In short, I'm interested in cognitive, neuroscientific, biological and/or computational perspectives on what we vaguely refer to as meaning seeking. Of course, this is a large topic, but any information would be highly appreciated.

Background

Humans tend to desire meaning in their lives. While it would be hard to agree on a precise definition of meaning, it often refers to positioning oneself in a way that is compatible with one's beliefs, ambitions and values, allowing the individual to make sense of the world and of himself, and to pursue whatever (often transcendental) goals he considers worthy (i.e. meaningful). In simpler words, meaning could refer to making peace with the perceived reality of the world and with oneself. At first glance, it seems to me that a meaningful existence requires the absence of cognitive dissonances, but I wonder what science would have to say about this, and if there is any empirical basis for claiming this. Or perhaps the questions is misformulated and such behavior should not be put into the domain of meaning?

Possible explanations

A simple evolutionary argument could be that meaning-seeking behavior originates from our impulse to belong (isolation means death), but how do we then explain hermits or dissidents or all other individuals who have effectively made themselves suffer/die in order to uphold meaning in their lives (i.e. dying for one's beliefs)? So the argument that meaning-seeking behavior is a purely evolutionary phenomenon that serves only to maximize one's potential for reproduction doesn't appear sufficient.

Questions

  1. Can meaning seeking be thought of as an optimization problem of some biological parameters on an individual level, e.g. in terms of energy required for various cellular processes, homeostatic gene expression dynamics etc.? For example, depression (which can have an existential origin) is damaging to health and has been linked to epigenetic modifications (Sun et al. 2012), so having a mechanism that would seek to minimize such damage would seem to be beneficial for an organism.
  2. Can we construct a more formal definition of meaning that would be less anthropocentric? In other words, how far would we need to curb the definition so that humans would no longer qualify as the only meaning-seeking organisms? Or are we indeed the only species with the required neural capacity to express such behavior?
  3. Could modern experimental methods such as EEG, fMRI, gene expression profiling and epigenome sequencing be used to answer some of these questions at least to a degree? E.g. would a comparison of individuals who claim to live a meaningful life vs those who don't make any sense? Of course, even if a some significant differences were observed, an obvious next question would be what caused them, i.e. a mind-body-environment problem ...

I'd be happy to know at least if there are some research groups or labs that try to tackle such questions.

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    I can chime in that there are kinds of personalities who are more interested in meaning seeking and poorly tolerate lack of meaning in ones life. This personality type is Myers Briggs rational (NT) temperament. INTP in particular, and it persists throughout lifetime. Maybe there is a genetic component to meaning seeking, otherwise the trait would not be so well identified. – Alex Stone Nov 21 '14 at 1:22
  • Finally an actual scientific question. +1 – Tomáš Zato Nov 24 '14 at 9:09
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    Nice framing of the question(s), but possibly follow-up questions only make sense once you have received additional answers to frame them even better (or they might no longer apply?). Focus is important as broad pages long answers are not a suitable format here. This seems to be in line with Arnon's comment. Do not expect a full answer here when the topic is too broad. Feel more than free to ask follow-up questions as separate posts, linking back here. – Steven Jeuris Nov 26 '14 at 20:04
  • @Steven Jeuris: agreed. The reason the question is so broadly formulated is that this is also an attempt to perhaps redefine it or narrow it down, but I need some input from actual (cognitive) scientists to do it appropriately - i.e. what specific questions have been researched or could be researched, what is out of current technology's ken etc. I would be more than happy to receive partial answers or pointers that would help me to ask more specific subquestions. Another problem is that SE network doesn't have a site for such multidisciplinary questions (which I believe are important). – w128 Nov 26 '14 at 20:34
  • Meaning is the prerequisite for goal oriented behavior. If your environment is random, no strategy leads to your goal. Since you want to survive and procreate (and have fun), you need a meaningful environment to act with purpose. That's all. – user3116 Nov 27 '14 at 14:07

it seems to me that a meaningful existence requires the absence of cognitive dissonances, but I wonder what science would have to say about this, and if there is any empirical basis for claiming this.

The difficulty, as you've pointed out, is that there isn't agreement on the definition of "meaning" in this context. Meaning can be interpreted by different people (and cultures) variously as: "accomplishment", "social good", "altruism", "realizing potential", "inner peace", "knowledge", and on and on.

the argument that meaning-seeking behavior is a purely evolutionary phenomenon that serves only to maximize one's potential for reproduction doesn't appear sufficient.

Read about evolutionary explanations for altruistic behaviour for example to see how this can be addressed: "Every single instance of altruistic behavior need not always increase inclusive fitness; ... it would be beneficial to err on the side of caution and usually be altruistic even if in most cases there were no benefits."

how far would we need to curb the definition so that humans would no longer qualify as the only meaning-seeking organisms?

"Social good" and "altruism" are examples of meaning-seeking behaviours commonly found in many animal species.

Could modern experimental methods such as EEG, fMRI, gene expression profiling and epigenome sequencing be used to answer some of these questions at least to a degree?

Sure, why not. For example: "Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable."

I'd be happy to know at least if there are some research groups or labs that try to tackle such questions.

The area of psychology most likely to address such an abstract concept as meaning-seeking is probably Humanistic Psychology: "Human beings are intentional, aim at goals, are aware that they cause future events, and seek meaning, value, and creativity."

You can read about research done in this field - there isn't very much of it though - and also about self-actualization (another common interpretation of meaning-seeking in psychology).

  • Thank you for your answer. However, I don't think altruism is a particularly good example of meaning seeking in the context of this question; group-based evolutionary arguments don't seem to suffice either. Meaning seeking can be highly (purely?) individual thing (suicides out of honor, risking social exclusion to stand for your values etc.). All this considered, a more suitable explanation seems to be that we can indeed override our evolutionary/biological drives with custom interpretations of the world. The question then is how do these custom interpretaions reflect on a biomolecular level. – w128 Nov 25 '14 at 21:23
  • But honour-suicides and standing up for values are excellent examples of altruism are they not? Self-sacrifice for the greater good...? Why do people like Trayan Marechkov and Mahatma Gandhi commit suicide in honour or stand up for their values if not for the benefit of their family and friends, the oppressed, the minority, the people they care about? Anyways, altruism is just a well-researched example that happens to be found in the animal kingdom. As you said, there are many other types of meaning-seeking behaviours in humans. – Arnon Weinberg Nov 26 '14 at 1:47
  • But doesn't "greater good" in this sense appear too transcendental to be explained by purely evolutionary goals of an individual? How could e.g. concerns for some notion of a better future society be explained purely evolutionary (consider an individual without family, friends, children, or loved ones)? Sure, evolution has shaped and enabled such behavior, but that doesn't really answer much - e.g. evolution has also enabled me to use my arms and eyes to prepare food, but that says little about the nature of hunger. :) And it's this biology-behavior relation that I'd like to know more about. – w128 Nov 26 '14 at 10:06
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    Sure. Not that cognitive science knows much about the biological nature of hunger, and certainly know even less about meaning-seeking, but check out the links I provided in the answer to see the current state of affairs. If you have further questions, then consider posting a new topic. – Arnon Weinberg Nov 26 '14 at 19:13

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