A piece of me died the first time I held a human brain.
That piece of me was the piece that had given up, the piece that thought I was subject to the whims of my crippling sadness. I looked down at the 14 ounces of some guy my professor had plopped in my hands and realized that every battle I thought I'd lost to myself was just a series of inputs and outputs inside my head.
It was the most beautiful disillusionment I had ever experienced.
Later that year, we studied a concept called cognitive dissonance. Put simply, whenever the brain encounters something that does not make sense, it adjusts accordingly, making sure everything is running smoothly.
The incredible thing is that this concept applies to everything we do in our daily lives. When you hear a noise you fail to recognize, your brain flips through billions of stored memories to try and place what you might have heard.
Even when everything seems normal, it seems normal because your brain is constantly comparing what you are experiencing to everything you have ever experienced up to that point.
As overwhelming as that may seem, you don't even have to deal with it – your brain does all of this for you without even raising your awareness to it.
Now you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with depression. Just for context, my freshman year was arguably pretty terrible from an emotional standpoint.
I lost all of my high school friends when we chose different colleges, I lost a close family member to the grave and I lost my girlfriend to her own bad decisions with another guy.
I would wake up in time for class and make a conscious decision not to go. My meals consisted of the scraps I ingested at the Morrill hall vending machines. I would neglect new friendships and relationships. I drank way too much and made terrible decisions.
I was one tall building away from walking off of a tall building, so to speak. I kept telling myself that I would start working harder when I felt better, but that never happened.
That's because there was no cognitive dissonance to make my brain feel any differently.
You see, if you are sad, and you act sad, you will remain sad. However, if you are sad, and you act happy, you just might trick yourself. As we discussed earlier, the brain is a highly observational organ, even observing the things you do on a daily basis.
Acting happy literally makes you happy; it's neuroscience gone right.
One day, instead of wallowing in my pit of despair, I decided to go running. I put on the UT gym shorts my mom had bought me on move-in day, looked in the dorm room mirror, and said, "It's six in the morning, and I'm getting better."
I knew I was lying, but I still ran three miles that morning, which I had never even come close to doing.
Then, I showered, because smelling good seemed like a pretty good thing to do at the time. I even managed to find my deodorant underneath the three weeks of laundry at the foot of my bed. I went to every class, even though my legs were sore and Knoxville's campus is a mountain, because that's what happy, balanced people do, right?
Later, I did homework, I played Xbox, and I hung out with my suitemates.
After a decent night's sleep, I woke up and did it all again. That weekend I even went to a party and talked to the opposite gender, and managed to remember all of it, too.
Two years later, I've never stopped that routine.
The routine just ceased to feel like I was faking it.
Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at email@example.com.