Mood In A Pill

Dan asked this for the next Friday Five:

Dr. Feelgood has unlocked the primal secrets of mood altering drugs and can now induce any emotion or mental state with no undesired side effects, so he’s trolling the internet to find which drugs to make first. Which five moods/emotions/mental-states would you most want to have available in pill form, and when would you tend to use them? Note that these aren’t necessarily the moods/etc. that you most enjoy, just the ones that you most want to have available on-demand.

This, of course, is the kind of question that is very, very tricky. If you haven’t thought the issue of self-modification in the area of neurology or neurochemistry, then you haven’t considered what kinds of advances science has made in the last twenty years or so. You’ve also clearly never dealt with any kind of mental illness, which is one of the reasons that I strongly believe that the development of such self-modification technology should continue: it’s like with stem-cell research, really. Whenever I hear some heartless religious nut say that they’re opposed to stem-cell research (and it’s usually religious nuts who say this), I point out that they’re consigning others to lives of suffering on the basis of their personal beliefs. Try walking in the shoes of the guy with massive physical birth defects, or severe mental retardation. Try being born a thalidomide baby with no arms, and then tell me you still oppose stem-cell research. To think anyone could is a failure of the imagination. And so it is with self-neuromodification.

That said, the message of Greg Egan‘s writing, throughout his short story collections, is clear—and I mention him specifically as he’s been the most interesting writer I’ve encountered in this area of speculation. Many of his stories examine the wonders, and dangers, and implications, of whatever kinds of self-modification we develop, especially the ability to modify our own minds. We should be careful, of course. We should take care not to introduce sloppy hacks into an operating system millions of years old. But we also have to admit that the OS is buggy, and improvements are possible. Otherwise we wouldn’t have all the mental illnesses we do, all that suffering. I don’t think such treatments could cure crime, or violence, or other social problems, but I do believe that by healing more personal ills, the world (and life in it) could become better for the vast majority of people.

I’m tempted to write two lists of “moods-in-a-pill”, therefore: one for our society, and one for me personally. But the original question asked for which modds-in-a-pill I would personally want to have, so I’m going to go ahead and get personal.

  • Acceptance. I have a hard time accepting a lot of things, and it stresses me out to the point where I cannot sleep sometimes. It hasn’t happened to me lately, of course, but it has happened in the past. Eventually, I find, I usually do accept reality, but what a long, long struggle. Sometimes very pointless, as well. This might wear off, but the feeling of acceptance might allow me to truly accept whatever problem it is I’m dealing with more easily.
  • That clear-mindedness that precedes a really good writing session. I think half the job of being a writer is learning to forget all the stuff you’ll need to remember tomorrow, setting it aside so you can plunge into another world. Of course, that’s hard when you are also working a job, and taking care of all kinds of other side-projects. I would sure love to be able to get a little help inducing that, though I’m getting better at it with age.
  • An intimation of the feeling one gets after exercise. It’s arguable that if one could have that feeling on demand, one would not exercise, so I just want an hint of it. Because after exercising, one feels really, really good. It’d be like a taste of the candy, incentive to go cycling or get my ass down to the pool on the days when it’s really hard to make myself do so.
  • The feeling of struggling with something I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to do. At the office, there are a range of views about the students we teach in our one-credit, required courses. There are a few people who are idealists or optimists, finding earnest and joyful students in far greater quantities than I’ve ever seen; there are a few who speak of our job as basically babysitting of adults—and I’m often lumped into that group, though my view is a little less so harsh than that. I have to find meaning in my work or I’ll be completely miserable, it’s just that I find meaning outside of the forms and structures provided by the institution itself. I teach not to the middle, because the middle is sitting there thinking about something else, carefully tracking their attendance because they know they’re unlikely to outright fail if their attendance is good, no matter how poorly they do in class, unless their test is horrible and their attitudes are outright hostile. (And there are a few idiots every semester who decide to be both hostile in class, and lazy enough to not study at all and be unable to form even a single sentence during their spoken English exams.) Now, I generally say that I’m teaching to the one percent of students who care, but you know, given my numbers of students I hope it’s more than 1%, which would be 3 students. My writing class is full of kids who care, as are a couple of other classes, and there’s usually a c couple in all but the worst classes who will try stretch a little.

    Well, I noticed something in the Music class this week. This is outright my worst class, impossible to handle, impossible to discipline, nearly completely unresponsive, terrible in terms of attendance, rotten in attitude. Even the best students leagures behind even my second-worst class, and after two years in and English program most of them are still making two-word answers instead of full sentences, when I ask them questions.

