Post No.: 0337
Alcohol, tobacco (mainly nicotine), cannabis (mainly THC), caffeine, betel nut, LSD, MDMA, cocaine or indeed any kind of psychoactive drug generally negatively affects the developing brain, and not just temporarily. Alcohol, for instance, can also change the mental and emotional functions that are already in development in adolescents (e.g. their level of risky behaviours, aggression, risk for mental health problems) – so the longer you can hold off young people from drinking alcohol the better. The later the onset of drinking alcohol, the less they’ll likely drink as adults and the lower the potential damage.
Psychoactive drugs can disrupt the brain chemistry, emotional responses and mental functions of users in chaotic ways, even when people are only ‘recreational’ users. Normal learning and memory formation also physically alters the brain of course, but this is done in a more orderly and constructive fashion than the chaotic ways that psychoactive drugs do (it’s akin to the difference between carefully laying some bricks down to build a wall and throwing some bricks down and hoping for the best). And for every one great artist who has relied on drugs for their creativity – there are many more great artists who didn’t.
You could take psychoactive substances that mess with your brain and then you, perhaps, suddenly knew how to fluently speak a language you’ve never been exposed to before, but that’s incredibly improbable – it’s not likely going to result in the exact neuronal connections in the exact right places like that of a brain of a fluent speaker of that language being generated.
One could randomly throw bits of broken vase together and suddenly a whole vase materialises, but that’s incredibly unlikely; or stir a bowl of pancake batter and suddenly find the flour, eggs and milk all unmixed again, but that’s incredibly unlikely. It’s not against the laws of physics and therefore it’s not technically impossible but it’s highly improbable due to the second law of thermodynamics, where one is more likely to create disorder and destroy than create order or build when one uses an imprecise instrument and crosses their fingers. A painter could throw paint around without much plan, thought or direction and possibly create something meaningful or spectacular – but the vast majority of the time it won’t be (and this reflects the number of such paintings attempted across all time so far compared to the number of such paintings that are considered great art, or even art at all(!))
Damage to the brain, especially the earlier this occurs, cannot always be completely undone (this in fact applies to any form of mental harm, not just as a result of drug use e.g. parental abuse or a blunt physical trauma to the head). Therefore one will hope that any damage will be negligible or can be fully compensated for by positive, counteracting factors. But how can an impaired brain recognise if its own brain is impaired or not if it is? A damaged brain wouldn’t likely know any better – and even if things seem fine, things arguably could’ve been better? The relative neuroplasticity of younger brains will mean that a young brain can adapt better than an older brain in the event of a brain-damaging event, but it also means that a brain-damaging event can be more affecting too – a younger brain can be more easily reshaped positively, and be more easily reshaped negatively too.
So recreational psychoactive drugs, and therefore pharmaceutical psychotropic medications, can affect the brain in chaotic ways – but when prescribed by a doctor, it’s hoped that the potential side-effects won’t outweigh the benefits for the patient when treating another health condition. Therefore no healthy person stands to long-term rationally benefit from taking psychoactive drugs. Well no drug of any kind really comes without potential side-effects so no drug should really be taken if one doesn’t medically need it and one is a rational person.
If a psychoactive drug affects the visual and/or auditory cortices, it can result in hallucinations or voices, which will be chaotic yet will be interpreted as signals that are meaningful and ordered due to our unconscious pattern-detection instincts i.e. you cannot guarantee what your personal experience will be if you take a psychoactive drug because they don’t work with precision, and again they’ll more likely destroy or orphan neuronal connections than build useful ones. It’s far easier to destroy something by bashing around the place blindfolded but it’s not as easy to build something usefully ordered or intended with nothing superfluous and unintended added (i.e. unwanted side-effects) in this way. Therefore you’ll far more likely lose IQ points than gain IQ points if you use psychoactive drugs recreationally.
Taking psychoactive drugs recreationally interrupts the naturally evolved and tuned homeostasis of our brain chemistry in artificial ways (e.g. via interfering with neurotransmitter reuptake in the brain). A brain on drugs is a really different fuzzy brain, especially for a chronic user. And if your brain has physically changed then your thoughts, and therefore possibly your beliefs and behaviours, may change too. We could become essentially slaves to how these drugs have influenced us, and it’d be like a Trojan horse because we voluntarily let them get inside of us (unless we were nastily drugged by someone else).
One obvious way we can become enslaved to them is if we become physically dependent on or addicted to them. So if you think your mind is expressing pure freedom when you choose to take drugs recreationally – firstly it might be the peer pressures to take them for your first time, and then it might be the addictive nature of many of these drugs. Post No.: 0216 looked at various behavioural changes that occur during puberty, such as increased risk-taking and peer group conformity. Adolescents need to understand that it’s much stronger of them to resist such peer pressures than be peer-pressured into drinking too much (or even at all) or into taking other substances recreationally.
Drug use also affects gene expression. Drugs physically alter the brain in fundamental ways such that a person will more likely make bad/irrational judgements – well is it ever rational to wish to negatively affect your own ability to be rational i.e. can it ever be rational to wish to take psychoactive substances recreationally?! Can it ever be rational to want to physically mess around with your own brain in an unpredictable manner when you need a healthy and unfettered brain to be best able to make rational decisions? It can lead to a vicious spiral of drug-taking then bad judgements, then more drug-taking due to these bad judgements.
For example, many drug users believe that they can quit if they ever wanted to hence they’re confident in taking ever more drugs, but these very drugs artificially increase their overconfidence in their own self-control despite them becoming increasingly addicted and trapped in drug abuse! Drug users tend to take many different drugs too – they seldom only take just one single type of drug. HIV and STIs are also correlated with drug abuse or addiction, possibly due to the sharing of needles (again due to the impaired judgements of drug users). You certainly wouldn’t want a head of state or military general on your side who is a regular psychoactive drug user, or a psychoactive drug user at all!
The earlier your first recreational drug experience or exposure, the more likely you’ll become drug-dependent later in life, hence preventing children and young adults from taking such drugs should be the primary objective. Early life stresses also seem to predict adulthood vulnerability to drug abuse. Early life experiences can affect a person essentially for the rest of their life – they logically must do to at least some degree in a cause-and-effect universe. In fact, the earlier the experience (including when in the womb e.g. alcohol exposure during pregnancy), the typically more affecting, whether people are consciously aware that such early experiences were what shaped them or not. Unless they were particularly salient experiences, we don’t normally suspect that the aggregate of all of our prior experiences, in conjunction with the interaction with our genetics, are what shaped us into how we are today, because we don’t know how differently we could’ve turned out if our prior experiences were different.
Early development is a critical time to set things off on the right path. Preventing the first exposure with drugs can prevent a lifetime of misery. So youth is a key period for targeting prevention efforts (e.g. don’t even get them started on drugs, including alcohol and nicotine if possible). This’ll reduce the risk of lifelong problems and costs for those individuals, as well as for society/communities as a whole.
The prevention of a problem is typically more effective and cheaper than the treatment or attempted cure of a problem when the damage is already done or begun. It’s logically better to not create or allow (more) damage than to try to rectify or constantly attend to damage when damage is already done – and the damage from drug abuse is not just to a drug user’s own brain, thoughts and behaviours, but to communities or economic productivity levels as a whole. And the best prevention against drug abuse is to not have drugs easily accessible at all and thus to never even be able to have that first exposure to a potentially addictive drug.
Treatment is better than doing nothing when drug problems exist in society and better than incarcerating those with small possessions of drugs, but prevention is the most desirable overall solution and so should be the primary objective. This includes educating children.
Addiction is a brain disorder, a disease, and addicts should be treated with compassion, and treatments often work, but prevention is better than letting people damage themselves then only intervening after some damage is already done. Not all users become addicts but it costs between 7-10x more to treat addicts than to prevent them developing problems in the first place. Woof.
Thus, on the face of it, it’s simple – be (long-term) rational and don’t risk it – don’t take recreational drugs. However, complete abstinence is unrealistic in some cultures and banning something may backfire, especially when it comes to adolescents, hence small controlled exposures of alcohol (or even things like time spent on social media) are usually better than totally free exposures or totally enforced abstinence to help your children develop sensible and healthy attitudes towards these activities. Education is again crucial.
Non-coerced consent and not being mis-sold may make a lot of choices between adults morally acceptable, but children are vulnerable and innocent and so must be protected by parents, adults and other parties who are looking after their long-term health and best interests. So laws and regulations (e.g. minimum age restrictions) have their purpose in civilisations. But the great debate in this area is how far should they go?
Woof. I want to be guided by the science rather than the politics or peer pressures so, after everything I’ve learnt about psychoactive drugs and their effects on the brain from a neuroscientific perspective – I wouldn’t want to see any human children I care about taking drugs like tobacco, cannabis or MDMA recreationally. Alcohol should not be binged upon, and caffeine should preferably be mainly used as a boost for alertness on the occasions when it’s needed rather than depended on every single day ‘just to function normally’. And other drugs should generally be only taken if and when medically necessary. For me, it’s logically irrational to take recreational drugs that risk harming one’s ability to think clearly and rationally, and that intentionally make oneself vulnerable to exploitation by others who aren’t under the influence. But these are just my own conclusions. Attitudes can depend on one’s own upbringing environment or current immediate culture so please share with us what you personally think via the Twitter comment button below.