Friday, July 18, 2008

Cultivating Apathy.

Already this morning, I have heard a few horror stories that in the past would have made me really upset.

But now, I just don't care.

While watching my grad students friends freak out about committee meetings the last few weeks, I was struck by how little I cared about their agony. I used to be such a sympathetic person, I once fainted when I saw my roommate injure herself by accident. I don't mind the sight of blood, I was literally faint at seeing her in pain and being powerless to stop it.

And now, I just don't care. It's quite bizarre.

This morning I heard about a lab accident, which caused a permanent and pretty serious injury to an acquaintance. It's a sad story, but I was oddly unmoved. In the past, I would have had some kind of emotional reaction, and usually a physical one too.

Is my empathy broken? Am I becoming a PI?

Then I heard a couple other stories about the usual kind of lab bullshit and PI politics that used to make me really angry.

But I am not surprised.

And I just don't care.

I am, in a purely objective way, somewhat worried about this degree of apathy.

Is this why I'm so unexcited about my science lately? Why I just feel like I'm going through the motions?

On the other hand, watching grad students spontaneously combust under their own fear, pride and misguided ambition, I can see how apathy can be a protective and almost more mature response.

If you don't get upset, you can't sabotage yourself.

In the past, I would eventually reach apathy only AFTER having a meltdown (or blowup). As I got older, I moved my meltdowns and blowups behind closed doors, but I still had them pretty frequently.

Now it's pretty rare. I seem to go straight to the I Don't Care, and stay there.

Sometimes later, after replaying the events over and over in my head (whether I want to or not), I realized that I am indeed at least mildly annoyed. Maybe deeply insulted, even, but I recognize that getting upset gets me nowhere.

It's an interesting transition. I'm curious to see if it will last. In some ways, it's a relief to be so detached. I know I am much calmer, and more productive when I am not wasting time having meltdowns. I'm also more useful in advising others in this capacity than in my previous, highly combustible state.

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At 10:02 PM, Blogger Becca said...

+1 grad student who spontaneously combusts under her own fear, pride, and misguided ambition. Very appropriate way of putting it, that.

As far as the rest of it... I think whoever figures out a drug that allows you to intentionally switch back and forth between empathy and apathy will be richer than the people who did Prozac.

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Dr. J said...

Hey there. Really enjoying your blog.

I feel myself heading towards apathy more and more too. I'm thinking maybe it is just burn out with science and academia but it could well be a coping mechanism too. I still get mad a lot too though (mostly at the whole abusive nature of academia), so I'm not completely there yet but a whole lot just completely washes over me that never used to.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps a bit late to comment on this particular post, but if you haven't already done so, you should consult the works of Epictetus, specifically the Enchiridion. It's available on Youtube and via download on most open source library app collections. The stoics regard a certain type of apathy as virtuous, and echo your sentiments with respect to the effects of allowing one's reaction to things overpower you. Perhaps you have independently discovered the merit of their arguments.

Alternatively, you could be suffering from a disorder. Last, it should be mentioned that I recall vaguely a presentation by a neuroscientist at Georgetown which cited several studies indicating age-related atrophying of brain areas associated with empathy. Not sure on what imaging method they used.


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