An alien perspective on the human race
by Peter Huston
The original intent of this column is to explore how humanity might appear to extraterrestrials, the ultimate outsiders. Honestly, there are times when I wonder if such beings would even perceive us as sentient. After all, it is a matter of debate as to just how much conscious control over their own actions humans hold. We are a species marked by a proneness to addictions.
When we speak of addictions, most people think of addictions to substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or any one of a number of legal and illegal drugs. Obsessive, out-of-control consumption of any of these can lead to great financial, social and health problems, a situation that clearly marks serious addictions. Such addictions are common to not just people everywhere but a surprising variety of animals. In parts of southeast Asia drunken elephant rampages can be a lifethreatening side effect of making rice wine should an elephant stumble across the buckets used to ferment the beverages. For a good introduction to the subject of intoxication in the wild, there are many good books, but one I enjoyed was Ronald Siegel’s Intoxication.
But addictions are not just to substances. Humans are also known for behavioral addictions.
To understand behavioral addictions, it’s important to understand the mechanisms behind them. Many of us humans are often in a great deal of pain and discomfort. For some this is physical discomfort but for others, their pain has a psychological cause. There can be many sources of this pain. Poor self image, low self esteem, unrealistic expectations that make one feel like you’ve never done what one should, there can be as many different causes for pain as there are suffering people. In some cases, a solution is simple, once people recognize which patterns of thought are causing them trouble. David D. Burns, a psychiatrist, wrote a book called Feeling Good that does a good job of teaching people to monitor their own thoughts and reduce such pain. Still in many cases, the problem is much more serious and difficult to correct.
People in pain, regardless of whether that pain is psychic or physical in origin, generally take actions to avoid feeling that pain. For instance, responses to pain could include pulling a hand away from a fire or hot stove or taking an aspirin. These are healthy responses.
Unhealthy reactions to pain, particularly psychic pain, include seeking out situations that are so intense that the person will not feel their own internally generated discomfort. Once a person has found such a state, a pain-free state caused by a situation where they cannot feel their own discomfort, they often wish to return to it and seek out similar situations. For this reason, intensely emotional situations can be literally addictive.
Recently, with high profile cases like Tiger Woods and David Duchovny, sex addiction has been in the news. Can a person be addicted to sex? To some extent the issue hinges on the definition used. (Definition of addiction, not the definition of sex.) If we start with a definition of addiction that hinges on a person’s willingness to seek out something while knowing full well that they shouldn’t and that they may cause themselves and others great social, financial and physical damage, then the answer is obviously yes. In fact, who among us has not risked some sort of social problem in an attempt to, if not exactly get sex, at least get a date?
And why, pray tell, is it that when the subject of dating comes up my mind immediately goes to such subjects as anger, crisis-seeking and large quantities of unnecessary drama? Setting aside what this says about my own tendencies towards seeking out unnecessary drama to spice up my life and distract me from my own personal problems, anger, crises and intense drama all can produce states where a person does not feel their own inner pain. Therefore, for some people, they can be more attractive than mundane, uninterrupted, everyday existence. And, thus, for some people, including a surprising number of my dates over the years, all these things can be addictive. (They may also have something to do with why I not only sought out such people, but why I also have been attracted to activities like ambulance work and for a couple seasons enjoyed the sledding sport of skeleton.)
And sometimes even after a person learns that a particular activity is not healthy, and they stop doing it, they find another, possibly equally unhealthy way to avoid pain. This is why the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating. A person shifts from one release to another. They quit smoking and then start taking solace in the pleasures of food, only to soon begin to overeat. Or they go from a life lived in pursuit of drugs to a life lived in pursuit of such things as the intense thrill of staking something they can’t afford to lose a bet. In Chuck Pahlaniuk’s novel Choke there’s a very funny scene where a character overcomes sex addiction and instead tries to keep busy through rock collecting only to eventually find his cabinets, his microwave and every other nook and cranny of his house stuffed with rocks. Ultimately he and a good friend get together and soon take all the rocks outside and build a wall with them.
It’s because of this shifting from one source of pain-relief to another that so much of the discussion in the addiction and recovery field often focuses on such things as “healing the inner child,” “getting in touch with your pain,” and other terminology that sounds quite strange or even silly to an outsider.
Still, the issue is real. Behaviors can be addictive. Need proof? Visit a friend whose collecting has grown out of bounds and who clearly has too much stuff. Yes, that warm fuzzy feeling of purchasing a desired item can often become an end in itself, quite separated from any need or desire to possess. And, it can reach unhealthy levels, and thereby qualify as an addiction. Credit card debt and excessive loans can be one more aspect of the problem.
The intent of this column is to give some thought as to how humanity might appear to space aliens. In this context it has always struck me as fascinating to see what a sentient species might make of our own species’ tendency towards unhealthy, undesirable, and self-destructive behaviors. Would they dismiss us out of hand as a race prone to slipping in and out of control and therefore dangerously erratic, unpredictable and impossible to deal with? Or are occasional lapses in rationality inevitable for a sentient species? Might they have their own irrational and self-destructive behaviors? And if so what form might these take? We can only imagine, but don’t think about it too hard. You might have trouble stopping.
It’s for this very reason that the fields of addiction and recovery are sometimes so frustrating.