A Sustainable Point of View

Something Bigger Than Ourselves

Something Bigger Than Ourselves

Building off our model of meaning to a still higher level shows us how meaning becomes wrapped in culture and society, and how these things come to affect not only how we see the world, but how it affects us physiologically for better and worse. The old tropes that we are connected are true, and that comes with implications good and bad.

This is part three 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.


When human beings create meaning, it is a connection to our environment that changes our biochemistry. There is a function to this beyond making subjective experience interesting. The mind-body-world connections we forge are capable of self-organizing into larger social structures, creating the landscape of social life, and turning meaning-making into an ongoing construction project thousands of years in the making.

When we create a chemical relationship between two people (or between a person and the world), that resulting bond takes on a life all its own; it exerts its own influence and control. A chemical dynamic once created, tends to perpetuate itself: connections deepen, winners win, antagonists fight and goals become entrenched, and these effects all chip away at the agency of the person. But that’s just the beginning. Each of these dynamics is a building block in something bigger. Two people form a friendship; many friendships form a community. A game defines a victor and a loser; an iterated game forms a social hierarchy. Individuals have dreams, but many such dreams form a cultural vision. The elemental dynamics between us and the world become the axes on which megalithic structures self-organize to create something new and different. Let’s call these biostructures. Each of the biostructures has its own properties and dynamics, and each biostructure combines to make a whole larger than the sum of the parts. We’ll call that whole a biosystem.

Examples

Before, we looked at what happens to our chemistry as we engage in different kinds of individual interactions. Interestingly, this same chemistry responds to bigger things that can seem more abstract. In the same way that meaning is a series of feedback loops that create particular relationships in the world, feedback loops of those relationships create larger biostructures and dynamics. Voila! Now those new somethings can shape our chemistry too.

Sections - Hierarchy 01AFor instance, while testosterone can rise in response to a competitive win, the increase is nothing compared to the effect of a dramatic rise in social status. We can think of status as a measure of many competitive outcomes in relation to one another: if I beat you, and you beat Tom, my status is two tiers above Tom. Take a troop of great apes, where the difference in testosterone levels between the alpha and those at the bottom of the social ladder might be as much as ten fold. But if a low status male were suddenly thrust upward in the hierarchy – say because all the alphas and betas died in from food poisoning, or because scientists manipulated the status-hierarchy by teaching the lowly chimp a high-value skill – the chimp’s testosterone level would rapidly close that ten-fold gap. Social status is, in fact, a far better predictor for overall testosterone levels than genetic predisposition. Basal testosterone – the amount of testosterone we have at birth – is not a good predictor for how much T we will come to have later in life, but our relative rank to those higher and lower than us is.

Sections - Networks 01AOxytocin offers a different kind of social experience. A wedding can have a similar effect of changing our biochemistry based on the sociogram. Weddings are a great event to solder together the connections of a social network, catapulting oxytocin levels far higher than usual in all attendees. Interestingly, however, the distribution of oxytocin isn’t equal – the levels of oxytocin are predictably higher in those immediately orbiting around the bride and groom at the nuclear center.*

*There is actually an interesting caveat to this. As oxytocin has a lot to do with perceived connection, it is particularly high in those who have a panoramic view of the communal significance of the event. For that reason, the person with the highest oxytocin of all at a wedding isn’t the bride or groom, but the bride’s mother, followed by the groom’s father.

Sections - Goals 01AWith dopamine, there are interesting results from looking at people across different classes. Dopamine goes up in anticipation of rewards, so people who have a positive future – good social standing, robust social networks and the means to make their dreams a reality – have a lot to look forward to, which is to say, a lot of dopamine activity. As the saying goes, “to those that have more shall be given; to those that have not, what they have shall be taken away,” and what that means for dopamine is that it costs to be poor. Without resources, your barriers have barriers. If you don’t have a car, it’s hard to get a job to pay for an education to get a career to have a nice home, and these nested obstacles limit the rewards you have to look forward to. The result? Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with few long-term rewards are more likely to compensate with short-term stimuli like gambling, cigarettes, shopping therapy, or lean more heavily into religious faith, all of which serve as adaptive mechanisms to keep their dopamine levels limping along to grind out another day. If you’ve ever wondered why poor people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need, the answer is in the chemistry.

Each of these examples portrays how our biochemistry makes us feel a particular social dynamic. In this way, our biochemistry goes beyond being devoted to transpersonal interactions: it is receptive to biostructures that ebb and flow with their own powerful influence. These biostructures connect us biologically to our surroundings in ways that are surprisingly intimate.

Much in the way that our biology creates proxies for social experiences, our biology has proxies for these biostructures; in the same way we have needs for other people, we have needs to engage in particular social dynamics. The personal and political collide where we are impacted not just externally, but internally, by what happens in our sociogram. That’s because our needs and drives don’t engage the world haphazardly – they are both channeled into the larger flows of something still greater: a social superorganism; a biosystem.

Something bigger than ourselves

The mind-body-world connections between people are subject to self-organizing forces that shape a different biostructure for each type of connection. Each of those biostructures has components studied by different disciplines for different reasons, each elucidating a different dimension of the same thing like so many of the fabled blind men feeling different parts of the same elephant. And while each academic theory has battled over whether meaning belongs to individuals or groups, inner worlds or outer, we can now see a unique synthesis: how the group is fluidly composed out of the connections between individuals, both real and imagined.

Top: Social network biostructure; Bottom: From “Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, And Do” – a visualization of a social network. “A network of 2,200 people from the Framingham Heart Study in 2000. Node borders indicate gender (red for female, blue for male); node colors indicate obesity (yellow for body mass index [BMI] of 30 or more, green for BMI less than 30); node sizes are proportional to BMI; and tie colors indicate the kind of relationship (purple for friend or spouse, orange for family). Clustering of obese and nonobese individuals can be observed within particular locations in the network.” Follow this link to see a dynamic visualization of how obesity spread like a contagion up to three degrees of separation through the social network.

Social networks are formed by abstracting away from the oxytocin connection between two people, to see the friends of our friends, and the friends of our friends’ friends. If we map networks by tracking the links between individuals, we see a dynamic structure with branches and interconnections, a patterned web of order and chaos. Social networks are not bound by geography – at three degrees of separation, we might be connected to people all over the world – and indeed, everyone on the planet is connected up to six degrees of separation. Social networks scale from families to work groups, cultures and nations; they are the cooperative backbones of superorganisms large and small.

Top: Social hierarchy biostructure; Bottom: From Sean Rand’s lab of interaction biology. Here we see a metric used to measure fighting ability in red deer stags, Clutton-Brock, et al. (1979). In the case of this species, where games for status are physical contests, fighting ability can also be considered a proxy for status. Above we have an individual represented by a black circle; on the left, the circle includes the number of their wins against other status rivals in the group (8), with an arrow pointing to each individual they have bested. On the right, we have their number of losses in the circle (3), with an arrow coming from each competitor that has defeated them. The individual’s fighting ability/status is calculated in two parts. From the left, the number of opponents they’ve bested (8), plus the number of opponents their opponents have bested (the sum of the numbers in the brown circles, or 8), plus one (8+8+1). Then, from the right, the number of the individual’s losses (3), plus the number of competitive losses accrued by those that bested the individual (the sum of the numbers in the brown circles, or 4), plus one (3+4+1). You then divide the first part by the second (17/8) to arrive at the individual’s fighting ability/status: in this case, 2.125. Though this hierarchy is measured through physical contests among stags, it provides a fairly good proxy for how human status is calculated, as remembered outcomes of games for status. Unlike in stags, however, human hierarchies vary tremendously, using a vast array of different competitions to sort individuals depending on the group function and culture.

Social hierarchies are the vertical relationships of power that result from testosterone games of status. While those close to us might be on our tier of status give or take a level, people can sit many layers higher or lower on a hierarchy depending on their role in the network. Our experience with power structures begins with our parents and birth order, and ends with the company ladder and societal pecking order. Hierarchies are the control structure of the superorganism.

Top: Rule-system biostructure; Bottom: A visualization of social friction as seen through a social network at the heart of gun violence in the Cape Verdean community of Boston, 2008. 85% of victims of violent crime were within a single social network, with one’s risk of victimization dropping 25% every degree of separation they were removed from a victim of gun violence (shown in red). Friction is another contagion within social networks.

Social friction is caused by the actions of an agent that hinder the actions of another, creating the low serotonin of conflict, which can escalate and spread like a contagion. Society generally seeks to avoid these interactions with codified rules enforced by a tit-for-tat punishment system. The goal is to maximize fairness in order to minimize internal strife for a group, so as to increase synergy: the cooperative potential that results from a group becoming more than the sum of its parts. Synergy breaks down into friction when social rules are broken, when competing social codes crash into each other, or when people have competing agendas. Social friction tends to flow down or along power gradients: those in power tend to channel their own friction onto those with less power, from making life hard for those down the ladder to creating low-status scapegoats, even as the powerful get away with more rule-breaking. Rule systems make up the internal boundaries of the superorganism.

Top: Social goals biostructure; Bottom: From XKCD.com, Randal Munroe’s Movie Narrative Charts (excerpted picture: Star Wars Episode IV) – “[This chart shows] movie character interactions. The horizontal axis is time. The vertical grouping of the lines indicates which characters are together at a given time.” While this is a representation of a fictional universe, the visualization is a good way of seeing how the goals of various agents align and collide over time. Characters with lines in parallel are generally cooperating with one another, while intersecting lines show where paths cross, often in conflict.

Social goals are part dopamine-motivating vision and part problem-solving paradigm, where the goal is often beyond question, guiding the group toward meeting common needs with beliefs, values and assumptions. Ideological dreams shape all these biostructures and are shaped by them in turn. This is the goal-directed behavior and cognition of the superorganism.

