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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Flow State

 
 
We often use the phrase "in the zone" without entirely knowing what that means. At a glance, the phrase seems to refer to being really focused on something, but it's not considered a physical phenomenon but merely a state of mind. Yet, this isn't actually the case. While simply being focused on a task is a state of mind, there is a much more potent physical anomaly known as flow state. The coveted flow state is not merely a state of mind, but an actual physical process that deeply affects the person experiencing it. During flow state, the recipient experiences a rush of hormones, including enough endorphins to make the person in question experience a sensation similar to morphine... except it's over 100x (!) more powerful.

What's going on here? How does merely being focused on a task give you a sort of high that's 100 times stronger than morphine?

To understand what flow state is and how to reach it, one must first understand "monkey brain". As Jordan Peterson might put it, our heads are full of the constant and incessant chatter of various demons. "Monkey brain" is our default mode of existing; it consists of countless narratives and background processes that are so numerous that they can't be completely mapped out with any degree of accuracy. There's this common misconception that we don't use all of our brain, that we only use (insert a small percentage here) and that we would reach enlightenment if we could only unlock the rest of our brain.

This isn't actually true; it's true that not all of our brain matter is used just for thinking, but there's a reason for that. Our brains are full of tissue and fluids that help it maintain and run properly. The parts of our brain that carry out cognitive tasks are always active in some way, except maybe for synapses for old memories that haven't been accessed in a very long time (ancient memories that stay dormant until you suddenly encounter something that brings that memory back to the forefront, like when you suddenly feel nostalgia from a single smell or object).

Yet, our heads are always full of irrelevant bullshit. We are bombarded with so much physical stimulation from our phaneron* that it hinders our ability to be at our very best engagement at any particular moment.
 
*Phaneron: The set of senses and cognitive processes that perceive information and relay it to our consciousness. At any given moment, you are being bombarded with millions of pieces of information. Something as simple as looking at this screen is relaying unfathomable amounts of information to you via your phaneron.

While we like to playfully call this default mode "monkey brain" because it speaks to our most base, and primal instincts (feeling hungry, or physically tired, or sleepy, or horny, or craving salt, or sugar, or nicotine, or feeling tempted to check your social media, or daydreaming about arguments you won't even ever have, et cetera), but it actually has a scientific name. It's called Default Mode Network, and it actually is a network in every sense of the word.

It's not one part of the mind, it's many. It's a complicated network of connections that are mostly active during the day when we're fully-awake, and the prime parts involved are the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule.

There's a metaphor for this that I'm surprised I've never seen anyone else make, so I'll remedy that by making it here. Our Default Mode Network or monkey brain is essentially a bunch of branch predictions in a CPU.

In computer chips, there's something called "branch prediction" which is essentially a tool used to save time by keeping track of previous activity and making future decisions based on that past activity. Branch prediction is important because it speeds up the computer drastically by allowing it to predict what you'll do next, then pre-emptively starting that task for you. For example, if you were to run a program at exactly 4:00 PM every day, your CPU might develop faster load times for that program since it can now anticipate that program being run every day and it can process some of the necessary information in advance that way it will be faster to execute.

Branch prediction is necessary because otherwise, everything would take drastically longer to load since every time you opened something or started a program, it would be as if you were running it for the first time. There's a lot more involved with this process, like caching, but we won't go into that stuff.

Basically, our brains do that too. That's why Pavlovian Conditioning works so damn well on us. If every day at 2:00 in the afternoon you eat a cheeseburger, then after a while you'll start salivating uncontrollably at 1:50. Your body and mind will use its own form of branch prediction to carry out tasks based on your past behavior and lifestyle. If you always eat a cheeseburger at 2:00, your body and mind are going to start pre-emptively preparing for that burger moments before the usual time. It's not just small stuff like your salivary glands, either. Your stomach might increase the acidity of its acid in preparation for digestion, and your hunger hormones will kick in and urge you to carry out the task of getting a cheeseburger and cramming it down your gullet.

 

While those are much more specific examples, if you usually have the same few things for lunch, the likelihood of you craving those specific things later increases exponentially by virtue of reinforcement. Each time you engage in a previously established habit, your body and mind are going to reinforce that habit even further.

Your Default Mode Network is full of these habits; everything from how much you sleep to how often you have feelings of doubt and insecurity and even your breathing and posture are included. These systems go so deep that even tiny fluctuations in hormones are included. This is why anti-depressants work well on people who don't have any actual problems--usually when a person is feeling depressed and they go to see a therapist, a good thing for the therapist to do is find out if they're feeling depressed because of their problems or if they actually have depression. The reason why it's important to distinguish between the two is because a person with chronic depression will feel depressed even when everything in their life is objectively going great for them, whereas someone who's actually downtrodden might not feel depressed once their problems have been alleviated.

As JP put it, he would have people come in saying, "I'm depressed." Dr. Peterson would ask them, "Alright, how's your financial situation? How's your relationship with your family? Besides feeling depressed, how healthy are you?" and if they answered, "All my closest relatives are dead, I have no friends, I have chronic health isuses and I'm broke," then JP would know, "Alright, so you don't feel like crap for no reason, you feel like crap because your life sucks and we have to fix those problems for you to feel better."

