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Continuing from the ending question of Part I: what makes us all really tick?

Let's start by internalizing how important the brain is to us human-folk: a whopping 60% of the body's glucose goes to the brain. Gram for gram the brain eats ten times more calories than does the body as a whole (20-25% consumption for only 2% of body mass) For an organism that evolved not knowing when or where it's next meal was coming, that big eater had better be good for something. Aristotle, who my history teacher thought was just the smartest man in history, blithely asserted that the brain must be a cooling engine for the body. (I like to kid Aristotle for just pulling stuff out of his ass like that. Bertrand Russel had some good zingers on him too. But I digress)  Anyway,  consensus neuroscience opinion these days is a little bit different. It seems to be the brain has basically two jobs (which we'll see in a sec is really the same job): 1) control motor function 2) predict the future

Controlling motor function is almost obvious as soon as you think about it: really it's the only way the organism can affect its environment. One prime exhibit often cited for the rule "brain = locomotion" is the sea squirt, which will actually eats its own brain once it settles down to a sedentary life on a coral reef. But like John Lennon might have said, life is what happens while biologists make other theories: note the humble jelly fish and even slime molds seem to purposefully navigate their surroundings quite well without any central nervous system thank you very much. Sorry, digressing again. Either way, it's clear that at least our brain controls motor function. 

But think about what a gargantuan task that is. First of all, just counting the 650 skeletal muscles in the human body (ignoring cardiac and smooth muscle tissue) presents the brain with 2 to the 650th power, or roughly 5 followed by 195 zeros(!), different possible motion states to control.* How can the brain possibly choose the few right needles among that astronomical haystack? Essentially via task 2) - predicting the future. The idea here is that the brain is constantly running internal simulations of its future possible muscle moves. Those simulations are believed to come from self-models of movement the brain creates and modifies over its lifetime. Comparing what the self-models say - i.e. what is internally predicted to happen milliseconds in the future - with the sensory feedback from the actual current motion is the basis for an extremely sophisticated control system. It's such a great system, that nature apparently said "hell, yes, let's do that!" at least as early as the Cambrian, about 500 million years ago.

Of course, those predictions will only be helpful if they contain not only the organism's own movements, but also the surrounding environment. It doesn't do an animal much good to successfully predict and then execute a move two steps to the left if that move takes it into the jaws of  a predator. So predicting the future in general - like guessing what that predator is up to as well - is another equivalent way to describe the brain's job. 

But now the brain really has a job on its hands. Try multiplying 5 followed 195 zeros times some even more ridiculously large number that represents all possible future states of your surrounding environment. Needless to say, brains don't do that. What they do though, is create and store internal models of the outside world as well. These models are kind of like look-up tables, or heuristics, built out of neural circuitry of course. So instead of actually calculating de novo what will happen next, just like in the case of motion, the brain activates a model appropriate to the sensory data; i.e. a model that will hopefully just tell it what in the world will happen next. Like is that roaring lion about to jump at me or the impala? Does she really like me or just the rabbit carcass I stole from the baby leopards? You get the idea.

But here's the funny thing: just how does your brain know there's a 'lion out there' in the first place? I mean your brain's hopefully tucked safely away inside your skull. The only thing it has access to is blood, chemical soup and electrical signals. Obviously then, it has to make its own model of a lion, because models are all it's ever going to see. "A lion chasing you up the tree" really means to your brain a model of "a lion chasing you up the tree". So the funny implication of all this is: the brain's not really predicting THE FUTURE. It's just predicting its own future; i.e. predicting the behavior of the models it creates. The brain is a self-prediction, self-modeling machine. 

Rather than John Locke's blank slate, though, we're born with at least the rough drafts of many of our models. A good and quick read on this principle is Steven Pinker's classic The Blank Slate. Newborns a few hours old seem able to recognize faces, for example, and at four months visually process those faces at almost an adult level. Toddlers less than a year old already have some sense of cause and effect of object motion, and so on. 

