The finest handpicked things from the stinking and burning dumpster fire that is the interweb.

Month: February 2024

Exploiting yourself to death

The commodification of self edition

I had a busy week, so I couldn’t read or listen to anything that aroused a strong craving in me to bang out a post and subject the world to the gyan that usually oozes out of me. As Thursday passed and Friday was ending, I still had nothing. At around 8 PM on Friday, I found myself contemplating a dreadful thought: What would happen to the world if I failed to share my profound wisdom? I shuddered at the mere thought. The fact that people rely every week on the wisdom that drips out of me for meaning in their lives is a responsibility I take seriously. Then I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner with friends, and then I slept like a BBMP dog.

On Saturday, I woke up, finished downloading the previous night’s dinner, and headed to my usual coffee spot—my own little piece of heaven. For years, going to the coffee shop as soon as I wake up or after I finish sculpting my Greek god physique in the morning has been a ritual. I can’t think of a greater pleasure in life than a hot cup of strong filter coffee, a place to sit, and a few  good things to read.

As I parked my bike and was crossing the road to the coffee shop, it hit me. Early in the week, I heard a brilliant podcast episode. I can only describe the experience of listening to it as getting punched in the brain with a boxing glove dipped in chilly power and lined with rusty old nails. I had heard Stephen West, the wonderful host of the Philosophize This! podcast, distill the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han, the South Korean-born philosopher, cultural theorist, and author residing in Germany.

I had discovered the episode as I was scrolling through my non-algorithmic feed of new podcast episode releases on my Pocket Casts app. Until that moment, I had never heard of Byung-Chul Han. After listening to the episode, I felt ashamed and had a fair amount of regret that I hadn’t discovered him earlier.

Han is bloody brilliant, and I can’t think of many people who have chronicled the ills of life under modern capitalism in as brutal a fashion as he has. He’s the definitive philosopher of our times and our miserable lives. I kept nodding and chuckling nervously as I listened to the episode, because what he says is what I have been feeling for a long time, and I have been writing here as well. His philosophy ties in with the common theme of all the posts I have published so far—how to live a meaningful life. 

I didn’t have a lot of time to dive deep into his work, partly because he only speaks German. So I had to rely on translated interviews, analyses of his philosophy, and syntheses by podcasters. This is fraught with issues, but it’s good enough to get an outline of his philosophy. I intend to read his books this year and write more detailed summaries, but for now, I wanted to write a broad introduction to his key ideas. My hope is that they will spark a few questions in you.

Positive power

One of the key ideas of Byung-Chul Han is that we no longer live in what the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault called the “disciplinary society.” In a disciplinary society, those in power no longer rely on violence to enforce conformity. The era of beheadings and violent public spectacles to punish non-conforming citizens has passed. In modern disciplinary society, individuals are surveilled and controlled by disciplinary institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and factories. These institutions are designed to transform individuals into “docile” self-regulating entities that conform to society’s normative expectations.

“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.” ― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

He says Foucault’s disciplinary society was characterized by “you should not.” In other words, a society where people were controlled through “negative power.” This was the world people lived in for a long time, but Han argues that we now live in a world of “positive power,” where “can’t do” has been replaced with “can.”

He says Foucault’s disciplinary society was characterized by “you should not,” or, in other words, a society where people were controlled through “negative power.” This was the world people lived in for a long time, but Han argues that we now live in a world of “positive power,” where “can’t” has been replaced with “can.”

In a society of “positive power,” people are told they can be whoever they want to be and achieve whatever they desire. All they have to do is dream big, work hard, and constantly chase those dreams. In this society, nobody tells people they “can’t,” but rather, people are motivated because they are led to believe they “can” achieve anything.

“Positive power”—what a provocative conception of modern society!

This is positive power, positive power. Says “can,” negative power says “should,” and as Han says, “Can is much more effective than the negativity of should.” Therefore, the social unconscious switches from should to can. — Philosophize This!

The achievement society

Positive control has turned the world into an “achievement society.”

