Category: Mind & Brain

Our Ancestors Got High, Too

By Cody Cottier | April 9, 2018 8:00 am
high-drug-ancestor

Humans have been getting high for a long, long time. (Credit: Shutterstock)

The tales we tell — from Homer and Genesis to your friend’s ninth recounting of that epic rave last summer — are rich with drug use. But studies show our ancestors were chewing, brewing and blazing long before they started to record their intoxicated escapades.

Virtually all human societies use mind-altering substances. What’s more, about 90 percent give drug-induced altered states of consciousness a role in their fundamental belief systems, according to a survey of 488 modern societies. And this isn’t new. Many psychoactive plants we consume today, and those that have fallen out of style, date back thousands of years.

A Psychoactive Sampling

Before we made drugs a societal menace, we respected them and used them for healing and spiritual purposes. Psychoactive plants fell under the jurisdiction of shamans, and some scholars believe early religion is rooted in their prophetic hallucinations, though this has been contested. Others wonder whether drugs played a part in the origins of symbolic life and major intellectual breakthroughs.

Use of Peyote, a desert cactus with natural hallucinogens, dates back as far as 5,700 years. It was so indispensable that some Native American groups traveled days or weeks each year to harvest a year’s worth of the holy cactus in the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico and Texas.

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Peyote, a small spineless cactus, has been getting people high for thousands of years. (Credit: Shutterstock)

In “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality,” religion correspondent Barbara Hagerty described a peyote ceremony: everyone “sat cross-legged on the floor, motionless, gazing at the flames with sleepy eyes dilated by the mescaline from the sacred herb peyote. Three strapping young men with long black hair moved around the circle, pounding on a water drum and singing an urgent chant.”

Other drugs have an even longer history. In the same region, another hallucinogen called the mescal bean, which was used in a similar way to peyote, has been found in caves and rock shelters extending back to 9,000 years ago. In Peru, the oldest remains of the psychoactive San Pedro cactus date to 6,800-6,200 B.C.

More familiar today is opium —its descendants are heroin and morphine — and it was equally renowned in the antiquity of the Old World. It produces euphoria, pain relief and drowsiness, and it seems to be the most widespread of the ancient drugs, reaching most of Europe by the sixth millennium B.C. Poppy capsules adorn many Eastern Mediterranean artifacts, like figurines and jewelry, highlighting opium’s range of symbolic meanings.

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A figurine of the Poppy Goddess from Gazi, 1300-1200 B.C. (Credit: Pecold/Shutterstock)

In the South American Andes, coca is the drug of choice, and has perhaps been so for 8,000 years. Chewing the leaves of this plant, from which we now derive cocaine, helps to stave off fatigue, hunger, thirst and altitude sickness. Many indigenous tribes also use it in ritual contexts.

Smoking pipes in Argentina have been dated to as early as 2,100 B.C., and chemical analysis suggests they were used either to smoke tobacco or other hallucinogenic plants. As for marijuana, Neolithic Chinese farmers were growing hemp for various reasons by the fifth millennium B.C., including as a hallucinogen.

And of course, we can’t forget shrooms. Prehistoric Homo sapiens were so enamored of the fantastic fungi that many formed sacred cults around them in Mesoamerica. Small sculptures of human figures crowned with umbrella-like mushrooms are common throughout the region, dating between 500 B.C. and 900 A.D. In Siberia, Finno-Ugrian tribes have likely been aware of fly agaric — the classic image of a magic mushroom, red with white speckles — since “time immemorial.”

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These mushroom stones were found at highland Mayan sites in Guatemala and are from around 500 B.C. Once thought as phallic stones, they’re now widely accepted as being associated with a mushroom cult. (Credit: Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, 1961)

Origins of Craving

One of the oldest potential cases of medicinal drug use involves a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal. Around his burial site lay various plants, including the stimulant ephedra. Some have disputed this evidence, as the grave also contained the bones of a gerbil-like rodent that may have hauled in the plants itself.

Some wild animals have been observed to act inebriated after eating overly ripe fruit, and this points to one theory of the human-alcohol dynamic. It’s — magnificently — titled the “Drunken Monkey Hypothesis,” and it may account for our intoxication impulse.

