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April 5th, 2021
It’s said that at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, there was an inscription that read “Know Thyself”. It’s powerful command, one that seems to encapsulate so much of what it means to be a thing alive that experiences this world. It carries a weight that seems to invoke the sense that to know one’s self is to somehow know what life is. The two are inextricably linked. There is so much more to a person than merely their personal preferences, which might be the most superficial interpretation of the Delphic axiom, but it might not be a bad place to get started.
In fact, something as mundane and ordinary as personal preferences might be the only place to start on the quest to know yourself. Kids are fairly enthusiastic on this point. They pout at the brussel sprouts and grow wide eyed at the chocolate ice cream. I like this. I don’t like that. But of course, this kind of preference is pretty rudimentary compared to an individual decades older who marvels at the delicious preparation of brussel sprouts while having dinner at a fancy restaurant and doesn’t pass up on the chocolate soufflé either. It perhaps gets a bit deeper when someone understands the neurochemistry behind these experiences and why we might desire one so much more over another.
However, what such preferences really constitute within the topic of knowing yourself is that they comprise a pattern. Notice the connection to habits. As it’s been said before, we are what we repeatedly do. Preferences fall into the same rubric, they describe what we will probably gravitate to again, and again.
Pattern recognition is the first part of learning. The next part is to understand the pattern so well that it can be manipulated for a particular effect. A practical example helps.
Say you have a lot of work to get tone today. One thing that often pops up just when we are getting close to starting this work is a pang of hunger. The self-deceptive logic is familiar to everyone: eating is important. You need fuel to get things done right? Plus the sensation of hunger itself is distracting, annoying really. Wouldn’t it be best just to get this pressing issue out of the way by taking a little time to eat first?
This is part of a pattern of experience that we are all familiar with, and it’s got some lies laced into it. Fact is, for the modern human, you almost certainly have plenty of ‘fuel’ to get your work done. Hunger might be a signal that blood sugar is low, but it is in no way an indication that your resources for energy are depleted. Only when you’re hungry and you can quite literally see the contour of most of your bones and the definition between every muscle can you then perhaps say that hunger is an indicator that resources for energy are low. For the most part, hunger is just timed response of ghrelin, which is a hormone that creates the feeling of hunger. Ghrelin doesn’t have too much correlation to blood glucose levels. It’s controlled mostly by how much eating has occurred in the last few days, the frequency and the amount.
If you think about it, it would be pretty silly for us to evolve hunger in response to low energy levels, as though we need the energy in food to go do things. In fact, the exact opposite makes more sense. Evolution has primed us with a system that gives us access to more energy when there’s no food around because there’s a practical necessity to get up and go look for food, which is of course, going to take some energy to accomplish. Once that food thing is satisfied, there’s little evolutionary need to get up and get going. Again, it’s the opposite. The food has been procured. Now it’s time to sit back and relax and pack on the pounds. Hence the modern term “food coma”
Now here’s a question. When someone is going through that self-deceptive internal logic about why it’s important to eat before getting to work, why doesn’t the thought about a food coma come up? This is understanding the pattern on a deeper level, and the path to manipulating it is only one easy step away: its the realization that eating would actually be very counter productive and make the likelihood of getting anything done lower, than if the hunger I just grudgingly ignored and all attempts are made to dive right into the work at hand.
The productivity world is all about these sorts of ‘hacks’. But they aren’t really hacks at all. Such things are simply part of the human pattern understood with enough depth to manipulate that pattern toward larger goals.
The tragic thing about something as simple as what to eat, when to eat, and it’s impact on other parts of life is that many, many people go their whole life without discovering such practical manipulations. Most people are directed by the whim and will of their impulses and the way those impulses conflict with external obligations, like work and family.
Of course there is a universe of depth beyond such simple and pragmatic examples, such as knowing what you are like outside of your own pattern. As Robert Sapolsky once wrote “Know thyself, especially in differing circumstances.”