This is a new, interesting, positive form of control we are living in, what Han calls an achievement society, not a disciplinary society. Nobody holds a gun to your head and tells you what to do anymore; again, that’s an old-fashioned tactic at this point.

All you have to do to control people is tell them all the stuff that they can be doing in theory if only they make themselves valuable enough, if only they work hard enough to make their minds as efficient and optimized as they possibly can be. What Han calls psychopolitics is an extension of Foucault’s biopolitics.

You tell people that, and you don’t need a gun to people’s heads because in the pursuit of endlessly maximizing their abilities, they’ll spend the rest of their lives going crazy about never being good enough, never doing enough, never being efficient enough.

If there’s ever a moment where they’re not spending their time being as productive as they possibly could towards making themselves more valuable, they will actually feel bad about. — Stephen West of Philosophize This! explaining what Byung-Chul Han means.

In modern society, we have all become “entrepreneurs of the self.” We have all become our own personal projects. It’s you versus the world, and if you don’t continually improve, you lose. The result of this Hunger Games-like reality is that we are constantly optimizing our lives. If you stop optimizing and improving yourself to take a moment to smell the roses, you lose. You are a commodity, and the only way you can win is to increase your value. You must constantly “invest” in yourself, even if it means sacrificing things like friendships, because they are pointless distractions in the journey to the ultimate optimized self.

Practically everybody is not a person anymore; they’re their own little personal project. We turn ourselves into a commodity with market value. Everything we learn is not just learning anymore; it’s an investment in ourselves. Everything is about mentally optimizing yourself, working, producing more efficiently with your mind, and it’s a beautiful way to go through life, by the way. You know, if somebody calls you out for being a narcissist, you can just call them a loser, right? That’s just somebody that’s lazy; they’re not going for their dreams like I am. You know they can’t possibly understand the level of work that this kind of stuff takes.

If you’re in a relationship or a friendship and the other person says you’re focusing too much on yourself and your own projects and it’s causing problems in the relationship, you can just say, “Whoa, whoa, being in a relationship? Too much drama for me at this point in my life. I don’t have room for all that. I gotta focus on me and my market value for a while.” It really is a beautiful set of excuses to make it seem to you like it’s a character deficiency in the other person rather than you focusing entirely on yourself. — Stephen West of Philosophize This! explaining what Byung-Chul Han means.

This culture of endless self-optimization results in burnout. We are unhappy when we don’t achieve our goals and even unhappier when we do achieve them because our brains love the thrill of the chase, not the destination. The dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues stems from this culture that pushes you to always do better.

“Depression—which often culminates in burnout—follows from overexcited, overdriven, excessive self-reference that has assumed destructive traits. The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak. It is tired, exhausted by itself, and at war with itself. Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, on the world, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out. It wears itself out in a rat race it runs against itself.” ― Byung-Chul Han, Müdigkeitsgesellschaft

Anxiety and constant dissatisfaction are the grease in the wheels of capitalism.

We are both masters and slaves

Han is a vocal critic of neoliberalism, the economic ideology that promotes free markets, deregulation, and the individual over the collective. In this environment, individualism reigns as the guiding philosophy of life. It’s just you and nothing else. In this individualistic world characterized by pathological narcissism, there’s no external force oppressing or exploiting us—we are doing it to ourselves. Han employs the poignant metaphor that we are both master and slave, whipping ourselves to death at the altar of neoliberalism.

The consequence of this individualistic and narcissistic society, where people are treated as “human capital,” is that we not only plunder nature but also ourselves. We’re in auto-exploit mode by default until we die.

Many of us are on the verge of suffocation, and this suffocation is called burnout today, as I mentioned earlier. I should actually be free if I am free from the constraints or commands coming from the other house, but I am not free because I myself am the one who creates constraints, constantly inventing my own commands and subjecting myself to them. It’s not the other who oppresses me; rather, I am suffocating myself, even though there is no master making me a slave. I am not free because I am the master who makes myself a slave; I am both master and slave at the same time.

