My brain wants me to live miserably and die young

I’ve been wanting to write my story for a long time. I’ve actually already written it once, in the form of a book of essays I call “Nobody Asks Me Why I’m Single.” Each chapter is a reason. That books sucks, but not so much for what’s in it. The essays are funny and interesting enough. But when I sent the book to everyone who said they wanted to read it and would in exchange provide feedback, what I kept hearing over and over again was that it wasn’t a cohesive story. That people wanted more. It was unsatisfying. And not in a good way.

The problem became evident to me after I read a book about how to write screenplays.

It didn’t have a moral. It didn’t have a lesson. And it didn’t have those things because I hadn’t learned anything or changed in any meaningful way over the course of the book.

The reason anyone is interested in my story is that I’ve changed a lot over the course of my life. I’ve changed religions, political affiliations, moral systems, belief systems, friend groups, and careers. I left a marriage and moved across the country twice.

But what have I learned? Recently, it hit me.

The thing I’ve learned is that my brain wants me to live a miserable life and then die young.

While the realization that this was the lesson of my youngish life hit me in an instant, the lesson itself creeps up on me slowly. I saw creeps because I keep forgetting that my brain is a lying, selfish asshole. Life so far for me has been a constant process of discovering and rediscovering where my brain has been lying to me and what the truth is.

The first time I remember encountering the idea that my brain wants me to live miserably and then die young was reading Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness.

Then came my exposure to behavioral economics.

The central insight driving behavioral economics is that human beings are predictably irrational.

Let’s break that down.

It’s empirically demonstrated that most human beings will consistently exhibit certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that actively inhibit their ability to accomplish their genuine goals. It won’t shock you to learn that human beings often get in our own way. But it surprised me to learn that many of the ways we get in our own way aren’t totally random, but rather are predictable.
It’s empirically demonstrated that most human beings consistently come to illogical conclusions from a set of axioms. It won’t shock you to learn that human beings often illogical. But it surprised me to learn that many of the ways humans are illogical aren’t totally random, but rather are predictable.

I’ve changed a lot in my life. But the most important personal changes I’ve made, and the ones I’m most excited about, have been when I’ve updated my heuristics.

A recent Hidden Brain podcast on scarcity cemented the lesson for me. It’s not actually that my brain wants me to live miserably and then die young. It’s that my brain wants me to reproduce and then live long enough to see my offspring survive. Nothing more, nothing less.

My brain wants:

  • Survival until the end of reproductive capacity
  • Reproduction
  • Survival of the offspring

My brain does not care about:

  • Happiness
  • Fulfillment
  • Meaning
  • Longevity
  • Health

That isn’t an absolute statement. To the extent that happiness, etc. can increase the likelihood I’ll reproduce and my kids will survive long enough to reproduce, my brain is into it. But, I can expect that every time my brain thinks it has to choose between group one and group two, it’s going to choose group one.

That’s all fine and dandy, because your brain rarely has to choose between group one and group two.

In this day and age, it’s really easy and common to outlive your reproductive years. And most people’s kids outlive their reproductive years as well.

Here’s the problem. My brain doesn’t really believe that.

I’ll give you a really simple example of what I’m talking about.

When I was little, I would see ghosts in the darkness. Okay, not really. I would sometimes kind of think I might be seeing some kind of shape. But my brain would say to me, “That’s a ghost. You’re probably fucked.” Most kids see monsters or boogeymen or whatever but my mom grew up Catholic and believes in ghosts and so I guess that’s why I did too.

Now, empirically speaking, it’s extremely unlikely that I was seeing ghosts. Why did my brain tell me it was a ghost? My brain telling me the thing I might be seeing is a ghost was both immediately unpleasant and damaging to me long-term because it kept me from sleeping, which impaired my cognitive development and ability to regulate my emotions. Losing sleep literally shortened my life.

My brain told me I was seeing a ghost because my brain thought a ghost was an existential threat. My brain said, “Dude, if this is a ghost, it could kill you. Fuck your happiness, longevity, and health. We’ve got to survive until the end of your reproductive capacity and I can’t figure out whether this is a ghost or not so we’re going to go with yes just to be safe.”

Here’s the deal. I’ve always been kind of a miserable fuck. I knew I wasn’t as happy as the other kids. I knew I was different from the other kids too. I remember seeing a ghost at summer camp and telling a kid next to me and them telling a counselor and the counsellor taking me aside and being like, essentially, “Like, we all believe in ghosts because we’re Southern Baptist but also you probably didn’t see one and it’s annoying that you riled all the other girls up so please go back to bed.” And I was like, “Yeah you’re probably right which is why I just told the one girl but then this whole I saw a ghost thing got really out of hand so let’s just pretend this didn’t happen.”

I thought I was depressed until I got divorced. It was shortly after that that I realized I wasn’t depressed, I had anxiety.

What anxiety means for me is that my brain takes less for granted than most people. Where most people see darkness, I see ghosts. Where most people see a benign comment, I see a deep insult. Where most people see indifference, I see rejection.

My brain is on high alert for existential threats almost all the time.

First, I learned not trust my intuition. That gut feeling telling you something is wrong? I realized that I have that all the time, about everything. I can’t trust it. I learned that my intuition doesn’t work because anxiety makes me interpret benign things as threatening.

So I leaned on the church to tell me what to do and not do, and to a lesser extent the wisdom of others. But then, I learned not trust authority. The only authority I ever trusted was God, but when the church fucked me over I learned that religion was not a trustworthy source for decision-making. I learned what superstition was. Superstition is a framework for understanding the rustle in the bushes.

When you see bushes rustling, your brain sometimes jumps to trying to think up a reason. Is it a saber-tooth tiger, or the wind? If you think it’s a saber-tooth tiger, and it’s not, you are miserable, but you survive. If you think it’s the wind or something else random, you’re happy but maybe dead. I learned that religiosity is connected with brain chemistry. You can actually look at someone’s brain and predict how likely they are to misconstrue random events as non-random. I realized my brain chemistry made me think God controlled everything and that probably wasn’t true.

I learned to be skeptical. I fell in love with empiricism.

Finally, I learned not to trust my brain.

I learned that while my brain is worse than average at evaluating risk, everyone is pretty bad at it. I learned that the human brain is wired to overestimate risk and underestimate reward. I learned that humans are loss-averse, they routinely choose to give up large, likely gains to avoid small, unlikely losses.

A heuristic is a decision-making tool. You can make a decision based on intuition, authority, logic, or any combination of those. There are many other heuristics, countless.

I learned that anxiety left me with broken intuition and logic. When I filtered a decision through my intuition and logic, it led to mediocre happiness, fulfillment, meaning, longevity, and health. I learned that the same thing happened when I used religion to make decisions.

Realizing that, I rejected intuition, authority, and my own fucking brain as viable heuristics. I decided that when I make a decision, empirical data is the heuristic that most often leads to decisions that maximize my happiness, fulfillment, meaning, longevity, and health.

If the decisions I made using intuition, authority, and logic had worked out better for me, if I’d been less of a regretful, anxious, miserable fuck, I never would have looked into other ways to make decisions. I never would have rejected intuition, authority, and my own fucking brain as viable heuristics.

But because I couldn’t deny that what I was doing wasn’t very effectively maximizing my happiness, fulfillment, meaning, longevity, and health, I was willing to learn how to make my greatest weakness, my anxiety, my superpower.

And I learned it by learning that I am not the only one who is led astray by their intuition, authority, and logic. The entire field of behavioral economics is dedicated to studying the instances where most people’s brains fuck them out of long-term flourishing. And the reason, I believe, our brains fuck us out of long-term flourishing is that they don’t believe we’ll survive going for the gold.

The Hidden Brain podcast is about how your brain reacts to scarcity. In short, poorly. When people are worried they won’t get any more food again for a long time they reliably overeat. When people are worried they won’t get more money again anytime soon they reliably overspend. When people are worried they won’t get human connection and company again anytime soon they act needy and desperate.

Your brain fucks you over in the long-term in order to ensure you survive in the short term.

The difference between someone who survives and someone who thrives is not necessarily scarcity. It’s necessarily worry. If you are worried about where your next meal will come from, you will probably eat too much. If you are not worried about your next meal, you probably won’t eat too much, at least not for that reason.

This is, so far, I believe, the lesson of my life. The most important realization I have ever encountered. Changing my heuristics, being open to the idea that my heuristic might be broken, that I’m worried about things that aren’t actually existential threats, has helped me make decisions I do not regret. Decisions that have been fun, sure. But more importantly, decisions that have been interesting. It’s allowed me to look at the blob in the dark and say, “I don’t know what you are, but I’ve looked at the data and you’re probably not going to kill me. Goodnight.”

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