Tag Archive | dopamine

Memetics Pt. 4: Short Towers + Secret Gnosis

In the first two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”

In the third video, we talked about how some of the neuropsychological patterns that drive our decisionmaking can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”). In that video, we focused primarily on loss aversion.

In this video, we’re going to talk about another such pattern, called secret gnosis stimulation.


We’ll find out why having and enjoying “hidden knowledge” can make you feel privileged, validated, and “rooted” to your local “tower,” even if it’s not tallest. This “hidden knowledge” often takes the form of esoteric or counterintuitive claims that can be convincing when internally consistent, and/or without a competitor recognized as viable.

We’ll also discuss several specific case examples of groups of people who are rooted to false conspiracy theories. Controversial!

Secret gnosis stimulation is very effective here, too. … It gets you locked into conspiracy theories when the body of [apparent evidence for the conspiracy] is dwarfed by reality.




Memetics Pt. 3: The Short Tower Problem

In the last two videos on memetics (see schedule below), we talked about how truth — and other things we like — may not be decisive when it comes to the “spreadiness” and “stickiness” of certain ideas. In other words, “goodness” does not necessarily yield “fitness.”

But that’s not the whole picture. Vital to memetics is an understanding of how neuropsychological patterns can prompt and prevent virulence and resilience (“spreadiness” and “stickiness”).

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the most important patterns to understand — loss aversion — and how it impacts memetics.

We’ve already talked about loss aversion twice on this site:

  • In “Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing,” we talked about the reluctance to commit our charity, a failing against which we must fight.
  • In “Up a Tree,” we talked about a good way to think about loss aversive rooting behavior. Today’s video will echo some of these themes.

Its impact on memetics is manifold, and I think you’ll enjoy how the breakdown plays out through the story of the tower seeker.

(For those familiar with genetic algorithms, this is “local maxima” in function.)

Get out there and really investigate. I can’t believe this guy when he says, “I’m an authority,” “I’m Dr. Tower (even if he is Dr. Tower),” “They have a conspiracy”… These things might all be the case, but you are the final gatekeeper to the keep of what you believe.




Bibliopsychology: Why the Servant Did Nothing

  • “You were just trying to help. But you ended up doing more harm than good.”
  • “Your heart was in the right place, but you just made things worse.”

There’s something uniquely depressing about these sentences. It turns out, it’s the same mechanism that makes you feel sad when an opportunity is lost, or when your reputation is damaged.

You depend on yourself to have a decent understanding of the world — the state of the world, and how it works. When something unexpected and bad happens as a result of something you thought you were doing right, it throws into question those things on which you were depending.

The result is confusion, anxiety, and a desperate retrospective evaluation of what went wrong, or what you could have done differently.

Needless to say, that process usually isn’t very pleasant. And thus, undergoing that process is a “loss” in and of itself. You don’t want to feel that way.

You’re sitting on a bus, riding to work, when a moaning young man falls out of his seat. He pulls himself up, kneeling on one knee, eyes closed, and holds the bar in front of him. He doesn’t look so well.

A part of you wants to go to him, lean down next to him, and ask him if he’s alright, maybe help him back into his seat. But what if he yells, “Get your hands off of me!”? What if he says, “I don’t need your help!”?

There are so many people watching. He’ll probably be okay.

“I’d sure be an idiot if I went to help, only to come across as patronizing in front of everyone.”

“I’d sure be an idiot…” is the beginning of a sentence that indicates loss aversion is at play.

Loss aversion is a psychological phenomenon where we are doubly afraid of perceived losses than we are eager for perceived gains.

Gambling games leverage this by using various tricks to flip loss/gain perceptions upside-down, and make you be loss aversive about future hopes, e.g., “I better not walk away from the slot machine… I’d sure be an idiot if the very next pull was the jackpot.”

You’re afraid of being embarrassed.

You’re afraid of the anxiety.

You’re afraid of the unpleasantness of dwelling over and over again on the incident if it goes badly, for days or weeks.

By “you,” I really mean “me,” since that bus incident happened to me a few years ago.

After a few minutes, the bus driver found place to pull over, got up, and came back herself to check on the young man. He simply moaned, allowed her to help him up, and got back into his seat.

I was closer to him. I wasn’t busy. I was just loss aversive — I was afraid. And I allowed myself to be the “priest” who “passed by on the other side.”

Everybody else on the bus was guilty of the same negligence. But, privately, I was more embarrassed with myself than I would ever have been if the young man had reacted badly. My critical faculties were appalled at what my lower-order faculties — those selfish, “now”-driven impulses to which we feel enslaved — had allowed to occur.

I was completely ashamed. How on Earth could I let that happen? The Good Samaritan story is one of the most resonant and famous of Jesus’s teachings. What kind of Christian am I? What kind of human?

I dwelt over and over again on that incident. I was anxious about its implications. I was confused about how I could have failed so plainly.

But wait.

Isn’t that I was afraid of in the first place?

The unpleasantness of dwelling on a bad memory, anxiety, and confusion?

It was!

What this realization meant was this: Like in a casino game’s design, I can flip my loss aversion upside-down as it suits my higher-order interests. I resolved that when a similar situation happens again, instead of fearing the riskiness of commission, I would fear the riskiness of omission.

And fearing the riskiness of omission is another way to say, “Be doubly eager to commit your charity.”

I’m talking about psychology, loss aversion, dopamine stimulation — but Jesus was onto it the whole time.

We’re not called to sit there and bank on the supposed “amorality” of omission.

That earns a justified “You lazy servant!”

Up a Tree

The following story is about a man who’s been living in trees. But it’s really about something more psychological, that has a grave impact on philosophical and theological discussions. Can you figure out what it is, before the reveal?

Above is a video of environmental activist Josh Eng climbing into his home in the treetops. When I first heard this story last month, he’d been up in the trees with his friends for nearly 10 weeks.

He and his friends are living in these trees in order to stall or prevent logging projects on a small grove recently purchased by a private logging company.

But there’s a twist.

The manner in which this logging would take place is by a strategy called “variable retention.” Variable retention projects are designed by forestry ecologists to harvest selectively, in order to simulate natural events like wildfires — which we stop every year in Oregon, but which have the beneficial consequence of promoting diverse and vibrant forest ecosystems. This project in specific was designed by university professors with “long track record[s] in conservation.”

Variable retention is annoying for logging companies. It’s “more laborious, tedious, time-consuming, and expensive than clear-cutting.” But it’s a workable solution in places where harvesting and conservation often butt heads.

When asked about the fact that this environmentally-friendly strategy would be employed at the new purchase, Eng replied, “It would be a real heartbreaking thing to see it go the way of a variable retention harvest,” his words soaked with derision.

When I heard this story, I had a disheartening realization: This man and his friends have been living up in the treetops, cold and bored, for over 2 months. It doesn’t matter if variable retention is ecologically friendly, but let’s assume it is. How could they possibly admit that their cause was needless?

They can’t.

This story powerfully illustrates how loss-aversion — where “having been mistaken all along” is an extraordinarily potent sort of loss — can build not just a sandbag, but a bastion against competing argumentation.

The further up the tree you go, and the more effort you expend, the worse the “friction” becomes. By “friction” I mean “memetic friction” — the tendency to get rooted to local maxima (“decent-looking ideas that may not be the best ideas”) because you don’t have enough mutative power to leave.

You know the saying. “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” You also know the refrain that begins so many of our contemplations: “I’d sure be an idiot if…”

That psychological quirk of loss-aversion — life-and-death useful long ago when catching birds was a matter of survival — affects even the learned, intelligent, and confident in the worlds of philosophy and theology.

The original story from OPB Radio, by Amelia Templeton and Tony Schick. This post uses their images and video.

Wikipedia: “Variable Retention.

Surprising Cause of Restless Leg Syndrome: Demons!

