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To Loop or Not to Loop


“I am a strange loop…”

Douglas Hofstadter

Feedback loops are the most basic and essential biological components of all life on earth. At the level of a cell, most key chemical processes are designed to push it back into a state of homeostasis (balance) to ensure survival. Because of the unbreakable Law of Thermodynamics–which I mention several times in my book Addicted in Film–disorder (entropy) always increases in a system. Things inside a cell get messy and chemically unbalanced; waste accumulates; pH levels spike. It gets too hot or too cold, or there’s not enough energy for the cell to do its thing. So a feedback loop activates. One of the organs of the cell (the mitochondria, for instance) creates a stimulus that says “I need glucose”—which is then processed and generates a response in the form of new energy delivered to the cell by the blood supply. 

There are trillions of feedback loops happening in your body every second of every day, and will continue to do so for your whole life. In fact, it could be said that your whole life is a series of overlapping feedback loops. To loop is to live. Your body temperature needs to stay at a balmy 98.6 degrees; sweating and shivering are caused by feedback loops designed to adjust the temperature. Pleasure derived from eating when you’re hungry is a vital feedback loop. Having sex with an attractive gentleman or lady is a pleasurable feedback loop needed for humans to procreate. Avoiding pain is based on a feedback loop. So is optimizing pleasure. And it’s here–on the subject of pleasure–where things get dicey.

When a person takes a drug, drinks a cocktail, gambles, eats dessert, or visits Pornhub, it generates a very strong and pleasurable feedback loop. Their brain says: “This is great; let’s do it again!” And when they indulge in the activity again, the feedback loop is reinforced and strengthened. Zillions of neurons in the brain light up like a giant cerebral Christmas tree. And as neuroscientists say–“if it fires, it wires”–meaning that the feedback loop starts to become hard-wired in a user's brain. Hard-wiring means alcohol or substance use becomes part of the person’s mental algorithm (or “OS”) of daily existence.

At the cellular level, the consequence of this repeated feedback loop (drinking, using, etc.) is that the cell’s baseline homeostasis gets recalibrated. The substance or behavior that upset this balance to begin with is now required to maintain the new balance. The cells have become chemically dependent. Addicted, in other words. When a person suddenly ceases to partake, these systems get completely out of whack. Feedback loops get confused or go dark. The body hates this, so it tries to fight back by generating withdrawal symptoms like sweaty palms and nausea. Brains hate it too, so they fire up a bunch of neurons to make the addict feel anxious and depressed. These feelings then activate cognitive awareness feedback loops that lead to ideations of using again in order to get relief. We know these ideations as urges.

When you think about addiction this way, it partially strips away the “moral weakness” argument that often stigmatizes addicted individuals. It levels the playing field. We are all governed by feedback loops; nobody is exempt. Anybody can get addicted to anything at any time because feedback loops are hard-coded into the existence of all life forms. Consciousness is a series of elaborately choreographed overlapping feedback loops that coalesce to render what we widely regard as “reality.” (In fact, some physicists working in the field of Loop Quantum Gravity theorize that space-time is just an emergent property of feedback loops at the Planck Scale.) If it loops, it is. I loop, therefore I am. And since I always am, I will invariably get addicted to something. Maybe not now, but eventually. It’s a numbers game.

Despite this somewhat depressing reductionist perspective, people still have a strong sense of personal agency—or “free will”—to govern when and whether to nourish their feedback loops, and how often. Exercising that free will to avoid an addictive behavior is what we call “willpower.” Willpower is the rational mind’s way of fighting back against what the body says it wants. The mind is in control of the body, so willpower should always trump feedback loops, right? 

Well, yes and no. Let’s discuss some interesting gray areas.

Some of the body’s attempts to restore balance cannot be overcome with willpower alone, or even at all. With some individuals, the need to move their body in a certain way or to suddenly yell for no reason is totally beyond their control. We all know this as Tourette Syndrome. On the extreme edge of the spectrum, some people with Tourette cannot control their impulse to periodically belt out expletives at the top of their lungs. To see this affliction portrayed in a film, check out the first date scene between Rob Schneider and SNL alum Amy Poehler in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Yes, the scene is mildly funny (Poehler can make anything funny), but having known someone with this affliction in real life, I can tell you there’s nothing funny about it. It’s a debilitating neurological disorder that severely impacts an individual’s social and professional opportunities.

On the other end of the spectrum we have people with mild (motor) Tourette, or the constant need to engage in some quirky or off-putting repetitive bodily action (or “motor function,” hence the name). We call these actions “tics.” Tons of people have tics. Some flagrantly obvious, others not noticeable at all. I myself have Tourette Syndrome. I often get the repeated urge to unlock my left shoulder from its socket, and then jerk it back into place. When I do this, it looks like I’m a giant wingless bird trying to take flight with one arm. I can usually control it, but only if I exert tremendous willpower. But even then, after a short while, I completely cave in and eventually express my tic. Usually when nobody’s looking. And once I do, I feel a tremendous sense of relief, a restoration of balance. Kids used to make fun of my tic when I was younger. There’s a very touching film that explores what Tourette Syndrome is like for a kid called Front of the Class.

Another variation of the willpower dynamic and the brain/body’s need to restore balance comes in the form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, or OCD. Society tends to make light of this condition by making it the butt of jokes and TV series premises (Monk, for example). In extreme cases, OCD is no laughing matter. Willpower alone cannot stop some OCD sufferers, and the result is sometimes social isolation and professional challenges. Medications, psychiatrists, and even electroconvulsive therapy may sometimes be required. In some cases, people with OCD can’t even leave their homes without getting debilitating panic attacks. In still other cases, their OCD can lead them to murder people.

Yes, serial killers are usually on the OCD spectrum. Their kind of “Evil OCD” doesn’t hurt them, but it does hurt a lot of other people. They don’t need professional help; they need a cage. They’re usually considered “insane,” but not by Einstein’s oft-quoted definition of the insane “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” With Evil OCD, it’s defined as a person “stalking people over and over and expecting the same result.”

Hollywood has profited handsomely from Evil OCD. Silence of the Lambs is a prime example. The reason Hannibal Lector was so terrifying was that he was obsessively precise. His prison cell was extremely neat and tidy. His murders were meticulously planned and executed. He was clearly a perfectionist. Kevin Spacey as John Doe in the film Seven was equally if not more terrifying. His OCD was off the charts–a killing spree fully choreographed across multiple victims, employing a variety of murder strategies, each reflecting a different mortal sin. That takes planning. An obsessive amount of planning. 

Going back a bit further in serial killer movie lore we have Norman Bates, who ran a pretty tight ship at that nice, clean Bates Motel in Psycho. Cleaning bathrooms is hard enough, but try doing it after stabbing a person to death in the shower. And going back further still we have Fritz Lang directing Peter Lorre in the 1931 movie M, which is still one of the creepiest and scariest serial killer movies ever made, and also the first. 

Lower down on the OCD intensity scale we find people with what I call “Weird OCD.” They have behaviors–performed either singularly or in manic repetition–that may be considered strange or offensive to the observer, physically or socially debilitating for the practitioner, but not usually life-threatening to anyone. Like “Evil OCD,” these people usually need professional help, but a “cure” is unlikely. It’s less of a sweet spot for Hollywood because the industry tends to focus on extremes, like Hannibal Lecter. So there are only a few films that feature Weird OCD as a major character trait of the protagonist, and the OCD itself is never a stand-alone plot point. Weird OCD is featured in several movies like What About Bob? and Matchstick Men–which I will write more about in upcoming Recovery on Screen e-Newsletters like this one, and in my next book. 

This may sound crazy, but Weird OCD may be partly or fully responsible for how billions of people on the planet live, and what they believe. Many of the prophets who helped form the major monotheistic religions may have suffered from mild or extreme forms of Weird OCD. In some instances, their OCD (or perhaps epilepsy?) may have led to visions or hallucinations–like Paul of Tarsus (future Saint Paul) on the road to Damascus, or Mohammed in that cave with the burning bush. Back in the day, people who acted obsessive, compulsive, or “passionate” were thought to be more attuned to the Almighty. All you probably had to do to get a cushy job in any clerical establishment, or to start your own cult, was to act a little cray-cray. 

Not convinced? Study religious rituals very carefully; you will notice how incredibly precise they all are. Priests have to be totally OCD about the Sunday Service; it’s their job. There’s little margin of error when eternal damnation is at stake. The religious rituals of primitive seafaring tribes on Pacific islands near modern-day Indonesia took this spiritual OCD to another level. Case in point: canoe building. A job that would otherwise only take a couple hours to complete with a simple machete turned into a week-long ritual. Every chop had to follow a complex, divinely-ordained sequence, otherwise their gods would get really angry and the canoe would sink. In this sense, Weird OCD acted like a kind of primitive life insurance policy.

Finally, towards the very bottom of the OCD intensity index, we find people with what I call “Quirky OCD.” People like me, some of my friends, and maybe some or many of you. Basically it’s anyone with a somewhat odd and/or marginally annoying little habit, or habits. One of the most prevalent Quirky OCD behaviors has to do with order and cleanliness. We call these people “clean freaks” and/or accuse them of being “too anal.”

I proudly wear this title as a badge of honor, just as my mother Angela before me. She was a highly organized individual who liked everything in our home to be in its place. And I mean in its place. During after-dinner clean up, she would engage in the ritualistic practice of tapping every single cabinet, drawer, stove handle, and knob in a precise sequence. With every tap she would say “done.” If she got distracted or missed one step, she would start the whole process all over again. My sister and I would sit there eating dessert and chuckle as we intentionally distracted her. 

I don’t engage in my mom’s weird ritual per se, but I do have my own clean freaky ways. Tidy floors and countertops are vital to my mental health. I don’t leave the house until I make sure that the stove has been turned OFF, even though I rarely even turn it ON to begin with. Dirty dishes in the sink give me major anxiety. I can tell you which sponge abrasion levels work best on which cleaning surfaces. I sent Mr. Clean a fan letter once when I was a kid. I sometimes find myself at Best Buy ogling expensive vacuum cleaners. For a fun look at this kind of Quicky OCD in action, look no further than the wonderful movie or TV series The Odd Couple.

Similarly, and like many others, I am also obsessed with order. Or rather, fearful of disorder. Rising entropy is my mortal enemy. I wage daily war against the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I must know where all my things are at all times. If I can’t find something, I spiral until I find what’s missing. I have NEVER lost my keys or wallet, and never will. The perfect Sunday for me is a visit to The Container Store. My Dropbox folder architecture and file-naming hygiene is impeccable. The cash in my back pocket must be sorted in descending order, ideally with a Ben Franklin on the outside, never inside. I eschew fifties. Two dollar bills vex me (are they supposed to be spent or saved?!). Change annoys me. Pennies drive me crazy. I can’t wait until they’re phased out by the U.S. Mint.

My “obsession” with order also expresses itself in my aversion to waste–probably because of what I learned from my wonderful father, John Perkins. He bought the first-ever Civic back when the Honda Motor Company was little more than a puny Japanese company that made cheap lawn mowers. He became enamored with the notion of “gas mileage.” All of our friends laughed at our tiny new car. We got the last laugh during the 1973 Oil Shock. He had also been quite poor during the Great Depression, so at family dinners he insisted that we always finish everything on our plate, no exceptions. He was recycling way before recycling was even a thing. 

My obsession with waste manifests itself in my own quirky ways. I’ve memorized all the expiration dates of every food in my refrigerator. I set reminders to eat certain foods before they expire. My social calendar often revolves around these expiration dates. I have been known to reschedule dinner dates with friends because I’m deeply worried that a salmon filet I bought from Trader Joe’s a few days ago will go bad. That’s right; my social life has been held hostage by a piece of fish. Don’t get me started on that gallon of milk in my fridge. Lactose is my master; I am but its humble servant. But I don’t feel bad about this; my grocery bills are very low because I never waste food.

All the evil, weird, and quirky aside–I believe there is an interesting interrelation between impulses people can mentally control through willpower and those they can’t because of medical conditions like Tourette and certain extreme forms of OCD. Part of me says, if I try a little harder, exercise a little more willpower, I can make my Tourette tics subside. But this involves a degree of suffering. The same is true for people new to sobriety. The urge to use seems almost insurmountable, and willpower is strained to the breaking point. This too is a form of suffering. But keep in mind that suffering is also a feedback loop. The more times your sobriety feedback loop activates–unpleasant as it may feel–the stronger your recovery becomes. Overcoming a difficult urge feedback loop then turns into a pleasurable success feedback loop. By all means get addicted to that loop!

A wonderful SMART Recovery mentor of mine, Jim Braastad, put this best: 

“Sobriety is like a muscle that gets stronger as you use it. To get good at sobriety, practice sobriety. Again and again and again until it becomes effortless.”

There are also interesting correlations between OCD and addiction itself. Studies have shown that people with OCD over-index in their use of drugs and alcohol to relieve the anxiety and discomfort they experience as a result of their compulsive impulses and behaviors. I can personally attest to this. One of the reasons I once enjoyed alcohol was because it would dampen down the anxiety caused by my obsession with order, cleanliness, and perfection (something I discuss in Chapter 13 of the book). When I drank, I would intentionally forget to vacuum the floor, make the bed, or obsess over writing another screenplay to make more money. And I was OKAY with all that. It was a relief, a short vacation from my OCD. When faced with similar anxiety, now that I’m in successful recovery, I just walk into the kitchen and clean my stove. Again. 

Is it possible that addiction is a direct correlate of OCD? Addicts certainly become obsessed about their drugs of choice, and they have strong compulsions to indulge in them. Perhaps addiction could be managed in the way we treat OCD, and OCD could be managed in the same way we treat addiction.

I also think it might be important to break down OCD terminology a bit too. The word “obsessive” may have implied something different 50 or 100 years ago. Today the word “obsessive” is almost used as a compliment to describe people who are driven to succeed, workaholics, and perfectionists. That describes a very large group of people, including me and many people that I know. And the implied meaning of the word “compulsive” may have changed over the years too. In today’s digital economy, everything seems to be happening at light speed. There are thousands of books on Amazon about Time Management. Society places a premium on accomplishing tasks quickly. The time period between a stimulus and response in our daily feedback loops seems to be measured in nano-seconds. People feel like they never have enough time, so they act too quickly–which is really another way of saying “compulsively.”

Given all this, I think it’s interesting and useful to step outside of ourselves from time to time (or maybe all the time) and recognize how many of our daily reactions to events—and subsequent decision making—are the direct result of our feedback loops. Just like we do with our iPhone with the “Background App Refresh” option, it is sometimes helpful to refresh, recalibrate, or eliminate those loops that lead to bad decision-making. While to loop is to live, to loop more wisely is to live more purposefully and with greater self-control.

- Ted Perkins

Thoughts about this chapter? Please email me at

And as Movie Club members, I look forward to discussing these questions with you during upcoming Zoom calls following our Addicted in Film Movie Night Watch Parties. 

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