Sunday, October 12, 2014

A critical self-analysis - my desire to share experiences

"I read, in past days, that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China was that First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered the burning of all the books before him. That the two gigantic operations—the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past—issued from one person and were in a certain sense his attributes, inexplicably satisfied me and, at the same time, disturbed me. The object of this note is to investigate the reasons for that emotion." 
Jorge Luis Borges, "The Wall and the Books"

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I often feel - as, I think, do most people - a strong desire to tell other people about my experiences. When I see witness a surprising event, have an exciting adventure, or come across a powerful idea, I feel an urge to share the story. In fact, sometimes I wonder if my experiences would feel meaningful at all if there was no one else to share them with.

This sentiment sometimes frustrates and confuses me, because I'd like to think I mostly care about the quality of my experiences themselves, rather than the way that others perceive them. So I'm going present several interpretations of why I might have this desire to tell people about my experiences, in hopes of better understanding myself.


  1. I say "I'm going to present several interpretations" to emphasize that I'm not saying any of these explanations are really true. Some of them are at a level of abstraction at which descriptions are more sensibly described by qualities like interesting, or beautiful, or uncomfortable rather than by truth values. (If you're not sure what I mean by that, read this.)
  2. I'm not always proud of my desires or the way my mind works. But I'm not going to give disclaimers every line about which things I do and don't like about myself; this post is mostly describes my feelings on sharing experiences, not my feelings about my feelings on sharing experiences.

What makes me need to share my experiences?

I'll give a couple different explanations. The most profound (and uncomfortable) ones are at the end, so if you're only going to read some of this post, skip to "Urges towards self-deification".

Selective pressures ala evolutionary psychology

One way to explain how I feel is to give reasons why ancestors with certain traits would have been selected for, causing me to have these traits. I'm not an expert in evolutionary psychology, so take these musings with several grains of salt.

Individual trait selection

Why might individuals who shared their experiences have a greater number of fit babies? For one, a desire to share experiences might encourage social interaction. Social interaction leads to sex and, perhaps, the depth of social interaction required for very personal sharing lends itself well to committed relationships and child-raising. Social interaction also leads to friends, with whom one can cooperate for mutual gains in goods and status. Furthermore, individuals with information-sharing friends learn more about the world and can make better decisions.

Group trait selection

We can also think about selective pressures on a group level - why might groups in which individuals share experiences be selected for? Well, information-sharing is not always a zero-sum activity - that is, the sharer of information doesn't lose as much by sharing information as the learner gains. For instance, spreading information about the location of a predator or techniques for hunting may increase competition for mates within a group, but on the whole it makes group members better off. So groups that share information might be selected for over other groups.

Intelligence signaling

Intelligence is a trait that contributes to survival, so smart people should want to signal it (honestly or dishonestly) to mates by sharing thoughts which indicate their intelligence. Saying things people perceive as intelligent also can grant some degree of authority; this should also be selected for, because higher social status is also an evolutionarily desirable trait.

Interpersonal needs and desires

Some of the explanations in this section could be given explanations through evolutionary psychology, but here I'm discussing them on the level of my own experience - i.e. I'm talking about what I consciously experience wanting.

To create intimate conversations and relationships

  1. Sharing the ideas I find most interesting prompt conversations on those topics, which I love!
  2. When I tell people about things that go on in my life, they understand me better and our relationships grow deeper.
  3. Sharing very personal experiences makes me vulnerable, which is an important ingredient of emotional closeness.

To construct an outward image

"I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am." - Thomas Cooley

One thing that makes me feel good about myself is thinking that other people think nice things about me. We are all familiar with the nice feeling one gets from overhearing someone say nice things about oneself.

There are certain traits in particular that I want people to think I exhibit - for example that I am smart, enjoy thinking about deep questions, fundamentally care about other people, have profoundly meaningful experiences, am attractive and intriguing, etc. Insofar as these things are true, giving people representative information about my experiences leads them to see me the way I want to be seen.

Insofar as I wouldn't really mind if people thought I was cooler than I really am, giving people select or exaggerated information about my experiences also leads them to see my the way I want to be seen. The most obvious example of this is on Facebook - people selectively post the things about their lives that they want others to see, thereby creating a certain image (usually very positive).

Urges towards self-deification

Construction of universal truths

Relativism - the idea that "truth" is just a word that exists within worldviews and that the choice between worldviews is arbitrary - is my firmest philosophical belief, but I struggle with relativism on an emotional level. It frustrates me by ensuring that there are no ultimate reasons to believe what I believe, and by forcing me to acknowledge that reasonable people really can disagree.

To give you a sense of just how uncomfortable I am with disagreement, here's the quote I chose to put in my high school yearbook (I half-regret it): "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius" (Emerson). My frustration is not that people start off disagreeing, but rather with the idea that after talking for a long, long time, we can still disagree. (In fact, purely rational agents cannot disagree about certain facts if they talk for long enough.)

I think that sharing my beliefs, especially when it allows me to argue for them and convince others, caters to part of myself that wants to believe my ideas are true on a fundamental level, not just within my head. When I can convince someone else of my belief, I feel like I have a piece of reality that is unshakeable and independent of perspective - since they were convinced of it from a different starting point. Of course, p isn't existentially true just because everyone believes p, but it feels a lot closer (for instance, you might not get pestered for saying that p was universally true). So even though on the most fundamental level, I don't believe that anything is true, I still often want to feel the sense of correctness and universality and permanence that accompanies the notion of truth; so sharing and convincing feel good.

Reaching for immortality

While I was brainstorming for this post, it occurred to me that I don't just enjoy sharing my thoughts with other people - I also enjoy writing them down, even when I don't know that anyone will read them. The feeling is that a conversation about an idea only lasts for a few minutes, whereas a written copy of an idea can last for years, even past my death to some incomprehensibly distant point in the future. The sentiment is, "If an idea happens in my head and nobody hears it, did it really exist?" and by extension, "If two people talk about an idea and there is no record, did the idea really exist?"

In this sense, sharing my experiences, especially in written form, represent a desire to permanently codify my essence before I die and thereby attain a kind of immortality.

A beautiful short story by Borges

I highly recommend Jorge Luis Borges' very short story, "The Wall and the Books", which tells the tale of an emperor who burnt all books from previous generations and who built a gigantic wall. Borges suggests that the two acts represent the emperor's desire to construct a universal and immortal self/dynasty by destroying any evidence of others in the past and by building a wall which not only keeps out contrary ideas (creating an illusion of universality) and power but also suggests immutability with sheer scale.

To a much less drastic extent, I've just suggested that I, too, feel the urge to deify myself by sharing experiences in ways that enforce a sense of non-arbitrary truth and permanence. I'm not sure what to make of this, but it's pretty scary and rather poetic.


What are the different ways to understand my desire to tell others about my experiences?
  • As a result of evolutionary psychology
    • There could be selective pressures to share information, be sociable, signal intelligence
  • As a way to satisfy interpersonal needs and desires
    • I want to communicate about the things I care about and foster intimate relationships
    • I want others to see me in a certain way
  • As a way to deify myself
    • By tricking myself into thinking my beliefs are universal
    • By giving permanence to my experience


To Margaret for suggesting some edits/restructuring of the post.

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