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The When, How, And Why Of People Who “Snap”

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Have you ever been so upset and so distressed that you felt like you were going to just lose it? Your ability to process emotions, as well as your grip on reality, is hanging by a thread and that thread just gives way. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but something inside you just shatters and there’s no going back.

There’s no scientific term for that sort of state, but it’s something many in the scientific and non-scientific fields love to analyze. Chances are many of us feel like we approach that precarious state at some point in our lives. Only a handful of people ever cross that line from just feeling like they’re going to lose it to actually losing it.

We often say those people just “snap.” It’s not a very scientific description, but I’ve yet to find one more fitting. I won’t try to invent some fancy term for it, as I’ve attempted before. It’s just something I want to talk about because it reflects a dangerous extreme of the human condition.

It’s a scary, but fascinating phenomenon, understanding what happens to people who snap and how they got to that point. When I was in college, one of my favorite classes was a course called “Abnormal Psychology.” Only a small part of it dealt with those who snapped, but that part often generated the most discussions in and out of class.

I say it’s worth discussing outside a classroom. I would go so far to say that it’s more pressing now than it has been in recent years, if only because it’s easier for people who snap to make the news. Thanks to the rise of smartphones and social media, it’s possible for someone who snaps to make the news before they’re even done snapping.

The Columbine shooting was a terrible story involving two very disturbed teenagers, but it happened in 1999. Unless you were near a TV, chances are you didn’t hear about it until it was over. Compare that to the shootings of Sandy Hook and Parkland. Within an hour of the shooting, it began trending on social media. We can basically live-tweet the act of someone snapping violently.

While I’m sure that will generate some frustrating discussions about the role social media plays in our lives, I want to focus on the people who experience these mental breakdowns. The act of someone snapping has been going on long before social media. Even when it doesn’t happen all at once, mental illness is well-documented in various historical figures.

Seeing as how there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet and growing, the confluence of numbers and time ensure that someone will snap again at some point. Whether or not it trends on social media depends on a whole host of factors that aren’t relevant to the discussion.

Given that inevitability, it’s worth assessing and even speculating a bit on what leads someone to that point. That’s more difficult than most insights into the human mind. There is some science into what happens to someone when they have a “nervous breakdown.” I consider that similar to snapping, but I think those kinds of breakdowns are the next to last step in a much more damaging process.

You can recover from a nervous breakdown. There are even recovery programs for it. Once someone snaps, something fundamentally shatters within their psyche from which there is no full recovery. For someone to carry out a mass shooting or a horrific crime, someone’s mind crosses a proverbial point of no return. What that point is varies from person to person, but the effects are just as devastating.

With respect to what pushes someone to that point also varies and is almost impossible to study in a scientific context. Until we can actually map and interpret the trillions of signals operating in someone’s brain, which we are working on, we can’t know for sure. Since we are all human, though, we all have some insight.

Now, I’m not a scientist, but I am an avid user of Reddit. In the interest of compiling insight, I asked for input on what other people thought made someone snap. As usual, Reddit provided a wealth of responses thanks to subs like this one, this one, and this one.

Many offered plenty of ideas, theories, and anecdotes. I won’t say there was an underlying consensus, but there were plenty of common themes. They included factors such as mental illness, alienation, isolation, depression, despair, and overwhelming anger. Some posters made especially insightful posts. Here are just a few.

You snap when the weight you carry is heavier than you can bear, and you see no better alternative.

Duty is heavier than a mountain. Death is lighter than a feather.

It is calculated response. Some people look ahead in their lives and see 60+ years of quiet desperation, insignificance, loneliness, banality, and suffering ahead of them. They are willing to give up all of those years for 15 minutes of being the MOST IMPORTANT PERSON in the room. The gun means they can’t be ignored, the attention they have been starved of is showered on them. And they will get talked about for months, maybe years to come. Something they don’t see as possible by any other action.

Disconnection, alienation, circumstance, depression, hatred. We’ve all felt like outsiders at some time, or put upon, deprived, taken from or taken advantage of, hopeless, in emotional pain so bad it hurts physically. We’ve all had those thoughts of, “I wish that person were dead,” or “fuck everyone,” or “I’ll get them back,” or “life isn’t fair.” But 99.9999% of us don’t ever act on that and as we mature through adolescence we learn to deal with these emotions and problems. We learn to work on ourselves, we learn perspective and that these things pass, we learn not to let others affect us to such a degree – or hopefully we do. Now imagine someone is dealing with this as a vulnerable teen, but 10x as bad as what any of us has dealt with, with maybe some greater tendencies towards mental illness, or narcissism, or anger management.

I think there’s a kernel of truth within these responses, as well as a few oversights. Someone who snaps is someone on a very specific path. Sometimes it’s one they choose, not knowing where it will lead. Some choose that path on purpose because they have sadistic tendencies that they seek to push. Eventually, they cross or are pushed beyond a threshold that just breaks them.

To some extent, we can think of the human psyche as one of our bones. Bones can and do break, but nature has made them pretty strong out of necessity. Some peoples’ bones are stronger than others and some get weaker over time. Put them under sufficient stress, though, and they fracture. Put too much stress on them all at once and they snap.

The human brain is more complex than a bone, but the principle is the same. It has a system for regulating stress, emotions, and pain. The system is more robust in certain people than it is for others. Those with mental illness are like those with osteoporosis in that their systems are weaker than others.

Just straining that system can be damaging. While the human brain is uniquely adaptable, too much strain too quickly can overwhelm that system. Once in that broken state, everything that usually keeps someone in check goes out the window. That’s how you get someone who has eruptions of violence, descends into self-destruction, and endures irreparable mental scars.

To complicate matters even more, which is saying a lot for such a sensitive subject, there were a few other factors that my Reddit posts brought up that may compound this process. A few posters brought up the effects of kids being over-prescribed drugs like Ritalin to fix behavioral problems.

Now, I was never on these drugs, but I did know a few kids who took them and I can attest that they have some pretty potent effects. While studies on this issue are inconclusive, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that tweaking a kid’s brain chemistry may incur some pretty lasting impacts.

Another complication that may end up being more powerful than drugs is the way our hyper-connected world just amplifies the stress that leads people to snap. While I won’t go so far as to say social media is causing people to snap, I think it can accelerate the process for those already on that path.

People already in a precarious state go online every day and see a world in which they feel left out or lost. They see others succeeding and feel it’s too late for them. They see others suffering and feel powerless to help them. They find themselves in hate-filled digital environments that only reinforce their sentiments. It makes the notion of snapping seem cathartic.

It’s impossible to know for sure just how big a factor drugs or media may be for those who end up snapping, but I suspect there are more than a few instances where it plays at least some part. Given the breadth and complexity of every individual person, I believe everyone who snaps does so only after a confluence of many factors.

When it does happen, it’s tragic for the person and their loved ones. It can subsequently manifest in some pretty horrific acts. Our current media landscape is sure to document such acts, sometimes to the point of being counterproductive. As bad as those acts can be, I do think there are reasons for hope.

That may seem outrageous after talking about such a sensitive issue, but I genuinely believe the potential for good outweighs the bad. Say what you will about the media, but by documenting those who snap, it brings attention to issues involving mental health care and how we confront hate.

I’m not saying more awareness will stop people from snapping, but it may help improve efforts to get to people before that moment comes. It is something we, as a functioning society, would be wise to work towards. Not everyone who eventually snaps can be saved, but if we can help those who can, I think it’s in their interest and that of their loved ones to help them.

Again, thank you Reddit for helping me write this article. I really appreciate it.

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Why Social Media Is NOT The New Tobacco

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It’s a full-blown crisis. Kids are spending hours upon hours using it. They’re becoming mindless, unmotivated zombies. Every day, it’s getting worse. It’s all around them. There’s no escaping it and if something drastic isn’t done, it’ll corrupt an entire generation beyond repair.

No, that’s not some hysterical rant from Jessica Lovejoy on “The Simpsons.” It’s not referring to smartphones or social media, either. That urgent message was referring to television. This isn’t another one of my thought experiments. This is one of my memories. It’s true. Televisions was a real concern when I was a kid. Some called it a full blown health hazard.

If that sounds strange, then chances are you aren’t old enough to remember a time before the internet was the ultimate addiction. It really existed. It makes me and many others in my cohort feel old, but it happened. When I was a kid still in grade school, especially between first and sixth grade, the internet wasn’t the thing destroying kids. It was television.

That memory I mentioned wasn’t unique. It came courtesy of an assembly my school held. I don’t entirely remember the purpose of the assembly. I was just a kid and it was an excuse to get out of class. What I do remember, though, was the common refrain about the dangers of television.

Adults of all kinds would find creative ways to tell us to stop watching television and do something “productive,” which I took to mean more homework, more chores, and anything else my teachers made me do. It didn’t really appeal to me and I don’t think it changed the TV habits of my peers, either.

That panic, while nowhere nearly as extreme as the Satanic Panic of the 80s, came and went like many moral crusades tend to do. Some are just forgotten, but others just evolve into a whole new panic. That seems to be happening with the internet and social media now. Watching TV is actually in decline among younger cohorts while their usage of the internet and social media is increasing.

I imagine those same teachers who bemoaned the impact of TV when I was a kid would be giving similar lectures on social media now. They would have competition too because parents today worry about their kids’ internet usage more than their drug usage. Some go so far as to call it the new tobacco to belabor its damaging and addictive nature.

While that kind of comparison strikes all the right emotional chords with concerned parents, I think it’s an unfit comparison to say the least. At most, I would call it absurd. The memories of all those warnings about the dangers of TV leave me inherently skeptical of anything that’s allegedly poisoning children. Unless it’s actual poison, I think the tobacco comparisons are premature.

Now, there’s no question that the internet and social media are having an impact on young people, old people, and everyone in between. There are documented cases where people have exhibited addictive behaviors surrounding their internet usage. Before you make any nicotine comparisons, though, keep in mind that people can be addicted to all sorts of weird things. The human mind is just that strange, powerful, and flawed.

Tobacco, and the nicotine it delivers, is an outside chemical that enters the brain and has real, measurable effects. Using the internet, whether you’re checking FaceBook or browsing Instagram, is not like that. That’s why internet addiction is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that legitimate doctors use to diagnose addiction, but substance abuse is.

It’s also why porn addiction is not considered a true addiction, which I’ve talked about before. However, porn is more specific in its purpose and its effects. There’s also still a stigma, albeit a damaging one, surrounding it that sets it apart from the rest of the internet. A kid browsing the internet, for the most part, is no less damaging than watching cartoons on TV all day.

That doesn’t stop a growing number of people from expressing sincere concern about the effects it’s having on their minds and their health. Some may even prefer that their kids watch old Hanna Barbara cartoons rather than tweet, text, and live-stream all day. There’s a growing sentiment that the internet, social media in particular, hacks our brain’s rewards system.

On paper, it makes sense. You pick up your smart phone, you turn it on not knowing what to expect, and if you find something you like, you get a quick release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. It’s basically a form of gambling. A slot machine works the same way, but you don’t need to be a high roller to enjoy the gambling-like thrill.

Like so many other ideas on paper that go onto fail, though, it’s nowhere near that simple. The human brain can’t be that crude with its chemistry. As a good rule of thumb, if you ever hear someone other than a legitimate neurologist talks about the effects of dopamine on pleasure or addiction, chances are they have a very limited understanding of it at best.

