Fly on the Wall—Limbic Fantasies Amid Study Reality

Next Generation Thinking

Pop culture gleams with opportunities for sociological analytics.  Take the country song “What Was I Thinking” by Dierks Bentley:

“I was thinking ‘bout a little white tank top sitting right there in the middle by me
I was thinking about a long kiss man just gotta get goin’ with a night like me
Well I know what I was feeling but what was I thinking?
But what was I thinking?”

Repetition of that final query hones the point that many of our actions aren’t thought reactions at all; as AU students we often don’t know why we do, or don’t do, the things we do.  The phrase “I didn’t feel like it,” is the punchline to many an explanation for missed deadlines and swarmy explanations.

To appear to study in earnest is not, as we may have found out but may also choose to forget, the same as actively studying for real.  Yet we don’t feel like skipping studying against our better judgement in isolation.  As David T.  Courtwright, in his book The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business, notes: “the deeper truth is that we live in a world nominally dedicated to progress, health, and longevity but in fact geared toward getting us to consume in ways that are unprogressive, unhealthful and often deadly” (Courtwright, 2019)  So if we’re a victim of feeling like having fun in ways that don’t involve our course material, at least we can find someone else to blame; someone else’s dog of marketing ate our unwritten assignment!

Yes, But How Do You Feel?

Remaining to consider is the nature of how we feel about schoolwork versus how we cognitively apprehend schoolwork’s necessity for our future fulfilment.  You don’t have to take a redneck’s lyrical witticisms to explore the thought/feeling dichotomy for it, either.

Long ago and far away in a distant cosmos, teen pinup actor Wil Wheaton starred in a crucial episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Titled “The Game”, he and a girl he was crushing on found themselves surrounded by the walking dead: the entire Starship Enterprise had fallen victim to the wiles of a computer game headset.  Substituted in the stead of protocol were the priorities of the creators of the game.  The Enterprise crew was thus was at the behest of nefarious forces while appearing to function normally.  As the script states “Our crew has never looked more capable — there is nothing different or unusual about their behavior” (Sackett et al, 1991) No matter if we appear to be studying, what matters most is that we feel those creative juices flow.  And those come from within ourselves.

Reality? No, Verisimilitude!

Here the film and literary analysis term verisimilitude rears its head.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge summarizes verisimilitude as encompassing the fiction writer’s need to stimulate the reader’s life narrative desires “so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith”.  It’s this poetic faith that allows a story about, say space travellers in the future becoming addicted to a high-tech video game, to pass itself off as something we can relate to.  Kernels of truth grow gardens of fascination: that’s verisimilitude.

Jargony though its syllables be, there’s a fair distance between mere believability and the magical outcome derived when a person accepts a story they’re told.  Verisimilitude refers to the sparkle that carries into a story’s inner world; even as this world chimes with our own we find our reality transposed onto that of a fiction thus illustrating a certain fictitiousness in ordinary life itself.  Like a brainwash potion, verisimilitude stimulates both our unconscious limbic drives and our liminal life expectations.  For instance: everyone wants to fall in love, or almost everyone, and that’s why romance sells so well.  Likewise, when others in our world seem a bit akimbo or off kilter, as would happen if, say, the advent of smart phones and their attendant Apps were to appear overnight in our social life—rather than over a decade or more—everything gets thrown for a loop.  People might be doing their jobs and dating and living normally, but we’d immediately notice if suddenly everyone was glued to a tiny handheld screen.  This jarring reality becomes Wil Wheaton’s world in the episode; it’s as if suddenly our study buddy dropped out of AU or our tutor called to say that she’d decided to give up sociology and become an accountant!  Sudden changes in fiction function to illustrate smaller shifts in real life.  As we learned to manage our time to accommodate our distance education, we may have withdrawn from certain social engagements to meet our new priorities.  If we’d drifted away all at once, however, peers and family might have assumed something was wrong with us.

Hypothalamic Hyperbole or the Essence of Modern Life?

