Chemicals and Electricity

bylionhearted8y9th May 201118 comments


I'm doing some work for an old friend of mine.

His situation is interesting. Not too long ago, he lost his job and got divorced, and otherwise his life got pretty screwed up and off-track.

He left the United States, took a job below his old skill level for a while, and then stopped that and started a company. Now he's living an exceptional life, and on the verge of making a lot of money.

I thought that was awesome, and I was quite happy for him. After we'd gotten done going through a lot of numbers, choosing some vendors, designing some systems, and otherwise figuring business out on the phone, we talked personal life. I said, "Man, I'm so happy for you. So much is going right. Congratulations."

He wasn't excited. He was a little worried.

He said, "Sebastian, man... I hope I don't change. I like who I am right now, I hope this doesn't change me."

And you know what?

His fears are valid. He's going to change.

Almost guaranteed.


Eliezer cover why power corrupts in the appropriately titled, "Why Does Power Corrupt?"

But to understand the nature of this, you have to realize something that's (1) entirely true, (2) potentially unpleasant, (3) not thought about very often, and (4) has the risk of "not even seeming profound" when it's said -- despite the importance of it.

That is:

You're a bunch of chemicals and electricity.

Well, that's slightly imprecise. You're actually matter and energy. But give me some slack with terms, because chemicals and electricity are going to get the point across more elegantly.

There's an illusion that we're in control of our actions, and that all of them are consciously chosen. I do think we have a tremendous amount of control over our lives, moreso than most people realize. But that control comes over relatively long periods of time, not minute-by-minute.

Minute-by-minute, your thinking and actions are the product of the matter and energy that is you moving around and interacting. Specifically, your biochemicals and electricity in your brain have a huge impact on your thoughts and actions.

Reading "Take a Nap, Change Your Life" by Dr. Sara Mednick really opened up my perspective on this. I read the book while I was researching getting more productivity and creativity out of napping, and I was looking right to her recommendations for better sleep and sleep cycles.

But she goes into neurochemistry and how the brain works in the book a lot as well. One line that stood out to me is, "Neurons that fire together become wired together."

The more you think a certain way or do a certain task, the closer the neuron pathways in your brain become wired, and the faster and more reflectively you can do that task - and with less cognitive cost

That's good news if you want to learn to play the flute, and bad news if you want to stop eating so many Cheetos.

Likewise, the mechanism of action for caffeine is that it's an adenosine antagonist. To make a long story really short, adenosine is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel tired. Caffeine molecules are shaped similar to adenosine and get in the way of it, "blocking" the adenosine from getting to an adenosine receptor.

Some other things happen, it's more complicated than that. But basically - caffeine's primary mechanism of action is that it makes you think you're not sleepy by blocking the thing that tells you you're sleepy.

Testosterone is one of the more famous hormones. A lot of studies suggest a link between aggression and testosterone.

While I'm a sample size of exactly one, I've found testosterone correlates highly with aggression in myself. It's notable enough that I actually try to change my fitness cycles so that I'm higher testosterone when I'm doing tasks that need aggression, assertiveness, or persistence - things like sales, negotiation, or training in martial arts. I try to lose weight and eat a caloric deficit when more assertiveness wouldn't be especially helpful, and try to eat a caloric surplus and lift weights when it would.


What the "chemicals and electricity view of humans" says, basically, is that your short term thoughts and actions are chemical/electrical reactions. When your inputs change, your chemicals and electricity are modified.

If you do a task a lot, the neurons wire together and fire easier.

If you take caffeine, it blocks adenosine receptors and you feel more awake.

If you increase your testosterone, assertive behaviors might come easier.

When "someone changes," it's partially a function of their chemicals and electricity changing. Being in a dangerous country and needing to be at high awareness is going to affect your biochemistry, which is going to affect your thoughts and actions. Becoming more wealthy is going to affect your biochemistry, which is going to affect your thoughts and actions.

You can mediate this to some extent. Changing your interpretation of events definitely changes your potential internal chemical reactions to them. When I hear that the Memphis Grizzlies basketball team defeated the San Antonio Spurs, I feel neutral. But a Spurs fan might feel some malaise and have his happiness and energy promoting biochemicals drop, whereas a Grizzlies fan might be getting crazily excited.

If you were neutral but moved to San Antonio or Memphis, you might have a different reaction to the event. Things are under your control to some extent, in terms of processing how you want to react to things - but in my opinion, mostly only on longer term time scales. If you'd been devotedly following the Spurs this season, you're going to feel bad when they were eliminated.

This suggests that you could anticipate changes that would happen, and change your processing to them... but it's probably not easy to do. Absolute power and all...

My friend's chemistry and electricity is going to change - he's in charge now, which brings its own host of benefits and neuroses with it. He's going to be wealthy, which changes you. He's in a foreign country and a different ethnicity of the people there, so he stands out, and that changes you.

This isn't all conscious. A lot of it isn't. But the inputs you have into your life affect you. Your hormonal balance and biochemistry and other chemicals and matter are affected by what happens around you, to you, what you ingest, your environment, and what you do. This makes it likely you'll take or not take other kinds of actions, which has a feedback loop in your thoughts - the neurons fire more often, and wire together, making them easier to fire.

When things around you change, you're going to change. There's an illusion of a great deal of control over our moment by moment thinking. I agree we have a lot of control over our lives, but it's only on a long term scale - and some of the largest gains in control are from controlling the inputs that affect your chemicals and electricity.