Beware of Alternate Meaning Loops

As I write about in the philosophy of Westworld, life is really about meaning loops. They’re the structures that make us want to strive and improve, and that make life matter.

Everybody has them.

For some people it’s raising kids and being a good parent. For others it’s about becoming famous for their work. Others want to make some sort of impact on the world. Different people want to be revered or feared, respected or admired.

But whatever that thing is, that thing that you’re pursuing, it is the framework that evolution is using to inspire you to improve. Evolution needs this because it wants (not really) to have the best possible outcomes, so it figures out what the game is in any particular context, and then makes winning that game the shiniest thing possible.

This is why someone can hate country music and big trucks, but if they move to south Florida in their early 20’s they’ll probably soon like them. Evolution makes us like, and want to be successful within, the culture that surrounds us. So we quickly take on the preferences of those around us so that we can be a successful competitor in that environment.

Maybe human brains are only set up to have one meaning loop at a time.

Many years back I wrote about the potential dangers of role-playing, where I talked about this exact thing but without collapsing it down to an evolutionary pressure.

My takeaway was that you can’t maintain two striving contexts simultaneously, and that role-playing is extremely good at recreating entire realities—and thus striving contexts as well. So you basically have to decide which context you care about and go all-in with it. That’s the only way to keep your brain happy.

Switching contexts is really hard, which is why a lot of my role-playing friends say they experience depression when a major campaign ends. It’s because it causes their brain to struggle for a meaning infrastructure, and until you find the next one you can’t be happy.

Of course, this is also why people are depressed in general—not having such a structure.

And of course that’s why role-playing is so attractive to many: it provides a way to achieve greatly within a fully-contained infrastructure and thus receive the pleasure rewards that evolution grants us when we succeed.

Think about that.

Role-playing, and other types of immersive games, are basically tricking evolution into thinking that we’re successful so that evolution (through the brain) will give us pleasurable feelings of achievement.

Seems kind of pathetic when you put it that way.

Unsupervised Learning — Security, Tech, and AI in 10 minutes…

Get a weekly breakdown of what's happening in security and tech—and why it matters.

Basically, evolution normally reserves this sort of pleasure for people who crush their enemies and protect their families and do all sorts of real survival stuff in the face of mortal danger.

But it’s now possible to play games that are so good that it tricks our brains into thinking we did the same things, and thus deserve the same rewards. It’s a clean way of seeing why people like to game.

Anyway, the point here is that evolution forces our brains to tune to an environment, figures out what would get us reproductive success in that setting, and then rewards us for achieving those things.

And it can only tune to one environment at a time.

So if you’re a career person, or a parent, or an avid role-player, and you’re trying to do all these things at the same time, they might compete for being your primary meaning infrastructure.

Being a career person and a great parent often doesn’t compete (for men) because they see their career as helping their children. For women it’s harder because they feel that the kids lose more by them not being there.

I think people who have the clearest, single-focused infrastructures are the people who are the happiest because the rules are most visible, the brain knows what to do to win, and it rewards you when you hit certain milestones. Just like back when we were competing with animals and weather to survive.

So try not to mix your meaning loops. The human mind isn’t good at it.

Related posts: