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Face Your Fears

I once met a bunch of skydivers at a pizza parlor in Ocean City, Maryland. They amazed me because they were all in the grip of some elation. I found out that they had spent the day doing a big skydiving event, so one would naturally think that after landing, one would be feeling pretty good. I actually asked if I could buy one of their caps, nice baseball caps that just said “Elsinore.” They were too proud of the caps to let them go, and they were some kind of marker for these guys (which I am using in the generic sense of “you guys” as they weren’t all male). I just wanted one as we would be doing “Finding Hamlet” at our College orientation, and I’d given the kid playing Hamlet my Wittenberg College t-shirt the previous year, and thought this might be even better. Apparently “Elsinore” is a big drop-zone in California.

Their elation wasn’t just about feeling good after a performance, or from safely landing after skydiving. Yes, one might feel pretty wonderful after landing, but it turns out that feeling gets even better the more you do it. Why? Our nervous systems are organized into any number of opponents, from excitatory and inhibitory neurons, to the opposition between the Fight-Flight and the Rest-and-Repair parts of our autonomic nervous systems, to the balances in our bodies between any number of exciting and damping functions. Think about the relationship between flexor and extensor muscles. If you flex a muscle, you tense the flexor and relax the extensor, but you can relax both and just let a limb hang, or you can increas the tension of both, like when you do isometric exercises.

Opponent processes can help us understand things from the nastiness of addictions to how we might live happier lives.

Richard Solomon developed an “Opponent Process Theory” in the 1980s that helps understand this. It turns out that to whatever stimulus your body is reacting, part of how it does so is by opposing the effects of the stimulus.

If you imagine the effects of a stimulus as a kind of a square curve, the excitation rises fairly quickly to a plateau, then tails off pretty quickly to asymptote when stimulus comes to an end. Meantime, your nervous system is generating an opponent process, an inhibition that starts after the onset of the stimulus, and doesn’t reach as extreme of a plateau, and then asymptotes from the opposite direction toward baseline. Your experienced emotion is a summation of these two effects, so your level of excitation rises quickly at first, but then comes down a step, still well above baseline, as your nervous system’s opponent process tries to balance things out. After the stimulus ceases, the excitation is gone, but the negative effect of the opponent process, still returning to baseline produces a negative trough in your experience.

Imagine the first time you get inebriated, or your first shot of heroin. There is an initial peak in the high, which then settles down into a “happy place” plateau, but then when the inebriant, or the heroin wears off, you feel bad, and the negative trough represents a hangover, or withdrawal symptoms. You might imagine the same kind of graph upon seeing your new love: Your initial elation upon seeing him or her, your excitement and rapid heartbeat, quickly settles into the happy glow of merely being with them, but you feel bad when they leave.

The problem is, with repeated experiences of the same stimulus, your body is learning to respond more effectively, the initial high isn’t as great, and the plateau, while above baseline, may not be by very much, but the negative trough at the cessation of the stimulus is now actually much worse.

It is that deeper negative trough that makes you want to repeat the stimulus, and at least get back to baseline. Hence, addiction. The stimulus still produces a positive effect, but not by much, while the absence of it feels horrible.

Now, I’m not saying that every time you do something that makes you feel good you are at risk of addiction, but these risks exist with many, many enjoyable experiences, that you need to come back to again and again, increase the dosage, and feel worse when the substance, the activity, or the person is no longer there, no longer providing stimulation. Some of the stimulation is about novelty, too, about the stimulation of the unexpected, which