relatively handsome for a writer

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Wed 21

Bad Potato

Max A Potentially Evil PotatoI’m feeling irritable. It started last night, halfway through a paragraph of the book I’m reading. Usually I read at night until I realize I don’t care any more, but last night I cared, I was just irritated. Not at the book. Just in general. It is a non-specific irritability.

Now my question is: Why? Am I irritated at something, without realizing it? Is there some psychological problem here I’m in denial about? Or is it more like I ate a lot of starch yesterday, and tetchiness is a biochemical byproduct of my body processing it? I don’t want to dig around for emotional unrest if the real culprit here is a baked potato with bacon and cheese.

Do you think it’s possible to feel pissed at anything? As in, you tell yourself to start feeling irritable, then you try to think what you’re pissed at. Because I think I can do that. So are emotions responses to actual events, or does your brain grope around for convenient excuses for feelings that are more to do with random neurochemical tides?

If emotions are influenced by what you put into your body, is there any such thing as a “true” feeling? And if there’s not, is there any moral reason you wouldn’t, given the technology, pop a pill (or twist a dial) to generate whatever mood you want? Because that’s no different to having a coffee or a smoke, is it? But if we’re doing that—entering artificial states of feeling, emotions decoupled from the world—doesn’t that make us… well, unreal? Is there anything more fundamental to our existence than the validity of our own feelings?

I don’t know. It could be the potato talking.


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M. Kilbain Lazer (#1709)

Location: Holland
Quote: "I guess we're awesome"
Posted: 4112 days ago

Potatoes are evil!

Mike (#3578)

Location: Paris
Quote: "Love isn't blind, it's retarded."
Posted: 4112 days ago

Cut down the alcohol.

Jamie (#111)

Location: Auckland
Quote: "Anyone still spelling "internet" with a capital "I" is probably struggling with the complexities of their new-fangled electric typewriter."
Posted: 4112 days ago

Speaking of neurochemical tides, Max, what are you on?
Because whatever it is, it's doing you a lot of good!

Machine Man subscriber John (#394)

Location: Work, Maryland, USA
Quote: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes that cigar is ploughing your mother."
Posted: 4112 days ago

Just a thought, but considering what you just said about turning a dial or popping a pill for whatever mood you wanted, wouldn't you sorta already have to be in a kind of mood that would make you want one or the other? I do know people who would prefer to be pissed off than happy, but that's because they're already pissed off. And vice versa.

So, I dunno. I don't think it was your potato, but it'd be pretty cool if your potato was a genetically enhanced mood-ato.

Angela (#3109)

Location: Ithaca, NY, USA
Posted: 4112 days ago

Yeah, emotions are tricky. They are influenced by what you put into your body, of course, but that's because fundamentally they're symptoms of the state of your body (including your mind). Sort of like an unfocused photograph of a set of tea leaves you can either interpret for your own fulfillment or scribble graffiti over. Also for your own fulfillment, I guess.

Anyway. As you've said, emotions can emerge from physical states, like indigestion. (This isn't really that surprising to me, though. If you're tired, maybe you're less capable of dealing with surprises, so they irritate you more. Why should having a bad potato be different?) Emotions can also be decided or formalized or channeled by thinking about them, right? I mean, everyone has at least tried to work through emotions by thinking about them, and sometimes it actually works. In fact, sometimes you can talk yourself into being in a sour or excited mood.

So, my question is, if it's so common to have things like food or thought or conversation-about-emotion affect emotions, what would a "true" emotion even look like? I mean, why are these somehow fake emotions? Basically, all of these things are ways of changing your mental or physical state, and the emotions that result aren't any less valid than the ones that result from someone vandalizing your car. So sure, bring on the happy pills!

I don't think it makes you unreal to be feeling something that's not prompted by an event. Our minds always have fodder for any number of emotions. There's always something we could still be angry or happy about, right? If something external changes our physical state so that we're feeling a specific emotion, maybe it will just pull certain events out of our memory for the occasion.

Brittany O. (#1688)

Location: Montana
Quote: "people are kind of overrated "
Posted: 4112 days ago

With wise words like this it is no wonder my Sociology professor had us read Jennifer in our Deviant Behavior class...
I am going to pass this on to him so he can share this with his wife who is a Psychology professor.

Hobbie (#1359)

Location: Cornwall, England
Quote: "There was a little man in his hair!"
Posted: 4112 days ago

Odds are you're just becoming a cranky old fart Max. Lots of things affect mood I think. Watching certain kinds of films or TV, reading certain passages in books, and especially listening to music all affect my mood dramatically, but damned if a potato ever did.

Joe (#2270)

Location: Campbell, CA, USA
Quote: "I'm subverting the system from the inside. I think."
Posted: 4112 days ago

There are lots of things more fundamental to our existence than the validity of our own feelings. Lots of times, feelings are like weather; they're changeable, not all that predictable, they pass. They aren't as important as values and commitments.

Actually, I'm sure that you don't believe that there's nothing more fundamental than your feelings, because you've managed to complete and publish a number of excellent novels, despite all the days when your feelings were telling you that you'd written a load of crap and were wasting your time.

Jeffrey (#2286)

Location: Right here
Quote: "Mathematics is a powerful language. Just look at how mathematicians destroyed the housing market."
Posted: 4112 days ago

hmm I'd say it was the cheese that is the true culprit but I'm lactose intolerant so i may be a bit biased lol.

Sunshine Jen (#2806)

Location: California
Quote: "Just another happy robot who spends too much time watching a computer screen."
Posted: 4112 days ago

Sounds like PMS to me.

Mary Rose (#2854)

Location: San Francisco, CA
Quote: "go big or stay home"
Posted: 4112 days ago

Welcome to the world of PMS.

Machine Man subscriber Jonathan Dodd (#3579)

Location: Rotorua
Posted: 4112 days ago

Hey Max, read the book "Adrenalin Junkies and Seratonin Seekers", which explains the six chemicals that alter our mood. It's written by an Aussie, but still good ;-)

Machine Man subscriber Adam (#24)

Location: Morristown, Indiana
Quote: "Why do I blog? Simple, because Max Barry blogs."
Posted: 4112 days ago

they do have pills to control emotions. and i think with the proper marketing the world will start calling feelings by there true names. prozac= happiness. and the like. oh. and baked potato = irritable.

-adam speicher

Leto (#3520)

Location: Canada
Quote: "Dare to be Stupid - Crazy Al."
Posted: 4112 days ago

All that makes me think of the novel "brave new world", by Aldous Huxley.
In that society, people take "soma" to make them feel good, but a quite "unreal" happiness. As they put it "Soma, all the effects of christianity, none of the defects" (again, their words, not mine).
So yeah, it's a crazy world out there and there are probably "false" emotions...

Jake (#1479)

Location: In front of the computer
Quote: "Here's two herring and a squirrel: Amuse us!"
Posted: 4112 days ago

Max, was that novel you were reading by any chance "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" Because that's exactly what happens in it; people take pills and turn dials to whatever emotion they want. I think there's even something in there to the extent of, "Jim's wife felt like she should be a little crabby that day, so she turned the dial into the the red."
Or something like that. I don't know, I'm just paraphrasing off memory.
I could go look up the exact line, but then I wouldn't be as lazy...

Christie (#2970)

Quote: "I've listened to David Bowie songs that made more sense than this."
Posted: 4112 days ago

Wow. That's deep, man.

mc (#3580)

Posted: 4112 days ago

I would blame the cheese.

There's a five-page thread on cheese and depression over at

The premise is that because of the fact that casein, a milk protein, is processed into casomorphin. Casomorphin is similar to morphine and an opiate. The withdrawl symptoms of low dosages of opiates include irritability, depression, a "foggy-headedness" and a runny nose.

There are other such opiates in common foods, such as wheat gluten, which is present in...just about every goddamned thing.

I didn't believe the dairy thing when I heard it, so I proceeded to eat a large bag of M&M's that night, for the sake of science. (Okay, really, I was just hungry and being a glutton). I woke up the next morning with a definite feeling of depression.

I won't comment on the philosophical implications of us being made out of, and influenced by, chemicals. But since I started reading about organic chemistry and stopped eating these things, I've felt calmer.

Chris (#3581)

Location: Melb
Posted: 4111 days ago

SOMA. Quick. Before all of this questioning of your individual relationship to the world leads to an accidental revolution.

Machine Man subscriber Kyle (#3321)

Location: Burnie, Tasmania
Posted: 4111 days ago

You have a point. Makes you wonder, if say, Martin Bryant just happened to have a bad serving of KFC that morning a few years ago. Was he pissed at the world? Was his anger valid? Did it come from rational or irrational sources and when you ask these kinds of questions it leads to - how do we tell a rational source?

RaTIONAL Sauce, available NOW at your local K-mart.

....are you seeing the same potential book in this that I am? You should take this idea and work on it imo. It could be good.

Oodge (#2790)

Location: Tas
Quote: "'Ooh look Marge, Maggie lost her baby legs.'"
Posted: 4111 days ago

Someone's a bit angsty

Bram E. Gieben (#3394)

Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
Quote: ""Jennifer Government was totally awesome. Please check out my website!!" - Me"
Posted: 4111 days ago

@ Jake: Jamie Delano's comic 'Narcopolis' is about a similar society, where all moods are chemically regulated by the government, and those who refuse drugs are arrested or put under surveillance. A great comic, seek it out, especially Burgess and PKD fans!

@ Max Barry: This seems like a 'chicken or the egg' argument to me. Do we feel emotions because of events, or do we attach emotions to events after the fact?

There are theories in cognitive research that show we experience a delay between a memory entering our subconscious, and our experiencing it in 'real time'(approx 0.5s).

By the time we have experienced something, its already back there in our memory, along with the code to translate it into appropriarte emotional responses. Deja vu is a byproduct of this - signals get crossed, and you experience the memory before the event. Usually however, the delay acts as a buffer allowing you to fit 'now' into your own subjective life 'story'.

Daniel Dennett could explain this better than me, but what it basically means is that your subjective experience of 'real time' is in fact a memory stored in your subconscious half a second earlier, which your brain has then turned into the ongoing 'story' of your life, emotional responses and all.

I take from this that there is no such thing as 'now' for humans, and no pure emotional states. All emotional states are attributes your subconscious brain has tagged your memories with, like a video on youtube. Some of the tagging might be attributable to your baked potato, but I belive that it is mostly arbitrary, decided by your brain in that half second delay according to habit and social convention.

The only truly 'now' emotions a human experiences while lost in the fog of what we term 'consciousness' are physical pain, and the fight or flight response. Consciousness and time (and as a byproduct, complex emotions) are illusions necessitated by our very advanced brains. I believe that my cat sees the world in more realistic terms.

Jack (#2443)

Location: Australia, Bendigo
Posted: 4111 days ago

I get angry and irritable a lot too Max.. but then again, I'm a teenager.

Tim (#3178)

Posted: 4111 days ago

I agree that emotions are tricky things. So much of our conscious, emotional lives comes from beneath the murky surface--whether it's undigested emotion or undigested food.

Sometimes emotion, whatever the source, comes first and then our brain tries to make sense of it, often pinning it to something that's close at hand (or mind). I think that's particularly true of anger and irritability. Most of us have favorite targets--which are reasonably safe and satisfying--for our misdirected pissiness. We use them to dump a lot of emotional lost baggage.

After many years of struggling and self-examination, I've managed to reach a place in my life where I no longer feel the need to misdirect my anger.

I realize now that most of my problems are caused by you goddamned Australians. If you excuse me, I'm going to stick pins in my stuffed koala bear.

Matthew Bowie (#3582)

Posted: 4111 days ago

So, here is my comment, and i'm right, so if someone would like to argue, they're perfectly welcome to and i would enjoy it, because really, all that means is that they are wrong. And being right is always more enjoyable when someone decides that they simply must be wrong.

Ahem. Emotions are not tricky things. There is no separation of any kind between the ephemeral morass of those emotional states that flicker in and out of existence behind our eyes and the very concrete reality of a baked potato. It is simply that we are given to thinking that our bodies and our minds are not in unison, because our body is physically tangible and can be perceived by the five senses that we use to define the world and distinguish between one thing and another. Our mind however is that part of our body which is subjectively imperceptible. Its various states cannot be defined or distinguished by the means we would normally use, and so we give it esoteric considerations. But the truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as an "artificial state of feeling." Your body and mind (or rather, your body) can make no distinction between artifice and reality, and in fact, much as with the lack of a body-mind dichotomy, there is no meaningful distinction between artifice and reality.

But i'm rambling.

And i think i might have drifted a bit off topic.

And i'm being arrogant...

Oh, and Max, big fan.

Matthew Bowie (#3582)

Posted: 4111 days ago

wait. i don't know if i made sense.

Mark Tran (#3249)

Location: Canada
Quote: "If you lived here, You'd be home."
Posted: 4111 days ago

Nah.. I think chemicals only affect our emotions. They don't create them.

