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Becoming Who We Need to Be

We all find meaning in different things. As such, discussing meaning in any productive way can be a cumbersome undertaking. That said, there are two main types of meaning that I want to address.

The first is significance meaning. That is, imbuing moments or events with implicit substance so that, to us at least, there is more to them than meets the eye.

A chance glance from a stranger on the subway, or the sequence of lucky numbers in our fortune cookie being the same as our high school locker combination can both seem loaded with meaning. These are not coincidences, we think. What are the chances of something like that happening, after all? They are significant in some way, and it makes sense, from that perspective, to want to figure out how.

Most people, it should be noted, are terrible at offhandedly understanding, or even estimating, probability. You’d be a killjoy to deflate a friend who’s erupting with enthusiasm over the perceived significance of receiving his old locker combination as a set of lucky numbers in a fortune cookie, but you’d be right in recognizing that although the chance of something like that happening is small, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Unlikely things happen all the time. If something has a one in one-billion chance of happening, well, do you know how many things are happening at all times, to all of the over seven-billion people who live on the planet today? Our perception of how likely these events might be remains unchanged, because we see the world through the lens of a single individual. But if you do the math on that scale, it quickly becomes clear that the unlikely is actually not all that unlikely.

We also tend to notice and remember things we perceive to be unlikely more than things we don’t perceive to be in any way unusual, even if those ignored things are, in fact, the less likely, more impressive, and more interesting happenstances.

This tendency to pay more attention to the seemingly unlikely events that happen to and around us is called “selective attention.” Our brains have a bias toward patterns, and ignore so-called uninteresting data—things we are not primed to perceive as significant to us—and to put increased emphasis on the opposite, storing seemingly meaningful happenings more firmly in our memory. As a result, we’re more likely to recall the times when the tarot card reader was right, and to completely forget or disregard the times when she was wrong. The significance of that card reader’s words, then, elevate in our mind, while the significance of information we might read about the practice of tarot card reading having no basis in reality and no scientific credibility, decreases.

This is part of why, too, we tend to underestimate just how likely seemingly unlikely events might be. Our brains latch on to the amazingness of this chance reappearance of old, familiar numbers, while dismissing other bits of data—it wasn’t on your fortune cookie, but on your friend’s, two of the numbers were rearranged, you’ve been going to that same Chinese food place for five years, and never before received a familiar set of numbers inside your cookie—which in turn results in our finding meaning in what is almost certainly meaningless. The part-time worker or machine algorithm that jots those numbers down on the fortune cookie papers most likely is not a wizard, and it’s far more likely that the familiarity and feeling of significance is merely the consequence of our brains wigging out over the perceived connection, due to its pattern-finding predilections. Because that’s what it does.

Why are our brains so primed for patterns?

As with so many things brain-related, we can’t say with absolute certainty, but there is a good argument to be made that this pattern-seeking habit is what allows us to think, interact, and build tools.

A creature who is able to piece together a sequence of events can infer causality—that other beast over there drank from the water, and now it’s dead, so perhaps I shouldn’t drink that water—and benefit from that perception. A creature who can recognize cause and effect while extrapolating further, imagining how things might be changed, can manipulate the world around them. That is, they wouldn’t just avoid the water that seems to be killing other animals, they might be able to figure out new ways to get water, by folding large leaves to collect dew and rainwater. The idea to use leaves as collection tools, by the way, would also be the result of observation and pattern detection: watching the rain drip down the leaves, and the dew accumulate on the leaves each morning, would lead to the conclusion that these green things are related to this free-flowing water somehow, and could perhaps be manipulated to sate our thirst.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, also called the “frequency illusion,” is relevant to this discussion. This is a phenomenon that you’ve almost certainly experienced at some point in your life: you buy a new car, let’s say a Saturn coupe, and then suddenly, from the next day onward, you see Saturn coupes absolutely everywhere. It’s as if the entire world is copying you. There can’t have been this many Saturn coupes on the road before you bought yours; you’ve never seen so many of them out in the world before. How strange and coincidental.

Of course, this is neither strange nor coincidental. It’s the consequence of your brain earmarking a new bit of information as important. This brand and type of car is something that you’ve been thinking about and now own. It’s important to be able to pick out your own car from all the cars in a parking lot, but it’s also a shape that you now recognize, a logo that you’ve come to know, and a collection of design elements that you now see more clearly in a crowd of other, less-vital-seeming car-mounted design elements. These other Saturn coupes were always there in your environment, but now that they seem important to your brain, you’ll notice them more frequently, and remember noticing them, because that perceived significance is amplified, collected as relevant data.

The fortune cookie, the sudden appearance of cars like your own—neither are mystical or magical. The word “synchronicity” was coined by Carl Jung to describe such things, and to justify the paranormal nature they certainly had, when in reality he merely lacked the clarity afforded by modern brain and social sciences.

That said, something not being inherently magical doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It doesn’t mean such things can’t be vital as mental milestones or as valuable intellectual footnotes.

