How Drugs Work
By Alec Rawls © 1997/1998. (1000 words) Originally published in The Thinker, 2/3/97.

Anti-drug education in this country assiduously avoids any realistic analysis of how drugs work. In particular, any discussion of what makes drug use attractive is anathema. Drug use is attributed entirely to escapism, peer pressure and other pejoratives. This is unfortunate because the very mechanism that makes drugs attractive turns out to be the mechanism through which drugs do so much damage. There is truth to the saying "ignorance is bliss." If people understood how to read in their "positive" drug experiences the destructive processes behind them, their bliss would be severely compromised.

The details of how drugs work varies from drug to drug but the basic mechanism is the same. Drugs work by disabling the pathways that thought normally travels. This is best understood for cocaine, which operates by blocking receptors in the synapses between the neurons in a person's brain. With existing pathways disabled, the mind is forced to find its way anew.

The effect is for things that had been taken for granted to be seen again for the first time. Just the brightness of a day can seem new and fantastic and the same with a thousand other commonplace awarenesses and realizations. The filters that normally keep things we have gotten used to from recieving the attention of consciousness are all unplugged. It is like dropping a cat off a roof. The mind is switched into an active mode, forced to think, to find new pathways, and so long as the drug is not so incapacitating that intelligence cannot rise to the challenge, the experience can be exhilarating. It is fun to look at the world with new eyes.

Of course there is reason to be ambivilant even about this "upside" itself. A friend of mine from India told me about an indian drug that is so powerful people just fixate. The same trivial thing seems astoundingly novel for hours. "Contemplating one's navel" may be a method of eastern mysticism, but I suspect it is also Indian for "drug addict." Then there is the way that even just unfiltered physical sensation can make some people paranoid. Not all cats like to be dropped off a roof. But then that challenge just becomes a part of what is attractive about drugs to youth. The real downside that people need to be warned about is a very different animal.

A universal phenomenon in human psychology is state dependent learning. If you study for an exam with a particular fragrance in the air you will do better on the exam if the same fragrance is in the air. It is a simple consequence of the fact that memory is associative. The state dependence effect of drugs is very powerful because the mental associations are to a whole different brain chemistry. Thus, for instance, if you study for an exam on speed, the studying will not benefit you much unless you take the exam on speed.

The same thing happens with all drugs. The sociability that the inhibited person discovers when alcohol unplugs his inhibitions is state dependent learning. When he anticipates partying and being sociable again, his associations are to the alcohol affected state. The result is a craving for alcohol: what is known as psychological (as opposed to physical) addiction.

But that is only the beginning of the bad news. When existing pathways in the brain are disabled, the brain not only finds new pathways, it keeps them. State dependent pathways start to set up a separate brain within a brain--a whole second set of pathways that are impaired except in the drugged state. ("Pathways" is a metaphor. How the associative processes of the brain work is still very obscure.)

If the experience of looking at the world through new eyes has been a particularly lucid experience, setting one on to really having some interesting thoughts, the mind will subconsciously work over those thoughts, like it does with all of its food for thought. (The drug dependent learning does not completely disappear in the undrugged state, anymore than normally established pathways completely disappear in the drugged state.) When the work of the subconscious is ready for harvest, the drug dependent mind starts calling for attention, which induces craving for the drug. The more the call of the drug dependent state is answered, the more cognitive capacity is recruited to the drug dependent state.

Cocaine snorters are particularly known for using cocaine at work when they want to be productive. They are likely to get the most recruitment of cognitive capacity, and to get the strongest cravings of psychological addiction, but with other drugs the process of psychological addiction is fundamentally similar. "It becomes a part of your mental muscle" as one cocaine addict put it in a Cowell Health Center publication. Never mind that that muscle is actually a lot weaker than it seems, since a lot of what it takes to be revelation would be seen as commonplace if normal filters about what is worth paying attention to were not unplugged.

In time, as drug dependent pathways get established, a drug loses its capacity to impart newness and freedom. The user just shifts from one set of existing pathways to another. Researchers have found that this takes about two years, pretty much regardless of the drug. The "appeal" of the drug wears off, but the cravings do not. What users are left with is a brain split in two. The drug dependent half of the brain continues to function and demand attention even though the drug no longer confers any of the effects that once made it attractive but only visits an inferior brain chemistry, discombobulated in various degrees.

This is powerful knowledge for people who have to fight the attraction of drugs. Explain to drug users that drugs are attractive because they force the mind to find new pathways and it comes as a revelation: "Yeah. That's how drugs work." Point out that this exciting experience of finding new pathways is the mind using all of its resources of intelligence to recruit a drug dependent cognitive capacity and drug users have another revelation: "Oh shit."

Millions of young people who have been lured by the attractions of drug use have a right to ask us: "Why didn't you tell me?" All we are telling them is that drugs are nothing but mind deadening escapism, which everyone who experiments with drugs immediately discovers to be a lie. Drugs are not mind deadening, they are a rush. We need to explain to people that that rush is their brain splitting itself in two.

What cruel irony, that we are not telling children the truth because we do not want to admit any attractive side to drug use, when it is not the attractions of drug use that are hidden from people who try drugs, only the dangers.

(Mr Knowitall truly does know it all)


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Date Last Modified: 8/27/99
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