The Emotionally Intuitive Physics of Meaning


You’re standing in a white room looking at an asymmetrical sculpture sitting on top of a pedestal. As you circle around, you see its different sides.  Some are brightly colored, clean and flat.  Others are dull, rough and textured.  Walking 360 degrees around you can see it from every angle, and in each angle, you are presented with new colors, new designs, new marks that you hadn't seen before, until of course, you circle back to the point where you were initially standing. 

Now try to remember a significant event in your life.  Maybe it's a wedding, a birth, the death of a loved one.  Do you have it?  Imagine the event you are recalling IS the sculpture sitting on the pedestal.  Just as you can walk around the sculpture, you can now walk around this event, seeing its various sides from various angles.  What does it feel like to walk around it?  What do you see?  How do you experience this memory differently?  Let's call this new thing we've just created an event/object, which is simply an event in our lives that we have objectified so that we can talk about it in a number of useful ways.

This might sound like a strange idea, but it’s actually descriptive of a metaphor we unconsciously use all the time.  We say things like, "Why can't you see this from my perspective?" or "Maybe you should try looking at this from a different angle?".  We imagine that looking at an event "from another angle" or from "a different perspective" will give us new information, just as moving around a sculpture on a pedestal gives us new information.  We say, "Have you really considered this from all sides?" or "Maybe if you take a step back, you'll be able to have a better perspective."  

Multi-Perspective of a Singular Event/ObjeCT

Many events involve more than one person and so they often involve multiple perspectives.  We can imagine two people in the white room inspecting the event/object from two points in space.  The woman in the blue dress pictured above sees a rough scratchy earthy form where she is standing.  From our perspective we see a brightly colored complex interweaving of hard flat color.  Both perspectives are valid, in that they are both describing what is being seen, BUT that does not make them both correct, since they are extremely partial.  In order to get a more complete view, we would have to go over to where the woman is standing and look at the object from "her side".  This makes sense with expressions such as, "Why are you taking her side?  Look at it from my side!"  Essentially, we are angry at the person for being on the wrong side of the room and not being able to see "our side" of the object.

In this metaphor it is implied that we can invite someone over so that they can assume our perspective and see what we are seeing.  This is fairly easy to do when we are talking about physical objects, but gets exceedingly harder when we are referring to our own emotional experience.  In the later case, no one can see what we are seeing and so to overcome this problem we try to recreate it using language, which involves metaphorical concepts, such as the event/object I’m presenting now.  These metaphors try to explain inner experiences by grounding them in concrete physical things.  Can you "grasp" what I am talking about?  If you have grasped it, what are you going to do with it now that you are holding it in your hands?

Physical Attributes

Being an object that sits in space also comes with a whole range of material states.  Is the event you have focused on a solid, liquid or gas?  Does one state seem particularly better suited to describing your experience or do you feel as if there is a vacillating nature between states that best captures it?  In physics we have access to three basic states and we use them in our meaningful world to describe a wide range of experience.     

  1. Solids - Solids have a real "impact" on you. They can collide, break apart, build up, disintegrate, clump together, weigh you down, push you over and burry you. They typically use the language of momentum and force, as well as magnetism (attraction/repulsion) and gravity (orbiting, pulling you down). They have trajectories, can run into obstacles, and spin out of control. They have insides, outsides, fronts, backs and multiple sides that can be perceived differently at multiple angles.

  2. Liquids - Liquids bleed into things. They wash over you, suck you down and pool at your feet They are immersive, awe inspiring and boundless. They can slosh, mix into each other and evaporate. Freud coined a term called the "oceanic feeling" which describes the spiritual state of connectedness and limitlessness. These perceptual states are often described using water metaphors such as "stream (or waves) of consciousness".

  3. Gases - Gases are invisible to the eye. They can be ethereal, but also hard to see through. You can float through them and not even notice or they can simply float away. They can be light and airy or toxic and deadly.

Most of what I presented is in relation to the event/object as being a solid and I will continue to write about it as such, but it’s possible, and actually preferable, that there be a multi-state relationship.  In relation to an experience, there could be moments that "sweep you away", moments "that hit you like a rock" and moments that "you float through".  That these event/objects have room to contain all three states should not be overlooked as it gives us a much larger range of physicality that we can use to translate our experience.

