Hathaway Brown School
Instructor: Scott Parsons
The Mind's Impact on the Adoption of Cyclical Behaviors
The Mind's Impact on the Adoption of Cyclical Behaviors
Throughout the story of The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is known as the elusive, wealthy character who lives a dream life, or at least that is what outsiders perceive his life to be. This, however, is far from the truth because in reality, Gatsby's life consists of a never ending cycle of hosting parties that he gets no pleasure from, but continues to host, expecting a different outcome each time. Gatsby keeps up this process of organizing and hosting extravagant events and meaningless parties, hoping that his love interest, Daisy Buchanan, would eventually attend one of them. His efforts, however, prove futile time and again, and the outcome always disappoints him. Although the main theme of the book is to draw parallels between Gatsby's wealth and the American Dream of wealth and success, the story goes further and outlines how Gatsby, striving to be with Daisy, based his whole life on a dream that never materialized but instead resulted in his untimely death. This might be a familiar experience to most of us, as repeating mistakes in the hopes of a different, more positive outcome, is part of human nature.
In our modern society, we are exposed to a variety of different views depending on our environment, media, and the people that we surround ourselves with. All these exposures help shape our ideals and beliefs, and force each of us to build an image of what our lives or even our bodies should look like, and how we should behave. For instance, pick any coming-of-age movie, book or programming or talk to any teenager and they would tell you that your teenage years are supposed to be filled with a group of friends who accompany you to different parties every week, and are with you on this adventurous journey called highschool, while you experience the "best four years of your life" and figure out who you are and what you are passionate about, before going to college. While this may be true for some teenagers, for others, these "quintessential" high school experiences are both overrated and hyper romanticized, and the pressure to participate deprives them of the opportunity to explore their own interests, burdening them with the repeated suggestions that they will regret missing out on these moments. As a result, the majority of high schoolers follow the same path even when they don't get any pleasure from such experiences, or worse, when it becomes harmful to their mental or physical health.
As the fall season begins and Friday football games, dances, and organized group photos consume the minds of teens around our nation every year, one tradition, homecoming, becomes the epitome of the "American highschool experience." Starting highschool, I was aware of these events but never inherently interested, preferring to spend time participating in basketball games or competing in speech and debate competitions, as well as finishing my school work on Saturdays in order to have a relaxing Sunday before the start of a new week. While I was secure in my decision not to attend the freshman year homecoming, I was often faced with discussions about who would be going to what dance and with whom or where everyone was planning to have dinner before or after the event. These plans seemed, quite frankly, exhausting to organize and not worth the hassle, but I found myself sucked into such conversations anyway. It was inevitable, homecoming seemed to be all anyone talked about around that time of the year. Even though I was certain of my choice to skip the dance, my friends were adamant, "You need to go, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity! You'll never get back your freshman year homecoming dance experience and you'll regret missing out!." My mind however, was made up and I am pleased to say that I have not regretted my decision yet, as I spent the evening comfortably lying on my bed, enjoying a new book, and feeling the serenity that can only be gained from a quiet, relaxing night at home with no more work to complete.
Studies have shown that humans often repeat their past behaviors and experiences, hoping for better results. They do this either out of curiosity to test and see if repeating the same behavior might change the outcome, or out of familiarity because we are creatures of habit, and we tend to repeat what we have been exposed to over our lifetimes. The cycle of repetitive behavior is something that has been closely studied by psychologists and sometimes even referred to as Einstein's insanity, as he was quoted saying "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" (Wilczek 15). The futile cycle of repeating the same behaviors while hoping for different results, might explain why people repeatedly get into toxic relationships, or why they make the same career or personal mistakes over and over again despite being unhappy with the results.
Even though this might seem like an easily fixable problem, psychologists tell us that our brains are wired to suppress unpleasant memories to preserve our emotional and mental stasis. These "hidden memories" are often inaccessible in our normal state of consciousness, and remembering those moments requires being placed into the same situation and experiencing the same emotional state as before, or more simply, repeating the ordeal yet another time (Northwestern 15) . Without active access to those negative memories, humans are often unable to analyze and comprehend the reasons as to why they should not repeat old behavior, or to recognize that the repetition of such behavior can lead to an identical negative emotional response. Thus, they repeat the same old, familiar behavior, and end up in the same situation that they were previously in, unable to change or advance.
In the story of The Great Gatsby, despite Jay Gatsby's wealth and social status, he prefered solitude, and though he constantly hosted fanciful parties, he rarely attended them and never enjoyed himself. In fact, Gatsby would often disappear into thin air when speaking with others or surrounded by acquaintances, demonstrating his desire to escape social situations,"'I've been having lunch with Mr. Gatsby.' I turned toward Mr. Gatsby, but he was no longer there" (58), and, "When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness" (19). As is evident by these examples, Gatsby was an introvert who took no pleasure in prolonged conversations or social interactions with strangers but still, he continued to host events and parties for the sole reason of keeping up appearances and in his pursuit of his unattainable love for Daisy.
While Gatsby's guests had the time of their lives at his parties, he himself chose to be alone rather than spend time with those he had invited. In fact, his main wish while throwing all the parties was to get a chance to spend time with Daisy. An effort that proved unsuccessful, time after time. Even though Gatsby's actions may seem romantic on the surface, in reality Gatsby was spending his time, money, and energy on a seemingly hopeless endeavor that had brought nothing but agony for him in the past, "He came back from France when Tom and Daisy were still on their wedding trip, and made a miserable but irresistible journey to Louisville on the last of his army pay" (117). Since getting seperated from Daisy, Gatsby had created a version of their relationship in his mind that was far from reality. In this romanticized version of his love, Gatsby, disregarding the changes that people go through over the years, viewing Daisy with an idealized perfection that she never possessed. This unrealistic dream and all-consuming passion, fueled his actions and in the end, his failure to recognize the flaws of his dream, led to both his misery and his death as he passed away without knowing whether or not Daisy would ever accept his affection and love.
Even though Gatsby's parties in the summer of 1922 and the homecomings of 2019 may not have much in common, the experiences and outcomes are more alike than different. For an event so highly anticipated, my friends' experiences with the freshman year homecoming fell flat in comparison to what they had anticipated it would be like. The Monday after the party, I walked into school to a sea of faces sporting dark circles and tired looks, making it clear that they had stayed up late and didn't want to be in class after the weekend's events. My initial thought had been that everyone would enjoy their time with each other, and the drama (there were copious amounts of it), stress, and organization had all been worth it. The reality, however, was that many of my friends didn't even like their experiences saying that, "it was more hassle than it was worth". Those clearly "glowing" reviews of homecoming further cemented my decision to not attend events that I don't anticipate enjoying, and I now look back fondly on the calm, relaxing evening I experienced, comfortably reading a great book and spending my time the way it would be pleasurable to me.
Since then, I have stayed committed to my decision not to attend events or gatherings that don't add to my life's pleasures, regardless of how much my friends try to entice me into joining them. Of course, the pandemic has only added another reason to the long list of reasons as to why homecomings are not particularly enjoyable for me. Don't get me wrong, I am not antisocial, and I have participated in my share of stereotypical teenage experiences and at times, have even enjoyed them. However, as I grow older, it seems mind boggling to me that my friends participate in activities that they don't enjoy much and do so just because of an image that they have formed in their minds as to how they are expected to behave or feel as teenagers. It is intriguing that they repeatedly do things that they complained about the prior year and expect a different outcome, hoping that maybe this time they will enjoy an evening like those depicted in the coming-of-age movies they pressure themselves into emulating. The question then remains: how have I been able to go against the majority or what has kept me from following others?
While hidden memories contribute to the occurence of behavioral cycles, another facet of the science behind repetitive behaviors stems from the fact that evolution may have implanted a seed of optimism in the human mind throughout the years, slowly developing into a species-wide inclination to "look on the bright side," otherwise known as the optimism bias, or "the belief that the future will be much better than the past and present" (Sharot 11). Even though this contributes to our happiness as a species, it can also be detrimental when we allow ourselves to enter into cycles of abuse, emotional trauma, and pain. As humans, we do this because our brains are wired to think that situations improve and will get better eventually, or that we have the ability to change someone else's actions and ideologies, which often leads to enduring suffering at the hands of others, or even ourselves.
Both hidden memories and our own optimism bias allow for humans to continue to overlook the negative and walk into an experience they've already had, hoping for a different outcome because they simply don't recall what has occurred before. In other words, our minds become our greatest threats when it comes to repeating behaviors that deprive us of the health, happiness, and safety we all deserve. Additionally, societal pressures as well as our own self-imposed idealization of an experience, can all contribute to the creation and persistence of such detrimental cycles in our lives. The only good news is that these cycles can be broken. As it turns out, exposure to different ways of thinking have the potential to enable the brain to think uniquely, preventing us from falling into the trap of repeating toxic behavior. This might help explain why as the daughter of two parents from two different cultures, I have been able to carve my own path in life rather than feeling pressured to follow the ones others lay before me, and have had the freedom to define what is joyous to me as an individual. If Gatsby had had the same opportunity, he would have been able to see the true reality of his love for Daisy, rather than believe the romanticized version that resulted in constant misery and his untimely death. In fact, under different circumstances, he might have been able to use his life and wealth in a more meaningful way to leave a lasting impact.