One could simply say that I am plundering myself to death, I am working myself to death, I am optimizing myself to death. The disappearance of the other is a pathological phenomenon of the present; being interconnected is not the same as being connected, especially boundless connectivity weakens the bond of an intense relationship and presupposes the other who eludes my availability. It is only the unavailability of the other that makes closeness possible. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.

Age of narcissism

We’ve all become raging narcissists. However, this rampant narcissism is not the cause but rather the result of the incentives that nudge us to be narcissistic. This phenomenon is prominently displayed on social media platforms, where we incessantly share and overshare all aspects of our lives. All of this feeds into a performative culture where emotions, relationships, work, and achievements are all performances in service of “optimizing” and “improving” various aspects of our lives. Nothing is sacred, and everything is seen as a resource to be exploited.

Today’s consumer society knows a healthier panoptic structure – not solitude through regulation, but overcommunication guarantees transparency. What is special about the digital panopticon, above all, is that its inhabitants actively participate in its construction and maintenance by exhibiting and exposing themselves. Pornographic self-display and panoptic control become one. The actionism and exhibitionism feed the net as a digital panopticon.

The panopticon is perfected where its subject is not controlled by external compulsion, but out of the need to shamelessly expose oneself – where the fear of losing one’s privacy and intimacy becomes the desire to put oneself on display. Google and social networks that present themselves as spaces of freedom are simultaneously digital panopticons.

Today surveillance does not take place as an attack on freedom as is commonly assumed – rather, one voluntarily submits to the panoptic gaze, diligently helping to construct the digital panopticon by stripping and displaying oneself. The inmate of the digital panopticon is thus victim and perpetrator at the same time. This is the dialectic of freedom: freedom turns out to be control. The subjected subject is not even aware of its subjection here; the power structure remains completely hidden from it. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.

Life is a performance, and if we don’t perform hard enough, we don’t get enough points to climb the invisible global scoreboard.

Narcissism is the symptom, not the cause:

But to Byung Chul Han, that’s almost the opposite of what’s going on. The narcissistic individual is not the cause of the world being more narcissistic. The ethos of the world makes narcissism an extremely common lane for people to fall into because they have almost no other options. The same way in former societies it was very common for people to fall into a lane in life like go to school, graduate, go to work, get married, have kids, house, white picket fence… Narcissism is a lane we’re funneling people into in neoliberal society. — Philosophize This!

The Other

One of my favorite observations of Han was the lack of what he calls “the other.” The other is anything that isn’t the same. In other words, the Other is negativity, opposition, pain, opposing views, and disagreements. Han says that

The time in which there was such a thing as the Other is over. The Other as a secret, the Other as a temptation, the Other as eros, the Other as desire, the Other as hell and the Other as pain disappear. The negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same. The proliferation of the Same constitutes the pathological changes that afflict the social body. It is made sick not by denial and prohibition, but by over-communication and over- consumption; not by suppression and negation, but by permissiveness and affirmation. The pathological sign of our times is not repression but depression. Destructive pressure comes not from the Other but from within. — The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today

Han says that everything has become the same because we are all doing the same thing and comparing ourselves to the same people.

“The terror of the same today reaches all areas of life. We traveled all over the place without having any experience. One learns everything without acquiring any knowledge. There is a craving for experiences and stimuli with which, however, one always remains the same as oneself. One accumulates friends and followers without ever experiencing the encounter with someone else. Social media represents a null degree of social.

Total digital interconnection and total communication do not make it easy to meet others. Rather, they serve to find people who are the same and think alike, making us pass by strangers and those who are different, and they ensure that our horizon of experiences becomes narrower and narrower. They don’t entangle us in an endless loop of self and ultimately lead us to a “self-propaganda that indoctrinates us with our own notions.” ― Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Different

Think of the other as a virus. To develop antibodies, you need to be infected. In the same way, we need different perspectives. More of the same leads to intellectual obesity.

