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0: The Origin Story
Why I’m writing a 52-week curriculum on Stoicism, Socratic questioning, and neuroscience
In the last three years I’ve had:
Two brain MRIs
A heart CT scan
A handful of ultrasound tests
At least half a dozen blood tests
There’s nothing physically wrong with me. Nothing major at least. Things showed up here and there, some more concerning than others. But nothing that posed a real, concrete threat.
What I did figure out through all of this testing is that I have health anxiety. At its most severe, it activates an OCD-like attention to every minor symptom I may or may not have, from the smallest of physical sensations my body is telling me about.
I’ve gone through counseling. I’ve read book after book on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It has helped in spots. The central thesis behind my therapy and CBT books I read was that illness at this age is especially rare - and that I am blowing the odds and the symptoms out of proportion. Assuming this thesis, the CBT solution is to notice when anxiety is escalating, and deploy tactics and new behavioral patterns to short circuit and de-escalate. On the whole, it did indeed help me to understand my patterns of behavior and introduce some more helpful responses to stressors.
Yet, it never gave me any true peace. I think CBT can be effective for many types of anxieties and behaviors, but health anxiety, mine at least, stems from one of our most fundamental, built-in, emotional responses. One that my therapists would sometimes acknowledge, but never readily talk about: death.
Frustrated with how much of my life was being sacrificed to irrational worries about health, I picked up Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations in the midst of a health anxiety downswing. Aurelius and the stoics were not only willing to talk about death, they use it as a centerpiece for introspection. Instead of trying to convince me nothing was wrong with my health, Aurelius concedes that maybe something is wrong. It could even be fatal. Then he asks, if so, so what?
Think of yourself as having died, and as having finished the life you have lived until now. The portion that is allowed to you beyond this, live out according to nature.
Reading this entry from Aurelius was the first time I felt truly at peace since my health anxiety had started to take over my mental state some three years prior. It gave me permission to acknowledge a worst case scenario, accept it, and move on. My worries about health are irrational not because of the rareness of disease as traditional therapy argued; my worries about health are irrational because me having the disease (or not) is out of my control.
This is not to say that reading Aurelius’ and Seneca’s writings flipped a switch and solved all my problems overnight. Our brains don’t work like that. But, they presented a new perspective. One that seems especially hard to find in today’s commentary where everything is always “going to be ok”.
Marcus Aurelius and Seneca were my entry point into the uncannily insightful world which can be unveiled by reading the thoughts of the world’s best minds from hundreds or thousands of years ago. As I began reading them daily, it fascinated me how relevant the writing was to our modern world. It gave me a sense of perspective which isn’t possible unless you step outside the invisible silo of thought that encompasses everyone alive today in our narrow time in history.
I laugh reading some of the lines from Seneca and Epictetus and Hume more than I ever have reading a fiction book. I get giddy with excitement when they better articulate the exact thought that’s been abstractly floating around in my head for years. When I’m reading these historic minds, I feel a sense of perspective and connection to centuries past. A connection I’ve never felt at museums looking at lifeless historic artifacts. In a world where things feel like they’re changing faster than ever, reading these minds struggle against the same problems can bring a deep sense of peace that our world is more the same than it is different.
This next 52 weeks will be a quest to combine the greatest minds our species has produced with the scientific knowledge they didn’t have the privilege to study. To flood old lines of inquisition which dried up too soon with new data. It will explore how we can provide perspective and long-term thinking in a world of hot takes, and adventure into how we can better understand our own minds to become calmer and wiser selves.
This is something I’m doing for me. I’m publishing so that others can read, but ultimately it’s an exploration I want to take on for myself.
Writing is an incredible tool for distilling our own thoughts. Our brains work on pattern matching and an intuition which served us well in the jungle but leaves us with a tangled web of “gut feelings” which we can hardly explain to ourselves where they come from. Writing is a counterpart to intuition. It pairs well with our brain’s natural aptitudes. Writing forces us to summon the very examples that formed our intuitions and gives them more concrete place to live. Writing organizes the mind.
More succinctly, in the words of the stoic, Seneca:
You may say, “For what purpose did I learn all these things?” But you need not fear that you have wasted your efforts; it was for yourself that you learned them.
The topics of stoicism, Socratic questioning, and neuroscience are all distinct and effective approaches to better understanding our own minds.
In contrast to many other philosophies, Stoic philosophy is grounded in application. It’s this ready-to-deploy focus that made it so popular amongst the Romans.
The Mount Rushmore of Stoic philosophy consists of three main players: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. Each comes from wildly different backgrounds, yet found wisdom and comfort in a similar philosophy of life. Interestingly, while each is considered by modern academics as “belonging to stoicism”, they didn’t constrain themselves in the same way. Seneca often borrowed words directly from Epicurus, finding the good in the words of a philosopher whose views often contradicted his own. In doing this alone, we can learn a lot from what he has to say.
Our modern intuition of the word ”stoicism” does not line up well with the philosophy. There is encouragement to analyze emotions and responses, similar to what you might find in Zen buddhism, popular meditation, or cognitive behavioral therapy. But it is hardly a philosophy embodied by harboring emotions. Those with a Christian background may find a strong overlap with the Serenity Prayer in Epictetus’ words:
Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.
Regarding the Socratic method, Ward Farnsworth, a professor of law and lover of philosophy, boldly writes:
If I were pressed for a one-word opposite of the Socratic method, a strong candidate would be Twitter.
In short, I’m going to explore how Socratic questioning can be used in a hot-take driven world. How can we get people to stop and think with us without it devolving into heated argument. But more importantly, how we can have these difficult, but rewarding, conversations internally with ourselves.
Socratic questioning teaches us how to drop the assumptions that we hold so dearly, but largely unconsciously. Dropping assumptions, along with leveraging analogies, are two of the most fruitful and reproducible forms of idea generation that I’ll be exploring.
Despite spending all day every day in our heads, we have little idea about the mechanisms of thought. Our scientific understanding is still rudimentary. While MRI scans can give us a bit more guessing power than we’ve historically had, our knowledge of the brain remains majority theory. Until the science catches up, I think our best bet at gleaning insight into our process of thought is by observation.
To date, the biggest breakthroughs on how our brains work have come as the result of anomalies. When everything works as expected, we gain only morsels of information. Unfortunately, the results only become more interesting after malfunctions arise. The tragic case of Phineas Gage and his non-fatal brain injury told us more about the human brain than years of non-invasive experiments could. But, like Kepler mapping out planetary motion without knowing the underlying science of gravity, we can also learn about our minds at the every day scale through observation.
Before Newton “discovered” gravity, Kepler created his three laws of planetary motion. Without knowing the why, he was able to predict the future through observation alone. Similarly, by introspecting our own thoughts and behavior, we can chart out general patterns and start to understand how we think more clearly - all before science uncovers the precise mechanisms of our brains.
Our biases, our misspellings, our miscalculations - they all provide valuable data points into our how our brains work. Organized scientific research on this topic, often dubbed “behavioral economics”, gives us new data sets to work with. Combined with the latest neuroscience research, we’re in a better position than ever to try to uncover, or at least theorize on, the “secret springs” of our minds.
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