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.