Thursday, May 14, 2009

Better Living Through Chemistry?

When It Falls Apart - Matthew Perryman Jones (mp3)
It's Only Me - Todd Thibaud (mp3)

The huge rise in allergies has been attributed to our society's increasingly antiseptic lifestyle. The irony is lost on no one. We fight germs and clean our counters and keep our kids out of the dirt, and biology mocks us by making our children's carefully-protected immune systems more vulnerable to more pathetic things. Like milk. And peanuts. And eggs.

Or, as some doctors say, stop worrying about making your children wash their damn hands before dinner. A little dirt never hurt nobody.

"A little dirt never hurt nobody" is my general approach to most of life, and my approach to health and medicine has always been similar. A little cold never hurt nobody. A little piggy flu never hurt nobody. A little gonhorrea never hurt nobody. This approach is clearly more philosophical than scientific.

But what good is science nowadays? Scientists can't even agree on things as basic as global warming or whether Sweet-N-Low causes cancer. You can read studies until you're blue in the face and still not know for sure whether women should drink more wine to protect them from Deadly Problem A or stop drinking wine to protect them from Deadly Problem B.

In much the same way Bob expressed frustration with professional athletes and the steroid problem, I've recently been wrestling with the issue of "neuroenhancement." The oversimplified definition of Neuroenhancement is: people who take ADHD-type medicines but don't remotely have ADHD so that they can do stuff better than they could otherwise.

Regular Harvard students (or students here in our own school) use Ritalin and Adderal et al to help them stay up and on task for ridiculous stretches. They use it to help them focus when taking tests, or when studying. Some professional poker players use it to intensify their attention while at the tables. Lots of people are using drugs never really intended for them in ways they deem beneficial to their brain and life.

At the gut level and my philosophical level, I'm strongly opposed to this. It feels like cheating. And not just "fudging a little," but outright cheating.

Well, there's also this little bitty other thing.

I can't deny that I'm forever scarred from the "Family Ties" episode where my hero, Alex P. Keaton, got addicted to speed before the first commercial break and was having a meltdown by the 20-minute mark. Even now, when I see those "5-Hour Energy" commercials, I have flashbacks to Alex wigging out in his room until Michael Gross steps in and smothers his son with his beard and cardigan sweater. (Insert Mallory and Tina Yothers jokes here.)

On the intellectual level, however, especially after reading this New Yorker article on the subject, I'm not sure if my reaction is justifiable. We have long ago let the horse out of the barn when it comes to granting medicine the right to fuck with every aspect of our lives. From asperin and penicillin to seratonin re-uptake inhibitors and blood enzyme regulators (a.k.a. "little blue pills"), we as a society seem plenty comfortable with drugs, drugs and more drugs, so long as they're manufactured by Glaxo instead of farmed by Fredo. Hell, we're totally OK with injecting botox, collagen, silicone, and God-only-knows what other unnatural substances into our flesh if it helps us be ready for our close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Neuroenhancement is, simply, mental steroids, mental temporary breast implants. It's adding chemicals to your brain that allow you (in theory) to do things better than you could without them.

But here's where my philosophical concern kicks in. I've long been a firm believer that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that nothing in life is free. If these chemicals increase something in your brain, it's almost a certainty that they decrease something else, or they take a toll on the brain or body in order to render these results.

Steroids shrink your dick or make you stupid or violent. Cigarettes leatherize your skin and kill your lungs. Even marijuana, everyone's favorite cuddly illegal substance, the river otter of the drug world, has plenty of problems that come trailing along with the high it brings. I'd mention what those problems are, but I have the munchies and can't stop laughing. And these little bugs are crawling on my legs but I can't find them. (And if you've never had that last reaction, then I've uh only heard about it from friends.) Even when we do something to our bodies or brains that have no clear and undeniable side effect, it can still affect us emotionally or mentally in ways we don't grasp until it's too late.

Is my belief highly flawed? Sure it is. I can't think of any serious karmic consequences from taking Advil on a regular basis, for example. Certainly other medications and medical procedures have minimal cost for tremendous reward.

So maybe my objection is an egotistical and snooty one. Maybe I object to overweight people cheating by getting lap bands and lipo. Maybe I object to less intelligent people dosing themselves into a more agreeable study stupor. Maybe I object to less gifted athletes dosing themselves into studlier rainmakers. It all reeks of Icarus and the Tower of Babel to me.

But both of those are just myths. So maybe at some point I'm supposed to put aside my childish philosophies and accept the realities of modern science. I'll chew it over on my way to pick up another coffee from Starbucks...


Betty Childs said...

Maybe we should have all the kids pee in cups on their way into the SAT exams to test for perfomance enhancing substances. Finally equality for academics and athletes.

T.R. said...

Too much Advil, or Ibuprofen, thins your blood. So, your theory still holds true...for every action, there is a reaction.

What was I reading...I can't remember.

Bob said...

I certainly share your concern. And with Ritalin, Adderol, and the like, that concern is that those drugs have been so widely prescribed but have not been around long enough for us to know what kinds of long term effects they might have.

Jason said...

Advil also causes microscopic bleeding in the stomach taken over long periods of time.

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