Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

The history of mind-altering mechanisms

Posted by gregdowney on March 16, 2008

Katherine MacKinnon of St. Louis University just dropped me a line to point out a recent book review in The New York Times, I Feel Good, by Alexander Star. Star reviews the book, On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail (University of California Press). Amazon raters are giving it 4.5 stars at the moment, if you want to check it out through the bookseller. Normally, I’d trust Daniel to write our best stuff about ‘mind-altering’ chemicals of all sorts, but this book review just set me to thinking, so I thought I’d put my own two cents in.

Smail wants to tell the story of humanity as a series of ‘self-modifications of our mental states,’ according to the reviewer Star:

We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing.

Smail is really a historian, but his venture into a kind of neuro-history shows the robustness of the emerging awareness that the brain is shaped by what humans do. Star points out that most ‘macro-history’ these days — long, sweeping accounts of human evolution and what is sometimes called something prosaic like the ‘rise and fall of civilizations’ — is not being written by historians, but rather by folks like Jared Diamond. In contrast, Smail is a medieval historian.


Star highlights how Smail takes a historians sensibility to the contingent nature of events to the study of prehistory and human evolutionary development. Typically, evolutionary theorists working on human cultural development tend (tend) to assume that human cultural development, like early technology changes, are almost entirely functional rather than happenstance. There are exceptions to this rule, but especially with things like early language, lithic tools, food storage, and other early technologies, the explanations of any change often assume that humans know very well the advantages to be gained by any change. Smail isn’t so convinced. As Star explains:

Some evolutionary theorists stress that cultural innovation allows human beings to overcome the blind stumblings of natural selection: we deliberately solve a problem and pass on that solution to our descendants, who improve on it in turn. Smail takes a different tack. The imperfect copying of past behavior and small, often unconscious preferences can push a society in a new direction, even without anyone aiming toward a particular goal. It’s possible, for instance, that early men decided to make sharper spear points with the intent of drawing more blood from their prey; Smail would rather suppose that these spear points were created by accident, and then spread because the hunters who used them proved to be better hunters, even if they didn’t know why. Cultural evolution can be rapid and it can help human beings adapt to their environment, but it needn’t be intended or progressive.

Smail also makes a number of points that would be old news to readers of this site, but I like very much the range of examples. Star summarizes a number of them:

Our very synapses are shaped by experience and education from before birth to the time of death. The brain of a monk does not resemble the brain of a soldier or a taxicab driver. An impulse to swoon in distress or erupt in anger may be innate, but Victorian women were quicker to faint at the sight of blood and Southern men are faster to react to slights than women or men in many other places. These predispositions can be passed on from generation to generation without any alteration in anyone’s genes, and yet they are readily seen as aspects of our nature. In a way, they are. “Culture is wired in the brain,” Smail writes, and “cultural practices can have profound neurophysiological consequences.”

Although we can’t do the same sorts of studies on fainting Victorian women that we can on Tibetan monks (thanks to enthusiastic support from the Dalai Lama), Smail juxtaposes a number of the more interesting cases studied by psychologists, experiments that didn’t necessarily use techniques like brain imaging or even discuss neuroplasticity, but that have later become widely considered demonstrative of human brain enculturation.

The most interesting claim is that, since the advent of agriculture, humans have had access to ‘greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms,’ such as food, stimulants, and even products that are own bodies produce. Smail divides these mechanisms into two categories, as Star describes, ‘autotropic,’ or self-altering, and ‘teletropic,’ altering each other’s moods at a distance. Smail says that the modern era has been marked by a proliferation of ‘autotropic’ mechanisms, not only mind-altering substances like coffee, sugar, and tea (the first great international commodities, as Sidney Mintz has pointed out), but also other less obvious devices, such as books, widespread musical instruments, even shopping. In all these cases, Smail finds a ‘pursuit of psychotropy’ that Star characterizes as vaguely disquieting.

I’m breaking a cardinal rule here by not reading this book before writing about it, but the review got me to thinking about some very basic points that both Smail and the reviewer, Star, seem to emphasize quite well that I think need to be highlighted for neuroanthropology. Primarily, they focus on the force of psychological needs, especially one’s own, as a factor in evolution, and they draw attention to the many ways that humans ‘self-regulate,’ sometimes in ways that are unintentional.

Star’s review even discusses how horses self regulate through snorting; I would say that he isn’t touching on the half of it. Living around horses, I’ve learned that horse that are bored will often begin ‘wind sucking,’ a practice where they lock their top teeth onto a post or rail, and use it to stretch open their throat so that they can gulp air. The practice is apparently mostly harmless — although I’ve heard that some rare horses become so addicted to ‘wind sucking’ that they don’t eat enough and can’t put on weight. But once they’ve become ‘addicted,’ they do the practice no matter how interesting or engaging their environment becomes. We have a couple of horses that ‘wind suck,’ apparently becoming addicted when kept in a stable or small yard early in life, and they continue to do so even though they can run over acres of rolling land with trees. They’re even demolishing a couple of trees because they can’t find a good place to wind suck on the electric fence. Like other addicts, we keep them away from our horses without the vice because apparently they can learn the habit, especially if they have a strong model.

The point is that even horses self-regulate and the production of psychological states that they find agreeable becomes a driving force in their behavior, perhaps even to the detriment of their health. A lot of us can think of many examples of such patterns of self-regulation, whether they be chemical addictions or mood-producing habits, from our own behavior (but especially in those around us… hmmm….).

Most models of human evolution, however, don’t tend to place emotional states or moods into the account of how humans develop and change. I think Smail provides a strong corrective on this absence in accounts of cultural evolution by presenting so many different examples of mind-altering mechanisms as important in history, and even causal factors. No where is this clearer, in my opinion, than in the effect mass produced stimulants like coffee, sugar, and tea have had, not only on our physiology, but also on the development of world trade. The adoption of sugar in Europe, its spread and addictive properties, as Mintz has documented so well, brings together crucial phenomena on multiple scales, from the psychological to the political-economic.

Focusing on human psychological needs as a crucial consideration for adaptation and cultural development is not terribly in vogue in most current thinking about cultural evolution. Although I wouldn’t argue hard for this, I think I’m safe saying that survival, reproduction, even social status competition are much more widely recognized as driving forces; Smail is probably right to assert that autotropic mind-alteration is much less carefully considered, much to the detriment of our understanding of how culture develops and its impact on our own physiological ‘nature.’ Again, widespread sugar (and high fructose corn syrup) addiction in the U.S. and many other Western countries is probably one of the more sobering examples, but you could also look at the long-term consequences of large-scale patterns of all sorts of mind-altering mechanisms: alcohol, coffee, pornography, television, reading, noise (or quiet), electric lights…

The irony is that early functionalism in anthropology — I’m thinking here of Bronislaw Malinowski’s work — privileged precisely these sorts of considerations. In the rejection of his biological-psychological ‘functionalism’ we’ve also neglected biological-psychological consequences and processes. That is, rejecting psychological needs as the only driving force or function of cultural practices does not necessitate ignoring that they are one of the driving forces, and also a consequence, of cultural practices. As I read through Star’s review of Smail’s book, I’m struck by how, because writing about psychological functions may have been considered a kind of theoretical plutonium, I wouldn’t even let myself think deeply about other, more complex accounts of the same sorts of issues. That is, if we replace simplistic understandings of causation with more complex accounts of mutual effects, and cycles of causation, we may find that some very ‘old school’ ideas can be resurrected in more contemporary forms that are consistent with the sorts of research that Smail uses to think about history.

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