The Ghost in the Machine

I’ve spent a lot of time lately trying to reconcile my past. A new decade is upon us, and I’m about to enter my 35th year on this planet, which in my opinion, are both significant signposts along life’s journey. More than half of those years have been “hard years,” and for the first time in my life, I can actually tend to my wellbeing for a while. 

My younger brother recently had his first child and for months he’s joked with me not to upload any shit onto my nephew’s brand-new hard drive. It’s a humorous, but accurate take on the human mind. I spend a lot of time writing code, which in its most simplistic form, tells a computer how to behave to certain inputs. If A, then B or C. If A, then C, then D or E. 

The human mind behaves in a similar manner. The body receives an input, which triggers neurotransmitters in the brain, such as, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and the like. The firing of these neurotransmitters results in something tangible in the body like, pain or pleasure, depending on the input. 

To an extent, we can program our minds, but perhaps, not nearly as accurately as we’d like. It’s hard to undo thousands of years of evolution. Evolution, by the way, isn’t smart. Its only job is to ensure our genes survive from this generation to the next. It’s a thoughtless kind of thing. 

For example, up until our grandparent’s era, food scarcity meant eating loads of whatever calorie laden foods we could get our hands on. This gene lives with us today and doesn’t do us any favors when there’s a McDonalds on every corner. It’s why, ahem, we’re all overweight, and 425 million people worldwide have diabetes. 5 million people die from it every year. The global economic costs are an estimated US$727 billion.        

In programming, we’d call this “legacy code,” which is generally dated, poorly written, bulky, inefficient, unstable, and wrought with bugs. As a species, we’ve managed to live for millennia, but we’re not exactly optimized in the way that we think we are. 

Collectively, all it would take is one security flaw, like a virus for instance, to wipe out the majority of our species. Please vaccinate your children. This is a security patch that helps to prevent, you know, the extinction of our species.

Individually, we’re all flawed in many ways, and this is how we all go.       

As I’ve gotten into the complicated business of tending to my wellbeing, the central question has become; how can we, or I, in this sense, more accurately program the mind?

The hard drive is where we store information on a computer. The brain is where we store information on a body. The retrieval of this information results in outputs. In essence, our memories inform our present. High quality information, results in high quality outputs. High quality storage, results in high quality efficiency. Both suffer from available memory, age, damage and degradation.

Our entire lives are stored here. All of it’s just memories, it’s all so fragile, and it can all be erased in an instant. 

I’ve lost both of my grandmothers to Alzheimer’s over the last two years. The brain leaving the body is the saddest thing to witness. A life isn’t life at all without our memories of it. We are not living flesh. We are living memories. Whether the body remains, when the memories leave the brain, we become lifeless. 

It’s been 35 years since I’ve had a brand-new hard drive like my nephew’s. At my age, it’s almost impossible to even imagine what that might look like, or so I thought, until the first time I held my newborn nephew in my arms. He looked up at me, and his eyes were searching for answers, but there was nothing there, because his hard drive was empty. 

In that moment, I quietly wished upon him, a better life than my own, one that took better care of his hard drive, a gentler life, one filled with more uploads of love and happiness. 

As I did this, however, I remembered holding each of my grandmothers for the last time, their eyes were also searching for answers. Their lives, like mine, were filled with hard years, yet I’d imagine if given the choice between all those painful memories or nothingness, they would’ve invited the former back inside like an old friend standing outside in the cold. 

Interestingly, in philosophical concepts of the mind, this is one of the few agreed upon points concerning mind/body dualism. More specifically, every human being has both a body and a mind, which are connected, with the exception of the mentally incompetent and infants-in-arms. 

In these instances, the brain isn’t connected to the body, because the brain isn’t connected to anything. It’s kind of a copout. Still, for the rest of us, we could better connect with our brains.

With today’s technological advancements, it’s possible, although not probable, that my mind lives well beyond its fleshy form, but for now, I want to ensure that my mind lives well.   

The human experience often requires remarkable moments, such as, a birth, a death, a birthday, or the turn of a decade, to awaken us from the mundanity of everyday experience. Certain switches flip over in the brain, once flipped, there’s a kind of surge that flows throughout the body, which is more powerful and prescient, than say, getting coffee.

