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Mind Macros 24: Mental resilience, hormesis, and the pleasure and pain balance
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” — Richard Powers
Every Thursday, I condense the most profound lessons from my 20-hour reading weeks into a four-minute newsletter.
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. The pain and pleasure balance
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in reward processing in the brain. Studies show that dopamine contributes more to the motivation for rewards than to the satisfaction of receiving them. We can think of dopamine as the feel-good hormone; when we chase activities for pleasure, we're chasing a dopamine release in our brains.
"This is not to say that high-dopamine substances literally contain dopamine. Rather, they trigger the release of dopamine in our brain’s reward pathway. For a rat in a box, chocolate increases the basal output of dopamine in the brain by 55 percent, sex by 100 percent, nicotine by 150 percent, and cocaine by 225 percent. Amphetamine, the active ingredient in the street drugs ‘speed,’ ‘ice,’ and ‘shabu’ as well as in medications like Adderall that are used to treat attention deficit disorder, increases the release of dopamine by 1,000 percent. By this accounting, one hit off a meth pipe is equal to ten orgasms.
"In addition to the discovery of dopamine, neuroscientists have determined that pleasure and pain are processed in overlapping brain regions and work via an opponent-process mechanism. Another way to say this is that pleasure and pain work like a balance. Imagine our brains contain a balance—a scale with a fulcrum in the center. When nothing is on the balance, it’s level with the ground. When we experience pleasure, dopamine is released in our reward pathway and the balance tips to the side of pleasure. The more our balance tips, and the faster it tips, the more pleasure we feel." — From Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke, MD (view my summary)
Homeostasis is the ideal balance between pleasure and pain. This center point can become misaligned, as Lembke notes:
"With repeated exposure to the same or similar pleasure stimulus, the initial deviation to the side of pleasure gets weaker and shorter and the after-response to the side of pain gets stronger and longer, a process scientists call neuroadaptation."
A person has developed a tolerance to a drug when it becomes necessary to increase the dose to reach the original effect. Tolerance causes the brain to enter a dopamine-deficit state, where pain sensitivity elevates while the capacity to experience pleasure decreases. This eventually results in dependency, when the absence of the stimuli produces pain and is required to feel normal.
II. What can elite athletes teach us about mental resilience?
Ben Bergeron coached two of the greatest athletes in CrossFit history, Mat Fraser and Katrín Davíðsdóttir. Five consecutive CrossFit championships were won by Fraser, and two by Davíðsdóttir. Their feats earned them the titles of "Five-Time Fittest Man on Earth" and "Two-Time Fittest Woman on Earth." In Chasing Excellence, Bergeron describes the importance of adversity in life:
"'What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger' is not a cliché but a fact. It’s a classic example of the way successful people use adversity to grow and thrive. There is perhaps no better sample size of successful people than the eighty fittest men and women at the CrossFit Games. Elite athletes know something that most people don’t—adversity is the best thing that can happen to you. The competitors here at the Games know that humans only improve through adversity by embracing short-term pain. Ensuring there is no struggle, no challenge, and staying in your wheelhouse is a recipe for spinning your wheels without improving. It’s the days when you have to do things that scare you, when you have to take risks, when you have to push against challenge and difficulty—those are the days that make you stronger, faster, and better overall.
"The problem with limiting yourself to training, practicing, and living within your comfort zone is that it prevents you from growing and reaching your full potential. We need to struggle because the struggle is what makes us better—the struggle is itself the journey. Humans naturally fear adversity, which is ironic because adversity is the only thing that makes us better. We have an instinctive fear of the one thing that is certain to lead to the results we crave. When we know this, the challenges, hardships, and struggles that might seemingly look like setbacks and things to avoid become anything but—they become defining moments that create the most dramatic changes and should be cherished and sought after, not feared and endured."
Perhaps Charles Darwin said it best when he wrote:
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."
Adaptability and resilience to adversity can be found in various groups of individuals. One example is elite athletes who exemplify both physical and mental fortitude.
The first athlete is Ross Edgley, who many call the world's fittest man. Edgley is an extreme British adventurer who was the first person in history to swim around Great Britain. He swam 1,780 miles in 157 days, breaking several world records. The adventure required him to swim 12 hours a day, powered by a daily intake of 15,000 calories. During the swim, Edgley developed “salt mouth,” causing chunks of his tongue to fall out. He continued despite a rotting tongue, 37 jellyfish stings, an open-neck wound, and a torn shoulder, all while battling multiple whirlpools and arctic storms. When viewed in light of a handful of his past achievements, his resilience is not surprising:
Running 1,000 miles (1600 km) barefoot carrying a 50 kg (110 lb) backpack
In 2017, Courtney Dauwalter, an American ultramarathon runner, won the Moab 240, a 238-mile race in the Moab Desert of Utah, across some of the most challenging terrain a runner can encounter. Dauwalter finished the event in just under 58 hours (beating second place by over 10 hours), stopping only for two naps of 20 minutes and 1 minute in length. Dauwalter has a host of further accomplishments to her name and is considered one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time.