While dopamine does play a role in how we experience pleasure, that’s just one part of a wide range of functions it has within our brains. Trying to understand addiction through dopamine alone is like trying to bake a cake with only a teaspoon of flour. There are many more chemicals, processes, and interactions at play.

Using social media may offer its users a rush whenever they get exciting news on their feed or see something that intrigues and/or offends them, but our brain processes that in a way fairly similar to anything else that catches our attention. The primary difference with the internet and social media is that it happens solely through a digital screen and that does somewhat limit those reactions.

I know that undercuts the concerns of parents who think the internet permanently damaging the collective psyche of their children, but I think they’re overestimating the influence of things that are experienced solely through a screen. Much like TV, the internet and social media can only effect so many senses and that is a major mitigating factor in its impact.

To understand that, go find a picture or video of an exotic location. If you’re a heavy user of Instagram, chances are that won’t be too hard. Look at those pictures. Watch that video. Take in the sights and sounds of that location. To your brain, it’s an appealing bit of visual and auditory sensations. However, those are the only two senses it stimulates.

What about the smell of the air, the feeling of the wind, and the sense of place that being in those locations evokes in our brains? Even if you experience it through hyper-realistic virtual reality, it’s still just sights and sounds at most. Thinking that alone is enough to damage a kid’s brain is like thinking someone can win a sword fight with a sewing needle.

That’s not to say the internet and social media can’t have a powerful psychological impact on certain people. That’s the key, though. It impacts certain people the same way TV impacts certain people. Sure, there are documented cases where social media played a role in a major tragedy, but those are the exceptions and not the norms.

In the same way not everyone gets addicted to a drug after they try it, not everyone is going to be irreparably damaged by the internet, social media, or TV. There’s a reason why extreme cases of people being heavily influenced by these things makes the news in the first place. It’s exceedingly rare.

I would still make the case that the internet and social media are more influential on people, society, and our culture than TV ever was. By being so hyper-connected to such a wide audience, the professional trolls of the world have a way to effect others in a way that just wasn’t possible, even with TV.

As bad as some of those trolls are and as tragic as it is when some suffer because of them, blaming the internet for those ills is like blaming umbrellas for hurricanes. Lumping it in with cancer-causing drugs only further obscures the real issues associated with the ever-evolving internet.

There are, indeed, serious issues with how people use the internet and how it manifests. However, treating it like a dangerous drug did nothing to address the issues surrounding TV. It’ll do just as little in addressing the various controversies of the internet. Until the next “new tobacco” comes along, those same people who lectured me on too much TV will bemoan the dangers of the internet while ignoring all the good it does.

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How We’ll Save Ourselves From Artificial Intelligence (According To Mass Effect)

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Growing up, my family had a simple rule. If you’re going to talk abut about a problem, you also have to have a solution in mind. By my parents’ logic, talking about a problem and no solution was just whining and whining never fixes anything. My various life experiences have only proved my parents right.

When it comes to a problem that may be an existential threat to the human race, though, I think a little whining can be forgiven. However, that shouldn’t negate the importance of having a solution in mind before we lose ourselves to endless despair.

For the threat posed by artificial intelligence, though, solutions have been light on substance and heavy on dread. It’s becoming increasingly popular among science enthusiasts and Hollywood producers to highlight just how dangerous this technology could be if it goes wrong.

I don’t deny that danger. I’ve discussed it before, albeit in a narrow capacity. I would agree with those who claim that artificial intelligence could potentially be more destructive than nuclear weapons. However, I believe the promise this technology has for bettering the human race is worth the risk.

That said, how do we mitigate that risk when some of the smartest, most successful people in the world dread its potential? Well, I might not be as smart or as successful, but I do believe there is a way to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence while minimizing the risk. That critical solution, as it turns out, may have already been surmised in a video game that got average-to-good reviews last year.

Once again, I’m referring to one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.” I think it’s both fitting and appropriate since I referenced this game in a previous article about the exact moment when artificial intelligence became a threat. That moment may be a ways off, but there may also be away to avoid it altogether.

Artificial intelligence is a major part of the narrative within the “Mass Effect” universe. It doesn’t just manifest through the war between the Quarians and the Geth. The game paints it as the galactic equivalent of a hot-button issue akin to global warming, nuclear proliferation, and super plagues. Given what happened to the Quarians, that concern is well-founded.

That doesn’t stop some from attempting to succeed where the Quarians failed. In the narrative of “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” the sequel to the original trilogy, a potential solution to the problem of artificial intelligence comes from the father of the main characters, Alec Ryder. That solution even has a name, SAM.

That name is an acronym for Simulated Adaptive Matrix and the principle behind it actually has some basis in the real world. On paper, SAM is a specialized neural implant that links a person’s brain directly to an advanced artificial intelligence that is housed remotely. Think of it as having Siri in your head, but with more functionality than simply managing your calendar.

In the game, SAM provides the main characters with a mix of guidance, data processing, and augmented capabilities. Having played the game multiple times, it’s not unreasonable to say that SAM is one of the most critical components to the story and the gameplay experience. It’s also not unreasonable to say it has the most implications of any story element in the “Mass Effect” universe.

That’s because the purpose of SAM is distinct from what the Quarians did with the Geth. It’s also distinct from what real-world researchers are doing with systems like IBM Watson and Boston Dynamics. It’s not just a big fancy box full of advanced, high-powered computing hardware. It’s built around the principle that its method for experiencing the world is tied directly to the brain of a person.

This is critical because one of the inherent dangers of advanced artificial intelligence is the possibility that it won’t share our interests. It may eventually get so smart and so sophisticated that it sees no need for us anymore. This is what leads to the sort of Skynet scenarios that we, as a species, want to avoid.

In “Mass Effect,” SAM solves this problem by linking its sensory input to ours. Any artificial intelligence, or natural intelligence for that matter, is only as powerful as the data it can utilize. By tying biological systems directly to these synthetic systems, the AI not only has less incentive to wipe humanity out. We have just as much incentive to give it the data it needs to do its job.

Alec Ryder describes it as a symbiotic relationship in the game. That kind of relationship actually exists in nature, two organisms relying on one another for survival and adaptation. Both get something out of it. Both benefit by benefiting each other. That’s exactly what we want and need if we’re to maximize the benefits of AI.

Elon Musk, who is a noted fan of “Mass Effect,” is using that same principle with his new company, Neuralink. I’ve talked about the potential benefits of this endeavor before, including the sexy kinds. The mechanics with SAM in the game may very well be a pre-cursor of things to come.

Remember, Musk is among those who have expressed concern about the threat posed by AI. He calls it a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization. Unlike other doomsayers, though, he’s actually trying to do something about it with Neuralink.

Like SAM in “Mass Effect,” Musk envisions what he calls a neural lace that’s implanted in a person’s brain, giving them direct access to an artificial intelligence. From Musk’s perspective, this gives humans the ability to keep up with artificial intelligence to ensure that it never becomes so smart that we’re basically brain-damaged ants to it.

However, I believe the potential goes deeper than that. Throughout “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” SAM isn’t just a tool. Over the course of the game, your character forms an emotional attachment with SAM. By the end, SAM even develops an attachment with the character. It goes beyond symbiosis, potentially becoming something more intimate.

This, in my opinion, is the key for surviving in a world of advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to just have an artificial intelligence rely on people for sensory input and raw data. There has to be a bond between man and machine. That bond has to be intimate and, since we’re talking about things implanted in bodies and systems, it’s already very intimate on multiple levels.

The benefits of that bond go beyond basic symbiosis. By linking ourselves directly to an artificial intelligence, it’s rapid improvement becomes our rapid improvement too. Given the pace of computer evolution compared to the messier, slower process of biological evolution, the benefits of that improvement cannot be overstated.

In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” those benefits help you win the game. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. Having your brain directly linked to an artificial intelligence may seem invasive to some, but if the bond is as intimate as Musk is attempting with Neuralink, then others may see it as another limb.

Having something like SAM in our brains doesn’t just mean having a supercomputer at our disposal that we can’t lose or forget to charge. In the game, SAM also has the ability to affect the physiology of its user. At one point in the game, SAM has to kill Ryder in order to escape a trap.

Granted, that is an extreme measure that would give many some pause before linking their brains to an AI. However, the context of that situation in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” only further reinforces its value and not just because SAM revives Ryder. It shows just how much SAM needs Ryder.

From SAM’s perspective, Ryder dying is akin to being in a coma because it loses its ability to sense the outside world and take in new data. Artificial or not, that kind of condition is untenable. Even if SAM is superintelligent, it can’t do much with it if it has no means of interacting with the outside world.

Ideally, the human race should be the primary conduit to that world. That won’t just allow an advanced artificial intelligence to grow. It’ll allow us to grow with it. In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” Alec Ryder contrasted it with the Geth and the Quarians by making it so there was nothing for either side to rebel against. There was never a point where SAM needed to ask whether or not it had a soul. That question was redundant.

In a sense, SAM and Ryder shared a soul in “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” If Elon Musk has his way, that’s exactly what Neuralink will achieve. In that future in which Musk is even richer than he already is, we’re all intimately linked with advanced artificial intelligence.

That link allows the intelligence to process and understand the world on a level that no human brain ever could. It also allows any human brain, and the biology linked to it, to transcend its limits. We and our AI allies would be smarter, stronger, and probably even sexier together than we ever could hope to be on our own.

Now, I know that sounds overly utopian. Me being the optimist I am, who occasionally imagines the sexy possibilities of technology, I can’t help but contemplate the possibilities. Never-the-less, I don’t deny the risks. There are always risks to major technological advances, especially those that involve tinkering with our brains.

However, I believe those risks are still worth taking. Games like “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and companies like Neuralink do plenty to contemplate those risks. If we’re to create a future where our species and our machines are on the same page, then we would be wise to contemplate rather than dread. At the very least, we can at least ensure our future AI’s tell better jokes.

 

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Boredom Vs. A Lack Of Belonging: Which Drives Outrage Culture More?

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Here’s a quick non-rhetorical question. Which is worse, crippling boredom or social isolation? There’s no right answer, but every answer has distressing implications. More than anything else, those answers reinforce why solitary confinement is rightly considered torture.

I ask that question because I had an interesting conversation with someone on Reddit about what drives certain people to be constantly outraged about whatever happens to be controversial that day. I’ve talked a bit about outrage culture before and how professional trolls exploit them, but I haven’t really dug into the mechanisms behind it. Given how new controversies seem to trend every day, I think it’s worth scrutinizing.

In the discussion, I singled out boredom as a possibly underrated factor. Having highlighted the power of crippling boredom, I felt qualified to make the case that boredom may very well be an understated, under-appreciated cause. I still feel there’s a case to be made.

In the grand scheme of things, humanity is in uncharted territory when it comes to boredom. For most of human history, we had to live our lives under the constant threat of plague, famine, war, and natural disasters. Whether we were hunter/gatherers or subsistence farmers, life was chaotic and unpredictable.

Say what you will about those harsh, pre-modern eras, but they weren’t boring. They couldn’t be. There was always work to do. Given the lack of effective birth control, there were children to raise. Even if social media had existed 100 years ago, who would have the time or energy to even be outraged about a man wearing a sexist shirt.

