A Subconscious Dilemma

The reintegration into society has not been easy. Long story short, I’m taking Buspirone for anxiety, and somewhat surprisingly, it’s working very well. That’s not the issue.

The issue is that like most psychoactive prescription drugs, Buspirone comes with side effects.

In my case, persistent and disturbing nightmares.

Of course, once I wake up that all goes away. I feel refreshed, I can go about my day. But there’s a question nagging in the back of my mind: how do you weigh the experiences of your unconscious self?

It’s not unconsciousness exactly. DreamMe is having experiences, and is thus a conscious being. But I can’t relate to their struggles. That’s in part the standard alienation associated with a being you’ve never met, can’t communicate with, and don’t have empathy for, but it’s also alienation caused by the fact that the entirety of their “struggles” are made up!

That’s not even the weirdest part of this whole saga. Dreamers–that’s to say, me when I’m dreaming–experience severe time dilation. It feels like you’ve experienced an entire lifetime, but in actuality, each dream only lasts 5 to 20 minutes [1]. So DreamMe thinks they’ve experienced an eternity of terror, but once I’m awake, I can’t really bring myself to care.

Once you start thinking about this too hard, it begins to raise all sorts of very thorny questions. So let’s put that aside for a second, bite the bullet, accept the premise that DreamMe really does have moral patienthood on par with the rest of us.

Though, first, we have to disambiguate two separate dilemmas. Am I worried about the suffering of DreamMe for altruistic reasons, or for egoist ones? In some sense, the egoist concerns obviate the altruistic ones. DreamMe is, after all, myself. And–pardon the grammatical confusion–if I don’t care about their suffering as something happening to myself, why should I care about it impartially?

But fine, acknowledge that a subconscious being is still conscious, accept their reality as legitimate, and bridge the ought-is dilemma to convince ourselves that the moral harm occurring is worth preventing.

What then? There’s a simple question of weights: the cost of DreamMe’s psychological panic versus the benefits of AwakeMe’s decreased anxiety. But then there’s a more serious question, the one that stops me from accepting this line of reasoning outright: where does it all end?

Once I accept the moral importance of a subconscious being and let it become a decision-relevant factor, one that has the potential to outweigh even my own mental wellbeing, what else do I have to buy into? Should I accept that when I take (some) painkillers, I’m letting my mind off the hook while allowing my body to suffer? That when I take anti-anxiety meds, I’m silencing a part of my consciousness, even while knowing that it continues to exist and run in the background? [2]

You might object that this proves too much. That in the case of DreamMe, I at least know that there is suffering taking place, and a (sub)conscious being experiencing it all. But look, we’re talking about experiences I can barely remember more than shreds of, and a recollection based on a few seconds of offhand impressions before I get up, turn off the alarm, and begin my day. Recollections that we know are seriously skewed, not to mention at odds with consensus reality.

So if this all sounds ridiculous and overly scrupulous and outright silly, then fine, I agree. I don’t like where this road is going either.

If you’ve ever had anxiety, you’ll find this whole framing deeply ironic.

Anxiety is, at its heart, all about made up struggles. You’re worried strangers on the street are judging you, even though they couldn’t care less. You’re worried your friends don’t like you, even though they actually do. And so on.

So what makes nightmares, another form of worrying about totally made up things, any different?

One answer is that they lack even a referent. Anxiety is at least about something happening in the real physical world, whereas nightmares are conjured purely out of the ether.

Except that’s not quite right. My nightmares are surreal, unreal even, but they’re definitely fixed in reality. They are, albeit in a very loose sense, about “real” things.

Towards the end of Harry Potter, Dumbledore tells our protagonist “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” On first read, it’s a noble nod to the inherently intersubjective nature of our constructed reality. Government currency is just fiat. Scientific truths are just expert consensus [3]. The “text” does not exist, but is rather created through interpretive dance between author and reader.

On the other hand, intersubjectivity also acknowledges that not all realities are created equal. If you told me that actually, funding your vacation is the world’s most impactful cause because it would make you really immensely happy, I’m under no obligation to believe you. Similarly, if you told me that in a matter of 5 minutes, you experienced hours of disturbing hallucinations, I would have no need to treat your problems with much gravity.

Since at least the 3rd century BC, when Master Zhuang wrote about being a butterfly, the good, sober, conscious, awake, and unscrupulous among us have been telling those puerile airheads to get off the grass [4] and come back to reality.

That would be a nice conclusion, but it’s the wrong place to stop.

