Compass Needles and Mood Swings

Mood swings are a common, well experienced phenomenon. Many people experience them when doing something like raising children, earning a Ph.D. or starting a business. People are more likely to experience mood swings when doing something challenging that they’ve never done before, which involves learning something complex about a big part of the world. Some days it seems like everything is going perfectly, and other days it feels like failure is just around the corner. Why would our moods work this way? Do we experience anything like mood swings with light or sound?

You are probably familiar with what happens if you sit in a dark room for a long time: your eyes adjust. When the room gets brighter suddenly, it can be hard to see. There is no “back and forth” like mood swings, though, so that analogy doesn’t quite work.

The thesis of this book is that our emotions stem from changes in our undertanding of reality. Our minds reflect the mulitiverse: not just what is, but what could be . This book claims that changes in those reflections lead to changes in our emotional state. An optimistic mindset is one that sees lots of good possibilities nearby; it is driven by the positive response, the “green light” signal. A pessimistic mindset is one that sees lots of negative possiblities nearby; it is driven by the negative response, the “red light” signal, the threat response. Mood swings are a transition back and forth between the two mindsets.

Think of a compass needle. If you leave it alone for long enough, a compass needle will eventually point north. If you’ve ever watched one, you’ll know that they don’t point immediately north at first. If the needle starts pointing to the west, it will swing towards north, and go past north a little bit, pointing slightly east. The needle will slow, stop, and then begin to move towards north again. This time it will pass north going a little slower than the last time. It will slow, stop, and change direction. The needle swings back and forth across north, gradually slowing down. Eventually, the needle will settle on true north.

Why does a compass needle do that?

The compass needle senses the earth’s magnetic field. The compass needle is at its lowest energy state when it is perfectly aligned with the magnetic field of the earth. Like all simple physical objects, the needle moves to minimize its internal energy. Earlier in the book, I presented a model of total brain function that says “a brain tries to minimize its internal energy, by minimizing the difference between what it wants, and what it expects.” That theory is held by some, but not all neuroscientists. I believe the theory, and thus I believe minds are like compass needles: they are at their lowest energy state when they are perfectly aligned with the truth.

The compass needle swings because it builds momentum as it moves towards the truth. The earth’s magnetic field exerts a force on the compass needle; the force is stronger when the needle is not aligned with north. The force gets weaker as the needle aligns closer to north, and when the needle is perfectly aligned with north, the force is zero. When the needle is moving towards north, it picks up speed. By the time the needle hits north, it’s moving at some speed, and it tends to keep doing that unless some force pushes it the other way. That force is caused by the earth’s magnetic field, as the needle moves past north and begins to point east.

Friction is what enables the needle to gradually slow down. Without friction, the needle would continually oscillate back and forth. Fortunately for us, we live in a universe with friction. Friction allows the needle to gradually dissipate some of its energy, meaning each time it swings past north, it goes slower and slower until it stops.

You can imagine a mind that is “too pessimistic” as one that points too far “west,” and a mind that is “too optimistic” as one that points too far “east.” A mind that is too pessimistic is in conflict with reality, and will start to see some facts that just don’t line up with its perspective. If you think your business is about to fail, and then suddenly see a small uptick in sales, the narrative you had before (“we’re doomed!”) doesn’t line up with reality. Your brain works to line up what it expects with what it wants , and so it turns the other way. It looks for evidence to support this new perspective, and finds it. The positive mentality gains momentum.

Thoughts and perspectives can build up momentum because of neuroplasticity. You start seeing the world in a positive way. The neurons encoding that perspective become wired together, and seeing the world that way becomes easier for you. The positive perspective strengthens. Eventually, the needle swings past north. At that point, you start being too optimistic. You tell yourself you’re out of the worst of it, that you’re almost done, that there won’t be anything left to worry about. Then something bad happens and you swing back the other way.

Our minds are much more complex than compass needles, because we can learn from our experiences, and needles can’t. Eventually, you start to learn the features of the terrain you are navigating through — whether that terrain is the landscape of commerce, academia, or parenthood. Eventually you learn the way these things work, and you learn to anticipate the bad along with the good. Your mood stops swinging so much. You’re closer to the truth.

The needle eventually slows down and comes to a rest, pointing north. Compass needles do that through friction. Their initial energy, caused by not pointing north, is gradually dissipated into the environment, and the needle can come to rest. We do that through learning: we grow to understand the world, and stop being so afraid of it. Some of us also lose the ability to be enamored of it. Having children allows people to experience a little of both once again.

The interesting thing about this analogy is that friction is what allows the needle to eventually come to a rest, and learning is what allows our minds to do the same. The periods of my life where I’ve suffered the most — where I’ve had the most friction — have also been the periods of my life in which I learned the most.

Catholics believe in a concept of “original sin.” The term “sin” comes from archery, and it means “missing the mark.” The belief in Catholicism is that we sin when we turn away from God. The process of apologizing and seeking forgiveness is called “reconciliation.” That belief set — that model — lines up with the idea of a compass needle that begins pointing away from north, and gradually finds its way there.

I look at the human race and I see a history of slow, gradual, unsteady progress that comes in fits and starts, sometimes races and sometimes lags. I believe we are headed in a direction where all people have their needs met, where dignity is the norm, where respect is the culture, and where violence is a historical artifact; something you do for fun in the simulators with people who are down for that kind of thing. I think the empirical evidence for this believe is on my side, but there are times where I’m overly optimistic, and times where I’m overly pessimistic.

As long as we humans continue to learn through the friction of our mistakes, our moral compass will gradually point increasingly towards the truth. This book is an attempt to communicate what I’ve learned through my own personal friction. I hope it helps you find your way home.

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