Finding significance in things that are not significant is what causes a lot of us to have harmful beliefs that hold us back in many ways, but it’s also kind of a superpower that provides us with ambitions. It can bring out the best in us. Or rather, it can help us bring out the best in ourselves.

This is the second type of meaning I mentioned. The first is significance we imbue in an event or object that makes that thing or happenstance seem more important than it is. The second is the type of meaning we pursue throughout our lives. The sort of meaning that, in a lot of cases, provides us with the intellectual and emotional will to make it through tough times and to work hard toward something big, something larger than ourselves.

In some cases, this meaning takes the shape of religion, or of a particular brand of governance, or of one’s own family and their well-being. Sometimes it’s the wholehearted pursuit of knowing the unknown, or taking down the wicked, or teaching things you believe should be more widely known.

There are as many meaningful pursuits as there are people, and although we have no reason to believe that any such meaning is divine or magical, that doesn’t diminish the potential benefits of finding meaning, perhaps even multiple sources of it, throughout our lives.

People who feel that they have purpose tend to live longer. People who have convictions, who believe something to be not just true, but important, have a greater capacity to endure discomfort, pain, and antipathy from those who believe differently. People who ascribe some type of meaning to the work they do or the goals they’re pursuing are more likely to see the journey as the point of the exercise, rather than seeing life as a necessary period of suffering on the way to a goal they hope to reach someday. The journey itself is meaningful. The goal is important, but the act of working toward it, even when painful or disheartening, is meaningful by association.

When we talk about “finding meaning” in our lives, this is the type of meaning we’re usually discussing. Very seldom does someone hope to find meaning in the sense of recognizing more cars like the one she just bought on the road, or finding familiarity in the lucky numbers contained within the folds of a fortune cookie.

But these types of meaning are inextricably connected. The pattern-seeking tendencies of our brains are what make connections and assume relationships between things, and it’s those same neurons, those same interconnections between memory and higher-reasoning and animal instinct and whatever it is that makes us feel conscious that allow us to feel a sense of not just existence, but purpose. They allow us to see the act of feeding the hungry as not just one more action among all the actions we perform every day, but something significant.

If we feed this person, they will feel something, and hopefully something better than they feel now. Some of the fear and desperation will disappear, and they may have more capacity for joy. Beyond that, they’ll go on to live their own lives, full of the same tribulations we all face, but also packed with moments of happiness resulting from goals accomplished, the joy of relationships, and the thrill of new discoveries. And by helping give this person something to eat, we’ve played some small role in that. We have in some small way served as a catalyst for all that emotion, all those feelings, all that experience, all that life.

Without the sometimes overenthusiastic pattern-recognition tendencies of our brains, we would be unable to make these connections, and feeding a stranger would be just one more act, with no more significance than brushing our teeth or driving to work or feeding ourselves an unremarkable lunch. The cause and effect assumption would be lost, and our ability to dig deeper and subconsciously guess at what this action of ours might mean, not just for us, but for others, perhaps many others, would not exist.

The world, lacking this meaning that we generate, would be a much flatter, more pragmatic place, I think. That’s assuming we were able to build such a world to begin with, which is anything but certain. I’m guessing that much of the human desire to explore would be lost, due to the lack of imagination about what we might find over the next horizon. As a result, we’d probably never have evolved and spread out the way we did, and would not have had the same biological inclination toward tool usage and brain development.

I also have trouble imagining what would drive us to do anything beyond the bare basics under such circumstances. It seems unlikely that we’d feel incentivized to achieve anything more than the essentials that would allow us to survive another day. We’d have little reason to believe investment in infrastructure or assets would pay off, and we’d have little reason to make small sacrifices for the greater good of the family, tribe, society, or species. We wouldn’t be able to perceive any significance in those actions, and as such, the frantic, genetic-level drive toward self-preservation would be the only thing keeping us going.

There are many causes out there that are misguided and faulty and based on false-premises. I think we’re sometimes too dependent on gut-instincts when we should think analytically, and put too much faith in incomplete mental models when we should trust our gut. We adhere to ideologies dogmatically, assuming that the meaning found within them is the only possible meaning and the only possible source of valid morality. We misunderstand coincidences, seeing them either as messages from the sky or remarkable impossibilities, ignoring the truly remarkable things that happen around us all day, every day. Among the remarkable things we often misunderstand or ignore is the incredible persistence of a species that has the capacity to both extrapolate and care.

The pursuit of meaning, of significance, is a valid one. It’s valuable and, wherever we find it, it tends to be more asset than liability.

But it’s also worth being conscious of where this feeling comes from. We are the ones who imbue things with significance. We don’t discover significant things, we discover things and make them significant. Recognizing and remembering this allows us to better understand and interact with people who find meaning in different places than we do. It also allows us to find meaning in many and varied things.

This is an excerpt from Colin Wright’s new audiobook, Becoming Who We Need to Be, which is also available in print and ebook formats.