Cause and Effect

Solid event/objects sit in space, just as we sit in space, just as a sculpture sits on a pedestal, and because of this, there are all sorts of physical forces it’s subject to.  Any physical force can assume a role of causal explanation.  Here is a brief run down on some of the physical forces, which I think can be best observed when couples fight with one another.  In this case, I've created a fake couple, name Sam and Vanessa, who will fight for you, so you can witness the intuitive understanding we have of physics when it’s applied to human relationships.

(1) Applied Force 

Example: Pushing an object with your hand.

Sam: "You're being really pushy right now!"
Vanessa: "That's because you were being pushy first!"

Here, the person doing the pushing is responsible for the changed state, whether we are talking about objects or emotions.  The person that "pushed first" is then responsible for setting the whole thing "in motion".  What is of primary importance here is that if Sam pushed a glass of water off a table, you would say that Sam "intended" for the glass to fall on the floor and break.  But what if Sam pushed the glass of water at Vanessa and she pushed it back and then it slid off the table and broke?  Who is responsible?  It’s less clear, in which case, Sam and Vanessa will fight for another hour trying to determine who pushed first, thus who intended to cause the disturbance, and ultimately, who is responsible for it.

When we’re talking about emotional disturbances these kinds of causal arguments get a whole lot tricker because couples, much like theologians and philosophers, scramble to find the first thing that set “the ball rolling”.

Vanessa: “I got angry because you were being cold to me!”
Sam: “I was only being cold to you because how you acted!”
Vanessa: “I only acted that way last night because of that thing you said to me last week!”
Sam: “I said that thing to you last week because you did that thing the night before!”

(2) Gravitational Force

Example: A planet slowly pulling a moon towards itself.

Vanessa: "I feel really attracted to him!" 
Sam: "He's my best friend!"
Vanessa: "I can't help it! "

Sam's best friend apparently has "gravitationally attractive powers" that are beyond Vanessa's control.  Vanessa let's Sam know this by saying "I can't help it" because she feels her ability to consciously direct the course of her life is being interrupted as she is being pulled in by an outside force.  Notice here how the intentionality of the force is of primary importance.  Gravity is not a force with intentions.  It is a physical force we are all equally subject to.  Often we invoke this force to talk about love.  We also invoke it to try and get out of being held responsible for things. 

This same dynamic can be applied to magnetism as well.  If we are talking about magnetic attraction, it is also an outside force without intentions that is acting upon us against our will.  The grey area then becomes trying to figure out whether this is really true, that someone really "can't help it" or whether they are using this as an excuse to justify behavior they do actually have control over but don't want to admit to.

(3) Frictional Force

Example: Wearing down an eraser on a piece of paper.

Vanessa:  "Work is really wearing me down!"
Sam: "Stop pushing yourself so hard!"

Wearing down, like tango, takes two.  Vanessa, like the eraser, is a force with intentions.  She is pushing against "her work" like the eraser is pushing against the piece of paper.  Because she is "pushing hard", she is creating a lot of friction, thus she is starting to wear down.  Much like an eraser loses its material, she is losing valuable "Vanessa material" and soon might "lose herself completely".  

The causation is harder to define here since there are elements that are in Vanessa's control, the pressure which she pushes, and elements that she is not in control of, her bosses demands.  

I won’t go through all of the forces, but the point here is that we use these forces to talk about causation, and as you can see, we have a very intuitive, coherent way of using them, even if we don’t understand the general laws of physics on a mathematical or theoretical level.

Interiors, Exteriors and the Search for Meaning

The specific event that I asked you to focus on most likely has a deeper meaning for you.  There are superficial or surface interpretations you could make about it, but that is just scratching the surface, and doesn't properly peel away the physical, to get at the real substance of what this event means.  This deeper interior world of meaning is buried inside and you have to dig to find it.  If you dig far enough you might reach the core of what it is that this event really means to you.  

All these phrases I've used in the above paragraph imply that meaning is something that is interior and hidden from us and requires a bit of journeying to understand.  

Our interaction with physical objects offers us a great metaphor for this hidden world of meaning.  When we see a present on a table, we cannot determine what’s inside.  The mystery that fascinates/perplexes/exasperates us, creates a desire to know.  To release this tension we unwrap the present so that we can know and not be left in a state of uncertainty.

This same relationship can be applied to the event/object, to the world of meaning, where people's intentions are hidden as well.  Maybe Vanessa is lying and really did consciously decide to fall for Sam's best friend.  Maybe Sam wants Vanessa to leave him because secretly he's sleeping with Vanessa's sister.  These are the kind of secrets that we keep wrapped up, that drive people crazy, because more than anything, we want to know what's really going on inside.

Even in the case of receiving a present, while the anxiety of finding out what they got us is relieved, the search for meaning begins as to "why they got us this specific thing".  Are they trying to tell us something that they may be unable to say with words?  Is this present an indication of who they want us to be, what roles they want us to assume in the relationship?  Or is it simply an absent minded gift that they put little thought into?  The search for meaning is harder, in that, our answers are less certain than the physical process of cutting the ribbon, ripping open the paper and peering inside. 

Given that there is an interior space of meaning, there is also an outer shell that surrounds and protects it.  This outer shell is the physical visible world, the one we can see, smell and touch, the one that is apparent to the senses.  We view this layer as being "surface" sometimes "shallow" because it simply protects the deeper inner layer.  We not only view event/objects this way, but take this view with ourselves.  We have outer shells of a body that enclose a deeper, personal, meaningful inside.  People that relate to others without being able to "penetrate" into this deeper inner layer are referred to as "shallow" precisely because their "level" of understanding does not seem to grasp this subtle hidden layer of self.

Micro / Macro

I asked you to think of a singular event as if it was somehow separated from all the other events in your life, and hopefully this was a simple operation for you, to artificially separate one event from the long chain of events that have so far made up your life.  Likewise, we think of ourselves as something completely separate and different from the world around us, but we can also think of "ourselves" as human beings on a planet taking part in a much longer journey.  In this macro social vision, the story does not center around our imagined individual selves, but on the equally imagined character of society.  What a discovery!  There's more than our own event/objects in the universe.  There’s an entire galaxy of them spinning and swirling around each other that are causing all sorts of crazy causal interactions.  

Given this macro view, it is then possible for "larger outside forces" to shape events, to become "actors" with "intentions", that can push things in and out of our lives.   

Vanessa:  "I've been feeling really worn down at work today!"
Sam: "Stop pushing yourself so hard!"
Vanessa: "I can't help it.  I live in a capitalistic patriarchy that is forcing me to work beyond my capacity!"

Vanessa's answer here is what I would call a one dimensional causal answer, and not because what she is saying is invalid.  It’s just partial.  She points to "capitalistic patriarchy" as the "force" that is "causing" her situation, when in fact, there could be all sorts of causal forces at work.  For instance, Vanessa may be extremely unhappy and is unconsciously taking on more work to avoid breaking up.  She values the stability of her relationship, but also feels the excitement of being attracted to someone else. Not being able to make sense of these conflicting desires, she puts off the decision by throwing herself into more work, which she unconsciously justifies to Sam in macro economic terms.

The Partialness of Metaphor

The limitations to this view are important to consider and have wide ranging implications.  Because we view events as objects that move through space, we often come to simplistic explanations of causation.  When an event happens to us, we might be inclined to think it happened for a singular reason.  For instance, I recently had a conversation with a woman who told me her sister was certain that her miscarriage was caused by a foot rub.  She made the connection because she physically felt the miscarriage happen when she was receiving a foot rub, and so the two were linked.  Linking these two disparate events can be helpful to us though, in that, much like opening the present, it relieves some anxiety of not knowing and gives us the reassurance of explanation.  This can be especially helpful in cases were it seems likely that we will never know why something happened.

So given all the conflict Sam and Vanessa have gone through let’s say they decide to end it. They go back to their respective friend groups, sit around a table over drinks and the question becomes, “What happened? What caused the break up?” The conversation that will follow will be two people talking about physical forces that pushed and pulled on objects in physical space. Their points of view will be framed as perspective and distance. Other people’s influences will be framed as physical forces (gravity, electricity, applied force) that affected their actions and ultimately led to the end. We really have no other way of talking about it, and hopefully it is a useful thing to know the next time you find yourself trying to navigate through this emotionally intuitive world of physics which we’ve constructed.