Chaos is the state of the world. Order is our minds’ solution. That’s the preface of what I’m about to explore. Coherence. And I believe it’s a fitting one.
As it applies to the human mind, coherence is about making sense of things; fitting different parts into a unified whole. While greater coherence affords a life of order, clarity and comprehension, less coherence translates to a life of chaos, uncertainty and confusion. It’s like an orchestra. When the instruments are in harmony, the resulting sound is beautiful. But if some of the instruments are out of tune, the resulting sound is disruptive. In the case of coherence, your mind is the conductor and your life is the sound.
Right now, your mind is an amateur conductor. And so is mine. The goal, however, is not to gain perfect coherence in our lives; but being able to display some influence over it. There are, however, some obstacles to getting there. But before I cover those, I should try to answer why our mind is trying to conduct an orchestra in the first place.
The Meaning-Making Mind
Some have proposed that the fear of the unknown is the fundamental fear of all. And I think it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Something outside your knowledge is uncertain, so there’s a very real chance it might be threatening. You simply don’t know. And when it comes to securing your survival, you can’t afford to take any chances. It’s better to be on the safe side in the known, than it’s to take unnecessary risks in the unknown.
From this fear, at least partly, springs an inherent need to make sense of things. Gradually familiarizing ourselves with something limits the uncertainty we experience, and stores knowledge in our minds. (It’s the reason exposure therapy works so well for dealing with fear. You pinpoint the infinite unknown to a single known, which is much easier to deal with). In turn, this conserves our energy, because we don’t have to continually refamiliarize ourselves with the world.
In essence, we want certainty, predictability, order; and we’re fundamentally motivated to find these things — both in our physical and social environments. And when we do, we’re rewarded with a sense of meaning. Just imagine what it would be like to live in a completely uncertain world. How would you be able to operate?
In fact, right in this moment, your mind is making meaning. It takes base in your existing knowledge about the world — predictable stimuli and recognizable patters — and it keeps an eye out for new information that comes in through your senses. Ultimately, it’s trying to make sense of it all, connecting the different parts into a unified whole. And it’s usually successful in doing so. For instance, you make meaning of these words because they make sense to you (unless you don’t understand English, or I’m a worse writer than I think I am).
When connections are made successfully (when meaning has been made), you gain coherence. To continue the orchestra-methaphor, meaning-making is the act of playing the instruments and coherence is the resulting sound. Coherence can be achieved on different levels — from a single object, to your sense of self, and all the way up to the world and existence itself.
TK Situational vs enduring?
It’s likely that different brain-areas are involved in the process. Among those who have been highlighted, are the basal ganglia and the orbifrontal cortex. Yet, there are much researchers don’t know about the neuroscience of meaning. You don’t have to know much about it either, other than it’s a process that, by default, operates irrespective of your awareness.
TK #You might not have thought about your mind as a conductor before. But you might have thought about it as the entity in which your world resides. Here, we touch one of the greatest problems in philosophy: does the world exist as an objective reality, irrespective of your existence, or, is it simply a construction of your mind. Being a psychology graduate, I answer as bluntly as “a little bit of both”.#
Now onto the obstacles I mentioned.
In a psychological experiment, participants were introduced to some pictures of trees, four for each of the seasons. While the participants thought their job was to evaluate the contrast of the pictures, the real experiment was to see how the order of the pictures affected them. For half of the participants, they were arranged in a random order. For the other half, they were arranged so that they followed cycles of seasonal change. After the task, everyone rated their meaning in life, and it turned out to be significantly higher in the seasonal arrangement group than in the random one.
Here we see an example of greater coherence leading to greater meaning in life (at least in a temporary, controlled setting). However, we also notice that it’s manipulatable, affected by things outside our conscious control. Indeed, our mind isn’t an impregnable fortress, but affected by things outside of it. And while we do have some control, it’s not as complete as we like to think. We’re affected by both our environment and the people that surrounds us. There’s an element of randomness or chaos in the world.
TK But no matter the actual level of randomness in the world, our mind is still able to create coherence in it.
While being affected by outside forces is a potential problem, it’s magnitude is in relation to another, more peculiar problem: not being aware that this is the case. I mentioned that by default, meaning-making operates outside your awareness. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be directed, or enhanced through conscious efforts. You have agency in the matter.
