Columnists


In a society as fast-paced and demanding as ours, it’s no wonder that, given the opportunity to rewind, the average person would opt for a film pre-packaged with all those qualities the viewer knows will suffice to fulfill their expectations without demanding much “mental exertion” on their part: archetypal characters, traditional narrative structures, impressive special effects, maybe a few laughs. A good story, a good time. One might have read a good novel instead and been subjected to the same gist of artistic treatment, but the movie has the added bonus of passive viewing—compared to the arduous demand of reading—within a radically condensed span of time (roughly two hours or so). Indeed, there is a reason Aristotle’s Poetics has become standardized reading for many an aspiring filmmaker: today, cinema has become the equivalent of the “condensed visual novel.”

This is a gross underuse of a medium that, as we shall see, can offer us so much more.

To begin with, any art is most compelling (that is, most likely to emotionally impact the receiver of the art) if it prioritizes those potentialities that are unique to the particular form. In other words, if these potentialities are what come to the forefront in the artistic expression, insofar as they are the principal driving mechanisms by which the artist aims to achieve their goal(s).

This is the presupposition that drives the cinematic theories of avant-garde filmmakers Jean Epstein (1897-1953) and Germaine Dulac (1882-1942), both of whom are invaluable resources in the search for an “essence of cinema.”

That both of these theorists are avant-garde is key, because, as Dulac teaches us, the avant-garde filmmaker is characterized by their “in tune-ness” with this so-called “essence of cinema” in their work–a cinematic approach that dawned after all previous major forms (realism, narrative, psychological realism) had been exhausted. Dulac stresses the importance of the avant-garde scene, for the continued evolution of the cinema form is dependent upon its ongoing survival.

This may seem as if Dulac is interested in cinema’s evolution in and of itself—that is, for the hackneyed postmodern “art for art’s sake” case—but one mustn’t be fooled by the formal intellectualization of her language. Beneath all the technicalities, the reader senses an authentic desire to affect the viewer through a kind of crystallized beauty, which, in film, for Dulac can only be accomplished through the formation of a “visual poem made up of life instincts, playing with matter and the imponderable. A symphonic poem, where emotion bursts forth not in facts, not in actions, but in visual sonorities” (655). Such impassioned—almost sentimental—statements prove Dulac is completely on board with Epstein’s search for a cinema that “arouses an aesthetic emotion, a sense of infallible wonderment and pleasure” (257).

For both theorists, said search is characterized by the filmmaker’s quest to pierce through that elusive, truth-veiling something, which both of them term “the imponderable.” But what is the imponderable? The filmmaker is aspiring to unveil the truth about what?

This is a question that is not particular to the cinematic form and whose answer is virtually the same for all modes of artistic expression: truth about the nature of reality itself. This has been the role assigned to the artist since time immemorial, dating back to the tragedy plays of the Classical era. Even today, the cinema-goer is most contented when they can confidently say about a film that it “told it how it is” (with the bonus fantastical embellishments here and there, of course).

Following the premises of Dulac and Epstein, the question then becomes, “How is the filmmaker uniquely positioned to approach this task, and what are the artistic utilities at his or her disposal?” To the first question, both theorists would answer the same way: that the filmmaker is uniquely positioned insofar as they deal with—by the very nature of the medium—visual movement. This answer consequently explains Dulac’s emphasis for rhythm as the vital technique in fulfilling the artist’s expression. After all, the visual movement exists within a “frozen” space-time continuum (a kind of filmmaker’s “canvas”), and it is only by deriving a contrived cadence from this canvas that the filmmaker achieves personal expression; in other words, the filmmaker concerns themselves with the manipulation of time in order to achieve their creative expression.

Although Epstein’s “Photogénie and the Imponderable” (1935) is far less specific than Dulac’s “The Avant-Garde Filmmaker” in answering the second question, his text nevertheless proves to be a rich resource for a better understanding of this “filmmaker’s canvas,” this “frozen space-time continuum,” especially as it pertains to the viewer’s emotional needs—needs which, by the way, the viewer may be unaware of possessing. We may arrive at these affective ramifications using “Photogénie” in a rather indirect manner.

