In the middle of one particularly stressful workday last week, I sought a momentary reprieve in the form of social-media scrolling (as one does). And then I saw it: a meme of a huge moth pulling up to a McDonald’s drive-through window and ordering a large…lamp. Cue: me laughing until tears—happy tears, you guys—streamed down my face, effectively flipping off the light on my gloomy mood.
While chuckling at viral memes is hardly a new phenomenon, something about seeing a human-size moth driving a car to get a lamp from McDonald’s just gave. me. life.
The moths began to infiltrate all my feeds at a rapid pace. There was a moth as Drake, waving away a turned-off light bulb, beckoning in the lit one; a photo of hurricane-evacuation traffic with a lone moth driving in the opposite direction because it forgot its lamp; another of a fangirling moth, professing its love to Thomas Edison. Basically, all the memes share one thing (in addition to being hilarious): the idea that moths live for the pursuit of lamps.
And really, when you think about it, the notion is rather romantic. The moth is absolutely devoted to its true love and will do anything in order to be with it (with “it,” of course, being the lamp). And it’s totally relatable to have a goal or a desire so strong and all-consuming that it occupies every ounce of your being. It’s oxytocin (the love hormone) overload. In emoji-form, it’s a cross of heart-eyes and bicep curl: love, on a mission. Seriously—even docs agree.
“Akin to the moth apparently being attracted to light-emitting devices and experiencing a positive emotional response, humans have the same experience when we are exposed to people we love, things we love, and substances or experiences that create an adrenaline rush,” says clinical psychologist Danielle Forshee, PsyD. “When we see something that excites us, our brain releases a surge of dopamine, which is one of the major feel-good neurotransmitters.”
Your personal lamp can be any number of things: Your significant other is your lamp. Your career goals are your lamp. Me? Dogs are my lamp. Just as moths can’t stop themselves from flying into the light, I can’t resist walking toward every pup I see with my hands held out, eager to pet it. I have other lamps in my life too, but based on my canine captivation, I feel the moth and its unshakeable desire to satisfy its yearnings. It’s admirable, really. Regardless of where the moth is, it’s working toward getting what it wants, which is a beautiful representation of honest-to-goodness dedication that resonates with the lot of us homo sapiens.
Dr. Forshee says it’s the dopamine reward system that drives us to keep on chasing what we want. It’s why getting commended at work feels good, as does excelling at your job in order to get recognized. It also feels good to be cuddled, so you rush into the arms of the one you love, like the insect to its flame.
“These moth memes hit upon and make fun of some of our core desires—most significantly, our single-minded desire to love and be loved at all costs.” —Jordana Jacobs, PhD
“These moth memes hit upon and make fun of some of our core desires—most significantly, our single-minded desire to love and be loved at all costs,” says New York-based licensed clinical psychologist Jordana Jacobs, PhD. “This desire, when acknowledged, has the potential to make us feel very vulnerable. For some, it’s challenging to admit they need other people or that they want someone or something they’re not sure they will get.”
Since a certain level of vulnerability can feel uncomfortable, oftentimes people rely on defense mechanisms to cope. One such mechanism is humor, which Dr. Jacobs says is actually considered to be a mature defense—who knew?!?
As such, moth memes may represent a compromise: They’re our way to simultaneously admit vulnerability and our insatiable desire for love, but they also allow us to cope by making light of the whole thing (pun totally intended).
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