We don’t understand ourselves that well. The more time the behavioral sciences spend studying us, the more judgement errors they find. For example, Daniel Gilbert spends a whole book on how bad we are at figuring out what makes us happy.
At the heart of the digital nomad life resides a similar misconception. We have an inborn need to belong and be part of a community. And yet many people seek out this life to be free and unattached. They don’t seem to realize that when a need goes unfulfilled it ends up dominating your mental landscape. (Try locking yourself in a room without seeing anybody for a week if you don’t believe me). And when a need goes unfulfilled it ends up leeching the color and enjoyment out of everything else.
Yes, I did cover this at length in why most digital nomads fail. Don’t worry. I’m not going to get into that side of it again. Instead, today I’d like to discuss the other side of the coin. If we have an evolved need to belong what advantage does our community give us? To paraphrase Mont Python, what has the community ever done for us? And why if it is so meaningful, do so many of us fail to recognize it for being as important as it is?
I’ll cover all that in this article. To do so, I’m going to go start with a detour. We’re going to turn left – away from the community and inwards into your own brain. Or should that be ‘mind’?
Mind and brain
In many people’s vocabulary the words ‘mind’ and ‘brain’ are interchangeable synonyms. For others who have given it some more thought, there is a difference. They see ‘brain’ as the hardware and ‘mind’ as what runs on it. That idea comes to us from computers and for a long time served us well indeed. It was a big step up from the steam and piston analogy we used during the industrial revolution and has given us a lot of insights into how things work.
And yet, like most analogies, it breaks down at some point. The brain is not the hardware and the mind is not the software.
Let’s start by looking at a way that the brain is different.
On computers, data gets processed through a central location. This is what we call the CPU. The brain doesn’t have one of those. Instead, it’s all about parallel processing. Different parts of the brain are responsible for taking one kind of data, abstracting it and then passing it on to the next module. These then do something similar with the new information.
For example, in our primary visual cortex where the raw data from our eyes gets interpreted, we have neurons whose sole task it is to search for lines. That’s all they do.
Two scientists called David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel discovered that. They did some horrible things to cats to find out. They took felines, tied them down so they couldn’t move, propped their eyelids open and put electrodes into their brains. Those electrodes went – yup, you guessed it – into the primary visual cortex.
They then showed those felines lots of slides to find out what neurons fired when. For the longest time, they didn’t find anything and must have been getting frustrated (to not even talk about how the cats were feeling). Finally, they had a lucky break. A slide got stuck in the projector and the cat only saw the bar between that one and the next. That’s when several neurons started firing. The neurons they were looking at, Hubel and Wiesel realized, reacting to that line and nothing else.
Sight, in other words, started out at an even more basic level than anybody had assumed. The same was true for neurons. All they did was ask ‘Is there a line in the part of the visual field that I’m assigned to?’ and pass that information upwards. A later module would collect all that lower level input together and create a higher-level understanding. It might see the world as existing out of lines and stick figures, for example. Only many such layers and abstractions later does the world as we see it form.
They got the Nobel Prize for that in 1981.
Okay, so that’s how the computer module doesn’t work for the brain. How is our concept of the mind different? It’s about where the mind resides. In a traditional computer, the software resides on the hard disk. You can take that hard disk or copy the data on it, put it in another computer and it will do the same thing.
With us, that’s not the case. You can’t take our brains out of our heads and put them in another body without fundamentally changing who we are. That’s because our minds are much bigger than our brains.
Some of it resides in our bodies. For example, the gut has its own little sub brain. It is about as big as that of a cat (what is it with cats?). It manages digestion, searches for poisons, influences mood (i.e. getting hangry) and tells us when we need to eat. Weird right?
Other information does not reside in us at all but in our direct environment.
Some examples include the handle on a teapot which tells you to ‘grab me here and not at the other end’. Similarly, zebra crossing tells you where to cross the road. Yes, you need some basic knowledge to use both of those, but once you have that you’re golden. People can give you a new-flanged teapot and you would still know how to use it. In the same way, you don’t need to know where all the zebra crossings are. When you come across one you know how to use it.
A third place where a huge amount of information is kept that is relevant to you is in other people’s heads. You’ve never seen it. You’ve never read it. You don’t know anything about it. Yet you rely upon it every day. Some of it you know you don’t know – like quantum mechanics or how the economy works.
Other knowledge you think you understand, but don’t. Like how a toilet works. Do you actually know? Most people think they do, but when they’re called upon to explain it they fall short (here is an explanation). Most people don’t know what all the parts in car engines are for either. Nor can they explain how global warming actually works.
That effect where you think you understand something but don’t – like that bit about the toilet – is the ‘illusion of explanatory depth’. It is an important topic with some profound effects. But as this detour has been quite extensive already, we’re not going to cover it here. If you want to know more, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore it at length in their book The Knowledge Illusion.
Don’t feel like buying the book? Then check out this New Yorker article.
What matters for this article is the size of your mind and how it doesn’t end where your skull starts. Instead, it stretches out from your brain to others and is interlaced with them. Far from being isolated individuals, we’re hived together through our culture and shared knowledge.
Not convinced yet? Then let me give you a concrete example. Consider this article. Most people would say I am its author. That means that in many people’s eyes I’m responsible for what is written here. But if you think about it, that’s absolute nonsense. Take a moment to consider how many ideas and inventions by other people I’ve relied upon.
Off the top of my head, to be able to produce this text (or any text) and make it understandable to you, I need:
- Computer technology
- The internet
- Word-processing software
And then I’m selling all the diplomats and governments short. After all, without the treaties they’ve hammered out this article couldn’t travel from Colombia to your corner of the world.
And that holds true for any article, not just this one. For this article, I’ve used insights from generations of thinkers, with each generation building on the ideas of the previous.
In truth, my contribution is tiny compared to what everybody else’s has done. More importantly, I don’t even understand most of what is necessary for this text. Don’t ask me to describe electricity. And if you demand I explain the internet I’d wave my hands about and mumble a lot.
With the research I quote I might do a little better. Still, I haven’t read their papers, to not even mention tried to replicate their findings.
If you think about it, at best my contribution can be described as a selection of the community’s ideas. (Yes, finally we got there. Quite a detour, aye?).
Community and the individual
That isn’t that strange. As individuals, we’re quite limited. It takes us days to read books and even then we forget most of the information there. Learning a new skill can take months to years. In fact, a great deal of the information we’re exposed to we don’t even bother to try and remember. We just assume we can look it up if we ever need it again. But of course, that’s only possible if somebody else does know it and goes through the trouble of putting it up for us to find.
The result? We can’t do many things alone. Almost nobody, for example, can build a modern house or computer from scratch.
It’s only when we pool our intelligence we can go to the moon, understand ourselves and travel the world while working from the road. This is because most knowledge exists between brains, with each of us holding only a piece of the puzzle.
Or, as Sloman and Fernbach of The Knowledge Illusion put it, “Intelligence resides in the community and not in any individual. So decision-making procedures that elicit the wisdom of the community are likely to produce better outcomes than procedures that depend on the relative ignorance of lone individuals.”
Remember how above I described the brain as a parallel processing machine? That’s a pretty good analogy for society as well. We’re the modules, doing our own little part and passing what we produce onwards. We’re often unaware where what we work on came from or how it was made. In the same way, we don’t know what the next person who comes along is going to do with what we produce.
In truth, society should get a lot of the credit for what we manage to do. I mean that both for our species as well as for us as individuals.
So why doesn’t it?
Our obsession with individuals
As a species, we love stories about individuals. Our movies are about individual people who manage to do great things. Similarly, our history books are full of heroes who changed the course of history. For example, we equate Gandhi with the independence movement in India. In the process, we ignore many other instrumental figures who were involved.
The same happens in science. We have this idea that science is advanced by lone wolf scientists. For example, we credit Darwin with discovering evolutionary theory. Nobody talks about Alfred Russel Wallace. That’s despite the fact that he arrived at the same theory at about the same time (and was actually credited by Darwin). Nor should we forget the work of Gregor Mendel whose role is also important for evolutionary theory.
Similarly, we have this story about the Wright brothers discovering flight. In truth, though, there were lots of people who were trying at around the same time. If the brothers wouldn’t have done it, somebody else soon would have. Nor were they lone wolves (can you even pluralize that?) as they relied on others work, like George Cayley, to build their machine.
So why do we do that? Why do we give the credit to individuals and tend to forget about everybody else?
The answer is twofold. First off, individuals speak to us much more. We can identify with them and aspire to be like them. We can’t do that with groups. After all, we’re all individuals (Yes, that’s a second Monty Python quote – good on you for picking that up).
Second, it’s a lot easier to remember one person instead of a group. Again, we only have so many hours in our day and can only remember so much. And remembering one name is much easier than remembering a group. Initially, it might even be the case that we realize the individual is shorthand for the group. Then, over time and generations, the group falls away and only the individual remains. Hitler was the Reich, Martin Luther King was the civil rights movement and Mao Zedong was communist China.
It isn’t only that, though. It’s also in part down to our western ideas. Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan showed how we’re WEIRD. As in, Wester Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic and how that has changed how we see the world. People like us have never existed before in the history of our species. We’re new. And we’re not just weird – we’ve got some pretty weird ideas.
For example, take individualism. It’s largely a western invention. I mean, some other cultures focus more on the nodes than on the connections between them. Modern western society, however, has taken this to an extreme. Many Easterner cultures don’t do that half as much. Instead, they focus on the connections between people and the knowledge that resides there.
Or, as Sloman and Fernbach say, “Some Eastern philosophies encourage adherents to appreciate their own ignorance: to accept that they know little and to respect what others know. Indeed, some traditions go further, encouraging people to have gratitude for the knowledge of others.”
Our focus on individuality translates into a different view of the world. People are important; the connections between them less so.
What that means (and what to do about it)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that our western focus on individualism is bad. It has contributed to a lot to the technological and scientific insights over the centuries.
The problem is that while the individual is certainly important, it has made us blind to the importance of community. That is possibly why we care so much about stuff and not enough about people. It also explains why many throw themselves into the digital nomad life without considering the consequences. That is until they’re well and truly alone and unhappy. This lack of community is also why so many people fall for scams on the road. They don’t have people around them that can warn them away from get rich quick schemes.
And it’s also the reason so many people’s digital nomad businesses fail. They go at it alone and make mistakes they could have avoided if they would have spoken more with other people.
The solution is quite simple. No, it isn’t, ‘don’t become a digital nomad’. If you’re planning to become a digital nomad, you wouldn’t listen to me if I said that anyway. Instead, it’s about realizing the importance of community. It’s about not only severing the connections with the people you’re leaving behind but about investing in creating new ones. It’s about realizing how important community is and putting in the effort to stay connected.
Only in that way can you succeed at the digital nomad life – or any other life, for that matter.
So shift your focus, reinvest in the people around you and stay in touch. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but if you don’t build your community now while the sun is shining, it won’t be there to support you when a storm breaks overhead. And besides, the more you stay in touch, the easier it will be to deal with reverse culture shock.