Once upon a time, I wanted to kill my emotions.
Back when I was a Computer Science student, my emotions were as stable as the software I made: not. at. all. The emotional brain is sometimes called “the reptile brain”, so let's draw my emotions as a distracting dancing dinosaur. Its name is Chompy.
So that's roughly how neurons work. One neuron gets a signal, then it passes the signal down to its connected buddies, and so on, til the signal gets too weak and dies out. (Also, neurons that get strong signals act "grabby". More on this later.)
With just a different combination of connections, you can create any kind of mind, from Andy Warhol to Alan Turing, and there's something beautiful about that.
Meanwhile, my neurons got the “constant panic” combination.
And there you can see my vicious circle, literally as a circle. No wonder my code was crap, if Chompy was distracting me with destructive emotions.
Why couldn't I be Spock, or Sherlock, or any one of dozens of all-rational, anti-emotional role models? They don't have to deal with a reckless reptile brain. Many of my techie friends also wanted to be a machine -- heck, maybe you do too, coz this is a very common desire! I saw emotions as a problem, and there was only one solution:
Kill my emotions. Kill off the dinosaur.
...maybe then I could get some rest.
It was the first day of the school term.
I figured, if I wanted to kill my emotional reptile brain, I should learn some neuroscience, and that's when I'd have enough free time. Sat down with a neuroscience textbook and a can of Red Bull, tried to study it, felt dumb, hated myself, gave up, didn't learn squat.
Here's one thing I didn't learn: neurons acting "grabby". That's not a real scientific term. I made it up. Later I'll explain how this relates to learning, un-learning, and emotions, but first, note that only neurons that get strong, direct signals get grabby:
So if one neuron gets a strong signal, it'll stick out its grabby hands. And if soon afterwards, another neuron gets a strong signal, the first neuron will reach over and grab onto the second neuron, connecting them.
That is, to connect A→B, fire A, then fire B. Here, try it out for yourself. On Chompy.
And that's how we learn new neural connections. That's how we learn everything from academics to anxiety, programming to panicking, brains to badly-drawn-dinosaur-animating. So now, how do we un-learn stuff?
Lemme explain it like this: Let's say there's a connection from Neuron A to Neuron B. They're buddies. Neuron A gets a strong signal, and sticks its hands out for a high-five. Neuron B does not get a strong signal, and so does not stick its hands out. Neuron A is sad. “I thought we were friends,” it thinks, “Is there something wrong with me? Am I a bad neuron? Am I broken?...” Then the A→B connection shrinks.
Or in other words, to disconnect A→B, fire A, then DON'T fire B.
And that's it! Those are the two simple rules our neurons obey. With them, you can learn anything, and then totally forget it five seconds later. Neuroscientists call these rules Hebbian Learning and Anti-Hebbian Learning, and the biological process behind it is spike-timing-dependent plasticity.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that's why I just went with "grabby".
Now, what's interesting is when these two rules collide...
The A→C and B→C connections shrunk because you fired A without C, and B without C. And the B→A connection shrunk because you fired A then B, but not B then A. This explains why sometimes when you learn something new, it can "overwrite" a previous mental/emotional connection, for better or worse.
Now that you know how to connect and disconnect neurons as you please...
All this time, I'd thought Chompy, my emotional brain, was merely illogical. But as it turns out, Chompy just follows a different kind of logic, one based off those two simple rules.
See, maybe if my neuroscience textbook was interactive, I'd have understood my mind quicker. Or maybe if I wasn't so insecure about feeling dumb -- anxious that I always have to be perfect -- I'd have persisted with the textbook. Either way would've saved me the hassle of what was going to happen at the end of that school term.
It was the week after midterms.
My Chompy was acting up, coz I thought I screwed up one of the extra credit questions, and there was no way I'd get anything above a 95% on the Computer Science exam. God damn it. How could I have been so stupid?! I should've drunk more Red Bull before the test. I'm going to disappoint my professor, my family, my friends, everyone.
Speaking of disappointing people, here was the other reason I was nervous -- after midterms, the labs would involve collaboration & giving presentations. (What?! I thought the whole point of Compsci was to avoid talking to people!) I'm not sure where all my social anxiety came from, and I never will be, but I have a hunch...
This is called classical conditioning. By pairing one stimulus (like talking to my superior) with another (like shame and fear), you can condition someone to associate one with the other. As the first neuron rule goes, firing A then B makes A→B. Also note how my fear spread to all forms of social interaction, including one-on-one friendships and hanging out in groups. This is called stimulus generalization.
Of course, social anxiety has different causes for different people. This was just my experience. But in any case, understanding why I was screwed wouldn't make me any less screwed. The only way I knew how not to panic, other than killing Chompy, was to avoid stressful situations.
For example, avoiding this stressful situation:
Makes sense, right? To avoid getting stressed, avoid stressful situations. But I couldn't avoid the upcoming group assignments and class presentations. Maybe if I did the work for the entire group... and pretended I was sick on every presentation day...?
Oh who was I kidding. This was going to mess me and Chompy up. Let's get it over with.
Huh. I was anxious at first, but then... some of my fear connections vanished. Not all of them, I was still scared of talking to my bosses and teachers, but still, progress.
This is called extinction, when you un-train a conditioned response. I guess I'd never gotten past the first high-stress stage, because of my seemingly-logical habit of avoiding stressful situations. But as we saw earlier, Chompy follows a different logic. Firing A without B disconnects A→B, therefore, talking to people in a safe space helps to un-train one's social anxiety. (Note: The "safe" part is important. Otherwise, you'd be reinforcing the fear. Don't go facing your fears willy-nilly, but do face them.)
By Chompy's paradoxical logic, the best way to avoid fear is to not avoid it.
I recently learnt this was called exposure therapy, which is one of the most effective, evidence-backed treatments for phobias, PTSD, and other anxiety disorders.
This was great news! Now, I knew that Chompy was beatable. Which meant that I could successfully kill my emotions, just in time for the finals! So I whipped out the textbooks, bought six-packs of Red Bulls, and got ready to kill off the dinosaur, once and for all.
Thank you for play-read-test-whatever-ing I'd Like To Be A Machine! There's more to come. Act III will be on bad habits & operant conditioning, then there's one more final chapter on how I learned to not fight against my emotions, but to work with them.
Please let me know what you liked, or disliked, or found confusing. Remember, if something was confusing, it's my fault as a communicator, not yours, and I need you to be honest about whatever possible flaws are here, so I can fix them! If this works, hopefully, it can help reach the anxious people who need this the most.
~ Nicky Case