Monday, August 03, 2009

Why is intoxication so intoxicating?

My suggested topic for the next Cafe Philo in New York City in two weeks, 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conscious mind, regardless of whether the person is excited, stupefied, euphoric, enthusiastic, frenzied, giggly, sad, withdrawn, or loses their inhibitions.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 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 another state, including:

  • Music
  • Art
  • Poetry
  • Prose
  • Theater and other performances (even distinct from the role music might play)
  • Crowds, mobs, and other gatherings 
  • Athletic activity, including running or even hiking and walking
  • Food
  • Power
  • Ideas
  • Beauty
  • Sex
  • Religion, spirituality, awe of a deity
  • Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Community, fellowship
  • Scenery
  • Television
  • Shopping
  • 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. For example:

  • Escape
  • Cope with stress
  • Moderate the impact of the real world - turn down the "volume"
  • Exaggerate the real world - turn up the "volume"
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Excitement, including celebration
  • Relax
  • Free from inhibitions
  • Bonding with peers
  • Experience something beyond and out of the daily experiences of this world
  • 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?

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?

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?

-- Jack Krupansky

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