11/22/2007 19:20

Clearing Heads

Wouldn't it be great if there was a drink which would make people's minds more clear instead of more dull as they consumed? A converse to ethanol's depression of the central nervous system, something that would make gatherings of friends increasingly productive as the evening wore on.

But I assume too much.

I assume that some drug could be found which increases effective intelligence, which can easily pass the blood-brain barrier, which has side effects no more dangerous than those of ethanol, and preferably less, which could be packaged into socially and commercially viable beverages. This already strikes me as being implausible. Interfering with a functional system is as easy as increasing entropy. Making a working system more effective is a much more difficult proposition.

I also assume that people want to function intelligently. My idea depends on people choosing to consume this hypothetical substance, if it were available. This assumption may be even more problematic.

To me, a challenging verbal interchange is self-rewarding and any mental incapacity is aversive. Observing people gives some reason to suppose that others also find snappy repartee enjoyable, and many people express a fear of living with dementias such as Alzheimer's. I am not being unreasonable to think that I am not totally different from all other people.

Despite that, many people drink ethanol and claim they anticipate the resulting mental degeneracy with pleasure.

One time long ago I went with two colleagues to Jake's Pizza in Green Bay. There they imbibed ethanol at sufficient rates as to decrease their mental capacity visibly. I left them when I felt that they were no longer competent to carry on rational conversation. At the time I commented that because of this experience I better understood the pain of watching a friend become a victim of dementia.

My point here is that these reasonably intelligent people, both of whom participated in conversation with me, intentionally engaged in behavior which they knew would deprive them of the major portion of their rational abilities, and they supposed that I might enjoy the same experience.

Now, it might be that secondary effects of ethanol are the motivators behind this behavior. Disinhibition, for example, is frequently cited as a possibility for this role, along with the associated illusion of mental stimulation‡. Another suggestion is the illusion of physical warmth.

If they had the alternative of an evening during which their minds became sharper and the conversation ever more rational, would they have chosen that experience instead of the dullness of beverage ethanol?

Isn't it at least as plausible to suppose that many people actually do find intellectual dullness to be, in itself, a pleasurable reality and that they are freely and rationally choosing temporary mental incapacity?

Science Is Fun website, University of Wisconsin - Madison. The text is mirrored on this site.