Unfortunately for the sober among us, it turns out that society owes great debts to altered states of consciousness. As SlimeMoldTimeMold recounts in tremendous detail:

Mullis himself makes it pretty clear that LSD deserves a lot of the credit for his discovery. “Would I have invented PCR if I hadn’t taken LSD? I seriously doubt it,” said Mullis. “I could sit on a DNA molecule and watch the polymers go by. I learnt that partly on psychedelic drugs.” If this is even partially true, most progress in bioscience in the past 40 years was made possible by LSD.

Mullis went on to win the Nobel prize for the invention of PCR, described in no humble terms by Wikipedia as “fundamental to many of the procedures used in genetic testing and research… now a common and often indispensable technique used in medical laboratory research”.

As if that wouldn’t, on its own, be more than enough, SMTM goes on to credit drugs for work by Newton (caffeine), Sigmund Freud (Cocaine), Jules Verne and Thomas Edison (cocaine in wine), alongside Steve Jobs, The Beatles, and Douglas Englebart (LSD).

Dreaming is not quite the same as being on drugs, but a relevant point stands. Even if these experiences, and the worlds they take place in, appear divorced from our own, we cannot simply write them off as fanciful diversions.

That’s to say: I certainly don’t believe in Machine Elves as literal physical entities in the material world, but if they can factor primes, who cares?

Again, dream states are not exactly drug-induced, but there are similar reasons to believe they bear some meaningful connection to consensus reality. Larry Page (reportedly) came up with the idea for Google in his sleep. James Watson (again, reportedly) had a key insight about the structure of DNA while dreaming (Crick was, for his part, (reportedly) on LSD). Dmitri Mendeleev, who created the modern periodic table of elements, once credited his work to dream-space:

I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.

Equally anecdotally, I wrote the entirety of Become a Billionaire on my phone at 3am after a series of vivid dreams. I don’t track page views, but at least on the basis of Twitter hype, it’s easily my most successful post.

At some point, I’m obligated to tell you that none of this is either an endorsement or criticism of Buspirone. If you have anxiety, you should consider seeing a psychiatrist. If you don’t have anxiety, I can’t recommend taking it for the dreams, since they’re mostly unpleasant. But hey, I’m not a doctor, and it’s your (or at least DreamYou’s) life.

That leaves us with a dilemma “does my subconscious pain matter?”, followed by an attempt at resolution “screw the immaterial reality”, and finally an oddly utilitarian counterpoint “the immaterial reality seems to have an awfully good track record”.

Throughout, I’ve been comparing the pain of nightmares to the pain of anxiety. That the cure for the latter causes the former is perhaps no coincidence. The cliche psychoanalytic interpretation is that the feelings are not erased, merely repressed.

So this whole piece has been an exercise in taking bizarre ideas too seriously, but it’s also an attempt at expression. A year of lockdown was interesting, and, in many ways, can be credited for the creation of this blog and everything that’s come since. But it was also not, in the most conventional sense of the phrase, mentally healthy.

It’s not really that I’m having trouble reintegrating into society. It’s that on some level, I don’t even want to anymore. [5] Which makes the problem not only moral, but proleptic. It’s not a question of wants, but of self-transformation. Should I turn myself into a person who spends less time on the internet and more time in meatspace? Should I stop taking Buspirone and experience more anxiety? It’s rare to have such clear decisions and axes on which to affect substantial questions of personality, but this is a transformative moment after all.

Or as John Green should have said “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have some say in which you exists to feel it.”

I hope you like your choices.

[1] The moral importance of time-dilation turns out to be an absolutely fascinating question. For a more serious discussion, see Jason Schukraft on the subjective experience of time, critical flicker-fusion frequency and related welfare implications.

[2] That the subconscious anxious self continues to “run in the background” is a matter of some debate, but is common testimony among people taking drugs for a variety of mental health problems. It’s not that the feeling goes away, but that you can choose to ignore it.

[3] Not to mention, the selection of those experts is itself merely the consensus designation of other experts!

[4] Though ironically, the equivalent modern saying is “touch grass”.

[5] That’s not even to mention the specific difficulties of pseudonymous blogging in a newly social world. As you may have noticed, Batman has allies, but Bruce Wayne has no friends.

Which is not to say I’m a superhero in this situation. But we should ask, as long as it’s come up, why so many of the pseudonymous role models tend to be. Don’t ordinary people also need protection? Don’t you also want to be safe? This isn’t about cancel culture, or even Balaji’s Westphalian peace, it’s about trying to hold back at least some small part of yourself, for yourself. Whatever that even means at this point.