, loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. This is the social fabric, our cultural existence, the reality that all human constructs must be deconstructed into. For ease, and for clarity going forward, I will now call this entangled super-set of all goal-planes Zeitgeist.
IV. Spirit of the Age
Zeitgeist can be understood as a literal, genuine, bonafide, physical property of reality. It's the actual code of the simulation. It's god's plan for us all. Whatever. It doesn't matter what it is. It's there as an emergent property, or as an inbuilt characteristic. When thinking things cohabitate reality, their goals exist in superposition, an indeterminate fuzz of values and meanings, a static from the heavens. Our personal goal-planes, our own directives and the emotions that they evoke, are just the part of zeitgeist that we are personally tuned to receive.
With "rods and cones" and other features of eyes, animals (and some humans) have evolved to see various portions of the electro-magnetic spectrum. In the case of zeitgeist, every individual person is specifically adapted to perceive a different cross-section of it, and this cross section just barely overlaps with the cross-sections of other people. No one has the same emotional response to zeitgeist as you because no one can perceive the same part of the emotional landscape. While for most features of zeitgeist we humans can agree that there's something there, we usually can't agree on its salient features. Occasionally there are forms within zeitgeist that totally elude us. These differences in emotional interface are where meaning lives. Meanings are derivative of the goals present in reality. Value is derivative of these meanings. Asking "which goals are we sensing?" and "how intensely?", and "with what emotion?" helps us locate our individual values and our individual meanings.
Of course, where there is meaning there is synchronicity. Synchronicity is a natural formation of goal atop an otherwise uninteresting physical reality. The physical happenstance of the world, such as bumping into someone at just the right moment, or seeing a 1984 AMC Eagle after you were just talking about how you love 1984 AMC Eagle 4x4s – events that would merely be pleasant without a prior instantiation of goal, are perceived as meaningful by our sensory organs, because they are meaningful and we can detect it. This feedback between our physical perceptual organs and our perceptual organs that operate in the much spookier plane of goals and meanings is what generates our luck, chance, and happenstance. Is a particular coin flip or dice roll "lucky" without considering the goals of the players?
This line of interrogation and its mapping to the physical domain is particularly fruitful. Do you see the same green as other people? Probably not. Do other people perceive the same aspect of zeitgeist as you? Probably not. Do things mean the same thing to you as they do to other people? Again, no. Given this, will you perceive the same events as lucky or coincidental? Unlikely.
There are many things like this that seem to exist entirely within zeitgeist. The psychic groupings of egregores (distributed, goal-converging thoughtforms) and temporary autonomous zones (places where unmediated existence emerges temporarily in response to shared vision), for example, must exist where the physical world is a mere afterthought– like with synchronicity and luck.
Next I can't help but think of Art, which seems to be a manifestation of pure zeitgeist. It is meaningless without an artist's (or scene's) goals, and the goals' juxtaposition with time and space. An artist's hands massage zeitgeist into an appealing form. The physical medium is incidental, or functions as a focus for the form. Our good taste, our ability to possess discernment about things with an artistic element, is about effectively mapping the relationship between ourself and any object of culture (or artwork) within zeitgeist. Locating something with GPS-like precision is the mark of a tasteful individual. Beyond taste, celebrity is the result of twofold: one's actual position in (now 5) dimensional space, and the preponderance of goal present in oneself. If you're not in the right place, time, and locus within zeitgeist, you're not a celebrity.
All of these things are the purview of the "humanities." Within them, sociology is most explicitly the study of zeitgeist, since the emotions and goals that form the organizing principles of groups of humans only exist within this entangled goal-dimension. Surveys, then, are a finite sociological tool designed to measure the continuous surface of zeitgeist. These surveys and methods may be accurate to some extent, but they obscure the fractal detail unfolding beneath them, and once obscured it's easy enough to forget that those details exist in the first place. We mistake a tracing of the surface of the thing for the thing itself. Related fields, like ethnomethodology and political philosophy purport to explore zeitgeist in other ways, with other tools, with other downsides, and by making different assumptions.
If emotion allows us to perceive our own goals, I will speculate that reflective empathy, theory of mind, and their more effortful cognitive cousins are the perceptual organs that allow us to perceive the zeitgeist around us. They even allow us to conceive of what zeitgeist looks like from other orientations and angles, a key component of taste and celebrity. Like how prior sensory knowledge of the shape of an object allows us to simulate how that object must look from another perspective, knowledge of what an object means to someone else helps us simulate the view of another facet of zeitgeist. These simulations are crude, like drawing from memory, but at least they're available.
