The meaning of meaning
For millennia philosophers have been asking themselves about the meaning of life? More recently psychologists address the problem of depression as a state where life loses meaning for the sufferer. Linguists talk about the meaning of words and sentences. It seems that the word meaning has several interpretations which range from simple definitions to more profound existentialist questioning. This has prompted me to reflect on what is the meaning of meaning? But I wanted a scientific explanation based on how the brain makes meaning of the world.
After a long search I believe I found an answer that satisfies my curiosity.
As we grow up our brain retains information about the world surrounding us. Most animals, including humans evolved to identify regular patterns and behaviours. We are aware of the regularity of the seasons or monsoons, that the harshness of winter is followed by the mild spring and summer, we are aware of regular animal migrations and seasonal foods. Identifying patterns is crucial for our survival and our brain is hard-wired to see meaningful patterns even when there are none. Primate communication depends very much from facial expressions and as such we see imagery of faces in the most random images.
As we progress through life we learn new things and because they have not been previously observed, we search our memory for information that we know. We compare the novelty with the information we have acquired and stored from previous experiences. Then, once we found the similarities we attribute the novel object with the characteristic of classes of known objects. Our survival depends on our ability to organise our knowledge in categories. This object is for drinking and that one for cutting. This place is rich in food and safe to forage while that place is also rich in food but full of predators and dangerous. As we categorise each new piece of information comparing it to what we already know we feel comfortable because there is some congruence in the novel piece of learning. Rather than learning about the full characteristics of the novel object, we simply learn about the small differences and everything else is like what we already know. This saves memory allocation.
However when we are exposed to situations that find little resemblance to what we already know, we enter a stage of high incongruence and the new situation, lacking elements of comparison, makes no sense to us.
The feeling of losing the meaning of life happens because we have changed our familiar thinking patterns. Things that before were readily accepted due to social acculturation, start being questioned. Those things lose meaning and we need to find some new form of thinking to replace what we are now questioning.
Questions about the meaning of life start popping up about the same time we are seeking our own identity. For example about age 16, teenagers start questioning who they are, and seek to build a persona that is different from their parents, but this search is a process that requires the destruction of previously accepted patterns and the building of new ones. This period is then characterised by instability since the adoption of different behaviours is incongruent to what is already known.
Things have meaning when there is some overlap between what we have learnt, what is stored in our memory and what we perceive. We are constantly involved in processes that require pattern matching.
But we need to be careful about overgeneralising this concept and be aware of the difference between pattern and template.
A pattern implies of repetition. We can say of Portuguese tiles that they have beautiful blue patterns, or that an person addicted to drugs has fallen in a pattern of behaviour that is difficult to escape. Patterns repeat themselves in similar ways. However templates are simply the scaffolding that supports the expression of those patterns. For example in the squared template of Portuguese tiles, there are many possible pattern variations.
When we change patterns of behaviour, we keep a great deal of the template and it is this template that provides us with meaning when we go through life changes. For example the act of pairing up is a social template that can be expressed through different patterns. So if a person is first involved in a monogamous marriage and later changes her life to live with two boy-friends, the template is the need for the relationship but the pattern changed from monogamy to polyandry. If the person is forced into polyandry the novel situation may contribute to a loss of meaning, because such situation has never been found before, so there is nothing to compare it with in her database of previous experiences.
Depression is usually permeated by a sense of meaninglessness and this lack of meaning reinforces depression. People fall in a vicious cycle where everything learnt starts being questioned. Depression is for many creative people a sign of rebirth. The mind is going through a spring cleaning process throwing out the old to build a novel set of information very different from the previous one. This may explain why very creative usually suffer from depression. Then, as the new insights start kicking in, the new self emerges from darkness. Some people refer to this process as a metamorphosis, but I would disagree. A metamorphosis is a change from a form to a completely different one. I would say that it is more like moulting. Moulting is a process that occurs in arthropods. These animals are characterised by having a hard carapace which prevents them from growing. In order to grow bigger they need to shed the carapace. But during this process they need to hide in a safe place since they are vulnerable to predators and damage to their inner skin. As they lie in their safe hole, their sift body grows in a hurry and then the new carapace hardens over the larger body. They can then emerge from safety to face the vicissitudes of life again.
Depression is like the moulting process of the mind. It strikes when we need to grow. When life gets too monotonous. When the life that we have been living loses its meaning, because we are learning novelties that have no matching to our previous experiences, we may be thrown into a state of meaningless confusion which leads to depression. Depression arises as a consequence of incongruence, but we will emerge from it with a new shiny armour that will enable us to think differently and creatively.
This pattern-matching approach can explain why this loss of meaning strikes in when we lose our goals, our sense of self, loved ones, broken relationships. It is a change from the pattern we know to a different situation that requires a new pattern. This induces incongruence. It is the feeling of congruence between the past and the present that we call meaning. When it is disturbed, the sense of meaning is lost.