A Sustainable Point of View

The Mind-Body-World Connection

The Mind-Body-World Connection

Building off of our model of meaning from before, we take the implications up one level to show that meaning builds something very real in the world outside of our subjective perception of it. That meaning creates chemical reactions between people and between people in the world lends a certain scientific credibility to two ideas: 1) how we see the world can shape it; 2) how we see the world can shape us as well.

This is part two of a story in three parts:

  • Feedback Loops of Meaning – Our subjective perception of meaning in the world is shaped by chemical changes in our brain, changes that affect our subsequent thoughts and action. This means that what we consider meaningful is an interaction with the world, one that can change the world, or ourselves, for better or worse.
  • The Mind-Body-World Connection – The way our chemistry changes depending on particular kinds of information in our environment, leads us to form certain kinds of relationships with the world, different relationships that produce different kinds of meaning. Our need for each of these kinds of meaning means that we create webs of these relationships around us, creating very real changes in our world.
  • Something Bigger Than Ourselves – The connections we form between ourselves and others, or ourselves and the world, become the building blocks for larger social structures that self-organize from the parts. These social structures extend the power of what meaning can do in the world, while making us intimately beholden to bigger forces, for better and worse.

A video overview of this theory can be found here.

We’ve sketched a theory of meaning that involves four feedback mechanisms, mechanisms that root meaning in our biology. And yet, important in worldview-building is the idea that you are not just your biology. Meaning, as I argue it, is a mind-body-world connection, and our biology gives the world a medium through which to affect us.

This means that meaning is not just a biological delusion, because meaningful experiences actually build something. Meaningful experiences create invisible products, and to make these products tangible, we have to track their existence through patterns.

You’ll recall an important way of looking at our chemical fluctuations is the feedback loop. We take in social information, which changes our biology, which changes how we think and act, which changes the kind of input we receive in the future. As an example, when someone is kind to us, we feel good, which makes us act kindly back, which prompts people to act more kindly toward us in the future.

But even if we accept the premise that our biology is designed to respond to this feedback loop, seeing our social environment as part of that chain seems like a wild card. That’s why we assume that the brain is strictly determined by our genes: the world is simply too complex to imagine some kind of structured communication between it and our gray matter. We’d be forgiven for thinking that this feedback loop is fairly “open” – maybe a kindness really does make us feel predictably good, and maybe that even leads to us acting kind in response, but once this chain of events leaves us behind, you can’t really control the chain of events that follows.

There’s some truth to that, but to a surprising extent it is wrong. Consider the phenomenon of “paying-it-forward,” where one kindness produces another which produces another. It may seem amorphous, but economic psychology experiments using oxytocin interventions have been able to influence every part of it – from the rise in a sense of generosity, to the likelihood of giving to others, to the likelihood of reciprocating. Here, not only does an internal chain of events predictably make an equation of “kindness in equals kindness out,” a social chain of events steps in to see that this propagates from one person to the next, almost like a contagion of feeling.

The feedback loop that jumps from social input to biological change to social output is naturally designed to travel to other humans. And it does so in a highly predictable way. This phenomenon, sometimes called transpersonal biology, is a biological interconnection with other people, one that means that our own biology is controlled to a surprising degree through a dyadic interaction between individuals.

An Oxytocin Example

Sections - Networks 01ALet’s track how a feedback loop might look. For instance, with oxytocin, the sense of connection we feel – the openness, trust, safety and social pleasure – requires another person to feel the same way. How is that possible? The first step is caused by something called mirror neurons, whose sole job in the brain is to recognize the actions and emotions of others, and map it into our own brain to make us understand those actions or emotions subjectively. This is how one person can change another’s brain chemistry from across a room.*

*Our ideas of psychic phenomena may be based in some people’s ability to read mirror neuron data and infer things about others. Grounding our view in neuroscience may not even wholly dispel the myth, as “mind-reading” is essentially a good description of what mirror neurons do, and some people might be particularly good at it. Perhaps “psychic” myths started to legitimize a skill we couldn’t understand and had to spin as mysticism, when now we can see the magic is in the way we are wired.

The second step takes the brain-to-brain awareness and turns it into the feeling of connection via oxytocin. If we open ourselves to interpersonal connections, the subjective experience of mirroring is accompanied by a rise in trust and safety, social motivation and even generosity. Oxytocin is a mediator: it signals a connection, while also facilitating further connection through increasing openness and positivity, a positive feedback loop.

The relationship between the function and the feeling of oxytocin is in many ways the meaning of connection itself. The feeling of a rise of oxytocin is at the core of the experience, and creating that feeling is key to the creation and maintenance of real world social connections.

Oxytocin should be seen as a feedback loop between two people – something that is experienced subjectively as internal, and yet feels like a connection between people. This subjective feedback loop is both between and within people, creating something bigger than either one. It is a mechanism that transcends each individual to create a link as important as it is invisible.

This is interesting from a philosophical space, because it gives a strange answer to the question: are social relations selfish? To post-modern cynics, it has become trendy to say that people are driven by the chemical reactions behind relationships, so social interactions are just people using each other for the hedonic fruits of a social medium. People are not born good because even what looks like selflessness, actually isn’t. However, the truth of connectivity is that you cannot divorce the fact that one person finds the experience rewarding from the fact that someone else does as well. The co-occurring rewards signal the creation of something larger – the soldering together of a cooperative group, who then coordinate thought and action to great adaptive effect. The rewards aren’t for the benefit of one person at all, but for the benefit of two. The fact that selfishness and selflessness are fundamentally intertwined, making selflessness hedonistic, is a function of the evolution of cooperation. That is the meaning of our chemical feedback: to experience one half of a two (or more) person superorganism.

Other Chemicals

Oxytocin is unique, because oxytocin is a uniquely “win-win” chemical. But each of these chemicals has its own feedback loop, one that creates something bigger than itself just as oxytocin does.

Justice - Feedback Loop 02B

In the case of serotonin, the bigger thing actually comes from its absence. A lack of serotonin causes friction, or more specifically, escalation: a vibrating jagged-edged intensity we feel when we look in another person’s eyes to see mistrust, hostility, stress and judgment. Like oxytocin, seeing those feelings in another person mirrors the same feeling in us, only now the mirroring results in anticipatory, and escalating, antagonism.

With testosterone, while the competition begins as a mirrored challenge like two bears rearing up on their hind legs to roar at one another, very quickly the correlated experience is inverted: one person’s win requires the other person’s loss, and one person’s rise in testosterone is the other’s decline. A win-lose dynamic means that when one person gets the upper hand beyond a point of no return, the other begins to feel defeated or stressed, until ultimately one person concedes to bring both to a mutual-understanding of their relative shift in status. But the salient point here is that a negative correlation is still a correlation – you can predict one person’s chemistry from another’s. Here, two people are building a vertical relationship of status. Whether equal or imbalanced, any relationship or dynamic that emerges between people has become bigger than either one.

Goals - Dreams 01A

Dopamine is somewhat different in that dopamine connects us to the world itself. Dopamine invests us in a vision of something we want to make real, a vision that makes our dopamine go up and down based on how close it is in coming to fruition. Because dopamine makes our sense of motivation rise when we anticipate the fruits of our goal-directed behavior, we are rewarded the closer we get to our goals with more fuel necessary to attain them. Dopamine is a connection between us and a potential future – one measured in our minds by the time, space and problem-solving we estimate to separate us from it. Dopamine also responds to the unpredictability of things we can’t anticipate, or “novelty.” That is to say, it responds to all things new and unexpected, which gives rise to the enjoyment of curiosity and learning, sensation-seeking and risk-taking. Whether it be the dopamine of anticipation or novelty, though, both are sustained by specific experiences in the world around us.

Transpersonal Feedback Loops

Lets summarize our feedback loops, while also noting that three of the four chemical mechanisms have a different game-theory dynamic – either win-win, win-lose, or lose-lose:

  • A rise in oxytocin in one person predicts a rise in another; when two people form a connection, it is built through a rising level of oxytocin in both. Signals of safety and trust increase the chemical, which further leads us to act in ways that are safe and trustworthy, deepening the dynamic in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. This mutual chemical effect is a win-win synergy, a joint sense of trust, safety and social pleasure between two people that facilitates a more enduring bond. Such logic reinforces itself over time, deepening into a partnership, friendship or romance. It can be between mother and child or two people in love; it can be between two friends, or two cooperating co-workers.
  • When someone’s levels of serotonin plummet, the result is irrational anger that affects the serotonin of those they interact with as well, creating lose-lose friction. This friction exacerbates itself in both agents, leading to escalation of conflict, increased intensity, and greater willingness to punish in excess of what a crime deserves, creating temporary – or long-term – antagonists.
  • Testosterone creates a win-lose relationship between competitive players, with corresponding testosterone levels – high in victors, low in losers – that can be predicted by tracking the outcome of games for status. Competitive games continue until one person loses, creating a winner and loser and an implicit recognition of status change between them, a recognition mirrored in a chemical change in both players. However, teammates are win-win toward each other, making their wins – or losses – shared.
  • Dopamine creates a goal, and with it, the will to make a particular outcome happen in the world itself. Our dopamine goes up and down in fluctuation with this goal, driving us to make an internal vision an external reality. When we accomplish these goals, our dopamine rises predictably; when life gets in the way, however, a dip or crash follows.

Each of these feedback loops has a different flavor and function, yet they make up the fledgling units created between people, or between people and the world. They are real, palpable things, despite being simple subjective feelings to us. These are the creations of meaning.

That our chemistry creates transpersonal feedback loops enriches our picture in quite an important way: behind our subjective experience of all that is good and terrible, we are creating tangible things in the world itself. These things are patterned sequences of events that span many different realms: biological, psychological, social and back again. It may seem abstract, as it rests entirely on chemical reactions correlated between two agents or between an agent and the world. And yet, these correlations are very particular, functional, and important, as they will help to show how evolution creates new plot twists and turns to in its ongoing story.

Because as we will see, these feedback loops are the building blocks for something even bigger, a construction project 13.8 billion years in the making.

Continued in: Something Bigger Than Ourselves