Everyone Wants to Quit, but They Can't

What we can learn from frustrated mice.

Everyone Wants to Quit, but They Can't

Scientists played a cruel little trick on some mice.

They had them poke their snouts into a little hole for some sugar. Every day, they made it a little more difficult. At first, the mice only had to poke once. Then it was two, then five. Then twenty times. After that, the mice got fed up and quit. The scientists studied their brains throughout the entire process, and they found something interesting.

Before the mice give up, there's a surge of activity in the ventral tegmental area of their brains, where dopamine boosts happen. Basically, this area regulates the risk and reward decisions in most mammals. As you might already know, your brain produces dopamine in response to reward. It also produces a chemical called nociceptin, basically the opposite. As the scientists conclude in a 2019 issue of Cell, poking your nose into a hole 20 times for no sugar tends to trigger a lot of nociceptin production.

Now imagine calling those mice depressed and giving them a pep talk so they keep poking their nose up a little hole for no sugar.

Imagine telling them, "Never give up."

That would be crazy, right?

Animals in the wild do the same thing in environments with depleted resources. It's not exactly giving up.

It's called nociception, the process used by just about every living creature to determine what to avoid. If there's no reward, only discomfort and pain, then you learn not to do something.

It's survival.

Wild animals can't afford to expend energy on ventures that aren't worth the effort. On an instinctual level, they understand that they expose themselves to predators and the elements every time they leave their little nests or burrows to go out and search for food or mates.

In nature, there's no irritating little life coaches running around telling things to try anyway and that failure is just a stage. There's life, and there's death. There's either food and sex, or there isn't. If there isn't, you wait. You bide your time. You conserve your precious energy.

You live another day.

Humans have a flaw. Many of us think it's good to keep going at all costs. We don't know when to walk away. Annie Duke writes about it in her book Quit. Our culture does a weird thing by rewarding people for never giving up, even when it ends in disaster and death. This problem plagues everyone, from corporations to governments. There's even a name for it:

Sunk cost fallacy.

It's the idea that somehow the enormous amounts of time, money, or energy you've invested offer a logical reason to keep going, no matter what other information you have telling you it's hopeless.

As we're reminded every minute, we're in the middle of a global mental health crisis. Nobody seems to want to spell out the real cause, but it has a lot to do with those mice and their nociceptin problem.

Millions of us have been poking our snouts up a little hole five, ten, twenty times for a little bit of sugar. Every day, we have to work harder for less. Our brains are bursting with "frustration neurons."

They make us want to quit.

People are opting out of careers. They're opting out of relationships. They go to work. They go home. Maybe they do parasocial activities like shopping or eating out, if they can afford them.

That's about it.

We've reached our breaking points. Even the "urgent normal crowd" isn't getting those sweet dopamine hits from their prepandemic lifestyles. And you can tell. Genuine happiness seems rare these days. Instead, there's a thin margarine of fake joy spread over everything. Make the slightest transgression, and you see the real emotions people are feeling: anger, loneliness, fear.

As for the positivity trolls: If they were truly happy and fulfilled, why do they spend so much time beating up on people for daring to express their emotions? That alone tells you something.

Everyone wants to quit, but they can't.

We went through a great resignation. Then we went through a year of quiet quitting. We had a bunch of strikes. Our bosses threatened to fire everyone. Employers started replacing us with robots.

Everyone has it rough.

Everyone's putting up with far more than they should. A lot of it comes from the insatiable greed at the top.

We've created an economic system that doesn't allow anyone to stay in their nests and stop seeking rewards. It doesn't matter how much nociceptin we've got in our brains. Capitalism compels us to continue pretending to seek rewards, even if there's no reward to be had.

Imagine how young people feel, cramming for tests and logging endless hours at entry level jobs when they know they'll never be able to afford a home or start a family. They know it's just going to be more disasters and pandemics from here on out, and a collapsing healthcare system.

There's no future for them.

Or us.

We all know what the solutions are, but in the meantime...

There's nothing wrong with doing what the mice do when the sugar runs out. In fact, it often feels like someone is doing a study on us, trying to figure out exactly how many times we'll keep sticking our nose in a hole for a little sugar. You're not crazy or depressed for wanting to quit. This is what sane, healthy animals do when it's not worth it to try so hard.

Here's the real kicker:

The researchers who made mice stick their noses into a hole twenty times for a little sugar talk about the implications of their study. They say that understanding how nociceptin works could help therapists and psychologists figure out how to motivate people or treat depression.

It never occurred to them...

If you want to help the mice overcome their depression, then maybe you could just give them the goddam sugar after ten pokes.

You know?

It's the same thing with our global mental health crisis. Instead of all these worthless videos and booklets and TED Talks on the value of friendship and mindfulness and grit, maybe we could get a living wage. Maybe we could get affordable homes. Maybe we could do something about the devastating heatwaves that turn sidewalks into a griddle and the wildfires that smother us with poison for half the summer.

Maybe we could stop all these futile wars.

The western world has gotten it backward for hundreds of years, treating our minds as things that exists apart from our bodies and environments. They don't. Our brains are things that emit chemicals in response to our realities. Our thoughts and feelings are the result of things in the real world that happen. You can't trick yourself into happiness.

You can't just pretend there's a reward when there's not.

I'm sure some scientists will figure out a way to artificially lower someone's nociceptin levels. It won't be a good thing.

We need it.

That's the whole problem with the brains in charge of this society. They're the brains that never give up, regardless of how much dopamine or nociceptin is flooding them. They just keep pushing themselves and everyone else past their limits and stopping points.

These are the mice that were supposed to get swooped up by owls and hawks. They didn't know when to stay home.

Instead, these mice benefited from the social safety nets that we built with our taxes and our essential services. We supported them with endless billions in forgivable loans, subsidies, and grants. Even if we didn't want to, our government took our money and gave it to them, the broken mice who didn't know when to give up, and thanks to us, they didn't have to.

These mice think they're the pinnacles of evolution. In reality, they're the end result of an extremely toxic, warped system that's so far removed from nature that their poster children want to live in space, a dead expanse of nothingness that can't support life. They think civilization could thrive there.

We're a society pushed past the point of exhaustion, forced to perpetuate systems with no reward and no motivation, egged on by tedious exercises in mindfulness and wishful thinking, by a small group of pampered babies who never learned life's most valuable lesson: when to quit.

We're a bunch of mice poking our noses into a hole a hundred times for nothing, and I guarantee you someone's sitting around wondering, "How do we get rid of their nociceptin, so they do it forever?"

If someone wants to fix us, I know where to start.

Give us the sugar.

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