It’s hard being a Person.

What is it like being a Person? This question is difficult to tackle because it is by its very nature a subjective idea. Being a person seems to be a distinctly human quality. It encapsulates the experience of being ‘you’. As I am sitting here writing these thoughts in my head, I am very much aware of being aware. Of being myself. I think everyone has access to certain moments, when you realise that what you are, is more like a collage of experiences and ideas, rather than a single unified object. The understanding that you have of yourself appears to be related to your name, your credentials, your job, your family and so on. It is the history of your existence that has created the ego that you call ‘I’. But with some contemplation you can break down the ideas that you have about yourself and in some way bypass the ego. You already know that you’re playing a character. Your behavior is constantly changing depending on what situation you find yourself in. Your thoughts are always re-visiting old memories and projecting both positive and negative events into the future.

Most of the time, you are doing, saying and thinking a certain way to protect whatever identity you have created for yourself. You might see yourself as a confident and social person, or the introvert that doesn’t like people, or the activist, the scientist, the religious person and so on. When thinking about the different aspects of your personality, it might become somewhat obvious, that you are not really any of these things. Your identity is simply a mask that you constantly wear so that you don’t feel scared of the reality of the situation. And what is the reality of the situation? You have no idea who you are, what you are and what life is all about. However, you look around and everyone is acting completely normal. You think to yourself that they must know what is going on right? Well, they don’t. No one does. The more you learn, the more you come to understand how everyone is holding onto certain belief systems. They are creating a coherent story of themselves and the world around them. And like most stories, they are not actually true.

It is very difficult to escape from the familiarity of being a Person. Of being You. Meditation and certain drugs help in this respect, but in general, it is difficult to shake off the illusion that you have created for yourself. The pain that you have suffered in the past, your problems, your thoughts and dreams and whatever you use to define yourself. These things are all putting you at the center of your subjective universe. It is really all about you isn’t it? Even the anxiety and dread that you have for the death of loved ones can be traced back to what it would mean to you. How you will be alone, or how you will miss them and how your other family members will suffer. When we break the illusion of being a person, we can in some way appreciate the world in a deeper sort of level. Things become less personal. You stop seeking to avoid pain or obtain pleasure, and simply exist in a world that is endlessly fascinating.

Being a person is hard because it requires you to have an identity that needs to constantly be maintained. Every single event in your life is processed in such a way that relates to you. When someone for example says something mean to you, or when you are not being successful in whatever field you have chosen, that damages the coherent story that you have created for yourself. Suddenly, you start to question whether the identity you have created for yourself is valid. This requires you to either discard that identity or find evidence for its validity and hence risk causing even further damage.  It doesn’t help that the current media exploits the need for an identity and constantly tries to make you identify with whatever product or service they are selling.

Politicians want you to identify with their particular ideology in order for you to vote for them and keep the current socioeconomic system running. Some people go to the other extreme, where they only identify with conspiracy theories and decide that everyone else happen to be ‘Sheeple’ and don’t know the so-called ‘truth’. The problem is that whatever meme is generated and passed around, it can only represent a caricature of reality.

Things are almost never simple and straightforward, and a lot of what you believe to be correct is probably wrong. It takes a lot of mental energy to remove the mask of identity and see the world the way it actually is, because at that point, there are no filters that can block the vast amounts of conflicting information. Not only are you going to struggle to process all the information that is coming in, but you can get overwhelmed by the shear volume of information that you will never be able to processes in the first place. It is completely impossible for you to read and understand every single book ever published. Actually, even if you were able to read and understand every single book ever published, you would still be unable to fully understand the world, as the sum of human knowledge does not come close to describing the world in all its detail. With the tiny fraction of information that you have, you are expected to act decisively every single day. At the same time, since you presumably live in a democracy, you are pressured to vote on topics that you can’t possibly understand. The modern world is so complicated that your ape brain simply can’t keep up.

This is one of the many reasons that I think we all have an identity that we cling onto for dear life. It might even be a survival mechanism for us to simply stay sane in an insane world. But I do think there is a way to remove this filter created by our identity and still function in the world. We can try to do this by learning to accept uncertainty. We need to be humble enough to know that our understanding of the world is extremely limited and try to process as much information as we can without a biased point of view. If we can remove ourselves from the center of our own universes, we might be able to also remove the need for an identity in the first place, and observe the world the way it really is. We can maybe then, see a glimpse who we are, what we are and where we are going.

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You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/its-hard-being-a-person

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Meme Generators and Information Overload.

Super View of Glendale and Phoenix
Image Source: http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/iss035e005438.jpg

Imagine this scene. A middle-aged man, sitting on his couch, next to him his similarly aged wife. Behind them you can see pictures of their little family. They have two kids, a boy and a girl. The picture is showing them at some birthday party, probably the girls’ birthday party. The wallpaper in the background is white, with a pattern showing little blue squares. Everything appears perfectly normal, other than the fact that you notice the couple are not really talking. The expression on their face is that of mild concentration. They do smile from time to time, and might be saying a few words to each other, but are both mainly staring away, towards a central location. They appear content in some way. You keep watching them and notice that they must have been sitting there for at least two hours. Whatever is capturing their attention must be very powerful.

No one can really sit still for that period of time without doing anything. I mean, unless they are in some deep meditation, otherwise it is pretty hard to sit still. People generally get bored and restless unless something is capturing their attention. Whatever this thing is, it must be pleasurable as well. Humans are constantly seeking pleasure and this couple appears to be receiving it. Could they be high on a drug?