Fast forward to the 21st century and things like war, famine, disease, and crippling poverty are all in decline. This is objectively good on so many ways, but for some people, especially in well-to-do middle class people, it leaves a large void that quickly becomes boring if not filled with something. Sometimes, it can get so bad that it can lead to outright murder.

When I made this argument, I think more than a few people took it seriously on Reddit. It was easy to see how someone whose life is so affluent and devoid of heart-pounding conflict that they will latch onto petty outrages just so they can feel something. Like someone stuck in solitary confinement, they’ll do anything for some sort of stimulation beyond counting the tiles on the floor.

Given how our brains can’t always discern the source of arousal, sometimes it’ll settle for whatever adrenaline rush we get from righteous outraged. Some go so far as to call the rush we get from outrage an addiction and it’s not a wholly inaccurate idea.

However, one person in that discussion pointed another element that also relies on that part of the brain that can’t always discern what gets it aroused. Instead of combating boredom, though, this issue deals with our inherent need to join a group and become part of a larger movement.

It’s very much an extension of tribalism and, like seeking stimulation when there is none, human beings are well-equipped by evolutionary biology to form groups. Whether we’re a small band of hunter/gatherers or a group of Taylor Swift fans, it doesn’t take much for us to form those groups and our brains reward us greatly.

Being part of a group feels good. Being part of something gives us a rush. It’s a major reason why peer pressure works and why tribalism often overrules reason. That solidarity we feel when we’re part of a group isn’t just intoxicating. It’s a fundamental component of any highly social species, which includes humans.

What this means for those constantly outrage isn’t that far off from the implications relating to boredom. Like boredom, our current society is pretty unprecedented in terms of how easy it is to form a close-nit group and share in that solidarity that has been driving our species since the hunter/gatherer days.

Thanks to social media and mass communication, it’s possible for people to do more than just share their opinions, no matter how outrageous they might be. It’s also possible to connect with those who either share in those opinions or despise them. In terms of forming a tribe, it’s a two-for-one-deal because it creates both a sense of “us” while revealing a “them” to rally against.

For anyone who has spent any amount of time on social media, it doesn’t take much to see the whole us versus them mentality to take shape. If any amount of disagreement goes on long enough, Godwin’s Law usually takes over and the battle lines are set.

On top of this, the social issues in 2018 aren’t quite nearly as clear-cut as they were in decades past. In the past, there were some pretty egregious injustices surrounding civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights that required major social movements to combat. By and large, society has done a lot to improve the state for these marginalized groups.

There’s no question that being part of such righteous movements is laudable. We, as a society, rightly praise civil rights leaders who stand for such righteous causes. Naturally, some people seek to emulate that. Whether by ego or altruism, it’s only natural that they want to experience that kind of accomplishment.

Thanks to the sheer breadth of human progress, though, there causes on the levels faced by Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi. However, because that drive to be part of a movement is just that strong, those same people will settle for pettier movements that protest sexy women in video games or bemoan the lack of diversity in old TV shows like “Friends.”

Make no mistake. Those outrages are petty and asinine when compared to the real injustices that past social movements have fought, but the brains of the outraged can’t tell the difference. From their perspective, their movement is every bit as righteous as every other civil rights movement in history. The outrage they express and the solidarity they feel is every bit as fulfilling as something that alleviates boredom.

Even if these causes are petty and the outrage is shallow, it’s important to note the alternative here. If these same people who protest the lack of diversity in the tech industry didn’t have this sort of thing to drive them, then what would happen to the group they’d formed?

Absent that outrage and protest, the group has nothing to rally behind. The person has nothing provoking arousal, be it anger or excitement. Without this dynamic, they don’t belong to something bigger anymore. They’re not the ones marching alongside famous civil rights leaders of the past. They’re just alone, by themselves, contributing nothing of value.

For many people, that’s just untenable. I would go so far as to say it’s almost as untenable as crippling boredom. Even self-proclaimed introverts and ardent individualists, we seek an identity and a constant source of stimulation. When we lack one or both, we lack a core element of any social species. In the same way we’re driven to meet the rest of our basic needs, we’ll be driven to find that somewhere, no matter how misguided.

In the past, we might have found that sense of belonging and purpose through our small communities or organized religion. Today, the world is much bigger and more diverse, thanks to technology and civilization. Organized religion is also not effective anymore due to factors too numerous to list. People are still going to seek belonging.

It’s somewhat ironic that civilization has advanced to such a degree that there aren’t as many clear-cut, good versus evil movements to be part of anymore. However, there’s still this longing to be the hero of our own story and be part of something greater, even if it means actually going out of their way to feel outraged.

Getting back to the initial question I posed, I think the influence of boredom and belonging are inherently linked. We agonize over escaping boredom and over having a sense of belonging. We can’t get that same rush our ancestors felt when surviving bear attacks and hunger so we’ll settle for whining about protests during football games. It’s still annoyingly petty, but distressingly understandable.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, Reasons and Excuses, War on Boredom

How We’ll (Have To) Manage Love In A World Of Brain Hacking

Picture the following scenario. If you’ve ever been to a fairy tale wedding or if you’ve been part of some big romantic ceremony, you won’t need much imagination. You’ll just need to have been sober at the time that moment played out. Even if you haven’t, it should still be easy to picture.

It’s a beautiful moment. Two people are standing at an altar together, proclaiming their love for each other in front of friends, family, and whatever deities they happen to prefer. It all goes so well. There are tears of joy, heartfelt gestures, and powerful moments that will last a lifetime.

That all happens in this scenario. It plays out. It’s every bit as beautiful as I just described, and then some. Hold onto that sentiment because now I’d like to complicate it, but not in the way you think.

I already painted a similar scenario when I talked about the possibility of hacking the human brain to induce love and ensure two people only ever love each other. This is someone similar, but one that factors in the bigger picture that tends to dilute all romantic moments. Again, it’s not quite as unsexy as you think, but it’s close.

Go back to that scenario. It’s still every bit as happy and sincere as any non-arranged, non-shotgun marriage could possibly be. Then, just before the chosen holy man declares two people spouses, a state-licensed lawyer enters the room. Yes, I understand that already seriously undermines the moment. Bear with me. It’s about to get weirder and less sexy.

The lawyer isn’t there to ruin the moment. He or she is actually there because the law requires him to be there. They have a very simple, but very necessary job. Before two people can be declared spouses, complete with all the tax benefits and insurance perks that come with it, the lawyer has to make sure that nobody’s brain was hacked to crate false, insincere feelings of love.

I’ll give everyone a moment to scoff, roll their eyes, or just stare blankly in confusion. I understand completely. What I just described sounds like something out of a Matrix-themed wedding that went horribly wrong. I wish I could say it was just another one of my not-so-sexy thought experiments. Unfortunately, this scenario reflects a serious issue that we may have to confront.

Think about what that lawyer had to do in that situation. Beyond the innate anxiety that comes along whenever a lawyer gets involved in a situation, especially if you’ve been skimping on your taxes, they’re tasked with the legal equivalent of making sure a Disney-style spell isn’t at work here. They have to, for the sake of the law and basic human dignity, that the love someone professes isn’t false.

Why would they even have to do that in the first place? Well, if you’ve been following along on this blog, you’ve noticed I’ve been talking a lot about the sincerity of love and how false perceptions may impact those powerful emotions. Even before that, I’ve talked about the prospect of enhancing the human brain and using those advances to make us sexier and more romantic.

These kinds of enhancements have so much potential to change the way we love, make love, and forge romantic commitments to one another. It may very well change the kinds of love stories we tell. For me, a guy trying to make his career in the erotica/romance industry, it’s kind of important that I follow these advances.

With every advance, however, comes various legal, ethical, and morally ambiguous headaches that quickly turn into migraines when you consider the implications. In that context, few advances have more implications than brain enhancement.

Considering how easy our brains are to fool, it makes sense to enhance this organ over all others. Yes, that means our genitals too, even though they’re already getting their share of enhancements. Every romantic and sexy feeling we’ve ever had or experience starts in our brain. Enhance that and everything we know about sex, love, and marriage goes out the window and into an incinerator.

A person with a brain implant is inherently capable of love, passion, and sex appeal that exceeds anything our natural biology can match. If you’d don’t believe me, then ask a woman about the efficiency of her vibrator compared to that of her lover. It’s not a fair comparison, to say the least.

Like any tool humans have ever made, we’ll use brain implants and brain enhancement to improve our lives. That includes are sex lives as well. There’s a reason why it’s a huge chunk of the pharmaceutical industry’s profits. That’s where the legal issues come into play, but not in the way you might think.

The second someone puts anything in their brain that resembles a computer, it inherently becomes subject to hacking. It’s an inescapable and often underreported pitfall of the digital age in which we all so eagerly partake. If it has a computer in it, then it can be hacked. Chances are, it has been hacked at one point, probably far more than you’d want to know.

That kind of hacking is hard enough to deal with. Once the computers go in our brains, though, then the stakes go up considerably. It’s one thing to hack a website and plaster it with gay porn or dead kittens. It’s quite another to hack someone’s brain and affect the way they think, feel, and behave.

I don’t doubt for a second that those behind the brain implant industry, such as Neuralink, will do everything they can to prevent this. I also don’t doubt that there will be other, less ethical individuals will work just as hard to frustrate those people. I’m sure Elon Musk has nightmares about the kind of horrors hackers will unleash with brain implants. It makes his desire to go to Mars almost seem logical.

As such, we’re going to need new laws on the books to govern the use and impact of brain implants. That tends to happen with every major advancement. From cars to computers, a civilized society needs some mechanism for governing new technology. With brain implants, though, that mechanism may get unusually personal.

Think back to that scenario I described earlier. Now, imagine one of the individuals getting married was that bitter ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend from high school. I’m talking about the kind of person who will set fire to a car and send dead animals in the mail to someone who refuses to reciprocate or affirm their emotions.

Imagine that kind of person knowing it was possible to induce false emotions in someone. Like the evil prince or witch in every Disney movie, they have a mechanism for casting a real, non-magical love spell on someone to make them feel exactly what they want them to feel. Unlike the world of Disney, though, it won’t be undone by kissing a toad.

Given the insane lengths to which people will go for love, it’s entirely plausible that someone would use a brain implant to create fake emotions in people who refuse to love them willingly. It’s also plausible that those same people will push that kind of brain hacking to insane degrees.

It means someone could effectively rewire their spouse’s brain so that they act as a slave. Their entire sense of identity, will, and autonomy is subverted. Their entire lives are effectively stolen and controlled by the hacker. While they would not realize this until their brain was un-hacked, assuming that was possible, it would be the most coercive, manipulative act it’s possible to do to another person.

Granted, there may be some societies that wouldn’t mind this sort of thing. I’m sure there are sociopathic dictators in the world who would love to hack the brain of every citizen into loving them without question. For most ordinary people who aren’t in charge of their own countries, though, it’s a terrifying thought.

That means it will probably be necessary for both industries like Neuralink and major governments to deal with this possibility. It’s hard to know what form that will take. Perhaps every brain implant will require some sort of kill-switch. Perhaps certain functions need to be sanctioned and re-sanctioned by a doctor or official.

It’s hard to say and I’m certainly not smart enough to figure it out. I imagine men like Elon Musk and Bill Gates have already given it way more thought than I ever will. Whatever form it takes, though, it will force us to change our understanding of love, sex, and how we relate to each other.

The stakes our high, but the situation is simple. If we’re going to love each other and make love to each other in enhanced ways, then we had damn well better be sure those feelings are ours and not those of some asshole hacker.

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Filed under Marriage and Relationships, Sexy Future

On Football, CTE, And Its (Not So) Bleak Future

When you love something a lot, you’ll make any excuse possible to keep loving it, no matter how unhealthy it may be. Whether it’s a toxic relationship or skydiving naked over the arctic, our desire to love and preserve such love knows no bounds. It’s a testament to the power of excuses and our capacity for excuse banking.

We’ve all loved something that may or may not be unhealthy, if not downright toxic, at some point in our lives. We may know in the back of our heads that it’s unhealthy. We may even admit it to someone. That still doesn’t stop us from loving it. We’ll still try to find a way to make that love work. Like an alcoholic or a heavy smoker in denial, we don’t want to admit its a problem. In the long run, it often comes back to hurt us.

I say all this because in recent years, there are a growing number of voices calling American football the new tobacco. Apparently, getting hit in the head by a bunch of 200-pound athletes is just as dangerous as inhaling smoke. In the same way smoking contributes to dreaded diseases like lung cancer, football contributes to a new dreaded disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

CTE has become the most dreaded three-letter acronym to football players since ACL. It is a new kind of disease, one that ravages the brain of former athletes. It causes all sorts of horrors such as headaches, memory loss, erratic behavior, dementia, tremors, vertigo, and suicidal tendencies. These are symptoms that can’t get more terrifying without involving explosive diarrhea.

It has already rocked the sport, so much so that it inspired a crappy Will Smith movie called “Concussion.” Sure, it tanked, but it helped raise awareness to the issue for fans and players alike. In wake of the deaths of several high-profile football players, including Hall of Famers like Ken Stabler and Junior Seau, it’s taken on a tragic element that cannot be ignored.

Then, just this past week, a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report that probably has everyone at NFL offices banging their heads against the wall, if only to provide a sense of irony. Of the 111 brains of former football players they studied, 110 showed signs of CTE. In terms of sheer math, you literally can’t get a correlation that more precise without being paid for by oil companies.

This has led many to speculate that football’s days are numbered. Never mind the fact that it’s still, by a wide margin, the most popular sport in America. Never mind the fact that it generates billions in revenue and has some of the most passionate fans of any sport. An issue like this is just too damaging. A disease as awful as CTE is bound to drive people away from this sport, right?

Okay, I’m going to stop with the dire doom-saying rhetoric and call a timeout on the whole conversation. I do so while freely admitting, and admitting proudly, that I love NFL football and football in general. It is my favorite sport. I build my entire Sundays around watching NFL games.

I acknowledge that it’s a violent sport, one that leads to major injuries for various players. I make no excuses in my love for that kind of gladiator-style violence. I’m as human as anyone else reading this blog. Violent sports appeal to the primal parts of our brains. Like admitting you love an extra orgasm every now and then, there’s nothing wrong with admitting you love contact sports.

Does that make fans and team owners bad people for promoting a sport that leads to such a terrible health ailment like CTE? The answer is no. It doesn’t, not unless you’re willing to say car companies and car buyers are terrible people for promoting a product that killed over 32,000 people in the United States alone in 2015.

However, football fans and the NFL can take comfort in the knowledge that car companies have already created a model for addressing issues like CTE. There was no getting around it, even during the days of Henry Ford. Cars could be very dangerous to those who drove them and drove them poorly. Early cars were basically steel death traps.

Since killing customers is never a good business practice, car companies invested heavily in new safety features. They developed now-standard features such as air bags, seat-belts, and even on-board computers that stop your car for you. Cars today are safer than they’ve ever been before.

So how does this help football? A car is different from a human brain by orders of magnitude. The sheer complexity of the human brain ensures that a helmet or an airbag just isn’t going to cut it in terms of protection. We barely understand how the damn thing works. How can we hope to protect it?

Well, keep in mind that people once said the same thing about mapping the human genome. The human brain isn’t some magical object that runs on wizard spells and unicorn farts. It’s a hunk of biomatter no bigger than a football, ironically enough. It operates on the basic rules of chemistry and biology. It’s not some rough-cut diamond wherein one single flaw means it can never be fixed.

The brain can and does heal itself. It has to in a chaotic world that most people struggle to process. Sure, the damage endured by football players is greater than most. You can say that about anyone who spends four hours out of the week putting a target on their head and inviting others to hit it. What you can’t say, however, is that the problem of damaged brains in contact sports is insurmountable.

We’re not talking about teaching quantum physics to a hamster, here. We’re talking about a physical problem with the human body. As flawed as the human body may be, it’s also fairly malleable. The brain is no exception.

Back in 2013, a kid in North Carolina had half his brain cut out to alleviate his debilitating seizures. There’s no amount of head trauma any football player could endure that’s akin to having half a brain cut out. However, the kid recovered and his brain was able to effectively rewire itself so he could live a fairly normal life. That’s because of a little thing called neuroplasticity.

That’s just a fancy technical way of saying the brain can rewire and repair itself. Given how humans adapted in an environment full of giant predators and coconuts falling from trees, we kind of need our brains to do that sort of thing. The only issue is we still don’t understand it. However, we do understand the horrific damage done by diseases like CTE.

Therein lies the flaw in debate surrounding the future of football. It deals with something with which we don’t have a clear understanding. Even those who participated in the CTE study clearly admitted that it had its flaws. One of the researchers said:

“Families don’t donate brains of their loved ones unless they’re concerned about the person. So all the players in this study, on some level, were symptomatic. That leaves you with a very skewed population.”

That’s entirely understandable and a common problem within the realm of science. However, that will do little to alleviate the fear and dread among football players and football fans. We’re already seeing some players retire early due to concerns about concussions. Who can blame them, though? It’s a scary thought, the idea that playing a sport you love will destroy your brain.

However, fear often obscures the lens of reality. Add doom-saying, such as those who think a multi-billion dollar industry like the NFL is going to die, and you can expect reality to disappear from the conversation. The truth, in a sense, is not something you’ll find in a Will Smith movie. It also gives football fans and football players reason to hope.

Since the problem of CTE is a physical health problem, then that means there is a medical solution. Sure, there’s a lot we don’t understand about the human brain or healing it, but you could’ve made that same argument back in the 80s when AIDS was first discovered. For a while, that was a true death sentence. Now, we have treatments that make the disease manageable.

Keep in mind, though, that diseases like AIDS didn’t have a multi-billion dollar industry like the NFL with huge incentives to develop such treatments. When there’s a problem to be solved and there’s a multi-billion dollar industry with an incentive to solve it, you can probably assume said industry will invest billions in treating that problem.

That means if you’re a brain researcher and you develop a treatment for concussions, you can expect a lot of money from the NFL and various sports organizations to support you. Hell, Jerry Jones from the Dallas Cowboys will probably fly you to a resort and have the Dallas Cheerleaders give you unlimited massages.

CTE is a major issue, but it’s a solvable issue. On top of preventative measures like better helmets, medical science can help. That same science is what cured Small Pox, Polio, and is on the verge of eliminating many diseases with tools like CRISPR. It’s more than up to the challenge to tackle something like CTE.

Now that awareness of the disease is growing, you can expect the NFL and medical science to start pressuring it. That’s why football is going to be okay. This isn’t like smoking. This isn’t like human sacrifice. This is a problem that can only be solved with better tools. Say what you will about the flaws in humanity. We’re still exceptionally good at certain things and making tools is one of them.

For the players playing now, it’s definitely scary. However, that’s only because there’s still plenty we don’t know. It’s not an insurmountable challenge though. It is possible to defy the odds. If anyone knows that better than most, it’s NFL players. Just ask the 2007 New York Giants.

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The (Hopeful) Features Of My Future Brain Implant

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In talking so much about the possibilities and implications of brain implants, like the ones Elon Musk wants to build with his new company, Neuralink, I’ve strained my own brain trying to grasp the bigger picture. I don’t know if that counts as irony, but it feels oddly appropriate.

It’s an exciting topic to write about and discuss. The idea that we may one day think beyond the limits of our crude, error-prone caveman brains is so intriguing. So many of the problems we face today, both as individuals and as a society, can be attributed in some way to our collective brain workings. What will happen to us an those around us when those workings are tweaked?

It’s hard, if not impossible, for us to know for certain. I’m sure someone like Elon Musk knows more than an aspiring erotica/romance writer like me. I’m sure he sees the same societal conflicts we all do and understands that his company, Neuralink, will be the first step towards transcending them.

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Having contemplated the bigger picture and all the implications that come with it, I thought I’d take a step back and try a different mental exercise. Hopefully, it’s one in which other regular readers of this blog can participate. It involves a much simpler, less mind-bending thought experiment. If you can make a Christmas list, you can participate.

It involves a simple question. If you could create your own advanced neural implant to tweak/enhance your brain, what kinds of features would it have? Take yourself 30 years into the future. Put yourself in a Neuralink clinic. Someone has kindly paid for the best, most customization neural implant on the market. What would you want it to do?

There are so many aspects of our lives that our brain controls. Everything from our attitudes, our competence, our happiness, and even our capacity to love others begins in our brains. Every skill we have or want to have requires some aid from the brain. Any effort to tweak or enhance that is going to affect all of those features.

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To get things started, I’ll share my own personal wish list. It will likely be different than everyone else’s to some extent, but I’m sure there will be some similarities to. So here’s Jack Fisher’s top features for his future neural implant. I hope Elon Musk is taking notes.

  • The ability to remember, recall, and comprehend anything on demand, ensuring nothing is forgotten.

  • The ability to do advanced math in my head so I can calculate complex financial decisions on the spot and/or check the claims made by others.

  • The ability to read over vast quantities of text, be it a novel or a user agreement, and retain the information at greater speeds.

  • The ability to revise and edit large quantities of text quickly and efficiently.

  • The ability to process emotions faster and read the emotional queues of others with far greater efficiency.

  • The ability to focus on a given task and not be easily distracted.

  • The ability to learn or download new languages on demand to facilitate communication with others.

  • The ability to learn or download new mental or physical skills on demand.

  • The removal of any prejudicial inclinations or irrational assumptions when encountering a new person or situation.

  • The ability to minimize the need for sleep and improving the quality of sleep.

  • The improvement and enhancement of sexual function, including the ability to perform and sustain sexual arousal, as well as the ability to experience more intimate sensations.

  • The ability to communicate directly with the minds of others with a similar neural implant in order to share experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

  • The ability to search the internet for new information with only thoughts.

  • The ability to link my mind with a computer and turn my thoughts into text or images.

I know this is a long list of reasons, some of which are more feasible than others. I’m sure features like memory and math skills will be among the first major features of neural implants. I imagine features that improve sexual function will be next. If any technology can improve sex, then that’s going to have priority. That’s just an inescapable fact.

Other features like downloading knowledge and skills will probably be trickier. I imagine we won’t have that ability for decades. However, there are still plenty of smaller, more subtler abilities that would definitely enhance our everyday lives. Just being able to focus better without the aid of dangerous ADHD drugs is a pretty big deal.

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That’s just my list though. What about everyone else? What would you want your advanced brain implant to do? How would you improve the functioning of your caveman brain? Please share your wish list in the comments. If you want to open up this discussion even more, let me know. I’ll be happy to expand it because it’s just that interesting/sexy.

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