Matthew Bowie (#3582)

Posted: 4110 days ago

I think chemicals are emotions. The line between one and the other is fantastical. Take ecstasy for example. Ever take it? if that isn't an artificial (and horrifyingly unhealthy, and unsustainable) form of "happy" nothing is. But the thing about it is that biologically speaking (and for that matter, psychologically speaking) at the time, it bears all of the characteristics of happiness. Alcohol, another good example: take a drink, and your mood isn't "affected" it's different. Period. Emotions do not exist on some other, non-physical plane of reality. They are real, concrete things. Granted, there are depths and subtleties that are simply beyond humanity's comprehension, and certainly tampering with them, even ignoring the morality of it, is risky at best, and dangerous at worst, but the truth is that if they were not inherently physical phenomenon, physical input simply wouldn't affect them.

a child born without the chemical receptors for seratonin *will never be happy.* For that matter, he won't even be functional. Why? because the simple truth is that emotions are chemical. to argue the point is romanticism, to state that my position is reductionist is a fallacy, non sequitur. The fact, medically, demonstrably, is this: chemicals not only create our emotions, they *are* our emotions.

no, i am not a rationalist. and i still don't know if i'm actually making sense. it'd be great if someone would clarify that for me.

Machine Man subscriber Stygian Emperor (#2947)

Location: the Stygian Empire
Quote: "Flesh is a design flaw."
Posted: 4110 days ago

It's been at least two days. You feeling any better? Did you discover the secret hidden meaning behind your irritability?

Hobbie (#1359)

Location: Cornwall, England
Quote: "There was a little man in his hair!"
Posted: 4110 days ago

Of course he didn't find the secret hidden meaning, he's been under his bed hiding from the spuds that are out to get him.

Abgrund (#3357)

Location: Atlantis
Quote: ""Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority." - Ayn Rand"
Posted: 4109 days ago

It's hard to resist the challenge of arguing with Matthew Bowie, but he's right.

What's the difference between a "genuine" and an "artificial" emotion? Only, ahem, how you respond to them emotionally - and that's probably a function of how much you know about where they came from and what you think of it. Probably you think that a chemical state caused indirectly through circumstances and behavior conditioning is more "authentic" than one caused directly by the consumption of chemicals. Both are still just chemical states.

The interesting question (unless you're really into recursively self-referential paradoxes) is /why/ we (homo sapiens) fairly consistently think of mental states caused by direct interference as less "real" than those arising from complex causes over time.

Matthew Bowie (#3582)

Posted: 4108 days ago

You know, i actually have a thought on that one too: I think the reason is because we can externalize a direct influence on our emotions. Because it exists "outside" of ourselves, it is easier to think of it as being "Other" rather than "Same." Because it is "Other" and psychologically "Other" is generalized as being in collusion with artificiality, we lump a proximal, external in with that, incorrectly labeled, artifice. It's like what Borges says about the illusion of personality (look it up if you don't know).

Linnea1928 (#2654)

Location: Rosemount, MN
Posted: 4108 days ago

Whoa, random.
... that's all.

Yenzo (#829)

Location: Secret underwater pyramid base in the Pacific
Quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe (Carl Sagan)"
Posted: 4106 days ago

There are a few interesting psychological experiments that go in this direction: In one of them, young men were injected with the stress hormone epinephrine without being told (research was simpler in those days). When they saw a girl afterwards, they attributed their faster heartbeat to the girl being sexy and rated her higher on attractiveness than the men who did not get the stress hormone or the ones who got it and knew about it. That means their blood pressure influenced the opinion they have about another person.

This effect goes back to how our emotions and cognition (thinking or reasoning) are intertwined: Our body has certain needs and uses emotions to convey these needs to our conscious self so we can use our intelligence to satisfy the need. If you are hungry, for example, you are far more able to spot food-related stimuli, because your emotions tell your reasoning which parts of your surroundings need special attention (pretty much like in a cartoon, when everyone looks like a giant ham).

That also means that certain biochemical agents can tamper with your way of thinking: powerful drugs like LSD can turn your whole personality around, semi-powerful drugs like caffeine can make you irritable and irrational and even large amounts of sugar can make you go nuts, which led to the infamous Twinkie defense (look it up, it's crazy).

If you're not under the influence of drugs or overdoses of non-drugs like sugar, your neurochemical metabolism is still very complex and impossible to analyze cleary (each of your 100 billion neurons contains thousands to tens of thousands different proteins, for example) and that means, and I'm sorry about that, that you'll never really *know* which particular chemical imbalance might influence your behavior at a given moment (You can, of course, spot long-term biochemical imbalances like those that cause chronic depression or Parkinson's disease).

The solution would be to eat and drink healthy responsibly and to apologize after you did something unjust. Which brings us to the point where billion-dollar research just tells you what you already knew.

The question of free will and responsibility in light of these effects is really interesting, but tends to lead to lenghty discussions, and unfortunately I don't have enough time because I gotta do less interesting neuropsychological research.

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