Some Compensatory Correction

Welcome to another in what’s inadvertently becoming a series of blog posts on mental health.

Consider this a general content warning or care note consistent with my earlier post. Though this post mostly talks in oblique or metaphorical terms.

The way I see it is that your brain is a nuclear reactor on board a submarine in one of those 1990s Cold War movies.

Or maybe it’s a starship, or something. I dunno.

But anyway, it’s a controlled fission reaction. And it’s running quite happily from the moment it’s first switched on – processing all the stuff, using the fuel you feed it and lighting up all your systems and such, and it just runs happily on and on.

Sometimes, though, it starts to show signs of problems. Overpressure, decreasing reaction efficiency, cooling issues – all sorts of things.

This isn’t wholly unusual, remember: these brain-reactors get this a lot. Very few of them get through a whole lifetime run without some glitches here and there. So imagine there’s a computer in charge of it, monitoring all the readouts. Usually, the computer can recognise that things are going a bit astray and can make changes to fix them. Most of the time it’ll make some adjustment, some compensatory correction, and the whole thing will settle back down to its steady operating hum. The corrective action taken, to be honest, may not be entirely approved by the reactor’s manufacturer – in fact in some cases the computer can improvise actions that might even seem pretty inadvisable. But the computer’s only really concerned with whether it works. And if it works then the computer files it as effective and will use it again next time.

But imagine a series of external problems start affecting the reactor; or one persistent or severe one, or that there’s an internal issue the computer can’t immediately identify and counter. The reactor begins to run away into a dangerous condition.

The computer searches through its entire supply of corrective adjustments – maybe in a very short time – and can’t find one that solves the problem. So, on occasion, a computer does the only thing it thinks it can do to stop the faulty operation: it scrams the reaction. It shoves an array of special rods into the core, the rods absorb the particles that are sustaining the nuclear chain reaction, and the core shuts down.

In a real-life reactor the rods can usually be withdrawn and the reactor fired up again, but unfortunately brain-reactors don’t work that way. Once they’re fully scrammed, they can’t ever be restarted. Still, the computer can sometimes select a scram as the only way to clear an ongoing fault it thinks is serious enough.

Trouble is, these computers can be a bit rubbish, and they can get it wrong. In most cases of scram there were still things that could have been tried, but the computers are notoriously bad at seeing all the options. And in many cases, the underlying issue was even one that might well have resolved itself, given time. But in severe cases the system can go from “Something’s amiss” to “SHUT IT DOWN!” surprisingly quickly, especially if external conditions are right.

The difficulty lies in convincing that ‘computer’ controlling our personal nuclear reactors that, although it might not be able to see one right now, a different solution will (most probably) show up.

Because the chances are it will. These reactors we run on – and I know I’m stretching the metaphor by now – are actually far more resilient than we think. They can withstand some seriously wobbly operation for a surprisingly long time and, ultimately, find their own way back to a stable state. It might not be the same stability they started out with, but it works. It’s enough.

If they can just hold off on the scram switch.

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