This article will help you understand yourself better — Part I [Frameworks]

Vichar Mohio
6 min readJul 16, 2018

TL;DR Notes:

  • People want to have net positive feeling (increase good ones & reduce bad ones). Feelings are grounded in biological mechanisms. Biological mechanisms respond to real-world phenomenon.
  • Real world phenomenon that speak to our “reptilian brain” form the largest portion of what determines our feelings (Darwinian Activities)
  • Feelings derived from Darwinian Activities are colored by two things: (a) how important is this activity to me (“Filter of importance”), and (b) am I doing better or worse than competitors (“Prism of self-preservation”)

In a world full of hustle culture & go-go-go attitudes, it becomes very easy to forget the point of it all. Who has the time to think so when there are so many things to do.

But often simply asking yourself “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” is a liberating exercise. It helps you take a step back, recenter and gain control of your life — necessary ingredients in helping you achieve mental health.

One of my favorite phrases by a writer is attributed to management guru Peter Drucker who said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

While Peter may have been talking about business, I believe this quote to be applicable for regular life as well.

And while therapy is helpful for such lines of inquiry, it is not the only medicine in town. In my own life, developing the habit of asking myself the following questions has brought about huge mental health benefits:

  • Why am I doing the activities that I’m doing?
  • Of these activities, what is giving me happiness? And why?
  • On the other hand, what is making me sad? And why?

More often than not, a common thread runs through the different answers that I’ve arrived at (at different times of my life).

Meditating upon these common threads has helped me understand my own motivations & been useful in understanding other humans as well — after all we’re not so different from each other.

This article is an attempt to distill some of these common threads with the hope that the reader too is helped by understanding herself or her fellow humans a little bit better.

For readers of my other articles, these common threads also tie to the three ways in which boundaries interact with other boundaries.

A deep-dive into the realm of biology — Darwinian activities

Darwinian Activities: A race against others

This mechanism represents what I believe to be the most common set of instances that drive human behavior & choices while they are conscious. I would guess that 80–99% of all (non-illness related) conscious behavior falls in this category.

I reiterate the word “conscious” as we will stick to this constraint— i.e. part of our reality where we seem to be making conscious choices about our lives & the time we have on the planet. Undoubtedly there are physical processes that happen without much thought (e.g., blood pumping through your veins), but these are hardly viewed as conscious choices.

As evidenced by the name, these set of activities are highly influenced by self-preservation.

To offer a brief explanation of what generally happens (darwinian mechanisms involve steps 3 & 4):

Darwinian process of happiness (and sadness)
  1. Your “I” encounters a situation with the “non-I” (outside the boundary)
  2. The I interacts with the non-I to create a ‘perceived reality’
  3. This perception is viewed through a filter of importance
  4. Perceptions determined to be most important go through the prism of self-preservation.

Perceived realities that do well on both importance & self-preservation lead to biological release of dopamines (and others) and finally to … happiness.

Perceived realities scoring high on importance, but low on self-preservation lead to the firing of opposite neuro-mechanisms and to… sadness.

There are a few interesting things to note:

Point 1 — The filter of importance (it’s like fingerprints. It makes you, uniquely you)

This filter assigns a level of how important the perceived reality is for preservation of the “I”.

The filter of importance is highly personalized and differs from person to person. Genetic proclivities, upbringing, experiences and societal norms all play a role in crafting your unique filter of importance.

This filter of importance is discussed in greater detail in this article.

Point 2 — the prism of self-preservation (we all have the same factory setting of this)

The prism of self-preservation on the other hand is as standardized as it can get. Mine is almost identical to yours.

The key insight here is that it is based on relative competition. This shouldn’t be too shocking because of the way life evolved on our planet.

Earth’s evolutionary story was driven by scarcity. Organisms that acted to monopolize perceived scare resources were disproportionately successful in passing on their genes.

Barring exceptional circumstances this monopolization has had a decidedly competitive us-vs-them element to it.

The implication is that when viewing things through the prism of self-preservation, evolution has trained us to judge how well or poorly we performed relative to other people who were faced with similar situations.

I.e., competition between me/us/in-groups vs you/them/out-groups

Illustrative examples — tying it all together

To really help make it all concrete, let’s think of a few different perceived realities:

Reality 1: Importance (score: low) + Self preservation (score: high or low)

Let’s take a somewhat frivolous example of excretion. Most of us do not assign any importance to making sure our shits are as spherical as possible. There is certainly no genetic pre-dispositions, parenting styles or societal norms associated with spherical shits.

Therefore if (in an alternate world) you heard some low-status tribals talking about spherical shits, you might start to get curious about yours.

However, it would always remain at the level of curiosity. As your filter of importance would rank a reality in which the shape of your shit matters as low.

As the perceived reality scores low in importance. Your happiness and sadness are not impacted.

Reality 2: Importance (score: high) + Self preservation (score: high or low)

Imagine, however, a world where spherical shits become very important. The humans you personally admire have the most spherical shits.

You can’t be sure whether this is co-relation or causation, but suddenly, spherical shits are SUPER important.

Now the self-preservation prism kicks into high gear.

You start comparing your shits to other peoples’ shits. Does the actual spherical shit matter? Not really. What matters is how well you compare to other people who are vying for the same resources that a spherical shit provides.

Better than most at spherical shitting? Your brain releases some sweet dopamine.

Suck at spherical shitting compared to most? Despair and sadness await you.

Over time, one tends to forget why spherical shits were fundamentally important (a proxy for hoarding scare resources and therefore prolonging the self-preservation of ‘I’).

In fact, in many cases, the brain tends to gets addicted to the dopamine hits that come out of answering “How much better/worse am I than the others?”

All of us become drug addicts, only our choice of drugs is different.

Along the way, spherical shits may start to be seen as an obviously worthy goal — and anyone who disagrees is an idiot. The fact that it’s just a proxy for self-preservation is often buried deep within our sub-conscious.

Think this example is too far-fetched?

Ever felt terrible after playing a bad game of basketball or football? As if putting a ball through an artificial obstacle had any objective impact on your life.

A lot of actions that you undertake don’t fit into the paradigm mentioned above? Well, read the second part here.

I would also recommend reading the deep-dive into the filter of importance here

Still think something is missing? Leave a comment -let’s have a proper chat!

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Vichar Mohio

Writing about topics I find interesting & original. Usually a mix of philosophy, evolutionary psychology & technology