We search for it in in art, relationships, religion—but meaning is actually made inside of our brains.
Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl argued that humans have a “will to meaning.” This inner pull toward purpose may be a biological instinct. “All human beings crave—more than sugar—meaning,” says Thomas Metzinger, a professor of neuroethics and neurophilosophy at Johannes Gutenberg University.
We search for it in the outside world—in art, relationships, religion—but meaning is actually made inside of our brains.
Last year, Yale visiting professor Katrin Preller and her collaborators published the first-ever fMRI study on how our brains create meaning. They found, in short, that meaning can be manufactured: Giving LSD to participants caused them to find meaning in once-mundane songs. The control group did not experience meaningfulness from these songs, and the differences registered in participants’ brain activities.
Preller used LSD because it mimics some of the brain’s own neurochemicals, like serotonin. When her study showed how LSD produced meaningful experiences in the brain, it in effect confirmed that our own brains do the same thing, only with chemicals made “in-house.”
“Meaning does not have a physical existence or follow the laws of physics,” wrote the psychologist Roy Baumeister. Meaning is a perception, like color. Humans see color because of the way our eyes and brains work, not because reality is actually colorful. It’s not. Rather, objects have certain reflective properties that our human brains perceive as distinct colors. Most other animals do not see the same colors we see. The Harvard psychologist turned spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said that “We do not experience the external world directly, but via our mind’s best guess as to what is going on out there.”
Sometimes, our mind’s meaning-making faculties misfire. In the first few seconds of a seizure, some people feel like everything around them has holy significance, that even a room’s furniture is divinely placed. And sometimes this perception falters, which helps explain why people with clinical depression or severe Parkinson’s Disease—a degenerative nervous system disorder—fail to marvel at a just-born baby or a piercing sunset. Meaningfulness, like anything biological, is fallible.
It’s also fickle. One day we’re full of meaning; another day, in the same life, in the same phase, we fail to find it: We hate our job, we feel that we chose the wrong partner, we don’t understand our children, we don’t get what the point is. "Sometimes we’re good at creating meaning—we’re motivated, happy and beaming—and sometimes we don’t manage,” Metzinger says.
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Preller’s research may eventually give people more control over their feelings. She says the most immediate implications of her Yale study are pharmacological. Researchers can use their knowledge of the chemical makeup of drugs like LSD to understand how our brains’ own neurochemicals create the same effects, and how to replicate them. Someday people won’t need to trip on LSD to artificially experience meaning.
“Meaning pills” could save lives. But they could also help us, to everyone’s detriment, cheat. Our species’ search for meaning “drives us forward,” Metzinger says. “It elevated biological evolution into cultural evolution.” Why hunt for meaning—why make art, have families, work hard, be generous, believe, belong to a community—when you can pick it up at the pharmacy?
In other words, growing knowledge of how and why our brains create meaning could be abused. The subversive aspect of Preller’s study, Metzinger says, is that drugs “might give some people a deep experience of meaning where there is none.” One definition of meaning is “full of significance.” Feeling that something is meaningful when it’s not important is, literally, wrong.
In Metzinger’s eyes, meaningfulness should be justified: It’s not good to think about everything, he says in a voice that sounds eerily like the original Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, “Oh! I feel so— meaningful!”
Regardless, Preller and others are a ways off from reliably producing meaning with a pinpointed prescription. The best way to find meaning for now is how humans have always done it: by trying to understand their lives in one cohesive narrative, rather than as a random series of events. Meaning is story, a sense that “this is the way things hang together,” Metzinger says.
Meaning also comes from “experiencing yourself as a self over time,” Metzinger says—a theory that researchers like Texas A&M psychology Professor Rebecca Schlegel have validated empirically. In one study, Schlegel and her coauthor write that research has “continually found that the amount people feel they know about their true selves positively predicts…judgments of meaning in life.”
Most people make meaning automatically. “Our lives are nothing but a quite improbable series of coincidences,” as Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Stephen Dubner on Freakonomics Radio. But people find that to be “a somewhat demoralizing philosophy of life. They prefer to think that their lives have deeper meaning.” They don’t like to conclude that they could have wound up happy with thousands of other spouses, etc. So they don’t. They make up, maybe unconsciously, convincing reasons why they are where they are, who they are, and with a certain person.
These explanations pump serotonin through our brains: a neurochemical cause to wake up, try harder, and smile. “Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself,” the physicist Richard Feynman once said. But as neuroscience illuminates the biology behind what makes our lives matter, meaning is one illusion we might want to keep.
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