Sysiphus Meets our Social Brains
Get up. Go to work. Go home. Go to bed. This tropes permeates our culture — plot-lines in advertisements, movies, books, TV shows, and even conversation — it describes the mundanity of our daily existence. A woman might wake up in the morning, perform her morning routine to ready herself for work and her household for the day, commute the same route to a workplace to perform tasks that amount to the same repetitions that she did yesterday (send emails, prepare documents, perform calculations, meet with people), and then go home, perform an evening routine. And the cycle repeats itself.
The futility of our daily existence has provoked some anxiety in humans for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had an allegory for it in Sysiphus. He was too crafty, and was deceitful, and as punishment, he was forced to roll a heaving boulder up a hill each day only upon nearing the top, it was enchanted to always roll back to the bottom. He constantly labored, but always returned to his starting point.
As humans, we labor in our lives. We learn to read, we create, we try to make the world a better place. Each moment that passes in our climb, we fall closer to our starting state. Each night we return to bed. Each morning, the world is still there. It is a little more messy and requires our constant attention. The sidewalks crack. The leaves fall in the gutters. Dust settles on our furniture. Dirt accumulates on our floors. A spider might explore for a mate in the night and leave behind silk that accumulates wisps of dust. A fly enters our homes, and after a struggle with the glass pane of a window, leaves a corpse on the sill — for us to attend to.
One of the things that I often say to convey the message that I will be home tidying up and cleaning is that, “I’m battling entropy.” It’s a constant struggle. We can’t control that the world around us constantly moves toward chaos and our struggle is to make it our own. We have no control over the world around us. The things that we can control as we shove our boulders up the hill each day are our attitude and how we treat other people, who are pushing their own boulders.
Our brains are evolved to be social. In his book, Consciousness and the Social Brain, Graziono describes his theory (and some evidence for it), that the human brain constructs representations, sometimes called simulations, of other peoples’ consciousness. We attribute awareness, motivation, intent, reason, emotion, to other people, and that’s how we know that they are not inanimate objects.
It strikes me that the way that I behave and present myself to other people will influence their internal simulations of me. Their brains literally are physically influenced by interactions, and a simulation of my consciousness exists external to myself. Likewise, all of the people I know are carried as simulations in my brain.
So, while we are alone in our struggles with our own boulder, while we cannot control the world around us, we can control the bits of ourself that we present to other humans. We can control our attitudes and how we treat them. It makes our human interactions precious and powerful.
Resource: Michael S. A. Graziano,Consciousness and the Social Brain, Oxford University Press (2013).