What to Do With Your Twenties

Your twenties are some of the most formative years of your life. You’re unshackled from the chains of adolescence and the world is your oyster. How should you make use of this decade?

This is a question I’m trying to answer. Life is a game, in a sense, and I’m trying to figure out the principles—that is, the rules of thumb—that make the game as fun and fulfilling as possible. Many of these principles hold true throughout all of life. However, I believe that your twenties are a bit different.

(One might argue that given my age, I have no place giving life advice. This objection is warranted. I’m going to look back in 10 years having learned a lot and I probably won’t agree with some of the things I’ve said here. So, all this advice is provisional and should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, age doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom (if it did, all our parents would be happy and fulfilled) and wisdom isn’t necessarily predicated on age (after a certain age), so make of this what you will.)

Continue reading “What to Do With Your Twenties”

Why Depression Might Be Adaptive

A brief review of some of the evolutionary literature on depression:

Major depressive disorder is the most common psychiatric disorder in the United States, affecting 18% of adults (ADAA). Those with depression are lethargic, withdraw from social relationships, and don’t get pleasure from typically enjoyable activities such as eating and sex—a symptom called anhedonia (Watson & Andrews). All this might lead you to believe that depression is maladaptive, some vestigial structure that somehow slipped through the cracks of time. If depression were purely maladaptive, then yes, it would be quite perplexing that it’s so common. However, many have theorized about adaptive explanations for depression, reasons why it may have increased individuals’ fitness and thus persisted. I’ll present and review a couple of these hypotheses—the analytic rumination hypothesis and the inflammation hypothesis—and touch upon some big themes in evolutionary medicine such as tradeoffs, genetics, and evolutionary mismatch.

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On Vulnerability and Sprezzatura

Adapted from a brief Facebook post I wrote a couple days ago:

We all wear masks, metaphorically speaking. We waltz through the world, veiling our feelings behind a cool facade of nonchalance, acting as if we’re in perfect order and we’ve completely mastered the role we’re playing.

This attitude is summed up quite nicely by the 16th century Italian word “sprezzatura,” which means “studied carelessness.” This is what the courtier—person who entertained the court—was supposed to embody: everything is done with ease, little emotion is shown, and nothing is premeditated.

While it sounds nice, I believe sprezzatura is the social and psychological pathology of our modern age and the cause of much of our loneliness and despair. It’s why we curate our social media profiles in order to get likes. It’s why we defensively use irony and humor to deflect others’ and our own attempts at vulnerability. It’s why being sincere and connecting with people is becoming harder.

We’re always acting as if we don’t care, as if things don’t bother us, when in fact they very well may…

(Within an evolutionary framework this all makes sense, but I’ll spare you the details for now…)

But how about this post? I wrote it because I wanted to reach out to someone but hesitated for fear of rejection; I edited it so that other people would better understand me and connect with what I’m saying; and I’m writing this all out now as some perverse form of virtue-signaling (and perhaps that sentence is some form of meta virtue-signaling).

I guess you could call this my veiled, half-assed attempt at vulnerability. I’ve taken the mask off, but not all the way.

A Theory of Everything

The Problem to Solve: A (Very) Brief Sketch

In the late 19th century, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann showed that systems tend towards entropy; that is, towards states of minimal information, states of disorder as opposed to order. This is called the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Information is order and vice versa. High-information states are uncommon—for example, a Rubik’s cube has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 possible configurations and only one winning state, which you will probably not arrive at by pure chance—and have high levels of correlation–in the winning state, the squares on each face of the cube are the same color (i.e. highly correlated).

Physical objects such as Rubik’s cubes, cars and human beings are physical instantiations of information. These systems are made up a bunch of particles, but these particles are organized in such a way that they are stable: we don’t often see Rubik’s cubes or humans spontaneously combust.

The development of order from disorder is a miracle. The question is: how did it happen? If the Universe is headed towards entropy, why do tiny pockets of information called planets and stars form? Furthermore, why is there an extremely tiny pocket of high order and complexity on a rock not too far from our Sun? The fact that you are reading these words is a testament to the order that has been created on Earth—visual processing systems in our brains, written language, telecommunications networks, etc.

 Solution: A First Approximation

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Mental Properties and Moral Relativism

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert writes:

“…we might still wonder whether the happiness one gets from helping a little old lady across the street constitutes a different kind of emotional experience—bigger, better, deeper—than the happiness one gets from eating a slice of banana-cream pie…How can we tell whether [these] subjective emotional experiences are different or the same? The truth is that we can’t—no more than we can tell whether the yellow experience we have when we look at a school bus is the same yellow experience that others have when they look at the same school bus” (42)

Though Gilbert doesn’t explicitly state it, his claim is based on the presupposition that mental states such as happiness possess mental properties such as subjectivity (there is something it is like to be experiencing this mental state of happiness) and privacy (I experience this mental state in a way that no one else can experience), and that these mental properties are metaphysically special; that is, they can never be fully explained in empirical terms.

No matter how much we know about the neurotransmitters and blood flow in your brain as you experience a mental state such as “the happiness you get from helping a little old lady across the street,”  our explanation will never be complete: it lacks the qualia, the subjective qualities of experience, which are ultimately ineffable and incommunicable.