Remarkable moments, however, are rare, and in many cases, fleeting. After all, the majority of life is comprised of unremarkable moments. We’re on this planet for a short period of time, we’ll impact few, we’ll be loved by less, we’re mostly unremarkable, and yet, the ego convinces us of the opposite. In essence, our lives are simply not as important as we believe them to be.  

The average person, however, tends to believe their life is important, or at minimum, could be. The latter is actually a vital aspect of human survival. If one can’t wake up in the morning with the belief that their future might be better than their past, or present, they might as well not wake up at all. 

Like most things in life, if properly managed, this is not problematic to one’s existence. Problematically, that’s rarely the case. 

It’s important to understand that survival is distinct from existence. Survival is living flesh. Existence is living memories. For now, survival and existence are dependent on each other, but the latter is much more important to what we’d call our “humanness.” It’s what makes us different from other species, and likely, what tricks us into believing that we’re important, or at least, special.

Being human isn’t special. That’s the easy part. Being conscious, or differently, being aware of your existence is special.

There are 7.8 billion people on this planet (425 million with diabetes,) and that number, is growing exponentially by the day. To believe our individuality might significantly impact the whole, is as far-fetched as believing that throwing a stone into a raging river might significantly impact its flow. 

Nevertheless, every day we walk to the riverbed, pick up a stone, and throw it into the churning waters. Eat. Sleep. Grind. Repeat. Right? Is this a pointless activity? Probably, but that’s life, and that’s kind of the point. 

Understand. The brain plays really dirty.

When discussing this with others, I’m always very cautious in my approach, because ego is an extremely powerful force. Its entire job is to mediate between the id, which is our basic instinctual drives, and reality, as it seeks to bring us more pleasure than pain. In doing so, it’s often obliged to cloak reality and employ strong defense mechanisms to protect us from self-harm.

A simple example of the ego in action. It’s lunchtime and you’re hungry. Instead of hopping the counter at the restaurant to help yourself, you get in line like everyone else, you wait patiently, you politely make an order (if you’re not a dick,) and you pay for your meal. 

The id says, “Let’s do this bitch! I’m hungry!” 

The ego says, “Hold on a moment sailor. We don’t want to get arrested today. That’s not the way people do it these days.” 

As such, you’re protected from immediate embarrassment, and likely, long-term grief through imprisonment. Good job, ego.

The ego, of course, has a dark side, which we’re aware of, but so often, choose to ignore. An example of the dark side in action. Your boss says, “You did well in the meeting today, however, I wanted to offer some feedback. The client didn’t respond well to such and such, so next time, why don’t you try out such and such.” 

You nod at your boss, but you’re hurt, and the dark side of your ego has fired up, so despite nodding in the affirmative, you’re actually thinking, “You’re an idiot. You’re only the boss because you’ve been here longer than me and I could do your job a hundred times better. Fuck you.” Keeping your mouth shut about it is the ego in play too by the way.

And so, as it goes, in the next meeting, you repeat the same mistake, again, and again, and again, and guess what, you never get promoted, you never become the boss, you never get to prove, you could in fact, do your boss’ job a hundred times better, because you never did your job right in the first place.

*The ego does a nice job of protecting us from self-harm, but it also makes us much less self-aware as it seeks to shelter us from reality.   

Understand. The brain takes dangerous shortcuts.

Unsurprisingly, I get a considerable amount of pushback when discussing someone’s unimportance with them, even when I admit, “I too, am unimportant.” Generally, following the cautious approach, I’ll ask, “Who invented the Internet?” 

Most of the time, I’m met with vacant eyes, not unlike my nephew’s. In other words, they’re searching for an answer that isn’t there. To this day, nobody’s provided the correct answer, and it’s mostly the very egotistical who even try to offer one.

The answer is, Tim Berners-Lee.

I explain, the answer doesn’t actually matter, because the point I’m trying to make is that if we can’t recall the name of the person who invented what’s perhaps the most significant technological advancement of all time, what makes you think you can do any better? 

Ergo, even the truly important among us, aren’t that important in the greater scheme of things, at least, in the way that we think of importance. People who do civilization changing things are typically quickly forgotten. No, Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone. That’s another thing altogether. Sometimes people get credited for things they didn’t do. The world’s unfair. Go figure.

