Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Restless Gene

"I have a theory about dopamine and boredom," said an older man in the audience to my right.

Huh? That wasn't a question.

"If I'm not doing something extreme, I become depressed. I have low dopamine. Extreme sports or adventures raise my dopamine level."

I don't know one biochemical from another, but the basic idea...yes, it has merit. I was feeling it today, walking to the train feeling so lackadaisical from routine and work. Do I self-medicate through novelty? Travel, balloon-riding, bag-sewing...when I don't find novelty or innovation, I fall into a kind of mild despair.

Kelly and I were at the Rubin Museum of Art, in the Q&A part of writer/photographer Alison Wright's promotional reading of her new book, Learning to Breathe. I bought the book but haven't read it yet. She'd written an amazing article a few years ago, which became the basis for this book.

Alison Wright was in a horrific bus accident while traveling in Laos some years back. She was so close to dying. Here, don't let me retell it. Just go read the articles.

When the event ended, I asked the dopamine-guy to explain further. To my disappointment, he was all about extreme sports. Kayaking, parachuting, biking in Manhattan. That's not what I do. Same idea, though.

And then I read this passage in God's Middle Finger, by Richard Grant. "Yes," I thought. "That's exactly how I would phrase it. I'm not proud of it, but that fits."

    But I was prepared to stake my personal safety for a different reward: the heightened awareness, the thrill of the unfamiliar and the melting away of boredom that comes with going to dangerous places where I didn't belong. And I was beginning to wonder if this too was a vice.


Steve Buccellato said...

Glad you're reading God's Middle Finger! Isn't it great? I think you should try The Brain That Changes Itself next. As it happens, dopamine levels plays a big part in brain plasticity--though not necessarily in a good way.

Sara Kocher said...

I disagree with you and Richard Grant (out of context, since I haven't read God's Middle Finger). I don't think the quest for an exciting life is a vice or something to be ashamed of. If you crave variety and stimulation and feel stifled by routine and repetition, then go out and do interesting things. Travel, sew a bag (super cute, by the way!), learn a language, go up in a blimp, shoot a movie...whatever. No apologies needed.

Do you really want to be sitting in a nursing home in 50 years looking back on your life and all you can say is "My dining room was such a lovely shade of green and my petunias were so healthy! And I was the PTA president one year!"

Oh god, that might be me if I don't get moving. I'm going to go do something interesting now...

Marie said...

To tell you the truth, I feel a lot of pressure from people to settle down and conform.

But most of it is from me; I see what I lost by living the way I did. So I'm trying to change.

But I am realizing that I'm fighting my nature. It's not working out so far. Just kind of disappointing.

Sara Kocher said...

Yeah, I see that point. But if you'd followed another path, you'd have a different set of things you lost by living the way you did.

I have traveled to only four countries besides the one I was born in: Canada, France, Bermuda, and the British Virgin Islands (and the last two probably should count as one, since they're both British overseas territories). I live in Southern California and have never been to Mexico. My passport expired 6 years ago and I haven't gotten around to renewing it. I see maybe 3-4 movies a year and most of them I see on DVD at home. My career is...um...yeah. Kinda on hold, for the most part. I haven't attended a lecture or art gallery opening in so long that I can't recall what the last one was. When people ask me "what's up with you?", I've been giving pretty much the same answer for about three years.

You would hate my life. But I don't. I love a lot of what I'm doing and I'm okay with dealing with the more boring/messy/infuriating parts. I do think I need to challenge myself more. I don't want to be that nursing home lady reminiscing on the glories of her interior decor. I'm trying to figure out what I really like, instead of what I "should" like, so I can go and do it (whatever it is).

No matter what you do, there will be good things you didn't do. Please yourself.

Marie said...

I doubt very much that I would hate your life. My issues have as much to do with what I leave out here on the blog as what I leave in...and I have to stop there for now.

Sue said...

Very interesting post. I participate in an extreme sport (motorcycle road racing) and have to say that what keeps me doing it, in spite of the tremendous expense and danger to life and limb, is that when I'm doing it I am totally focused and in the present moment. I'm not good with being present, but when I am out on the track, I am there 100%. It's not about the thrill of speed and danger, it's about grace under pressure and using my head. I think the same can be said about travel too. I feel totally present and aware and focused when I'm in a very foreign place. It is a vice? Perhaps. Or maybe just a way to pay attention to life in a way that many people never do.

Marie said...

Maybe it's a vice. Maybe it's a way to pay attention. All I know is that I am completely engaged on the road, and totally disengaged at home.

My plan to cure it by staying home and muddling through it was well-intentioned, but it isn't working yet.

Nothing to do but keep trying to make it work.