(c) Bertel Thorvaldsen (c.1820)
"How might a happiness drug... find itself described in the literature?
Eeek! Needless to say, no responsible adult would mess around with a potent neurotoxin of this description."Substance x induces severe, irreversible structural damage to neurotransmitter subsystem y. Its sequelae include mood-congruent cognitive delusions, treatment-resistant euphoria, and toxic affective psychosis.
– David Pearce
The drug could be dangerous, after all. I was not a believer in easy solutions, something to swallow that would rid my soul of an ancient fear. But I could not help thinking about that saucer-shaped tablet...
Tumbling from the back of my tongue down to my stomach. The drug core dissolving, releasing benevolent chemicals into my bloodstream, flooding the fear-of-death part of my brain. The pill itself silently self-destructing in a tiny inward burst, a polymer implosion, discreet and precise and considerate. Technology with a human face.
– Don DeLillo's Jack Gladney
Accusatio: Why might a healthy young adult medicate themselves? Are my feelings of inadequacy so acute that I cannot get by – like everyone else does – without chemical assistance? What health freakery is this? What New Ageism am I professing? Isn't amateur psychopharmacology very likely to land me in hospital?
Apologia: I respectfully deny all charges. One definition of rationality is 'doing the best you can with what you have'. Well, what I have is my nasty nature-borne self* situated in a nasty late-capitalist world; the best I can do in general is to try to help; the best I can do for myself is see what's around and optimise. I am made of biochemicals, habits, and ideas**; acting on those are apparently my options.
One interesting subset of what's around are substances which purport to improve cognition, mood, or longevity without side effects. Such claims are obviously not new. But note that psychopharmacology, as a formal field, is. We have a strong cultural bias that non-nutrient chemicals are for people with serious clinical disorders and no-one else - and to be frank, until now, this has been pretty clearly the rational stance to take. But the line between nutrient and drug is not clear-cut; as I see it we are all born with an amineptine deficiency; and the balance of risk/cost to benefit has finally, finally started to turn.
* Exactly how bad is the natural self (insofar as we can see him under our kaleidoscopic socialisations)? Pretty bad - and this goes well beyond the classic moans about our mortality or our plenitude of ignoble tastes, and beyond even more modern emotional laments (e.g. about life as 'boredom then fear' or 'sickness unto death'): those are just the most emotionally obvious and absolute parts of our condition. New sciences have found horribly bad design in more intimate places like our ideals and self-control and introspection. We congenitally think as little as possible, and this probably does have appalling consequences; we are myopic as to time and morals; we find it almost impossible not to gang up, and this leads us to aggressively misunderstand and mistreat people not in our gangs^ ; the more we try to care the less we eventually can. Just as a bonus, we're destructively status-obsessed, are perhaps unable make ourselves much happier by any means, and our actions constantly contradict our conscious goals, often unto death.^ Most of all the gangs known as families - consider the many grim things justified with "putting food on the table".
** Which are perhaps just biochemicals viewed from a certain very high level of abstraction.^^
^^ Or I suppose vice versa - biochemicals as the most magnified and mechanical view of Mind - if that's what you're into.
Because this is still so new, we need distinguish a few things here. First, by function.
- Cognition. Aside from the battering rams used in psychopathology, the class which has so far gotten all the attention is the nootropics*, the "smart drugs" used by obsessive rich kids at uni. The term was coined by cranks in the 70s, but serves us very well: "A compound that enhances processing, learning, or memory, and possesses very few side effects and extremely low toxicity." In real life, most of the touted ones are just more or less crude stimulants (for instance, note that caffeine's effects are actually far too mixed to count as a pure cognitive enhancer). But there are interesting beginnings (e.g. the old Indian herb Bacopa continues to collect replications for memory promotion in healthy subjects.)