Failing to understand this might cause you issues in achieving more coherence. Because although it’s a complex process, there’s only so much your unconsciousness can do on its own. Still, realizing you don’t have complete control is important. In Stoicism there’s a concept for this, called the ‘dichotomy of control.’ As the philosopher Epictetus explained it:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
Two Levels of Coherence
By now, you might have started to yearn for more coherence.
After all, gaining more allows you to live a life filled with order, clarity and comprehension. It’s also the first component in meaningful living.
Failing to gain it, on the other hand, means you’re at greater risk for chaos, uncertainty and confusion. Less coherence also means you’re more vulnerable to meaninglessness.
So, how do you go about gaining more coherence? Well, let’s first realize that you already have a level of coherence. In fact, your mind has been making meaning all your life. And like a true explorer, we have to understand where we’ve been, to get a better idea of where we are now and where we are going.
Now, your coherence of a teapot or a rock isn’t very complicated or a conscious effort (unless you’re a scientist exploring those things in detail), so I will not focus on such things. However, your coherence of yourself or the world are the most complicated things you have and can continue to build. And so, let’s begin by looking at your coherence of the world: your worldview.
In its simplest, most obvious terms, your worldview is the understanding you have of the world. A little more complex, it’s the collection of attitudes, beliefs, values, stories, and so on, which informs your every thought and action. It’s all-encompassing, like water to a fish; you’re forever entangled with the way you see the world. When it’s up and functioning, it allows you to grasp who you are, what the world is like, and how you fit in it. And it gives order in an otherwise complex and infinite reality. A worldview helps you live, quite simply, in a more successful manner.
Your worldview starts its development as soon as you’re born. Then it grows with you, expands as you continue to live, and eventually becomes an indistinguishable part of who you are. At first, this development is rapid. You’ve just been born, everything is new, and your brain works hard to incorporate the things around you. Taking base in innate psychological mechanisms, it blends with what you experience — on a personal level, familial level, and all the way up to the levels of society, culture, and the world. If, for example, you’re naturally extroverted and grow up in a stable family living in New York City, you’re going to develop differently than someone growing up introverted, with abusive parents, living in the outskirts of Rome.
As you grow older, the development of your worldview starts to slow down. And for some, it more or less stops. When you’ve gained a sufficient understanding of the world (at least enough to get by in it), then there’s no real need for continued development. This might be one of the reasons babies sleep so much, and why as you grow older need less. Development takes a lot of energy. A consequence of this “saving mode”, however, is you might start to take things for granted. Everything around you is familiar, there are few new things, and if there are, they’re often mundane and don’t affect the way you see the world. A dash of paint doesn’t color the ocean.
Now, while a worldview certainly helps you, it’s important to note it’s not flawless. In giving you order, it sacrifices information. It can’t give you a hundred percent accurate picture of the world (nor can your identity give you an accurate picture of who you are). That would be too energy consuming. So, what your mind does instead, is it provides you with a simplified mental representation. That means that what you see as the world is only the easiest representation that’s sufficient at any moment. Perception isn’t reality.
Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, likened a worldview to a map. He said:
“We all know that ‘the map is not the territory.’ A map is simply an explanation of certain aspects of the territory”.
This also means there are things beyond your knowledge. Things you cannot grasp because your worldview is busy putting other things in focus. And the unsettling implication to draw from this, is that your worldview might prevent you from seeing something important — whether dangerous or pleasing. And sooner or later, you might encounter such a thing — something that challenges your worldview, and with that, your very being. The question is, will you be able to deal with it?
Falling within this worldview is your identity. It’s the sense of continuity you have; that you’re the same person today as you were yesterday, last week, and last year. It’s the feeling your memories, goals, values, and beliefs are strung together as a whole, and that they belong to you. It’s the story you tell yourself about yourself.
Just as your worldview grow stable, your identity does the same. You incorporate things into it, and you end up feeling like yourself (you might not know yourself, but you nonetheless have the feeling of being yourself). You are who you are — with your personality, beliefs, daily behaviors, and so on — and you go about your days feeling like one coherent unit. This is good, because it helps you make sense of yourself among the endless variables of the world. (And for the same reason, it also helps you make sense of others).
Taken too far, however, your identity grows rigid and inflexible. And having that challenged can cause a lot of trouble. When you perceive threats to your identify, you get uneasy. Self-preservation is at heart. And whether it’s because you don’t feel like yourself anymore, or that you don’t understand your place in the world anymore — due to the actions you take or the circumstances you find yourself in — feeling estranged from yourself is despairing. You value your identity, and losing it feels like losing yourself. It has become part of you — and indeed, it’s precisely the thing that makes you feel like you. What if you lose that feeling?