Before they hunted for meat, our primate forebears foraged for fruit. The hypothesis suggests a strong desire for the smell and taste of alcohol, produced in fruit as yeast converts its sugars into ethanol, would help them to detect dinner at peak ripeness.

In that evolutionary vein, some researchers speculate that mammals and psychoactive plants each influenced the development of the other over millions of years. They note that we have adapted to metabolize the plants, while their defense chemicals have evolved to replicate and disrupt the function of our neurotransmitters, implying a “deep time” relationship.

Intentional fermentation likely came after humans began using psychoactive plants, many of which are consumed raw. One of the first confirmed alcoholic beverages was a Chinese concoction of wild grapes, hawthorn fruit, rice and honey.

Considering that all staple cereals — like barley, wheat and maize — are fit for brewing, some have even suggested that humans may have domesticated these crops for beer rather than bread.

Wasn’t Always a War

Over the centuries humans learned to distill spirits and refine drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. They experimented with snorting, injecting and inhaling their intense new creations. One theory of addiction is that psychoactive drugs weren’t as common or as addictive in our ancestral landscape, so we never evolved the internal control to resist them in high doses. Instead we relied on the limits of nature, and now we just aren’t wired to withstand their modern, purified abundance.

The increasing potency of drugs in an unrestricted environment has led to numerous epidemics throughout history, and today addiction is a global dilemma. As for the U.S., the opioid crisis in particular is growing more deadly each year.

More than 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015, and the next year about 64,000 died from drug overdoses in general. But the perception of drugs as a public enemy, and the push to eradicate them, seems to be a fairly new concept.

Elisa Guerra-Doce, a Spanish researcher, published a review of archaeological evidence for psychoactive drugs in prehistory. She and many others argue that despite contemporary problems, drugs have traditionally served socially constructive purposes. By examining the way humans have used them for millennia, we may gain a better understanding of how to benefit from them without the harm.

“Considering the failures of the war on drugs,” Guerra-Doce writes, “perhaps our modern societies should look into the past and learn something from ‘the primitive.’”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Let’s Journey Through the Mind of a Dog

By Erica Tennenhouse | March 22, 2018 12:55 pm
an adorable dog looking at the camera

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Inside a dog’s furry head are millions of neurons firing away, passing chemicals to one another and generating thoughts. We may guess at what our canine pals are thinking about: food, a walk, their loving owners.

But for all the time humans spend interacting with dogs, their thoughts largely elude us, and it’s easy to see why: dogs can’t speak their minds (at least in any language we know). But we still are curious about our best bud’s mindset, and scientists have devised creative methods to get into their heads. While our grasp of canine cognition may never approach what we know of the human psyche, the latest research has yielded tantalizing nuggets about the inner lives of dogs. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Theoretically, Recording Dreams Is Possible…Scientists Are Trying

By Charlotte Hu | March 21, 2018 1:44 pm
(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: FCSCAFEINE/Shutterstock)

Dreams can feel awfully real when you’re deep in sleep. Perhaps you find a hidden doorway in your home that leads to entirely new rooms and passageways. Maybe you went to work in your underwear—yikes.

When you wake up, you check your closet for that mysterious doorway; maybe you jolt awake in a cold sweat, instantly relieved you still have plenty of time to properly clothe yourself before leaving the house. Regardless, whatever you were experiencing felt very real just moments ago.

Dreams are essentially vivid memories that never existed. Yet you find yourself inside an all-encompassing parallel reality, a fantastical world that’s uniquely yours. The trouble with dreams, especially the fun ones, is that they’re fleeting. Often, you can’t remember a thing from a dream just moments after waking—the echo of some feeling is all that remains. But what if you could record your dreams, and play them back for analysis, or even share them with friends?

Theoretically, experts say, that might one day be possible. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Let’s End the Debate About Video Games and Violence

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Stetson University | February 19, 2018 11:03 am
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Young gamers give new titles a spin during a past SXSW gaming conference in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Shutterstock)

In the wake of the Valentine’s Day shooting at a Broward County, Florida high school, a familiar trope has reemerged: Often, when a young man is the shooter, people try to blame the tragedy on violent video games and other forms of media. Florida lawmaker Jared Moskowitz made the connection the day after the shooting, saying the gunman “was prepared to pick off students like it’s a video game.”

