Recently, I had the good fortune of being seated next to a brilliant experimental high-energy physicist at lunch. As a behavioral economist, an emissary of the so-called “soft” social sciences, I’ve long been fascinated by the theory and application of physics, which is typically labeled as one of the “hard” sciences. I tend to express myself best through analogy and metaphor, and physics speaks to me in the way that it explains relationships, translating complex interactions into elegant, and often intricate, mathematical equations.
The physicist and I were debating the use of a potholder, woven from cotton loops by my five-year old, as a visual representation of the concepts of diversity, equity, equality, intersectionality, and inclusion. Whereas I was focused on the representation in abstract terms, my physicist friend was decidedly more concrete. Ultimately, we decided that, sometimes, a potholder is just a potholder.
I share this anecdote because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what physics tells us about relationships. Despite a valiant attempt to read Newton’s masterpiece, the Principia, in Latin near the end of high school, my depth of association with the material remains superficial. (Please note that, as a second-generation Trekkie, the urge to make reference to reading it in the original Klingon is overwhelming, but I am, somehow, not exactly, restraining myself.). My understanding of the basic laws that define classical mechanics is fairly rudimentary. Yet, because of my curvilinear mind’s love of correlations between divergent topics across disparate fields, I continue to return to them. Lately, it is Newton’s First Law that has been on my mind.
Lex I: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.Sir Isaac Newton, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, 1687
Over the centuries, this sentence has been translated to mean that the natural tendency of an object is to keep doing what it’s doing, in so far as it is situated in an inertial frame of reference. An inertial frame of reference is another way of saying that the system in which the object exists is uniform and has no external forces acting on it. Essentially, it’s a vacuum.
For those with post-positivist proclivities or advanced degrees in physics or mathematics, now might be a good time to skip to the concluding paragraph. The analogy is about to begin and, likely, will be somewhat tortured.
Depression slows me down by sapping my energy, my passion, and my zest for activity. As an object, my natural tendency is to remain in motion. Movement (somewhat paradoxically) is my resting state. Right now, as I continue to come through this extended major depressive episode, I am experiencing my depression as an invisible external force that challenges my natural inertia. Interia is the property of objects that, ceteris paribus, makes them resistant to change in speed. In other words, an object’s inertia will lead it to continue moving (in a straight line at the same speed) or to remain still, until and unless, the object is acted upon by an outside force. My depression is that outside force, acting on my brain, interrupting the inertia carrying me forward.
#JerkBrain becomes an even more apt descriptor when I consider the effect of the significant change in velocity my depression creates for me. In physics, jerk is the term used to describe the rate of change of acceleration. Its lexiconological buddy, snap, is a measure of the change in the rate of jerk. Think of it this way, as my depression takes hold, literally stopping me in my tracks, it shocks my system. One moment I am cruising along, the next I am slamming into a brick wall. The result truly is jerk brain.
I think about all this and turn it over in my mind, because to some extent I find it comforting. When I can visualize my mind working in this way, picturing stars and planets moving through my head, I can better understand, intellectually, what is happening to me. The question then becomes how to best learn about the outside force, my depression, so I can find a way to render it inert.
This week, I have been consumed by exhaustion. Regardless of how well or long I sleep at night, I am finding that I need at least one, if not two, substantial naps during the day to keep functioning. Tiredness overwhelms me. It’s most prevalent when I am reading or writing, two of the things I enjoy most. It feels as if the more engaged my mind gets in what I am doing, the more my brain counters by stealing every ounce of my energy. Part of me wonders if this is a side effect of backing off of one of the three medications I’ve been taking. However, having experienced this sensation before, I also think it could be another manifestation of the depression on its own. Regardless, I find it frustrating. I hate having my concentration broken by heavy eyelids and an inability to focus. For now, I’m trying to find new ways of feeling engaged and productive. Even as a child, I resisted sleeping during the day. It makes me feel lazy and like I am, somehow, failing. Failing at what, though, I’m not sure. My recovery? Life in general? It’s all very vague in my jerk brain. So this is where I am right now, an object that wants to stay in motion, but is being acted upon by an outside force.