…is the title of the superb cover article in the November 13-19 issue of New Scientist (unfortunately available only to subscribers). In the spirit of fair use a few highlights are below:
Why is it that we choose to alter our state of consciousness by dosing our brains with chemicals?
The answer is straigtforward. We seek intoxication for a simple reason that we are almost too scared to admit–we like it. Intoxication can be fun, sociable, memorable, therapeutic, even mind-expanding. Saying as much in the present climate is not easy, but an increasing number of researchers now argue that unless we're prepared to look beyond the "drug problem" and acknowledge the positive aspects of intoxication, we are seeing only half of the story–like researching sex while pretending it isn't fun.
Human beings have been getting high for a long time. The article points out that anthropologists have found the remains of the herbal stimulant ephedra at a 50,000 year old Neanderthal burial site in Iraq. (Of course, ephedra was recently banned by the FDA. Perhaps our regulators fear that ephedra did in the Neanderthals? But I digress.) Civilization may have begun because people wanted to settle down to grow grains that when fermented or leavend turn out to tickle their brains' pleasure centers.
Pleasure, excitement, therapy, novelty: seen in this light, the pursuit of intoxication looks very different from its standard portrayal as a pathological drive that must be suppressed before it leads to harm, addiction, and squalor. Yet the mainstream debate on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco seems unable to acknowledge that there is anything positive at all to say about intoxication. Instead it is locked into a sterile argument between prohibitionists and those who want to reduce the harmful effects by, for example, making heroin available on prescription. Both groups start from the belief that psychoactive substances are inherently harmful but disagree on what to do about it.
Some activists, however, are starting to argue for an entirely different attitude to intoxication. One prominent critic of the debate is Richard Glen Boire, director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, California. He believes that intoxication is not just part of human nature, it is a basic human right. "Why should it be illegal to alter your style of thinking?" he says. "As long as you don't do any harm to anyone else, what you do in your own mind is as private as what you do in your own bedroom.
In a sidebar, philosopher Susan Blackmore provocatively asks:
What if our actual brain chemistry evolved to help us survive and reproduce at the cost of giving us false beliefs about the world? If so, it is possible that mind-altering drugs might in fact give us a better, not worse, insight than we have in our so-called normal state.