Part of me is always afraid of falling back into depression. It’s been long enough now that I’ve almost forgotten how it feels to wake up every day with overwhelming anxiety and dread. I imagine myself to be a safe distance from the person I was a few years ago: someone who had no curiosity or excitement about life, no hope for the future, no desire to get out of bed in the mornings.
In reality, I’m not as far from that person as I’d like to think. We’re all just a few Bad Events from falling into a pit of despair. An important friendship or relationship ends; you suddenly lose your job; an unexpected health problem comes up. Things get in the way of your momentum in life and all of a sudden you’re not feeling the motivation and joy that once came so easily.
But there is one thing I have now that, I hope, makes me a little less likely to fall into that pit: textbooks. In the summer of 2020 I made the preposterous decision that I was going to read a textbook front to back. I’d always been interested in the brain, I’d always had this idea that it would be cool if I was a person who actually reads textbooks, but it took many years of thinking about this and aspiring to it before I actually started doing it. I decided on Bear et al’s introductory neuroscience book Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain.
Progress has been slow but steady. I’m currently at page 716 out of 1019, and am reading the chapter on brain rhythms and sleep. Did you know a seizure is characterized by highly synchronized brain activity? I would’ve expected it to be the opposite—that your brain would look scattered and disjointed during a seizure, but it’s actually more synchronized and rhythmic than any waking state. Rather than being an instance of disharmony, it’s actually an instance of accidental harmony:
The neurons within the affected areas fire with a synchrony that never occurs during normal behavior. The cerebral cortex, probably because of its extensive feedback circuitry, is never far from the runaway excitation we know as a seizure.
Not only does reading a textbook give you such facts about seizures and synchrony in the brain—it also gives you cute diagrams explaining different ways synchrony can arise:
I try to make this a very active process: as I read, I take detailed notes, I summarize my understanding, I jot down questions I have. Over time I put together an artifact of my learnings:
And when I read a textbook that involves practice exercises (e.g. a proof-based math book), I take the time to do those exercises:
These past two years have been the first time in my life that I’ve put serious effort into cultivating my curiosity. It’s difficult to overstate just how much joy and resilience this has brought me. Unlike any point in college (ironically), I’ve turned learning into a concrete part of my day, a project I’m actively engaged in. I take the time to learn about sound localization (our brain determines where a sound is coming from based on which ear the sound wave hits first), or sleep behaviors (dolphins sleep with half their brains at a time so the other half of the brain can swim above water to keep breathing), or neural processing (neurons are much slower than computer processors but are much more powerful because of their parallelism).
They say travel is good for depression because it gets your brain out of old habits. I like to think of reading as a form of travel through idea-space, a textbook being a long roadtrip. If you’re in a rush to get somewhere you should probably fly or take a train. But if you want to make the distance between the two points part of the experience, you can take a car or a bike, or you can walk. Reading a textbook is a curated, meandering journey from one place to another, visiting a bunch of interesting points in idea-space along the way.
The point isn’t really to finish per se but more to have a direction to orient towards. I always keep the textbook file open, to remember which page I’m on, to remember that there is yet more to do, there is yet more to learn. My textbook is a gateway to presence and compassion and awe, a way of getting out of my head and dissolving my current personality matrix.
If depression is a hyper-fixation on the self, the past, and negative thought patterns, reading a textbook is a way of turning your attention outwards, to the present, to wonder at the complexity of the world. I temporarily forget myself when I’m confronted with the fact that there are 100 million photoreceptors in each of my eyes—that’s 200 million distinct inputs that are combined into one unified colorful panoramic picture of the world—or when I discover that there are tiny little hairs called cilia deep in my ear that detect the tilt of my head and body, without which I would not be able to stand up straight.
To be clear, I don’t think reading textbooks is the only thing keeping me from depression. If that was all I was doing I probably would become depressed. There are lots of other things that are important like hanging out with friends and getting sleep and exercising and doing meaningful work. The point with textbooks is to give myself this long-running, never-ending life purpose that I keep making sure to come back to.
And purpose here is an activity more so than a fixed thing. It emerges out of your actions day to day rather than being decided on ahead of time. You can be the person who talks about reading textbooks (like I was), or you can actually read textbooks. If you talk a lot about a Thing but never actually do the Thing, you’ll start accruing soul debt and you’ll feel bad. (Examples of a Thing: writing, reading, building things, meeting people.) You have to feed your inner fire in order to keep it alive.
Textbooks in particular provide a way of connecting with our shared humanity. Pretty much anything you can wonder about, someone has asked questions about it before. Someone has thought of arguments, has written up a Wikipedia page. Knowing this makes me feel connected, not just to everyone alive today but to all the people who have ever existed. We’ve created (and are continuing to create) this global body of knowledge together.
It might be bleak to describe this whole process of spending years slowly reading something as merely a way to avoid depression. But I wonder what the difference really is between “I do this because it’s my passion” and “I do this because otherwise I will lose my mind”. The important thing in both cases is that you’re following the grain of your personality rather than going against it. For me that grain has always centered on wonder, especially about the contents and mechanics of my own and others’ minds.
Immense gratitude to Jennifer, Varun, David, and Aadil for feedback on earlier drafts of this piece.
To be very explicit: my point is not that reading a textbook is any kind of cure for depression (not even close), but more that if you’re already doing okay, cultivating your curiosity every day for a long time makes it less likely that you’ll go down a depressive spiral.
This is so great. In particular the bit about it being an active process. Usually for me the active bit is that I have a model or a question about how something works and I'm using the textbook to try to answer that question or check my model. Often it's just fun to read new things, though, too. And yeah, unlike in college (:p) the goal now is to "actually understand" which means that sometimes I spend days on a couple of pages until it clicks. This feels good to me, like deep down spiritually good in a way I never really get when I'm speeding through podcasts. In fact I almost never listen to podcasts anymore, books are just so great!
There are a few other things that have improved my relationships to textbooks: 1) books never cost money (obviously they do, but unless it's insanely expensive I never think about money as a constraint on books, I just get whatever seems great) and 2) I have finally dropped my obsessive drive for completionism and now just pick up textbooks and roam around different chapters that look awesome.
This is so interesting—I have many thoughts, but "They say travel is good for depression because gets your brain out of old habits. I like to think of reading as a form of travel through idea-space, a textbook being a long roadtrip. If you’re in a rush to get somewhere you should probably fly or take a train." - love this! It's amazing, the idea that learning and practicing or seeking curiosity can help a person manage, mentally and emotionally. I'm glad it's helped you :)