You’re at a church social gathering, eating at a table with three of your friends. You mention how your legs move around at night, bothering your spouse, and you say that you think you might have restless leg syndrome.

  • “Restless legs? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the restless leg demon out of you?”
  • “Restless leg syndrome is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing your legs to move around, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop your legs from moving around like that?”
  • “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your legs to move like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”

The next week, you invite your friend Mike to church and, afterward, are again talking to your three friends. Mike, who visibly shakes, explains that he has Parkinson’s disease.

  • “Can’t stop shaking? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the shaking demon out of you?”
  • “Parkinson’s disease is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to shake, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from shaking around like that?”
  • “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your body to shake like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”

A few weeks later, you bring your cousin Deborah to church and, after the service, are again talking to your three friends. A while into the conversation, Deborah explains how she’s been grappling with depression.

  • “Feeling a persistent sense of despair? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the demon of despair out of you?”
  • “Depression is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to be sad all the time, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from being so depressed?”
  • “It’s irrational for you to despair like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that you are valuable and the future is not bleak.”

Staying Grounded

It’s vitally important, especially as Christians, to remember to ground ourselves on what is observable and understood (or, becoming more understood), even though we have a convicted faith in what isn’t very observable or understood.

We are understanding more and more than emotions aren’t magical. They are our experiences of physiological activity in our bodies, of which our brains are a part.

We are also understanding more and more the absolutely pivotal role played by the neurotransmitter “dopamine.” Dopamine stimulation is like pattern recognition nitro — it’s all about hopeful expectations and deciphering patterns in service thereof.

Take a look at this 3 minute clip from neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:

Dopamine underpins almost everything we consider entertaining and/or psychologically addictive: rhyming, jokes, gambling, hoarding, story twists, conspiracy theories both true and false, wonder/awe, mysteries, chord progressions (I-V-vi-IV is perhaps the most resonant progression ever for Western listeners because of its cyclical and dramatic rising and falling), video games, watching sports, turning pages, etc.

When something is wrong with your dopamine transmission, it can cause life-altering problems. Parkinson’s disease is the most well-known, where the cells that generate dopamine die. The shaking typical of Parkinson’s, restless leg syndrome, and shaking when afraid are all related to dopamine deficiency or over-stimulation.

Chronic depression is a neurotransmitter problem, often related to dopamine (among other neurotransmitters, e.g., serotonin) issues. When the ability to create hopeful expectations is hobbled or killed, then everything turns hopeless. Our conscious brains respond to this crippling problem by dwelling on the unclaimable, like the nostalgic past, and concluding nonsensical or irrational conclusions, like that a future full of potential is actually bleak.

This isn’t something that you can, generally, “think your way out of.” You can “think your way through and during,” as people with Parkinson’s do every day, but your thoughts alone don’t typically cause alleviation. Reliable alleviation comes through physiological treatment (like medicine that stimulates neurotransmitters), or through natural remedial brain activity (which makes depression merely temporary for some people). But this truth is complicated by the fact that some depression is the result of hopeless thoughts (usually a sudden or intense new realization of the limitations of, or recent reductions in, one’s prospects), like during existential crises or cataclysmic life events, and can be remedied in various ways (the most popular being anchor-setting and/or distractions).

Concluding Ought Thoughts

In any case, chronic depression is a chemical issue, as “non-magical” as Parkinson’s and RLS, but it has the sinister symptom of convincing us that it IS something in our “magical minds.”

  • We ought to avoid jumping to supernatural conclusions recklessly, like “Superstitious” Steve.
  • We ought to avoid treating all brain activity as a libertarian product of conscious will, like “Buck-Stops-Here” Buck.
  • We ought to avoid pretending like the brain is magical and can reason itself out of various thoughts and behaviors, like “Dualistic Philosophy” Sophia.

More Watching

Evangelical Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church, on his experiences with physiological depression and anxiety (especially 24:55+).

Robert Sapolsky’s Standford lecture on depression in the U.S.