Better Living Through Chemistry: Notes from Chemically Induced Depression Part 3 of 6 (Having to Think Slowly)

This pervasive, grinding ennui exhausted me.

It also challenged most of what I thought I knew about clinical depression, which I had studied while getting an undergraduate Psychology degree. I’d read about the exhaustion, the feelings of pointlessness, but had always conflated that with what I had personally experienced as feeling down, blue, bummed, hurt, let down, disappointed, fearful—yet my current state bore no semblance to any emotion I’d faced. To any emotion whatsoever.

Rather as I moved limply through the hours of my waking day, I felt nothing at all. As if emotion had been severed from me—all desire, all displeasure, and every shade of feeling in between.

Now that I have lived it, I’ve discovered a vocabulary of effects that lets me put my head around this form of depression. With this same vocabulary of effects, I can bring back a meaningful description of this mind space, for which one cannot rely on previous feelings, no matter how despairing or abyssal they might be.

Two key ideas provide the vocabulary to describe how draining life becomes without affect: thinking fast and slow and decision fatigue.

To simplify Kahneman’s theory, we have two thinking systems.

One is fast, automatic, subconscious, frequent and emotional. This captures most of what a person moving through the daily routine of life does—simply acts on a wide variety of things without deliberation, without consideration of alternatives or possible side effects, such as discerning the location of a specific sound, reading a passing sign, displaying disgust at a gruesome image.

The other system is slow, effortful, logical, calculating, and conscious. This captures what people do infrequently—weighing pros and cons, considering the consequences of making a particular decision, things such as bracing oneself before the start of a sprint, digging into memory to recognize a sound or smell, counting the number of ls in a text, determining the validity of a logical argument, or choosing which of two computer systems to buy.

A crucial difference is the role of emotion.

The fast system relies heavily on desire and aversion, simple emotional responses to quickly and unconsciously sort out what to pay attention to and how to deal with it: this automatic decision making relies on heuristics built up over time to handle the vast majority of life’s daily needs, and essentially involves no thinking.

When one has no emotional connection to anything, this fast system short circuits; one cannot access the automatic, unconscious ability to just act, to handle all the routine, necessary, daily actions. Now EVERYTHING requires slow thinking—the effortful, logical, calculating weighing of costs and benefits and possible and probable consequences. Actions that would once have been taken now grow into long lists of hows with requisite whys and each step along the path needs to be thought out: snooze button or not. Must I get up now? Must I throw the covers off, or roll out. Why do I have to get up at all? What would happen if I didn’t? I wouldn’t have to decide what to wear, or make coffee, or butter my toast. Gone are all the heuristics we’ve relied upon.

Nothing is automatic. Every action from waking to sleep becomes effortful.

This in itself illustrates prima facie how exhausting life becomes when one must deliberate over even the most simple of choices.

Yet, this fails to plumb the true depths of the mental drain that constant decision making causes. Only Decision Fatigue reaches all the way down.

Next, Part 4 of 6: Inscrutable Chemistry and the 6%.

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