on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

the will to be truly alive

Every morning at the park I see people of all types doing their morning exercise. People exercise for different reasons. Vanity is of course a strong motivator, some people do it because they went through health scares, others do it because it allows them to socialise in a group, some do it because luckily for them exercise makes them feel better. I started doing it because I didn’t want my brain to shrink:

“…conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

Source: Spark by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman | link

Regardless of the actual reason, exercise is something that one only does if they care enough about themselves, and if their brains are neurochemically balanced enough to flip that switch to actually do something. Unlike the mainstream narrative, one cannot actually will themselves to make choices if their brains are neurologically deficient. Motivation is regulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, and one can be severely deficient in dopamine due to genetics and stress. The world would be a much more compassionate and liveable place if people truly understand this.

I guess I was born with a dopamine deficient brain, because I don’t feel the typical pleasures of living life. It takes a lot to get me excited about something, which is why I was always addicted to extremity and seeking highs (not drug highs, but career/relationship highs). It is only recently that I associated this with my sugar addiction, because sugar dramatically increases dopamine – it has the same neurological pathways as opoids.

(I asked my partner yesterday if she would be tempted to eat a plate of freshly baked cookies if she was not hungry, turns out she wouldn’t because she doesn’t like sweet stuff. ALL MY LIFE I thought everyone wouldn’t be able to resist freshly baked cookies!)

Modern research is pointing towards evidence that chronic disorders like depression may be closely tied to metabolic and stress-related disorders, and can be successfully managed or treated with the right interventions like exercise, diet, therapy, drugs etc.

But here is the conundrum. Things like exercise and diet requires effort and consistency. But how do we get a dopamine-deficient fatigued, depressed brain to will themselves into not only taking action, but showing up day after day when it is simply much easier to do nothing? Maybe using the concept of easiness is incorrect, people who suffer from chronic disorders are not even biologically capable to do anything, they just can’t. You just have to go to the hundreds of message boards / online communities out there for such people to see how much they hate themselves and how much grief and anger they feel because they cannot do anything.

That is why it is so hurtful and damaging when people tell them to just think positive, or be less lazy. Associating positive behaviour to one’s character or one’s “strength” is one of the most harmful narratives we have on earth. The brain controls everything, to deny that is to deny science, to deny all the years of evolution that made the brain what it is today.

I have no answers to my own question, on how people can motivate themselves into doing things that require more effort they can muster when they are incapable of doing so. Apart from neurological reasons, there are also psychological reasons. Some people desire to be alive, even if they are chronically sick. Wanting to be alive, to have a firm belief in the concept of life, is a strong motivator. Some others want to be alive because they cannot imagine abandoning their loved ones. There are some who wish to fulfil some purpose in their lives.

I wrote in a previous post that a personal myth is important to surviving and thriving. Our brains evolved to be motivated by rewards, so if there are no visible rewards it is difficult to make yourself do anything. Our brains need a reason to not only keep on living, but to be alive enough in order to thrive. When we receive enough (but not too much) dopamine hits due to the perceived reward, we thrive. We feel alert, confident and euphoric (that’s why people like to take drugs or in my case, sugar/caffeine).

For story-less people (or people who are going through an existential crisis because they lost their personal myth or original purpose) like me, there may be no visible rewards. Since my brain is dopamine-deficient at its baseline, there could be actual rewarding factors in my life but I find it difficult to feel and connect to it.

(The aliveness loop also demonstrates that if our actions doesn’t generate visible rewards/progress, we may stop feeling motivated. Therefore designing routines/environments with reward/progress cues in mind are important. The perceived reward also cannot be perceived to be less than the perceived effort.)

In the past year or so I found myself in a slump. It is probably related to Covid, because my dopamine-deficient brain seeks novelty, and being in a perpetual lockdown has severely limited that. It did teach me to be more self-sufficient, to co-exist with my inner world which used to make me feel low key miserable all the time because it was spouting a lot of repetitive negativity into my mind.

But now I have found myself in an emotionally neutral yet numbish state. I no longer looked forward to writing or working on this website, I ate more and more carbs as I was tired of restricting myself all the time, I stopped reading as much, stopped cooking – pretty much stopped everything because I didn’t feel like doing anything. I also exercised a lot less after I fell ill a few times. No dopamine, no doing.

It is a weird state for me to be in, because I was used to feeling sad all the time but I was no longer sad, but I was just somewhat not alive. As of now I am not sure if I no longer looked forward to all the things I used to like doing because maybe my emotional changes I went through changed me so much at a fundamental level that my preferences changed without myself knowing?

Maybe I used to like writing because it served as a catharsis, or that I subconsciously wanted to shape people’s opinions of me. But now these things are no longer important, neither is my self-image of being a creative person. Without a story everything dissipates, including activities that were so life-saving for the old me.

I got to a point when I just felt like in order to preserve my health I have to at least pretend to be interested. I have no idea whether I am nursing a severe dopamine deficit or a true existential change. But knowing how the brain works I know I need something to hang on to as my “visible reward”, even if I know it may not be true. It is literally fake it till I make it.

One day, I just got so disturbed at being slumpy that I literally said to myself, I am going to attempt to be alive again. So I again made fitness my goal. I have never been fit. I have always existed as a chronically tired and mildly unfit person. This is an old but on going challenge I never had the resolve to solve. I go on these long streaks, get tired of it, and then fall off the wagon. But I believe every cycle I get better at it, and I discover more sustainable ways instead of being so extreme.

Additionally and perhaps more importantly, I just want to treat my body better. Previously I had zero will to even live, so letting my body deteriorate was a subconscious extension of that. Also I didn’t know enough about neuroscience and metabolism. Now that I’ve read so much scientific research, I have to be very wilful to consciously ignore that each time I eat that glucose-laden meal I am damaging my body.

For me, it is philosophically acceptable to rebel against life by letting oneself slowly disintegrate, but I think it is difficult to do it without harming anyone else unless one is a true hermit. I live with my partner, so at the very least I should not let my poor health affect her negatively. If I cannot regulate my stress response (due to poor diet etc), it will inevitably impact her.

Maybe my saving grace would be my curiousity. I am curious to know what it feels like to be fit. Not just physically fit, but fit in terms of as many biological markers I can find. Am I skeptical about life because of my neurologically deficient brain – that I truly cannot physically feel the wonders of living – or is this my true metaphysical stance? Can we truly separate how our brains work and our thoughts? How much are our thoughts and beliefs influenced by our range of perceptions and senses? Is the will to be alive simply a matter of achieving true biological homeostasis?

At the end of this post, I guess I feel grateful for the fact that I still have questions. The day I become question-less, I’ll be truly worried about my will to live.