I’ve written before why I disagree with this logic and believe that mental properties aren’t metaphysically special and thus can be explained in physical terms.

However, this debate about mental properties has huge ethical implications. Continue reading “Mental Properties and Moral Relativism”

I’m Creating a Crash Course in Personality Psychology

Cliffnotes:

  • Personality psych is fascinating.
  • There are no good resources to learn about it, so I’m going to be releasing a crashcourse in it (life pro tip: scratch your own itch).
  • This will probably be in the form of a podcast. In it, I’m going to distill tough ideas into an easily-digestible and actionable form.
  • This crashcourse will make you better at relationships and better at understanding yourself, among other things. 
  • If you have specific topics you’d like me to cover, shoot me an email (see bottom of About page for address) or Facebook message.

Continue reading “I’m Creating a Crash Course in Personality Psychology”

What Is True? A Heretic’s Guide to Epistemology

I wrote this essay (the morning of the day it was due) for my Philosophy of Mind class. The prompt was: Can science show that mental properties do or do not exist? Since I had already argued that science provides good evidence that mental properties do not exist, I decided to explore how I reached that conclusion, and used the existence or nonexistence of mental properties as a case study in epistemology (the study of what we know and how we come to know it).

Prior to writing this, I hadn’t read any epistemology and therefore was treading in unfamiliar waters; nonetheless, I feel like I navigated the subject well, even if I reached some extremely controversial conclusions and made broad generalizations about different epistemological views. Continue reading “What Is True? A Heretic’s Guide to Epistemology”

Mental Health: We’re All Human

Suggested music pairing, which I believe encapsulates the feelings I felt while writing this: Grateful Dead, Jack Straw

I previously wrote about distancing ourselves from–but not completely suppressing–our emotions in order to better deal with them. But as I noted in that essay, sometimes our Stoic fortitude fails and our emotions get the best of us.

Though emotions may be fleeting, just clouds passing by in the sky, they are very real to us. We can try and be as rational, cold and calculating as we want, but sometimes there’s just the perfect emotional storm, a confluence of events that causes us to break.

We cry. A lot. We walk outside listlessly for hours on end at 2am in the morning. Sometimes we even harm ourselves, others, or worse.

It’s at these points we realize that at our core we are human. We are social and emotional beings.

I understand that many people will be unable to relate to this. Psychological dispositions vary widely; some people simply have a higher happiness/contentedness set-point than others. Some people are prone to mental illness–though I’m hesitant to use this label–while others seldom feel blue. Some people can get stuck in harmful mental loops whereas others are much more emotionally robust.

As Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that (at least for the moment). I think it’s important that we talk about these things, even if it isn’t comfortable or pretty.

On the Cyclical Nature of Life

A few brief thoughts:

  • As the seasons change, so too does your mood. For me, this manifests itself in expected ways–Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) in the winter time due to low levels of sun exposure and therefore low levels of Vitamin D–as well as unexpected ways–in the spring and summer, I find I’m more interested in doing yoga and gymnastics than weightlifting as my primary form of exercise, whereas in the fall and winter I just want to lift heavy objects.
  • Cycles are nested. There is the microcycle of the day, in which our hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, insulin, etc.) rise and fall, helping us wake up, maintain homeostasis, and go to sleep.
  • There’s the mesocycle, which could be over the course of a week or a month. If you journal and monitor your mood, you’ll see that your emotions operate in a cyclical fashion, rising and falling in response to stressors, psycho-social and otherwise.
  • As the seasons change, so too do our interests. For example, I find my aesthetic sensibilities (i.e. my musical and artistic tastes) change quite frequently. There are certain types of music which I listened to a lot growing up–classic rock, folk–which I hadn’t listened to for a couple years but am now coming back to. Similarly, I’ve begun to expand my musical pallet, getting a taste of things like heavy metal and modern classical music.
  • I also now find myself really interested in painting, especially Impressionism, as well as the general composition of art–shadows, lighting, color, etc. Art museums have always been sort of meh for me, but maybe that’s changing. I think I may try my hand at drawing or painting ( and further convince myself that I’m a dilettante who can’t fully commit to any one interest for fear that I won’t end up being good enough).
  • Related to the previous idea: as my interest in beauty and aesthetics increases, I find myself less interested in esoteric philosophical issues. Issues in epistemology–what is true–and metaphysics–what is–just seem like pointless mental masturbation at this point in my life. That said, I found many of these questions fascinating only a few months ago.
  • These changes in taste don’t operate in a vacuum. They’re often spurred by some emotional change. For example, if I’m angry for some reason, I find blasting heavy metal soothing. If I’ve been having a particularly good or bad time socially, my tastes tend to change accordingly.
  • Furthermore, the tendency for one’s tastes to change and for them to explore different types of art/thought/etc. is mediated by the Big Five Personality Traits the most important being Openness to Experience.
  • And if we zoom back further, we can look at the macrocycle, the full human life. But it’s possible to step back even further, placing your short life in the context of a much broader story, the development of life on earth. And this story is only a tiny part of a much bigger, cosmic story of the development of order from disorder: the story of information, the story of life.

Image credit: http://www.claude-monet.com/impression-sunrise.jsp#prettyPhoto[image2]/0/