Everyone today wants to be authentic, that is, different from others. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same. In other words: the obligation to be authentic leads to the hell of sameness. — Interview with EL PAÍS

The church in our pockets

Perhaps one of the most depressing metaphors that I heard was Han’s comparison of the smartphone to a rosary and beads. We confess to it, but don’t ask for forgiveness, but attention. Every like is akin to an “amen.” We don’t notice that we have become slaves to the smartphone because our brains have been numbed to the constant secretion of dopamine.

Subjection means being subordinate. The smartphone is a digital devotional object, and indeed the emotionalization of the digital in general. To be a subject means to be subjected. As an apparatus of activation, the smartphone functions like a handcuff – in its handiness it also represents a kind of hand iron. Both serve self-surveillance and self-control. Power increases its efficiency by delegating surveillance to every single individual. We are easy digital serfs while clicking Like and sharing. As we do so, we submit to the power structure. The smartphone is not only an effective surveillance device, but also a mobile confessional – confession was a very effective technique of power.

We confess the depths of our soul. Today we live in a digital Middle Ages – we keep confessing, but voluntarily. But we do not ask for forgiveness, but for attention. It is no longer the church but the click and the market that lend us an ear. We live in a digital serfdom, the new lords are called Facebook or Google. They provide us with land for free and tell us to diligently cultivate it. We productively cultivate as we communicate, share, undertake, narrate, fill the timeline. Then the lords come and harvest, and we don’t even notice that we are being exploited. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.

Listen to these episodes:

Achievement Society and the rise of narcissism, depression and anxiety

Everything that connects us is slowly disappearing


Good reads

Byung-Chul Han: “I Practise Philosophy as Art”

Our obsession is no longer for objects, but for information and data. Today we produce and consume more information than objects. We actually get high on communication. Libidinal energies have been redirected from objects to nonobjects. The consequence is infomania. We are all infomaniacs now. Object fetishism is probably over. We are becoming information- and data-fetishists. Now there is even talk of datasexuals. Tapping and swiping a smartphone is almost a liturgical gesture, and it has a massive effect on our relationship to the world. Information that doesn’t interest us gets swiped away. Content we like, on the other hand, gets zoomed in, using the pincer movement of our fingers. We literally have a grip on the world. It’s entirely up to us.

We live in an age of extravagance, learning to be content with abundance is the antidote we need

We consume extravagantly without end — yet are always left grasping for more. Such is the pitiful state of modern man. And all the while, that which as been abundantly provided for us, that which is renewable, sustainable, and of superior quality — the wild foods, the well-made durable goods, and the renewable sources of energy — are left underutilised, ignored, and wasted. This is a gross tragedy for as Berry again states in the same essay, “abundance, given moderation and responsible use, is limitless.” — limitless in the most sustainable and satisfying manner.

Lockdown, generational trauma and considerations for living in a post-pandemic world

Over time, I’ve come to realize that DID is also what helps me be a really different, expansive kind of editor: when I’m reading, I pull from a distinct “vault” of knowledge which is filled with memories and sounds of everything I’ve ever read or edited or researched, all weaving together into decades-long patterns of speech, writing and communication. Before knowing I have DID, I’d mercilessly shame myself for not knowing how to “just push through” with an editing task on occasion; now I know how to recognize this resistance as a request for rest (before my editor self is pushed to dissociate in order to get what she needs). As you might imagine, things in my mind are complex, and the work of DID and communicating with my “system of selves” will continue for the rest of my life.

The life of a common reader. “these need no reward… They have loved reading.”

I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Repair and Remain. How to do the slow, hard, good work of staying put.

When the flashing sidebar connects that hand lotion, those hiking boots, a beach vacation, or some rugged SUV with satisfaction, joy, and inner peace, it sure feels like we’d be suckers not to buy it. And when that thing inevitably disappoints, we hardly even notice. There’s always something new to buy. That narrative of elusive satisfaction isn’t just something we’re repeatedly being told; it is a story we’re literally buying into all the time. No surprise, then, that when our beloved to whom we once upon a time “pledged our troth” inevitably disappoints, we start thinking it might be time to get a new beloved.