The trouble is, our brains hate finding out they’re wrong. Confirmation bias kicks in. Faced with what they perceive as opposition, they double down and entrench their beliefs even more strongly than before. It’s why Trump watches so much Fox News and surrounds himself in an echo chamber of likeminded clowns.

The problem is, we’re all unimportant, but just simply, can’t fucking believe that we’re unimportant, and therefore, go around blundering about life like we have something to prove, inevitably, fucking up most things we touch, because, well, we don’t quite have what it takes. 

This is known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” people cannot objectively evaluate their own competence or incompetence. Currently, trending in the latter.   

Remember that evolutionary thing? Well, as it turns out, the brain acts much like we do when we’re incompetent, it makes shit up, or worse, it cheats. Basically, it makes patterns where none exist. If you want to get technical, these shortcuts are called “heuristics.” Again, they’re great for survival, but not existence.

There are several types of heuristics, but take for example, the “illusory correlation.” This is relatively harmless when it’s something like, all birthday cakes are delicious. Most birthday cakes are, until you have one that isn’t. Too bad, so sad. It becomes dangerous, however, when it’s something like, all crimes are committed by one particular ethnic group. No. Just, no. 

“The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell

*When we lack self-awareness, we can’t adequately evaluate our position in life, therefore, we act in discordance with our true selves creating chaos for ourselves and others. Worse, we amplify this discordance, by tricking ourselves into believing there’s none, through confirmation bias and heuristics. It’s the classic, everyone’s fucked but me scenario.

So, the brain plays really dirty and takes dangerous shortcuts, are we just fucked? 

Not at all and that’s the brilliance of it. If we can learn to better understand how the brain works, more importantly, how your brain works, we can begin to improve it. At its most basic level, this is what we’d call “self-awareness.”

At a higher level, which is what we should all be seeking, is “metacognition.” Things like, cognition about cognition, thinking about thinking, knowing about knowing, becoming aware of one’s awareness. These are all higher order thinking-skills. 

This is the first step in understanding the brain, and therefore, reprogramming it. Differently, you can’t reprogram anything, unless you know how to program. 

Unfortunately, this is as far as I can take you, because I don’t have access to your source code. I’ve tried to outline some principles of programming, as it relates to the human brain, which will hopefully be of some help to you in your journey. 

What I can do, however, is tell you the steps I’ve been taking to reprogram my own brain, and perhaps, some of them might apply to you.

I’m acknowledging the flaws in my source code.

This step has been difficult.

My entire life, I’ve been told, “You’re special.” I’m not. Like everyone else, I’m imperfect. At best, I excel in certain areas, but so do you. In adulthood, I started becoming aware of my shortcomings, but my ego would kick in, and be like, “Nah bro. Just a little anomaly. You’re special remember? Everybody says so.” 

In essence, my ego was trying to prevent me from seeing reality, in order to, protect me from grief. This was, after all, my identity.

I employed many tactics, some good, most bad, in an attempt to live up to the way I believed others perceived me. The trouble is, it wasn’t the way I saw myself, which created significant discordance within. This discordance exposed other flaws in my source code, which belong to my legacy code. Specifically, depression and addiction.

As it turns out, it can be hard work holding back reality. Sometimes the ego gets weak, and, well, it needs a little break. You help it out, and then, you help it out some more, until reality disappears altogether. This is the fog of war. 

One day, very recently in fact, I woke up, and asked for peace. For the first time in my entire existence, I was ok with being me, and in many ways, it was the first time I truly began to exist.

A friend sent me this quote today without any knowledge that I had written this article and I felt as though it was quite appropriate.

“My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to find peace with exactly who I am. To take pride in my thoughts, my appearance, my talents, my flaws and to stop this incessant worrying that I can’t be loved as I am.”

Anais Nin

I’m seeking help from programmers who specialize in areas I don’t.

I’m not the type to ask for help. 

This can be attributed to two things in my development. First, the aforementioned perception flaw. Asking for help implies there’s a problem. If there’s a problem, there’s imperfection, but I was perfect. Second, I was forced to grow up quickly and independently. In doing so, you’re forced to remain strong at all costs to survive.

