On Collective Fictions

Our life is given order, progression and structure by the fictions we create collectively. Karmic balance – do good and you will have good things done to you and vice-versa is an example of a fiction created to maintain order. By extension,  all religious doctrines are fictions created to allow people to function in a certain way and restrict them from other behaviors. Every Indian kid would have heard the familiar refrain while growing up – “Beta, do X and then your life is set”. This is also another, less dramatic example of a fiction.

To be successful, each fiction has to tap into a natural human instinct or value. The Karmic Balance taps into the reciprocity principle which is that humans universally  believe in the justness of giving something and getting something of a similar value in return. This is the same principle that made the free market concept so successful by enabling trade between complete strangers. Humans understand reciprocity at a basic level and so fictions leveraging it will be successful. Similarly, the Indian refrain leverages the attraction/lure of the sure thing – a little bit of effort now and bliss thereafter, which is also leveraged by religions that promise eternal bliss in heaven for some penance or sacrifice right now.

By far, the most dangerous fiction for ambitious people is the fiction of natural career progression. For most corporate workers, the work they do will be more or less similar throughout their work life, not counting the jump from an individual contributor role to a leadership role. To sweeten the deal between the owner of the firm and the employee, the fiction of career progression is peddled. This is the idea that a person will reach the top by steadily climbing rungs starting from the bottom. To be fair, there is some level of real progression in terms of skill development but most corporations stretch this and convert 2-3 levels into 10-12, tapping into the human desire for continuous feedback and rewards – ‘If I am making progress, however small,  I must be doing something right’

The three examples here are not exhaustive by any means. Two other examples I can think of are

  • Prestige jobs – sucky, soul crushing jobs that are made lucrative by assigning a fictitious, manufactured wrapper of prestige or glamour to them. Taps into the human need for social status and recognition.
  • Patriotism/Nationalism – A construct that asks adherence to show respect and deferment to an imagined entity called a nation. Taps into the human desire to belong to a tribe.

One last thing about these fictions is that they usually benefit the people who create them.

The karmic balance helps those on top maintain law and order and prevent anarchy.

The Indian refrain help parents nudge their kids into favorable decisions, one at a time resulting in good financial outcomes for the kid and social prestige for themselves.

The career progression helps firms keep employees happy and satisfied with their jobs and with the clearly inferior pact they have made – I will give away my time for money.


The lizard brain

We suffer from an illusion of control over our selves. We tend to delude ourselves into thinking we are masters of our own being atleast, if not of the larger world. Our body and mind can be bent to our conscious desires and will be ready to do our bidding if commanded so, by our will. It has taken me quite some time, and a lot of frustrating experiences to lose faith in this narrative. The alternate narrative is actually tragic, since it presupposes that we cannot even exert control over the most basic of things, our own selves.

The Wrong Narrative  

Trivial – I can accomplish goals and activities I have planned for myself. If I want to wake up early in the morning to exercise, I can do it. I can even ‘command myself’ to study a subject at length for a few hours at a stretch. Control over my body is just the beginning, I have total control over my thoughts. I can bucket time during the day to think about certain ideas and concepts and my mind will not be led astray by tangential thoughts.

High-stakes – I have studied morality thoroughly and I know whats wrong and right. I can reason a complete moral code from a few fundamental moral axioms. I am confident of my judicial reasoning and my prudence and do not require any ‘external motivators’ to nudge me on the right path.

Where this fails

All throughout the narrative, it has been assumed that we are slaves to the conscious and thinking part of the brain. This narrative fails to account for the lower, lizard brain that guides most of our decisions and consequently shapes our lives. This lizard brain can also remain completely invisible to you unless you have some semblance of ‘directed thinking capacity’ present. The lizard brain gets bored easily and always wants the easiest path to be taken. It succumbs to base temptations and generates a random chatter of thoughts in our head that block out any directed thinking efforts we may be undertaking. And it does so in the most insidious ways. You will usually be made aware of the heist that has been pulled over you, post-facto.

Regular actions where the lizard brain manifests –

1. Opening up a lot of browser tabs and switching between tabs for no apparent reason.

2. Automatic actions performed when bored eg: open up Facebook and Quora without actually thinking

3. Failure to wake up early, as decided the night before. Failure to focus and concentrate efforts on something you badly want, like learning something new.

4. Failure to do actions that go against your childhood conditioning. There is always some kind of chain holding you back and you cannot pinpoint the reason for that.

The Right Narrative

The Right Narrative is that all of us are slaves to a force that can control us and yet assure us that we are in full control of ourselves. It implies that accomplishing the most basic of things – exerting control over our minds and bodies will require some initial effort. The model of ourselves is changed from an autonomous unit controlled by our conscious to something that merely reacts in predictable ways to external stimulus and does random things to keep the lizard brain happy.

What does this shifting of narratives entail?  

If you subscribe to the first narrative, as I did for most of my life, concepts like habit, meditation and religion will not mean anything to you. Self-discipline will be a pointless exercise. Abandoning this narrative and knowing your own weaknesses will force you to revalue the efficacy of these things –

1. Habit – You can only get yourself to do certain laborious actions if you make it a point to repeat them a lot of time until it becomes second-nature to your self. This presupposes that the adaptive abilities of your body, in conjunction with your will will be far more useful that just your will-power, when it comes to accomplishing certain actions.

2.Meditation – A special case of 1, where you train your mind to focus on certain thoughts and ideas and not succumb to the mindless chatter that goes on all the time in your head. Focused thinking can be achieved only if you train your mind for it.

3. Religion – You are too fickle and weak to rely on your will to follow your moral code. You need the fear of divine judgement and the temptation of eternal bliss to follow any moral code without eventually making rationalizations for minor transgressions you are bound to make.

 In a sentence

Control over your mind and body cannot be assumed, it has to be actualized.

An Idea about the Brain

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have a theory about the brain.

Very briefly, the brain consists of two components – System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the automatic, effortless part of the brain that handles the associative machinery and jumps to snap conclusions – both right and wrong. System 2 is the vigilant part of the brain that does slow effortful thinking and maintains vigilance over whatever System 1 is cooking up.

The mental exertion of an activated System 2 also causes physical exertion. A frown, palpitations or dilated pupils for example.

<———> Stuff below this line is my speculation.

A highly active System 2 can become a liability very soon. The very mechanism that maintains constant vigilance over System 1, discarding irrational and false conclusions put forth by it may be impeding its associative machinery that is so essential for creativity. After all, at the core, creativity is just an uncanny ability to connect and synthesize ideas.

When System 1 fires off weak associations, System 2 should not be too strict and block associations before they have been fully explored. If this is the case, (I think it is) a highly activated System 2 will not allow the person to make leaps of ideas or even move on to explore adjacent ideas properly. If this is the case, all that is needed is something to blunt System 2 for some time, something to make it go away for some time. Marijuana, anyone?