In January, after two students were killed and many others wounded by a 15-year-old shooter in Benton, Kentucky, the state’s governor criticized popular culture, telling reporters, “We can’t celebrate death in video games, celebrate death in TV shows, celebrate death in movies, celebrate death in musical lyrics and remove any sense of morality and sense of higher authority and then expect that things like this are not going to happen.” Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

How to Spot the Language of Depression

By Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, University of Reading | February 7, 2018 1:00 pm
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A drawing of Kurt Cobain. (Credit: Shutterstock)

From the way you move and sleep, to how you interact with people around you, depression changes just about everything. It is even noticeable in the way you speak and express yourself in writing. Sometimes this “language of depression” can have a powerful effect on others. Just consider the impact of the poetry and song lyrics of Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, who both killed themselves after suffering from depression.

Scientists have long tried to pin down the exact relationship between depression and language, and technology is helping us get closer to a full picture. Our new study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, has now unveiled a class of words that can help accurately predict whether someone is suffering from depression. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions

This Is Your Brain on Mixed Martial Arts

By Mark Barna | December 28, 2017 12:38 pm
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(Credit: Shutterstock)

Michael Bisping has fought professionally in mixed martial arts since 2004. Last year, the journeyman won his first title. He knocked out Luke Rockhold in the first round to win the middleweight belt in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the most popular of several MMA organizations.

On Nov. 4 of this year, at age 38, Bisping defended his title for a second time. His opponent was the Canadian Georges St. Pierre, a former UFC champ. The fight, held in New York’s Madison Square Garden, was close until the third round, when a series of blows knocked Bisping to the canvas. Pierre pounced on the fallen fighter and applied a rear-naked choke, cutting off oxygen to Bisping’s brain. His body went limp. Read More

Are You a Directionally Biased Kisser?

(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Your brain is an organ of two halves – the left side and the right side. And there are many brain functions, such as language skills or which hand you write with, which are organized mostly in one side of the brain or the other.

Simple behavioral tests have now allowed us to see how this organization is revealed through biases in how we see and interact with the world – and each other – often without us being aware of it. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: psychology

Why Are Oddly Satisfying Videos So…Satisfying?

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 15, 2017 11:58 am

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If you’ve never seen a master lathe operator at work, I highly recommend it. Deft movements and practiced flourishes turn a block of spinning wood into a bedpost, top, bowl or some other circular object, each motion peeling away curls of wood to uncover the beauty hidden inside.

It’s hard to explain why the motions feel so right, but there is an undeniable allure to the work, as if it scratches an itch you didn’t know you had. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: senses

Do We Need a Word for Everything?

By Nathaniel Scharping | April 4, 2017 10:27 am
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(Credit: danm12/Shutterstock)

Imagine walking through a forest near dusk. It is peaceful and quiet; the setting sun paints streaks of light through tree trunks and across your path. The scene is familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a walk in the woods. 

Using one word, how would you describe the experience? 

You might defer to a string of adjectives: serenity, beauty, peace, fulfillment — words that dance around the feeling without ever precisely pinning it down. But that’s not the case in Japanese. In that language, a specific term encapsulates the feeling evoked by sunlight dancing through the trees: komorebi.

It’s a tidy way of packaging calm, wonder and harmony into one word. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, psychology

Collective False Memories: What’s Behind the ‘Mandela Effect’?

By Caitlin Aamodt | February 16, 2017 1:45 pm

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Would you trust a memory that felt as real as all your other memories, and if other people confirmed that they remembered it too? What if the memory turned out to be false? This scenario was named the ‘Mandela effect’ by the self-described ‘paranormal consultant’ Fiona Broome after she discovered that other people shared her (false) memory of the South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the 1980s.

Is a shared false memory really due to a so-called ‘glitch in the matrix’, or is there some other explanation for what’s happening? Broome attributes the disparity to the many-worlds or ‘multiverse’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: Memory & learning
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