“The Game” begins when a shore leave flirt of the show’s other male heartthrob, Jonathon Frakes, brings a little device into their bedroom play.  It’s a game that, not unlike any Gameboy at the time, involves using one’s mind (more than any physical exertion) to put an, er, object into a somewhat mobile, but tantalizingly available, hole.  The hypothalamus (physio-neuro home of the infamous ‘5 F’s’: food, flight, etc) , not to mention Freudian thought, is clearly implicated.

These are universal themes; we all have a limbic system, the access to which is available upon request.  Upon scoring the player then receives a serotonin jolt of pleasure: “Etana continues to rub his shoulders.  He concentrates –sending out more bursts — but they keep missing the cone.  Finally, the disc drops right into the cone.  Suddenly, Riker’s entire body tenses up.  A moment, then he relaxes and lets out a small gasp.  Like he’s experienced a brief moment of internal pleasure” (Sackett et al, 1991).  The pleasure we claim in moments of play (in any form) are of a different type than the slow slog of our academic successes; these aren’t designed for instant gratification.  Yet school can actually imbue our life with elements of fun if we learn to feel that way about our studies.

Cognition and the Limbic Limbo: Thinking the Unthinkable

What was Riker thinking? We know what he was feeling but as the addiction takes hold of the crew the cognitive component appears inexplicable.  As Wheaton and his young lady friend investigate the game and discover its addictive “psychotropic” properties at the limbic level, they consider its cognitive implications: What’s going on in the player’s prefrontal cortex, that seat of reason?

Doesn’t that area control higher

Yeah…  it sure does.
Maybe there’s more going on here
than we thought.  Someone could
be trying to use the game — for
some purpose other than

(Sackett et al. 1991)


One doesn’t have to be a bit suspicious of the gaming industry’s motives to consider that what seems entertaining or informative also contains implicit messages that, by the proverbial back door, enter the pathways of the labyrinth that is our mind.  There are a lot of shysters, shills, and grifters out there looking to sell us pleasure at their profit and our cost.  Courtwright notes that historically “new pleasures gave rise to new vices, new vices to new addictions—for some people, anyway.  Addictive behavior was, to repeat, seldom majority behavior.  But the risk of such behavior grew as entrepreneurs rationalized—that is, made more scientific and efficient—the trade in brain-rewarding commodities” (Courtwright, 2019).  Even fictional futures aren’t exempt; the Enterprise crew had been co-opted for a mass takeover of Starfleet.  And, using a term common in the video game industry, this invasion is termed an ‘expansion’.  Expansion pack for your favourite game console anybody?

At AU we’re prone to dalliances for the simple reason that where we work on school is also where we play at some of our favourite pastimes.  We hone useful skills in self-discipline that are clearly needed in traditional educational settings.  Courtright describes how one economics class in Sweden was afflicted with an addiction to World of Warcraft: “ ‘How do they feel about their circumstances?’ I asked.  ‘They feel angst,’ Berg said.

‘But they keep playing?’ ‘They keep playing.’”

This sort of behaviour does seem like an addiction, in the sense of a compulsive, regret-filled pursuit of transient pleasures that are harmful to both the individual and society.  For gaming, the personal cost was highest for Swedish men.  “I am,” Berg reported, “now the only male in my graduate program in economic history” (ibid).

No conspiracy is needed to explain this statistical outcome.  This realm of limbic distractions isn’t limited to what used to be the realm of dweebs, nerds, geeks and rejects.  It’s pretty normal for a hallway or park to be filled with folks holding their smartphones in front of their seemingly-downcast faces, as if there was a mystery beacon within the device that led the way to life-giving manna.  Augmented realities, the likes of Pokemon Go, closely resemble the Star Trek: TNG episode in question.  But wait, there’s more.

