Schopenhauer considered human intellect a burden. Our intellect has evolved as tool to help us survive and thrive, but over time it grew into something bigger, something which, like the apple of Eden, brought with it its own set of problems. Animals live in the present, and so the things that worry them are the things they’re currently experiencing, or the things their body requires. Human intellect allows us to break out of this present and think forward into the future, or return back into the past. Anxiety and perturbation are emotions born of this thinking. We regret the decisions we’ve made and wish things could have turned out differently. We fear the future and hope that our plans and ambitions are realized. We no longer think of just ourselves, we begin to ponder what others think of us. We actually contemplate death, rather than simply fleeing it.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the citizens of the future state take a substance known as “soma” to drown their worries and embark on a holiday of happy thoughts. “A gramme is better than a damn” is a saying seeded deep into their minds, conditioning them to always pick the easy way out and kill off any hint of bad emotions with a gramme of soma, or three.

In some ways much of what we do today is a reflection of soma. Drugs and alcohol are the easy examples of this, but on another level a lot of today’s media is also soma. Look through the pages of a newspaper, or watch a popular news channel and see that most of the stuff being covered is completely irrelevant to your life. The sad thing about such media is that it’s not even entertainment–it’s being sold to us under a disguise of informational and educational media. Infotainment some might call it. People consume it for the sake of consumption, not for the sake of acting on the information. It’s a ritual–you read the news because it’s what you do, not because it’s what you choose to do in order to accomplish a goal.

The reason for this is that this media actually acts as soma–it drowns out your thoughts and anxieties. It does it by flooding you with information at a rapid pace, leaving your brain busy trying to process it. Notice that news media never actually dwells too long on any story. Everything has to be fast, everything has to move on after a minute or two. The point here is that the brain isn’t meant to think and produce something at the end of this thinking, it’s meant to be kept busy–stupefied. A busy mind cannot contemplate, and a mind that cannot contemplate cannot sink into perturbation. In this way, all this consumption of media online and offline is a way to kill off deep thinking–a cause of our anxieties.

Of course the problem with this is that the mind not only bears negative thoughts, it also produces the very ideas that create and shape civilization. But the mind is like a muscle, if you don’t make use of it, it will begin to atrophy. Incapacitating the mind with soma helps relieve anxiety, but it also weakens it so that nothing is produced when it’s finally left alone to think. This can be observed in those restless people who cannot spend a moment alone by themselves, isolated from any sensory input. The people who would pull out the mobile phone in every place, at any time, just to continue feeding their brain with soma. A moment alone, in silence, is unbearable to them because their minds are empty, and so they crave any form of external distraction to relieve them of their boredom.

It’s easy to separate soma from things that are of benefit to you because soma always leaves you in the same, or worse, state than what you’ve started with. Getting some exercise is beneficial, just as reading a good book is. When you’re finished with the activity, you’ve grown in some capacity, whether that be body or mind. Soma on the other hand paralyzes without yielding anything in return. When you drink soma you bind your intellect to the present–you make the choice between using your intellect for creation, and incapacitating it to avoid paying the cost of uncomfortable thoughts.

June 2011