However much we're born with these models or develop them later, they're continuously shaped and modified throughout life by the brain reward system. The cookie in this system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. During learning to, say, play guitar (i.e. learning a model of you playing guitar), you're on a pay-as-you-go system. A cluster of specialized neurons in the mid-brain called the Ventral Tegmental Area, or VTA, releases dopamine only when the right notes are struck in the right way. Most of that dopamine lands in a nearby section called the nucleus accumbens, which also goes by the more technical name 'pleasure center'. This strengthens the neural circuits in your current model to reinforce the emergent, guitar-hero model of you. Once you get really good, though, the VTA figures your credit history is good and starts paying you up front. That is, the VTA releases the dopamine just before you hit the note - i.e. on the cue that makes your model say "OK, now gimme an F-sharp". Assuming you hit that F-sharp on time, the whole thing reinforces the predictive aspect of your model. If you're predictions keep missing the mark, though, the VTA will eventually not only revoke your credit, but stop dopamine payments altogether. That's when life can really suck, as any victim of withdrawal will tell you. 

The whole system is much more complicated, of course, with feedback loops and braking mechanisms through other brain regions like the frontal cortex (that more deliberative part of the brain that Vulcans especially like). But the point is here that your models - you - chase dopamine like investment banks chase money. The metaphor with banks is on purpose: they- and you - will even chase it to their own destruction. That's what Peter Milner and James Olds found in the 1950s when they accidentally discovered the brain reward system in mice. The accident part came when they misplaced electrodes into another mid-brain region called the medial forebrain bundle. Zapping this region with a small voltage does essentially the same job as the VTA to nucleus accumbens mentioned above. In other words, the mice felt reealll good when the juice was on. Olds and Milner then let the mice zap themselves by connecting the voltage to a small lever they could press. Needless to say, the lever became very popular with the mice. So popular that even food, water and sex were ignored when there was lever to be pressed. 

Guess the mice had never heard of Maslow's pyramid either. 
 
Next: Part III of III - how our models make us do stuff

*With the horrible oversimplification that each muscle is independently controlled to be either contracting or non-contracting.

 
 
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My cousin Ian and I were still impressionable pre-teens when my Dad took us to the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield. I vaguely remember passing various granite markers and spoke-wheeled canon as we strolled the uneven hills. More vivid in my memory is a tour guide explaining how General So-and-So got his head blown off by a cannon ball where I was standing. That got my attention and not in the most comfortable sort of way. It must have set the stage for me to ruminate long and hard when we got to the Cyclorama - a huge 360 degree mural painting of the battle. In particular of Pickett's Charge.

I stared at the mural and for the life of me, couldn't get my head around Pickett's Charge. As all Americans learn in school, the field the Confederate infantry had to cross that day was flat, open and long. It was basically a slow, methodical walk into a meat-grinder, and I couldn't get over the sheer stupidity of it. I wasn't thinking of Lee and Pickett so much. Commanders have to gamble, I knew, and if the thing had worked they'd only be remembered as brilliant and daring. But whether they could collectively take Cemetery Ridge or not: what on earth made those fool infantrymen line up to be artillery target practice for almost a mile? (General Trimble's estimate) At twelve, I was confident I would have shown General Pickett my middle finger or worse. Nowadays, of course, I know differently and am just thankful to be too old to take part in such nonsense. 

I'm only picking on poor Pickett (who in fairness, was opposed the charge) because it's the earliest memory I have of what used to be a great mystery to me: what on earth makes us humans tick in the first place? What really motivates us to do stuff at all? I thought the whole evolution game was about survival and having babies - where does deliberately getting your head blown off by a cannonball fit in?

If you've ever hung around marketing or psychology people, you'll have heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's a triangular shaped mini-bible with the supposed laundry list of our priorities. In reality, though, it's a list only a Vulcan from Star Trek could love, because it's so apparently rational 1) survive and have babies 2) gather food, shelter, safety 3) love and be loved 4) feel good about yourself 5) realize your dreams. Sounds so utterly reasonable until you realize it's meant to apply to real-life human beings. 

