Saturday, October 20, 2012

What is meaning?

I've been thinking about the way my brain works. In particular, my depression has given me insights into how important my brain is to my perceptions. Now, I'm not talking about how my brain receives information from my senses. What I'm talking about is how my brain responds to my senses.

For example, when I was not depressed, my town looked fascinating. I don't mean I consciously found it fascinating. I mean what I saw, the raw data, the input from my senses, was fascinating. When I was depressed, my town looked boring. Again, it wasn't boring because of any conscious thought patterns. It was boring because the raw data was boring.

Both times it was the same raw data, really, but I received the data differently, depending on whether I was depressed or not. It was as if depression was the dulling of connections in my brain. Depressed, I had fewer connections with other, similar experiences, and I experienced my town as duller.


I had a similar experience with the color yellow. I have been painting for ten years. I have paid a good deal of attention to color, especially the emotional connection I have with different colors. My color palette is based on a limited number of colors: Windsor & Newton (#1) Permanent Alizarin Crimson, (#6) Cadmium Red Deep Hue, (#8) Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue, and (#15) Cobalt Blue Hue as well as (#24) Ivory Black and (#40) Titanium White. The first indication I had (in retrospect) that I was getting depressed was that my yellow (Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue) was not as bright as it used to be. I bought four different tubes of it before I realized it wasn't the paint that was different, but rather my perception of the paint. In fact, as I sank into deep depression, my whole world got "duller."

Several years later, as I came out of my depression, my brain connections seemed to come back, and so did the brightness of my yellow (and the fascination with my town).

Doing some homework on the brain, I discovered a book by Jeff Hawkins called On Intelligence. He describes a "forward-casting" done by the brain which triggers pattern matches on "close" matches. In other words, the brain is a forward-biased organism, using past patterns to recognize current patterns and making conclusions (triggering recognition) on partial pattern matches.

What is so amazing about this process is that it means that ALL MEANING COMES FROM REPEATED PATTERNS! I'm not just talking about the meaning of an object (like a chair) or the meaning of a word (like "chair"), but ALL meaning. In other words, the human mind starts out with a pretty clean slate. Then it gets signals from its senses, which are stored. As a pattern is repeated, the pattern becomes more fixed. As a pattern becomes more fixed, the brain becomes more sensitive to that particular pattern. If the pattern is experienced enough times, the pattern begins to dominate the experience of patterns that are close to the same pattern (this is the forward bias). So my experience of my perception of my yellow paint is biased by my previous experiences of similar patterns. When I am depressed, the bias of the previously experienced patterns is muted because of a reduction in the extent to which my forward bias patterns are able to fire.

Well, if you understand that, more power to you. I am still trying to understand it myself. And is it real or just a tautology?

For now, I am enjoying the realization that all meaning comes from repeated patterns, which frees me from the attachment I have to past experiences. It's kind of like meditation. I am at peace because the impact of the forward bias has been reduced. Just as meditation encourages emptying the mind of thoughts, my realization that meaning is just an expression of my past has helped me to be at peace with all the thoughts in my head.

It has also helped me to realize that the meaning of life is much simpler than I had thought. The meaning of life, like all meaning, is just the repetition of the pattern we call "life" over time. And that meaning is forward biased, which means it is strongly influenced by past repeated patterns. I now know that there is no universal meaning of life, but only each human's experience of the repeated patterns in his or her life. And no meaning has more or less meaning than any other meaning, including this meaning!

I certainly am NOT satisfied with this blog entry, but it was important for me to get a start at it. If you want to know more, read the book!




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