Sunday, 14 April 2013

Drugs of the mind and body

I have an open-ended question to pose: Is there any moral difference between manipulating our mind versus our body with drugs? After some thought I decided within the world of work (jobs & offices), physical drugs are normal and mental drugs are everyone's dirty secret. By contrast in the world of sport it is the opposite: physical drugs are demonized and secretive while mentally altered states are the norm (or at worst redundant).

For some context on what constitutes "normal" or acceptable in Western society's drug use, here is the United States' top selling drugs of 2012:



You can ignore the bio vs chem column, just something I added to see how they were derived (purely synthetic vs biological manipulation). The one to consider is whether I annotated these best-sellers as either mind or body-based drugs. This column assumes a fundamental difference between our bodily organs and the brain (also an organ), a debatable point. Objections aside, I find it is rather easy to split drugs into either category. From what I see, 13 of the top 15 drugs most profitable drugs treat physical ailments (ranging from cancer to obesity) but only two treat for mental conditions: Abilify used for schizophrenia and Cymbalta as an anti-depressant. Consider that both these drugs work by blunting the mental alertness, not enhancing it. In fact most drugs tend to blunt or inhibit otherwise normal bodily functions. Most legal drugs are for bodily heath-related issues. The "average sick person" (no such thing) is seeking physically based medicine rather than psychological "modifications".

Generic drugs like cortisone, aspirin, ibuprofen, nitrous oxide, and ether seem to further separate the mind and body by alleviating physical pain (as endured by the brain). If a drug does not directly target the brain or body it seems to further separate the two.

I found the domination of physical ailment drugs interesting since by contrast almost all recreational drugs are mental. Such drugs include caffeine, alcohol, cannabis, mushrooms (psilocybin), cocaine, LSD, meth, etc. Caffeine and alcohol are of course openly consumed, the latter acceptable at least in public spaces like restaurants but the former is promoted in work spaces. Caffeine is acceptable everywhere since it creates mental alertness (however briefly) and more awareness is almost always good thing. Still, coffee, RedBull and other drug drinks are an interesting exception considering just how inappropriate smoking pot would be even in a high stress job (for which it might help). Even for legal drugs, i.e. the ones that treat diagnosable mental conditions, there is something unsettling about them; learning of a co-worker's anti-psychotic medication will stop a conversation faster than finding out his or her Lipitor supply.

Now consider the world of sport, which seems to run counter to work culture. Something we often associate about exercise is that it will improve our body physique but drain our brains. Though both physically and mentally tiring, sport is not associated with intelligence; it is however associated with a nice body. Stereotypically athletes are not considered well-spoken, especially after a competition. They are tired and the brain is not firing on all cylinders. It is assumed than in running a marathon, the finisher will be incoherent. As an example after my first marathon I was garbling incoherent mumblings to a friend at the end. Ditto for my second marathon, only more so. And I don't mind talking about it either, contrary to, say, retelling a drinking story in front of professional coworkers or family. Though a marathon makes one practically drunk (in a way), it is still considered a commendable physical act.

In exercise those physical enhancing drugs such as those listed above are no longer acceptable. A sip of caffeine is mostly OK, while a shot of rum is needless (you'll be plenty dizzy without the rum). Many drug scandals have piled up over the years, including blood doping and cycling, steroids within baseball's elite, most any american football player, American and US sprinters etc, etc. The interesting item to me is that such drugs are considered cheating as they give unfair advantages instead of reasoning they allow the slow one to catch up. Doping athletes themselves however consider the drugs a way in fact to catch up to the others, not to get an "edge".  Since each person caught has been shamed, shunned, or penalized to some non-trivial extent, it is clear the public opinion does not openly accept physical-type drugs in sport. Exceptions might include pain killers (which I happen to find very a interesting exception).

Our society generally accepts drugs that improve the body because it allows those who've fallen back to catch up. Mental drugs are acceptable if they allow you to catch up mentally (coffee) but condemned if they encourage deviation. Physical drugs in this instance do not enhance, but merely bring one up to par, while mental drugs that degrade one's alertness are frowned upon.

In sports, physically altering drugs are condemned because they are seen to push away from the mean, though athletes themselves consider it a form of catching up to the mean. Painkillers like ibuprofen and aspirin are ok because they remove pain that is considered "too much" for a regular person to endure.

I have no idea what to make of any of this. All I can say for certain is there seems to be a paradoxical fear of people moving too far from some sort of mean. Yet we simultaneously want to improve our own performances and cheer our identified heroes to new heights. Somewhere along the way that involves a fear both of watching as others move ahead of, or behind, the imaginary mean. I think there could be contradictions here, perhaps in my own reasoning, but overall I feel these attitudes show something deeper than just drugs alone. We condemn some drugs and applaud others, some mental-based and others physical. The only consistent marker is whether we perceive these drugs to push or pull others in approved-of directions. Deliberately taking drugs which move too far away in either direction merits punishment. Taking drugs to move towards the norm (whether mind or body) can be a complicated discussion, but nevertheless not a contemptible act. Other thoughts?

1 comment:

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