The American climber Alex Honnold completed what many consider to be the greatest athletic achievement of all time. In 2017, Honnold free soloed El Capitan, a 2-900-foot mountain in Yosemite Valley, California. To free solo means climbing without a rope or safety equipment.
Are these people genetic mutants? I don't think so. If anything, they’re mindset mutants, able to deal with a level of pain and summon an inhuman level of resilience. In Edgley's case, could the world's best swimmer swim 12 hours a day for 157 days (without a single rest day)? After the first day, we are moving beyond athletic ability into mental fortitude. Pain is the only option on the menu, regardless of fitness.
Davíðsdóttir, Dauwalter, Edgley, Fraser, and Honnold may be at one end of the mental resilience spectrum, but science suggests that with training, this mental reservoir of strength is available to anyone.
I. Hormesis: Small to moderate doses of pain increase the pain threshold, developing mental resilience
"Hormesis is a branch of science that studies the beneficial effects of administering small to moderate doses of noxious and/or painful stimuli, such as cold, heat, gravitational changes, radiation, food restriction, and exercise. Hormesis comes from the ancient Greek hormáein: to set in motion, impel, urge on. Edward J. Calabrese, an American toxicologist and a leader in the field of hormesis, describes this phenomenon as the ‘adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges.’" — From Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke, MD
Exercise is the most common form of self-induced pain:
"Exercise is immediately toxic to cells, leading to increased temperatures, noxious oxidants, and oxygen and glucose deprivation. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that exercise is health-promoting, and the absence of exercise, especially combined with chronic sedentary feeding—eating too much all day long—is deadly. Exercise increases many of the neurotransmitters involved in positive mood regulation: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, epinephrine, endocannabinoids, and endogenous opioid peptides (endorphins)."
Alex Honnold was the subject of a study analyzing his fear response. Researchers at The University of South Carolina School of Medicine put Honnold through various tests, including an MRI scan to measure his brain's response to fear. The results found little to no activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our fear response. The neuroscientists theorized that Honnold's lack of fear was not innate but had been conditioned by training. Honnold agreed with their hypothesis, noting:
“I’ve done so much soloing, and worked on my climbing skills so much that my comfort zone is quite large. So these things that I’m doing that look pretty outrageous, to me they seem normal."
Anna Lembke, MD, agrees and goes on to state in Dopamine Nation:
"My guess is that Honnold’s brain started out no different from the average brain in terms of fear sensitivity. What’s different now is that he has trained his brain through years of climbing not to react to fearful stimuli. It takes a lot more to scare Honnold’s brain than the average person’s because he has incrementally exposed himself to death-defying feats. Of note, Honnold nearly had a panic attack when he went inside the fMRI machine to get pictures taken of his ‘fearless brain,’ which also tells us that fear tolerance doesn’t necessarily translate across all experiences."
II. Chesterton’s Fence
"I try to abide by the rule that when you advocate changing something, you should make sure you understand why it is the way it is in the first place. This rule is known as Chesterton’s fence, after G. K. Chesterton, the British writer who proposed it in an essay in 1929. Imagine you discover a road that has a fence built across it for no particular reason you can see. You say to yourself, ‘Why would someone build a fence here? This seems unnecessary and stupid, let’s tear it down.’ But if you don’t understand why the fence is there, Chesterton argued, you can’t be confident that it’s okay to tear it down. Long-standing customs or institutions are like those fences, he said. Naive reformers look at them and say, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let’s clear it away.’ But more thoughtful reformers reply, 'If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’” — From The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef
We can use Chesterton's fence to understand the world around us. It is a common occurrence to question something and be told, "That's the way it has always been done," as if this justifies never changing a process. Our ability to design a better system begins when we understand the why behind the method. Picasso said it best:
"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."
Many of the grammar rules taught to English students are broken by the best writers. Because they understand why the rules exist, they can artfully break them.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Richard Powers on the power of stories:
“The best arguments in the world won’t change a single person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
II. Robert M. Pirsig on true peace coming from within:
“The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.”
Thank you for reading,
Every Thursday, I condense the most profound lessons from my 20-hour reading weeks into a four-minute newsletter.