Drugs and Biosociality

By Daniel Lende 

There’s an article in the NY Times today, “Drugs Offer No Benefit in Curbing Aggression, Study Finds.”  Here’s the lead-in: “The drugs most widely used to manage aggressive outbursts in intellectually disabled people are no more effective than placebos for most patients and may be less so, researchers report.” 

What’s particularly interesting are quotes from the article such as “the message to doctors should be, think twice about prescribing, go with lower doses and monitor side effects very carefully…  Or just don’t do it. We know that behavioral treatments can work very well with many patients.” 

Or another favorite: “Being in the study, with all the extra attention it brought, was itself what apparently made the difference, [Dr. Tyrer] said.  ‘These people tend to get so little company normally,’ Dr. Tyrer said. ‘They’re neglected, they tend to be pushed into the background, and this extra attention has a much bigger effect on them that it would on a person of more normal intelligence level’.” 

John Hawks also has a recent blog piece on “Drugging Brains, Young and Old” that considers drugs as “brain performance-enhancing” in relation to Alzheimer’s and to “building mental muscle.” 

As I wrote John in an email: “I was struck by your phrase, ‘People are already using various psychoactive drugs to get a leg up in whatever mental competitions they pursue.’  I completely agree, and see the use of drugs in this fashion as surely more prevalent and equally worrisome as the emerging concerns with gene therapies.  Indeed, I was struck that drug taking is a great example for Rabinow’s ‘biosociality.’  To take a quote from a recent article I read, biosociality represents ‘a new order for the production of life, nature, and the body through biologically-based technological interventions’.” 

Indeed, I still see it that way—the use of drugs that change or alter our brains, or even prevent them from being altered, is a major area where neuroanthropology is ideally situated to considered the biological, interactional, and critical aspects of what humans are doing to ourselves. 

For example, the press has given a lot of play in the last couple days to the possible development of a “vaccine” against cocaine, by creating a reactive immune system that won’t let cocaine get into the brain.  In contrast, Judith Warner has a long and good meditation on trying to get off the drugs she takes for migraines through following a “migraine diet.” 

If you’re looking for more on this, you might check out Jamie Saris’ forthcoming article on “An Uncertain Domain: Irish Psychiatry, Methadone, and the Treatment of Opiate Abuse” in Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry.  Or I have a recent article in Addiction Research and Theory which discusses functional use by methamphetamine users.  The paper shows that neither the “pleasure” nor “self-medication” approaches prominent in addiction literature match well with how heavy meth users often described their use as a way to improve an action or a skill, rather than change a subjective state.  Here’s the link for that: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a781027696~db=all

5 thoughts on “Drugs and Biosociality

  1. Glad you posted this since it’s very relevant to the stuff I’ve been reading lately. An interesting contrast in talking about drugs that turn out to be useless and the cosmetic psychopharmacology where people go out of their way to take drugs to make them perform better. Certainly a difference in dynamics between those who have the power to choose what to take and those who are forced to take medication.

  2. I agree that it’s a fascinating article, Daniel, but I would also turn it around and say that I’m fascinated by the fact that placebos work so damn well. That is, the story for me is not just that aggression controlling medications don’t work too well, but that placebos — or, more accurately, the attention that accompanied being in the study even when one took placebos — had significant effects.

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