Discover more from The Creativity Gap
From politics and bullshit to embodiment and meaning.
You learned a strange trick when you were young.
You may not remember, but there was a time before you knew it. Let me tell you about the moment I learned it – see if it sounds familiar to you.
I'm nine years old in a law firm with drop ceilings and fluorescent lighting. I’m somewhere in Baton Rouge. I've been placed in an empty room. It smells like fresh paper out of printers (is that smell ozone?) and faintly of carpet glue. My parents are a couple of rooms over with one of their lawyers, arguing over the terms of their divorce.
It's quiet in that horrible way nondescript office buildings are. Occasionally, I hear murmured words, a stapler, or the swish of pants. A few feet away from me, the refrigerator's fan clicks to life and then settles into a regular hum. I have the sense that I need to escape the cascade of negative emotions in my body. I'm "stressed out," as an adult would say.
That's when I discover the trick. By focusing on the regular hum of the fan, my consciousness pops out of my body and into my head. Instead of feeling my feelings, I’m “thinking” (with words) about how the fan works, what paper is made of, and how much money a lawyer makes. A psychologist would say I am "disassociated" as a way of self-preservation.
This may sound a little strange, but this process happened to you at some point, too. If I asked where “you” are in your body, you would probably point to your forehead. Nearly everyone in the modern world feels that their “self” is roughly behind their eyes.
This was not always the case.
If you asked an Ancient Greek, for example, where his “soul” was, he would most likely point to his chest. Most people back then couldn’t read or write, so there just wasn’t enough real estate in the “head” to relocate a person’s entire sense of self up there.
2,000 years later, Descartes (reading and writing alone in a quiet room) declared, "I think, therefore I am," and codified what had been brewing, but only rarely expressed, for hundreds of years: by using abstract thought, we can escape the messy emotions of the body. Eureka!
“Headiness” is a remarkably new trick.
But, every nerdy kid today knows it well. When you’re not the Quarterback and life doesn't unfold at your feet, you tend to find better alternatives in the abstract. We read books. We watch movies. We have hyper-specific hobbies. Ya’ know -- nerd stuff.
You might even say that’s what makes humans unique. We’re dorks. We don’t have sharp teeth and claws – we invent symbols and doo-dads.
I covered this in more detail in a different post, but without language, we are hopelessly trapped in our bodies, in our time, and in our place. A nerdy, unathletic bear doesn’t get to write essays about the nature of bearness. He just staves.
Humanity went through this stress response I felt as a kid, except stretched out over thousands of years and over generations of people. People unhappy with their bodily circumstances strained upward for a way out. And not so that they could just “nerd out.” Abstraction promises real-world power.
Language does this by always aiming to answer a simple question: what do things have in common? If early humans can codify that, for example, black rocks are found near volcanoes – and volcanic rocks can be sharpened into spears, they can “leverage” that knowledge to make survival easier. With only a symbol (or a sound), you can share that insight with other humans.
But, for thousands of years, language was only a way to indicate things and places in the real environment. Not much more than little doodles of spearheads and volcanoes.
This is until the Hebrews developed the world's first alphabetic (abstract) language (roughly speaking) due to their lack of a homeland. The stress of having no home literally forced them to figure out what all “homelands” have in common -- thus, they develop a book (The Torah) that is, in practice, a "map" of the "Kingdom (home) of God (what all good things have in common)." The stories, while not “scientific,” are early “mathematics” for which attitudes and actions most effectively deliver good outcomes, no matter where you happen to be. In some sense, the entire Western project has been expanding on these themes originally developed by these nomadic people. Similar to how Euclid was the first to formalize the mathematics of shapes (geometry), Hebrews were the first to formalize a “mathematics of meaning.”
So, the cosmically unfair “why me?” situation I was in as a kid was actually deeply linked to what it means to be human. Funny. And, luckily, I wasn't an early human with no access to language. Many thousands of "disassociated" pioneers before me had developed not only a natural language that I could use to "escape" my body, but also many, many books, games, hobbies, and stories that could serve as a way to transport myself away from the stress of my parent’s divorce.
You may already sense the rub -- this isn't a sustainable solution. You can’t run from your problems forever. So it goes. Eventually, you have to go from the desert to the promised land. As an extension of the stress response when I was 9, I would go on to study philosophy and learn to manipulate these "mathematics of meaning" to get what I wanted. But, at the core of my being, I was still running away from a very simple phenomenon: Mommy and Daddy were breaking up. Now I’m 30, but part of me is still 9 in that law firm.
Human beings are very good at using pain to drive ourselves long after the source of the pain is gone. Jay-Z grew up surrounded by poverty and violence in Brooklyn housing projects. His mastery of spoken language (rap) achieves some abstract ideal beyond his time and place. Jim Carrey has discussed using humor (abstracted absurdity) as an escape from the brutal absurdity of homelessness he experienced as a child.
Our ability to abstract out of immediate bodily experience and “echo” that experience for decades is part of what makes humans so insanely beautiful. Many geniuses spend their lives trying to soothe a trauma from childhood. Animals may live in the pristine present moment, but there has never been a lion who composed Beethoven's 5th.
But, abstraction can’t be the end of the story. To bring the story "full circle," I have to go back to the source of the trauma and face it – voluntarily. This, I’m starting to get, is the central lesson of all religious stories. That’s why God is given a body and nailed to a cross for Christians. The journey I took into the abstract world of language and philosophy wasn't wasted, but it will never be "complete" until I return "home." Now we start to see hints about why all stories share the same structure. We all face the same, strange dilemma.
And so, practically, for me, that means I have to sit down and re-live my parent’s divorce. Not literally, but in my embodied imagination. That might mean writing about it or talking about it – as long as I feel the emotions again. If I don’t, my subconscious will always be trying to reproduce the incident (anyone trapped in the same patterns with romantic partners over and over will understand this). I have to figure out exactly what my “animal” body still needs to process from that experience so I can move on. Should I have kicked the door down and demanded my parents get back together? Should I have asked someone nearby for help? Should I just try to forgive myself because I was f*cking 9? What’s important is not the heady information, but the bodily experience itself. And we just accidentally discovered somatic therapy.
All of this, by the way, is exactly what the modern psychological literature says is the best way to heal from trauma. The Catholics call it confession, the psychoanalysts call it exposure therapy.
The problem is that every day there are new and exciting reasons to run away from our bodily experience: Apple Vision, money, power, fame, The Legend of Zelda, and increasingly addictive phones. The whole of humanity seems to be determined to disembody itself.
Very soon, the leverage AI and large language models will have in the abstract will be unimaginable. Without a proper grounding “full-circle” experience, we are seriously out of balance, and the consequences, as many people predict, could be fatal for our entire species.
“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” — Omar Nelson Bradley
In common speak, what do you call abstract talk that’s not grounded in anyone’s experience? Bullshit.
Bullshit is when a car salesman tells you what you want to hear (the low, low monthly payment) and downplays what you don’t (the amount of depreciation the second you drive off the lot). It sounds good. Everything he says may even be true facts. But it’s bullshit.
Bullshit is a great term for the biggest plague of the 21st century. I’m not the first to notice it. Bullshit isn’t a lie – it’s the truth in a ski mask.
And, it’s no coincidence that large language models are fantastic at producing pounds and endless pounds of bullshit. Ask ChatGPT a question on any topic, and it will gladly spout out confident-sounding words that seem to indicate a meaningful answer.
But what is a meaningful answer?
To go beyond bullshit, the writer or speaker has to live out the meaning that is trying to be conveyed. Otherwise, it strikes no resonance. When I ask Chat GPT what love is, it says, “Love, in its deepest sense, is the music of the soul that whispers of a secret melody known only to two hearts. It's an ineffable language that speaks in the soft sighs of the morning breeze, the passionate blaze of the setting sun, and the silent rhythm of the nighttime stars.”
“Truth,” then, is not a set of dry facts. It can't be that, because then nobody could have access to the truth. There are an infinite number of facts. That’s why objectivity is a lie.
I know this sounds extreme, but it’s a central point of confusion for us (fake news, deep fakes, and vaccine debates, to name a few examples), and we’re going to have to start thinking about objectivity and facts differently.
Before the age of social media and AI, news channels promised you they were "non-biased.” They were old-fashioned bullshitters. By choosing which stories to show you (out of the infinite things they could show you), they framed reality. Then, they implied their frame was the objective one. It was bullshit, but it’s almost quaint compared to what we deal with now.
Now, we live in our little algorithmic “feed” bubbles where we only see what we already agree with. Each bubble claims it has the objective truth while saying every other bubble is full of sub-human demons. In this landscape, is it even possible to know what’s true anymore?
That’s the wrong question. A more useful question than “Is it true?” might be: does it work?
The American pragmatists (a group of philosophers) thought this idea up. Basically, if your theory got you where you want to go in a way that you expect, the theory is true enough... for now. If someone figures out how to get where they want to go even faster, now that’s the truth... for now.
Science, in this worldview, is a yardstick. You don't confuse the yardstick for the lumber that composes your walls. Science is not “truth.” It’s good-enough-for-now. Anyone saying, “Trust the science,” is only saying, “I buy the bullshit of the group I identify with.” Science is a process that seeks to undermine its own findings – that’s exactly what makes it so powerful. It’s not a set of beliefs. No one should trust anyone saying you must to believe in the current findings of science. Facts do care about your feelings because your feelings are the reason you focus on some facts and not others.
Losing objectivity is scary, but, suddenly, bullshit is less possible. Since we don’t believe in raw objective facts, a person always has to disclose his embodied motivations for picking the facts. The news organization can’t say, “No spin zone.” They have to say, “We believe in X spin.”
Bullshitters who want our money and attention depend on us believing in abstract objectivity. But, when you know there is no such thing, you are much less likely to accept the narrative of some stranger (who probably has his advertiser’s interest in mind, not yours).
That all sounds nice, but it’s scary to let go of the notion that someone out there knows “the truth.” People feel unstable and confused, so they reach out there for a foundation in the media, in "science," or in whatever podcaster or new-age thinker they happen to worship.
I totally get it. Because of what happened to me as a kid (and the parallel thing that happened to all of humanity), we are all susceptible to bullshit. The people who peddle it, knowingly or not, exploit our disembodied insecurity. They rely on fear and outrage to keep those abstract and mostly stupid ideas lodged firmly in our skulls.
But there is a way out. And you probably witness it happening all the time.
The second someone has an honest (embodied) conversation with someone of the opposite political affiliation, for example, all their rage toward that abstract idea disappears. My friend’s dad, for example, hates California Liberals – except for his son. Does that mean he learned not to rely on bullshit peddled by giant entities? Nope. He, and many others, just say, "He's one of the good libtards/cuckservatives. Not like those other demons." Yeesh.
Maybe the deeper problem is that most people, like me, have trauma from childhood that "kicked" them out of their embodied experience. So, we spent most of our lives mastering and taking comfort in the abstract and political world. We’re proud of it. To think that I need to get back to basics, feel into my heart (boo!), have honest conversations, and let go of all the ideas floating in my head -- it's almost too much. What – do I have to dance now? Admit my ignorance of foreign policy? Ask dumb questions? How embarrassing.
Often, we literally can't. Not at first, anyway. People who sit down to meditate can go hours without once having their "thinking" mind shut the hell up, even for a moment.
Great – at least we’ve identified the problem and we know some solutions. There are obvious things to practice: meditation, prayer, dance, humility, the Alexander Technique -- all that. It works. There are people better than me all over the internet who will show you how. That's great. But none of it matters if you don't realize that you are not the ball of anxiety that floats behind your eyes. You can learn to sink down into your chest like an Ancient Greek. You can experience yourself as a “soul” in your heart. I know, probably I just lost all the heady people. But, trust me, that’s what it’s like.
Yes -- it’s ok to read, analyze, and nerd out on the hyper abstract. But you will eventually have to come home and put all those lofty ideas into practice. Trying to bring them home will make most of them die (which hurts). But, the most true and beautiful ones will survive the journey. And you will be left with gold.
I just described the structure of every story. That’s why it’s so cheesy and cliche. And, since the description is so abstract, I haven’t told you a story yet. It’s just philosophy (probably bullshit). To become a story, you would have to manifest the pattern into the particulars.
That’s all very mythical and grand sounding. But really, by definition, embodiment is mundane. For example, what exactly do you need to do (how do you need to move your body?) to get a job application in a potential employer’s hands? Or, instead of complaining about your mother again, set up a time to tell what you need to say. If you’re nervous, that means your body can sense it’s important. That’s a good sign.
But that painful process of turning good-sounding ideas into real-world behaviors isn’t just dream-crushing “adulting.” There is more meaning to the mundane than you think. The reason it doesn’t feel that way is because you’re disembodied – floating above your own experience. To sink into yourself is to see the world anew again, like a child. Kids find cracks in the sidewalk thrilling. That could be us again. You’ve probably experienced it here and there – it’s called “flow.”
On the grand scale, strangely, it’s technically true that the entire fate of the world is counting on you to burn off your bullshit and live your real story. No one can live your particular, embodied story; anyone can bullshit.
AI makes abstraction and bullshit a cheap commodity – easy to produce at near-zero cost. That’s going to cause a crisis for the huge majority that make their living as bullshit peddlers. Yeah, we’re probably going to see a lot of people losing their jobs. But, it’s not possible for you to be replaced by AI as long as you burn off the part of you that AI is already much better at (and getting better every day) — bullshit.
If you do the painful work of figuring out which of your ideas you actually believe and which are just bullshit, you will see your words and actions resonate beyond bullshit. Life becomes effortless. It's so rare that those who manage it are the people who change history. Why not us?
Thanks for reading,