05 August 2017

The Entanglement of Desire, Identity and Suicide

We are creatures of desire.

Desires make us happy but can also hijack us. We can find shortcuts to satisfying desire that lead to addictions to drugs, alcohol or banana nut muffins.

Scientists have found ways to suppress desire. The good news is that this seems to work. People taking the drugs that dampen desire lose weight or stay sober. Compulsion gives way to control. That's pretty good.

The problem is that when you begin to tamper with reward centers, you begin to tamper with our reasons for being. A life without desire is a life full of control yet empty of reward. These drugs targeting the desire for food or alcohol can wipe out our desires more broadly.

Desires can - and have - taken anyone in directions they regret:  the good sex with a bad person, the 5th slices of delicious pizza that hardens arteries, the alcohol that impairs judgement.

Desires also make us different than robots or our daily planners. It's hard to find joy in rotely going through to do lists full of tasks that never feel rewarding to complete.

One of the challenges with designing drugs to target desire is one of entanglement. Part of what happens when you eat is that it lights up rewards centers - similar to what happens when you win a video game, have sex, snort cocaine, or solve an intractable problem. One problem with tamping desire for the things we shouldn't have is that it can mess up reward centers; it's an entanglement problem, a question of how you manage to take away one desire without messing up desire and reward more broadly.

When you start tinkering with desire you start flirting with suicidal impulses. These drugs that give us more control by suppressing desire also have a tendency to drive a rise in suicides. Suppressing desire can suppress the will to live. Even our less noble impulses are entangled with a reason to live and desire is entangled with what it means to be human. Kill our desires and it makes us want to kill ourselves.

Maybe the trick is to have desires but not let desires have us. Talking to a scientist this week who I was working with on a project to develop a drug targeting dangerous desires, she said that studying this has simply led her back to an embrace of the simple philosophy of, "moderation in all things."

Desire is part of our identity and that is not just the stuff of drama that dates back to Homer's stories of the gods but determines how happy we can make ourselves and others. Desire is itself something to be desired.

That's kind of fascinating.

No comments: