My suggested topic for the next Cafe Philo in New York City today, Thursday, August 13, 2009, is "Why is intoxication so intoxicating?" I intended it as a fairly open-ended question, not intending to focus solely on drinking or solely on the physiological phenomenon of intoxication. It is not my intent to fully answer the question here, but to simply highlight some of the directions the question could go in.
Generally, I was thinking not so much about the specific physiological effects of intoxication per se, but the general effects in your conscious mind, regardless of whether the person is excited, stupefied, euphoric, enthusiastic, frenzied, giggly, sad, withdrawn, or loses their inhibitions. Whatever. The full range.
I would suggest that the state of intoxication is a matter of degree, so that a person could be partially intoxicated, or even only slightly intoxicated. In fact fully intoxicated or totally intoxicated or completely intoxicated might mean paralysis or loss of consciousness. I would simply suggest the term really intoxicated for a severe degree of intoxication that is short of total intoxication in that the person can still move a around at least a little and still even talk a little.
We engage in many pleasant and satisfying experiences in life, but many of them do not rise to the level of overwhelming us in the sense of intoxication, which can be characterized with terms such as:
- Great excitement
- Extreme calm
I was not intending to limit the topic to alcohol or drugs as the agent of intoxication, but any substance or activity or sensory input which can take your mind to an intensely satisfying state, including:
- Music, both vocal and instrumental
- Creativity - writing, art, composing music, poetry, etc.
- Theater and other performances (even distinct from the role music might play)
- Performing - acting, artistic, singing, etc.
- Crowds, mobs, and other gatherings
- Athletic activity, including running or even hiking and walking
- Power - the infamous "power trip"
- Politics, both politicians themselves and their operatives
- Religion, spirituality, awe of a deity
- Community, fellowship
- Dramatic weather, water conditions
- Combat, fighting, killing
- Coping with dramatic emergency response
- Puzzles, such as Sudoku
- Children - experiencing their growth and success
- Work - that you truly enjoy and find deeply satisfying, workaholics
- Driving, flying, skydiving, scuba diving, skiing
- Precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum
- Precious stones
- Confidence scams
- People watching
- Reading pulp fiction - the infamous "page turners"
- Closing deals
- Breaking laws (or rules)
- Cell phones
- Lying on the beach
- Lying in the sun
- Computer programming
- Saving lives
- Peer acknowledgement
- The Big City - NYC, et al
- Bright Lights
- Life itself
- Fraud - Madoff fits in here somewhere
- Confidence schemes
- Listening - rapt attention
- Guns, knives, other weapons - sense of "power"
- What else?
Intoxication might be intentional or it could be inadvertent, but I was thinking about what drives or motivates a person to consciously desire and then decide to pursue any activity which could lead to intoxication. In addition to clinical maladies such as addiction and alcoholism, "reasons" for seeking intoxication include:
- Cope with stress
- Moderate the impact of the real world - turn down the "volume"
- Exaggerate the real world - turn up the "volume"
- Free from inhibitions
- Bonding with peers
- Experience something beyond and out of the daily experiences of this world
- To get "recharged", presumably when feeling "drained" of inergy due to the "demands" of modern life
- Shiny objects, especially new and novel experiences
- Distractions - anything that "takes your mind off" what you are supposed to be focused on
- The news - media can affect you much as a "drug"
- Aspirations - conceptual planning for the future
- Inspiration - sensory input that spurs a contemplation of a better life
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Drinking the Kool-Aid
- Influence, as in "under the influence" - could be personal persuasion as much as chemical
- Constructive activity
- What else?
A person might specifically seek the state of intoxication or maybe they are simply seeking to get away from one or more aspects on the world that they normally experience when they are not intoxicated.
We could examine the impact of intoxication on a person's mind, even after the state of intoxication "wears off." A person might seek intoxication solely for the experience while in that state of mind, or quite possibly for mental effects that might persist even when the person is no longer intoxicated.
Typically, intoxication degrades performance, with the exception of a modest intoxication which can moderate excessive inhibitions that might usually by themselves inhibit performance. But, conceptually, couldn't there be some forms of performance that might be enhanced by intoxication, either during intoxication, or after the return to a "normal" state of mind?
If intoxication can degrade individual performance, but yet so many people pursue intoxication, is performance overrated and not so much a driver in our society as we might have thought? Do we really have that much "free" time? Or, is the pursuit of intoxication a huge drag precluding significant social progress. Or, maybe there is too much "change" potential in society and intoxication might be a great sponge to soak up excess energy that might have been otherwise been channeled into more destructive urges.
I have to mention Timothy Leary's classic contribution, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." According to the Wikipedia, in his autobigraphy he says that by "turn on" he meant to "go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end." And by "tune in" he meant "interact harmoniously with the world around you - externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives." In short, the drive here was to gain access to "your new internal perspectives" and then to express them. By "drop out" he meant "an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments" and "self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change." Or at least this is what he apparently meant. He also laments that "Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean 'Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity'." So, his focus was on personal development, not the physiological and mental dysfunction that many of us associate with intoxication. Back to my question, the motivation in this case to repeat the intoxication process would be ongoing personal development.
There is also the question of what factors are in play at the threshold between a normal desire for intoxication and an unhealthy addiction. What causes a person to cross that threshold. For that matter, if intoxication really is so intoxicating, what keeps people from crossing that threshold?
I think there are three components or phases to "intoxication": 1) the immediate feeling of the physiological effects of intoxication, 2) lingering after-effects that we feel are "intoxicating" psychologically even though the physiological effects have "worn off", and 3) after even the psychological effects have vanished, the memories of what those two phases were like and the "intoxicating" desire to repeat them. In fact, my personal intent with the original question is my interest in the latter, what is driving the desire to repeat the original experience. In this nomenclature, although the first phase may be quite short (minutes or hours), the second might be a bit longer (hours, days, weeks, months), and the third phase could in fact be... forever. That would all vary based on the activity and even the person. It is this whole multi-phase process that is... "intoxicating", not just the rather short period of peak physical/physiological impact.
And finally (not really), if intoxication is so intoxicating, why do so many people avoid it? Somehow, do they manage to find some other path to a state of mind that they find even more satisfying than some external agent of intoxication? Or, maybe they simply find life itself to be intoxicating enough that the "artificial" forms of intoxication are less than desirable to them?
Then there are my usual evolutionary questions:
- Do animals (and maybe even plants) experience intoxication similar to the way we do?
- Did early man experience intoxication in the same way as we do?
- Even earliest man?
- Or was there some discrete evolutionary step?
- Was our current metabolic experience of intoxication something developed (evolved) to cope with the increasing socialization of human activity? Or maybe an evolutionary step that enabled that socialization?
One final thought, is it possible that intoxication is simply necessary to preserve our sanity in the modern world/society, a way to cope with the complexity of modern life? Put another way, maybe intoxication is a process that enables very complex social structures, and maybe intoxication is simply another physiological process somewhat analogous to sleep.
Another final thought... maybe intoxication is simply a way to adjust reality so that reality can cope better with your own mood. From a relative perspective, intoxication changes the world to better match your "needs." Or at least that is one perspective on it.
-- Jack Krupansky