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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

The Survival Pledge 2, Part 1: The Evolution of Meaning

Updated: Sep 3, 2021

(The Survival Pledge is an eight-point plan to refocus each of us on taking responsibility for our own thoughts and behaviors in ways that benefit ourselves and each other.)

There is no universally agreed upon meaning to my existence. If there is a meaning, I cannot be certain of what it is. I will take full responsibility for the consequences of choosing to assign a meaning to my own existence. I will never assign nor compel others to assign a meaning to their own existence.

Human beings function as survival machines. We have continued to exist and evolve through natural selection by adapting to our environment. Part of that adaptation includes the skills of assessing dangers from other entities, assigning meaning, and then responding in enough time to prevent mortal danger.

We live in a cacophony of auditory, visual, olfactory and tactile sensations. Our survival depends on both rapid and accurate interpretation of these signals to avoid danger, find food, procreate and find pleasure. Researchers have determined that humans rely on two mechanisms of sensory interpretation, one rapid and one more deliberative. Malcolm Gladwell discusses the research demonstrating these mechanisms effectively in his book Blink[1].

Sudden sounds, such as a snapped twig, a footstep, or thunder, can be followed by disaster without a rapid response. Fragments of information like these can be our earliest and only alert to attack or competition from animals or another human, or to dangers from weather or other natural threats. The sooner our brains come up with an answer, the more effective we can be in protecting our safety. Andy Clark[2] has labeled this part of cognition fast pattern completion, labeling human brains association engines, and pointing out our reliance on these associative skills rather than deductive reasoning[3].

This system is most helpful to survival if it is programmed to assume risk first and ask questions later. In fact, that’s just what it does. People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can suffer from symptoms that highlight the features of this adaptation. This condition results from experiencing a traumatic event outside of normal human experience that our brains are not prepared to classify and accept. This may be surviving an airplane crash, fire or extreme military combat, being near a body that has fallen from a great height or cleaning up human remains after a deadly accident. Even therapists who treat clients experiencing PTSD may develop their own symptoms as they are exposed to the grizzly details of the trauma.

Many PTSD suffers will exhibit an exaggerated startle reflex where the slightest sound or sudden movement will provoke an extreme response of fear and physical attempts to protect themselves. Almost any environmental stimulus is considered a threat, even a loudly closed door or sudden sneeze. Another possible symptom of PTSD is scanning. Individuals who scan are constantly screening the environment for signs of danger, much more than the average person. They exhaustively scan visually and aurally for any clue to a coming danger and there is little conscious control over much of this behavior.

Responding to false threats might seem more adaptive than ignoring true ones. The experience of a recent exotic trauma may be considered proof of the risk and possibility of future harm. We might feel justified and safer with the assumption that any stimulus from the environment may alert us to a risk to be avoided. Problems occur, though, when the true threats are rare and the unnecessary responses are frequent.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated the availability heuristic[4], an inaccurate mental shortcut commonly and unconsciously employed by humans to estimate risks. For example, we assess our potential of death from cataclysmic events such as airplane crashes to be more likely than from car crashes, due to the way media handles the coverage of these events: plane crashes are front page, breaking news, while everyday traffic deaths often appear later in the news, if at all. As Loren Chapman[5] had previously shown, we base the likelihood of an event on our familiarity with the event: illusory correlations develop from the frequency of repetition and of co-occurrence.

The longer our brains have the opportunity to gather data and make associations, the more interpretations (meanings) can be achieved. Rather than provoke a rapid physical response, as initial associations often do, ongoing associations form patterns and eventually metaphors that may reassess the initial meaning3. For example, that stick that initially looked like a snake and caused us to jump to the side of the trail and freeze turns out after all to just be a stick. No harm done and, in fact, harm might have been avoided had it truly been a venomous snake.

Our brains are thus programmed, “hard wired” to attach meanings, accurate or otherwise, to sensory input, often for our own good. As self-aware humans, we spend much of our conscious life assigning meaning to perceptions. We often extend this, though, to attaching meanings to other facts or to our own thoughts, feelings, attributes and behaviors as well. We will even go so far as to attach meaning to the facts, thoughts, feelings, behaviors and attributes of other people. Another word for these “meanings” can be judgments.

