A tree is a reflection of its own history — and the history of the entire world. The same is true of you.
If you cut open a tree, you can count its rings to see how old it is. You can also measure the thickness of the rings over the years. In years that are better for the tree — warmer years with more rain, the tree will grow more; those rings will be thicker. If a fire burns through the forest and the tree survives, a record of this fire will be burned into the tree.
Why is the tree shaped the way it is? Because of its genetic code. Why is the tree’s genetic code the way it is? Because of the history of that particular species of tree — which is just one branch of the tree of all life growing on planet earth. You are cousins with that tree — in a very literal and scientific sense.
Your body is a reflection of the history of the human species on earth — including our ancestors. You walk on two legs because that helped our ancestors somehow. You have two legs because that was helpful to an even more distant ancestor. Your body is like a history textbook, written in a complex language — but it is a history of the world, nonetheless.
Every moment, a tree draws nutrients from its environment and adds them to its structure. The shape of the tree is dynamic, a function of its experience, integrated over time. If the tree gets lots of nutrients, it will grow faster, and that faster growth will be reflected in the shape of the tree.
Your mind works the same way. Every moment, you take in information with your senses, and you think about it, changing your physiology in the process.
When you think in a specific way, that way of thinking becomes easier and more automatic for you, because the neurons involved in those thoughts start wiring themselves together. When neurons are wired closely together, thoughts that activate one of those neurons immediately starts to activate the other. Those automatic thoughts require less energy. In the same way that lifting weights repeatedly strengthens your muscles, solving problems repeatedly strengthens your body’s ability to solve problems. Smiling regularly and frequently makes it easier for you to smile. The tendency of neurons to wire together is called neuroplasticity. Because our brains change as we use them, the shape of your brain and the way you use it are both reflections of your personal history.
When you understand neuroplasticity, you can see that the key to being happy all the time is to work constantly at being happy, until it becomes easier and easier. If that sounds like a lot of work and makes you feel crappy — those are just automatic thoughts. You don’t need to believe them. You can focus on the amazing potential for happiness in your life, that requires only effort to find the good in things and time for that habit to sink in and become automatic. I have gotten myself to a point where I can feel immense gratitude for living on a planet with breathable oxygen. Let me tell you, it’s amazing to walk outside and be immediately grateful that the sun exists. That doesn’t mean I no longer get angry or frustrated or sad — it just means that I am surrounded by reminders of the good things in the world, and they come up often because I have trained myself to be that way.
My mindset is a reflection of the history of my thoughts. The structure of my brain is a reflection of the history of my thoughts. The physical structure of my body, then, is a reflection of the history I have of acting a certain way. Thinking is just one function of my physiology. The shape of my body — including my brain — is a reflection of my own personal history, but also the history of the human species.
The size of your muscles is a reflection of your personal history of working out — and of life’s history of using muscles to accomplish goals. Life uses large muscles to signal to itself that this particular set of genes is capable of surviving and providing for life. The way you look at the world is a reflection of your personal history of thinking — and of life’s history of using nerve cells to respond to and anticipate changes in its environment. Life signals to itself that it should keep going in this direction by flexing its muscles in the mirror, telling itself jokes, or buying itself flowers.
Your tendency to think of yourself as different from other people — well, that’s also a reflection of your personal history and the history of life. It might be contributing to your unhappiness.
We don’t often think of the world this way. Most people don’t think of their pets as family members. I believe the story of science, because that’s the simplest way I can integrate my sensory experiences. Therefore, I think of my cats as distant cousins who like to sit on my lap and chase away the other cousins who come sniffing around the back yard. This way of thinking is both scientifically accurate, and a great reminder to care for all living beings, because we’re all family even if we don’t always act like it.
My wife and I went on a hike in Glacier National park on our honeymoon, and I felt like I was walking through the pages of a book. We saw layers of rock, split open and spilled on their side, each layer telling a history of millions of years. The whole world is doing this — reflecting itself and its experience over time. Gottfried Lebniz wrote about this concept in his text La Monadologie. Hindus have the same concept, expressed in the idea of Indra’s Net. Indra’s net is a huge, infinite net, containing jewels wherever two threads cross. Each jewel contains a reflection of all the other jewels in the net.
Buddhists often use the metaphor of water for the mind. If a bowl of water is full of mud and dirt, the way to fix those impurities is to let the mud and dirt settle to the bottom of the bowl. If you keep poking at the bowl or shaking it, trying to get the dirt out, that won’t help. It’ll just make things worse. Once the mud and dirt settle to the bottom, you can see yourself reflected clearly in the water.
I am writing a book about emotion, because I see this process of reflection carrying itself out in my own mind, and in the minds of people I’ve met. I think we have a tendency to reflect the habits, tendencies, and beliefs of the people around us. This reflective tendecy has its own mechanics and principles of operation — many of which show up in the computer science theory of distributed systems.
I want to use physics to understand people and their motion. You cannot explain a person’s motion without accounting for their physiology’s reflection of its environment — without acounting for their mind. When you understand what a person cares about and how they see the world, you can predict their motion much more effectively. When you understand that people are all reflecting their history and each other, you can understand the motion of the whole world.