I think it's deeply ironic that Abraham Maslow published his work "A Theory of Human Motivation" in the middle of World War II, just when millions were motivated to kill and die for anything BUT the first three items on his list. In fact, if Maslow's pyramid were really true, almost nothing about human history would make any sense. Maybe Stone Age humans killed and died for sheer survival and procreation, but since then it's been pretty much abstract ideas that have driven people to that kind of behavior. During the Bronze and Iron Ages, one side was usually fighting for glory, the other for freedom. Nowadays of course, moral standards have changed, so everybody says they're fighting for only the latter. Either way, they're only fourth or fifth on Maslow's list. 

So much for survival. What about the having babies part of our supposed Number One priority? Hhmm. I guess that's why millions live and have lived in monasteries and nunneries throughout the centuries. Or why birthrates are constantly declining in the developed world. 

A lot of other not-that-uncommon behavior shouldn't even exist under the Maslow scheme. Substance abuse, anorexia, suicide - in fact any behavioral disorder that becomes debilitating enough to short-circuit items 1) - 3) on the list shouldn't be possible. But here again, in real life, 4) and 5) very often dominate. Honestly, in the face of such obvious and overwhelming counter-evidence, I severely don't get how the pyramid meme ever propagated beyond Maslow's desk. 

We've known for some time that humans are not Star Trek Vulcans carefully weighing their decisions under classic rules of rationality (say, by weighing expected cost vs. benefit). The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman  worked out that kinda-shoulda-been-obvious fact in the context of economic behavior. Or maybe it wasn't that obvious - Kahneman got the 2002 Nobel in Economics for the work. (Tversky sadly died before the prize was awarded). But really, folks: it only takes a smidgen of self-awareness to know that all of our individual decisions are emotionally weighted in all kinds of directions, just not in the direction First Officer Spock would approve of.  

In fact, without emotional affect, decisions would be impossible at all, as the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio discussed at length in his book Descartes Error. After all, how else does the brain know what few bits of data out of gazillions to pay attention to? But as always, the ancient Greeks of the Axial Age were already there. Aristotle is far from my favorite Greek philosopher, but he did manage to get the point right when he wrote "There can be no knowledge without emotion". But it's not as simple as our animal instincts overriding our higher intellect either. On this I have to politely disagree with a guy who is one of my favorites, David Hume, when he wrote "Reason... is the slave of the passions." No, it's not that we're in a state of constant Pon Farr, as Spock might say. Our inner drives are vastly more complex and opaque. We should be clear that it's not about a lack of data, or even knowledge, experience or expertise that makes us so seemingly irrational (If you doubt that, I refer you to the last US Presidential election and the losing side's astonishment at the result)

So let's ditch the whole pretense that we even know what 'rational' is and whether we are even any good at it. We'll start from scratch with the original question: just what does make humans tick? 

Part II to follow.

 
 
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Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
A. Einstein

Reality is frequently inaccurate.
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

If I'm lucky, you're already convinced, as a general principle, that what we call the 'physical world' is a complete fabrication of your mind (Quantum fans: here I still mean that independently of of quantum mechanics) If so, then yippee!  You can skip to the section below on where I think quantum mechanics actually does fit in with this picture. That's the point of this post anyway. 

If you're not convinced, then dang, I know I have my work cut our for me and will punt to a future posting. The philosophical perspective of idealism cuts so hard against the grain of our visceral intuition that it seems ridiculous, foolish and/or pointless to almost everyone at first. Grown men have been known to kick rocks in reaction to the notion, as the irascible Samuel Johnson did when he said of Bishop Berkeley's arguments "I refute him thus!" 

Dr. Johnson's foot notwithstanding, idealism has a long and illustrious tradition that goes back to - you guessed it - at least as far as the Axial Age. The pre-socratic Anaxagoras (5th century BC) was the first Westerner we know of to tag his name to the notion (literally: he was known as nous - 'mind' because he taught that all comes from the mind). And of course if you're familiar at all with some Eastern philosophies like, say, Buddhism, you know many live and breathe idealism like a canary takes to song. Tons of big-wig philosophers and scientists - too many to name, really - have been strong proponents of some form of idealism. And really: at least some form of idealism clearly has to be true, if for no other reason than you're not an omniscient deity, but a brain-toting creature who has to make do with the limited data your neurons are serving up to your consciousness. But I think idealism can be broadened out and solidly defended much more than this - in a future post.  

For now let me just be clear on what I'm not claiming. I'm not claiming this all could be some kind of dream and we'd never know the difference, like, say the movie Inception, or The Matrix. Some do argue in a scholarly context that we probably are living in a computer simulation. Personally, I think that particular argument fails because it just nonchalantly equates consciousness with computation, but that's for another post too. I'm not even going to argue that there is some kind of physical world out there, but we just have imperfect perception of it (e.g. Plato's cave or Kant's thing-in-itself).

What I claim (and, again, will argue for in a separate post) only sounds extreme, but once you get used to it, really isn't. I'm going assert that claiming any kind of 'real, physical world out there' independent of your mind is not only pointless, but actually meaningless. Meaningless like gibberish; like saying the square root of Tuesday is Jabberwocky. It might make you feel better to assert that it is so - and feel free to kick all the rocks you want - but really, it's a pretty incoherent claim. 

So now let's say, or at least pretend, you're on board; i.e. you buy that to conceive of a reality beyond our mind's conceptual abilities is just mental mush (If not, well hell... the following still basically works, but has somewhat different implications). Then below is what I actually want to address. 

Um... doesn't quantum mechanics already imply a type of idealism?

Quantum mechanics - at least in the version that bothered Einstein to his dying day - superficially makes a similar sounding claim. And even some physicists, I think, go a little overboard on this point. But in fact this particular ontological stance of quantum mechanics is of a different sort than what is generally considered 'philosophical idealism'. You may know the famous story of Einstein on a moonlight stroll with the physicist Abraham Pais. They were debating the meaning of the wave function collapse, and whether it meant that physical observables like position and momentum only existed by virtue of their measurement. Niels Bohr of course lead the majority answering in the affirmative. Einstein instead thought that most of his colleagues were nuts. At one point in the conversation, the great relativist turned in exasperation to his friend and asked him "Do you really believe the Moon is not there when you're not looking at it?" 

What bugged Einstein was this: quantum theory in its no-frills form claims that Schroedinger's wave function alone contains all the information there is about a physical system. That's 'ALL' in capital letters. That's obviously a boatload of information about, say, an electron. But for all that information, the wave function is amazingly silent on things that make up our everyday conceptual apparatus, like: where the electron actually is at any given time. Or the where the Moon is for that matter. It only gives different probabilities for where an electron (or, again, the Moon) might be found if an observer bothers to ask the question. Again, that's all one gets with the wave function: weighted rolls of a dice, if one asks the question. Take all that at face value and it means the electron and the Moon have no position until an observer locates them somewhere. Einstein's position was: are you kidding me?

But we now know that nature is, in fact, not kidding. In still a later posting I'll get in to the weeds of what I think is maybe the greatest story in science - the discovery that our most basic intuition about reality, (the sense we are actually born with, as psychology experiments with newborns seem to show) is just plain wrong.  Here I'll just recommend a classic and very accessible account of the whole story by David Mermin: Is the moon there when nobody looks?  With that I'll just state the straightforward, intuitive interpretation of the last few decades of exquisitely delicate quantum experiments: if no one hears the tree falling in the woods, it don't make no sound(*). 

But that's nevertheless different than saying that things don't exist at all until they are looked at or thought of by somebody. For that matter, quantum mechanics as a physical theory is happy to assume physical things exist independently of us thinking about them. It's just that some properties of things don't exist until we try to measure them. In principle, that doesn't have to be any more mysterious than saying an accused criminal at trial is neither innocent nor guilty until determined to be one or the other by a jury. To me, that situation is pretty straightforward to grasp if we start with a basic materialistic view of the world; i.e. if we assume that at least there are such things as real, flesh and blood accused criminals. And of course the real Moon.

Where it gets puzzling, to me at least, is when one already has the stance of idealism = nothing meaningfully exists until someone thinks about it. If that's so, isn't it just a trivial corollary that some properties don't exist until they are measured? 

Clearly not - at least not in the quantum mechanical sense. Quantum theory doesn't claim everything is nonexistent until it's measured. It makes a clear distinction between some properties, like position which needs someone to measure it, and others, like electric charge, which aren't so encumbered. So what's going on? Why the one and not the other?

Suppose we ask the obverse question: if the world is a creation of my mind, in what way could it still make sense to at least pretend it exists independently of me? How could I consistently maintain the fiction to myself that some things are not a mental creation? I think there is only one answer. And I think it is precisely the gymnastics our minds constantly do. The secret sauce, I believe, is mathematical predictability. 

Our brains evolved as prediction machines - or equivalently, data compression machines. That's their job, day in, day out. (In this narrative it doesn't matter whether you think brains are 'physical' or not, the argument is the same) Even infants are good at making predictions and compressing order out of their sensory deluged world.
Object permanence is probably the earliest data compression tasks our brains make about the world. Babies 1-4 months will already track moving objects in their visual field, and at 4-8 months they know that a ball covered by a blanket hasn't magically disappeared. 

The reason the notion of object permanence works at all is, of course, that we can make successful mathematical predictions about our sensory data. When an infant tracks a moving object, it's brain is making a successful prediction about it's visual field. Those successful predictions get rewarded with a shot of dopamine, and - shebang - the prediction circuitry is reinforced. Eventually the prediction circuits get so strong that they carry emotional valence. We viscerally insist that the ball is still under the blanket. Or that the Moon is there. That's why a good magician is always so compelling to watch, even when we know it's just trickery. The point is, with object permanence embedded in our minds, we don't have to see the ball to 'know' it's there - we feel confident in predicting that if we look for it, we'll find it. 

Mathematical predictability, then, is the coin of our ontological realm if no direct sensory data is available to us. Makes sense, right? After all, if you can't trust math, what can you trust?

So now let's get back to the quantum world, where, say, an electron's position is not mathematically predictable. It's not that we just don't have the right tools, or the right prediction software in our minds. It is just absolutely plain flat out not predictable. This is a special kind of unpredictability, or randomness that is different than, say the randomness of the weather, or a roulette wheel, or the stock market. Weather, roulette and stocks have, in theory, some level of predictability. In principle, a computer big enough could eventually crack at least some of the code for what makes those things tick. They're not truly random, but pseudo-random. 

Quantum events are, at least as far as the theory and experiments tell us, are truly, truly random. No computer algorithm could have anything on these guys. That means no mathematical rules of any kind are violated if the electron turns up here... or over there...or way over here... or wayyyyy over there... it makes no difference. The only possible conclusion is: the electron just aint anywhere in particular until you find it somewhere.  

And in conclusion...

Let me try to tie this together into a really very cool conclusion about quantum mechanics and idealism. It's usually said that quantum mechanics has two weird things about it. Randomness and Unrealness. Einstein is often quoted as saying "God doesn't play dice with the universe." But what bugged him more than the randomness was the unrealness part. What I have just argued for is that, in the end, they are two sides of the same coin. True randomness implies unrealness. Unrealness requires randomness. That basic point holds, I believe, whether one is a philosophical idealist or not. But it seems a much better fit the context of idealism. If I were instead a materialist, I would be really bothered, like Einstein was, about how in the hell all that random/'immaterial stuff' got into an predictable/material world in the first place?


(*) I only said this is the straightforward interpretation. I'll address other interpretations in future posts.

 
 
One thing they don't tell you 'bout the blues when you got 'em
You keep on fallin', 'cause there ain't no bottom
Emmylou Harris in Red Dirt Girl

Of course the trajectory of any life criss crosses the lands of happy, unhappy and everything-in-between. But did you ever notice that experiences of pure happiness are always limited in both magnitude and duration, but abject misery seems to know no such bounds? (Kind of reminiscent of Einstein's famous remark that, while the universe may be finite, human stupidity has no such limits.) Notice it's also a lot easier to go from happiness to unhappiness than the other way around. And like Emmylou says in her song Red Dirt Girl, once you're on that path, gravity alone will keep you on that straight and narrow. So if life were a thermodynamics quiz, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that happiness is the low entropy state, and unhappiness the high entropy state. And in fact, I think there's a good case to be made that there are many more unhappy brain configurations than happy ones, for reasons I'll get into. But for now, just note that this asymmetrical dynamic itself is really odd if the brain were actually equipped for sustained happiness.

In spite of common sense evidence to the contrary, though, the "Yes, dammit! I can choose to be happy" meme of the Axial Age (see previous post) is probably about as robust as human memes get. Of course, resilience of an idea contrary to facts is in itself not unusual. Nowadays it goes by the name of cognitive bias, and we humans downright excel at it. (If you need any hints, check out the last U.S. presidential election cycle). Two and a half millennia after its first appearance, and two and a half centuries after its inscription in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness meme thrives all over the world as never before. Interestingly, it also cuts across all traditional belief systems and comes in all variations: religious salvation, spiritual awakening, or just a stiff upper lip frame of mind. The fact that the self-help mantra is by far the largest segment in book publishing, and the entire industry in the US alone is something like $12 billion ought to bring images of an exhausted dog chasing its tail. And in fact I think most people - certainly most of the ones I ask - know deep down it's all mostly just so much snake oil. There are exceptions of course(there always are) but for most us, the high of having some new fantastic guru-charged insight that will now finally make your life happy seems to last only slightly longer than it takes for a pizza to get stale.

So for all the happiness-gurus out there, here's some sobering news that shouldn't even be news. The bare-bones biological fact of life is that our brains adapted first and foremost to help us survive and procreate. Natural selection had no inherent interest in keeping us happy along the way. In fact, too much happiness would have been an obvious significant selective disadvantage. It would have kept us lazy, static and unwilling to explore difficult terrain; unable to learn hard lessons and adapt further. I believe this shows up in our basic mental architecture, and more to the point - if we’re objectively honest about it - in most of our lives most of the time.

Here I'll quote my grandmother, the venerable Evelyn Lee, who pulled a family through the dirt of the Great Depression and was able to once say with loving sincerity "Hell! We ain't here to be happy!" I've come to believe that on this particular point, she is more connected to the reality of our existence than were the keenly optimistic minds of Parsva and Epicurus.(see the last post) And in an extra tip of the hat the grandmothers, it seems nature might have had a special role for them in our evolution)

The tool natural selection did give us to keep going was the constant yearning we experience. Yearning, wanting, desiring something else than what we have as an emotional state obviously goes back to before the Stone Age; otherwise, well, we'd still be in it. But is it really happiness we yearn for, or something else? Think about it. The ‘feeling of happiness’ is only part of the brain’s dopamine reward system – it’s dished out at the end when the brain concludes it should reinforce certain pathways. So the feeling of happiness is really like a cookie. The brain constantly holds that cookie out to us, trying to motivate us in certain directions. Sure, once in a while we’re allowed a bite of the cookie, but just enough to keep us motivated and yearning for more. The problem for us post-Axial Agers is, I think, we've come to naively fixate on the happiness cookie and think that’s what life is all about. But the brain, and life in general, is not really interested in cookies – it wants something more nutritious, if I can stretch the metaphor. 

What the mind really wants, and what it’s designed for at all levels, is to constantly engage in pattern recognition. Pattern recognition, aka data compression, is really the only way we can survive and navigate the world. It happens from the lowest levels of sensory input and muscle control all the way up to seeing faces in clouds and concocting theories of quantum gravity. We know and feel all that dot-connecting within us more simply as finding meaning. Whether it’s reading animal tracks in the woods,or Tennyson by the fireplace; the feeling touch of a loved one or the grip of an enemy; finding the right life partner or the right pizza parlor: fulfilling our evolutionary mandate in a complex world requires constantly connecting the scattered dots of life into ever higher meanings. If the game of life had to have a name, it could only be the search for meaning.

Why do we seek love - to be happy? If the goal of love were to be happy, the brain would be a pretty stupid organ. Deep down we know better. Love is for most people, most of the time, mostly painful. Of course there are great, even long moments of high joy – the excited glow of being ‘in love’, the calm warmth of a hug from a loved one, or reflecting on the love shared with someone. All that great stuff. But the inner sensations of all of that great stuff is, again, just the cookie. Small bites from it may keep us seeking and yearning in spite of all that heartbreak, disappointment, fear, loss, emptiness, suffering... should I go on? ...  along the way. But what the mind really needs and finds in love, I think is meaning. Yup, meaning. I could throw in a hundred quotes on love and meaning here, but since I'm no poet and this really isn't that kind of blog, I'll refrain. But even without me explaining further, I'm pretty sure you get what I mean.

It’s the same story with our jobs and professional careers. There are a few lucky people who do exactly what they love, love all that they do and feel happy every minute on the job. At least I have heard of such people – personally, I’ve never met one. For most people, even a beloved career is mostly hard and difficult work - a daily grind of frustration and fear; sometimes doubt and often despair. That isn’t what happiness looks like – but it’s exactly what the search for meaning looks like. 

Why are religion and spirituality so important to most of us? Yes, it is a source of joy and hope for many. But in difficult times when we need it the most, do we really feel actual happiness from it? And by the way, do we really enjoy the idea of our sins being judged before a heavenly tribunal? Or coming back as a frog? Probably not so much. But we obviously crave the sense of higher meaning they give us. 

Which goes to why happiness requires a decrease in entropy, if you will. Data compression, pattern recognition, is precisely that. It's throwing out a truck load of data that you don't know what to do with so you can have your nice picture, of say, the Virgin Mary on cheese toast, or why your loved one has the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen. And once your brain has locked on to a pattern, there are many more data configurations that don't fit that picture than do. Hence, the miserable brain states tend to outweigh the happy ones that do fit the picture. 

But hang on a second, you might say. Even if the brain doesn't care if we’re happy, does it have to make us so abjectly miserable at times? I think this is other half of the brain’s cookie and stick system. (OK, the English metaphor is 'carrot and stick' but nobody eats carrots these days)

Physical pain is our brain’s way of signaling to us that something’s wrong and needs immediate attention: take your hand out of the fire; don’t walk on that leg. Mental suffering is the mind’s way of signaling too.  The mind suffers for only one reason, but in endless variations: again, I believe it yearns for meaning. When we suffer from a loss, it is, in one form or another - in ways we may or may not consciously understand - a perceived loss of meaning that the mind is bemoaning. If no deeper meaning seems immediately at hand that will satisfy the void, your brain will pull out its misery stick and beat you senseless until you go out and find it. 

But still, even if that's all true – can’t we just try to be happy? Sure and sometimes we actually are. It's just that the fixation on the cookies is what's counterproductive. Personally I wish I could stuff my face all day with the damn things. But really, our brain has all the computational and neurochemical resources it needs to make us happy 24/7 if that were the real goal. Instead, under our conscious radar a completely different program is being run- and it would be overwhelmingly in our interest to understand that. 

Yes it kinda sucks. OK it does suck. But on the upside - and this is the best consolation I can find - how many great human journeys really started with the sentence “Gee… I just want to be happy” anyway? 

Or maybe the working-man's hero Richard Feynman put it best When I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, I wasn’t upset. Rather I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon...