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Why exhaustion is not unique to our overstimulated age
Exhaustion and its effects have preoccupied thinkers since classical antiquity. A look at historically specific theories of exhaustion shows a tendency to look back nostalgically to a supposedly simpler time.
Is ours the most exhausting age ever? Many sociologists, psychologists and cultural critics argue that the rapid spread of exhaustion syndromes such as depression, stress and burnout are consequences of modernity and its challenges. The argument goes that human energy levels have basically remained static throughout history, while the cognitive, emotional and temporal demands on the modern subject have increased so sharply that a chronic deficit of inner resources ensues. The most frequently named ‘exhaustion generators’ are the social changes resulting from acceleration, new technologies and the transformation of manufacturing into service and finance economies. Email and mobile phones, for example, make workers perpetually reachable, eroding the boundary between work and leisure, therefore making it difficult for employees to ever switch off from their jobs. Add to this the intensified competition from globalised capitalism and the result is that, today, the worker rarely leaves work. No wonder everyone is exhausted.
What often goes unnoticed, though, is that anxieties about exhaustion are not peculiar to our age. Those who imagine that life in the past was simpler, slower and better are wrong. The experience of exhaustion, and anxieties about exhaustion epidemics in the wider population, are not bound to a particular time and place. On the contrary: exhaustion and its effects have preoccupied thinkers since classical antiquity.
Exhaustion is a ubiquitous and timeless experience (as I show in my book, Exhaustion: A History). Many ages have presented themselves as the most exhausted period in history. Over the centuries, medical, cultural, literary and biographical sources have cast exhaustion as a biochemical imbalance, a somatic ailment, a viral disease and a spiritual failing. It has been linked to loss, the alignment of the planets, a perverse desire for death, and social and economic disruption. Because exhaustion is simultaneously a physical, a mental and a wider cultural experience, theories about exhaustion can yield insights into how people in the past thought about the mind, the body and society.
Exhaustion theories often address questions of responsibility, agency and willpower. In some accounts, exhaustion is represented as a form of weakness and lack of willpower, or even as a grave spiritual failing manifest in a bad mental attitude. For instance, medieval theories centred around the notion of acedia and sin, while recent neoliberal theories blame individuals for the management of their physical and mental wellbeing.
Acedia literally denotes a ‘state of non-caring’, and has also been described as ‘weariness of the heart’. It primarily affected monks in late antiquity and the early medieval period, and was thought to be the result of a weak spiritual disposition and giving in to demonic temptations. The desert father John Cassian (360-435CE) writes that acedia makes the monk ‘lazy and sluggish about all manner of work’. Affected by ‘bodily weariness and longing for food [the monk] seems to himself worn out and wearied as if with a long journey, or some very heavy work, or as if he had put off taking food during a fast of two or three days’. He also starts to look about
‘anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness, and makes him idle and useless for every spiritual work, so that he imagines that no cure for so terrible an attack can be found in anything except visiting some of the brethren, or in the solace of sleep alone’.
Cassian describes the physical symptoms of acedia in terms of what we would now call post-exertion malaise, a bodily fatigue that is as intense as that experienced after prolonged fasting, hard labour or extended walking. He also describes restlessness, lethargy, irritability, drowsiness and unproductive replacement activities – behaviours that feature on many exhaustion-theorists’ lists throughout history.
Others believe in the organic causes of exhaustion. In Greek antiquity, a surplus of black bile that wreaks havoc with the bodily humoral economy was blamed. In the 19th century, it was a lack of nerve-power, and in the 20th and 21st centuries, a cognitive system chronically overstrained by external stimuli and stressors. Also blamed is a weakening of the immune system by viral infections (a specific school of chronic fatigue syndrome researchers), or various forms of biochemical imbalance.
The 19th-century American physician George M Beard invented the neurasthenia diagnosis, a vaguely defined nervous exhaustion, and declared it to be a disease of civilisation, triggered by characteristics of the modern age, including ‘steam-power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women’. The causes of neurasthenia were firmly attributed to the outside world, to technological and social changes that drained the limited energy reserves of modern men and women. The modern environment, particularly the urban environment, was thought to generate too many stimuli, such that the senses were incessantly assaulted by noise, sights, speed and information. Beard feared that the sensitive nervous systems of the modern subject would be unable to cope with this sensory overload.
The theory was nothing new. A century before Beard, the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) already theorised the ‘English Malady’, manifest in a ‘Lowness of Spirits, lethargick Dullness, Melancholy and Moping’, and which he blamed on the fast-growing wealth of the sea-faring English nation and the adverse consequences of immoderation, laziness and luxury lifestyles. Burnout theorists of the 21st century are still making similar arguments about the damaging effects of new communication technologies and the neoliberal workplace.
When exhaustion is considered organic, the exhausted individual might be understood either as an innocent victim afflicted by parasitical external agents or as having inherited bad genetic materials. Alternatively, they might be seen as partly responsible for their exhaustion by having engaged in energy-depleting behaviours, such as working too hard, eating the wrong food, worrying too much, not getting enough rest and sleep, or overindulging in sexual activities.
Unlike depression, burnout is thought to be caused strictly by external and, more specifically, work-related factors. The burned-out are, if anything, guilty only of having worked too hard, of having given more than they had. Burnout-related exhaustion can also be seen as a social form of depression, a systemic dysfunction that is directly related to the work environment and one’s position in it. The individual is not responsible for falling prey to the condition, but can be considered a victim of punishing working conditions.
Analysing the history of exhaustion, one can find historically specific theories of what causes exhaustion, as well as a tendency to look back nostalgically to a supposedly simpler time. However, the continual production of theories about the loss of human energy is also an expression of timeless anxieties about death, ageing and the dangers of waning engagement. Theorising about exhaustion, and proposing cures and therapeutics for its effects, is a tactic to counteract the awareness of our helplessness in the face of our mortality. It is, in other words, a terror-management strategy designed to hold at bay our most existential fears – fears that are in no way peculiar to today.
Anna Katharina Schaffner
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.