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April 2nd, 2022


What is the mental equivalent of an event horizon? In astronomy, the event horizon is a relatively thin area that surrounds a black hole. It marks a threshold of profound change in the amount of gravity the black hole exerts on surrounding objects, and once the event horizon is touched, these gravitational changes are so profound that matter, time and space start blurring and perhaps even blend together. To come into contact with the event horizon almost certainly means there’s no coming back. 


What’s the mental equivalent of this sort of thing? As an analogy it evokes a pretty dark picture - something like depression, but it need not. Think about for example the idea of learning something new, something that creates a realization, an ah ha! moment that changes the way you see the world. Isn’t that also appropriate? It’s not exactly easy to “unlearn” something we’ve gained an awareness of.


Monitoring changes in one’s own perspective and mental well-being is incredibly valuable for detecting certain event horizons in mental life. While we can’t predict a new idea we might have or encounter tomorrow, we can become acutely aware of how our own mental machinery is trending. It can be rather courageous to admit that you’re not doing well, but it can be life saving to see that situation coming from a mile away. It’s recognizing that somewhere, recently a wrong turn was taken, and a course correction needs to be taken before the effects of that wrong turn compound to a degree that is increasingly difficult to do anything about.


That being said, there’s still a great deal of mystery that remains, which also maps onto the analogy. Black holes can also eject matter, at tremendous rates, which is rather counter intuitive to something that has more gravitational pull than anything else. What exactly goes on in the inner workings of a black hole is still a mystery - but so is the human mind. Pits of depression and anxiety can end up producing incredible results, thought it’s a rarity, and certainly not a reliable strategy. How exactly the mind works is a mystery, despite the tremendous amount of resolution we have on its tiny mechanisms.


Pondering such realms can evoke some bizarre questions: can anxiety be useful? Can happiness lead you down a dark path and backfire? If there was a 70% chance of having an incredible life after a major depressive episode, would you opt for the depression?


Framed in such emotional terms, the case for something like Stoicism becomes rather compelling, but it also highlights an even stranger question: is it possible to go through a massive depressive episode without being consumed by it? This might seem like a contradiction, but think of it in terms of anger: is it possible to experience great anger without acting on it? With the emotion swapped out, the answer is crystal clear: of course it’s possible to experience an emotion without letting it have a meaningful effect on your external reality. But the swap is a bit of a hack here. Not acting on a sudden spike in anger depends on additional factors: a certain level of self-awareness, a calculation of consequences, outcomes and a genuine ability to exist as a contradiction.


In our quest to simplify things for explanatory power, we’ve likely glossed over crucial elements of complexity. There’s many layers or overlapping realms that exist to make up a single human being. A humorous observation of this point is that multiple personality disorder implies that there is multiple personality order. We contain multitudes, as Whitman once wrote. Not only this but we all contain a different set of multitudes, and any attempt to understand a broad spectrum of people must generalize and therefore gloss over context and nuance - the very things where useful answers often lie.


The fact is that happiness might render one person totally useless, equivalent to being in a drug-induced state, whereas a little bit of anxiety might help another person get motivated to do some work that feels fulfilling at the end of the day. One way to think about this is to think about there existing an enormous array of sliders that make up a person’s particular state and abilities. Then think about how different activities impact these sliders in different ways: how a workout alters all these different levels, or how bad news effects them, or several years of consistent daily meditation.


An event horizon might be represented as a certain configuration of these sliders that if achieved, becomes extremely difficult to change back to previous ways, and the point here is that we can develop new realms within our own sense of self, and one of those realms can be a kind of monitor that touches, senses and measures all the other realms, and slowly, over time, gains a dynamic understanding of which combination of shifts in personal mental color lead potentially irreversible states. Without such a lookout, we are like ships sailing blind, bound to one day collide, leaving it to chance whether we collide with a soft and sandy beach or an iceberg in a cold and dark place.

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