But if instead they answered, "I have a close and loving family, I'm quite healthy and I'm financially well-off," then the problem is likely an issue with their hormonal balance. Their brain isn't releasing the amounts of serotonin or dopamine that it should be, or their receptors aren't using them correctly, so things that are supposed to make a person feel good simply aren't. This chronic lack of positive reinforcement also causes a chain reaction of negativity bias and increases negative arousal and stimuli across the board by squashing positive emotions. That being said, giving anti-depressants to a person like this will usually work wonders, but giving anti-depressants to a person with a genuinely awful life won't help much in most cases, because their hormones are functioning fine. They're just feeling like crap because they have so many tangible problems, and giving them anti-depressants won't solve those problems on its own.

Often in the mental health circle you see people recommending meditation as the antidote for monkey mind. And that's not bad advice, there is empiracle evidence that supports it. The reasoning behind meditation being seen as an escape from the Default Mode Network is the simple fact that things like breathing exercises and contemplation help relax the body and that inward reflection can silence the constant chatter inside.

But then there's me, who's shilling the exact opposite of meditation--bombarding your mind with insane amounts of mental stimuli. Whereas meditation is a way to empty the mind and soothe your thoughts, flow state is your mind handling the maximum amount of information that it's physically capable of.

The most fascinating thing about flow state by far is how your brain uses branch prediction to compute information. Earlier I mentioned that our bodies reinforce our habits through a sort of biological branch prediction, but during flow state, you can process information at blistering speeds using the same idea. How do I know this?

Because during flow state, the part of your brain that plans things, makes decisions and thinks ahead--the prefrontal cortex--is bypassed.

During flow state, a person goes straight from receiving stimuli to execution--the entire cognitive process of thinking about something is thrown out the window. This is not to be confused with hypofrontality, which is when the prefrontal cortex isn't working properly due to illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, the bypassing of the PFC seems similar to hypofrontality but with completely opposite results. A person experiencing hyporfrontality is incredibly impulsive as their brain isn't properly using the PFC to think critically about their decisions. Although flow state is sometimes called "transient hypofrontality," as it's physiologically the same as hypofrontality but only for a brief, transient moment.

However, unlike with normal hypofrontality, during flow state the PFC is bypassed and instead branch prediction kicks in to allow you to process information and make calculations at a speed of only a mere 13 miliseconds. To put into perspective how fast that is, the blink of an eye is about 350 miliseconds. Another thing that occurs is that our brains switch from beta waves to alpha theta (AT) waves. I won't go much into alpha waves, but theta waves are what largely link creative processes from separate and distant parts of the brain, so this shift in wavelength makes it substantially easier to compile creative juices so to speak.

Another thing that happens is you block out outside information, so a person deep in flow state will lose track of time and not notice things happening around them because that's just how focused they are. It can get so intense that you might not notice if your surroundings were on fire because 100% of your attention is on the task at hand.

Now, enough about what flow state is... how do you cause it?

Turns out, a metric shit-ton of research has already been done on this topic, but it looks like this: Push yourself to doing a cognitively-demanding task that is reaching the upper limit of what you're capable of for an extended period of time.

What does that mean? It means that if the task is even slightly too easy, you slip into boredom; and if it's slightly too difficult, it becomes anxiety.

However, I've always thought that the greatest and most potent form of flow state was when an unfathomably huge challenge was being tackled by someone with equally unfathomable skill. Technically if we look at proportional abilities, you don't have to be skilled at something to enter flow state; the task at hand merely needs to be perfectly matched with your current skill level.

However, I feel like the more skilled a person is at, say, a fast-faced and highly-competitive activity, the more muscle memory and branch predicitons will be at their disposal during flow state--and the harder the task is, the more information they'll have to process during hypofrontality.

An excellent example of this is watching two chess grandmasters of 2400 ELO or higher competing against each other during a blitz match (blitz matches are when you only have a few minutes on the clock and both players have to make their moves before running out of time, and if you run out of time you autmoatically lose). Both players posess unfathomable skill, however they're each playing against an unfathomably difficult opponent. I believe flow state is wide-spread in high-ranking competitive chess play, as well as esports.

I've found a few ways to reliably induce flow state on myself; one is playing a little game called Devil Daggers.

Devil Daggers is an arcade-like game where you have no lives; you spawn on a platform and endless waves of enemies are thrown at you until you  touch something, then you die. There is no way to beat the game, only the person above you on the leaderboard, as the goal is to survive as long as possible. The competition is so fierce that the leaderboard will distinguish score time down to the exact millisecond, as a single milisecond can put you above or below another player's score.

 

In Devil Daggers, there's a ridiculous amount of management. This is because there are a few specific "enemy" types, if you will. Here's how it works:

You have infinite amunition, so to speak. However, your range attacks start off relatively weak. They get stronger by killing spawners and special enemies who drop crystals. When you collect these crystals, your attack becomes stronger. However, the crystals float towards you when you aren't shooting, and they float away when you are. So you can't just hold down "fire" the entire time, otherwise you won't get any crystals and you'll stay weak and vulnerable. But you need to basically be constantly firing because there's such an overwhelming number of enemies after you.

