The Intoxication Instinct …

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…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.

Of course, reason has already said all that and more, but it is good to have another ally in the struggle against bogus moral panics as we all continue to suffer through the Fourth Great Awakening.

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  1. Nice write-up; excellent pulling together of a variety of sources.

  2. Ronald Bailey, will you take Jacob Sullum aside and explain this is the way to end the insane War on Drugs?

  3. “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.”

    Reasonable minded people will have no trouble buying this argument. People who still believe that sodomy is an unspeakable horror will most likely not.

  4. All I can say is;
    AMEN

  5. andy, perhaps it should be pointed out here what Ronald is saying is people have the right to put what they want into their bodies.
    The First Amendment guarantees they have the right to put what they please into their heads.

    So, are the Bill of Rights promoting sodomy?

  6. I did enjoy reading Ron’s piece over coffee. I think I will grab another cup.

  7. “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.”

    This doesn’t make any sense. If our brain chemistry evolved to help us survive by giving us false beliefs, by what measure would correcting those beliefs give us better insight. Better because our corrected beliefs would hinder our ability to survive? Or, what is the value of “better insight”?

    Otherwise, great post! I couldn’t agree more, it’s just this quote that bothered me. A little too much fantasy.

  8. It is worthwhile to remember that ANYTHING which alters consciousness in a way that the authorities in power don’t like or have trouble managing — music, dancing, religion, art, even (for women) vigorously riding horses in a regular saddle — has been discouraged or outlawed at various times and in various places.

    The idea that our brains are wired to foster illusions or states-of-mind that help us hang in there long enough to grow to maturity, reproduce, and raise surviving children, is a provocative one. In a universe that scientists say will eventually wind down no matter what we do, where individual death is inevitable, hope — the existential carrot that dangles before us, always achingly tempting, but just out of reach — would definitely seem like such an illusion.

    Can’t be just be left to choose the dreams that help us to get out of bed in the morning and face another day?

  9. I read the Botany of Desire a while back. Highly recommended. The author said that every human society on the planet has some sort of intoxicants with the exception of Eskimos. (Because nothing will grow where they live – of course they import booze now).

    Also, Johnny Appleseed was a real person who did indeed plant apples all over the frontier, Ohio for the most part. But the apples weren’t for eating. They were for making hard cider. They were too sour to eat. Eating apples is a relatively novel use that didn’t really get going until 100 years ago or so. Before then you drank them.

  10. Was Ms. Blackmore’s hair that color before the drugs or after?

    Looking at her picture without imbibing LSD still gives me hallucinations.

    Your mileage may differ. 😉

  11. Yeah, I don’t understand that last paragraph either. Are you saying that evolution built into us a reality distortion that we found could be corrected by drug use? First, why would drug use necessarily correct this distortion? Next, if the “distortion” were useful, wouldn’t the “correction” be harmful?

    I’m so befuddled I think I need another cup of coffee.

  12. “This doesn’t make any sense. If our brain chemistry evolved to help us survive by giving us false beliefs, by what measure would correcting those beliefs give us better insight. Better because our corrected beliefs would hinder our ability to survive? Or, what is the value of “better insight”?”

    wellfellow,
    Homo sapiens and his world have co-evolved.
    I’m hopeful, some homo sapiens are now ready to handle the truth… at least gingerly.
    And I’m thinking most “truth-handlers” (as opposed to snake-handlers) already comment here.

  13. ‘we are almost too scared to admit–we like it.’

    Whos scared? This is just obvious. Also, the references to Leary and all the not-to-clever drug speak reminds me of an Onion headline. ‘Gay Pride Parade sets Gay Rights back 50 years’

  14. “Whos scared?”

    i think the “we like it” has to be seen as something more benign than the usual “the warped mind of the addict finds pleasure in his degredation” style language. it’s an obvious point that’s often underplayed or ignored.

    which is very similar to the language employed concerning pornography, sexuality out of whatever context the would-be controller doesn’t care for, etc.

  15. “andy, perhaps it should be pointed out here what Ronald is saying is people have the right to put what they want into their bodies.
    The First Amendment guarantees they have the right to put what they please into their heads.”

    Ruthless,

    So you disagree with what Mr. Bailey’s saying, just because there’s no amendment that says we have an unalienable right to get baked?

    Our rights are not merely those that the state bestows us

  16. WELL, FELLOW

    HAVIN A BIT OF A BAD TRIP THIS MORN. HUH? WATCH OUT, THERE’S A LOT OF BAD BROWN ACID GOIN AROUND. LOOKS LIKE YOU GOT SOME. AS YOU SAY, “A LITTLE TOO MUCH FANTASY. REALLY, WHY DON’T YOU TRY A DOSE OF REALITY. LOSE THE DOPE, DOPE. COME ON DOWN WHERE STRAIGHT PEOPLE CAN UNNERSTAN U DUDE. U B HEPPED UP 2 MUTCH 4 UZ 2 B FIGGERIN UZE OUT. BLEEPE SNO&&IPEK DER3WIZZZY SNO0000*^&(%$CNK!!?/

    HA, HA, JES MESSING WITH YOU HEAD THERE.HAVE A NICE TRIP WELLFELLOW (WINK,WINK,NUDGE,NUDGE) SEE YA WHEN YA COME DOWN

  17. ANDY DUDE,

    YOU KNOW THAT ‘RUTHLESS’ DUDE?

    GUESS WHY HE RUTHLESS….

    AIN’T CAUSE HE BAD………….

    CAUSE HIS WIFE ‘RUTH’ LEFT HIS SORRY IMPOTENT ASS

    AN DAS DE TRUT

    EH HENT

  18. Someone kill this jackass.

  19. andy,
    What I’m saying is that what Ronald is saying should have been a corollary to the First Amendment.
    And it’s not too late, and that is the banner under which the War on Drugs should be brought to an end.

  20. I truly believe that my experiences with LSD were very beneficial. It was the first time I got a truly introspective look at myself. I wouldn’t drop any today, too many grown up responsibilities to freak out over. But I do think that I would be even more of an uptight prick if I had never tried it.

  21. On the contrary Matt…
    Nows the best time to drop!
    Just one dose, lean back, click your heels three times and say, “There’s no place like home, Matt.” You’ll be glad you did.

  22. wellfellow and fyodor, evolution has selected genes which build us in a way that benefits them.

    Our genes don’t care about our happiness–for example, consider (i) the tens of thousands of conceptions resulting from rape every year in the US, (ii) the willingness among some males to risk death (as war heroes, extreme athletes, or many things in between) in an effort to get reproductive access to females, or (iii) our tendency to fall into self-deception and groupthink that take major external disruptions for us to shake off. Our existing brain chemistry and neuroanatomy benefit our genes (or else it wouldn’t have survived to the present generation), but they may not benefit us. The scientist in the quote may be on to something.

    Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” talks more about this topic.

  23. Brian,

    Yes that book, and the many other books concerning the history domesticated plants, foods, etc., that have exploded onto the scene in the past thirty years, is great.

  24. Hopeless non-sequitor concerning the MNF “controversy”:

    An FCC spokeswoman said the agency has received a number of complaints about the ABC broadcast, though she declined to say how many.

    The complaints will be reviewed and the commission will decide whether or not to open an investigation that could result in a fine against the network. The maximum indecency fine is $32,500 per incident.

    I guarantee you that ABC is willing to fork over the $32,500 for all the advertising dollars it will garner for “Deseperate Housewives.” And to be honest, they did nothing worse on MNF than they do ABC’s soaps. Welcome to the dictatorship of prudery.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6512160/

  25. “I guarantee you that ABC is willing to fork over the $32,500 for all the advertising dollars it will garner for “Deseperate Housewives.””

    But it could potentially be a _lot_ more than $32,500, right? I thought that fine could be applied to every single ABC affiliate that aired the bit, since each one is by their rules a separate “incident.” At least that’s how I thought it worked.

    Another important question is why can’t this sort of thing (“wardrobe malfunctions”, extremely attractive naked women jumping around) happen during televised baseball games? I watched the entire World Series, and didn’t see a damn thing that would warrant an FCC fine for lewdness and indecency. Shame on you, MLB!

  26. Perhaps our regulators fear that ephedra did in the Neanderthals?

    Or perhaps they fear the present-day Neanderthals who willingly cloud their minds with drugs…

  27. “…the tens of thousands of conceptions resulting from rape every year in the US…”

    Conceptions from rape occur with the same frequency as snow in Miami.

  28. a – are you being facetious? Probably not, if I’m recalling your ‘regular’ posts correctly.

    What, pray tell, is there to fear from someone who willingly ‘clouds their minds with drugs’? And that doesn’t even ask the question I would pose before that one about the effects of drugs and whether it’s always a clouding of the mind when one takes them.

    Have you ever taken drugs or other mind-clouding substances, if you will? Never had a beer? Never given hydrocodone after a trip to the dentist? Never had a spiritual experience on LSD, mescaline, or MDMA?

    I’m sure you’re just trolling on this one, but c’mon.

  29. To wellfellow and fyodor – the way I interpret that statement is not as saying that permanently altering your state of consciousness would be beneficial, but that altering your state of consciousness helps you understand your “normal” mind and gives you greater insight into the regular workings of your mind.

    Regarding my personal experiences, my feelings are very much like Matt’s. I wouldn’t drop acid all the time, but I’m glad that I did it. Having my mind’s workings so altered made me realize how much of our experiential “reality” is actually the result of our brains filling in gaps, ensuring continuity, making connections, and generally trying to ensure a coherent picture for our conscious minds. I still believe in objective reality, but I had it impressively demonstrated to me in how many ways both subtle and gross our perceptions of it may vary.

  30. JD,

    I agree with all that you’re saying, only I don’t see how any of it flows from the evolutionary argument that’s cited, that’s all. I would say drugs can be enhancing the way you speak of just because they make the brain work differently and thus provide a different perspective. Most drug induced perspectives have no value, but over the years we’ve found a few that do. There, no fancy evolutionary argument necessary. But I suppose making things so simple they’re banal never earned a journalist a paycheck! 🙂

  31. For me, the best part of that article was the part where they suggested the idea that certain drugs may be useful for certain sciences which would be called “state-specific sciences”. Personally, i think that is a very revolutionary idea which could enable us to get some new models of what exactly is going on at the quantum levels of our universe. Also, did anyone else hear that story about Francis Crick being on LSD when he discovered the double helix shape of DNA?

  32. These last few comments remind me of the topic, above: “Darwin, Dickens, and Dutton”

    It compares novels to drugs as to their beneficial effects.

  33. RUTH-LESS

    LOOKS LIKE PIGWIGGLE IS STANDING UP FOR YOU.

    I GUESS YOU DO NEED THAT SINCE RUTH BLEW YOU OFF AND LEFT YOU RUTH-LESS.

    LOOKEY HERE ALL YOU GIRLIE-WIPE LIBERALS. KEEP IT UP. THIS IS WHERE IT GETS YOU. A MAN NOT SECURE IN HIS OWN MANHOOD HAVING TO BE ‘RESCUED AND STOOD UP FOR BY ‘PIGWIGGLE’.

    YOU GUYS ARE PATHETIC. COULDN’T GET A DATE FROM ALAN COMBS EVEN IF HE WAS ON DRUGS.

    PS……….PIGWIGGLE, IS THAT:
    a..WHO YOU ARE,
    b..WHAT YOU DO,
    c..WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE,
    d..WHO YOU DO?

    soo-eey

  34. RUTH-LESS

    LOOKS LIKE PIGWIGGLE IS STANDING UP FOR YOU.

    I GUESS YOU DO NEED THAT SINCE RUTH BLEW YOU OFF AND LEFT YOU RUTH-LESS.

    LOOKEY HERE ALL YOU GIRLIE-WIPE LIBERALS. KEEP IT UP. THIS IS WHERE IT GETS YOU. A MAN NOT SECURE IN HIS OWN MANHOOD HAVING TO BE ‘RESCUED AND STOOD UP FOR BY ‘PIGWIGGLE’.

    YOU GUYS ARE PATHETIC. COULDN’T GET A DATE FROM ALAN COMBS EVEN IF HE WAS ON DRUGS.

    PS……….PIGWIGGLE, IS THAT:
    a..WHO YOU ARE,
    b..WHAT YOU DO,
    c..WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE,
    d..WHO YOU DO?

    soo-eey

  35. RUTH-LESS

    LOOKS LIKE PIGWIGGLE IS STANDING UP FOR YOU.

    I GUESS YOU DO NEED THAT SINCE RUTH BLEW YOU OFF AND LEFT YOU RUTH-LESS.

    LOOKEY HERE ALL YOU GIRLIE-WIPE LIBERALS. KEEP IT UP. THIS IS WHERE IT GETS YOU. A MAN NOT SECURE IN HIS OWN MANHOOD HAVING TO BE ‘RESCUED AND STOOD UP FOR BY ‘PIGWIGGLE’.

    YOU GUYS ARE PATHETIC. COULDN’T GET A DATE FROM ALAN COMBS EVEN IF HE WAS ON DRUGS.

    PS……….PIGWIGGLE, IS THAT:
    a..WHO YOU ARE,
    b..WHAT YOU DO,
    c..WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE,
    d..WHO YOU DO?

    soo-eey

  36. It’ always five o’clock SOMEWHERE.

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