V. The Nature of the Perceptual Organ
Touch, sight, hearing, and chronoception, as human sensory capabilities, are subject to human limitations. Our perception of zeitgeist, as a human sensory capability, is no exception. We understand our own motivations and of the motivations of others through an interface that is mediated by time, distance, and innate perceptual ability.
Emotional acuity varies from person to person. Sometimes our perception is limited locally by mood swings or through the spectrum disorders mentioned earlier. Our over or underestimation of something's importance is best likened to a sensor malfunction or mis-calibration, but, like with eyes that are blurry or with ears that are dull, there are ways to augment our emotional acuity. With our physical world we can put on eye-glasses or use tools to do our sensing. When it comes to the emotional realm of zeitgeist, these augmentations are cognitive improvements (thought technologies) for improving our emotional interpretation and better mental representations of the goals and emotions of others. Emotional intelligence can compensate for a deficit in the sensors. We can build perceptual lenses that help correct for our inadequacies.
In recent history another corrective alternative has emerged: the administration of pharmaceuticals. We have just barely begun to understand this process. We didn't know until recently that common drugs like acetaminophen influence the way we perceive emotion. Acetaminophen dampens our own perception of pain, and (presumably through related mechanisms) dampens our perception of others' pain as well. It has even been suggested that acetaminophen can pull us out of an existential crisis– as though existential pain is a pain to be "killed," as well. Stimulants, by comparison, change our emotional acuity by increasing our positive perception of goal in common tasks and general executive function (and also making that Youtube hole just that much more enjoyable). Anti-depressants decrease the presence of sadness in our palette of responses, like rose-tinged glasses for our soul.
Spatially reckoning, zeitgeist is very large. It's as long as the universe is wide. Wherever there's life, goal follows. This means that zeitgeist contains exactly as many goal-planes as there are thinking creatures in this whole universe. Each goal-plane only thickens zeitgeist. It's dense, complex, enormous, and we can only perceive so much of it.
Just like being physically isolated from the existence of other human beings, or existing in another time from other human beings, we can be isolated by existing in another aspect of zeitgeist. There have already been 100 billion human beings, and you can only know what, a few thousand? If your goal-plane is not closely entangled with another person's, you will not have the occasion to interact with them. This is especially apparent in the internet age, where physical isolations are less important to our overall connectedness, and the opportunities created by shared or similar goal flare in consequence. Of course the "occasion to interact" is not the end of the influence of zeitgeist. Goal can steer those far away, who you have no knowledge of, into action that affects you and your own goal. This is perhaps the case with the CEOs of coal companies, or the actors in the global political theater, or even average consumers steering the pricing and materials of consumer goods.
While the internet has the potential to entangle goals across great distances, "filter bubbles" are a disentangling (isolating action) of otherwise complex interactions in zeitgeist. They are powerful positive feedback loops within goal itself. They are loci where the topology of zeitgeist reaches upwards towards infinity. Filter bubbles are machine augmented, but they have existed since the dawn of civilization. We pick our friends and acquaintances in accordance with our goals, and in the process we disentangle ourselves from the goals of people that we perceive as different from ourselves. The good news is that zeitgeist, while perhaps less malleable than space, is definitely more malleable than time– and there are definite discrete actions that we can take to influence our own goal-plane and the greater zeitgeist. The state of the world at any point in the future is essentially the current reality + physics + goals + time, since any change that the universe experiences that is indescribable through simple physics can be described by the interactions of the goals of the intelligent beings that inhabit it.
VI. The Space
Given this conception of zeitgeist as
- Present in reality
- Exerting influence on us and therefore
- "Sense-able", like space and time
- Malleable, like space and (to a lesser extent) time and,
- Vast, like space and time
we can start to conceptualize its shape, its isomorphisms in other thought, and its consequences in the real world.
Zeitgeist provides a term of art for the occasions on which we must roughly quantify the effects of our actions. It vivifies the “supra-individual” realm, the social fabric, cultural fabric, emotional landscape, and the interactions spinning out therefrom. It does so without straining the brain too hard. A psychic space that behaves like a physical one allows analogies to flow more readily. I've already mentioned "wells," as though ruminating on gravity and orbital mechanics.
The landscape is defined by the dimensions of our experience. In time there are moments, in space there are points, in zeitgeist there are loci. A humane coordinate system, and the rhizome runneth through it. A tree is planted at this locus or that. The emptiness of outer space may be an equally empty outer zeitgeist.
We pilot our little space-ship brain between goal-wells, taking care not to get drawn in. We apply our energy to vector towards particular goals or to vector away. Achieving either will be hard (as we perceive frustration or sadness), and either way the results of our efforts will land us in very different regions of space. Most of this space has very little goal associated with it, but occasionally the preponderance of goal in a person, place, event, or thing behaves more like a black-hole than anything else. The cosmos seems to revolve around these points, thick and dense. An "erratic" orbit becomes a sign of outside forces acting on the situation. Maybe that's our intentional vectoring at play, maybe it's an encounter with an entirely new cosmos of goal.
Do you ever think about a thing that just seems "big"? Have you ever inspected the thing's "bigness" only to find that its actual reach is limited and human? Has that ever happened but the thing still felt "big"? We can chip away at zeitgeist and attempt to change its pull, but we are small and sometimes the pull is too strong.
Just like the physical world, we change zeitgeist as it changes us. Also just like the physical world, we are capable of acting on multiple different scales, magnitudes, and levels of analysis. Zeitgeist can be sculpted on the micro-level. Artistic effort, frank conversations with friends, precisely situated remarks, opinions shared flippantly, and condescending dismissals on Twitter can all stack rocks or tumble them, carve detail or cut it away. Large-scale works of art and activism are quotidian earthworks, the back-hoes, bulldozers, and dump-trucks of working with zeitgeist. Someday we might have planet-scale tools to move the heavens and the celestial loci beneath them, but like physical tools of the same magnitude they are still beyond our technological imagination.
Goal can also be accumulated or re-purposed. The rare gem can be extracted and cut fashionably, elevating it in value and importance. This is the purview of historians, journalists, and taste-makers, who find substance in zeitgeist and inflate its self-contained goal with artificial attention. Here we find ourselves in a strange loop: in order to change zeitgeist intentionally, we must expand zeitgeist so that it contains itself and any intention you may have towards it from this moment onward.
Politics exists in this strange-loop as a very un-self-aware attempt at organizing around and changing zeitgeist. Doing politics intentionally is impossible without assimilating the continuous surface that contains opinion, policy, strategy, and emotion simultaneously. On the other hand, political extremism is a slippery slope into a new part of zeitgeist. The forces are isolating and strong, as the slope is steep and sparsely populated. Those that fall into this particular hole are difficult to save, and find themselves impotently raging for an ideology that isn't worth the time or energy.
VII. The Locus
Physical perceptions are only part of the human perceptual gamut. Perceiving zeitgeist is in many ways more beneficial than perceiving the physical world. Systems that perceive utility (value) out compete those that perceive reality. The blind, deaf, and numb are all impossibly more capable at dealing with a general reality than the best trained neural-net classifiers. Your goal receptors are your most valuable sense. Professionals almost always "trust their gut" above all else – which seems an almost hideously obvious allusion to the use of your emotions as perception.
The adaptive theory of emotion, the current version of which has been around for almost 40 years, and which can trace its thinking back to Darwin, has set this line of inquiry in motion for a variety of crackpots (and some reputable individuals) like me. I hope that the status of such speculations can move from "wild flight of fancy" to "viable thought technology." Thinking of value and meaning in this way, and having a new set of terms for discussing policy, people, and socio-cultural institutions could be helpful. Discussions of personal value, and our conversations about the breakdowns and sticking points in relationships with family and friends take on a new character as we enable the fundamental physical metaphors and make them explicit.
It's disappointing that there is no way to measure zeitgeist directly. There is no way to verify a hypotheses about it, unless your hypothesis is about population level statistical averages. And then, because of the nature of averages, and since the tools at your disposal are generally survey instruments from the fraught fields of sociology and psychology, you are unlikely to capture the continuous reality that underlies the results. Identifying a few points and creating a map from lines drawn through them does nothing to explore the territory.
Despite this it feels like a new realm to explore, full of deep magick and occult arts. It feels like a whole new planet, whose inhabitants possess technologies that are essentially pre-scientific. More than that, it feels like an appropriate partner to our internal narrator, that fills some of the gaps around what most people think they know about the brain. It also feels as though artificial intelligence researchers will need to develop some goal sensors.
In the meantime, it's an interesting inversion– a mental slight of hand. The value (I hope) is in the new analogies, enabled.
Some Very Loose References
- On the Function of Boredom
Best summary of the adaptive theory of emotion that I've seen, in service of introducing boredom as a distinct emotion in the theory.
- Interface theory of human perception
Simulation research that "proves" that better knowledge of physical reality will be out-evolved by better knowledge of value.
- Acetaminophen for existential crisis / Empathy reduction
Notes on pharmaceuticals (Acetaminophen in this case) changing our emotional response.
- Extreme Traits as Personality Disorders
Overview of traits as disorders.
A very special thanks to everyone who provided feedback on earlier drafts, especially Mitchell Finzel, Benjamin Cole, and Jane Rennick, who puked the first time she heard this idea (unrelated). Greg Maher provided much needed notes to contribute to a second revision of this essay.