Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Impact of Drugs on History

A review at the NY Times of Daniel Lord Smail's "On Deep History and the Brain" looks at how "self-modifications of our mental states" have guided the path of human history. In other words, it's a "neurohistory" book.

One example from the article: Arabian coffee stimulated "mind, body, conversation and creativity" when it hit shops in Europe. Another example, using slave labor in the Caribbean to grow sugar. This lead to cheap rum, which in turn numbed the working classes.

Basically, there are two types of mood-altering mechanisms. First, there's "teletropic" mechanisms, which are used to affect others. There are two examples in the Times piece. One, a baby crying "arouses its mother's instinct to care." Two, a preacher's sermon "relieves parishioners of stress hormones."

The second mood-altering mechanism, used to alter one's own mental state, is called "autotropic." For example, drinking coffee, taking a shot of whisky and popping anti-depressants would be autropic mood-altering mechanisms. And it's these that Smail's book focus on.

But it's not just drugs (caffeine, alcohol or nicotine) that can alter moods. "Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood."

A question to consider. While autotropic stimulation is an intentional act. Is it an intentional attempt to move society forward? Smail would argue it's not. And Pound360 agrees. People wouldn't simply drink rum because it made it easier to handle their mundane, difficult factory jobs. There would have to be a more immediate, clear self-benefit, and there is: the pleasure of inebriation.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.