Our current mainstream culture is generally defined as individualism, which finds its origins in the industrial revolution. While our scientific progress can tell us a lot about the brain and even to significant extent about consciousness, our culture is currently not geared enough towards trying to understand what we are.
It is instead more focused on celebrating the pursuit of fashionable personal interests, ranging from material possessions to impressing our social circle, from momentary thrills to romantic adventures. The individual’s desire and its freedom to pursue is currently our most cherished ideal. Many aspects of our society, most of all our economy, rely on our pursuit of these popularized objectives.
Aside from rare exceptions promoting a unified humanity working to advance the species, culture has a way of submerging us in signals that make us believe, without question, that the way we currently perceive things is simply the way it has always been or at least the way it’s meant to be.
Not so long ago, we believed people of color were always inferior, the world was always flat and the gods always controlled the skies. In a cultural setting such as this, the brain’s reward system becomes, in a sense, disconnected from its purpose.
Life fundamentally tries to align itself with reality, genetically and biologically, instinctively and intellectually, as children that try to align themselves with reality by imitating others, parents, friends, teachers and various cultural influences. We possess the intelligence to grasp the consequences of our actions and of our inaction.
Yet our Pavlovian reward-seeking urges pull us in other directions, such as living up to the expectations of society and family. We feel fragile and dependent on the judgment of others because our reward system values their approval. We feel little satisfaction or even discouragement when acting upon our own independent rational judgment.
This confusing duality is a natural consequence of a society wherein we never really grow up. We seek the approval of our guardians when we are young. And we continue to seek approval of whichever forces take over as we grow older. We become eternal validation-seekers.
And the more self-aware we become, the more we feel a dissatisfaction with the pursuit of hollow goals. We create rationales around our actions to define what a world around means to us. The collection of these rationalizations is what constitutes our identity.
Throughout history we encounter milestones where our core value changes as a result of a paradigm shift or an identity crisis. We live in a probabilistic universe where nothing is set in stone.
Rather than vaguely philosophize about the nature of free will, we can deduce that the that feedback loop of consciousness plays an active role in processing information and making decisions. How do we truly find meaning in our lives and experience the kind of fulfillment that most of us only catch glimpses of from time to time?
It turns out that science has more answers in these regards than is commonly assumed.