Are you happy with your miserable life? If not, get a credit card and buy the life you want. 0% interest, conditions apply*

The drugification of everything

There’s a weird molecule in your brain. It makes you feel good, makes you look smart whenever you utter its name, and is also responsible for ripping apart families and the fabric of society. It’s gotta be the most destructive molecule known to mankind—more destructive than uranium and plutonium.

Any guesses?

I am talking about dopamine.

It’s the most famous and sexiest molecule ever. Neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell called it the “Kardashian of neurotransmitters.” If you’ve been reading this blog, you may have noticed that it’s filled with regrets about not reading all the books I want to. Another book that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time but is cursed by my tsundoku is Dopamine Nation by psychiatrist Dr. Anna Lembke. One of her videos popped up in my YouTube feed—see, algorithms are not all bad—and I’ve been bingeing on her videos and podcasts all week.

Dopamine is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but very few people understand what it is. It’s the Stephen Hawking book of words—everybody buys his books, but nobody reads them.

Since I’ve heard Anna Lembke’s podcasts, I’m obviously an expert on dopamine. I’m just two PDFs away from being a neuroscientist on the internet. Like, apart from the fact that actual neuroscientists study for a decade, do research, and cut open actual brains, there’s no difference between what I know from listening to podcasts and them. Ok, coming back to dopamine. To understand this mysterious chemical, you need to learn a little bit about the brain. Lucky for you, I’m a neuroscientist.

Neurons, or nerve cells, are the fundamental building blocks of our brains. They are like messengers that are responsible for processing and transmitting information through the body. The way they send biological WhatsApp messages is through electrical and chemical signals. They constantly text various parts of the body to ensure all bodily actions happen on time so that we don’t die. If you are on the LinkedIn website building your professional network and you suddenly and involuntarily pee in your pants, as has happened to many of us, it wasn’t you—it was your incompetent neurons.

Neurons have a gap between them called a synapse. As you can imagine, two neurons can’t communicate with each other if there’s a gap. As far as we know, we don’t have an endogenous neural WiFi network. This is where neurotransmitters come in. They are chemicals that our brain produces to help neurons talk to each other—think of them as ChemFi. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter. Groovy stuff, right?

Duke University CIPHERS project

As soon as I heard one video of Dr. Lembke, I was hooked. Over the course of the week, I listened to several of her conversations, and she’s brilliant. I figured I might as well share a few ideas I picked up from listening to Dr. Lembke:”

Dopamine isn’t just about pleasure; it keeps us alive

Most people assume that dopamine is only pleasure, but that’s like saying the sun is just a dumb, giant ball of fire. You’re not entirely wrong, but you’re not entirely right either. Dopamine is much more complex than just pleasure and reward.

If you think about it, as humans evolved over thousands of years, the primary imperative was survival. That means we are hardwired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Dopamine is the chemical that modulates this behavior.

Dr. Lembke cited a famous study in this talk that illustrates my point:

There’s a very famous experiment where scientists engineered a rat to have no dopamine, and what they discovered was that when they put food into the rat’s mouth, it ate the food and seemed to get pleasure from eating and swallowed the food. But if they put that food even a single body length away, the rat would starve to death, so it wasn’t motivated to get up and go get the food, suggesting indeed that dopamine has this fairly fundamental role not just in the experience of pleasure.

Perhaps dopamine’s most important function is motivation. To get a reward or to feel pleasure, we need to perform certain actions, and dopamine is the catalyst. Dopamine is also linked to movement because rewards require people to move and do things. The abominable Parkinson’s disease is caused by the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in a brain region called the substantia nigra. As dopamine production reduces, people with Parkinson’s experience tremors, rigidity, and mobility issues.

You can’t get addicted to dopamine

If you had a rupee for every time you used the phrase “addicted to dopamine hit” or heard other people use it, you’d be rich enough to buy a penthouse suite in Bandra, Mumbai. Dopamine is a chemical naturally produced in the brain, and in a way, it keeps us alive. Our brains naturally produce dopamine at a baseline level:

We’re always releasing dopamine at baseline tonic levels in the brain. It’s kind of like the heartbeat of the brain, and it’s the fluctuations in dopamine firing, either above baseline or below baseline, which influence how we feel, whether or not we’re motivated to do that thing again.

