This is the first essay in a five part series.
In recent decades, neuroscientists have arrived at a new understanding of the brain—one that’s as elegant as it is revolutionary. Some put its importance on par with evolution. Put simply, brains are prediction machines. Their core function is to anticipate and adapt to their environments. They do this by increasing organisms’ pattern detection prowess.
Pattern detection is ubiquitous across life forms
The ability to pick out signals from noise is a foundation for life itself: There are infinite things in an organism’s environment that it can tune into, but only an infinitesimal slice of them will help the organism survive.
Consider a few examples. Single-celled amoebae navigate their environments by detecting subtle chemical gradients. Dragonflies find food by selectively attacking fly-sized objects with fly-like movements. And songbirds identify suitable mates by listening for specific sequences of notes.
Humans are no exception. Our brains may be bigger and more complex than others, but they’re just pattern detectors that evolved to adapt to their environments exceptionally well.
When we make accurate predictions, we get a jolt of reward that reifies the pattern—the “mental representation” or “model”—that led to the prediction. When we make inaccurate predictions, our brain calculates the magnitude of the “prediction error,” updates its model, and makes a different prediction next time. In other words, we learn.
Face processing is a classic example of pattern detection in humans. Surely, you’ve seen faces in clouds, wallpaper patterns, and latte art. That’s because, as social animals, part of our brains are specialized for identifying and recognizing faces. Neurons in our face processing module activate anytime we see three shapes arranged in an inverted triangle, and our attention to different facial features modulate these neuronal responses.
Language is humans’ escape velocity
What differentiates human brains is that we have language—a recursive code that integrates our systems for communication and representation. Language rewires our brains and shapes our cognition. Because of language, we can connect any pattern with any other pattern, even if no natural connection would otherwise exist between the two. And we do...obsessively.
Language unlocked a Pandora’s Box of potential associations across the human brain. The consequences that have unfolded are a double-edged sword. We can express and construct an infinite set of ideas, invent collective fictions like money and human rights, and put people on the moon. But we also struggle to make sense of suffering, determine what comprises “the good life,” and truly understand one another.
Our enhanced pattern detection emerged because of its adaptiveness, but it has become compulsive. Beyond detecting patterns in the environment, we also detect patterns that aren’t there. What’s more, we don’t stop at making false associations out of coincidences; we also assume that they mean something.
Think about the many people who make important life decisions on the basis of daily horoscopes, join conspiratorial cults like QAnon, and “essentialize” (that’s psychologists’ term for “inferring a deeper meaning”) social features like skin color, incorrectly believing that race reflects a biological category rather than a social construct. These compulsions can have disastrous consequences, but it often takes rigorous training in scientific reasoning to overcome the automatic cognitive biases that lead us to read meaning where there’s none.
Our search for meaning is the curse of the human condition
The problem is that we’ve become psychologically dependent upon meaning—a thing that exists only in our minds. Healthy psychological functioning doesn’t only require that we feel we’re understood; it also requires that we feel a larger, transcendent purpose. We make meaning to feel like we have such a purpose.
Our “meaning making” follows a simple form: We construct stories about our environments and our place within it. These stories have evolved from eclectic superstitions into codified belief systems—religions—which, for most of human history, have permeated every aspect of our lives.
Indeed, scientists have discovered that our brains are predisposed to religious thinking. Religion has interpreted our experiences, organized our communities, defined us versus them, amplified power dynamics, and provided meaning—an antidote to the curse of the human condition.
A few centuries ago, however, things began to change. Enlightenment era scientists provided alternative explanations for reality, which eventually led enlightenment era philosophers to kill our gods and, along with them, meaning. Historian Yuval Noah Harari sums up the current scientific consensus in his book, A Brief History of Humankind:
“As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.”
One could appeal: Today, we no longer need religion. In our Information Age, we’ve become our own gods. Our scientific advancements and technologies grant us the omniscience to plug into the collective knowledge pool (even when our collective “knowledge” looks more like misinformation), the omnipresence to inhabit every corner of the planet (even where we’re pushed to the limits of our survival), and the omnipotence to obliterate entire ecosystems (even our own).
Yet even with modern science and technology, a feeling of loss increasingly pervades our lives. Along with religion, many of the cultural institutions that once structured our personal and collective narratives have crumbled. In their ruins, we are supposedly free to create our own meaning.
It turns out that’s easier said than done. But it can, in fact, be done. We only need to understand how the mind generates meaning to be able to leverage the process for our own psychological fulfilment.
First, though, let’s get a glimpse of how humans have historically understood meaning.
Continue with Defining Meaning.