Since time immemorial, humans have used substances to alter their brain function – but it has been mainly to get high. In a 2015 review paper, researchers from Spain described that the earliest alcoholic drink dates back to nearly 7000 B.C. in China while coca leaves have been chewed since 8000 B.C. in South America. Tobacco was being smoked from 2000 B.C. while opium has been found in skeletal remains since 600 B.C. and even prehistoric art shows use of poppy seeds in religious ceremonies. Beside these obvious pleasure-inducing substances, hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus use has been suspected since 8600 B.C. and mescaline, a psychedelic, use has been dated to at least 500 B.C.
Most substance use has been directed towards enhancing either emotions, thought or behavior – which usually works in the very short-term but in the long-term may actually make the brain more out of balance. Alteration of the brain so as to lead to a more harmonious function for the betterment of society has been less of a focus of attention. Are there any substances that can make the human brain better in terms of harmonizing emotions, thoughts and behavior? This question has been seldom asked.
One of the characters in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Galapagosstates – “Why so many of us knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a nudge in the right direction – in the direction of smaller brain.” Vonnegut in his half-humorous way seems to be implying that the size and workings of the brain may be too much for the brain to handle. The brain is an organ which is constantly working – producing thoughts, emotions and motor behavior that may be too exhausting or anxiety provoking and it’s functioning may need to be decreased or slowed down. Even when there is no scarcity, humans still suffer from existential angst – a state of anxiety and lack of fulfillment that seems to be part of the human condition. Substance use may help in decreasing this inherent state of human suffering.
Aldous Huxley chronicled his experiences under the psychedelic mescaline in the book –Door of Perception. He was so impressed by the vivid and profound perceptions of trivial things such as a tree, the folds in his clothes, that he became a firm believer that drugs such as mescaline could lead to a state of transcendence. He also talked about developing a substance, which only produced ‘good’ effects such as increasing our perceptions, thinking and sense of contentment but no side effects. However, in his more famous book – Brave New World, he described a dystopian world in which the dictatorial regime made such a substance called Soma available for free use for everybody as a means of societal control. A recent (troubling) trend is the return of the acceptability of use of psychedelic drugs such as marijuana, ketamine and psilocybin, not only for their medicinal properties but also as lifestyle drugs in healthy individuals.
Arthur Koestler in his book ‘Ghosts in the Machine’(https://betterhumanbrainnow.com/2015/05/04/ghosts-in-the-machine/) disagreed with Huxley that drugs like mescaline and LSD can lead to some kind of Nirvana when the inherent architecture of the brain continues to remains faulty or may actually get more damaged. In the book, Koestler, gives a detailed exposition about why the faulty brain architecture may be the cause of most of humankind’s problems including the possibility of future extinction. Next he asks – what can be done about the situation and whether some kind of substance induced manipulation could make the thinking and emotional parts of the brain work more harmoniously? According to Koestler, a substance that can cure the paranoid streak in mankind without other potential side effects may be the only way mankind could be saved. Koestler acknowledges that even the idea of this kind of tampering with the brain may seem fantastic and not acceptable but he states that humans would readily accept such a substance because they would see its positive effects in themselves in terms of feeling healthier. Eventually society will see its benefits and it may even be added to the water supply such as chlorine is added at this time. Koestler’s hope of finding such a substance seems to be wishful thinking. Moreover, though he used terms such as harmonious working or cooperation of brain areas with each other – he left these concepts vague. What exactly would feeling more ‘healthy’ mean if such a state was achieved? Koestler says that effect in an individual may be difficult to perceive but communities will see beneficial effects such as decrease in crime rates and suicide.
Though many new psychopharmacological agents have been introduced since 1967 when ‘Ghosts in the Machine” was first published, most have been developed to treat psychiatric illnesses. Even though the mechanism of many of the mood regulating, anxiolytics and antipsychotics is purported to be better coordination of the cortex and the limbic system – no clear cut evidence exists that these medications actually have such an effect. Furthermore, these medications have significant side effects and administering them to healthy subjects or adding them to the drinking water seems to be out of the question. So does any evidence exist for a substance which can change brain architecture so that the dissonance between the new cortical thinking areas and the old emotional areas can be decreased and adding it to the drinking water can lead to a decrease in society’s ills.
Lithium is a monovalent ion like sodium which is naturally found in water and in some geographical areas it is in higher concentrations compared to others. It has been used since the early sixties in psychiatry when John Cade in Melbourne, Australia discovered that it could be used for the treatment of Bipolar Disorder. It can relieve depression, decrease manic symptoms and can also lead to mood stability. It is one of the most neurotrophic substances known to man in that it has been shown to lead to an increase in the growth of neurons. Beside mood stability, it has also been shown to decrease impulsive behaviors such as violence. The only limitation for its widespread use is that in higher concentrations it is highly toxic and can lead to brain damage, cardiac arrhythmias and kidney failure. However, in very low doses, as that are present in drinking water, it hardly has any discernible effect. Several studies have reported lithium concentration in drinking water to be inversely correlated with population suicide rates, homicide and crimes. Therefore, it would seem that lithium, in low concentrations would come closest to the substance that Koestler was thinking of. Unfortunately, at this time the mechanism of action of lithium is not known. It also remains the only substance in its class and no other substance has yet been found which has a similar effect as lithium on mood regulation.
Even if a substance like lithium was found to have properties, which could better an individual’s mental life and decrease societal ills, it is unlikely to have a major effect in adults in whom the brain is fully formed and has limited capability of change. So the doors of escape seem to be locked in this regard unless such a substance is shown to have an effect on children’s developing brain or even on the fetus soon after conception. How can such an effect be studied remains an open question.