That being said, this step has been much easier than the latter, and actually required going through the latter to be properly helped. More specifically, I needed to become self-aware, which meant acknowledging and understanding my flaws. After all, we can’t seek help unless we’re honest with ourselves about what it is that we need help with. 

Once I’d determined what my flaws were, I was able to more precisely seek the kind of experts who specialized in those areas. I’ve only just started this process, but I’m excited for what it can mean for me. For far too long I’ve been alone on my journey and there are just some things we’re incapable of doing on our own.    

The power of collaboration should never be understated.  

I’m reorganizing the information stored on my hard drive.    

After all that, I still find myself back at the beginning, with a lifetime of memories. 

Aside from those errors in my source code, the processor portion of my brain, actually works quite well. My biggest problem has always been the retrieval of information, because there’s so much shit that’s been uploaded and stored on my hard drive. I have a lot of bad memories. My hard drive has been damaged.

A lifetime of survival has required being strong when I needed to be weak, stuffing the negative shit away to be dealt with later when it needed to be dealt with in the moment, putting on a smile when I wanted to cry, exuding vibrance when inside I was dying, so forth and so on. This is what discordance looks like.

If you can imagine what it’s like working on a computer with a crowded desktop full of misnamed folders, which is running out of memory, that’s what my brain is like. Remember those neurotransmitters? In this scenario, you get mixed triggers from the same experience, and therefore, mixed outputs. 

For instance, seeing your father should result in the retrieval of positive memories, triggering dopamine, and outputting a feeling of pleasure. For me, seeing my father outputs pain and pleasure.

For the last year, I’ve been opening up all those folders on my desktop, and going through each file, one by one, assessing the importance of each, deleting junk, renaming what I keep, and categorizing everything into new folders. This has not been an easy process. Some of what I’ve found in those folders I’ve written about here.

Every time I clean out a folder though, I can feel my brain working more efficiently, and as I also go through the process of reprogramming my source code, I can feel it becoming optimized. My mind is finally on its way to living well.

For the longest time I wanted to erase so much of what I’ve gone through. I believed this was the only way, however, as I’ve been going through this process, I’ve realized I was wrong.  

I’m thankful the memory of holding my dying grandmothers lives next to the memory of holding my newborn nephew. It reminds me of the impermanency of life.

I’m thankful the memory of my stepmother trying to cut out her ovaries lives next to the memory of my loving wife. It reminds me of the importance of a healthy loving relationship.

I’m thankful the memory of sleeping on the street lives next to the memory of dining with royalty. It reminds me of the fickleness and fragility of wealth.

I’m thankful the memory of my father kicking me out lives next to the memory of my mother lovingly welcoming back her defiant young son. It reminds me of the power of forgiveness.         

I’m thankful the memory of all my failures lives next to the memory of all my successes. It reminds me of the outcomes of perseverance.

I’m thankful the memory of so much ugliness lives next to the memory of so much beauty. It reminds me I exist.

All of these memories fuel a fire that rages more brightly by the day. It’s intense, foreboding, and hard to maintain, but it allows me to see more deeply into the darkness that surrounds me. I refuse to go out by the dim flicker of candlelight like my grandmothers, rather swallowed up in the flames of the inferno I’ve built over the course of a lifetime, and in that final moment, I’ll throw one last memory onto the fire, it’ll be the memory of me. 

The ghost in the machine.

One day you might wake up from the fog of war and realize it’s all been a very long dream. You might open your eyes and see the world for the very first time. You might be courageous enough to venture into it and finally begin to exist as you are. 

On that day, you might not walk to the riverbed to throw your stone into the churning waters, because you’re finally free to do, and think, and be, and that, that’s the point.  

On that day, you might free yourself from the ghost in the machine.

It’s all sad but it’s not bad,


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Author avatar
Stephen Shaw
I've worked with artists like Janet Jackson and Sammy Adams, I've helped with causes like HXOUSE and Fashion Cares, and I've consulted for brands like Adidas and Budweiser. These days I make things like Dopesite, Artful Record® and It’s All Sad™ 🌎🌍🌏

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