The spawners arrive and they spawn a group of skull enemies that chase you down. If you touch any, you die. Also, they're faster than you. So you want to keep the horde of skulls from getting too big or too close because it's easy to get swarmed and killed. But you also want to take out the spawners as fast as you can, otherwise they'll keep spouting out more skulls forever until they're destroyed.

Then the giant spiders show up, and the giant spiders will eat all of your crystals (which prevents you from levelling up) and not only does it eat them, but it will turn them into spider eggs which, when hatched, will spew out tiny baby spiders all over the arena. The giant swarm of tiny spiders is very fast and can quickly cover every inch of the arena if you aren't careful.

Then the giant flying centipedes arrive, and they are packed with crystals. They're super hard to kill because you have to shoot all of the crystals in their body and if even a single one remains they won't die. The good thing about these enemies is if you kill them they drop tons of crystals to make you stronger, but the bad news is they take up a ton of space, can come up from the ground out of nowhere, and of course if it touches you then you die.

There are more enemy types like the thorns and the Leviathan but I won't really get into those. You have only one weapon at your disposal which is your hand, which shoots bones out of it once you start the game by touching the devil dagger. If you hold down the fire button it fires in a stream like an automatic weapon, but if you just click once it fires like a shotgun, giving you the ability to swap between automatic or shotgun fire on the fly. You can also fire off at the ground to rocket-jump or send richochet. However, when you hold down the trigger the crystals will slowly float away from you, and they float towards you when you aren't firing. This is a clever sort of "reload" mechanic, because you never actually have to reload--you can keep holding down the trigger forever if you wanted to--but in doing so the crystals will only get further and further away from you, so you have to choose when to fire to kill enemies and when to stop for a second to collect crystals.



 
The entire arena is just a small round platform, so you have to be careful not to fall off. So then your priority for survival becomes, in no particular order:
 
  • Don't let any of the skulls touch you
  • Don't let the swarm get too big
  • Don't forget to take out the spawners or the swarm will get bigger
  • Don't forget to take out the spiders or they'll turn your crystals into eggs
  • Don't forget to take out the centipedes or they'll hog the arena and you'll never upgrade your weapon
  • Don't hold the trigger down too much or the crystals will float away
  • Don't fall off the edge

Basically you have to try to do all of these things at the same time and should you make the slightest error or lapse in judgement it's back to the beginning. As soon as you touch anything or anything touches you it's over and you die.

How long you last is entirely dependent on split-second decision-making and with so much to keep track of in so little time, and it perfectly scales to a player's skill. The game gets harder the longer you survive, spawning stronger enemies and more of them, meaning it largely scales to a player's skill. Because the game's difficulty increases at roughly the same rate a player's skill will increase, it matches that chart above where we see how Flow State is entered when the difficulty of a task is perfectly matched to the skill of the person carrying it out. If a task is too easy, you slip into boredom, and if it's too difficult you aren't engaged and instead feel either anxious or apathetic.

Not to mention, Devil Daggers has a leaderboard that teases you with tiny fragments of time, but it does something else that's interesting--it uploads the replay of your best run whether or not you want it to. This means that there are no trade-secrets, the best player in the world has his best gameplay uploaded on the leaderboard for everyone to watch if they'd like, allowing people to figure out tricks and techniques by watching the replays of players who are better than them. This goes both ways, whenever you beat your previous record the recording of your play will be added to the leaderboard next to your name.

This involintary publicity creates a sort of community in that everyone who's ever played the game has a spot somewhere on the leaderboard with a video of their best score right next to it. You can't talk to the other players as their is no chat function, so essentially the only connection players have with each other is the leaderboard and their replays.

Another game that's frequently caused me to enter Flow State and one that I've mentioned positively before is Celeste.

The brutally difficult platforming and tight controls make for a fast-paced and intense experience that's easy to get lost in.

 




There's something euphoric about the rush of mental stimulation experienced during Flow State. I can only imagine the intensity that esport players in the highest upper echelons feel during the highest levels of play.

The first example that comes to mind for me is seeing how Hungry Box managed to beat Armada in Smash Melee using Jiggly Puff. To the average onlooker, it just looks like he's floating around and easily dodging the attacks of Armada's Fox, but in reality he's made it look easy through thousands of hours of trial and error. Behind the scenes, if you look on YouTube, there are hundreds of videos from various events and tournaments where he gets his ass handed to him routinely just for making the tiniest imperfections in his play. Sometimes a single pixel is enough to determine victory or defeat.

A professional Mortal Kombat 11 player named Brad Vaughn spoke out about this subject. After placing between 9 and 12 in the Chicago tournaments, he made a statement about the mental health of pursuing becoming a profesisonal esport player.

