Part One: Why do we do that stuff, anyway?
“Oh, there’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning.” –Jimmy Buffet
The Jimmy Buffet line comes a lot closer to the mark than you might think it does.
Over the next few days I’m going to be publishing a series of essays here mostly relating to the Saturday night end of the equation. Mostly I’ll be writing about our society’s relationship with intoxicants. And by and large I’ll be talking about the top two: alcohol and marijuana. After all, with no less than two dozen places licensed to sell alcohol in the Newport business district along and pot shops, er, dispensaries springing up faster than the City can close them down, the business of buzz appears to be booming here in Ocean Beach.
Now, if you think you know where this is all headed, think again. With pot legalization (Proposition 19) on this fall’s ballot, I think it’s high time (pun intended) that we had a grown up conversation about what’s going on in buzzland. You, dear reader, are especially invited to contribute, provided that you can keep it civil. Please, please, please share your ideas in the comments section of this article. In the interests of readability this will be a multi-part exploration, so don’t expect to see everything covered in any particular segment. And your input may influence what will appear in future essays. I told Frank that this essay would most likely have five parts, but, who knows? I’ll keep typing until the synapses stop firing.
Over the past decade or so there has been a veritable explosion of knowledge emerging about how the brain works and what it is that defines the process called consciousness. We’re at the place now where it’s beginning to dawn on some of the great scientists and philosophers who study this sort of thing that what we DON’T know is many times greater than what we DO know. But we do have some clues as to how things work.
We know that the brain is a functioning system, with vastly more connections and computing power than any of the electronic devices that we’ve thus far invented. We do know that there are both chemical and electrical processes involved in receiving, communicating, evaluating, storing, analyzing and retrieving information. We do know that the brain functions in collaborative manner, with different specialty divisions, some seemingly unrelated, having input over thought processes and motor functions.
(Two books that were really helpful in understanding these processes were: A Users Guide to the Brain by John Ratey and Human, The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique by Michael S. Gazzaniga. I’m sure both authors will be horrified to see their works referenced in this context, but for those of you geeky enough to want to go beyond what I’m glossing over here, they’re both worth reading.)
So why do people party on Saturday night? It’s nature’s fault. Really!
Birds do it. So do Bees. Many of our closer relatives in the animal kingdom love to catch a buzz. Jaguars love to get high. Their choice in intoxicants is the roots of the caapi plant, which they gnaw on until they start to hallucinate. Capuchin monkeys in South America and lemurs in Madagascar have learned how to get high off several species of millipedes that squirt out a poisonous compound when agitated. By covering themselves with the poison, lemurs and monkeys are able to ward off parasitic insects and catch a buzz. And ranchers who pasture horses know about the psychoactive and addictive properties of locoweed.
As far as humans are concerned, in the book From Chocolate to Morphine, Andrew Weil, M.D., and Wilfred Rosen, point out:
Human beings it seems, are born with the need for periodic variations in consciousness. The behavior of young children supports this idea. Infants rock themselves into blissful states, many children discover that whirling or spinning is a powerful technique to change awareness, some also experiment with hyperventilation (rapid deep breathing) followed by mutual chest squeezing or choking, and tickling to produce paralyzing laughter. Even though these practices may produce some uncomfortable results such as dizziness or nausea, the whole experience is so reinforcing that children do it again and again, often despite parental objections. Since children all over the world engage in these activities, the desire to change consciousness does not seem to be a product of a particular culture but rather to arise from something basic. As children grow older they find that certain available substances put them in similar states. The attractiveness of drugs is that they provide an easy quick route to these experiences.
Simply put, altering our consciousness is part of our genetic heritage. Our brains start out with a lot of hardwired systems, but unlike computers, the more software you load, the faster and better they work. The same brain structures and chemical releases that are activated by eating food, having sex, listening to music and visual stimulation respond to recreational drugs. (The responses aren’t exactly the same, but they are responses.) Non-survival related experiences, like music and drugs are thought to trigger pleasurable responses because of a primordial need to seek out new and different experiences.
Jean Paul Sartre, French existentialist, put it this way:
I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.
While exploring the genetic side of the human equation, let’s take a quick peek at the Sunday morning side of things. (Remember that thin line?) Is religion the opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx is often quoted (out of context) as saying?
The simplistic way of explaining the attraction of religion is to highlight the research that links positive human responses to rituals and religious-based services to the production of brain chemicals known as endorphins. Endorphins are natural compounds (triggering other neural reactions, depending on the stimuli) that create the sense of euphoria. The reactions can include an adrenaline rush from fear, a runner’s high from over-exertion, the hypnotic rhythm of a preacher’s voice, or even a bowl of really hot chili.
Some preachers use a three beat tone when addressing their congregation. This is done in part because that particular kind of rhythm can induce a quasi trance state in the mind. I suspect it raises the level of endorphins, and in some instances, can lead to mild epileptic type seizures. The pattern of speech is similar to the one used by professional hypnotists when they try to induce trances in willing subjects. Could the stimulation of endorphins produced by these speakers offer an insight into why some people lose their ability to reason logically after prolonged exposure to them? Certainly the enthusiastic music along with back and forth in evangelistic congregations rewards its participants with a sensation of (sometimes extreme) pleasure.
Can religion be explained as simple manipulation of brain chemistry? As with all things having to do with human consciousness, it’s not that simple. The brain also rewards (most of) us for joining with fellow members of our species in activities that have altruistic and practical intentions. It is in our basic nature to be social creatures, and religion, for better or worse, represents one of the more tried and true methods for collective activity.
As Robin Dunbar, a Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, explains in a 2005 essay:
It seems that there are huge payoffs to being in a religious framework. This has much more to do with the mind state of being religious, and of being part of a community, rather than going through the rituals of religion, of going to church now and again. There is a lot of new sociological evidence suggesting that actively religious people live longer, appear to be less stressed, suffer fewer psychological problems, and tend to recover faster from illness and major surgery, than those who are not religious in that sense.
Getting beyond the chemical/electrical reactions, both religion and intoxicants are connected in some sense with the basic levels of organization within our consciousness. (As this can get real technical very quickly, I’ll have to beg the forgiveness of any experts on this subject who happen to have stumbled across this essay—yes, I know, it’s much more complicated.)
One scenario that seems to have gained long term traction in defining the processes of consciousness is called Theory of Mind. Theory of mind (ToM) means understanding that other people have a mind of their own, just like our own, understanding what another person is thinking, and realizing their beliefs might not be the same as our own. Using it, we assume everyone behaves like us with conscious purpose, and we try to work out their intentions. Primitive people even extend their ToM to animals and even rocks, trees, mountains and so on.
There are five levels of ToM, each building upon the other. By the time we get through to the fourth level we’re dealing with higher powers; we still do not agree on what we think about what God thinks. Religious morality requires us to agree upon what God wants us to think and do. At the fifth level, “I think you think that we both think that god thinks we ought to think so and so.” (Read it out loud)
At this fifth level we’re reaching the limit of most people’s capacity to comprehend and retain what’s going on. Temporary as these states of extended consciousness may be, they give humans as a species the huge advantage of stretching our level of intentionality, i.e., pertaining to the capacity of the mind to refer to an existent or nonexistent object.
Getting back to the Saturday night side of the equation, many people under the influence have had the experience of sudden huge flashes of insight that seem to offer solutions to complicated problems. But the next day, alas, these solutions are forgotten or only partially remembered. Was the brain just being nonsensical (fooling us) or did we experience a truly higher level of consciousness that our now dumbed-down intelligence can no longer comprehend?
So is the whole process chemical or genetic? No way! Ultimately, our lives are fashioned by the dealings between our genes and our experiences. Genes give us a predisposition to act in a certain way, but through life experiences (finding better ways of socially connecting with people or handling stress, for example), individuals with similar genetic make-ups can have vastly different paths. In the old terms of Nature and Nurture, both count.
Just because we have fundamental drives and desires that are hard-wired into our species does not eliminate the consequences of acting on those urges. Some people may have subtle variations in their genetic make up (the so-called alcoholism gene is but one example) that result in adverse reactions. This does not apply only to intoxicants: some autistic children’s brains interpret music as pain, for example. Other people’s life experiences may have left them susceptible to extreme responses.
The leaps and bounds of our technologies and the stresses inherent in our rapidly evolving social structures, starting with the rise of the first civilizations, have placed demands on our conscious and physical beings that go beyond where evolution has taken us. It’s safe to say that a substantial part of human problems in the world today, not just intoxicant abuse, result from the mismatch between the current–highly artificial–environment and the environment in which we evolved.
None-the-less, the drive to alter our internal and external reality continues. Perhaps it was meant to be that way. We may never know—given the short amount of time we exist on this planet–whether mankind’s future is related to an evolutionary quest for expanded consciousness.
As Karl Marx said (in a letter to German philosopher Arnold Ruge):
The world has long possessed the dream of a thing of which it only needs to possess the consciousness in order to own it fully. Humanity is not beginning a new work, but consciously bringing its old work to fruition.
One last thought: there are lots of things that cause our “pleasure centers” to activate. Taking a “dump” (or “dropping the kids off at the pool”) is an, perhaps, off-the-wall example. But even though it gives us some satisfaction, we normally exercise some caution about where and how we do that action. Think about that next time you go to do some really “good shit”.
Well, that’s about it for this time.
Hope I gave you something to ponder.
Part Two: A Little Marijuana History
Part Three: Why Proposition 19 Will Fail
Part Four: Alcohol: The 800 Pound Elephant in the Room
Part Five: The Future Stoner