slow wave

To Want Something So Good, So Bad

An old throwback entry from years back to hold off until I do a whole site makeover. :P

Stepping outside is the hardest thing. On cold days I’m wrapped (or confined) in my protective blanket shell, sometimes two. On sunny days, with the gurgling birds scratching atop the roof of the house or the neighborhood kids jumping and screaming on their trampoline, I’m not able to sleep, but remain sprawled across the couch with a leg dangling on the side, probably caked between several throw pillows. Every now and then, I’d get phone calls from close friends and somewhere in the conversation they’d blurt out, “Let me guess, you’re in bed?” or ask me what I’m doing right now with the happy/funny anticipation of being right when I predictably answer, “I’m in bed.” Soowhan is notorious for this. This is probably one of his happy places.

During my three-month stay in Hawaii (jealously thought of as paradise on the mainland) Kathy (hi Kathy!!), my favorite friend I met there, would call/message me online. “Oh, sorry I missed your call. What are you up to now?” I answer. And she laughs.

I can’t think of the right word to describe it in English, but in Viet it would be mat cong, or even closer, in Japanese mendokusai. It’s not completely lazy, but perhaps lacking real motivation. Or there is motivation, but not high enough to conjure up the energy to take the first step. Is it because I don’t want anything?

Graduation was a tough one too. I didn’t want to go. mendokusai. But since other people were behind me, waiting to walk alongside me or witness happily in the crowds, I rolled out of bed and got dressed.

However, on the other side, addicts move in life through hasty decisions based on purely selfish motives without hesitation. I’m back in downtown LA for a week and everyday includes nappy crackheads staggering around skid row (the destitute are of downtown LA filled with homeless, an informal number between 7,000 to 8,000). During my stay here, I’m led to believe that most everyone in LA does crack and/or have image problems.

Which brings the question… what drives us? What brings desire? What makes us want something – or someone – that sometimes, we may even know beforehand that our choices would lead to an unwanted outcome? During school, we were taught that dopamine was the chemical responsible for pleasure, released upon activation of the reward center in the brain to give us that feel-good state. What makes it even more curious, dopamine is also released during states of fear and stress. People with bi-polar disorders, when in their manic stage, have high levels of dopamine that illicit their impressions of grandeur. Back when research was relatively new, scientists thought that dopamine brought on feelings of satisfaction.

In one study conducted at University of Michigan by Kent Berridge, PhD et al, they tested this theory in two groups of normal and dopamine-depleted rats. When the rats were fed with their favorite foods, they made a facial expression that can be likened to a “grin.” The hypothesis was that the dopamine-depleted rats would not be able to enjoy the tasty treats that their normal brothers could. The dopamine-depleted group, with their dopamine pathways blocked, did not show any desire in seeking for food to the point that they would starve if an intervention did not occur. However, much to their surprise, when they did intervene and hand-fed the dopamine-depleted rats, the rats smiled just like their normal brothers, enjoying their meal. Dopamine is not exclusively pleasure, but it is the first step to it; dopamine produces desire in finding pleasure. Berridge calls this, “wanting.” The dopamine-depleted rats lacked motivation to live, even when it’s rational to believe that every living animal has desire to. It’s the same with exercise. Almost no one wants to go to the gym during the cold winter months, but everyone admits to feeling better after having exercised.

When our dopamine system is activated, learning and memory is remarkably enhanced, priming our senses to pay extra attention to details. In a more rudimentary sense, the awareness is heightened prior to approaching food or a potential sex partner. Dopamine is the hunt. After the wanting leads to a desired outcome, dopamine is out of the picture and another chemical comes to play. Opioids, the brain’s heroinlike chemicals, provide the pleasure of satisfaction, referred to as “liking.” Opioids are the kill.

In addiction, the two systems work together in producing these effects. The intricate play of chemicals is not a balanced one. Over time, tolerance to opioids is developed in the liking, thus escalating the want. Addicts find themselves delving deeper and deeper in a mad hunt to produce that pay off they first felt, only to get dashed expectations. “You find yourself passionately wanting an experience you no longer like, that you may genuinely dread.”

There are times when desire is scarcely fulfilled. The same can be applied to love. Like a bad relationship, this is called, “intermittent reinforcement.” Different from consistent reinforcement, it produces stronger desires. A girl might be stuck with a jerk, but on rare occasions jerk is nice to her. Based on those fleeting instances, she decides, after all those times she tried to break it off, to stay with him. You might be one of her friends that listen alongside her on those abrupt phone calls late at nights, crying, unable to imagine what she sees in him in the first place.

And then they are those who lack desire. Or lack dopamine like our rat friends. These individuals are not seeking for love, but if they happen to find it, they would welcome it like any other person. Real love, thankfully unlike that of other addictions, produces positive effects. In real dopamine-depleted individuals, they are clinically depressed. If addiction is the infuriating cycle of the greedy cortex, then mendokusai is the inert brain. The brain is like any other muscle in your body: you use it or lose it. Activities engage and create new neural connections and shorten synapses, whereas neglect shrink old ones.

Down to the bare bones, I don’t want to do anything. I want to do the least amount of work through life to achieve the state of content nothingness. My primitive cortex is very convincing when it tells me to stay inside, it’s a comfortable position where I’m at. But I know, that it will always tell me the same thing today, tomorrow, and twenty years later. We intrinsically want to be safe as human beings, but we also like getting that feel-good satisfaction of completing something we had our eyes set on that we weren’t aware of. The trick is making a conscious effort taming the primitive regions. Assuring ourselves that we’ll like what we don’t think we want; that we won’t like what we do feel ourselves wanting badly. Outside of my out-of-country-out-of-mind escapes during breaks, throughout the four years of school, I feel like my mind has atrophied in areas outside of pharmacy. Here is my humble attempt at writing again. It may not be pretty now, but it’s a start.

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