I was thinking the other day, and got started on the idea of what someone’s personality really is. Okay, I admit it, my brain was in an altered state. But for what its worth I'll try bring some of the overwrought craziness back with me. Warning: it takes itself a little bit too seriously. Oh well.

What if people actually have no ‘real’ personalities at all. The personality, I thought to myself, might simply the interplay of their brain-modules as perceived from the outside: the surface of a complex, but deterministic flowing algorithm that continually responds to the environment. There’s nothing there, in the sense of ‘the truth’ about our personalities. Each brain module that contributes to our personality is simply a skeletal, information-processing structure, devoid of any real identity as a ‘conscious agent’. The various constructs of this mind: its ethics, its conception of reputation and/or status, its use of logic, its sensitivity to emotions like love, hate and suffering, its ability to choose between pride or shame, or any of the other things that form the palette of human experience, have no intrinsic validity or truth other than their utility in promoting the survival interests of the genes that underlie each mind.

But there is room to find this not a nihilistic or ridiculous conception of existence, but a spiritually exciting and uplifting one. Whenever fortune conspires against us, whenever we have setbacks and losses, and feel our confidence coming undone, we simply remember what we are, and how our responses are just the flickering of light on the shell of experience, our thoughts are just calculations by a reproduction-maximising machine, our lives iterations of kind of never-ending game of genetic reproduction. When we see why we are upset – because our self-advancement programs are encountering obstacles – we realize that its not being alive that is unpleasant, it is being too concerned with our own insistence on a reality that is negative. In a Zen-like way, there is no solidity, no real meaning to the interactions, interpretations, and impressions that constitute our world. The real world lies outside the system of things that make us happy or sad, rich or destitute. There is no ‘real’ me – what I think of myself and what my friends or enemies might think of me is all there is, and even then, the substance of these long term thoughts, these assertions, like "she’s too demanding of other people", or "he's such a serene guy" or "they're so happy together" are blown around by neurochemical winds and continually bleached clean by the seeping past of time, as memories fade and impressions change. If we aren’t rigorously defined from the outside, where are we defined? We aren’t! The beliefs of myself or others aren’t any better or worse definitions of who ‘I’ am than a description of all the atoms that comprise my brain. So of course why should I care if people don’t see me as I see myself?

I’m a program in a sea of programs, and we are all opaque to ourselves and each other. It is rare when a chance event, or a concerted effort on our part seems to render our shells momentarily transparent, so that we think we know what is going on – but we are still forever blinded by reality. Interpreted in the right way, this is a very liberating thought – because it blunts the arrows of criticism that people shoot at others and themselves, it softens the blows we perceive life deals out. Things that upset us only do so because of the slavish way in which we take our self-constructed reality seriously. For example, the hypothetical lost promotion ends up eclipsing the much more significant fact that almost all middle-class people like us are constantly fed and relatively healthy. Likewise the lover’s rejection shadows the uplifting fact that our children, when we do have them, are much more likely to survive now then at any time during humanity’s history. And when we resent all the luxury items we can’t buy, we forget about all the essentials we can, not including the significant and life-changing luxuries of long-distance transport, books, the internet and mass media, tertiary education, modern medicine, and electricity, which are surely some of the most exciting things to have happened to humanity since the dawn of language.

There is so much to appreciate, so much to be grateful for, that it seems ludicrous to be upset by the transient upsets of our day to day lives. Our negativity, when we encounter it, is far from being borne of a dark and hateful world. Instead, it might well be that the genetic recipe evolution has devised for our brains – the way our bodies respond to stress, the way we evaluate our success compared to that of our peers, they way our experience of happiness seems to be less of an absolute measure of our wellbeing, like a barometer is of height, but a relative measure of how our actions have recently changed our situation, like a spirit-level – hasn’t been precisely fine-tuned to today’s world. It is fair to say that evolution stopped designing our brains a few tens of thousands of years ago. Nowadays, the fact that people pursue long-term careers, build aeroplanes in huge teams, run for president, and write long novels is almost an accidental benefit of the pursuit-of-status and creativity-stimulating routines that served us so well as hunter gatherers. What a soft, subtle joke that fate has played on us!

This isn’t meant to be a point about evolutionary psychology. It is meant to be a point about life. A reminder that the vagaries of our emotions, the self-constructed reality that either depresses or elates us, is an almost entirely virtual reality, one that can be re-rendered from thousands of different perspectives, no single one of which is any truer than the other – and that the idea that one is more ‘natural’ because it happens to be the one that life is imposing and that we are implicitly accepting, is of course totally bogus. Into this wide-open gap left behind by our rejection of a ‘natural’ reality, onto this blank page, our own definitions of status, of achievement, and happiness are waiting to be written. Perhaps that is the exciting thing about being alive in the modern era – the terms of our engagement with life, and with our instinctual programming, are suddenly up for grabs.