The Ice Bucket Challenge has been great – but let’s be aware of a real danger

Watching the Ice Bucket challenge thing happen has been like watching society go through a small phase of hypomania. Increased energy, increased output of fun content, more positivity and happiness. Those are great things. We’ve also managed to raise quite a bit of money for ALS research.  What happens if, a year from now, an article comes out saying “Hey remember that thing? ALS is still here, and most of the money was wasted on XXX’ … how will you feel? 

I’ve noticed my emotional reactions to reality tend to seek equilibrium. Most people are familiar with a hangover – if you party too hard, you ‘anti-party’ pretty hard the next day, too.  I’ve found that this balancing happens to me whenever I feel intense emotion that is stronger than warranted by the situation.  I will get very excited about the possibility of some new technology, and then a few hours later, find myself very much depressed about the economy.

I used to believe that depressing thoughts – children do get tortured to death – ALWAYS justified the intense emotional reactions I had do them.  Most people do this, too, in my observation. If you tell someone, “you are overreacting to X”, then will often state “X” emphatically:  “You are overreacting!” “WHAT! A CHILD HAS DIED!” .  We all want to believe that the intense emotions we experience are valid – but this insistence stems from a desire to believe our model of reality is accurate. That desire to be accurate now – instead of being wrong now and more accurate later – that desire is the enemy of truth.  

The validity of intense emotional responses to some stimuli is baked deep into our culture. “Follow your heart” moves people, it sounds ‘correct’ to us. “It is upsetting that people far away have died, but your response is out of proportion” is certainly a reasonable thing to say, but people would find it cold. They would be upset by hearing that – which is like shouting at someone who tells you that you’re being too loud. We don’t say that to kind of thing each other – maybe we should. Adding the emotionally balancing “I love you, you’re a good person, but this reaction is a little out of proportion” could help.

For most people, the thought that they might be completely wrong about something they believe in is terrifying – and they refuse to consider it.  The thought that a feeling would be wrong – most people will not accept that at all. We should. I know I didn’t, for a long time.  Being wrong about something i believed in concretely happened so many times that I got used to it, and learned to trust that my intuitive understanding of the world was good enough to handle being schema-free because, hey, 13.5 billion years of evolution is a lot of mistakes to learn from.  Accepting that I could be wrong about the emotions I sensed – that was much harder because of the emotional reaction that I’d incur when I considered that hypothesis.

I used to smoke a lot of weed. I’d get get super high, and feel amazing. The world is perfect, i’d tell myself. Then a negative thought would creep in: children are being tortured. The intense feeling of ‘the world is perfect’ felt so strong, i knew it had to be true, i’d try to come up with some way to rationalize the horrible things. I must be responsible for them, or perhaps I can stop them all now by reaching out through the multiverse with my mind! Then my mental simulation of this bizarrely congruent world where I had anti-causality superpowers would take over. I’d go from being angry at things that do exist elsewhere to being terrified of things that (to the best of my knowledge) don’t exist.  I’d be in an intra-multiversal trial for breaking causality, and if i tried fucking with the judge there, things got even worse, faster.  I went through years of this pattern – getting high, believing intensely that the world was ok, knowing it was not, imagining i could fix it, simulating a world with my fix, seeing problems in the simulation caused by my failed fix, and facing terrifying judgement for all of those problems.

Eventually – slow learner! – I came to see that my emotions were behaving the way my hearing would if I’d heard a loud noise. I felt really good when I was high. I clung to that good feeling, attachment like no other. Knowing those good feelings were inaccurate helped me accept that ok, emotions can be wrong – just like we can see lights that don’t exist if we stare at the sun.

Once I started accepting that my emotions could be ‘wrong’, I was then able to start connecting those ‘wrong emotions’ to the outcome of simulations i’d run in my head. The constructed world that ‘fixed’ problems I felt existed in this one often had outcomes with equally negative emotion, but for different reasons. Same magnitude, different orientation. Emotion as a vector? I’m a better mathematician than I am buddhist, and the structural similarities there were too strong to ignore.  I could see it was easier for me to imagine fixing the world economy than to imagine fixing my own personal finances – but in both cases, the ‘fixes’ i came up with that did not involve personal responsibility seemed to make the problem worse in similar but not identical ways.  If you see enough isomorphic nightmares, you become less fazed by the nightmares and increasingly curious about the structural similarities of those isomorphisms.  Being obsessed with P vs NP helped here. 

From an emotional mechanics perspective, the fear arising from considering that your reality model is broken makes sense. If you are fundamentally wrong about an aspect of the world, the structure of the possibilities that can arise takes on a sense informed primarily by your basic attitude towards the world. If you know there are bad things, and your reality schema was based around helping you avoid them, your fear tells you that the possibility that bad things will occur to you was underestimated. Your rationalizing mind – always playing catch up – will then cause you to pay more attention to the news, and you’ll think that what you’re upset about is now whatever this story is on. Better emotional awareness will help you realize that no, you’re not really upset about what is on the news – you’re upset because you don’t really know for certain if the world works the way you suspect it does.

Tracking my mood and practicing awareness regularly has helped me to ‘catch’ these as they happen. If I find myself feeling more depressed than is warranted by my immediate circumstances, I try to disregard whatever It was I was thinking about when I noticed the depression, and trace my thoughts back to the last time I felt super happy or positive.  I then try to hold both emotions and their causes in my head at once – no small task – to wire all of those together for my subconscious to work through.

It’s my belief that emotions are a sense that tells us about the structure of nearby possibilities which arise from our understanding of reality.  Our emotions are based upon our understanding of reality, and they tell us what kinds of things should be possible, based upon the assumption that our reality-schema is accurate.  

Emotions are a sense, just like sight and hearing. A person may be blinded after staring at the sun, or deafened after hearing a loud bang.  Seeing lots of people do this fun thing to help each other out and be all happy about it – it’s a little like listening to loud music. Don’t be surprised if you have trouble hearing afterwards. That doesn’t mean we should stop listening to music – it just means we should try our best to make sure our understanding  of the world is accurate. An emotional ride that is ‘out of whack’ on both ends is a suggestion that our reality model is off somewhere. Being wrong is a wonderful thing, because it means you have a chance to learn.

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