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By Madeline Perez 

I feel that every moment I need to be productive. Being productive enables me to excuse my own existence– I had a good day if I furthered my education – maybe improved a skill, or made some money. I force myself to read books or play video games that I don’t necessarily feel interested in just so I can get a sense of completing something or having a “worthwhile experience.” I want to culture myself. I want to seem talented. I need to be good at everything I’m interested in because otherwise, I’m wasting my life. I need to be constantly entertaining or insightful to the people around me because otherwise, why would they stay? Aren’t they, too, entitled to constant entertainment?  

I feel entitled to constant stimulation. When I try to fall asleep, I listen to music or videos so I don’t accidentally waste an hour or two of my life sitting in silence. Quiet makes me anxious, and on bad days I wouldn’t dare expose myself to something as dangerous as silence. I get antsy when I’m bored and I get bored quickly, which is annoying because if I’m going to have a break from doing work it should be the most enjoyable, entertaining break possible. Right when I wake up, I feel the need to engage myself with something. Brushing my teeth and eating breakfast without some sort of noise is boring, and there is something so rewarding about watching something while eating. It’s killing two birds with one stone to free up more time for productivity. If I get relaxing out of the way in the margins of my day, then surely, I can be more focused on things I need to do later. 

I want to live simpler. I want to feel like I’m allowed to exist without having to prove I’m worth the space. I want to go back to before all of human information, media, entertainment, and social interactions were in a little rectangular box everyone keeps on them at all times. Back when all the food you could buy was real and not pumped full of shit that will kill you. Back when kids in my neighborhood would run around outside, when now they’re too shy to knock on a door and would rather play video games like Fortnite. Yes, I am aware I sound like a boomer reciting “it’s because of that damn phone!” But honestly—I fully believe it is. Most of this, anyway. I believe that the needs fulfilled by real-life human interaction and community contribution are being replaced with the dopaminergic rush of looking at memes on social media and binge-watching anime alone in your dorm room. And how could it not be? Compared to the strides of music, media, and entertainment, my dream Little-house-on-the-prairie-inspired life never had a fighting chance. 

I once said that the most pretentious thing a human being could possibly do is reference David Foster Wallace while criticizing some societal issue. I still hold that belief. Anyway, in a 2003 interview with the German television station, ZDF, David Foster Wallace briefly shared some of his beliefs on silence and our growing culture of instant gratification. “When you walk into most public spaces in America it isn’t quiet anymore, they pipe music through… but it seems significant that we don’t want things to be quiet ever, anymore.” Listening to this interview, I felt very attacked, especially since I was using it for background noise while folding laundry. “Uh oh… he’s talking about me,” I so-bravely thought. It seems true, though. It’s normal to drown yourself in music nowadays. People go about their day listening to podcasts and music and god knows what else technology has to offer. “But before that, it was news paper and book!!” you taunt, outsmarting me. I don’t think so. People can still talk to you when you’re reading, but headphone-wearing has just about become the universal sign for Do Not Disturb. 

I feel like this topic of constant noise has been exacerbated to include the modern-day never-ending slew of memes and videos thrown at you on apps like Instagram and TikTok, as you scroll on and on… forever. It’s incredibly addicting. I keep going through periods of deleting Instagram because, again, my thing about wasting time, and I find myself unconsciously looking in the place the app used to be, and mindlessly clicking on other random apps hoping for the same breed of satisfaction. “Hmmm… is there anything fun on my period tracker app today?” And that scares me. Why do I do that? A lot of people talk about how their attention span is ruined because of social media, but it’s ruined far more than that. The enjoyment we derive from quality time with friends and engaging in hobbies is being eclipsed by media specifically designed to capture our attention and hold it for hours. Our health and happiness are at stake, yet memes managed to ruin us. 

Over the last century, ad companies, corporations, and every other institution controlling us like puppets have gotten better at using our own evolutionary strategies against us. We are designed to seek out sweet, fatty, and salty foods so that our bodies have the caloric power to keep on living and the salt to electrochemically function. BAM. Big Mac and Milkshake. Foods so sweet, fatty, and salty, that you would never in 1000 years be able to reproduce the flavor without chemicals made in a lab. Something that plays into our evolutionary need so well that it can’t possibly be real, but somehow you want it more than the real stuff. A supernormal stimulus is just that: something that is so exaggeratedly appealing to our evolutionary sense that it’s almost irresistible. Think of Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If a woman had those proportions, she would simply die from lack of internal organs–that is, if she survived the cracking of her spine due to the sheer weight of her breasts. Still, that doesn’t stop her from being wanted by most everyone who sets eyes on her, man, woman, or otherwise. Our evolutionary “neuron activation” that gets triggered when we’re presented with things that remind us of food, sex, and Webkinz is only being used to push us into the arms of corporate America, and we, dear readers, are the product. 

In 1954, a study aiming to find a biological reward center was performed by James Olds and Peter Milner, published under the name “Pleasure Centers in the Brain.” So basically, they took some electrodes and implanted them in the septal area of some rat brains. I know, riveting, but you have to stay with me. The rats had a lever that, when pushed, would electrically stimulate the nucleus accumbens. This area of the brain plays a critical role in reinforcement, and dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens is the reason why natural reinforcers like sex, food, or being complimented by the math teacher on your last test grade make you feel good. This process is also why certain drugs like heroin, nicotine, or cocaine make you feel good. What was crucial about this study was that the rats began pushing that electrode level incessantly. They pressed it as many as 7,000 times per hour. Subsequent experiments showed that they would ignore food when starved, water when deprived, even sexy lady rats in their area who want to cheat on their rat husbands– all for that sweet, sweet lever press. Rats would stand on electrified floors, continuously stay awake–female rats would ignore their newborns… it wasn’t pretty. If left to their own devices, the rats would keep frantically pushing that lever like an intense game of Galaga until they died of starvation, surrounded by food. 

Now, “What does that have to do with me? I’m no rat,” you’re thinking, deeply puzzled. Well, when unethically tested on a human in 1972, we saw the same outcome. Surprisingly, this is supposed to relate back to my topic on how obsessive self-gratification and overstimulation are keeping us from leading truly happy, satisfying lives. You see, you are like this rat. Your brain is getting addicted to a constant stream of stuff. Products, especially things on the internet like social media, video games, and porn, that are really really good at being enjoyable are preventing you from spending time doing things that are good for you, mentally. “But quick boosts of dopamine taste so good to my brain mouth!” you’re shouting at me, basically yelling at this point. I understand. They taste good to me too, but I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that they’re giving me type two brain diabetes and if I continue I’m probably going to lose a brain foot. 

Those with chronic dopaminergic deficits, like ADHD or depressive disorders, are more likely to fall prey to these behaviors. More specifically, behaviors that provide a short-term dopamine increase (including an increased risk for addiction and substance abuse.) While the internet can be a helpful, intense distraction for when the mind is “running wild,” a meta-analysis I wrote on peer-reviewed studies evaluating a link between social media and anxiety/depression found that these sites only worsened side effects in the long term.  And the very worst part about spending so much time online? It’s just made up. Like seriously, none of it’s real I swear. 

So, I said a lot of things here. That much is true. But what to do about these things? What can be done, especially in a society where things like unhealthy foods and excessive screen time are forced upon you? Well, you can try to incorporate more SMART goals in your life–a fun acronym which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Goals, that is. But for real, self-discipline is the most important skill you can learn because I truly believe it will set you free. Free to do more things that aren’t based around instant gratification, but will make you more self-satisfied in the long run. You don’t have to fill your life with meaningless noise constantly and no, I am NOT projecting! Learn to accept the silence. Maybe you’ll eventually come to appreciate it. Or don’t listen to me–after all, I am just a bunch of words on a piece of paper. 

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