By John Glassie
(Wired, August 2001)
You may date the appeal of the altered mind back to high school or college, but the known use of alcohol, cocaine, tobacco, caffeine and other substances actually began several thousand years ago.
According to Ciaran Regan, author of Intoxicating Minds: How Drugs Work, drug use is a "unique characteristic of human life and society," and one known to all cultures: Finno-Ugarian tribespeople in Siberia, for instance, are known to pay as many as three or four reindeer for one very special mushroom.
A professor of pharmacology at University College in Dublin, Regan provides a relatively accessible overview of psychoactive substances, their development and the way they reconfigure the chemistry of our brains. (Prozac prevents seratonin from being conserved by the presynapse, and your mood is lifted; LSD somehow effects the raphe nucleus, which regulates the dreaming phases of sleep, and your walls begin to melt.) He makes us see that, altered or not, consciousness itself is a chemical process.
Regan argues with some force that psychoactive agents have had an impact on "the evolution of societies." He writes, for example, that "one cannot overstate the historical significance of the introduction to Europe of stimulants such as coffee, tea, chocolate and nicotine, by the enterprising merchants of the seventeenth century," an introduction that evidently helped kick start the Europeans out of an alcohol-induced haze and into the Age of Enlightenment.
It's no coincidence, in other words, that thousands of coffeehouses sprang up during one of the most industrious periods of human history. (Sound familiar?) "The use of stimulants achieved chemically what Rationalism and the Protestant ethic sought to fulfill spiritually and ideologically," he says.
But the influence of chemical substances on human beings may be even more profound. Noting that many such substances are derived from plants, fungi or microorganisms, Regan suggests that ingestion of plants since prehistory has had an effect on the development of the mind -- actually reconfiguring the brain and bringing self-awareness into being.
"In many respects," he writes, "the evolution of our genome has been drug driven." And now that the human genome has been described, so will be much of the effort to alter ourselves once again.