Full Stack Self Awareness March 2018

At a certain point, I became interested in self awareness. It is hard to have a good life without knowing how and why I do the things that I do. But I felt that in order to understand how and why I did the things that I did, I would need to start from the basic biology and then work up into higher levels like immunity, cognition and psychology. You could call this full stack self awareness.

In software, the term full stack means that you can apply technology at each layer of the system. So you can write code that runs on the client, and code that runs on the server. You can write the code that runs in between too, or it would not be the “full” stack. In this context, it means to understand yourself at every level, from biology (low level) up to psychology (high level).

I started with the highest level (psychology) but quickly realized that things that happen at the psychological level are informed by what is happening at the lower levels. So I moved down the stack, into the neuroscience of why I acted. And then eventually that led to the fundamental parts. Eventually I built a synthesis of how each layer acted on the other, in order to be self aware.

I wanted to understand how a decision to exercise could affect how well my brain may be able to focus, and that required understanding both focus (psychology, high level) and physiology (biology, low level). Many people are vaguely aware of these things, but less so as it relates to decision making. Biology was useful for understanding how physical threat state (e.g. fight or flight) affects decision making, and how biological forces like heart rate can impact how one thinks and behaves.

The next level up is the interface between the biology and the cognition, which falls under neuroscience. The fancy name basically means the science of the nervous system, which communicates information among the various systems in the body, as well as comprises the system responsible for the cognition itself. Neuroscience was helpful for understanding why different people might bias to different thoughts, depending on what thoughts, memories and experiences are stored within it.

The highest level is psychology, because it implicates the applied thinking that happens as a result of processes happening in the nervous system. Thinking, focus and self awareness are all implicated by how we perceive ourselves and our environment. That information might be coded in our nervous system and our biological systems actually carry out actions, but our psychology determines how we receive and perceive the inputs in the first place. It interprets.

I found it helpful to understand and think of self awareness in a full stack manner, because you can start to use this knowledge as a tool to drive whatever outcome you want. Concepts like will power, focus and resilience are coded in our nervous system, and the actions we undertake in our day to day lives are happening as a result of biology. Fine tuning, debugging and generally being able to master the low level biological and nervous system components make it easier to get desirable outcomes like focus and will.

If I were to approach self awareness again, at least from the perspective of undertaking to get better at it, I would pair this approach with lots of reading of biographies and talking to people. Ultimately many people have mastered and become deeply aware of themselves through history, but it is a unique problem in a sense that each person has to do it for themselves within their lifetime and success or failure is hard to transfer between people. Part of self understanding is finding where you might be most like others.

Eventually you get to the point where you can easily identify which level an issue might be occurring on. Am I distracted because I have some stressful event coming up? Is this elevating my heart rate? Am I unfocused because I didn’t sleep and my nervous system is not as functional as usual? These are things most people think about, but solving these problems before they happen requires a fundamental understanding of all of the factors.

There is no right way to become self aware, and learning about how the biological levels operate is optional. But it can be helpful when you want to understand how and why we do things to have a better appreciation for every level of our nature.