To answer the questions brought up in the sections above, I begin with this: if you experience something that challenges your worldview, the outcome might not be pretty. There’s a possibility for a meaning-crisis.
As you go about life, there’s a continuous update to your worldview. It runs in the background, making small iterations as you encounter your experience.
In many ways, it operates like the engine of a vehicle. Just enough fuel powers it, but too much will flood it and shut it down. Similarly, your worldview can handle small doses of information — preferably information that’s juxtaposed to what you already believe. But large doses of information — that’s in violation of what you believe — might shut it down.
This is a sudden crisis of meaning. And it happens when there’s a major discrepancy between what you know and what you encounter. It’s especially the case when it concerns something important to you. Losing your job, being cheated on, or witnessing an unexpected death, are all classic examples of sudden meaning-crises. And it’s the element of surprise, of sudden chance, that wrecks you. You see, there’s a great difference between having your parent’s die of old age and having them die by murder. In the former, you’re able to prepare to a certain degree, but in the latter, your world falls apart in the matter of a Sunday afternoon. It shatter’s like glass.
It’s chaos. Painful. Traumatic.
TK # You can think of it as a thermostat trying to keep a room warm. Under normal conditions, it will only perform corrective procedures. If a window is opened, it will have to work significantly harder. And if all the windows in the room were shattered, it will have a hard time trying to regain the desired temperature.
When your worldview turns to pieces, your mind loses the majority of its coherence. And naturally, it wants to build it back up again. So, by default, it will try to make sense of the new situation. But in a mode of crisis, of chaos, that might not be enough. Worst case, it will go back to the same worldview as before — ignoring the fact that it couldn’t hold — and you’ll be vulnerable to something similar happening in the future.
It’s an issue of accommodation vs assimilation. Accommodation means you reconstruct your worldview, taking the new information into account. Assimilation means you keep your old worldview, largely dismissing the new information. The latter option requires less effort. Your mind remembers the blueprint, which means you’ll regain your coherence relatively fast. The first option, on the other hand, requires more effort. It’s a rebuild after all, which means it will take longer to build a sufficient level of coherence again. By default, your mind might very well go for assimilation. Can you blame it in such a desperate state?
While accommodation requires less effort, it’s like continuing to use a hammer the first time you see a screw. It’s a recipe for disaster; using an old worldview to deal with new information. It leaves you at an increased risk for future problems. Maybe you need to help your mind, taking an active role in the rebuild. And it might be you need some new tools.
This is where your conscious efforts enter. An active meaning-making. An agency in the building of coherence.
Now, remember that you’re affected by things outside of you — your physical and social environment is an extension of yourself. Thus, I will cover things that build coherence on multiple levels. While the physical and social aspects are malleable by your efforts, they’re also circumstantial.
TK Routine not only helps us understand the world, but it helps us manage it.
A routine is a set of behaviors that’s performed automatically. Your evening routine, for example, with brushing your teeth (and if you listen to your dentist, possibly flossing too) is something you don’t have to think much about before you do it. It’s wired into you.
Routines build coherence precisely because they entail predictable stimuli and recognizable patters. It provides links across time and structure to your everyday experience. It provides clarity and removes a substantial amount of uncertainty, because you’re familiarized with it. You know there’s nothing to be afraid of. For this reason, it also saves energy, as there’s minimal new information, which enables you to spend it on other things (such as significance and purpose).
This point of certainty transcends to the whole of your physical environment. Having a home, for example, provides coherence because it’s a stable and predictable environment.
This coherence can come from your neighborhood, city, and country as well. If you’ve familiarized yourself with your environment, and you know it’s mostly safe, you gain coherence. On the contrary, living in a warzone is chaotic. There’s no predictability. No consistency in your days. No stable feelings of safety.
Certainty is also found in the social environment, in the form of trust. When you’re able to trust the people around you, you can live with more certainty because you mostly know what they’re up to. You know them, can relate and respond to them, and you can predict their behaviors (to the extent it’s possible to predict human behavior).
This highlights the importance of a family or a group of close friends. Because conversely, being surrounded by unfamiliar or unpredictable people is taxing because you can never know for sure what will happen. There’s no safety. No stability.
As a consequence of you being a social animal, you also inhabit certain roles. These are formed in your social interactions, and help create a shared understanding of how the members of a group are likely to behave. Based in stable roles, expectations are met with more ease and the chances of conflicts are reduced.
The people around you also have their roles, and you gain information as to how they behave.
Feedback from others provide you with information about yourself and the world. It’s a reality testing against other people, that allows you to get a better idea of your own behavior.
Your experience will always have a subjective flavor to it, making it hard to get a completely honest and unfiltered look at yourself. You’re prone to bias, rationalization and self-deceit. Truth is, you’re not very self-aware on your own.
However, given that you’re inherently on tune to the social cues around you, you can regulate yourself through the help of others. You can watch how they behave, as well as take feedback on your behavior. In contrast to faulty self-observation, a larger group of consensus can bring you closer to the truth.
If, for example, enough people tell you something about you that isn’t optimal — something you weren’t aware of yourself — then it’s helpful to look at that feedback (even if it hurts your precious ego). And while not every piece of feedback is correct, it’s still helpful to consider it. Then, based on your own conviction, you can decide whether to take it into account.
Having a shared understanding of something also appear through common goals and similar values. People with similar values are able to decide on how to behave together. And consequently, these people can set a shared goal and act in cooperation towards it. (Goals can also be set independently of having shared values, although it’s more likely to succeed when there’s a similarity in values).
Through conversation, we build a shared understanding of the world. We exchange our ideas and bounce information back and forth. We get glimpses of each other’s worlds, and in turn we find holes in our own. When we explore the world together this way, we help each other turn the unknowns into knowns. And that brings more coherence into our lives. That’s the purpose of language — to make the world easier to live in.
It’s also the case that, in order to hold a conversation, you need to make what you think understandable in the form of words. This forces you to articulate yourself, and thus sharpens your clarity as you say things out loud. Because sometimes, as you keep talking to others, you realize things you didn’t understand before. There’s a reason talk-therapy works; by putting your thoughts into words, you pinpoint your own understanding.
This is the domain in which you have the most control. Remember that you add to your coherence by making sense of new information and incorporating it into your worldview. Here are some ways you can do that.
Reading is one of the best ways to build your coherence. It’s an active attempt at meaning-making, because when you read, you gather information and try to expand your understanding of something. The key here is to read for understanding, not for memorization. It’s only through accomodating something that it adds to your coherence.
Read psychology, history, economics and physics. Encounter new ideas, new arguments, and new ways of thinking about the world. This is how you build a better coherence.
Writing is also a powerful way to build coherence. But instead of being about gathering information, it’s mainly about organizing information. When you write, it helps you transform vagueness into words. For instance, if you’re struggling to think something through, then writing it out can help you see more clearly. Writing changes the mental representations of your thoughts. You create a more consistent, coherent line of reasoning, which makes it easier to see and follow their structure. In a sense, it makes them more objective. This is why it might be worth doing reading and writing in conjunction.
It’s also the case that when you write freely, without any specific topic in mind, insights are more likely to occur. It’s a space for reflection, because problems appear more concisely and faulty thinking shines through.
Meditation is also a place for insights. When you sit in silence with yourself, you receive thoughts, or information from deep within — information you can’t get anywhere else.
Meditation lets you observe your own mind and gain a better understanding of how it operates. In turn, this provides greater coherence of yourself. The key is to pay attention to what you’re mind is telling you. While some of it is trivial, some of it is important. But it’s worth persiting in the silence, because you can’t get the information if you’re busy distracting yourself with something external.
Your self-narrative is the story you tell yourself about yourself. It’s the I in your internal conversations. And this is directly related to your identity. A coherent self-narrrative lets you see your life as a whole, and helps you understand your lived experiences. Of course, you can’t remember or understand everything that has ever happened, but you can get the main things right. And this is important, because it allows a better understanding of where you’re now.
TK Part of something bigger: Just like making meaning of something is understanding something in a web of information, it’s possible to locate yourself in a web of the world.
In the wake of a meaning-crisis, it’s especially important to get your self-narrative right. If you can understand what happened to you when you plunged into a crisis of meaning, you build coherence and bounce back quicker. However, don’t get too caught up in it. Coming to terms with that you can’t understand everything helps too. It’s only in feeling that something is missing that you’re in trouble.
Significance and Purpose
Finally, you build coherence through having significance and purpose. I won’t get into it now, but you’ll understand why it workds as we go through their respective chapters.
