Monday, April 12, 2010

Hallucinogens and Evolution

What does it say about evolution, and the evolution of our brains in particular, that we so eagerly seek out intoxicants and hallucinogens? It strikes me that there has been a fundamental error somewhere along the way, or else that happiness is actually bad in some way for evolutionary fitness. Whatever the case, we feel uncomfortable with our minds -- our minds feel uncomfortable with themselves? -- and many of us spend a great deal of effort trying to change, chemically, how it feels to be alive.

This comes to mind because of a piece by John Tierney in the NY Times about the use of hallucinogens to treat stubborn depression and other psychiatric problems. The account of a depressed man treated with psilocybin:

After taking the hallucinogen, Dr. Martin put on an eye mask and headphones, and lay on a couch listening to classical music as he contemplated the universe.

“All of a sudden, everything familiar started evaporating,” he recalled. “Imagine you fall off a boat out in the open ocean, and you turn around, and the boat is gone. And then the water’s gone. And then you’re gone.”

Today, more than a year later, Dr. Martin credits that six-hour experience with helping him overcome his depression and profoundly transforming his relationships with his daughter and friends. He ranks it among the most meaningful events of his life, which makes him a fairly typical member of a growing club of experimental subjects.

I am not ready to conclude that mushrooms are the next psychiatric breakthrough, but I would not dismiss this out of hand, either. The use of psycho-active substances is as near to universal among humans as marriage and warfare, and that suggests to me that life with an un-drugged brain just doesn't work very well for a lot of people. People have been using hallucinogens to achieve spiritual experiences for, well, probably as long as there have been people, and spiritual experiences are one of the most important things that reconcile us to human life. So the notion that hallucinatory experiences could help some people does not startle me.

On the other hand, we have all observed lives wrecked by drugs. Any drug strong enough to change how we feel comes with serious risks. That the use of psycho-active drugs is "natural" does not mean that it will always or even usually be a good thing; violence and greed are natural, too. Whether hallucinogens can treat depression is a factual question, and when it comes to facts we should neither be seduced either by the lure of forbidden rebellion nor soothed by establishment certainties.

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