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The Physical Sensation of Epiphany

There’s a word I’ve always felt to be missing from the English language.  It’s a bizarre omission, I think — because if it existed, it would describe pretty much my favorite thing.

You know that “pins and needles” feeling when something really excites you?  Your skin feels electric, like the hairs on your legs and arms are little lightning-rods, pulling in energy from the air around you.

It moves in a slow wave, tingling up your body toward your head and neck.

You can feel the blood in your face.  Maybe you feel compelled to take a breath — like a slow-motion gasp, in recognition of whatever triggered the sensation.

Why is there not a word for this?

The closest thing English offers is the phrase “a sense of wonder” — but that seems too abstract, and misses the very physical, very transient nature of what I’m talking about.

Despite its namelessness, this one sensation is the biochemical carrot that keeps this particular rabbit running.

A Chemical Harpoon

Something is going on for me physically, internally, when I feel this.  I’m sure dopamine — the brain’s “reward” neurotransmitter — is involved, because the sensation is both pleasurable and an automatic inducement to feel it again.

In fact, at the risk of venturing into PG-13 territory, I think there’s a strong analogy between this sensation and an orgasm.  If an orgasm is the physical endgame of sexual arousal, the sensation-of-which-I-speak is the physical culmination of intellectual arousal.  When a sense of understanding gets so big it spills out of your brain into your body’s epidermal nerve endings… well, that’s my layman’s-science sense of what’s going on here.

For me, it’s triggered in a few ways…

  • Sometimes by really “epic” music, almost always timed to some audible crescendo.
  • Sometimes through emotional voyeurism, when I see someone experiencing an emotion, and for a moment I empathize so clearly that the walls of identity between us become semi-permeable.  (“If I were you, I’d feel that way too”; in a profound way.)
  • And lastly, by dawning comprehension.  A feeling not of “I know,” but of “Now I know.  I have figured it out.

It’s this third of these that feels like the heart of the matter; maybe the first two are just specific instances of this general case.  So — so that we have something to call it — I’m going to call this feeling PSoE: the Physical Sensation of Epiphany.  (If you’ve got a better name, email me.)

The Relentless Search for Novelty

Let’s divert for a moment with a hard-drugs parallel and some thoughts about novelty — then we’ll tie all this back to nootropics.

This sensation can be triggered by dawning comprehension.  A feeling not of “I know,” but of “Now I know.  I have figured it out.

I’ve never been a heroin user, and I certainly hope you haven’t been one either.  But I’ve seen enough movies to be familiar with the idea that long-term junkies are always “chasing their first high,” and the only way to re-approach their initial euphoria is to up their dosage.  (In heroin’s case, with predictably disastrous consequences.)

So it is with many forms of pleasure.  A measure of novelty — either a new experience, or a new amount of a familiar experience — is required to deliver flat-lined levels of joy.  Somewhat frustrating, until you think about how adaptive this is.

Think of the joy a little baby feels when he masters the pronunciation of his first syllable, or a toddler feels when he’s able to consistently not crap himself.  If those levels of self-satisfaction didn’t quickly subside, there wouldn’t be much motivation to move past not-crapping-one’s-self to, say, discovering the Laws of Thermodynamics.

So, luckily for the pragmatists among us, good feelings don’t last.  They fade, they fade fast, and they challenge us to re-earn them.  Continually.

So for me, as I chase my drug-of-choice — PSoE — I’m distinctly aware that I won’t feel it by merely revisiting my old Calculus homework and tweaking with stuff that I’ve already figured out.  It’s the figuring it out that brings the rush, not the knowing it.

And this forces me to put myself into circumstances that are conceptually challenging.  As often as I can.  Day in, day out.  Because this is the forest where my game is hunted.

I’m pretty disciplined about this.  My life is no smoothly-oiled machine — not by a long shot — but one thing I will say for it is this: I have effectively banished boredom.  I’m never bored.  I’ve spent maybe 10-15 hours bored in the past two decades.

This is largely by design.

At a fairly young age, I realized I dislike boredom more than misery.  (And believe me, I’m no fan of misery.)  PSoE had something to do with this.  I could feel PSoE when empathizing with loss — with an epic, shattering defeat.  (Think William Wallace being drawn and quartered at the end of Braveheart.)  But I’d never felt even a twinge of PSoE while empathizing with boredom.

Boredom is essentially un-empathizable.  You can’t share the emotion because boredom is a lack of emotion resulting from a lack of engagement.  And epiphany, realization, dawning understanding — whatever you want to call it that sits at the root of PSoE — it comes only in times of intellectual engagement.

So engagement — to put it in math-nerd terms — is a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition.  You may be fully engaged and not have an epiphany.  But you’re never going to have an epiphany if you’re shirking on intellectual engagement.

And Finally, Nootropics

Nootropics help me to maximize my time spent in full intellectual engagement.

If PSoE is the game I’m hunting, and intellectual engagement is the forest where I hunt, then nootropics are a predictable shortcut deeper into the heart of that forest.

I like the focus I feel when I strap on noise-canceling headphones, crank up music with lyrics in a language I don’t speak, drink a black coffee, pop 100mg of Modafinil, and immerse myself into something.  This ritual is like a prizefighter lacing up his gloves, or a concert pianist cracking his knuckles — an intersection between the brass-tacks physicality of the discipline, and a Pavlovian trigger that here we go again, this is what we train for.

Many days I’ll work without the rush of PSoE ever coming.  And that’s okay, because I know it’s a now-and-again thing.

Many days I’ll work without nootropics in my system.  And that’s necessary.  I don’t want to build up a tolerance to my favorite substances any more than a samurai wants to let his katana-blade get rusty.

Many days Mozart would sit down at the piano and compose something unremarkable, and toss it out by mid-afternoon.  This is part of the discipline, maybe the largest part.

But sometimes, a new domino will fall.

Sometimes a hard problem will be solved, and we’ll understand why.

Sometimes the universe will de-riddle itself, just a little.

And when it does, the hairs will go electric.  The blood will rise in our cheeks. Pupils will dilate.  Dopamine will release.  The intermittent, unpredictable burst of pleasure will strengthen our addiction.

And the hunt for the next PSoE rush will have already begun.


  1. Gabriel says:

    Hi. Nice article, but you do no mention what nootropics yiu use. Can you tell which ones do you use? Thanks.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thanks Gabriel. Top of my medicine cabinet these days is Modafinil, Caffeine + L-theanine, Nicotine patches, and Aniracetam. Not all at once, of course. I try to cycle through these on a now-and-again basis. Caffeine is my only near-daily drug. 🙂

  2. Sydnee Andrews says:

    Is there a reason why you drink black coffee with modafinil? Is there some sort of combination benefit instead of taking modafinil by itself?

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Nope, the reason is that I like black coffee. 🙂

  3. David Dickerson says:

    Great article! That pretty much describes it…well said.

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