In response to a meaning-crisis, it’s natural to strive for more coherence. And employing the tools above allows you to do that with more efficiency. Because a meaning-crisis is such a despairing experience, however, it’s not unusual to become overly fixated on returning to a state of stability. After all, building back your coherence feels good; like adding protective layers against the chaos.
But it can backfire. Although coherence is good for you, more of it isn’t always better. A compulsive attempt at meaning-making causes rigidity; an inflexible mode of being. And although it feels good to strive for absolute certainties, the truth is that there are no absolute certainties. It can cause problems down the road. Rigidity doesn’t allow for meaningful living.
TK #more on rigidity of worldview and identity. Can the accomondation turn to assimilation after a while?
Another consequence of too much coherence is boredom. Let’s return to the orchestra methaphor to illuminate why. An orchestra that plays the same bar over and over again is an easy way to achieve coherence. But the problem is that it gets real boring, real fast. And tell me, how meaningful is that?
Imagine living in an uncertain world. It would have been exhausting, being confused all the time and having to watch your back 24/7. But then, imagine living in a completely certain world. That would be incredibly boring. If you did the same things everyday, over and over, to the point you knew what was going to happen, life would lose all its excitement. While too little coherence brings about uncertainty and confusion, too much brings about apathy and boredom.
A Landscape of Order vs Chaos
You need a balance. Variance in the orchestra. Attempting something difficult, not achieving perfection, but approximating it. You should opt for a fluid, sophisticated coherence. Maybe talking about more or less coherence should be traded with talk of level of sophistication.
Truth is we need some of both. One one hand, we need routine (certainty/safety), because it’s safe, predictable, and helps us make sense of the world. But at the other, we need novelty (possibility/growth), because it’s new, exciting, and helps us grow as individuals.
They’re seemingly conflicting, but they’re fundamental needs of our existence. This stems from our evolutionary past, where we needed to stay safe and protect ourselves, but we also needed to explore and gather new resources. … This has implications for personal growth. You can’t change yourself without being secure of some part of yourself. … Back to the point on safety. A sophisticated worldview realizes that bad things happen. It’s not ignorant.
It’s important to note it’s individual how much coherence one needs. Some might be fine performing their routines for weeks without novelty, while others might need novelty at least once a week. So what matters is to find your own level of balance — based on your purpose and lifestyle needs. They might appear to be at conflict, but you can bring them together in a harmony. People need different amounts of each, and so my only advice is to be careful with the extremes. Opt for balance. As the psychologist Jordan Peterson said:
“Have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure.”
If you do get out of balance, however, you now know some things that help you trend towards routine and order. But here are some things that help with novelty and chaos too:
I mentioned that the fear of the unknown is a fundamental fear, but it’s only to a certain point. It can be argued that novelty is precisely the thing that brings new information. It acts as a compliment to your routines, rather than only a threat, and together it’s a recipe for meaning as coherence.
TK # By their very nature, routines might become boring after a while — no matter what the behavior entails. Yet, the link between routine and boredom is amplified when the behavior lacks any purpose or direction…. There are times in life you might be wise to lean into a routine. When you’re pursuing a goal or living out your purpose, doing the same things everyday is what moves you forward. Think about any great artist. If they weren’t willing to show up everyday and do their repetitions, no art would have been made, because it’s seldom done in one jam. Or if it is, it’s because they’ve practiced their art for countless hours, repetition after repetition.#
So if you have too much coherence, seek out novelty:
- Set and pursue new goals.
- Follow your curiosity.
- Do something impulsive.
- Visit and explore new places.
- Talk to strangers or someone you haven’t talked to in a while.
Seek out novelty, variety. Spice your life with as much adventure you need, then get back to your routines when you feel readu to move towards your purpose.
# Even with 999 pieces, a thousand-piece puzzle wouldn’t feel right. The same is true of your life’s coherence. If it’s lacking in any sense, it’s going to bother you. But the difference between a puzzle and your life is that it’s almost impossible to find the 1000th piece (and if you do, it gets boring). Life is ever-changing, so the puzzle can continue to change as well. Even if you find a missing piece in one location, you might suddenly discover there’s missing one in another. But this is exactly what you want to happen. It’s the quest for the 1000th piece that makes life interesting. The key is to find an optimal level of coherence. I guess we just have to keep puzzling, and hope that our picture becomes ever more beautiful as we go. #
But of course, you’re not only a creature of coherence, knowledge and understanding. You’re a creature continually making choices too; evaluating the things around you. That brings us to meaning as significance.