Pleasure and pain are joined at the hip

The same parts of the brain that process pleasure also process pain, and our brains like balance. The brain prefers this balanced state called homeostasis—neither too much pain nor too much pleasure. So whenever you experience pleasure, there’s a price to be paid, and you experience an equal and opposite amount of pain. This is why you feel hungover after getting drunk. Think of pain and pleasure as a see-saw.

The fascinating thing I learned is that whenever we do something pleasurable, such as eating a piece of chocolate, the dopamine levels in our brains spike above baseline. However, what’s interesting is that these dopamine levels don’t return to baseline levels after we finish eating the chocolate. Instead, our brain attempts to restore homeostasis by reducing dopamine production, resulting in a state of dopamine deficit.

Remember, there’s an equal and opposite reaction to pleasure, and this is how pain manifests—in the form of craving. If you don’t feed your cravings, they eventually subside, and dopamine is restored to baseline levels.

But if you give in to your craving and continue eating chocolate, you are increasing the amount of pain you will experience in the future. This is because as long as you continue eating chocolates, dopamine levels will remain high, which your brain dislikes. If you stop eating, you enter a dopamine deficit state because the brain has to reduce dopamine production and bring it back to normal levels. This is why people experience addiction in a dopamine-deficient state. If you don’t continue eating chocolates, you will feel terrible.

The scary part is that once you are in a dopamine deficit state, even if you eat chocolate, you don’t feel pleasure; you just stop feeling pain. In other words, you have to increase the amount of chocolate you eat to experience pleasure. Replace chocolate with cocaine, and this example immediately becomes clear. A drug addict would need to continue increasing the dose just to get the same high because the pain side of the equation keeps increasing in the opposite direction.

Anna Lembke: With repeated use of the same or similar reinforcing substances and behaviors, we eventually end up in this kind of dopamine deficit state. Now we need more of our drug and more frequent doses over time, not to get high, but just to feel normal and stop the craving. This is exactly why people with severe addiction will relapse even weeks after they’ve stopped using, even though they can objectively tell you, “Yes, my life is much better because I’m not using, and my spouse is back, and my job is back, and from a physical health point of view, I’m doing better.” But mentally, many of them are still struggling with those universal symptoms of that dopamine deficit state, which are anxiety, irritability, insomnia, depression, and craving..

Anything can be addictive and anyone can get addicted

Addiction doesn’t discriminate against anyone. Dr. Lembke herself, a renowned psychiatrist who treats people struggling with addiction, was addicted to romance novels. It started with Twilight novels, and then she lost control:

Anna Lembke: Well, it’s always a little embarrassing as these things are. But in my early 40s, I did develop a kind of compulsive attachment, which I think you could fairly call a mild addiction to romance novels. So it started with the Twilight Saga, you might think of The Twilight Saga as my gateway drug. And then I got a Kindle, which was akin to my hypodermic syringe. And it escalated from there over the course of about two years, to what I consider to be a kind of socially sanctioned addiction to erotica, or, you know, pornography for women, if I could phrase it like that. To the point where I was habitually staying up very late at night, reading romance novels.

As soon as I would finish one book, in fact, before I would actually finish it, once I got three quarters of the way through to the climax, I wouldn’t even finish it, I would already be on Amazon looking for the next book. To the point where I was often groggy in the morning, exhausted on my way to work, not fully able to be present for my patients, or my children or my husband.

Several nadir’s in the course of my compulsive behaviours, were, at one point, I did bring a book to work and found myself in the 10 minutes between patients, just wanting to escape and read that book. Once I went to a social event with another family, and found a room where I could read in the middle of the social event. 

