The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. they wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days the animals died of thirst.
In follow-up studies, other scientist also inhibited the dopamine-releasing parts of the brain, but this time, they squirted little droplets of sugar into the mouths of the dopamine-depleted rats. Their little rat faces lit up with pleasurable grins from the tasty substance. Even though dopamine was blocked, they liked the sugar just as much as before; they just didn’t want it anymore. The ability to experience pleasure remained, but without dopamine, desire died. And without desire, action stopped.James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 105)
Although I’m happily emerging from the slump, for much of this year to this point, I found myself relating to the rats described above, in that I had very little desire to do much of anything. Although this sounds like—and probably was—a classic depression symptom, I simultaneously observed that, like the rats, I didn’t feel particularly unhappy. I still enjoyed flowers and pretty scenery and conversations and food when—like sugar water getting dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man who is moved by his own appetites, much of the world is delivered to me: Marvel television programs appear on the screen, food arrives, I am ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened during this time, I thought mmmm, riding in the car in the sun is nice, this view is nice, this Modern Kale Ceasar Salad hits the spot.
The one arena where Paul could not do much for me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition for my writing career had disappeared, and my desire to actually write had dwindled to almost nothing. This, more than anything else, highlighted for me the growing similarity between myself and the desire-less rats. I thought,
For most of my life I have cared about writing. While I don’t care right now, it seems probably that I will care again in the future so it makes sense that I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I should attempt to be not only the rats, but also play the role of scientists. (Not the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the ones who provided sugar water to keep the rats alive, albeit after cruelly disrupting their normal dopamine flow.)
In other words, I needed to procure my own source of sugar water.
I set about doing this by signing up for a session of the weekly writing workshop I sometimes do. It didn’t push me into writing pages as it normally would, but my sense of social obligation drove me to read other people’s work and give decent notes. There was some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, seeking writing solutions when I read scripts is now as automatic as starting to chew after I’ve put food in my mouth. So I think my fellow writers benefitted and I exercised my brain a little. But after a couple of months, I was worn out even by this. I needed sugar water that required zero response.
Normally I keep a running list of the “content” I am watching and listening to, but I also didn’t care enough to do that. Much of what I was consumed was apparently not memorable, but I’ll mention a couple that were:
On Apple TV, there was Severance. Rather than attempt to say much about it, I’ll just recommend it, or recommend reading the second half of this essay in Electric Literature. (Or, like me, you could read the entire essay and then order the book that it talks about in the first half.)
On audio, there was the George Saunders’ book, A Fish in a Pond in the Rain.
In the first weeks after my surgery, my general I-can’t-make-myself-care mood persisted, mixed with a fair amount of physical pain.
“Are you okay?” asked our most curious neighbor, with some actual concern.
I was not great. I had little energy or desire to have back-and-forth conversations or observe the social niceties of stretching my face into different expressions. But as I slowly shuffled around the block like a battery-finally-depleted energizer bunny, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was pure sugar water piped into my brain via my ears. Inside my head, and even inside my soul, “my little rat face lit up with pleasure.”
Although the book can be described as about writing, Saunders also weaves some discussion of morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.
Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-writer, and it is interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike. Saunders elevates this by also being well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts that are shaped by years of consideration and teaching.
In each section an actor reads a story by a Russian author you’ve heard of, and then Saunders analyzes each story, beat by beat, page by page, doing both a close reading,” and a larger structural analysis.
If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories, I highly recommend this book.
P.S. Though I’m a fan of George Saunders’ fiction, I became aware of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain via his Story Club newsletter which you can check out on SUBSTACK for free. I will admit to being months behind — apparently opening emails and reading things on my computer is less like sugar-water delivery and more akin to having to cross one’s cage for sustenance, and I’m not all the way there yet. The minute he compiles his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down.