Epstein points out man’s “physiological inability to master the notion of space-time and to escape this atemporal section of the world, which we call the present” (254). He describes this eternal “atemporal section,” this present, as “psychological time,” as it is borne out of our “egocentric [that is, automatic, subconscious] habit” (255) of accepting this flow as an absolute in our lives—which is true. Despite Einstein’s illuminating truths which characterize space-time as a malleable fabric permeating the entirety of the universe, capable of being stretched, producing myriad ebbs and flows, we on Earth experience only one of these flows and have learned to accept it as an inherent aspect of what is in fact (as Einstein shows us) a very limiting perspective of physical reality.

Here I want to take what will feel like a digression, but I assure you, it’s not (please just bear with me for a second): I want to take a moment to consider the teachings of twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

According to Heidegger, people tend to stay out of touch with the sheer mystery of existence, the mystery he termed “das Sein,” meaning “Being.” One of the main culprits, he notes, is the rapidity of the modern world—always keeping us on the move, overwhelming us with work and information so that we’re virtually in a state of perpetual distraction from the mystery of being, unable to step back and see the strange in the familiar, the act of which, Heidegger admits, has its downside: fear, or “angst,” may take ahold of us as we realize the primordial chaos from which we come, and are in fact constantly in. In this way, we come face to face with the meaninglessness of all things.

Epstein alludes to this “angst” in his own—and more colorful—way: “Not without some anxiety, man finds himself before that chaos which he has covered up, denied, forgotten, or thought was tamed. Cinematography apprises him of a monster” (255).

The thing is, once the initial shock has passed, what follows is a kind of out-of-body, existentialist sensation which is nonetheless therapeutic in its own way. Epstein uses the example of watching footage of oneself from long ago: though we acknowledge the ontological link, this link feels disconcertedly severed by the fact that that former self no longer lives in psychological time–that is, in the present. Consequently, this gives us the impression of a phantom-like projection of ourselves that is simultaneously there and not there. But herein lies the secret of cinema’s unique “medicinal” capabilities.

Both Epstein and Dulac wrote about the rhythmic grace emanated by time-manipulated footage. Dulac mentions the “formation of crystals,” “the bursting of a bubble,” and the “evolutions of microbes,” (656) while Epstein points out how a plant “bends its stalk and turns its leaves toward the light,” as elegant as “the horse and rider in slow motion” (254-255). It is clear that, for both of these theorists (and I am completely on board with this), the key to freeing the viewer from the mentally draining chains of “psychological time,” which is keeping us from experiencing the wonder of “das Sein,” is by showing them the fragility of their cage, accomplished through cinema by its “trappings” of space-time, by absorbing it like a bubble and freezing it to produce crystal balls through which the viewer looks into the past and realizes the obvious anew: that our time here is short, and every instant is filled with boundless grace and beauty. By playing God, the filmmaker may thus bestow the viewer their moment of affective transcendence.

*  *  *

The single cinephile in my (admittedly small) social group, I have never been inclined to suggest to my friends such “lofty” films as Tarkovsky’s, Bergman’s, or Antonioni’s—all of who play with time (or call attention to the strangeness of psychological time, especially through the use of long-shots [think Steve McQueen’s heart-wrenching eighty-six-second shot of Solomon’s quasi-lynch scene from 12 Years a Slave; however, in light of this example, I will also note that the “balance” between narrative and avant-garde was not touched on in this essay—all in good time]) and have, for me, produced that aforementioned affective transcendent effect. After all, as Dulac mentions on more than one occasion, the avant-garde “does not appeal to the mere pleasure of the crowd” (653).

But perhaps the fault lies with us, who understand cinema’s greatest power. Perhaps we ought to take a cue from Dulac, who wrote and lectured widely on film aesthetics, to be less apologetic about cinema’s “purer” dimensions. After all, academic institutions deem it worthwhile of students to learn the language of literature, visual arts, and music, in order for us to not only gain appreciation for the Arts, but to derive from them momentous personal value as well.

Why shouldn’t cinema be any different? Is it because, as the Seventh Art, it is still relatively new?

Consider last year’s “top-grossing films” list. These films are not bad, nor are their narratives  utterly irrelevant (something I, and both the theorists we have discussed, would disagree on), but there’s just so much to be gained by learning the cinematic language.

And so, I’ve changed my mind—watch Bergman, like, right now!

*  *  *

Below, a recommended list of more “purely cinematic” works, from which the budding cinephile may “branch” out on their own accord (in order of “difficulty,” 1 being “most challenging”):

  1. Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard.
  2. The Revenant (2015), Alejandro González Iñárritu.
  3. Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant.
  4. Come and See (1987), Elem Klimov.
  5. The Tree of Life (2011), Terrence Malick.
  6. Melancholia (2011), Lars Von Trier.
  7. Red Desert (1964), Michelangelo Antonioni.
  8. Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman.
  9. Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky.
  10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick.

Quotes from: Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (First Ed., 2011).

It’s hard to see it right now, but this time next week, we’ll all be on break. It’ll be the morning of Thanksgiving, and you’ll wake to the sounds of the Macy’s Day Parade or the smell of turkey in the oven. The leaves outside will be colorful and the weather will be beautiful (don’t ask me how, but I’m telling you the weather will shape up come Thanksgiving), and whether you’re a football fan or not, you’ll feel compelled to participate in the age-old American tradition of watching the game.

But when the football game is over and you come inside for those few hours in between the morning festivities and dinner time, all you’ll want to do is curl up on your couch and watch some feel-good family television. And lucky for you, there’s plenty out there.

Here’s a definitive ranking of the best Thanksgiving TV episodes of all time.

  1. “Blair Waldorf Must Pie,” Gossip Girl (Season 1, Episode 9)
    Say what you will about Gossip Girl’s later seasons, but it’s hard to deny that Gossip Girl’s pilot season came out swinging. So accurately portraying the zeitgeist of 2007 teenage life, the drama and glamour of the Upper East Side has never been so deliciously intriguing. And it all came to an emotional tipping point with the show’s first Thanksgiving episode, which featured rich-girl Serena’s family uncomfortably dining at her new Brooklyn beau’s family loft. Back on the Upper East Side, Serena’s entitled friends are reeling from the aftermath of family disentanglement and dangerous secrets. It’s oh-so-wonderfully juicy.
  2. “Happy Thanksgiving,” Parenthood (Season 2, Episode 10)
    There’s nothing like watching a feel-good family TV show on a chilly Thanksgiving morning, but Parenthood’s distinct ability to make you laugh, cry, and totally relate makes it one of the best family-driven dramas of recent television. This episode features patriarch Adam struggling with his career, his outspoken sister Sarah insisting on bringing her boyfriend (and son’s teacher) to Thanksgiving dinner, and their younger brother Crosby desperately trying to impress his fiancee’s mother. The episode has a heartwarming resolution–but it’s the Parenthood classic moments of sincerity and family devotion that make this a Thanksgiving must.
  3. “A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving,” Gilmore Girls (Season 3, Episode 9)
    Despite its seven-year run, Gilmore Girls only aired one Thanksgiving episode–and it’s definitely worth the watch. The episode features mother-daughter duo Lorelai and Rory trying to navigate four different Thanksgiving feasts, culminating in their annual (and dreaded) trip to the grandparents’ house. The episode ends with a revelation that fuels the rest of the season, but (save for the last five minutes) it’s an episode that you can watch on its own if you’re looking to vicariously join the rituals of a small town’s favorite holiday.
  4. “Thespis,” Sports Night (Season 1, Episode 8)
    Aaron Sorkin’s first show only ran for two seasons, but it marked fame’s beginning for not only Sorkin, but actors like Joshua Malina, Josh Charles, and Peter Krause (who would later go on to star in The West Wing, The Good Wife, and Parenthood, respectively).This particular episode highlights their unique talents. Malina’s character insists that a Greek ghost is haunting the sports-news studio and the other characters shoot him down–all while trying to prepare for Thanksgiving dinner later that night that indeed seems to be haunted by some ghostly presence. The episode is cute and fresh, and provides a nice comic relief from the more serious shows above.
  5. “The One With The Rumor,” Friends (Season 8, Episode 9)
    Speaking of comedic Thanksgiving episodes, no show did it better than Friends. Known for their plethora of Thanksgiving specials, watching Friends has become a staple of my Thanksgiving weekend (as it should for you). If you’re wondering which one to watch first, start with “The One With The Rumor,” which features Brad Pitt as an ex-enemy of Rachel’s arriving just in time to shake up her relationship with Ross. Meanwhile, Joey promises to eat an entire turkey, and everyone just has a ball of a time.
  6. “My First Thanksgiving with Josh,” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 1, Episode 6)
    Back when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend still served up delightfully-concocted spoofy musical numbers every episode and we were still rooting for protagonist Rebecca to win over her ex Josh, creator Rachel Bloom gave us a gem of a Thanksgiving episode. In this episode, Rebecca meets Josh’s parents (much to his dismay), and goes on to imagine herself becoming a part of the family. Their friend Gregg, meanwhile, sings a cliched song about his future, and Rebecca really has to pee. Don’t ask; just watch it.
  7. “Thanksgiving Orphans,” Cheers (Season 5, Episode 9)
    Still one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Cheers aired its fair share of Thanksgiving episodes, but only one featured an elaborate food-fight and Diane in a pilgrim costume. In this episode, the gang of co-workers gathers at the ever-grumpy Carla’s for Thanksgiving dinner, and of course everything goes wrong. Suffice it to say, womanizer Sam ends up with a much-deserved pie in his face. Oh, and one of the show’s best running jokes reaches its height when we get the only glimpse of couch potato Norm’s infamous wife we’ll see throughout all eleven seasons.
  8. “Slapsgiving,” How I Met Your Mother (Season 3, Episode 9)
    “Slapsgiving” was arguably the best How I Met Your Mother episode of all time, probably because it became the impetus for so many of the jokes that would consistently resurface throughout the series. Marshall and Barney’s “slap-bet” (a bet Marshall won that gives him the power to slap Barney as hard as he wants) comes to a head in this episode, and it isn’t addressed again until the following year, in an episode aptly titled “Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap.” Robin and Ted introduce the “Major” joke that remains one of the most quoted jokes from the show, and the episode’s heartfelt ending helps catapult the season forward. It’s a masterpiece.
  9. “Shibboleth” The West Wing (Season 2, Episode 8)
    So you already know that every Thanksgiving, the President pardons a turkey. But did you know that the Press Secretary has to decide between two turkeys, essentially condemning one to die and setting the other free? Well, at least, that’s what happens in this wonderfully delightful episode of The West Wing, where Press Secretary CJ Cregg has to decide the fate of two turkeys as they run amok in the White House. Meanwhile, the President himself hazes the newbie on staff into finding him an appropriate carving knife, and the senior staff gathers to watch football. Add in some crises with immigration and education policies, some nepotism, and a hell of a lot of political maneuvering, and you’ve got one of the greatest episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s masterful show.
  10. “The One With All The Thanksgivings,” Friends (Season 5, Episode 8)
    Like I said before, Friends did Thanksgiving right, and it’s earned itself two episodes on this list. Although it’s hard for me to delegate any episode of The West Wing to the second slot, the clear winner of Thanksgiving episodes is this flashback-driven episode of Friends. Framed by cuts to Thanksgivings of the past, when the gang was awkward and stupid, this episode has everything. It will make you laugh, cry, long for sweet potato pie, and dream of a 2020 Friends reunion. The flashback focus makes this an easy episode to watch even if you’ve never seen the show (although who’s never seen Friends?) and the image of Joey’s head stuck in a turkey will definitely make it worth your while. In fact, I love this episode so much, I named my column after it.