Addiction isn’t just about substances; behaviors can be addictive as well. Anything from eating, Instagram, shopping, pornography, seeking attention, exercising, and even drinking water:

So I’ve seen one case of that in my career. It was actually very sad. It was a woman with a very severe alcohol addiction who got into recovery from her alcohol addiction. That is to say, she was no longer consuming alcohol, she was actively working on her health. But somehow or another, she discovered that if she drank water in copious amounts, she could feel altered, and she got addicted to that process. She had several very severe episodes of hyponatremia and almost died from those episodes. — Rewiring Your Dopamine Systems with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anna Lembke

Addiction is a biopsychosocial disease. Biological, psychological, and social factors all play significant roles in influencing addiction. It’s not just an individual thing; factors such as genetics, personality, social situation, and environment can all influence one’s propensity for addiction.

Like, I think we’re all gonna get addicted to something because now that special key that works for each of our individual locks, it’s out there somewhere and the worldwide web will allow us to find it. Having said that, it is true that people bring different degrees of vulnerability to the process of addiction.

We do know that about 50-60% of the risk of becoming addicted is genetic. That’s based on family studies, showing that if you have a biological parent or grandparent addicted to alcohol, you are at increased risk of becoming an alcoholic yourself, even if you’re raised outside of the alcoholic home, in a non-using home. So, that’s powerful genetics.

It’s polygenic, it’s complex, we don’t fully understand it. It’s thought to be related to things like impulse control, ability to delay gratification, emotional dysregulation. But, you know, we don’t really know what it is.

Other risk factors include co-occurring psychiatric disorders. People with psychiatric disorders are more likely to develop an addiction, and also how you were raised. If you had a traumatic experience, as we’ve talked about, that puts you at risk. If you have parents who have explicitly or implicitly condoned substance use, either for recreation or as a coping strategy, that puts you at risk. Things like poverty, unemployment, that puts you at risk.

So there are lots and lots of risk factors, but I think that the major risk factor in the modern world and one which is generally ignored, is simple access. If you have access to a drug, you are more likely to try it and more likely to get addicted to it. And now, as we’ve talked about, we live in a world of virtually infinite access.

I’m still learning the nuances of addiction, and I will write about it in future posts.

The drugification of everything

One of my favorite metaphors that Dr. Anna used was the “drugification” of everything, and that’s so apt. We live in a society where the potency of everything, from food and drugs to content, entertainment, and even leisure, has been amplified. The goal of every corporation is to stimulate our brains to ejaculate the maximum amount of dopamine and keep us coming back for more. The incentive of late-stage capitalism is to turn us into compulsive consumers

Everything is just so readily available now, and it’s never been harder not to get hooked on something. It’s a weird paradox that abundance has become a curse.

Adel: The fact that evolutionarily we’ve had a system that’s got us to the point that we are at now because of our adaptability to avoid pain.

Anna Lembke: That’s exactly right.

Adel: But now we’re in a completely different context.

Anna Lembke: That’s right.

Anna Lembke: And so it is this mismatch between the ancient wiring, which was really intended for a world of scarcity, and the world that we live in now, which is a world of dopamine overload or overwhelming overabundance, in which almost every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the games we play, has been drugified in some way. And when I say drugified, I mean it’s been made more potent, so it releases more dopamine hypothetically than other types of reinforcers. It’s more abundant, meaning that there’s kind of no natural stopping point because it doesn’t run out.

It’s more accessible, and one of the biggest risk factors for addiction is simple access to that drug. And finally, it’s more novel, right? So what we figured out how to do is overcome tolerance to these drugs. Once we acquire tolerance, by, for example, combining two drugs together to make a more potent form of the original drug.

Adel: Yeah, everything you talk about, I can’t help but think about social media on the iPhone, yeah? And in regards to accessibility, right? If that’s a rule of thumb, can you imagine how accessible, and we’re thinking about social media as a drug, right? How accessible is social media? It’s like the most accessible drug, right?

Anna Lembke: Exactly. And I know, you know, in clinical practice, it really was starting in 2001 when the smartphone was invented that we started to see more and more patients coming in with life-threatening pornography addictions, gambling addictions, and then later, video game addiction, social media addiction, shopping addiction, all of these things that were really made possible by the 24/7 mobile access to the internet afforded by the smartphone.

Say no!

There are debilitating addictions to drugs and alcohol that require medical interventions, but for the vast majority of us, our addictions aren’t that serious. The most common addictions outside of drugs, tobacco, and alcohol are probably our dependence on digital devices, social media, shopping, gambling, and work. Social media is particularly pernicious because using platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook activates the same parts of the brain as drugs and alcohol. Being on social media is akin to snorting cocaine.

Before you can fix a problem, you must first acknowledge that there’s a problem. If you are oblivious to your addictions, then you don’t have a problem. Then comes acceptance. This is the hard part because we, as humans, possess the dangerous ability to rationalize anything, from bingeing on burgers to committing genocides.

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”

Robert A. Heinlein

While accepting a problem sounds nice in theory, it’s complicated in practice. There’s no bright line that separates addictive and non-addictive behavior, and the intensity of addictive behavior differs between individuals. According to Dr. Lembke, often the only way to determine if we have a problem is to abstain from the activity for a period of time, such as a month.

If you’re smart enough to figure out and accept that you have a problem, Dr. Lembke recommends the deceptively simple practice of dopamine fasting. This is all the rage these days, thanks to Silicon Valley bros and health podcasters, but the idea is simple: stop taking the drug that you like for 30 days.

Why 30 days?

According to Dr. Lembke, a month is the average time it takes for the brain to reset the dopamine pathways back to normal. In other words, your brain goes from a state of dopamine deficit to baseline. Dr. Lembke notes that, apart from people with serious addictions requiring medical interventions, most of her patients start feeling better after 30 days.

Recommended listening and reading

The best thing to do is to read her book. But if you are afflicted by tsundoku like me, then these podcasts are worth listening to:

Dr. Anna Lembke: Dopamine & Decision-Making

Dr. Anna Lembke: Understanding & Treating Addiction

Finding Balance In A Dopamine Overloaded World with Dr Anna Lembke

Jonathan Haidt and his collaborators have been documenting the harms of digital devices and social media in great detail. His newsletter makes for great reading.

Can Humanity Survive AI?

As I thought about this article the day after I read it, it seemed more like parody than reality. It’s a well-written article about the boomers and the doomers in the world of artificial intelligence.

Some fear not the “sci-fi” scenario where AI models get so capable they wrest control from our feeble grasp, but instead that we will entrust biasedbrittle, and confabulating systems with too much responsibility, opening a more pedestrian Pandora’s box full of awful but familiar problems that scale with the algorithms causing them. This community of researchers and advocates — often labeled “AI ethics” — tends to focus on the immediate harms being wrought by AI, exploring solutions involving model accountability, algorithmic transparency, and machine learning fairness.

Pair it with: How AI is quietly changing everyday life

Javier Milei’s Freak Show Act Is a Taste of Things to Come

It might very well be true that what we are seeing right now marks the end of a moderate, centrist version of “open society” neoliberalism, so appealing for decades even to many on the erstwhile social democratic left. But the rising popularity of more extreme forms of libertarianism around the world should caution us that market radicalism isn’t simply going to disappear. Instead, it is consolidating its ideology and returning to its cultural roots.

How to Grow a Garden in the Technopoly

A portrait of how people are actively resisting the encroachment of technology into all aspects of life.

So technology—and everything that we are stewards of—needs to bend to those principles. I love how Andy Crouch puts it in his very helpful book The Tech-Wise Family: Everything should be in its proper place, and that goes for our tools and time as well as toys and books and kitchen utensils. What Crouch also notes is that stating your family goals explicitly—such as growth in wisdom and courage—helps you to discern whether a certain tool is needed for a task. (As one of my dad’s sayings goes, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” And the corollary, of course, is just because other people are doing it doesn’t mean you should.) Will this help me, or my child, grow in wisdom and courage? Does this practice help cultivate attention, and appreciation of beauty and truth and goodness?

The Stars, Our Destination?

Why Space Is Watery (And So Very Far Away)

I regret not discovering Mike Sowden earlier. Ridiculously wonderful pieces! Must read!

Throw your phone away and go snort some grass. Not that grass. I mean grass.

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