Meaning and sense-making

While we don’t really think about it much everything we do, every single day of our lives and everything we think about, almost every single moment we live and breathe, is about meaning. Meaning is important to us for may reasons. Some, we know about: the brain is a meaning-making machine. It looks at the world, perceives its patterns and tries to make everything it sees make sense, whether that is at work, business in general, or life.

Others we are discovering: the brain creates meaning and sense through a series of processes.

Seeking meaning appears so intuitive that we barely stop and ask: “why?” Why do we even bother? As long as we have sufficient means to survive each day until we no longer can remain biologically alive, it should be enough.

The question is academic in the sense that I know we all want more than that. We seek meaning in life because we want to have a purpose. Purpose then provides clarity. Clarity, in turn, helps us understand why we feel what we feel and what actions to take about it.

So, really, our endless search for meaning is about answering a different question: what to do next? Understanding that is crucial to us because it helps us chart our direction which, in turn, regulates our level of fear over uncertainty and significantly reduces our sense of cognitive dissonance.

A reduction in cognitive dissonance reduces the amount of energy we expand in order to maintain our psychological equilibrium and makes our every decision better.

Better decision-making, overall, improves our chances of long-term success and survival. This is why meaning-making is so important and it’s the first thing that happens after our senses have gathered and processed information. “Only humans have a communication system that combines a finite number of meaningless elements (sounds) to a potentially infinite set of meaningful concepts.”

This is where things get really interesting, of course. Meaning-making is a skill in itself. It requires knowledge, awareness and the capacity to be willing to entertain different options with as little bias as possible. It’s the same whether we apply it to investing money, marketing, general decision-making, or something a lot more complex like deciding whether a piece of information we hear is fabricated with intent (i.e. fake) or real.

All of these activities can potentially affect our survival. This is why we continue to engage in them in an energy-intensive, cognitive engagement level. You’d think, of course, that by now we are all master sense-makers, expert at making great decisions and capable of discovering meaning in the seemingly most meaningless of things.

We’re not quite as good at it as we think we are because of the way our brain ‘sees’ things and allocates resources. The short-term gain always trumps long-term planning. There is a good reason for that, of course. In the ancient past we’ve come from, failure to survive short-term kinda negated the best of long-term planning. Evolutionary pressure may have, then, weeded out the best long-term planners in favor of those who acted quickly enough to survive the day.

Here’s the paradox of our times (and its solution): We haven’t got ‘future’ brains because everything we possess has been inherited from a past that, in itself, developed backward-looking traits. Evolutionary biologists call this “the selection shadow”. What it means is that everything we are is the result of what we had to be, not what we want to become.

That is the problem. That, also, is the solution. The brain, just like the body, is capable of epigenetic changes. By using what we have in novel ways and mixes we can ensure that the change we want to achieve, the adaptations we are looking for will start to take place and stack the odds in our favor.

And that is the ultimate aim. “Adapt. Overcome.” Is the motto of those who intentionally undertake changes designed to make them more efficient. Change “them” for “us” and you have a formula for dealing with anything, coping with anything, that the complexity of the world can throw at you and surviving it. That is how small, practical changes aimed at helping us solve immediate, pressing needs, take place and lead us to a future that is not just survivable but also desirable.

I know you have plenty of coffee. It is, after all, the weekend. You must also have something sweet: donuts, cookies, croissants and chocolate cake. A potent mix for those who are now ready to allocate a whole lot of energy into thinking about things that really need thinking about. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

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