Happy Binge-giving!

During my Crisis, before watching Güeros, I watched Parks and Recreation…Like, all of it. All seven seasons. Before that, I watched the first five seasons of Futurama. Before that, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, Love, and every Best Picture winner since 1939 (minus a few bad eggs, not the least of which includes 2005’s Crash—c’mon, give me some credit!).

For all my talk of the “primordial power of cinema” in my last column, I would be remiss—and indeed, quite hypocritical—in failing to acknowledge cinema’s second primary function, borne out of its alluring spectacle quality: cinema as a medium for entertainment.

Indeed, cinema has always possessed a two-fold functionality—as emotional therapy and as spectacle—which was made apparent immediately following film’s inception in the late 1890s. This dichotomy is most obvious among the two towering French pioneers of this early era: Auguste and Louis Lumière (the “Lumière” brothers) and Georges Méliès. Today, these two are widely considered to be the “founding fathers” of cinema, though their bodies of work could not be more antithetical.

For Siegfried Kracauer, one of the most prominent figures in film theory, this opposition highlights what he famously coined as the two “tendencies” of the cinema: the realistic and formative tendencies.

The realistic tendency was first exemplified through the Lumière brothers’ archival films. Their most famous work, titled Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon, takes footage of exactly what the title suggests—within the span of a then-whopping forty-six seconds. The Lumière brothers were interested in, above all, capturing “everyday life after the manner of photographs.” In other words, the realistic tendency strives to capture (or replicate, through staging) the “nakedness” of life, in the style of, say, a documentary.

By contrast, the formative tendency aims to go beyond the replication of physical reality, which, to accomplish, requires emphasis on cinema-specific techniques (special effects). Méliès employed these techniques more adventurously and innovatively than any other filmmaker of his time. The popularization of universally known modern editing strategies such as “time-lapse photography,” “dissolves,” and “hand-painting,” among others, can all be attributed to Méliès. His legacy as the founder of cinema as a “fantastical art” continues today, where he is most recognizably referenced in allusion to his iconic, anthropomorphic moon from A Trip to the Moon.

Although it is clear that most of cinema displays an overlap between these two tendencies, Kracauer’s teachings have nevertheless continued to serve as a useful starting point for many a timid freshman entering the daunting realm of film theory for the first time. All subsequent cases for a “purpose of cinema” tend to exist within Kracauer’s rough outline of these two core functions: cinema as verisimilitude, and cinema as spectacle.

Modern audiences would tend to agree that the best works of cinema employ a harmonious balance between these two. Films on either end of the spectrum do not hold the attention of mass audiences for very long. If anything, a quick look at any recent “highest-grossing films” list within the last few years will show the People’s obvious predilection for spectacle. Films like Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story all feature fantastical worlds narratively rooted and motivated by traditional, realist plots—realist insofar as they thematically mirror the plights of our own modern world, whether at the level of the individual, community, or, as in Civil War’s case, nations. Such films succeed in achieving both awe-inspiring and emotional satisfaction. On the flip-side, this clear predilection for spectacle means studios will blatantly abandon substance by backing up projects that rely on the spectacle element alone (Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, The Legend of Tarzan, etc.).

(Note: the ongoing success of this era’s Golden Age of Television indicates an audience leaning towards verisimilitude, seemingly contradicting my observations thus far. However, one must take into account the different nature of the TV show, which is fundamentally distinct from that which be accurately deemed “cinematic”—but all this for a later time.)

Although it’s safe to say that the average Columbian is more cultured than the average person, outside of film majors and cinephiles, it’s also probably safe to say that the average Columbian isn’t as well-versed in film as they are in, say, literature, art, or music. The reason for this is obvious: much of the Columbian’s expansive cultural lore can be attributed to our beloved Core Curriculum, which sadly does not include a “Film Humanities” course.

Attempting to coin a term like “Film Humanities” might seem preposterous and naïve on the outset, but such a negative reaction is unwarranted as it is probably based on one of two (or both) fallacious assumptions:

  1. Film is predominantly a “spectacle-based” art, unqualified for the kind of rich and complex analyses other arts tend to incite.
  2. Film is too young an art form and lacks the historical breadth necessary for making any substantial claims about the human condition that are worth investigating in a scholarly fashion.

To the first, we have already discussed film’s two-fold capacity for realism and spectacle, which implies that there exists a whole canon of films predominantly concerned with verisimilitude, with dealing with subject-matters relevant to the human experience. The “spectacle-based” argument illustrates a biased account of cinematic history, whereby at the turn of the millennium the Digital Age pretty much ensured that film as a “fantastical art” would be the way of the future, rendering all previous cinematic periods obsolete in the public eye.

I would also add that to reject “spectacle” point-blank as an element abolishing any degree of humanities-based discourse in an absolute sense is also erroneous, for it fails to take into account the vast and rich spectrum of variations of genre within the real and fantastical (i.e. Ontological Realism, Psychological Realism, Aesthetic Realism; see Bazin’s “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”)—a spectrum evident in literature as well. Consider, for example, the tremendous difference, from a genre standpoint, between Homer’s The Iliad and Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, both of which are required readings for Literature Humanities.

I will counter the second point in a later column, it being deserving of its own thorough investigation.

For now, I encourage all Columbians—especially those for whom “cinema” is tantamount to “that which is relevant to the current cultural zeitgeist”—to voluntarily explore the history of cinema with the same level of seriousness with which the Core bestows the other, more “noble” arts.

To begin with, this will require a “survey of the greats,” for which I urge you to temporarily put your beloved Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Video TV show on hold and direct yourself to filmstruck.com, where you can subscribe for a two-week trial. This should be enough time to at least begin exploring the following list I have curated for you below. (And if it’s not, you can use this website to see what other platforms offer these films.) All of the following works share a “crossover” (to “artsy” films) appeal that I hope to instill in all you soon-to-be-cinephiles.

  1. The Red Balloon (1956), Albert Lamorisse.
  2. Y Tu Mamá También (2001), Alfonso Cuarón.
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Abdellatif Kechiche.
  4. In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-wai.
  5. A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Cassavetes.
  6. Aguirre, the Wrath of God, (1972), Werner Herzog.
  7. Three Colors: Red (1994), Krzysztof Kieślowski.
  8. The Great Beauty (2013), Paolo Sorrentino.
  9. The Spirit of the Beehive (1973),Víctor Erice.
  10. Seven Samurai (1954), Akira Kurosawa.

Enjoy.

P.S. Here is my favorite reference to Méliès, from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011).

After twenty-one years of a beautifully reciprocal relationship, Television and I have hit a rough patch. What have I done to deserve this? For years, I have given him every spare minute of my time, turned to him in my hour of need, loved him unconditionally and completely. Our relationship was always new and refreshing, and every time I thought he began to take me for granted, he’d surprise me with an incredible new show and remind me why I loved him. But, things have changed. The enormous lack of fall television has left me brokenhearted, alone, and rebounding with not-so-good-for-me-but-incredibly-enticing Netflix.

Network television’s fall TV premiere line-up seemed promising. There were the obvious shoe-ins in the shape of returning series: Season Two of This Is Us, more Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and cult favorites like Empire, Scandal, and Supernatural. Personally, I couldn’t wait to find out more about This is Us’s Pearson family and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg’s stint in jail, and I eagerly counted down the days until The CW’s Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend returned to prime time. I was excited to return to the ins and outs of Firehouse 51 in Chicago Fire and even willing to give Designated Survivor’s sophomore season a chance. But they all let me down.

