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 now, for much of this year, 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 dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man moved by his appetites, much of the world was delivered to me: Television programs appeared on the screen, food arrived, I was ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened 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 main arena where Paul could not carry me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition had disappeared and my desire to 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 probable that I’ll care again in the future, so I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I need to be not only a rat, but also a scientist. (Not the one of the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the one 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 new session of a 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’s some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, searching for 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 it 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 effort.
And I was lucky enough to find some.
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 mixed with a fair amount of physical pain. I knew I was looking bad when our nosiest neighbor approached me on one of my daily recovery walks and asked, “Are you okay?” with a tinge of something approximating actual concern.
I’m sure whatever I answered was less than satisfying for her curiosity. I had little energy for back-and-forth conversations or 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, I hit “play” on A Swim in a Pond in the Rain and it 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’ discussions weave in morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.
Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-storyteller, and it’s interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike (though Saunders’ analyses are elevated because he’s well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts shaped by years of reflection and teaching).
In each section of the book, an actor reads a story by a Russian author, and then Saunders analyzes the story, beat by beat, page by page, combining close reading and larger structural analysis.
If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories in any format, 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 back yet. The minute he compiles his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down!