Each of these dynamics has a robust body of literature that transcends disciplines – anthropology, sociology, systems theory, politics, economics and others. That’s because, while these dynamics are as invisible as the feedback loops created from transpersonal biochemistry, they animate patterns that are clearly omnipresent in societal life. Every human social institution varies in size and scope, by culture and nation, yet shares these dynamics at their core. Politics and economics, religion and social science, are just subsystems of the much larger superorganisms that we assemble through our interconnections, which are built through our needs and drives for meaning.

These biostructures are important because they extend our understanding of meaning out into the world. As acts of meaning create something palpable between two people, they also connect us beyond our immediate relations into a broader community, nation and globe. This is interesting from both an individual and group perspective. Unlike our current theories of psychology and psychiatry, our minds are not just determined by our brains or childhoods. Unlike political theories of individualism, no man really is an island.

The Implications of Connectedness

The social dynamics around us – as expressed through political, cultural and economic institutions – tangibly affect our mental well-being. The result is that our perception of these biostructures, and our patterns of experience with them, can also affect our well-being: through profound existential shifts in our worldview.

  • When people in our community are harmed, we feel the pain and danger through a drop in oxytocin. When people in our community suffer, when animals suffer, we tear up through empathic connection. Depending on our sense of belonging, we can feel connected or disconnected not just from a person, but from the world at large, making us suffer in a deeply existential way.
  • When a team loses in the playoffs, fans experience a drop in testosterone along with the players. When our political team loses an election, we process the defeat personally, sometimes for eight years. When an ideology says one community is inherently inferior to another, it can make everyone in that group feel defeated from the inside out, all the time. The world can make us feel very small and insecure.
  • When someone in our community suffers an injustice, it fills us with friction as if we suffered it first hand. News stories about beliefs we disagree with, or people that acted against our values, provoke anger as if they confronted us directly. When the world is filled with friction, it can convince us that chaos is the way of things.
  • When a political decision or political party changes our future for the worse, we feel that depression personally. When our relationship, group or nation suffers and pushes our vision of the future out beyond our reach, we feel that slump when we try to get out of bed in the morning. Feeling like the world is going to hell in a hand basket makes us plan for the apocalypse instead of the future, sees our social engagement morph into apathy, and makes us cynical to words like “progress.”

Much in the same way that people have chemical needs from their interpersonal relationships, they have needs for their relationships to large group dynamics.

  • If we need status, we will seek it not only in our immediate social circle, but also by trying to climb the social ladder. As our goal-directedness gives us the ability to strategize out many steps in advance, eventually, we stop trying to beat one person at a time, and make calculated decisions on how best to climb the overall ladder of power.
  • If we need community, we don’t just make a connection with a friend, we try to gain popularity in the overall group by being generous, joining events, and building up social capital. This leads us to feel like we’re apart of an “ingroup.” We feel these shifts intimately; we “care what people think about us.”
  • If we need to avoid social friction, we don’t just want to avoid stepping on individual toes, we come to realize the benefit of not talking about religion and politics at a party, about protecting our social reputation overall, and in hewing close to a group’s ideology to avoid pushing ourselves to the edge of a community. If we need to channel social friction, we’ll scapegoat people with less power, or ideologically devalue some groups over others, in order to have people to blame when we need to put frustration somewhere. 
  • If we need goals, we don’t express them in a vacuum – our goals impact everyone around us, and we tend either to synergize our goals with others cooperatively or lean into the conflict. Over time, cooperative goals evolve into large ideological visions held by entire families, communities and cultures; they are passed down as values and beliefs that guide how each new generation expresses their own goals. This is how ideas, beliefs and values become a battleground, a place to fight for the direction of an entire group – because that group can in turn shape our own direction or that of our children. In other words, we care about what other people believe, and often try to change the beliefs of others, or are forced to adapt ourselves.

As intuitive as much of this might seem, each point posits an important counter-statement to many present-day ideologies. The mental health field in particular is a big purveyor of the idea that mental illnesses are rooted in individuals, regardless of their social context. If you are paralyzed by emotion, the overriding assumption by both client and practitioner is that the explanation lies with your brain, your personality, your childhood, or your trauma. The subtext is that it is you who are the problem. Subjectively, however, it often feels like your distress comes from your relationship to the world itself. And these biostructures are why: sometimes they can crush us. Sometimes the universe doesn’t see fit to deliver on our social needs (after all, “life isn’t fair”), and sometimes God really does “give you more than you can handle.” And when this happens, it can be biologically unsustainable. These biostructures can couple existential pain with physical feelings of meaninglessness, driving physical pain and discomfort from the inside out. Some of us will suffer through with only our ego and self-image bruised, a little wiser and warier, but some of us are a little closer to the edge, and can be pulled into a downward spiral that traps us for much longer.

It might seem scary to recognize that the world has power over us. But we can also derive strategies to make the most of that reality that can help us create a worldview to control our interaction with the world, both socially and emotionally. What’s more, what isn’t always possible to see from our emotional vantage point is how these social dynamics change and evolve for the better.