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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 2, 2023

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The Penfield Mood Organ and Me: Are We Already Transhuman by Chemistry and Mnemonics Rather than Engineering?

Background: Read or re-read the first scene of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Read the whole book, one day, but just the first few paragraphs should do us for the moment, this scene is almost a standalone story and got me thinking, leaving aside the rest of the book. I was also inspired by this post on theMotte and the discussion around it to think about what responsibilities we have to dial up what mood at what time.

TLDR: Phillip K. Dick gives us the Penfield Mood Organ, a magical yet dystopian device that can stimulate the brain to put the user in different moods as appropriate, from Interested and Businesslike to Erotic Mania to Self Accusatory Depression. I thought through all the artificial tools, chemical and electronic and mnemonic, that I use to put myself in the mood I want to be in for any activity. Where do we draw the line between the dystopian Mood Organ, which would destroy some essential concept of humanity or natural life by putting a mood in my mind artificially, and the “normal” and traditional use of chemicals and other tools to create moods in the human mind?

I came home stressed out and tired from work one night, but still had plenty to do around the house. We had a dinner party planned for the next evening, and I was anticipating another busy day at work the next day, I would be lucky to have enough time to shower and clean myself up before the party, let alone to clean, so I would have to clean everything tonight if I wanted to get it done at all. Not being much in the mood to clean the house, which is hardly one of my favorite tasks to begin with, I popped in my earbuds and queued up an audiobook I hadn’t listened to yet, and took a couple of hits on a marijuana vape pen to calm my nerves and make the book a little more interesting. Just a couple of hits of the right stuff are perfect: calms the stress of the day, makes the book feel a little more profound, makes cleaning a little more pleasant. The book was a sci-fi classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I understand was later made into a movie a lot of guys like, so I was figuring on escapism and good writing while I worked.

The first chapter of the book opens with the protagonist arguing with his wife, a domestic squabble made sci-fi through the Penfield Mood Organ, a home appliance which could through “Penfield Brain Waves” put the user into whatever mood desired. The protagonist wishes to dial a Businesslike Attitude appropriate to the day’s work, his uncooperative wife wishes to dial a Self Accusatory Depression, they wrestle over which moods they are going to dial, maybe they’ll make themselves angry for the argument. This little vignette shook me, maybe the weed covering the stress opened my mind too much, as I realized all the things I did every day to put myself in the right mood artificially for every task. The weed, even the book I was listening to that had so shocked me, had been meant to put me in the mood to clean; and I can’t tell you how many times I’d fought with my wife when I came home around then and found her rewatching something on Netflix that I found likely to be pinning her in a depression. I was shook, it wasn’t helping me do dishes or vacuum, I switched to a Blocked and Reported episode, where I heard about some nonsense going on Twitter, this was a while ago I don’t even remember what the drama was, and probably no one else does other than the people actively involved and I’m sure even they have a different view on the matter now. This was the mood I needed (thanks @tracingwoodgrains), light and distracting, and it put me in the right headspace, I cleaned the house.

The book barely expands on the Mood Organ, but it didn’t need to, just that one background scene about their marriage made me think about all the things I use every day to put myself in one mood or another. I pictured the Mood Organ as something like one of those fancy Grundig shortwave radios I bought at an auction and thought was really cool but never actually used for much; but my real Mood Organ is more of a duffle bag, or perhaps a filing cabinet. So what’s in my bag of tricks? What moods can I dial up? What methods do I use to do it?

In this drawer we have chemicals, substances. Caffeine in various forms, the double latte I make every morning for my wife and I to drink in bed and enter a Businesslike and Professional mood before work; the much better extra foam latte we might order on a coffee date at our local after church, meant to be enjoyed for a leisurely half hour with conversation; the Celsius or pre-workout I chug before going for a new 1rm; the Kirkland knockoff Five Hour Energy that I keep in my glovebox as a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” supply of energy for work or a long drive. Alcohol in various formats: white wine for a romantic evening; good whiskey and cognac to be sipped with friends; Jaeger to be shot to get wild and pretend I’m still a college student; beer to get just the right buzz for a social event or ballgame.

Then there’s the marijuana section: a knockoff Pelican case filled with vape cartridges, edibles, little tubes with different strains of bud for different effects. I used to think weed was just weed, but as I’ve become a connoisseur I’ve realized how different one or another hits. Lemon Fuel or Robot Girl are energizing, great for a fun Moon Board workout or cleaning the house; BlueBerry Kush or Schnozzzzzberry put me couch locked, sleepy; Durban 95 has my mind racing with new possibilities and interpretations of everything I see, enough and it is almost hallucinogenic. And the delivery matters: the vape pen or tincture I can dose precisely, taking just one or two hits to get a mild buzz going without obstructing anything; an edible is a wild ride going wherever it wants to go for hours; the mechanical vape is somewhere in between, depending how much I load I can stick to a more energizing strain but I have to vape quarter of an oven at least and that can be too much for some things. Get the dose just right and I’m having a good time, vacuuming the house and doing laundry or hanging out with my parents watching an old John Wayne movie with no indication anything is amiss. Get it wrong and I’ve blown it, I’m sitting on the couch reading theMotte and giggling. All the different applicators and strains producing different moods for different tasks, carefully chosen and dosed by experience.

And then there are the pills, not something I use a lot of but something I’m experimenting with a little. Modafinil, a pile of little quarter pills I cut up for tiny doses, which is magic when I’m tired and need to go for a long drive or work late, so much cleaner burning than caffeine, though I’m cautious so far to avoid hurting my sleep cycle and have barely touched it yet. And, for when I want to dial up 069 Ecstatic Sexual Bliss for my partner and I, a couple little packets from Roman with generic Viagra and Cialis in them. I didn’t medically need the pills, but as I said to a friend Barry Bonds won multiple MVPs before he took steroids; it’s nice to be able to dial up perfection whenever I want it without worrying.

1/2 Continued Below

2/2 Continued

Over here on this shelf we have the phone an amazing mood organ all by itself. Spotify playlists are set for workouts, long and short, intense and recovery. My primary workout playlist is songs I like to sing along to, with a good helping of comedy because nothing makes me push through a pump like laughing at Imagine What I Could Do To You. But there’s also a 10 minute snatch test playlist, that contains only songs with no intros or bridges, all killer no filler. I play instrumental deep house or prog rock when I’m typing, classical or jazz when I’m relaxing, and a big Cole Porter songbook playlist for romance. That’s just the music. Headspace gets me to sleep every night, and theoretically has a bunch of other features I don’t use. There’s also podcasts, which can inform me or entertain me, distract me from boring tasks; infuriate me with Culture War bullshit or make me feel superior dunking on my outgroup. TikTok is a unique mood organ, it both reflects and stimulates moods, but ultimately all it does is pin me to my seat and waste time, the mood of inspiration that Roman History guys try to create is fleeting and false even by digital standards. I won’t get into theMotte and what it does for me. If I’m horny or I want to be, snapchat and telegram beckon with partners current and recorded, available at a moment’s notice. And Netflix offers me thousands of options for moods from tragic sorrow to optimistic inspiration to comedic soothing.

Beyond that, we have the mechanical and mnemonic tools I use to control my mood. My accupressure mat can relax me, can put me to sleep for a 30 minutes nap reliably. Some of my clothing, I’m a big believer in look good feel good play good, when you put on a sharp suit it’s a mood, when you put on your lucky shirt you hit a PR. My rosary beads produce a mood, so does carrying my ccw, so does the art on my walls and so do the shoes I wear. Candles, soaps, massage guns, even just knick knacks and tchotchkes that make me remember great moments in my life.

Now you start adding all this together, and it really becomes possible to dial up moods, and I do it all the time. I wake up and have a big day at work, I’m putting on a sharp clean suit and drinking a double espresso, listening to The Economist podcast to feel informed quickly. I’m stressed and want to hang out with my wife, I’m putting on comfortable clothes, lighting a candle, turning on a Tribe Called Quest playlist, loading Blueberry Kush into the vape, and watching a comedy. My wife and I are having a "special guest star” over, we’re pouring wine and putting on Cole Porter, I might surreptitiously pop a Tadalafil Citrate for confidence and top performance. I’m getting psyched to hit a big total in the gym, I’m dry-scooping pre workout and blaring Amon Amarth and Bolt Thrower.

I’m dialing up a mood every single day, maybe a little more laboriously than punching a number into your Penfield, but how different is it in principle, ethically? Let’s return to Deckard and Iran and compare. Is he right to ask her to dial up the mood he wants rather than what she wants to dial? What does it mean to tell someone to change their mood, is that overriding their natural emotions? If it’s horrifying for Iran to dial up a depression, is it horrifying for my wife to re-watch The Office for the umpteenth time? Alternately, if we say that’s what Iran wants so she should be allowed to do it and it is horrifying for Deckard to try to stop her, is it wrong when I criticize my wife for re-watching The Office when she’s upset on the basis that a show that shallow and over-done won’t snap her out of anything but just allow her to wallow? If it’s depressing and unnatural for Deckard to dial up a business-like attitude when he needs it, is it depressing for me to drink a coffee and put on a suit to get myself in the mood for work? If the idea of a woman dialing up erotic abandon artificially is dark and sort of ruins the point, how much Cole Porter and white wine and tadalafil ruins the point in the real world?

Some would probably answer yes, and some would probably answer no, to each of these questions. I’m not sure how I answer them! But, (and this was a side effect of dialing up “Open Minded and Creative” at the wrong moment, right?) it’s a question I’ve been thinking about ever since it first occurred to me. Part of me thinks that this is enhancing me, making me more human, making me more of a tough lifter guy when I need to be, more of a lawyer when I need to be, more of a lover; work hard and play hard and relax hard. Campbell cites the idea that we’re all always playing roles, and speaks of a courtly Japanese affectation of referring to all actions as play: “I’m playing at running the company” “He is playing at driving” even “I heard your father is playing at being dead.” Maybe this is just one more prop to help me play my role every day.

And part of me wonders if I even know what real is any more. My world is so mediated that I can’t even recognize it. Facing the world without caffeine would be honestly unrecognizable some mornings; I realize that for others that is a world without weed, a world without alcohol, a world without prozac or nicotine or dmt. At some level it horrifies me, but I don’t know what that level is. I can’t find the limiting principles.

And then the problem of others. Let’s say we’re all playing our role, who is the director? Who gets to tell who that they aren’t trying to play their role right, that they shouldn’t be dialing up anomie and empty pleasure but ferocious ideological aggression? What right do I have to tell people they should or shouldn’t have what feelings at what time, or what tools they can use to induce those feelings?

I’m curious to hear the answers of others, and to hear what’s in your Penfield Mood Cabinet.

And part of me wonders if I even know what real is any more.

Well damn. I have a Mood Cabinet too and have been struggling with this question for some time. It's gotten more relevant recently because I've discovered that I am somewhat unhappy with my life--I lack certain things such as enough meaningful human interaction (I get plenty of the meaningless stuff at work); and I find it harder and harder to focus on what I'm doing. The question I'm stuck on is "who/what is selecting the moods?"

I don't know. Much of it feels like a program put in place by early-20's me composed of things like "there's always time for exercise", "X, Y, and Z types of entertainment are heresy", "every job change should increase my salary min. 10%" and lots of ambitious and optimal stuff like that. And in the years since then, it feels like my life has been focused on optimizing everything within those constraints.

In many ways, it's proven successful. I have an extremely financially stable life. I've tried a bunch of fun things like traveling and sports. I've learned to go deep on certain things like literature. I've found a loving partner. But as I've mentioned before, I just discovered that there are areas of my life that essentially stopped changing since my early 20's, most of them orbiting around human relationships (my early 20's self was a misanthropic shithead). And this little crisis has forced me face the Director who selects my moods. It's a weird feeling. Like suddenly discovering you were merely a mask sitting on someone's face. You thought you had thought and adventures and relationships, but really, it was the mask having all these things.

On the brighter side, the mask doesn't seem that far from the Director. And the guy turned out to be pretty careful and empathetic. So it seems the path ahead is to recombine the two beings to be able to say, truly, "I am."


My Cabinet is stocked somewhat similarly to yours. The main differences I see are that I rarely touch caffeine since it makes me hyperventilate. That, and I rely on a bunch of different consumables to calms down--l-theanine, ashwaghanda, valerian root, and cannabis (blunts or tincture).

Also, exercise is a big one for me. It gives me a unique mixture of calm energy that I can then use on productive work. Anything from a 5k run during lunch to doing a dozen pullups works wonders. That and some light stretching every day, especially in the evening, seems to give me a solid foundation to function that only requires minor adjustment w/ the consumables I mention above.

Edit: I forgot one: books. Reading a certain type of book puts me a mood that can last for days. Technical books for puzzle-solving mood. History books for writing. Epic sci-fi books for confidence, etc.

The usual stuff - caffeine to satisfy the addiction and as a ritual or habit, music suitable to whatever I'm doing both to put my mind on the right track and to drown out ambient distractions, social alcohol. So far, nothing special. Presumably more uniquely, I have my little regular nonreligious prayers of thanksgiving to my benefactors, but that's fairly minor in terms of effect.

My strongest mood modifier is something that probably goes the opposite way of yours. You worry about losing track of the world for all the modifications you make to your perception of it. The strongest tool in my cabinet has the opposite effect.

I go outside, often without even telling anyone so as to not contaminate my foray with anybody's expectations or ideas. I walk or bike off into the countryside, as directly away from civilization as is possible in between all the sprawling tendrils of settlement of industry. I keep going until I'm physically exhausted and then I look for a quiet place. Then I lie down, and am alone with the world. The ground, the sky, the trees and rocks the wind and maybe the river. Maybe some distant lights of wind power plants. Usually birds of prey circling overhead. It no longer matters what came before or what will come after. There I am, but that too does not matter. I might die right then and there and that's fine. The hills, the water, the air, the sun, the stars, all those predate me and will postdate me anyways. I stay there until I'm rested or I begin to grow cold, then make my way back into the lesser human world of constant distractions and transient details. Does it matter whether I'm caffeinated or drunk or sober there? That place itself doesn't matter much. There's a giant sphere of rock and iron below me and an infinite wasteland of blue and night and light above, and anything in between is small and will be gone in a moment.

The Penfield Mood Organ probably has a number and a name for this. Cosmic irrelevance? Whatever it is, I like to dial it.

God dont lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

My initial reaction:

Where do we draw the line between the dystopian Mood Organ, which would destroy some essential concept of humanity or natural life by putting a mood in my mind artificially, and the “normal” and traditional use of chemicals and other tools to create moods in the human mind?

I'd say the difference between the Mood Organ and what we have right now for emotion-hacking is that the Mood Organ is presumably perfectly effective. It just makes the emotion perfectly. In our real world, with our SSRIs, CBD products, and so on, our biology can introduce a surprising amount of error--enzymes can shred antidepressants before they even reach our brain, we can have paradoxical reactions to medicine, some people can't hold their liquor, etc. Another thing is, how reversible is the Mood Organ? Can it simply be de-implanted? By contrast, we think of substances as having to be weaned off of, which takes longer and could be harder, but at least is non-invasive.

As someone who likes to drink those gamer-oriented supplements (GFuel et. al), almost never drinks alcohol, and relies on electronic entertainment for needed stimulation (e.g: If I'm going to write or do some repetitive digital task, I like to put music on in the background, the right music can keep me vibing through the thing), I suppose I could try to cultivate better willpower, but I'm not usually in any situation where I need to get through things without chemical aid. I haven't donated plasma in a while and even though I have a bottle of OTC melatonin on my nightstand, I almost never use it, as I just put in my earbuds instead and cue up some sleep-aid material.

Huh. I do none of the things you listed, and cant really think of any replacements either. It doesnt feel difficult to me, and indeed not even like Im resisting the tentacled grasp of technology or anything. Its just... sort of how things play out. I dont think this has made my emotional states more different from those of normies. It feels weird to read this in the tone of "we as a society" rather than maybe "I might have a bit of a problem".

I can’t find the limiting principles.

Most people just dont actively seek out ways to adjust their emotion, they just drink their coffee in the morning and their beer on friday night and stuff like that because those are just kind of what you do, and leave it at that. Thats pretty effective at preventing you from becoming unrecognisable in your lifetime at least.

Part of me thinks that this is enhancing me, making me more human

And part of me wonders if I even know what real is any more.

This seems like youre just saying real because its kind of the most generic word and you dont know better how to say what you have a problem with. I think this is much less about particular tools being "over a line", and more of a worry that tinkering will turn into (or indeed, inescapably already is) true optimisation, and where that might lead you. That maybe, if you were given enough options, you would end up making yourself not so human. Not for any failure of will, but because there genuinely seems to be no argument against each step.

And then the problem of others...

I mean, that paragraph sounds a lot like stereotypical stoned thoughts, irrespective of the mood organ path that got you there.

my productivity is directly impacted by music and audiobooks. I'm not sure if they shut off the more easily-distracted parts of my brain, or directly activate flow state, but the end result is that I get significantly more productive while listening to a series, and then significantly less productive when I run out of content to listen to.

Great post; reported as a quality contribution.

I think this is an intriguing framing and I have some very similar habits. I play Breaking Benjamin at loud volumes while working out, listen to speed metal or rap while grading quickly, and will frequently handle all the childcare / cooking / cleaning in the evening (sending my wife upstairs to play violin, drink wine, and relax) ... but only after cracking open a beer (or pouring a glass of scotch) and playing what my kids call "Dad Music". My wife is often flabbergasted at how much I get done and I always maintain that the music / alcohol are key components of productivity.