To praprase, he essentially said, "Everyone thinks it's the most fun job ever--you get to play a video game for a living. But in order to keep winning tournaments (and by extension, making money and paying your bills) you have to practice non-stop. Because if you take a break for too long, you might get rusty--and what if the other guy isn't taking a break? If you take a break, he might be training twice as hard. I'm taking a break from Mortal Kombat because it's become increadibly stressful."

One thing that's fascinating is how certain music can help induce flow state, and while Devil Daggers does nothing of the sort, Celeste does by design. In a video essay titled The Anxiety of Celeste and its Music, GameScoreFanfare dives into the compositional methods used to induce specific emotions and levels of focus across its levels. The video is linked below:

 

He aptly refers to a 2004 study in which researchers had two groups of test subjects play an old iteration of Doom. The first group played with the high-intensity music and the second group played without.

What the researchers found was that the two groups performed the same for the most part, however the group that played with the music had much higher cortisol levels. This would imply that while it didn't affect their performance in this specific game, the mere difference of hearing the intense soundtrack was enough to affect them phisiologically.

To summarize the video above, there are two kinds of stress, eustress and distress. Most people know what being in distress is; it's being overwhelmed with negative stress. But its cousin eustress is talked about far less frequently. Eustress is a positive, engaging form of stress, which refers to how a person feels when their body and mind are technically under stress, but happy about it and enjoying it. When you cram out an intense study session and you know you're guaranteed a good grade, that euphoric afterglow you feel would be eustress. Exercising for the first time can be distressful, but for those who exercise regularly, they feel eustress. The physical strain being put on the body actually feels... enjoyable.

Celeste's soundtrack has a lot in common with lofi-hip-hop, and lofi tracks are generally good at pulling you into a state of relaxed concentration. Look no further than this song for evidence of that and you'll see precisely what I mean:


These kinds of tracks are oozing with relaxed, focus-inducing melodies. They're also widely accessible and typically have no lyrics, making them multi-cultural in their effect. Since the laws of what notes and types of sounds induce what physiological changes in the human body are universal regardless of culture or upbringing, these types of things work on just about everyone.

Celeste's soundtrack does a wonderful job of first lulling the player into eustress and then gradually increasing into mildly distressing territory, just enough to help push them into flow state. The difficult platforming and tight-controls make it really easy for this to happen, and once you really get into it it's hard to get out.

That being said, the main factor in what types of games might enduce flow state isn't difficulty. Otherwise, it should be just as easy to enter it playing any challenging game. But I don't think I've ever entered flow state playing Dark Souls, and the reason why that likely will end up being the case for most players is because the game is slow and more tactical rather than requiring the super-fast precision of Devil Daggers or Celeste's B and C-side levels. The difficulty in Dark Souls comes from the mystery and lack of information presented to the player, as well as learning the intricacies of its deep combat system, not purely from speed and precision. Perhaps something like Sekiro or maybe Bloodborne would be a bit more likely to enter flow state in while playing since those games are faster and require more aggressive timing than the Souls games, escpeially Sekiro.
 

With that said, why might someone want to experience flow state in the first place other than to increase their cognitive performance in the task at hand?

It turns out there's a large roster of long-term benefits associated with flow, which includes but is not limited to:

  • Increased emotional regulation
  • More enjoyment derived from the tasks at hand
  • More intrinsic motivation to continue later on
  • Increased creativity
  • Faster learning and skill development

This isn't one that most sites or articles list as a benefit of flow state, but I have the sneaking suspicion it also helps with identity maintenance. To clarify, most of the time the phrase "identity maintenance" really means "persona maintenance", because it's referring to a person's indentity in a social group, AKA the persona they exhibit; when I say identity maintenance, I mean maintaing sanity by understanding yourself and your identity, not where you fit in socially.

The reason I believe this is because engaging in things you actually care about and enjoy can reinforce the quirks of your identity that lead you to like them. An artist being highly engaged and focused on their art on a regular basis reinforces the parts of their personality and identity that lead them to enjoying art, and perhaps the simplest way for someone to maintain their identity is to simply engage with it frequently.

If you ever feel like emptying your head or meditating isn't making the monkey mind shut up, consider trying the complete opposite and engaging so heavily in a cognitive task that the rest of the world just fades away.


And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Why the Idea of Soulmates is Unromantic Idiocy

This Valentine's Day I'd like to be a salty cracker and crap all over the idea of soulmates, but when I explain the real situation I think you'll come to find that the idea of soulmates isn't nearly as romantic as decades of cinema, poetry, and crappy radio hits have led us to believe. I'd go so far to say that the actual seemingly-bland reality is much more romantic when examined properly.

In order to understand why the concept of soulmates is aggressively unromantic, we need to define it first. Some might affectionately refer to their partner as their soulmate with the implication being that they ended up together and are a great match. Nothing wrong with that. If that's the case, then of course soulmates exist. When I say "soulmates" what I'm referring to is the nebulous idea that every single human being on the planet has a person crafted perfectly to their own personality and liking, who would be perfect for them in every single way because they're destined to be together; they're each-other's one and only.

To grossly over-simplify all human beings, let's recklessly cram them all into two narrow categories; those with "destiny" mindsets and those with "growth" mindsets.

I didn't coin these by the way, please refrain from going to the comments section and screeching at me that I stole this idea from (insert some other content creator here).

Those with destiny mindsets are those who essentially believe in soulmates. They believe that everything will work itself out and their beloved one-and-only will end up with them eventually. These people tend to have short, passionate flings that quickly dissolve the moment the going gets rough. Why? Because they sort of expect their partner to be perfect, and if they aren't (when they aren't), they simply believe that they've got the wrong person and that this person they're currently dating must not be their true soulmate. Those with destiny mindsets are much less likely to work hard in relationships because they believe that if it's their destiny to be with this person that things will just conveniently work out.

Those with growth mindsets are the complete opposite, they believe firmly in mutual trust and understanding and in tackling problems together and making compromises based on the other person's needs. A person with a growth mindset is significantly more likely to have longer-lasting relationships because they don't expect the universe to deliver a flawless soulmate on their doorstep, and instead they acknowledge that both partners have to make a strong effort to make a relationship work well in the long run.

To some the growth mindset sounds very dry, pragmatic and unromantic, but it's not.

The destiny mindset is really selfish and stupid if you think about it; it's essentially believing that the universe spawned a perfect being into existence who isn't allowed to be happy with anyone else since they were created for the sole express purpose of gratifying you. There's a sense of entitlement that comes from people who strongly and fervently believe there's a soulmate out there waiting for them, and even if we could quantify and measure someone's compatibility with someone else and found a perfect match, the odds that they are just sitting at home sighing into the wind and longingly looking at the stars waiting for you to come along are zero. And odds are, the more attractive, funny, and successful they are in life, the more suitors they will have, so they're likely putting themselves out there and trying to find a good match for themselves.

I've also noticed the trend of people with destiny mindsets not caring whether they're offering the very thing they want. They want a soulmate who conveniently happens to be wealthy, attractive, funny, etc., but never once stop to ask themselves if they offer all of those same qualities. Because one has to be exceptionally naive and kind of selfish to think that a hypothetical perfect person that they'd want to marry would be mutually interested in them for no apparent reason. It's an example of the protagonist effect, where people see themselves as the main character in their own romance story, so naturally there's no need to worry about what they bring to the table--they just assume that there's someone out there who would be perfect for them, and they don't need to wonder if they measure up to this hypothetical soulmate's standards because they're the main character, after all.

The growth mindset on the other hand is much more wholesome. It involves two people taking each other as they are, and working hard to understand the other person's intricacies, needs, and wants; and an unspoken rule that they will both continue to provide for what the other person needs emotionally, financially, and romantically. It also means helping them iron out some of their worst tendencies and bringing out the best qualities they possess by being supportive and constructive without being cruel or overly-critical. No matter what shitty things happen at work or university, they can come home and rely on the other to be their sturdy foundation that they can always count on for support and affection. It's a two-way street, and they're also ready to be that sturdy or compassionate companion if their partner needed it.

The growth mindset doesn't mean just taking any random bum off the street and trying to mold them into perfection, but it does mean making compromises and extending a great deal of empathy to your partner's needs, while simultaneously knowing you can count on them to care just as deeply about your own issues and needs. It involves taking someone who may not be completely ideal, but seeing that they're doing pretty decent and have most of the same values as you and saying, "Good enough."

With all that said, how many people do you think believe in soulmates?

10%?

20%?

40%?

60%?

Try 79%. That's right, basically 8/10 people (Americans at least, as the study was done in the US) believe in soulmates who they will end up with because of the forces of destiny.

But that feels so... cheap. It's like starting a tough puzzle and immediately looking up the answer in the back of the book before even attempting to solve it yourself.

What's so romantic about soulmates? What's romantic about a person whose sole existence is to gratify you? What's so romantic about not working together as a team in relationships to improve each other, and instead relying on the universe to make everything right?

It feels lazy and selfish to me.

You know what's romantic? Two imperfect human beings taking the time to really understand each other on a personal and intimate level, being unabashed about their flaws and gracefully patient and understanding of their partner's issues. Starting off with humble beginnings and cultivating something beautiful through hard work, loyalty and honesty.

True love is steadfast, studious, and pragmatic in every way it can. It's messy and completely unromantic by Hollywood standards, and that's what makes it so special.

And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.






Source: Raymond Knee, University of Houston; https://www.people.vcu.edu/~jldavis/readings/Knee_1998_implicit_theories.pdf

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Beautiful Ones


I've been thinking a lot —probably overthinking—about the differences between Orwell and Huxley. The novels 1984 and Brave New World are very similar in many ways, but it's the differences between the two that fascinates me most.

I'd also like to point out that while 1984 absolutely deserves the attention and recognition its received, Brave New World is deserving of the same treatment. I say this because as 2020 proves to be more and more dystopian, people keep crying out, “Orwell was right all along!”

There are many elements of what Orwell feared being integrated into the current modus operandi, but I'd say that it was actually Huxley, not Orwell, who was right.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books; what Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, because there would be no one who wanted to read them.

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us; Huxley feared that the truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture; Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture.

In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain; in Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.”

What Neil Postman observed in the passage above was that Orwell was concerned about the possibility of force being used to silence and control entire nations, but what Huxley feared was that force would not be necessary, because a hedonistic society would be so apathetic that they wouldn't even resist to begin with.

Although one observation that I'd like to posit is the possible and likely theory that Huxley's predictions will beget Orwell's predictions. There's this old saying; hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times, and so the cycle goes. We witnessed this very process in the rise and fall of the Greek empire, and our contemporaries have this nasty habit of never thinking history will repeat itself. "That sucks for them, but good thing I live in this modern era where something like that could never happen to me." I don't think anyone literally thinks that consciously, but I see very few people who seem even remotely alarmed by the possibility. It seems to me that nearly everyone carries the sentiment above without being entirely cognizant of it.

We are (or at least were) in the good times. We've reaped the rewards of all the people before us. Each of our grandparents lived in harsher times than we have, and their grandparents lived in harsher times than them, and through the collaborative efforts of millions of people, the people before us managed to create everything.

There's this common misconception that this generation, as the most “advanced” one, is the most intelligent one, and that hundreds / thousands of years ago the average person wasn't as intelligent as the average person today.

But this couldn't be further from the truth; because we weren't intelligent enough to invent all of these wonderful things and advancements we use, the people before us were. There's this ancient Chinese proverb: “No kingdom can flourish unless the people are willing to plant trees whose shade they know they will never get to sit in.” I think I butchered the translation, but that's the gist of it.

The generations before us were willing to sacrifice their own comfort, time, and likely sanity so that we can have all of the comforts that we have at our disposal. Through a labor of love, they went to the deserts of woefully underdeveloped social systems and planted numerous trees knowing that they would never get to reap the benefits of doing so, but their grandchildren and great grandchildren might. And now we have an overabundance of metaphorical verdant fields and trees, but instead of planting more trees for our future generations, we lounge around in the shade, point to one spot where the sun is seeping through, and curse our ancestors saying, “They missed a spot.”

Then when the going gets rough and the trees start to wither up and die, we complain about it instead of watering them and planting more.

There's no shortage of criticisms on post-modernism's effects on western society, but I'd like to tackle a different angle. Many of the complaints leveled at western civilization are actually just complaints about the symptoms of our culture and not the underlying disease. One might complain that people are shallow and superficial, another might complain that celebrity worship is pointless and fake, another that (insert young generation) is lazy / unskilled or unknowledgeable.

But amid all these valid frustrations is the aggregate of all these problems—the philosophy and way of life known as hedonism. Hedonism is inherently narcissistic; it's the belief (conscious or unconscious) that one should structure their life around seeking pleasure. This does not necessarily have to be physical, but often is. The obvious offenders would be things like drugs, sex, alcohol, et cetera, but there's a whole myriad of subtle things that fly under the radar. Fast food for example; one might say, “I don't smoke because it's damaging for your health,” then proceed to consume copious amounts of McDonalds. I admit that a little part of me is that way—I would sometimes enter a 7-Eleven, see the vast wall of various cigarettes on display, and pat myself on the back for being a non-smoker, just mere moments before buying a greasy slice of pizza or chicken wings.

Although the worst offenders are far more subtle. In my humble opinion, the worst offender is quite literally just leisurely time. But before you grab your torch and pitchfork, hear me out.

I am not implying that a person relaxing is more dangerous than a person doing drugs. What I am implying is that most people understand that drugs are dangerous, but because no one thinks relaxation is dangerous, its effects are unnoticed. Or perhaps saying too much relaxation is bad isn't accurate, and more accurate would be, "Too much relaxation with no duties is dangerous." This implies that it's not necessarily the relaxation itself that's dangerous, but rather the absence of duty and responsibility.

What I've observed is that there are massive quantities of people who only survive, and it's vital to understand that "surviving" is not synonymous with "living."

There's this one anime series that explores this difference very well, and it's called Log Horizon. In Log Horizon, everyone has all of their basic needs met. No one can die or feel pain, no one can starve, everyone is, for all intents and purposes, immortal.

What this initially leads to is a lot of people who don't know what to do with themselves. In the past, they would have had to worked for food, and the possibility of death was always a looming reminder of their mortality. But now that they don't have to worry about every dying or needing sustenance, things should be great, right?

Well, no.

Here's some historical context that shows the parallels between this show and the real world; before the advent of agriculture, individuals only had time to survive, and no time for any hobbies or leisurely activities. 100% of their time and attention was devoted to maintaining shelter, hunting and gathering food, acquiring drinkable water, and overall just not dying. They had no room for any other thoughts or behaviors.

But then, with the development of agriculture, it was discovered that one person could proficiently generate much more food than he himself could eat, and in doing so could free others to invest their time in other pursuits since they wouldn't need to worry about food if a handful of farmers could feed entire populations.

This process was repeated with everything; it was done with water in the form of irrigation, it was done with children in the form of public schools and daycare, it was done with trading with the arrival of currency and marketplaces, it was later done with the mass exchange of goods with vehicles and transportation, then with food again with slaughterhouses, and so on and so forth until every facet of human survival has been dwindled away.

It is now, for all intents and purposes, essentially impossible to die of natural causes before an elderly age without either human error or powerful afflictions. While we aren't literally immortal, the same problem from Log Horizon has come for us.

We have all of our basic survival needs met.

Yet, in the past each advancement in making survival easier freed up time for individuals to pursue other worthy ideals and goals, from exploring the arts and humanities to the sciences, medicine, philosophy, and the expanding market of inventions. We saw the renaissance boom into existence during the 1300s right after the end of the dark ages; prior to this, Europe was shattered by so many wars and plagues that survival was the only attainable goal for most people, and once these issues subsided the populace was free to explore the arts.

With this new-found free time, people began to reflect on themselves and their surroundings. It was all very odd and unusual to not have to worry about surviving every moment of every day, and for once they were able to indulge in a modicum of novelty for once. During the rise of these good times, they pursued things like knowledge, artistic craftsmanship, religion, invention, and the clash of ideas was always a prevalent undertone.

However, in the 21st century things didn't pan out this way. After WWII, sensationalism came to the forefront. And there was nothing wrong with this at the time; we saw lots of good music and television come out of these years. But it was the response to these that gave way to problems.

Ingratitude.

The adults who survived the world wars were grateful for the new technologies they had--for the first time they were able to see the wheels of progress churning.

But we've optimized too far; in a video by Mark Brown from Game Maker's Toolkit, he explores how game developers protect the players from themselves. Why would game developers need to do this? Because the developers would design a game with a certain method of play being the most fun or enjoyable way to play through it, but the players wouldn't do the most "fun" way of a playing these games. Instead, they'd optimize all the fun out of it. In games where the fun is in taking risks, they'd play it safe, focusing--not on having fun and enjoying the experience--but on winning as fast and efficiently as possible.

So instead of taking their time and enjoying the game, players would use repetitive tactics, and would always play it safe and focus solely on beating the game with as few failures or risks as possible. But most of the time, this isn't fun. There's nothing fun about only trying to win with as little risk as possible in a game that was designed to be chaotic and risky. Games like Dead Cells exist to address this problem.

"If given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of the game," said developer Soren Johnson.

The full video can be found here: https://youtu.be/7L8vAGGitr8

However, I've come to a rather horrifying realization: Have we optimized the meaning out of life?

When the the goal is optimization, and not enjoyment, meaning, or novelty, the only inevitable conclusion is rampant hedonism. Look no further than architecture to see how this is happening.

In his video The Lunatic Responsible for Destroying Every Beautiful City in the World, Thoughty2 dives into the startling history of modern architecture where it recieves an unfortunate downgrade. The goal of modern architecture (post WW2) is pure utility, not quality or beauty. What this looks like in practice is the modern attitude of: "This building doesn't have to be high-quality or beautiful, it just has to meet the minimum regulations." That's why such a large percentage of modern buildings are just big concrete cubes and bridges are just big concrete arcs.

The real tragedy is all this isn't even meeting its stated goal of being utilitarian, as there is greater utility in quality. Going back to the architecture example, the average pre-war house was typically built with brick and mortar. The average post-war house is built with wood and drywall.

The average pre-war brick and mortar house lasts around 120 years, but the average wood and drywall post-war home starts to fall apart after about 60.

That's a serious downgrade, the lifespan of these homes has effectively been halved in the name of utility. What this leads to is a litany of structurally unsound 60-year-old houses that would be cheaper to bulldoze and build a new house than to repair the existing one; compare that to a pre-war home that was built to last out of the best materials available, many of which are still standing tall from the civil war era.

Even if it costs more to build a home like this the first time, the mere fact that it won't need to be bulldozed in 60 or so years and rebuilt offsets any extra cost. It costs around $12,000 to bulldoze a medium sized home in the US, and then you'd have to double the initial cost of building the home if you inteded to rebuild it or a similarly sized home where the previous one stood.

I'm not saying homes should all be made with bricks (especially in earthquake regions), I'm merely using architecture as an example.

Now, we've gotten pretty deep into this subject and I have yet to address the title of this essay, so here's what that's about.

In 1968, a scientist named John Calhoun creates a bigger and grander version of his previous little experiments on mice, which he dubs The Mouse Utopia Experiment. I wrote "experiment" as singular, but he actually repeated the same experiment dozens of times and got the same exact result each time. Others have recreated similar experiments to Calhoun's and also gotten the same results, which are completely terrifying.

Calhoun's intentions with the experiment diverge greatly from what his observations became focused on later; he was not trying to chart the behavioral effects of hedonism, his original intent was merely to study the population density of mammals and figure out how their population size would increase or decrease in response to relaxed living conditions. But like with gunpowder and many others, some of the biggest and most important discoveries are completely accidental.

Calhoun set about to create a utopia for the mice to study their population, so he took 4 pairs of average mice and sealed them in a 9' x 4' metal mouse pen complete with easily accessible clean water, food feeders, tunnels, and comfy nesting boxes.

The mice were off to a great start. Their population boomed and doubled every 2 months. But they prematurely hit their peak population at 2,200 even though the enclosure could easily support as many as 3,800 mice. After peaking at 2.2k mice, their population plummeted into extinction even though all their survival needs were easily being met with no effort required on the part of the mice.

Calhoun's study found that this decline began suddenly and swiftly after 315 days when all of their social norms began to crumble. It first started with the female mice abandoning their young to die, followed by the male mice refusing to defend their territory and both sexes of mice becoming more volatile and aggressive.

Socially and sexually deviant behavior dilated every day, with male mice aggressively mounting other males, some mice becoming antisocial and suicidal, and female mice ignoring their young and grooming themselves nonstop.

The last thousand or so mice were incredibly antisocial and avoided any remotely stressful activity while focusing all of their attention solely on themselves.

Calhoun refered to this last born batch of mice as "the beautiful ones." They spent all day grooming and fixating on themselves, so they were much better looking than the previous generations of mice, but Calhoun notes that they were "averse to any new stimuli" and were "incredibly stupid."

With the provided abundance of food and water, the lack of predators and the lack of need to devlop the skills necessary to collect resources, the mice became increasingly complacent until they no longer cared for responsibility and by extension, allowed themselves to become extinct since none of them wanted to reproduce or raise offspring.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If some alarms are starting to go off, then we can at least thank our lucky stars that we aren't completely fargone yet.

The easiest way to reconcile these findings with mankind today is to look at a few things--of course, hedonism, but also welfare. There's a reason people are often warned not to feed wild animals; because if an animal becomes dependent on a human for food, it becomes infantilized and cannot hunt for itself.

To clarify, that doesn't mean all welfare is inherently bad, but it becomes dangerous once a large enough population becomes entirely dependent on the state for its survival. An infantilized population that relies on the state for all of its survival needs becomes a slave to that state, and is unable to survive without Uncle Sam's direct assisstance. In a way, prolongued wlefare states are actually, abjectly cruel, by coercing a vulnerable population of struggling citizens into a state of complete dependence and reliance, and, by extension, controlling them.

Our pets are sort of forced to love us because without us, they would not survive. In a way, we are God to them. A stray cat or dog born behind some bushes down the street might survive (if some predator doesn't get it first), but a cat or dog that has relied its whole life on its owner for food, water and shelter has no chance on its own. In this same way, a welfare-state makes its welfare recipients dependents who are forced to agree with and vote for (or at least tolerate) everything that state does, because at any moment if enough people stopped supporting it, the welfare could go away and they'd be screwed.

Welfare and charity does have a place in the world, but infantilizing a population of dependents and enslaving them to a political and economic system they might otherwise disagree with under the guise of being charitable and virtuous is not one of them.

And such is the case with hedonism--pleasures and fun activities do have a place in the world, but rampant and destructive self-indulgence is not one of them.

 

I swear this one was ripped straight from Wall-E.

 

Addressing the conspicuous implications of his accidental findings, Calhoun wrote:

Herein is the paradox of a life without work or conflict. When all sense of necessity is stripped from the life of an individual, life ceases to have purpose. The individual dies in spirit.

What this essentially amounts to is the actualization that meaning and purpose is not synonymous with pleasurable or enjoyable. Yet as Jordan Peterson wrote as his 7th rule in 12 Rules for Life, "Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient." We have cultivated a set of social systems wherein it is by default and with no thought or consideration that we take the expedient path; indulge in the short-term pleasures of today and give no thought to long term comittments or burdens of responsibility.

Now, there is one thing that absolutely does need to be made clear; this is not a pessimistic blackpill essay. I consider myself to be a cautiously optimistic person, because being utterly devoured by pessimism and nihilism isn't useful, and neither is blind positivity and slaktivism.

"Why even try bro the world is fucked, there's nothing we can do."
 

There is no shortage of media out there pointing at every little flaw in the world and claiming that the end is neigh, but very rarely do these people put forth any solutions. A good rule to live by is the 80/20 rule, an immutable law of nature. The 80/20 rule can be found everywhere.

20% of the pods produce 80% of the peas, for any busniess ~20% of the customers buy ~80% of the product, et cetera. When discussing problems, it's best to spend 20% of the time fleshing out the details of the problems, and the remaining 80% of the time talking about solutions. Otherwise it just sounds like negative chatter and petulant complaining. 

There is nothing productive in pointing out every problem in the world if there's no meaningful attempt to address them or propose solutions. So that's what I'm going to do here. My next essay will be by far the largest I've ever written; it will be a mouumentally gargantuan essay, perhaps my magnum opus, breaking down each problem I see and analyzing various possible solutions, but it will take an outrageous amount of research because I don't want to push any ignorant views I might currently hold onto the Internet claiming it's bonafide advice. I really want to get this right, so it will be a very, very long time before that essay comes out. I might even sprinkle in some small essays here and there while working on that one.

'til then,

May all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.