Posts Tagged With: ego

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Race

 

Go on and rush to your deathbed

Collecting titles and plastic power as you go

Leave your instincts in the primordial hindbrain where they belong

And break cosmic silence with the success only you could sow

 

Put living on indefinite hiatus to have a life

Ignore the screams of suffering

You know nothing, owe nothing, for their strife

 

Love one, one and only one ’cause love is zero sum

But hate, hate all you can ’cause “us and them” spells endless fun

 

Bust ass to make cash for a family you never see

Tell em money can’t buy happiness, but nothing in life is free

 

Make a small fortune

Buy clothes made by kids half the age of yours

Give to charity

Keep the real wealth to even score

 

Leave your ethics at the door of the million-dollar church

Where the little people go to be ascribed a sense of worth

Put a dollar in the hat and pass it on in holy song

Take forgiveness with a grain of salt, get dressed to be blessed and get gone

 

Feed the rabid underdog with imagined criticism and adversity

Don’t give into the nagging voice that says you’re inherently worth something

 

Go on and rush to your deathbed

Leaving trampled others in your wake

Your awards are meaningless without an audience

So keep breeding–God makes no mistakes

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Instinct

Do you sense it?

The pervasive vibration that makes your insides cringe and reject all the love you think you’ve put in.

The putrid smell of failure, of crying, of trying but never holding on to all that you win.

The foul taste from the cup that you’d sworn was pristine.

The demons that hide, safe and quiet in your dreams, their shadows remaining though your mind is wiped clean.

The creeping sensation that there’s something you’ve missed.

That your life may not best be made with a clenched fist.

 

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Fuck Your Selfie (and other thoughts)

There’s nothing cute about being obsessed with your own reflection. There is nothing endearing about obtaining your entire self worth from the opinions of others. There is nothing commendable about narcissism. I’m the furthest thing from religious, but I think pride was one of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for a reason. Yet we spend hours each week, perhaps even each day, looking at or posting self-serving images, videos, and announcements on the Internet. We reward each other for this behavior regularly with comments and “likes”…and the portion of our ever-shrinking time on this earth it costs to post them.

Although the phenomenon can hardly be called the most troubling characteristic of modern humanity, I still find it rather disconcerting. One of my favorite podcasters, Dr. Christopher Ryan, the author of a fantastic book called Sex at Dawn, recited an interesting story on an (old) podcast I listened to the other day. He described a friend who had traveled to Africa to live with a small village of hunter-gatherer/subsistence farmers. At his departure, he wanted to give a gift to the people. He took great care to select the finest ox for sale, inspecting it for all health aspects and spending a large chunk of change. However, he was devastated to receive nothing but ridicule from the villagers. “That ox is a bag of bones!” “We won’t have enough meat for the whole village, we’ll have to hunt still.” “You don’t know anything about buying meat, do you?” Seeing the friend’s disappointment, a man pulled him aside and told him not to be so offended. “This is just how we are” he explained “we can’t let you be proud of your gift, because when people get proud, they start telling people what to do and then they end up killing somebody!” Now as dramatic as this explanation may seem, take a second to really consider the man’s point and see it might not be so far from the truth. Pride can be the root of all sorts of nasty behaviors. Ryan went on to point out “this is the exact opposite of how our society works” in reference to Western, or perhaps more broadly to “civilized” culture as a whole. For generations, our society has been built on the hallmarks of “hard work” and “success” (instead perhaps on cooperation). The definitions of both these phrases are subjective, yet they are treated as defined, measurable qualities with certain sets of rules. As a result, people compete to meet these definitions and become proud of their accomplishments, especially as they triumph over others.

Though the tendency of individuals in a competitive, free-market, individualistic society to be self congratulatory is relatively long standing, it has become particularly apparent in recent popular culture. Announcing your accomplishments via small blocks of text directed at large groups of acquaintances (and/or strangers) is a part of the average person’s day now. Seventy-four percent of online adults use social networking sites* and there are now almost as many people on Facebook as there are in China.** The craze of announcing your presence to the world beyond your immediate, physical location became even more involved when people became obsessed with posting photos on social media. Vacation photos, baby photos, workout photos, yoga photos, food photos, “selfies”. Selfies. Let’s take a second to address the term. The term “selfie”, for those living under an html-based rock the last couple years is a picture a person takes of his or herself, generally with a phone camera, for no specific reason other than to share their physical appearance with their “followers” (be those friends, social media acquaintances, “fans”, or other). A recent study found the taking a lot of these photos to be linked with callous-unemotional traits in individuals such as narcissism and psychopathy***. Yet most perceive this behavior as a “normal” use of social networking sites.

I speak of this phenomenon as a participator, not an observer. I recognize the value in sharing my life and accomplishments with those not in close physical proximity to me and I too am guilty of the occasional “selfie”, albeit almost exclusively when I am in the company of my cat (because she’s just so CUTE) or have dyed my hair a shiny new color. Yet I can’t help but wonder if the competitive, self-congratulatory, “look how GREAT I’m doing” culture we’ve found ourselves knee-deep in isn’t doing more to our psyches than we realize. Is social media just dragging our species’ preexisting narcissist tendencies into the light or is it breeding a wicked new strain of egotism, like antibiotic-resistant bacteria breeding in the harsh landscapes of human bodies.

The argument for heavy social media use as a normal part of our interaction however has, in my opinion, large support from primate evolution. Humans have evolved to be highly social individuals, interacting with our peers to accomplish almost all daily tasks. It is imperative to our primate brains to consider the impression our actions leave on others. When you can no longer beat up the largest chimp in the group to gain respect, you have to prove yourself more worthy than him in other ways. That could include making it as apparent as possible that your life is important, your appearance is alluring, and your accomplishments are noteworthy. Perhaps instead of evolving to be cooperative and empathetic, we managed to take a page out of bird survival strategy and evolve to be showy. However, just because something comes naturally, does not mean it is positive. The consumption of fat-laden foods and infidelity come quite naturally for most as well.

Additionally, I believe there is a not-so-fine line between sharing your life with others and electronically shoving it down their throats. For example, if I could gather 50 of my closest friends and family members in one room, on one day and show them pictures from my most recent trip abroad or my new hula hoop tricks, I probably would! However, I think I’d be a lot less inclined to sit them down and demand they look at my face for no reason. “See my face? Isn’t it nice? Why don’t you all just look at it for a bit. I got new sunglasses or something.” This is how I see selfies and why I find them embarrassing and disturbing. You also probably wouldn’t show a room of 50 friends the meal you ate last Tuesday or tell them three separate times how in love you are. But you might tell them you’re moving to Chicago.

I think the take-home of all this is to maybe not spend quite so much time seeking or feeding praise. Social media can be a beautiful, convenient tool for keeping in touch with those who matter and sharing your life with them despite physical limitations. However, if this is truly the goal, feedback shouldn’t be needed and the information shared shouldn’t be shallow or mind-numbingly pervasive. Give credit where credit is due, but try not to contribute to a culture that puts people on pedestals for images that are not objective, but self designed at best and manipulative at worst. Just as they say don’t feed the trolls, don’t feed the egomaniacs. You don’t need to shit all over their choice of oxen…but please don’t like their selfies either.

P.S.
Please do check out the sources/links below, they’re interesting!

* http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/
** http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/29/almost-as-many-people-use-facebook-as-live-in-the-entire-country-of-china/
*** https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/close-encounters/201501/are-selfies-sign-narcissism-and-psychopathy

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Categories: Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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