This Is Us has gotten so predictable that even the background music seems cliché. Rachel Bloom’s strong feminist character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is suddenly acting like an immature child. Jane the no-longer virgin has a boring new love interest (I told you that Michael was the heart and soul of that show), and nobody significant has been killed off of Chicago Fire since Season Two (it’s now entering its sixth season), which makes the whole “will they survive?” vibe kind of ridiculous. To top it all off, Designated Survivor is no longer focused on the survivor, and Andy Samberg turns out to make a horrible convict.

Desperate to salvage my relationship, I turned to new premieres. ABC’s The Good Doctor had a fascinating premise (it’s about an autistic surgeon), but after the first episode I was already bored with every character other than the main one. Adam Scott and Craig Robinson’s new comedy Ghosted felt like an even less-funny version of Men In Black (and MIB isn’t even a comedy…), and Daveed Digg’s The Mayor is cute, but nothing to write home about.

So here I am: bored with TV, hoping for a better mid-season lineup, and watching Gossip Girl on Netflix to pass the time.  

So… it’s up to you now, Television: Woo me. Here’s to hoping we’ll rekindle our love in the winter.

Illustration made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19

Why are we all so unsatisfied? It’s both an existential and practical question, facing down administrators at colleges across the country. As diagnoses of mental disorders have skyrocketed and the palpable aura of discontent has began to seep into millennial spaces, especially the college campus, most experts are left wringing their hands without explanation. While hundreds of think pieces have been written about the existential dread of the modern world, very few have wondered if our brains themselves may be incompatible with the society we’ve made.

To understand where the disconnect between brains and our society comes from, it’s worth focusing on biology. Humans have evolved our complex brains over millennia to do one thing better than other species — to reduce uncertainty. We do this by predicting the future based on our past experiences, and then adjusting those models when they’re wrong. We call this process learning.

The neurons in our cortex and hippocampus, two areas essential for learning and prediction, are especially wired for these tasks. These neurons have two kinds of channels at their synapses that bind to glutamate, the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. The simpler channel opens up whenever glutamate is around, causing quick but fleeting pulses of activity. The more complex one needs a lot of glutamate to open, but when it does, it triggers a host of structural changes in the neuron to make it more responsive in the future.

This process is called long-term potentiation, and it is the molecular basis of learning from sea slugs all the way up the food chain to Homo Sapiens. But one innovation made by mammals is the addition of dopamine to the picture. For us, whenever something unexpectedly good happens that doesn’t meet our predictions, our brains send those neurons a pulse of dopamine. This cements those molecular changes of LTP on a scale of weeks to months, and makes sure that the association is learned.

This process was ideal for the hundreds of thousands of years humans spent as hunter-gatherers. We lived in an much more uncertain world, where many of our predictions were wrong and small unexpected pleasures (such as finding berries where there were none previously) abounded. Our brains would frequently receive small pulses of episodic happiness through dopamine. Learning based on rewarding prediction errors to motivate similar behavior in the future works only when those prediction errors are common.

While the world may seem uncertain existentially, in the most basic of ways it is far more predictable. That lack of constant, small pulses of dopaminergic inputs may be the root cause of many modern issues. When most of our material comforts are taken care of by technology, we turn elsewhere to find those hits of dopamine our brains are wired to crave. Whether that be through an alert notification on our phones, a pint of ice cream, or forcing a dopamine rush through  alcohol, opioids, cannabinoids, or other substances, we increasingly engineer artificial means of dopamine release — sometimes to addictive and destructive ends.

So what can be done to alleviate the issue? Instead of turning to massive and artificial methods of dopamine generation, re-introducing small and, more importantly, surprising pleasures into your life can provide a brain evolved to learn through unpredictability those necessary reward prediction errors. Eat a new food, explore a new place downtown without an agenda, have a conversation with someone unexpected. Our intelligence is how we’ve made it this far — maybe we can think our way out of this one.

 

Full credit for this conceptualization goes to Peter Sterling. For a more detailed elaboration on this idea I wholeheartedly recommend reading his essay “On Human Design” or his book Principles of Neural Design, specifically Chapter 14

Uniquely Human is written by Heather Macomber and runs every other Monday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.