Chemicals and Electricity

by lionhearted5 min read9th May 201118 comments


Personal Blog

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.


18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:26 PM
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When I started depression treatment my wife expressed a concern that it might change my personality.

I reminded her that was the whole point.

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.

This is an entirely wrong metaphor, for the reasons described in Explaining vs. Explaining Away and Angry Atoms. The fact that you consist of atoms or cells or ants or telepathic dogs doesn't tell anything about the amount of control you have over your decisions, minute-by-minute or in the long term.

I thought the OP was making the point that we're not self-modifiable software stored in byte-addressable memory, so much of how our brains work and how they change over time are not under our direct conscious control.

And he also made the point that if we want to take some conscious control, we may need to use a very kludgy pathway - for example, pumping iron before making a sales call so as to increase testosterone levels.

I suspect that what V_N is reacting negatively to is the naive-seeming use of words like "electricity" and "chemicals" in the posting as if they were two powerful, but mysterious brands of magic. But I didn't see anything objectionable in what the posting actually said.

It's true that control we have is limited, but a condition like "biochemicals have a huge impact of your thoughts" doesn't in itself argue for that claim, because the biochemicals could be implementing your own decisions. Compare with "the random seed has a huge impact on which solution a randomized algorithm will choose".

The OP did give a couple of examples (caffeine, testosterone) which I think made his point clearer: we are heavily influenced by biochemicals in ways that can not be considered part of a rational decision algorithm, and we can indirectly change how our brains work (and make ourselves more rational) by understanding such influences and exerting control over levels of such chemicals.

The character and extent of this influence are the central questions, and these were not addressed. There is a huge number of factors that influence my decisions in irrelevant ways. I type a letter on the keyboard 100 milliseconds earlier or later; make a typo and then correct it or not make it at all. I read a comment containing some text, and have completely different thoughts depending on the text.

These factors control which actions I take and which thoughts I have, but they don't exert a systematic influence over relevant metrics of my decisions. Likewise, even though coffee has a systematic influence on a relevant metric of my activity, the extent of this influence is insignificant on the scale of decisions that I take based on other considerations.

The arguments given in the post don't support its claims, even if the claims are in some sense correct (I believe so), and the arguments describe true facts.

Out of interest, has any research been done into ways to avoid the whole 'power corrupts' effect other than 'shun power'?

When things around you change, you're going to change.

Also when things around you... don't. The future is a foreign country.

This post would be way better if you offered some specific predictions about the changes that are about to come over your friend.

I would suggest that he look into the scientific literature on the relationship between social power and psychology. If he wants to avoid the changes to his own psychology, it may help to know what to expect, so he can try to moderate his behavior.

You make your case vividly. It points to a difficulty which arises, I think, in a number of recent LW posts.

We have two conceptions of ourselves which on the face of it are not compatible. On the one hand we think of ourselves as mere physical objects, albeit highly structured and dynamical objects, buffeted by the vicissitudes of environment and the laws of nature, and not in any deep way different than any other physical system in nature. On the other hand, we think of ourselves as agents, in control of our actions and properly subject to appraisal as more or less rational. I get that your point is that 'you' -the agent- play(s) no part in a certain class of actions, as these are determined entirely by physiological factors. Once this rock is got rolling (I mean, the explanation of behaviours in purely non-intentional, electro-chemical terms), however, how can it be stopped before it takes out every vestige of agency? That is, how do you delineate the class of actions which 'you' really do participate in, once you acknowledge 'you' are wholly unnecessary to the explanation of some? Where do you dig in your heels and insist on an explanatory role for an agent, and what sort of a thing will this agent be, in this context?

One alterative to the picture I think you're suggesting (an alternative recommended in one version, eg, by Daniel Dennett in ''The Intentional Stance'') is to recognize that we have different, mutually incompatible ways of understanding and explaining ourselves. In one explanatory idiom, only scientifically respectable -ie verifiable- claims are made - we're just chemicals and electricity. No place is made for agency, and the notion of an action's being rational or in any even weak sense good or bad is as foreign as it would be to ascribe such properties to the internal changes of a single-celled organism.

In another explanatory idiom (used when we take the intentional stance), we do perceive people as agents with purposes and beliefs and desires, and explain their actions in terms of these together with the assumption of some measure of rationality. In this idiom, however, we do find agency even in the smallest actions, assuming these are not simply reflexive (a sneeze, say).

The point, though, is that the explanatory idioms are not mutually reducible - they're 'incommensurable', if you like. You don't try to reduce the terms of the latter to the former, because there is no way of fitting purposes or beliefs or desires or the agents who harbour them into the purely, merely physical world.

They are neither incompatible nor incommensurable. They are different levels of description. The levels of complexity are so different that it is not useful (nor, with our current level of knowledge, possible) to reduce the agent-level to the physical level; but the agent-level is theoretically and necessarily reducible to the physical level, even if we don't currently know in detail how to do it. And a person's beliefs and actions at the agent-level directly affect the physical level.

As I mentioned, there are reasons for thinking they're incompatible. Something's (someone's) being a rational agent implies s/he has goals and that in light of those goals ought in given circumstances to do certain things. Physical science makes no place for goals or purposes or right or wrong in nature - there is no physical apparatus which can detect the rightness of an action. Your thought may be that rationality can be made sense of without recourse to goals/purposes or right and wrong. I don't think this can be done. At best you'd be left with an ersatz which fails to capture what we mean by 'rational'.

Formatting quibble: HTML tags like and don't work here. Use the editing toolbar for italics and bold in top level posts.

Fixed. (These work in HTML view, you don't need to use the toolbar; just don't paste them as text outside HTML view.)

This is a long post. You may want to put some of it "beneath the fold".

This entire post seems based on a confused interpretation of what your friend meant.