I was at a party a few nights ago. Well, sort of. I was working in a side room while a party was happening in the main room with 100 people there.
It wasn't really my scene, though the people were all really cool and nice. But they were getting absolutely hammered on vodka shots, cocktails, beer, and so on.
It's a few days later, and a thought occurs --
Isn't it funny that we spend so much money, energy, and attention to perfecting the craft of making drug-infused beverages that destroy our cognition? And that this is the drug of choice of the Western world, the one with the least short-term benefits and all kinds of destructive potential?
In 2006, I quit using all recreational drugs -- no alcohol, no tobacco, no THC (marijuana and hashish), and so on. I also quit all sugared sodas, and stayed off them, and caffeine, which I've gone back and forth on at various times.
I intentionally left a caveat for performance-oriented drugs. After almost getting killed in Cambodia, the doctor gave me both painkillers and steroids to heal from the crash.
This seems to be generally accepted. When something "breaks," everyone understands getting patched up. With damage in my calf, thigh, hip, back, elbow, and forearm, taking painkillers to be able to think clearly and steroids to heal is normal and appropriate.
But beyond that, it always seemed to me to be vanishingly unlikely that our neurochemistry and biochemistry are properly optimized. Diet, sleep, exercise, a decent environment, getting outside, and having good people around come first and foremost. What do you do after that if, say, you're much lower on growth hormone that optimal, or your body is doing a poor job of producing serotonin?
Well, again, this is a generally accepted usage of pharmacology.
A step further -- how about when you simply want to perform better?
This is where it gets dicey. There's debates about fairness, because the assumption is that if one athlete is taking anabolic steroids and drugs to greatly improve reaction times, other athletes will be almost forced into taking them to compete.
The standard isn't really universally applied. Many professions consume large amounts of caffeine to do their work, and that seems acceptable. Certainly, people who hit coffee and energy drinks hard to keep crunching numbers on spreadsheets feel pressure to do so. The percentage of junior investment bankers taking large quantities of caffeine must be very high, perhaps near 100%.
But again, it's acceptable due to the longstanding tradition of coffee and tobacco usage.
When you start discussing modern performance enhancing drugs, though, the line blurs; the topic becomes taboo.
Thus you have...
Self-destruction for pleasure and relaxation: Acceptable
Healing from serious injuries: Acceptable
Fixing chemical imbalances that take you below average: Acceptable
Taking culturally accepted stimulants (caffeine, nicotine): Acceptable
Intelligently researching and carefully choosing performance enhancers: Questionable to unacceptable
It's understandable from the culture we emerged. In the post-WWII era, American and Soviet scientists invented and deployed a wide array of "miracle drugs" -- that often had long-term harmful side effects that went unnoticed in the first moments. And once someone in a competitive field began taking them, other competitors were almost forced to or they'd fall behind.
But how much is this conservatism a cultural factor that will change with time? I think, almost entirely so. The work that's being done now on personalized medicine, how your genetics interact with pharmacology, intelligent moderation and monitoring of substance usage and bio-indicators of what's happening -- amazing strides are being made in this.
The breakthrough won't happen overnight. The first kinds of genetically suitable, carefully implemented, "designer drugs" will be expensive, and there will be great concerns about furthering inequality and lack of access to these new boosts that some people can afford.
Meanwhile, a lot of the behavior will be driven underground, which is unfortunate. Reputable licensed physicians in countries where performance enhancement usage of pharmacology is illegal will not be able to diagnose, assess, test, and iterate with people who could use medical attention, and there will be an unfortunate "Do It Yourself" ethos to it, similar to how many bodybuilders order steroids from shady suppliers, then mix and inject the substances on their own, and don't get appropriate medical oversight -- because of the illegality of what they're doing (yet they've highly committed to do so, anyways).
It will change. Pharmacology is both amazing powerful, and also surprisingly shockingly cheap to produce and distribute. Caffeine pills cost mere pennies for a significant dosage, and after the R&D, testing, and licensing of drugs are complete, the costs of actual production fall to near zero quickly.
It'll be a boon for society. Intelligence augmentation is likely what's going to save us from the "zero marginal productivity" phenomenon that economist Tyler Cowen rightly points to as a potential problem on the horizon.
Meanwhile, intelligently and carefully-chosen, patient-driven mood stabilizers can help mitigate impulsiveness, violence, and the crime that comes with it. And all other manner of having a more flourishing human experience can be had by having better biochemistry and neurochemistry.
The rules are there for a reason; they serve a valid purpose. But over time, the technologies will evolve, our knowledge will evolve, our culture will evolve, and the law will evolve around it. The future is bright indeed -- I, for one, think it can't come soon enough.
I'm reminded: http://xkcd.com/1173/
"[All manners] of having a more flourishing human experience can be had by having better bio- and neurochemistry."
+1. Sleep, optimized food, THC, nicotine gum, coffee, modafinil, anabolics--nothing but tools.
First, I eat my hat on the word count comment last week. :)
I think the biggest pharmacological opportunity is to aid mental/physical interval work by improving the body's healing of the systems not being heavily used. For example, if you're going to be sitting at a computer for 90 minutes, your legs can get the benefit of 90 minutes of sleep.
Alcohol is in an unfortunate situation. The primary problems that it solves (unsafe water, a culture where you tend to have to kill people you're not related to) are mostly obsolete, and most of the inherent limits on how much you can use have disappeared. It looked less self-destructive in its heyday. High-concentration sugar is somewhat similar.
