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Queen Victoria on cannabis, and all the other things you never knew about drugs

Modern governments have long demonised drugs, but the world now may be inching its way back towards the more rational view held in the 19th century.

A London opium den in the 1870s, by Gustav Doré
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty

Drugged: the Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs
Richard J Miller
Oxford University Press, 384pp, £25.99

People who study drugs and human society can arrive at curious historical theories. Early in this book we learn of the idea that “the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of ‘semen’ and that Christ meant something like ‘giant erect mushroom penis’”. It would be invidious, perhaps, to suggest that such symbolic interpretations occur only to researchers who are completely off their tits.

Happily, Richard J Miller, an eminent professor of pharmacology, soon leaves such psychedelic conspiracy theories behind for a fascinating and illuminating survey of all the major “psychotropic” drugs – defined as “chemical substances that enter the brain and change the way it operates” – from mushrooms and opiates, cocaine, LSD and MDMA, to Big Pharma’s arsenal of tranquillisers, antipsychotics and antidepressants, and thence to alcohol, nicotine, tea, and coffee. (“Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world.”)

Miller deploys numerous chemical diagrams and occasional dense technical explanations of molecular activity, but also cites Thomas De Quincey and 20th-century literary psychonauts such as Ken Kesey. The reports of self-experimenting scientists constitute their own kind of wan poetry. “[Albert] Hofmann originally reported that ergine and isoergine” – which he had isolated from seeds of the morning glory plant – “were only weakly hallucinogenic at best, although they did give him a feeling of ‘unreality’ and made him feel ‘life was completely meaningless’”.

Modern governments have long demonised drugs, repeatedly commissioning expert reports and then denouncing their findings; or whipping up drug scares for frankly racist purposes, as with the American campaign in the Great Depression against the drug of choice for Mexican labourers, cannabis. (The head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the first to popularise the name “marijuana” in English, precisely because it sounded foreign.) The 19th century had been a more rational age, as well as a more innocent one. In that era, Miller explains, “The medicinal uses of cannabis were taken very seriously and endorsed by authorities such as the Lancet […] Even Queen Victoria was prescribed tincture of cannabis. It is believed she was amused (perhaps very amused).” The world now may be inching its way back to a more sensible view, given the legalisation of cannabis by Uruguay in December, and the growing movement for decriminalisation in many American states.

Against the hostility to evidence of modern legislators, Miller is careful to emphasise, humanely, that illegal drugs as well as legal ones have “highly desirable” effects, not just undesirable ones such as addictiveness, or death in the wrong dose or cocktail. (It was reported that the heroin found in the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hotel room was part of a batch mixed with the super-potent painkiller fentanyl.) After all, if drugs did not have desirable effects, people would never have got into the habit of taking them. “If we consider some of the beneficial medical effects of alcohol,” Miller writes – an unusual way to begin a sentence in our puritanical, units-counting day – “these would include anticonvulsant, sedative, and hypnotic effects.” Nicotine and caffeine, meanwhile, are good for cognition. And opium, Miller points out, is “the most effective drug ever discovered for combating the most basic of all human complaints: pain. Whatever advances are made in medicine, nothing could really be more important than that.”

He goes so far as to argue that “morphine is the most significant chemical substance mankind has ever encountered”. (It is only disappointing that here Miller uses the phrase “chemical substance” in the popular but illogical sense that somehow excludes air, water, and food.) He is fondly non-judgemental, too, on the splendid variety of Victorian pick-me-ups that blossomed before modern prohibition. One, a tonic called Vin Mariani, “was a concoction of cocaine in claret, which was certainly a very reasonable idea”.

It is also useful to have an author on this subject who can remember the 1960s, even though he was there. In a charming aside, Miller explains: “One should remember that at that time, everybody was very infatuated with hallucinogenic drugs and the society they represented. We were all revolutionaries. We thought revolutionary thoughts, listened to Jefferson Airplane, and ingested psychedelic drugs.” But this wasn’t just about tuning in and dropping out: the drug culture was hugely important, as Miller shows, to the emerging field of psychopharmacology, as studying the effects of mescaline or LSD led psychiatrists to suggest new paths of research for the treatment of schizophrenia and other disorders.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the book is Miller’s demonstration that the progress of understanding in this field has been very far from the smoothly efficient hypothesis-driven caricature of science that is often promoted by its own defenders. For a start, most of the important therapeutic drugs of the 20th century were discovered by accident, and some in surprising places. Antipsychotics were developed from substances produced during the search for fashionable clothes dyes in the 19th century; while antidepressants came out of research that sought novel compounds deriving from a glut of leftover rocket fuel from the Nazis’ V2 programme.

Only after the beneficial effects of such substances were serendipitously noticed by scientists did they then try to figure out why they worked. Miller’s explanations of these investigations make for excellent intellectual detective stories, as much for naturally produced drugs as synthetic ones. Why should the human brain, for example, have “receptors” that spark hungrily in the presence of nicotine or opiates? It was not, as it turned out, that God intended us to smoke our heads off, but that these vegetable substances mimicked what were subsequently discovered to be the brain’s own signalling chemicals – neurotransmitters. (Miller doesn’t address the further interesting question as to why the poppy or tobacco plant should produce substances that trick our receptors in the first place. Happy accident – or brilliant evolutionary strategy for getting themselves widely cultivated?) Thus, research on drugs has contributed enormously to our understanding of the brain.

That understanding is, of course, still in its infancy, and another salutary scientific message of Miller’s book is its emphasis on how much we still don’t know. He offers a useful corrective to simplistic pop-science stories about the allegedly singular roles of dopamine (the so-called reward chemical) or serotonin (“happiness”) in the brain: these are families of chemicals, he shows, with a wide variety of functions. Writing early on about hallucinogens, he comments: “A complete understanding of the way [they] produce their effects would entail a comparable understanding of the neurobiology of consciousness, something that we don’t really possess.” (That “really” is a severe understatement.)

Meanwhile, it is still not clear how medicines prescribed to millions work, when they do at all – “there are some odd things about the use of the available antidepressant drugs which nobody really understands” – and research on others (eg antipsychotics) has been stalled for decades. But Miller cites recent studies suggesting that targeting the brain’s inflammatory response might be a fruitful direction for future research, and we have certainly not exhausted the repertoire of potentially therapeutic substances to be found in plants. One might even add that the global internet-based market for synthetic “designer drugs”, in which enterprising chemists keep one step ahead of legal bans by rearranging atoms in unforeseen combinations – in passing, Miller characterises this stylishly as a “hypertext drug phenomenon” – could also throw up a molecule that might one day help millions. It’s no more far-fetched, at least, than the idea that licking a toad could give you an enormous sense of well-being.

Steven Poole’s “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” is published by Sceptre (£9.99)

 

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge