The history of mind-altering mechanisms

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.

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Brainy muscles

A recent story in The New York Times by Gina Kolata, one of my favorite science writers, highlights one reason why I think neuroanthropology has to be broader than ‘cognitive anthropology’ was in the 1980s and 1990s (and why ‘cognitive science’ itself has really expanded with the more recent wave of thinking about embodied cognition). In an article on whether or not weight training is really good for athletes, titled Does Weight Lifting Make a Better Athlete?, I think Kolata does a much better job presenting the case for the efficacy of weight training than the arguments against it. Even several of the physiologists and trainers who Kolata suggests are less than rapt with weight training make comments that are more specifically about weight training done badly than against the practice as a whole; they criticize poor form, badly designed programs, and even not working hard enough, hardly criticisms of the overall efficacy of weight training.

Most of the athletes and other experts seem to me to be pretty strongly in favor of weight training, and I have no doubt that there’s good reason. Most athletic training has been radically transformed with the advent of weight training, and approaches that have come out of weight training (such as targeting specific muscle groups and working different parts of the body to failure) are also applied even in non-weight training exercises, such as selective sprinting, whole body exercises, and the like. Some of my research on capoeira, no-holds-barred fighting (or MMA), and other forms of wresting training suggest that actually training with ‘weights’ — barbells, dumbbells, and the like — can be less than ideal, but most of the modifications that this research suggests are consistent with the theory and practice of weight training, even if they expand the activities involved (body weight exercises, whole body dynamic lifting, jumping, etc.).

But one of the few critics says something that I found extremely interesting, and it resonated with some of the stuff I’ve been writing in my sports-related manuscript (hopefully a book soon) about how neural plasticity affects athletic performance. Specifically, Dr. Patrick O’Connor, a University of Georgia exercise scientist, says that ‘a sport like rowing, swimming or running requires specific muscles and nerve-firing patterns that may best be developed by actually doing the sport.’ A sport like ‘rowing, swimming or running’ that ‘requires specific muscles and nerve-firing patterns…’ hmmmm? So that would be like, what, every sport?

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Poverty Poisons the Brain

Paul Krugman writes today that “Poverty Is Poison,” building off an article from the Financial Times that discussed last Friday’s session, “Poverty and Brain Development” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Krugman writes: 

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life. So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

The Financial Times article, “Poverty mars formation of infant brains,” provides some more detail about the impact of poverty through stress, inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins: “Studies by several US universities have revealed the pervasive harm done to the brain, particularly between the ages of six months and three years, from low socio-economic status.  Martha Farah, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s centre for cognitive neuroscience, said: ‘The biggest effects are on language and memory. The finding about memory impairment – the ability to encounter a pattern and remember it – really surprised us’.” 
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Addiction and Our Faultlines

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchDrugs are what cause drug addiction, or so is the story we often hear in the United States.  But what if social conditions mattered as much or more in who used and abused drugs?

 Many anthropologists and other social scientists have shown that social conditions matter, including Phillippe Bourgois, Merrill Singer, and Elliott Currie.  Bourgois’ book In Search of Respect, Singer’s article Why Does Juan Garcia Have A Drinking Problem, and Currie’s Reckoning are powerful testaments to a basic point: Addiction runs along the fault lines of society.

 However, it has been relatively easy for neuroscientists to isolate themselves from that view, and to argue that drugs run along the pharmacological fault lines of the brain, generating terrible problems on their own.  Social conditions are one thing, drugs and brains are another.

 The research by Michael Nader, Morgan Drake and colleagues shows convincingly that social conditions matter, and matter a great deal, at the basic level of the brain.  This same line of research also highlights that individual differences, whether genetic or social, make a difference in addiction.  The trick is that the research is done with monkeys.

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Sleep, Eat, Sex – Orexin Has Something to Say

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOrexin is a neuropeptide which is released by the posterior lateral hypothalamus, and is linked to wakefulness and sleep, appetite regulation, and the motivation of sexual and addictive behaviors.  One apt way to think about it is as a hormone in the brain, combining some of the popularly conceived effects of adrenaline and testosterone into one. 

(Don’t get too excited now!  I am just trying to give you a way to think about it, that orexin works to promote arousal and response…)

I am writing a post on the links of orexin to appetitive behavior, particularly addiction, but I’ve generated a lot of material.  So I am going to give you this one first, which summarizes aspects of orexin (also known as hypocretin) and neurological function with respect to sleep, appetite and sex. 
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Auditory neurons learning to hear

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s recent business report (January 2008) had an interesting research report on auditory neurons and the perception of complex sounds. (Science Daily has a short report on the longer piece available here). (The BBSRC is the UK’s principal funder of basic biological research.)

As the BBSRC piece discusses, sound perception is extremely difficult because similar objects often make quite different sounds, and the medium (typically air) through which we hear does not allow for the spatialization or easy decomposition that, say, light allows in vision. The Oxford-based research team is using neural imaging to try to figure out how the brain makes sense of sound, and one thing that they’re finding is that background noise appears to be extremely important to sound processing. The auditory cortex does not simply respond to isolated qualities of specific sounds but to variations in the statistical properties of the entire sound scape. As the article reports: ‘Cortical neurons appear to anticipate this particular level of statistical regularity, and respond best to sounds that vary in pitch and intensity according to this natural rate of ebb and flow, which is found in many natural scenes and most musical compositions.’

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