This is your best post since you started your "post a day for two years" challenge!
I take the view that I am over 18, it is my body and I should be free to take what ever substances I want to. Personally I don't take many because I don't want to risk messing up my mind. I gave up alcohol, caffeine, don't smoke or do pot or other drugs. I do take some vitamins and have been taking Magnasol and Bio-Sil which are vitamins and have improved my reactions to all the energy shifts going on. I have also taken ayawascha twice which had positive long term results in my intuition and psychic abilities.
If you want to explore the future of human enhancement by drugs and nano-tech I recommend the scifi book "Nexus" by Ramez Naam - it is a wild ride into designer drugs, enhancement brain function and black market body augmentation in the side streets of Bangkok. It also explores using drugs and nano tech to link multiple people together in mind meld/internal internet.
Alcohol can be anxiolytic in low quantities and definitely has its place, but it's toxic as hell 8(
I generally steer clear.
"And once someone in a competitive field began taking them, other competitors were almost forced to or they'd fall behind."
I think this is the crux of it. And while most visible in professional sports, I think there is an underlying unease in society that it can apply in any competitive area - once one participant in a given field starts applying any form of performance enhancing technology, everyone who wants to remain competitive in the field has to follow. Where these technologies are external, new tech, software or processes, there's no problem.
But when you're tweaking biochemistry (or anything inside the body), there's a need for personal consent, and society seriously frowns on obtaining consent through coercion. If you place an ambitious professional in a situation where remaining competitive in their field requires granting that consent is looks awfully like coercion to many people (take this pill or find a new career).
I think you have some good points on the potential for carefully designed pharmaceuticals to benefit human development. But to gain widespread acceptance, the risks (and perceptions thereof) will have to be so low that the consent issue become moot, because no one would have any rational cause to withhold it.
What about potential side effects? The main reason I haven't seriously considered taking performance-enhancing drugs is because of these. Every study I've looked at (granted, it was a while back) either showed some pretty nasty long-term side effects or basically said "sufficient long-term studies have not been conducted yet".
I would argue that you just summarized why alcohol, caffeine, tobacco, etc. are considered okay. We know that in a complex, nonlinear world it takes a *lot* of data to understand long-term side effects -- indeed, there are literally side effects of alcohol that appear to have finally been properly documented in the twentieth century (!), and alcohol is one of the oldest drugs known -- older than humanity, quite solidly.
A thing becomes "socially accepted" primarily as a result of long, long use -- or effects (including primary ones) so mild that we're barely sure it does anything at all.
This is a legitimate concern. A plausible solution is to take only more mild performance enhancing substances that have more studies backing them; Melatonin for restful sleep, for example. Also L-theanine is extremely low-toxicity, and combined with caffeine can be a tremendous performance booster, one of the best.
My method of deciding on whether or not I'm going to try a performance enhancing substance is based on whether or not it has passed my personal "Worth it" threshhold. I'm willing to take a small amount of risk if the benefits are strong enough.
There are many things that don't make my threshhold. Generally anything that is dopaminergic I stay the hell away from. My reward pathways are the last thing I want to fuck up, even though many dopaminergic substances offer the biggest short-term gains, they're just not worth it.
"Everything is training."
I sat on the floor in Chiba with Marcus and Rob, both expert martial-artists, biomechanists, and entrepreneurs.
Most people don't and can't understand why you'd analyze, re-engineer, and repeat doing a small action over and over again to make it slightly better. But these guys got it. "Everything is training," as Rob says.
And it strikes me that there's the core things you're trying to achieve, the skill and habit-building that gets you there, and that two are very harmonious. In terms of producing more, the best training is often immediately applying what you've learned in an attempt to produce.
What is the rest of life, then, except the time that facilitates doing what's most important to us?
My job and just about everything I do is reliant on having a well-oiled machine of a brain, so among the most important things that I do like eating healthy, exercising, and meditation, I also consume legal nootropics or "smart drugs" to give me the final edge I need to keep up with the work I demand of myself.
My modus operandi with performance-enhancing substances is to drop everything I'm on for a week when I first start taking a new substance. This is so that I can focus on the new substance and understand how it works on my body in isolation. Through this process I've weeded out a powerful synergistic mix that works very well for me. Keep in mind, a few of these chemicals are research chemicals, and PRL-8-53 in specific is very untested. You might find experimentation like this reckless, and I'd agree with you, but by carefully adding new substances to my "stack" one at a time, I've been able to so far safely avoid any perceivable negative side-effects.
One thing I've experimented with and found to just not work for me is phenyl-piracetam. Regular piracetam is awesome, but the additional phenyl group is just too much stimulation for me. I always crash at the end of the day and get really moody, to put it lightly.
Another rule of thumb I follow is to never touch anything that messes too much with my dopamine system. My will-power and reward system is something I try to delicately craft to do precisely what I want. I won't take amphetamines, coke, or anything with addictive properties... or anything dopaminergic whatsoever. The only exception of which is caffeine, which only acts on dopamine as a side effect of working on blocking the adenosine receptors. I also only get my caffeine from green tea in low doses. Dopaminergics usually aren't nootropics anyways, so that's a subject all its own.
What I usually do is cap my low-dose compounds in a pill so that I don't have to spend 10 minutes every morning mixing powders. You can get a huge bag of empty pills on Amazon for really cheap: