Monday, May 13, 2013

What We Really Enjoy

There was a tee shirt that said "the only things we technically enjoy is serotonin and dopamine". 

On the molecular level of brain chemistry this pretty much true. It's not important what we think we like, in the end all of our sensations of pleasure get reduced to these two chemicals.

I had a teacher who was a big advocate for meditation. He believed that all intoxicating drugs just mimic other body chemicals like the way morphine mimics some endorphins. Through meditation, fasting and exercise the body can be coaxed into producing an array of endorphins.  So that every experience that could be induced by drugs could also be induced by meditation or other disciplines, or as he would say every high is already in our heads.   

There has been some past research that relaxing in a float tank not only produces endorphins but those endorphins can relieve pain and inflammation. 

There was one study on how beta-endorphins produced during pregnancy are similar to cannabiniods like THC.  After pregnancy the level of these beta-endorphins drop off and could be behind postpartum depression.

Naturally swallowing a pill or getting medicated is a lot easier than meditation. Though pharmacological means the body can be flooded with chemicals that fit desired receptors in the brain.  The whole basis for addiction is the inability to maintain any feeling of pleasure without excessive outside stimulation. It's not only drugs but also behaviors that can be addictive. Even when these behaviors become self destructive they still will be repeated over and over because this is the only way that person can get that spike of dopamine that everyone experiences as pleasure.

The neural science behind addiction is still discovering new insights .  We may never break all the secrets into what it means to be a conscience being. That might not be an entirely bad, some mystery life in life keeps the whole experience interesting.

The social cost of addictions are staggering. Often seen as a symptom of a sick society instead of a problem of sick individuals. Bob Dylan might have been right "that everybody wants to get stoned" but it an endless debate if a society that helps its members find a meaningful place in the community isn't better off than a society that criminalizes addictions or places the entire responsibility on the individual.

America has always been conflicted with how to deal with addictions. The general public is terrified over the behavior of desperate addicts and criminal drug lords but it tends to forget the first drive-by shooting was from a Stuz Bearcat sports car with a Thompson sub-machine gun. 

America's experiment in the prohibition of alcohol was a mixed defeat. Most people upheld the law and didn't buy illegal alcohol or drink. Some of the family income that didn't go to demon rum ended up fueling the economy of the roaring 20s. That money was used for other consumer goods, or was saved in the bank and even directly invested in stocks and bonds. The bad side was the sizeable minority that continued to drink spent most of their money on booze supplied by organized crime. The gangsters made so much money (estimated up to 3 billion a year in 1920 dollars) they were able to diversify into other criminal activities and buy off entire police forces.  The corruption and violence were two major factors that changed public opinion. The prohibition was worse than the problem.

Trying to correct the problems of addiction with prohibition never seem to successful. England had toyed with prohibition during the Gin Craze of the first half of the 1700's. William of Orange from the Dutch royal family was then King during the reign of William and Mary.  William of Orange bought to England two things, the Dutch banking system that established the Bank of England and gin -which was to become the national drink. Gin is relatively easy to make, in its simplest form it is grain alcohol, water and the flavoring juniper berries. It does not have to be aged in a barrel like whiskey and it doesn't take the same skill as a well crafted beer to make. When gin was allowed to be made and sold in England without a license, the country became awash in the stuff. There was gin everywhere and everyone could afford it.

Like the crack epidemic, crime spun out of control as alcoholics try to maintain their access to gin by thievery. The nation was scandalized as parents would starve and abuse their children just to get money for gin.  

It was almost a full century after William of Orange promoted gin in England that the drink was fully regulated like other distilled spirits. By then the very early stirrings of a temperance movement was started in England that would cross over into the American Colonies where a few of generations later Maine and Vermont became the first dry states in the 1850s.  For the next sixty years the American Temperance movement pushed forward an agenda that lead to the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act.

The Roaring Twenties left its legacy. That decade moved faster than previous times. The music was faster in the Jazz Age. Bootleggers made their stock cars faster to outrun government agents which was the roots of the sport of stock car racing. Even the Art Deco designs that started in the 1920's made things look even when they were standing still.

I use to work with somebody that did drug and alcohol counseling. In that circle was the question of "what is your drug?" or "what do "jones" for?" Those broad questions of what motivates, overpowers, or spikes your dopamine levels. There is a basic human need for pleasure but addiction becomes a perversion of that need. When the mind is unable to find pleasure on its own all kinds of addictions can step in. Though the tragedy is they don't lead to pleasure, they only temporarily satisfy the craving.

Art is filled with stories of the dark romance of addictions. The poetry in the sting of the needle and stigmata marks of suffering and longing. The quest for satisfaction and the inevitable disappointment. This is the cycle that propels so much drama. Like in Ancient Greek myths where the hero descends to the edge of Hades, even if they should come back they don't return unchanged by the experience.



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