The camera zoomed out and the scene has now expanded. The answer has become obvious. Yes, they are on a drug. A very specific kind of drug. They are being exposed to an electronic meme generator. A TV. Why do I call TV a drug? Well a drug is a physical substance that is able to modify your biochemistry. In this case, the TV is able to change your biochemistry trough rapidly changing patterns of light. Your brain is essentially being introduced to specific memes through your eyes. It is modulating your thoughts in real-time. Through this modulation, it can alter your view of reality.

As the camera zooms out further, the scene now covers an entire apartment block. You can see that in almost every flat, people are sitting and watching these meme generators. Of course they aren’t just TV’s. They are staring at laptop, phone and tablet screens. In essence, this means that all over this planet, people’s view of reality is being modulated by the memes that they are exposed to. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the relatively recent introduction of mass media has had a profound effect on how people view the world. As you are reading these very words, your view of reality is being changed.

This has to be taken seriously. The memetic lenses that you observe the world through does in some way define how you relate to yourself, other people and society at large. If you sit at home and watch an hour of E!, being exposed to how Kim Kardashian deals with her daily life, or getting updated on the most recent celebrity scandal, then those become the major memes that guide your life.

This aspect of modern living is in some ways hard to address because its impact is not immediately clear. It can be compared to smoking cigarettes. Having one or two cigarettes is really not going to do much damage to you, but over an extended period of time, it can become lethal. Although the exposure to memes can have a negative influence on your life, they can also be used to enhance it immensely. There is no debate that the advent of the Internet has advanced society in a way that was simply not possible in the past. I think of it as the great equaliser of memes, because it is able to give every meme a chance to propagate itself. The environment that the Internet has created for the free exchange of information, regardless of the content, is truly one of the hallmarks of our age. It has become a vital tool that can support and empower individuals to conquer ideas previously unchallenged. But of course, the darker side of this technology is found within its very nature. Because there is no discrimination on the quality and type of memes that are propagated, we can be exposed to negative and disempowering memes.

Because this technology is a new part of our culture, we have yet to evolve or invent new defense mechanisms to deal with the negative memes that it creates. These negative and low quality memes can range from cute puppies and kittens, to celebrity gossip, through to conspiracy theories, pseudo-science propaganda, including false and dangerous ideologies (both religious and non-religious). The negative memes (nemes for short) take advantage of our more primal and subconscious urges. They make use of our ‘lazy’ subconscious mind, as it tends to gravitate towards a simplistic view of the world and of complex issues. We urge for a quick answer, solution and preferably a picture instead of text. We even have shorthand notation for the fact that we just didn’t want to read a long piece of text (Too long, didn’t read – tl;dr). Our minds are naturally inclined to pay attention to negative information rather than positive information (for good evolutionary reasons) and this paints a picture of the world that is both dark and inaccurate.

Additionally, the nemes are very good at protecting themselves from being attacked and replaced by other memes. They appear to do this by latching onto a persons mind, and subsequently blocking the introduction of any facts that oppose the description of reality that the neme is producing. There are many examples of these nemes, but a particularly clear example is given by the anti-vaccine movement. Here we have a group of people who believe that vaccines are bad for a range of religious and pseudo-scientific reasons. Some believe that vaccines are OK, but that children are given too many, or that vaccines are not needed, because they do not see clear evidence that a certain disease will kill their child. Others mistrust the companies that produce the vaccines and think that the vaccines might cause other problems such as autism.

The problem here is not that these people have concerns about the drugs that their children might get, but rather they mistrust the facts that are presented to them. They seem to lack the defence mechanisms that cause other people to change their minds. The ability to think critically and evaluate scientific evidence is a very powerful tool that is used to filter out bad ideas, and these people seem to lack these tools. The anti-vaccine neme has exploited the weak mental defences that those people have and thus, it becomes very difficult to remove.

The problem that this neme has on the world is now significant. Recent outbreaks of almost extinct diseases have created a significant problem for the medical community. The problems caused by the propagation of nemes on the internet goes much further than this example, and includes the spread of radical ideas such as The ‘War on Drugs’, The ‘War on terror’ and extreme versions of religious and secular ideologies. The point to recognise here is that all these nemes have been both spread and countered by the availability of the internet, and the new media in general.

I think that it is important to protect ourselves from the nemes that are being spread around, and the first step in doing that is to actually admit that we are susceptible to their effects. It is very important that as you are reading this blog, you are able to take something of value from it. This means that you need to engage your conscious mind, and  assess what nemes might have infected you. What beliefs do you hold that are very dear to you? Is your particular religion, scientific understanding and general world view accurate? Is your position on issues regarding your physical and mental health clear?

I am asking you these questions directly because they will undoubtedly affect the way you see and behave in the world. If your view of the general population is self-interested, hedonistic and immoral, then that picture of the world might be created by one or many different nemes. How confident are you about issues surrounding what is right and wrong, or good or bad? Are drugs bad? Is sex bad? Is gay sex bad? Again, if these questions cause you to jump to a conclusion, then chances are that you need to assess your reasons very carefully. Start by assuming that you are wrong. Then go from there.

Finally, as you spend your day surfing the web, going on Facebook and reading the news, make sure that you are aware of the impact that these memes are having on you. Be very critical of what you let into your mind, and try to gather as many positive memes (pemes) as you can. This means that in the same way that you go to the gym to stay healthy and exercise, make sure that you listen, watch and read content that gives your mind some exercise. You don’t have to be a scientist to watch lectures on physics, biology and chemistry. You can watch videos on how the universe is created, how consciousness might work and what some of the most intelligent people alive have said about life in general. You only have this very moment to be alive, and whatever you decide to expose yourself to, make sure it is worth it. Because in the end, your mind is all you have, so make sure you protect it.

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You can listen to/download the audio version of this post below:

https://soundcloud.com/fouad-al-noor/memegeneratorsandinfooverload