Exit 7A

I have traveled along the New Jersey Turnpike many times. When I was a kid, my parents would take us to New York to visit their parents. When I was in high school I would travel to swim meets with my school. In college, I went to Great Adventure with a collection of friends. After college, I had a girlfriend who lived in Freehold, and drove there and back  to visit her in my first car. I later took dates to Great Adventure. Most recently, I headed north with my (now ex-) wife and family to visit her family in Ocean Grove, NJ. Today, I took the familiar exit 7A to attend a workshop on the Jersey Shore. I can recall all or parts of all the trips I made along this highway, but I didn’t make it so often that it became rote. I remember leaving from Steve’s home out toward Exton, along with Chris, Darius, and Julie. I remember driving to, and then from Ginny’s home in Freehold. I remember the warm spring air across snow plowed into mounds in the Lawrenceville gym parking lot. I remember riding the Ferris wheel with Marie. I remember missing the turn onto Rte 18. I remember the radio signal fading out from WIP close to where the NJ State Police building was along the turnpike. I can remember feeling happy, sad, angry, jealous, confused, frustrated, thrilled, elated, confident–all along this same stretch of road.

As I drive along this road, I feel as if I am accompanied by several versions of myself, each one traveling the same path to different destinations, either alone or in the company of friends. I wonder what habits have shaped my travel, and me, and how the habits formed over time. I wonder what it would be like to wander over this path–and a dozen, a thousand other paths–for the first time. “You’ve analyzed this enough for both of us,” someone once told me. Of all my habits, analyzing–what I will call wondering or remembering or reveling or pondering or considering or questioning or figuring or honoring or respecting or holding or living–is perhaps my most ingrained habit. It isn’t second nature; it is first nature. What would it be like to just do–either guided by feelings or by someone else’s direction–without thinking?

I once used the metaphor of a path in the brain to demonstrate how memories are made and habits formed. I told students to imagine someone walking through woods over and over until a dirt path had been worn into the underbrush. walk along that path enough and it becomes more like a rut. As soon as the path takes hold, it begins to seem like there is only one way through the woods. I said that once a neural pathway had forms in the brain, it becomes a little like that deep hewn path, and that will power and determination alone are insufficient to the task of changing it. I was trying to disabuse my students of the notion that addictions or mental illnesses like depression could be combatted by force of will alone–that there is no shame in seeking help. I was also trying to show how deeply ingrained habits and patterns in our lives could become.

Maybe this kind of thought is simply a habit for me. Maybe others simply do not need to reflect and wonder. I don’t know what that would be like. I am reading William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and he writes about being a young surfer and learning to surf a particular break, and how surfers–the epitome of “go with the flow”–patiently learn the dynamics of each place they surf. They intimately learn the combinations of wind, tide, and depth. And then make surfing seem effortless. Thinking is effortless for me–not easy, to be sure–but something that comes as naturally as breathing or eating. I barely need to daydream, because the visions, the thoughts, the fleeting glimpses and sometimes lengthy gazes into the breaks of the day come involuntarily.



Play time

I’ve been sucked in. It’s true. I have played an inordinate amount of Pokemon Go, although “play” seems like an exaggeration, since all that the playing involves is taking walks and swiping or tapping incessantly on my phone screen. Strategy? Pidgies: collect them, evolve them with a lucky egg when you’re ready to level up (but only in the 20+ levels). The game is gleefully simple (and relatively stupid): collect stuff, collect more stuff, and then collect even more stuff. The player is “rewarded” with greater strength and ability as he or she “levels up,” but let’s be honest: the stuff and the rewards are imaginary; the only thing real is the time one spends playing. So, why do we play?I explained the old rat-reward experiment to my daughter while we watched people paw at their screens. B.F. Skinner showed in an experiment with rats that variable interval reinforcement leads to a higher rate of response than constant rate of reinforcement, and that both were significantly more effective than punishment (which, it turns out, swiftly ends the impulse to work—or play). Well that’s a lot of mumbo jumbo. Here’s the skinny: rats work (or play, for the purposes of game play) harder when rewarded; they get turned off by punishment; and they work hardest and longest when the rewards come consistently but unpredictably. Surely, rat brains and human brains are different, but just try to run such an experiment on people. Wait, let’s track all those Pokemon Go players and see what that tells us about how they play.

Short story long, we are built to be frustrated. The brain likes rewards (and hates punishments), but only so often—too many and it gets bored. Of course our complicated brains find connections and correlations around causes and consequences. So, it’s not a surprise when my brain gets caught up in figuring out if I received that reward for bringing my girlfriend flowers, finishing my annual report, or catching a wild Gyarados, and that’s just if I got a reward for doing something in the first place. My rat brain tells me: just keep working and something will come.

The cool thing about being human (and not a rat pressing a bar in a cage) is that the rewards come in all shapes and sizes—M&Ms, Mazda Miatas, sailing ships in bottles, shoes. We can turn those cash/work rewards into whatever we like. And I will not overlook the reward of the view out my office window, or the company I keep at work, or at home. The world seems designed to reward us—all these surprises. The Clash sings, “I fought the law!” That’s right brothers!

I do believe–and when I started writing this last week (before I reminded myself of all the rewards that I have strewn before me, like a reverse trail of breadcrumbs into the future) I believed it a little more—that games like Pokemon Go offer a fairly consistent diet of rewards, and that in spite of their frustrations (and because of them too), they are bright little respites from the “thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.” If we lead, as Thoreau asserts, “lives of quiet desperation,” we lead them because too often we think that our human brains need punishments to convince and cajole them into agreement or good behavior or harder work. We beat ourselves and each other like mules bound to work until they stop. We preach about “tough love” and manly determination as values that have meaningful positive consequences. My rat brain says, “I’m done.” My human brain says, “No thank you. I’m off to play.”