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Reality is All in Your Head

February 4, 2013
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You may have heard that the small Asian country of Bhutan is fond of measuring and discussing Gross National Happiness. This tendency raises a number of interesting questions about values but for a moment I want to focus on a more prosaic issue: that of measuring happiness. Take these two questions: how much money are you making compared to last year? How happy are you compared to last year? One of these questions is pretty easy – take a look at your income from last year and your income from this year and simple math will give you a percent, like “I am making 97% of what I made last year.” What about happiness?

Odds are good that you can rank happy events in some sort of order. Getting married made you happier than your birthday party which made you happier than ice cream. However, things rapidly get complicated. Will chocolate ice cream or mint ice cream make you happier? I can’t answer that question except in the moment. How many times happier did your birthday party make you than ice cream does? You can give me a number but we both know it’s fuzzy at best. Experiences change in memory and you can’t compare them objectively.

The upshot of all of this is that Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness sounds sort of flaky. Happiness isn’t nearly as amenable to measurement as cash is. Happiness is, after all, all in one’s head, a phrase that we generally use to dismiss something. Reality is out there but there are some unreal or partially-real things in your head.

How could we measure happiness? In a population this isn’t too hard. Every year we could survey several thousand randomly-selected1 individuals and ask them a simple question: “Are you generally happy with your life?” If one year 85% of people say they are generally happy with their lives and the next year 67% say they are generally happy with their lives then we would have grounds to believe that this means there was actually a drop in happiness from one year to the next. We could also ask people whether they thought things were getting better or worse. Again, though, this is where things get tricky. Imagine that a respondent tells you that her life is getting better. However, you find out that she lives in the same place, has the exact same friends, works at the same job for the same pay, and just generally hasn’t experienced any very noticeable life changes since last year. Is this person lying to you? Well, she could be, but the fact is that you can’t actually get to the real data of interest which is how she thinks about her life. Perhaps last year she had a fairly average life and resented not having a glamorous life handed to her on a plate but this year she’s realized that such an attitude isn’t a good one and has come to terms with being a normal person. If so, her life would be improving from her perspective.

Let’s make this trickier yet again. If your subject’s life is improving from her perspective but you can’t figure out how is it actually improving? We’re not asking if she’s lying but merely if she’s mistaken. It’s actually easier to handle this question from an unpleasant angle. Rather than talk about happiness let’s talk about pain. Now your subject reports that a particular medical procedure hurts less the second time. It’s the same procedure, though. Does it hurt less? Well, yes, probably. Pain is all in your head. There is no pain wave or ray or particle that strikes you and causes pain. Pain is a response of your nervous system and is modulated by your nervous system. If you say that you feel less pain but nothing has physically changed the odds are good that your nervous system is processing the signal differently now and you are feeling less pain.

This is brought to a sharp point by a study a few years back which measured pain by using an MRI to look at people’s brains when they felt pain. The MRI verified that people had the expected brain activity when they said they felt pain. But why bother with the MRI? It sounds very scientific, like we’ve removed some deeply subjective element from pain measurement, but if you had the brain activity and felt no pain then you would not be in any pain.

The point I’m making is about how we treat the things in our heads that don’t have some neat relationship to things outside our heads. It’s actually exactly the same point I made last week but with a second sort of argument. Some of the most important things to you happen inside your head and so perhaps you should take that world seriously. In fact, your entire experience of the world is in your head (something I touched on when I discussed uncertainty). We have a tendency to want to distance ourselves from this and believe that we can draw clear lines between external facts and internal mental constructs but humans are actually pretty terrible at this. Our entire universe comes to us as sense-data that we integrate in our heads. When someone has some sort of mental break with reality this break works so well because reality was only ever experienced in their head anyway and so when that goes wrong there really isn’t some sort of second method of experience reality that could correct them.

I am strongly in favor of looking this fact square in the eye and taking it seriously. This can be somewhat uncomfortable because it questions the privileged place of many of our facts. In fact, I expect some people to scream about postmodernism here. Aren’t I just making the postmodern claim that all truth is subjective and so why not treat subjective things (like happiness, sadness, pain, beauty, and wonder) with the same seriousness we treat other things we don’t think are subjective with? The short answer to this is no. I would describe myself as a critical realist for those who need the labels but I actually do think there is an external reality that one can circle in on as one examines one’s biases and filters. Not everything is equally subjective. However, there is an opposite mistake I wish to avoid as well.

Postmodernism is a reaction to modernism, a philosophy that seeks to reduce the world, by and large, to objective, clearly-expressed, verifiable measurements. Modernism is near and dear to my field, science, which depends on objective, clearly-expressed, verifiable measurements to get anything done. However, postmodernism reacted against modernism for a reason (several reasons, in fact, one of which appears to have been the failure of modernist social policies to prevent WWII). Modernism got skittish about things that were hard to verify. As we’ve discussed, these include things that have a lot of meaning for people like happiness and pain. Modernism seems to have really capitalized on, and perhaps created, our sense that there are two worlds, one of facts and one of subjective feelings, moral opinions, and unverifiable impressions. Much of what Christianity deals with (good and evil, beauty and horror, rightness of intent and character) ends up in the second bin, the unreal world of things that are hard to verify. But, as I’ve been pointing out, these things live right next to things we think of as facts.

The critical difference between what I’m trying to express and the general postmodern attitude towards truth is that I do believe there is an objective world out there. (Indeed, one of my favorite pastimes here, determining authorial intent, makes no sense under most postmodern methods of reading. It’s either impossible to get at since it’s in someone else’s reality or it is worthless to achieve since you have your own equally subjectively valid ideas.) However, we really do live in our heads. While we can recognize differences between things we can experience in common (which are presumably mostly based on objectively-real phenomena) and things that are only in our heads these differences are not differences of value. If your personal, subjective reality becomes one in which biting insects crawl all over you (this is a real condition, by the way) the fact that these insects do not objectively exist simply does not matter to you. You could even (theoretically) accept that you are going crazy and there are no insects and yet still be tormented by them.

If we look down on things because they are “all in our heads” we make two mistakes. First, we devalue the world we actually live in (the one in our heads) for the world we approximate but cannot touch (the objectively-real world of unfiltered, unbiased data). This is not to deny the great power of the approximations we have but it is worth asking why their scientific and technological power grants them value that cancels out the value of other seemingly quite valuable things. Second, we deceive ourselves into believing that the world is clear-cut with some things that are clearly objective and other things that are clearly subjective. As I argued before, Christianity is a claim that some things are unclearly but still objectively true – that some things are really beautiful and good (both subjective, normally) even though people will disagree with that. Given this, it seems unwise to adopt a position that only that which is easily measurable can be valuable.
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[1] Technically the sampling is where everything gets difficult. The sample needs to represent the population without introducing bias that will skew the results. So, for instance, handing out surveys at a bar near a college will give you a sample with far too many young people. However, there are a lot of ways of dealing with this that have been worked out by pollsters over the years.

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