Exit through the Gift Shop – The Key to Stopping Positive Feedback Loops

Nature is filled with repeating themes in how it operates. One theme is that it is cyclic and predictable. The seasons change at roughly the same time every year. Day progresses into night. In turn, these cycles influence how humans act. In the same way that nature is predictable, the actions we take because of it are also predictable. Throughout history, humans had to tune into the cyclical nature of things to survive. We had to grow crops in the spring and harvest them in the fall. In modern day we are not as dependent on these cycles and don’t have to work nearly as hard to survive. The modern-day counterpart to acting predictably because of nature’s predictability is menial. I change my snow tires, bring out the suitable attire, and turn on the furnace when it’s winter. Times have changed. 

Predictable Unpredictability 

The world has changed in the last 2 years because of the pandemic. Nature’s unpredictability, due to the emergence of a novel corona virus, shifted day to day life into even more monotony. To me, much of the days are feeling the same and seeking novelty has been tough. The emergence of viruses is much more unpredictable than the seasons. The coronavirus, however, has evolved partly due to predictability. Through infection, the virus amplifies itself, and evolves, leading to more infection. Although viruses are not considered living, the need to reproduce is another aspect of nature’s predictability and viruses are no different. Virus amplification is an example of a positive feedback loop. Positive feedback loops are very common in nature and happen in many scientific fields. Bacteria exhibit sets of genes, called operons, that function to amplify themselves. Looking back at the corona virus, positive feedback loops also exist at the level of epidemiology where social policies influence the extent to which version of the virus will amplify (1). 

Positive feedback loops serve to amplify themselves and in doing so, lead towards a greater deviation from homeostasis. Enter negative regulation. Going on a positive feedback loop necessitates the need for something to keep it in check. In molecular biology this could be another protein. You could also say that vaccines act as a negative regulator for COVID in that they put a dent its transmissibility. COVID-19 has shifted my life, and many others, into a state of predictability. Although lockdowns and restrictions are less widespread now, the year of 2020 to halfway through 2021 shifted life into monotony. This has taken routine to the extreme and that comes with positive feedback loops on a psychological level. You are doing the same thing every day which forces you to think the same thoughts, feel the same way, and this eventually feeds back positively to you doing the same exact things as the day before. 

I believe that much of the program we’re running in our brains forces us into these positive feedback loops. That’s not to say that positive feedback loops are detrimental. Working out, for example, leads to more exercise as you see results. They become detrimental when they shift you so far out of homeostasis that you don’t even remember the feeling of balance. Addiction is a prime example of remaining in a thinking-feeling-being positive feedback loop. Coupling it with physiological dependency ingrains that loop into your being. Like a roller coaster that never ends, positive feedback loops keep you far removed from homeostasis and can lead to disease. 

Getting Off the Roller Coaster

I mentioned that positive feedback loops do not exist in perpetuity. With every loop comes the need for a negative regulator, something to stop the loop from amplification. These negative regulators function as a return to homeostasis. So how do you find a negative regulator? One way is to simply break out of routine and do something new. This interrupts the feedback loop at the “action” or “being” checkpoint which in turn will evoke new thoughts and emotions. Another way is through awareness, specifically awareness of the positive feedback loops you’re running. Metacognitive tasks like these are a form of invaluable introspection that allows you to have a different kind of relationship with your psyche. It’s kind of like knowing when and how you’re being pranked and putting an end to it before it even starts. Once being aware of the various positive feedback loops that put you out of balance, you can start to modify them. This is the main premise of cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT for short. CBT largely consists of changing the program you’re running by reframing your thoughts. While this is useful, I feel like changing your actions is often overlooked. Acting in different ways leads to new experiences and experiences are what is ingrained most into your being. Merely eliciting a thought about an experience may bring up some of the associated emotions, but that doesn’t compare with how you felt when it happened. Anthony Damasio calls these loops elicited by thought alone “as-if” loops, they are purely imagined (2). However, he also contrasts these with body loops; these are loops that occur in real-time as one encounters a new stimulus (i.e. a new experience). Body loops are more visceral and feedback to the body. Body loops are what fully alters those subconscious positive feedback loops that keep you far from homeostasis. Seek out new experiences to get off the proverbial rollercoaster. 

References

  1. Multiscale Feedback Loops in SARS-CoV-2 Viral EvolutionChristopher Barrett, Andrei C. Bura, Qijun He, Fenix W. Huang, Thomas J.X. Li, Michael S. Waterman, and Christian M. Reidys. Journal of Computational Biology 2021 28:3, 248-256
  2. Damasio, Antonio R. (1994). Descartes’ error : emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York :G.P. Putnam,
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