Where there’s limbic stimulation the more, uh, essential bodily functions are invariably implicated.  “Back home in Florida, I noticed digital distractions exacting a more even academic toll.  The smartphones that dotted the lecture halls were as often wielded by women as by men.  But when I told Berg’s tale to my students, they instantly recognized the type.  One admitted that he had lost a year to compulsive gaming.  He said that he was in recovery—precariously, to judge by his grades.  Another student knew gamers who kept cans by their computers.  They used them to avoid having to take bathroom breaks” (ibid)

If you can’t take the time to get up and pee you’ve probably got a problem.  It must be a heckuva fun game but seriously: what are you thinking? The outcome in terms of medical discourse is probably not surprising: “In 2013, the new edition of the bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5, described gaming disorders in language indistinguishable from drug addiction.  The editors ushered “internet gaming disorder” into the green room of addiction by designating it a “condition for further study”.  Likewise, in 2018 the WHO made it official by adding “gaming disorder” to the revised International Classification of Diseases” (ibid).

Whatever our distractions from the edifying impact of cracking our textbooks, it’s clear that these pleasurable asides can be more than mere fun and games.  Cell phone apps with wan names like Words With Friends belie their tendency to implicate underlying compulsions.  Something may be amiss anytime something seems like a necessity when rational cognition clearly categorizes it as a luxury.  “Medical researchers have discovered that substance and behavioral addictions have similar natural histories.  They produce similar brain changes; similar patterns of tolerance; and similar experiences of craving, intoxication and withdrawal” (ibid).

So where does this leave our noble AU selves, studying amidst a morass of challenges both social and cultural? On TNG, the game apparatus hooks up through the temples and affects straight through their optic nerve.  Like any new interest, the game navigates a steep incline from curiosity to obsession.  Bearing this in mind, let’s recall that AU was new too to us once.  Perhaps to succeed at AU requires a certain attachment to our studies and the discovery of pleasure in our work.  Otherwise, we’re more likely to fall prey to those seemingly-affable stimulations of our limbic centre.  Ever wonder about the link, or distance between heart and mind, between brainy desire to study and achieve success and the will’s disturbingly weak and labile tendency to fall for flighty whims of procrastination? Well that’s a limbic challenge right there.

Wil Wheaton’s Lady Friend; Rational Approaches to Felt Challenges

Wil Wheaton’s eyes and mind found a winner.  His crush had a unique way of learning that stimulated both limbic and prefrontal realms.  Noting “your neutrons are drifting” he taught her something and she recorded it in a personal Law Book.   Wheaton was fascinated by her ingenius approach:

“You have a funny way of looking at conduit configuration.  But it works.”

Law Thirty-Six — You gotta go
with what works.

What are these laws you keep
talking about?

My own personal laws.  When I
learn something essential, I make
up a law about it.  That way, I
never forget”

(Sackett et al, 1991)

Personalizing her laws allowed a closer affection with her life’s work; her focus on thinking allowed her to map her responses to feelings such frustration at those drifting neutrons.  As they parted to continue their respective careers, she even gave her book of laws to Wheaton.  To study, perchance to learn and even follow himself.

For this “Fly in the Wall” the devil is in the details; if we can find a fondness, an affinity, with our coursework it can acquire a more beloved, or at least appreciated, place in the nether regions of our brains.  I’m not saying give our coursework a name, like naming some unfortunate affliction of our bodies, but the more we enjoy our studies at every level, including the limbic, the better off we’ll be.  Maybe even try pairing your study time with another, purely pleasurable, action.  Smarties, smoothies, sex, I don’t know, the choice is yours, but to avoid limbic limbo where it never feels like the right time to study we might as well try to incorporate our whole selves.

When we give cognition to others we feel good; the heart and mind of studying are linked when we share our knowledge with others.  At some level learning, like love, is itself a blend of thought and feeling.  And if we have to ask ‘what was I thinking’ to explain our study blahs just remember: to study with feeling we have to learn to feel it!

Courtwright, D.T.  (2019).  ‘How Limbic Capitalism Preys on our Addicted Brains’.  Quillette.  Retrieved from
Sackett, S., Bronson, F.  & Braga, B.  (1991).  ‘The Game’.  Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Retrieved from
%d bloggers like this: