Of late, I’ve had a certain experiment on my mind. It’s a well-known study that involves placing an electrode into a specific area of a rat’s brain, and putting the rat into a box with a lever that activates the electrode.
Rats will perform lever-pressing at rates of several thousand responses per hour for days in order to obtain direct electrical stimulation of the lateral hypothalamus. Multiple studies have demonstrated that rats will perform reinforced behaviors at the exclusion of all other behaviors. Experiments have shown rats to forgo food to the point of starvation in order to work for brain stimulation or intravenous cocaine when both food and stimulation are offered concurrently for a limited time each day. Rats will even cross electrified grids to press a lever, and they are willing to withstand higher levels of shock to obtain electrical stimulation than they are to accept for food (thanks Wikipedia)
Reading this, I immediately see myself pressing the levers that make the pretty pictures appear on my screen and sounds burst from my speakers. My relationship with technology has been highly isolating. For as long as I can remember, my pattern of behavior has often resembled strong addiction and compulsion. I’ve spent a great deal of time wondering what my life would be like in an age without computers, the internet, and the many video games I’ve devoted tens of thousands of hours to. These entities have also enriched my life in myriad ways, enabling me to acquire knowledge and hone skills that have become the foundation of my identity. If I have any claim to mastery over rhetoric or vocabulary, I owe that to technology (and my grandmother, for all those games of Boggle). But the internet is a poor teacher of self-mastery, and my lack of this has been my continued downfall.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that taking command of one’s life is a matter of willpower. Given what we know about developmental psychology, it seems clear to me that very few aspects of our life are the result of choices we make. We have an immensely powerful subconscious that guides a great deal of our behavior, which forms the foundation upon which conscious thought occurs. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a metaphor that I rather like from his book, The Happiness Hypothesis:
The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
I’m not going to spend too much time waxing depressive about the havoc weakness of will has wreaked on my life since puberty began, but I’ve reached a point of maximum frustration with myself. I’ve dropped out four times. I’ve burned through three relationships in one year. I’m 22, and I’m back to living in my parent’s basement. I’m not ungrateful – I’m glad that my parents are willing to let me stay while I recover my debts and try to save up for school – but as my friends disperse out across the globe, I am unsatisfied with what I’ve accomplished in the time given to me. I’m tired of hearing about how much potential I have and how I have the ability to do anything. I want more from life – or more accurately, I want more from myself.
I’ve spent too long fucking around with this depression. The older I get, the more clearly I see how it’s permeated my life since puberty. I recently found and re-read one of my journals from when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I was stunned by how clear and painfully obvious my depression was. Entry after entry, I express utter hopelessness and despair. Until reading it, I reflected on my teenage angst as just that – the unfortunate curse of adolescent frustration. Yet now, I suspect that my agony was more than just the curse of hormones and high school. I mean, fuck, I missed 53 days of school my senior year, 30 in my junior year. Even as an adult, I don’t think I’ve truly admitted to myself how serious of a problem it’s been. My time in the psych ward is an excellent example. I was able to turn the event into a personal victory through story-telling, but even as I wrote it, I denied the very foundation of that event, brushing off my overwhelming apathy and despair as being trivial, characterizing the doctors in the story as overreacting to my suicidal ideation. I’ve always recognized my delusions of grandeur, but only within the last year have I seen that they’re intimately connected with the intense mood swings that have been the hallmark of my daily life for ten years.
Then, of course, there’s my unassailable fortress, my intense criticism of society at large. I declined any suggestion of medication because I was convinced that these were social problems, and there is no pill to fix society. What I really needed was to get away, to be with people that understood and appreciated me, to be in a place where things were done properly. Coming home from Europe, I brought with me a fantasy that life was truly, objectively better in another part of the world, that if I could find a way to stay there, I would know fulfillment and finally integrate into society. I conveniently forgot that, while there, I was shielded from the myriad responsibilities that go into maintaining an independent life. I ignored the fact that I was only there for four months, that many people have acted on the same impulse, discovering that a year later, routine has wormed their way into their life once more. Don’t get me wrong – cursed be the day that I abandon my hopes of living abroad and integrating into other cultures – but I’ve been foolish to believe that the essentials for fulfillment are there, and not here also. Fulfillment, it seems, is a personal responsibility.
To this end, I sought out my doctor and have begun taking bupropion. Hopefully that will get the elephant on track. We’ll see how it goes.