Your comparison to the Penfield Mood Cabinet recalls some short stories my brother wrote in college with a very similar theme; in his setting there were various drinks called Brews that contained chemical mixtures you could imbibe that would generate emotions (Bliss / Melancholy / etc.). In fact, one of his stories had two characters notice the exact comparison you drew. One of them, Sebastian, argues that the end goal is exactly the same -- creation of a certain mood or emotional connection with what's around you. He feels that the drinks are faster, more reliable, and skip the tedious part where you try to find the perfect song / book / etc.; you can just buy the emotion from a bottle, easy.

At the risk of doxxing, I'll quote the reply of the second character as he's taken the first out on a hike in the Colorado wilderness for a taste of real life:

I brought the subject up again after we had finished eating. We were enjoying hot chocolate in the cool air. The stream was whispering behind us, and we could see our frosty breath by the light of the moon.

"How was your dinner?" I asked.

"Magnificent," Sebastian said. "Better than I've had in days."

I didn't doubt it. Food always helped with my Brew withdrawal, back what seemed like a lifetime ago. "My grandfather used to say that the point of hiking was to have lunch," I said. "He always found that food tastes immeasurably better out here."

Sebastian looked at me.

"He was being a little facetious."

"Clearly," Sebastian said.

"That's not my reason," I said, "But I think my grandfather grasped something important. He also said that the hiker climbs great lumps of rock over long periods of time, not to get anywhere, but to get back to where he started."

"We're not going anywhere?" Sebastian said.

"Don't be silly," I said. I pointed to Eolus, its dramatic face rising above us in the moonlight. "That's where were going tomorrow. I was just thinking about what you said. About why I don't just drink a Brew and become happy that way. There are a lot of reasons why I don't think that's a good idea. The first is that of value. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. How much does someone who buys those Brews value happiness? At around ten dollars and fifty cents. That's pretty cheap for an hour of Bliss, I suppose. When I become happy thanks to something like this, it's something special. It's something... not rare, but out of the ordinary and memorable. I suspect that people who drink those Brews too often not only stop being able to feel things normally, but the Brews themselves will stop working. They will get bored after the overdose of emotions. They will need more and more chemicals in their brain in order to get the same amount of pleasure, and eventually the brain just won't be able to take it. Eventually, the sheer amount of chemicals it would take to produce this amount of happiness," I raised my arms to encircle the situation, "would kill them."

"I don't think the brain works that way," Sebastian said.

"That's not my only point. My second point, the more important one, goes back to what you said in the car. I don't do this purely for an emotional response. I don't read books and watch movies just to feel a certain thing. I do it to learn something about the world, or in this case, something about myself. That's what my grandfather was trying to say, I think. The hiker, when he gets back to where he started, doesn't just go in a circle. He becomes a different person, somehow, thanks to that hike. It's a spiral. He returns to where he was, but on a higher plane. He's wiser, stronger, and more determined. A good hike can, and should, teach you something. It should change you. And if you feel happy along the way, that's an added bonus. But it's not a necessary condition. And I don't think that those Brews can teach you anything that's not already inside yourself. When you drink one and get your emotional rush, in the end, you're the same person. Those Brews primarily look inward, and are self-centered." I gestured to the mountains above us. "This... this looks outward."

My reply is the same. If you dial up an emotion in a Mood Cabinet or by drinking a Brew, it's self-stimulation of a masturbatory and perverse fashion. It doesn't grow you as a person, you don't learn anything, you remain unchanged. I would put use of drugs and abuse of alcohol in this category as well, although I would greatly struggle to explain why I feel like mild use of alcohol is OK and use of drugs at all is problematic.

If you craft an emotion by listening to music, created by other people and selected and enjoyed by you, or by reading a specific book, or drinking a wine you like ... you're engaging with the world around you in a way that develops your taste and personality.

To answer your last point briefly, I think ideally the methods you use to help step into the role of the moment would help you grow in virtue as well, developing you towards your aspirations and the kind of person you think you ought to become next. I shouldn't medicate or dial in emotions to work me in the direction of a drunkard, but a glass of scotch that helps me step into the role of better husband and father is worth it.

(some edits to add a few points in)

Great post thanks for writing it! My Mood Cabinet is pretty similar to yours weed/alcohol/audio stimulus. One you did miss but I think will seem obvious once I say it is food. And I think this probably has some important interactions with obesity in the west. If I'm in a foul mood I'll reach for comfort food, which contains the whole idea in the name. I don't think any of this is really transhuman so much as a natural and ancient human tendency done with modern tools. Consider the various definitions of "habit".