It is very common to label a feeling as “good” or “bad.” Frequently, we speak of what we “should” or “should not” feel. We try not “to speak ill of the dead,” for example, even though we might still harbor lingering feelings of anger or resentment that may be quite justified. Other people may also encourage us to apply meaning to our feelings and judge them; we may each do the same to others. Avoiding such seemingly unpleasant or socially unacceptable feelings is a major cause of complicated bereavement, a failure of an individual to complete the natural stages of grief, resulting in a prolonged and often protracted misery far beyond natural mourning.

Instead of taking feelings (or thoughts) at their face value and simply experiencing them until they pass, we can judge them subjectively, leading us to assume that there is an objective meaning to them. This additional burden of meaning does not help us to tolerate or resolve our feelings and often leads to negative consequences. Worse, it can give our feelings a power that is not healthy to the individual or society.

In the nineteen sixties, Aaron Beck, MD, a Philadelphia psychiatrist, invented Cognitive Therapy (CT)[6]. This is a very interactive sort of psychotherapy that involves identifying automatic thoughts – often unconscious statements that we make about our own feelings, thoughts or behaviors that led to unpleasant mood states. Since these automatic thoughts are often illogical and incorrect, they often also lead to unnecessary mood states. For example, if a person makes a simple mistake, such as missing an appointment, he might unconsciously think, “There I go again. Everything I do is a failure. This is another example of my inadequacy.” A human error that he actually might rarely make becomes a referendum on his worth as a human being. His mood and self-esteem will be much lower than if he had thought “OK, I made this mistake, but usually I don’t, and this resulted in no harm to me or anyone else. Everyone makes mistakes and I will do better next time.” Either statement can be attached to the event but the consequences of the choice are how he feels, how he sees the world and himself in it and ultimately how he views and treats others. CT works to identify these automatic thoughts, make them conscious to the individual and allow him to choose happier, more pleasant messages that are just as valid.

Though not a focus of CT, we also apply these automatic thoughts to others. This is the root of prejudice. Starting with a few attributes of appearance or behavior of others, we assign statements of judgment or meaning that precede this encounter and may not be accurate under further examination. These may favorably or unfavorably influence our behavior towards the person and either may be inappropriate.

In CT, meanings are switched from unpleasant to pleasant, or at least neutral. In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), they are removed. The only successful treatment for addictions such as alcohol dependence, AA seems to work because it teaches individuals how to identify and handle their feelings rather than using drugs or alcohol to smother them. Members do not just sit around thinking about not drinking, they actively learn to identify their feelings and tolerate them until they pass. They don’t drink so that they can do that. In fact, that’s the big secret of AA and addiction recovery: if you will just wait awhile, your feelings will change and you do not have to engage in any behaviors in an attempt to alter them. This includes no judgments and no meanings.

AA outlines this learning process in twelve steps, thus the term, Twelve Step Program. The result of these twelve ways of thinking differently about feelings is that members learn to identify, without judgment, their feelings; to accept and experience them, wait for them to go away and then get ready for the next feeling. The process of giving these feelings over to a “higher power” is the process of letting go of feelings and not attaching meaning to them. Subjective and idiosyncratic as they are, meanings distort, distract and interfere with our emotional lives, which of course ultimately influences our behavior and how we treat others.

The next few posts will further explore meaning and values, their influence on human interactions, and how coexistence can triumph over conversion.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2005) ISBN-13: ‎ 978-0316172325 [2] Andy Clark, Associative Engines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993) [3] W. Bryant Arthur, “Cognition: The Black Box of Economics,” in The Complexity Vision and the Teaching of Economics, edited by David Colander, Chapter 3. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2000. [4] Amos Tversky, and Daniel Kahneman, "Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability,” Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (1973): 207–232. doi:10.1016/0010-0285(73)90033-9. ISSN 0010-0285 [5] Loren J. Chapman, "Illusory correlation in observational report," Journal of Verbal Learning 6 (1967): 151–155. doi:10.1016/s0022-5371(67)80066-5. [6] Aaron T. Beck, Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders (New York: International Universities Press, 1975)


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