    But the other day, I was reviewing the semester’s materials with them, because I’m testing them next week. And what came to my attention? There were a few of the music girls who were trying hard to come up with decent answers to questions. It’s only, really, about two-thirds of that class that is lazyasses, and who deserve to fail. Some of the quiet girls actually were listening intently, following along, and they fit into the category that the Physical Education boys in the class fit into: shy, reticent to speak and to make a mistake, but, well, sorta-kinda trying.

    It makes me think of the times I took French in middle school, and I was bored by the whole process, by the crappiness of being taught the same damn shit year after year by a somewhat rude and belliegerent teacher. Nothing could have made me want to improve my French while I was in that program. Of course, I did study, and I did well enough on exams: I spoke when asked questions, and made sentences. They weren’t great, but they were sentences, or attempts.

    But it occurs to me that my teacher’s antipathy was probably spurred by the majority of students who didn’t give a damn, who never practiced or studied at all, and who generally just sucked. And his antipathy helped to increase my own. Well, I’m sure that some of the horrible feelings I have in relation to my Music Class became obvious to them. I had to kick students out every class just to make the point that they needed to stop chatting freely in Korean while I was teaching them. More than once I told them they NEEDED to bring pencils and paper to class, and I finally told them they were worse than elementary schoolkids in this respect, and in others.

    The breaking point was when most of them decided not to turn up for class because some senior student had scheduled choir rehearsal during our class. I told them they’d lose attendance points for every class skipped and that the maximum of 7 absences was still in effect, which they protested and whined about like children.

    But the thing I discovered was, there was a small minority in the class—perhaps not surprisingly, mostly the students left behind when all the choir members were gone—who actually tried in class, who made conversation and did something other than giggle stupidly after saying a single-word response in English. The Phys Ed boys were good, for example; the woodwind majors and the odd pianist actually tried, in a smaller class. One of the art majors, though hopeless, did her best. And a clarinet player surprised me as being one of the most willing to try, even at the risk of goofing up.

    And I realized I’d wasted time and energy on the fools who didn’t even know enough to shut up in class, if they didn’t want to pay attention. (Perfect attendance + bad attitude + bad test performance = F in my books, where perfect attendance + good attitude + iffy test performance isn’t necessarily an F.) I should have told them they were free to leave if not listening. I should have kicked out anyone who was obviously not listening. I should have booted ever damn idiot who dared jump into a long conversation in Korean while I was explaining this or that grammar point.

    Not to come off as a tough teacher, but to be able to help those people who are above the middle. Because there is a small minority besides the ones who do try hard, those who could try hard and get lost in the static and noise of the crappy students who make up the bulk of that one worst class I have every semester.

    For those people, I’ll boot out the losers who ruin classes. For those people, I’ll kick out the twits who breed an environment of general unwillingness to even try. For those people, I’d take this pill, the better to remember how it feels to kinda-sorta struggle with something difficult as hell, among people who aren’t even bothering at all.

  • The feeling of familiarity I get when surrounded by anglophones. I think this pill could be very useful for my own language study, actually, though it’s not why I thought of the idea. I remember, from Montreal, the feeling of, “Aaaaaaaah…” that I got hearing English spoken by a native speaker for the first time in a work-week. It was like slipping into a warm, comfortable pool of water and feeling very soft and clean again, after the raggedness of hearing French all the time, and a little English spoken very simply. Sometimes I want to use long words and complex sentences, I want to make cultural references but nobody will get them. Evene when I can basically express those ideas in another language, there’s something unique and comforting about expressing them in English. And really, I sometimes crave that familiar relieved feeling I get when I can speak completely naturally. (I don’t know many Koreans, besides Lime, my friend Sang Joon, Kim’s wife Chai, and a few others, with whom I can speak this way. Meanwhile, the foreigners I know mainly talk about sports, complain about Korea, or are very busy.) Well, if you can’t fly to Canada or America every month, you could take this pill as often as you like. And probably, when you’re trying to convince yourself to relax and enjoy learning a language, it’d help to be able to take a pill that induced a false sense of familiarity with it. (This, after all, is why I would drink a little beer when practicing French with a classmate. It got me more relaxed, more comfortable, and more willing to goof up or say something stupid.)

Please note, however, that I am not sure these would all be the most useful pills to societies in general. I think if I were running a company working in development of such things, a different list would head the R&D Directives Documents. It’d probably include such things as “Compassion”, “Questioning of Authority”, “Skepticism”, “Healthy Doubt”, and “Attentiveness”. Of course, optimally people would just cultivate these things in themselves, and I’m sad to say I think it’ll never be any easier than that. But as far as having any kinds of emotions, attitudes, or mental states available on demand, these are what I think might be most useful (and least destabilizing) for a society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *