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Why the World Works Differently Than You and What to Do About It

By: Dave Asprey
December 22, 2011

Why the World Works Differently Than You and What to Do About It

Biohacking is the art of carefully paying attention to the state of your body and mind, doing something about it, and seeing if it worked. If you go down that path, you’re likely to discover some patterns that are completely at odds with things you believe to be true about the world around you. There are three things you can do in that case. In fact, you probably will do all three if you’re paying attention.

  1. Decide you’re deceiving yourself and try harder to do what the world tells you should work
  2. Change your beliefs about the world to reflect what you perceive actually works
  3. Discover that the system of your experience is very different from the system of the world but neither is “wrong”

The most obvious example I’ve come across is the mistaken idea that too many calories make you fat. So like a thinking human who is fat, I went on a low calorie diet. It didn’t work very well at all and I’d get fatter every time I stopped. So my first step was to decide I was deceiving myself and was STILL eating too many calories, or too much fat, and that I should add exercise 6 days a week for 1.5 hours. After another year of suffering, my data showed I wasn’t deceiving myself, so I changed my beliefs to reflect my perception of reality. Calories don’t make you fat; If they did, I’d weigh 630 pounds today, 2+ years into my ~4000 calories per day no exercise experiment.

But there’s one problem with this. It is possible to lose weight by putting your body through a never-ending famine while stressing it with endless cardio exercises. There are real studies that show that low calorie, low fat diets do make you lose weight, at least in the short term.

So the system of the world – which tells me that calories do make you fat – is different that the system of my experience, which is that something besides calories makes you fat. But both are technically true. And epidemiological studies, which are by definition an attempt to measure the system of the world, may sometimes support the calorie myth. But they won’t measure your experience of a low calorie diet, which his that it makes you weak, slow, and unhappy, and doesn’t keep weight off.

Throughout history, materialists and scientists have focused on monitoring the world around them independent of their experience of it. Meanwhile, great artists have used an experiential view to monitor and record their experience of the world in paintings, literary works, and the like.

A materialist will tell you, based on scientific data:

  • What you fear is irrelevant as long as you don’t act on the fear
  • If you avoid a challenge, it doesn’t matter
  • Wishful thinking is stupid and a waste of time unless you act on it
  • If no one catches you doing unethical things, you’ll get away with it
  • If you want to keep something, try your best and never give up

Mark Booth, in his interesting but esoteric philosophy book about consciousness “The Secret History of the World” explains that great works of art throughout history are based on our experience of the world, which is why they describe the exact opposite of those ideas. I believe that today’s artists using quantitative instruments to measure experience of the world for the first time in history will tell you:

  • You will attract what you fear the most
  • If you convince yourself to avoid a challenge, it will come back to you some other way
  • If you do unethical things, you’ll eventually pay for it
  • Your intention and beliefs have a tangible impact on the world around you
  • To really love something, you need to let it go

My life (and this blog) have led me to have some amazing and unusual friends. I count as friends spiritual masters and shamans who fervently believe in the experiential view of the world. But I also have great hardcore rationalist friends who ascribe to the materialist view and attend Less Wrong meetings on weekends. My path has led me to believe that both of them are 100% correct, which tends to piss off both sides. The difference is that the system of your experience is very different from the system of the world.

When you measure the world, you see one set of things. When you measure yourself, you see another. Both are true. If you don’t understand this, you may be a spiritual/experiential person who beats yourself up for not being faithful enough when something you don’t like happens in the world. And if you’re a rationalist/materialist, you’ll spend lots of energy trying to figure out why your brain keeps telling you irrational things that don’t match the world around you.

I’m all about improving myself so I can better improve the world and the lives of the people around me. I want to measure myself, my happiness, my emotions, my fear, my power, and my experience. So I can hack them. But I also want to measure things outside myself, because they do have an impact on me, just as I have on them. And frankly, it’s a lot less work to change things outside yourself than it is to change yourself. Ben Franklin said it best,

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”

That’s one reason I spoke about biohacking at the first Quantified Self conference earlier this year. It’s exciting that thousands of people are measuring their world, measuring their behavior, quantifying their feelings and experience of the world, and correlating the data. This hasn’t happened before on a broad scale, mostly because computers and sensors weren’t cheap enough.

I believe that the data will show that both the materialist worldview and the experiential worldview have a place in the world. I’m even more certain that your own program of biohacking or upgrading yourself will progress far more quickly if you learn to live in – and use – both systems simultaneously.

It’s a narrow path to walk; if you veer too far off on one side you risk being stuck in the lotus land of ineffective spiritual mush as you try to make the world match your experience, and on the other you risk becoming mired in mechanistic self-deception with a heart of steel and Novocain as you attempt to make your experience match the world around you. Both are a waste of time and energy and make you less effective.

This blog is about all the tools I’ve found to hack the world around me and to hack my perception of it. You simply won’t reach your full potential without embracing your spiritual/experiential side just as fervently as you embrace your rational/mechanistic side.

This isn’t new, you know. It’s just yin and yang with more flashing lights.