- Affect and eusocial emotions. Potentially much more important are the class without a fixed scientific term yet - sustainable mood-enhancing substances, or, relatedly, ones to promote eusocial emotions. (Any neologism is bound to look goofy for a while: biopsychiatrics, moodfoods, euthymics; miseriolytics.) In real life: depressed people get a notable lift from high double-blinded doses of long-chain omega-3s (with an effect size similar to Prozac); the meathead powder creatine has a good effect in some populations (women, vegists); an unusual amino acid, SAMe, works well and very safely for some reason. Otherwise serious people talk about dumping lithium in the public water supply.
- General health and longevity. (Immune system promoters or anti-aging bits.) The idea of a neuroprotective class of substance is already pretty credible and very important. (Though note that the naive antioxidant craze of the past 20 years may actually have done serious harm.) But they're also inherently limited - thus the radical engineers who speculate on the matter have much more invasive ideas about killing death. In real life, green tea catechins are well-studied, by the standards of the vague and ultra-confounded variable 'longevity'.
The mood ones matter most, I think: we are a chronically suppressed and twisted bunch, and not all of this is down to nasty social structures. Instead, it has much to do with our awful evolutionary past (i.e. everyone having some starved psychopaths for ancestors).
The grand, hazardous dream is not to just make people longer-lived or more computationally capable through these hacks, but to improve the whole standard of being and interaction. The mood ones are also the ones most likely to trigger the creeping creeps in people, because it is much harder to consider one's emotions functionally than one's thoughts; because happy people annoy and disgust unhappy people; and because Huxley poisoned that well so well.
* from the Greek νόος (“mind”) and τροφή ("to feed") [or perhaps τροπέω (“to turn”)].
The interesting part of all this is that there's more than economics at play here - more than my personal greed for power (or fear of impotence). The above attitude to one's substrates might be called chemical activism. It is obviously a sort of transhumanism - that old but resurgent intellectual movement concerned with the systematic surmounting of human limits and flaws. And that connects it to the most dramatic moral project ever suggested: Abolitionism, the scientific elimination of suffering. Biochemicals are just the nearest and least speculative branch. (They are still super-speculative.)
Ooh, but haven't we heard, and dismissed, this before? Isn't suffering what gives life spice? Well:
- The Abolitionist's Hypothesis: Humans and many other vertebrates live for an intolerable part of their lives in states of abject stress, frustration and/or chronic melancholy. Even people who think they are happy don't know the meaning of the word, having been tuned for limited perception, affection, cognition, and so on.
- The Abolitionist's Principle (Negative utilitarianism): If something can be done, something must be done.
David Pearce has done more for the chemical wing of transhumanism (the most immediate positive step available to us) than anyone, by publicising and clarifying what scinetific evidence, philosophical backing, and commercial options there are, or may soon be. The network called "BLTC" maintains a massive ring of philosophical and technical websites, which very often are the only reliable source of information on their subjects.
In a less cancer-wracked and cancer-crazed world, Erowid would win the Nobel for both Peace and Medicine.
Issues with nootropics and transhumanism in general
Issues with nootropics and transhumanism in general
- Evidential void. There is very little data on long-term effects for any of these substances. The subjective, self-administered, self-reported nature of the movement also leaves much wide open. Against nootropics: Against nutraceuticals: A 2008 meta-analysis. But, as satirised in the opening quote, we do not culturally back the enterprise, and so studies are lacking and will continue to be so. Prejudice reigns even amongst neurochemists. In less metaphysical cases, the descendents of Pascal's wager really are the clever way to guide action. I am prepared to risk, first of all because in the long-run we are all dead, but also because it's about more than me.
- Your kung fu is primitive. Compared to what? To what is hopefully to come? Absolutely: amineptine is to those things what Paracelsus is to Pauling. But some of them seem to work a bit, and you needn't let the ideal be the enemy of the ok. Compared to the current sluggish and strictly rationed MAO and GABA system, though?
- I don't like the Abolitionist hypothesis. Yes, it's troublesome. Plausible and not ignorable, however. "Is life really that bad? Why don't more people show it, then?" The answer is practically unfalsifiable: because we repress it (because evolution, psychological bias and culture both press us in the direction of delusion or silence).
- I don't like the Abolitionist principle. Well you wouldn't. There is of course more to this than utility - dignity, creativity, and self-determination, to name just three other branches of the Good. But again, Brave New World's vision is only one, and hardly a likely, outcome. What about the modern tyranny of positivity, the American-style coercion to superficial brightness? Isn't abolitionism just the extreme form of this? Can't I be unhappy if I bloody well want to be? No it isn't; sure, if you really want. Even given the powerful false consciousness we probably all inherit from gene and meme, consent would have to be a part of the project.
- Argument from free-will, existentialism, idealism. These areas of science disturb a lot of people on quite a deep level. But chemical activism does not imply any specific metaphysics or ethics - neither I nor Pearce endorse functional or eliminative materialism, for instance. And I'm not really a utilitarian. The only commitment is to the data surrounding the effects of chemicals on minds, and to a strong ethics of suffering. Here's a nice general Declaration.
- Argument from Bioconservatism (or 'Authenticity'): A common modern prejudice is that "natural" means "good" - on this much both cynics and hippies agree. But half of what is good in the world stems from the denial of nature! (This much the world religions got right.) The approach to the mind and self implied above entails (some say) the replacement of life-lessons, rational self-esteem, and Stoicism with an unearned binge on wellbeing.
I think this objection is misguided, stemming from an irresponsible kind of humanism developed so as to cope with the world. (Again: Pearce's rebuttal to Huxley covers more ground than I ever could.)
We used tools to engineer the modern version of our species. Tools carry risks, often large. But we may soon have a genetic tool to prevent depression ever occurring. Do you value your nasty rationalised worldview enough to oppose this?
- Argument from Planet of the Apes/Frankenstein ("Playing god!") See previous point.
- If this is the approach you take towards problems, you will never feel happy - and what's worse, you make yourself absurd. Herbert Spencer: "The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.": As well as bioconservatives, a Buddhist might object this. Note that most Buddhists have been Abolitionists.) How's about I take both the Aesop's fable approach to life as well as this tentative, unlikely arch-Enlightenment supplement? The Buddhist idea that the only way to be free of suffering is to lack desire is nothing I can endorse - my experience that positivity boosts affection, will, and general engagement with the world. (However, the research also shows that when hyperthymia shades into mania, bad, dangerous, selfish decisions also increase.)
- Related: "Without suffering, there could be no art!" Aaaargh there's so much wrong with this.
- Some transformatory art has indeed been made by deeply unhappy, broken people. But most sad people have been as inarticulate, narrow and unwise as everyone else. A tiny number have been among the best of us - but then imagine what they could have done without black days, and with energy and esteem behind them!
- We fetishise romantic misery, and it is from this that misery art's significant place in the canon comes - not from anything intrinsically deep about it. Suffering is rarely noble. I think that those incandescent people who made theirs noble did so in spite of it. (NB: Happiness is also rarely noble. Lesson: nobility is rare.)
- Consider the last time you were properly in a good mood: were you more or less full of interests, of projects? Did you have more or less time for others? I think it's much more likely that a happy population would display massively increased capacity for reception and creation.
- More fundamentally: this objection places the value of art above the value of (good) life. This is a fantastically unempathic thing to do. Artes serviunt vitae! Even if the end of suffering really did end art, I'd still go right ahead, because art's worth is for and from us, and if that worth could be given directly rather than milked from a ritualised rationalised conceptual game, then the loss of future beautiful things would be alright. But, again: there is no necessary conflict between abolitionism and other ideals, of imagination, individuality, or desire.
- Argument from anti-Enlightenment concerns: People often seem to misread postmodern critiques of science as implying: "SO STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING". Which would be awful! (The actual implication is "BE AWARE OF WHAT YOU'RE DOING".) Why shouldn't postmodern science arise, given some opening of minds? Is your conception of science ahem essentially essentialist?
- The naturalisation of class. Nootropics really aren't very expensive, but they are an outlay which most folk in the world's budgets absolutely cannot justify. (The 10g package of amineptine, the cleanest euthymic available, I have is the most expensive thing I've ever bought.) So mass use of nootropics might mean that the rich actually become 'better' than the poor for the first time in history. The simplest solution to this is to offer it on the NHS to all adults. " (: "
- Thought as athletics, therefore pills as dope. In academia, where contemporary use is concentrated, there is an intuition of foul play in letting students drug themselves better; an analogy to doping in sport is used. But this is a false analogy; nootropics are surely only a problem if students are graded differentially, i.e.with each class set a fixed number of As, and with the threshold decided after collecting the class results. This isn't how my education went (thank god). Perhaps the US is different?
(Again, class concerns must enter in to the calculation: rich students who can afford fancy chemical perks will compound their lifelong privilege by coasting into good degrees. But there's no reason to think that levelling-down is the best move here.)
- Anti-utopianism. Scepticism about dramatic impersonal schemes is vital for any contemporary thinking person. But the dismissals of this particular scheme are rarely reasonable - and, in fact, the point at which utopianisms go awry is where they dismiss suffering and individual worth - something which Abolitionism is literally unable to do (unlike, admittedly, some other transhumanisms).
- Quacks: Aside from that, the nature of the product means there's vast potential for smaller-scale dishonesty and pseudoscience. (See 'evidential void'.) The real question is how much you'll allow your fear of being duped to rule you. Again: this is a place where decision theory (Pascal's asymmetrical gambles on unknowns) is clear. At the moment (thanks to grey-market limits on production and transparency) it looks like many online offers do turn out to be expensive scams.
- Most mix badly with booze. Well, what is alcohol but a crude, tasty and socially-inscribed euthymic?
A day in pills
1. Mere nutrients
(correcting for laziness, veganism, living in the Northern hemisphere).
(correcting for laziness, veganism, living in the Northern hemisphere).
- 25µg Vitamin D3. Perhaps half the entire world has a subclinical deficiency of vitamin D. (My dose is five times RDA because RDA is minimal healthy level - not optimal - and because oral availability is low.)
- Target variables: "All-cause mortality", bone health, a counter to seasonal affective disorder.
- Effect size: Small but well worth: probably 0.33 years gain in meta-analysis.
- Evidence strength: High (for heart disease prevention), medium (for bones and mood), medium for all-cause mortality.
- Oral bioavailability: Low. (fat-soluble, so taken with meals).
- Cost: £0.04 per day.
- Known hazards: Two rare interactions. 250ug per day has been suggested to be the actual safe upper limit.
- 0.1mg vitamin B12.
- 5g creatine. Yup, the bodybuilder's staple. Vegists have about half the de novo stores of omnivores.
- Target variables: Muscle integrity, cognition in vegists.
- Effect size: Good. It's only vegists that get a distinct mental boost off it.
- Evidence strength: Yes (exercise improvement), ok (for cognition; no controlled trials yet). It's the reference substance for power output.
- Oral bioavailability: Very good, counter to one popular meme.
- Cost: £0.14 per day.
- Known hazards: Nah. Upset tummy if you take like 30g on its own.
- 0.5g Acetyl l-carnitine.
- Target variables: Eh. Maybe brain function.
- Effect size: Small.
- Evidence strength: Eh. Just covering bases.
- Oral bioavailability: Low (14-18%).
- Cost: £0.15 per day.
- Known hazards:
Despite some recent panic about heart disease, negligible.
- 0.8g Beta-alanine.
- Target variables: Endurance.
- Effect size: Noticeable.
- Evidence strength: Eh. Again, I'm correcting for vegism.
- Oral bioavailability: Good (1-14% loss).
- Cost: £0.05 per day.
- Known hazards: Nah.
- Target variables: Heart health, mood, rather than the ridiculous trumped-up IQ business of yesteryear.
- Effect size: Small.
- Evidence strength: Good (for major depression, not the common-or-garden blues).
- Oral bioavailability: Very good (it's food).
- Cost: £0.60 per day.
- Known hazards:
- Anaerobic exercise. Not as much as I should, but 30mins a day flopping around. The benefits preclude indifference.
- Target variables: Prevention of the diseases of affluence, and of cognitive decline; fatigue and sleep quality; mood lift, libido, glucose sensitivity.
- Effect size: High.
- Evidence strength: Very very.
- Oral bioavailability: Ew.
- Cost: Nope.
- Known hazards: I look silly and sweat. Heart attack risk from endurance work.
- Bacopa monnieri (150mg bacosides).
- Target variables: Long-term memory formation and retention.
- Effect size: Ambiguous; good "after 12 weeks of use" (which heavily limits the falsifications available, ofc).
- Evidence strength: Conflicting, but a consensus emerges.
- Oral bioavailability: Low.
- Cost: £0.12 per day (from 'Himalaya').
- Known hazards: The plant sucks up lead and arsenic very efficiently, so vetting your supplier is important! Nor do even the big manufacturers respond to queries or CoA requests. Luckily for us plebs, the lovely folks at r/Nootropics have run an indie analysis on three brands.
3. New school (pharmaceuticals)
- 0.5mg melatonin. Sleep is profoundly important for cognition, mood, and longevity; anything which improves it can produce large effects downstream. This is one of my favourite pieces of reasoning ever.
- Target variables: Sleep latency, sleep quality, and from there pretty much everything. It also allows you to enforce a regular sleep pattern.
- Effect size: Good.
- Evidence strength: Very strong. It is the reference substance for insomnia treatments.
- Oral bioavailability:
- Cost: £0.03 per day.
- Known hazards: It's a neurohormone, which is enough to send most people running screaming. Studies using up to 2mg over 12 months look totally fine, though. Contraindicates with antidepressants and all that.
Total daily cost £1.23, plus four cups green tea (20p). Add to all this a decent dose of generic risk from lack of research into long-term use, ofc. Worth it.
GROW YOUR OWN KNOW
- Examine.com. Ah, great stuff. They have no ads or vendor affiliations, and offer a (nonrigorous) meta-analysis on more or less everything. They are more willing to recommend supplementation than is mainstream medicine - but, then, they also have more time to read and much less liability.
- Gwern is a superlatively clear thinker on any topic he cares to hit up; his long and scientifically literate self-experiment is a fantastic introduction to both the philosophy and technicalities.
- NYU's Langone centre has loads of relevant and sceptical material, but it's very badly indexed. Have a click around.
- 'Science-Based Medicine' have some good sceptical pieces, like this on melatonin. (They fail to quantify their concern, though.)
- The Nootropics subreddit is as high-quality as this sort of open forum can get. They even display cool collective action, trying to organise their own research, independent chemical assays of big suppliers, and group purchase of novel substances.
- Quackwatch doesn't seem to be updated any more, but has lots of good, rational warnings about the people who try to hijack the naivety of people like me.
- This is very cute and updated often, but they only link to one suggestive study per substance.
Where exactly does this consumption become 'chemical activism'?
Well. As we saw, there are fierce cultural and religious brakes on biotechnology, not least mockery. Some of the brakes come from informed caution and are to be respected; many others are not. Buying and promoting those primitive pills now available is also a tiny stimulus to future development and product.
Huxley's socially-engineered hell is possible - but philosophical grounding could help preclude it. In the worst case besides his: our intellectual and economic labour will produce a temporary illusion of control, a period of looking foolishly technocratic, and perhaps nasty side-effects in a strange nerdy subpopulation. To which my only reply is: do you have any idea how valuable a sense of control over our lives is?