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Everyone but me saw the Gangnam Style music video years ago. I finally watched it today because the legend of Psy somehow became a key part of this article. Having now watched the video, I understand why drop-crotch pants became fashionable. I then watched a few other billion-view videos in hopes of learning what a dab is.

Anyway, this is a few thoughts on the more timeless topic of emotion.


Why do we feel this way or that way? What is the general basis for fear, lust, anger, happiness, and everything else? Why do we do what we do?

Emotions are often a mystery in the moment yet there's a cold logic underlying them and our behavior in general. This logic has everything to do with the difference between surviving and thriving. Our subconscious engages in this logic continuously and triggers behavioral change when it detects a pattern.

The core logic is this: when an action amplifies my existence, I get a reward like a warm-and-fuzzy hit of oxytocin or a happy hit of dopamine. If an action diminishes my existence, I get the punishment of pain, anxiety, fear, shame, and so on. That's what our brain is doing, both in-the-moment and projecting future possibilities.

Basic reward and punishment is well known but I'd like to explore the idea that the logic underlying emotion has a quantifiable basis.

Amplified existence

First, I want to be clear about what I mean by amplified existence. The brain is amazingly adept at figuring out, almost instantly, whether an action will amplify or diminish our existence.

When we find food, our existence is amplified; especially if the food is nutritionally rich. Same if we have sex, find shelter, help a friend, or score the championship-winning goal. When these things happen, our brain rewards us with the happy chemicals that lead to positive emotions.

When we hear a strange noise in the darkness, are written up by our boss, or discover that the front of our shirt was poking through our open zipper the entire presentation to the board, we experience fear, anxiety, shame, and so on. This means our existence is at risk of being diminished. It's as though the balloon representing our existence has deflated, or even worse, it is about to be popped.

The same pattern occurs socially. When we see other people making choices that may diminish them, we tut-tut and discourage it: don't play video games all day, don't do heroin, don't sky-dive without a reserve parachute, don't drive so damn fast through the school zone, and don't get stumbling drunk and swear like a sailor at the black-tie fund-raiser. It is diminishing to be socially inept, a homeless addict, thrown in prison, blacklisted by high society, or to experience earth at terminal velocity.

For our friends and family, we encourage and reward behavior that amplifies their existence or the existence of groups they belong to. We reward and support those who work hard, get married, have children, save for retirement, get an education, grow a successful business, and help each other out. We scold or punish the ones who do the opposite.

Now, I won't claim to know how the brain measures existential amplification or diminishment, like I won't claim to know how gravity works, but nonetheless the brain measures quickly, continuously, and across wide spans of time.

Still, like gravity, we can reason about what it is measuring.

Measuring effect

What our brain is continually measuring is our effect.

An imprisoned person has very little effect on the world compared to a well-connected and charismatic politician or business executive. So we tend to avoid prison and aspire to be President or CEO. The singer who gets billions of YouTube views has a vastly greater effect than the singer for the local garage band. So we tend idolize the Psy's and Taylor Swifts of the world.

In this sense, effect is analogous to gravity. We don't know exactly what gravity is but we can measure its effect. It seems to me that the entire universe is adept at measuring and then reacting to the effect of gravity. We know how massive the sun is because we can observe and measure its effect on the planets: massive enough to capture orbiters. What does this mean?

Effect is influence

In people, as with gravity, effect is also influence. Each of Gangnam Style's 2.8 billion views has produced a change, however small, in the brain of another person. This change induces a realignment - a slight "gravitational pull" - toward the values and styles expressed in the video and toward Psy, its creator.

Because the wide-spread effect of Gangnam Style which aligned many millions of people toward its creator, Psy now enjoys international respect, status, and wealth. People all over the world get seriously excited - rewarded by their happy hormones - when meeting him. When Psy has a concert, thousands of people pay to experience it. When he speaks, people stop and listen. Or at least they did in 2014. If he's in trouble, many people will be happy to help him. And now he has a chance to leave a lasting legacy beyond drop-crotch pants and ridiculous videos.

In short, Psy's existence has been amplified to massive proportions compared to the average person. He's got an asteroid belt of fawning fans while the rest of us have the gravitational pull of space dust in comparison.

What's interesting about Psy is that while his video had already gone viral, his fame blew up when Gangnam Style "broke YouTube" to become the first to hit 1 billion views. That milestone was so compelling that it made the news worldwide and transformed him into a legend rather than merely famous.

One billion views! And nearing three billion today, though slowing down. On top of those billions, he has reached audiences of millions with his TV appearances and concerts. Overall, he's earned millions of dollars. What is all of that?

Quantified effect

Psy's views, audience numbers, and wealth are his effect, quantified. This effect is directly proportional to the scale of his existence, which is directly proportional to his social value, which is all directly proportional to his ability to have and support six-dozen healthy children if he chose to. Or to construct a legacy of ideals and values that influences civilization long past his death.

Everyone else

Although Psy is an exceptional case, the pattern holds for everyone else as well. How do we regular people measure our effect? Much the same way.

We measure directly sometimes, like the cost of our weddings, the cost of our homes, cars, and vacations, the number of people at our funerals, the size of our Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook followings (and likes), the number of important people who'll return our phone calls, the size of our families (and cumulative net worth).

We also measure indirectly, such as the number of important people who listen intently to our stories and find our jokes to be eye-wateringly uproarious, the number of people whose livelihoods depend on us for survival, and the ease by which we get people to say yes to us.

So there's many ways we measure our effect, which is a measure of our influence, and which is likewise a measure of our capacity to survive and perhaps even thrive. As long as we perceive our cumulative effect to be growing, we're doing better and feeling good. When we notice our effect diminishing or becoming overshadowed, we're doing worse and we'll feel bad about it.

Emotions are linked so directly to the rise and fall of our effect that our brain is basically an engine for figuring out how much an activity might amplify or diminish our existence. As you might expect, it's all about existence. Like gravity, this pattern of effect ←→ existence is everywhere all the time.