Monday, August 04, 2008

Explain something to me.

This post is not meant to be some self-righteous, morally authoritative rant. Do not take it that way. I am genuinely curious about human motivation here.

So, I'm wondering about drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. I honestly don't care if people use drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. I don't, and that's my own choice. I have my own reasons, and the biggest one is: It's just not healthy. Even red wine, which contains a heart-healthy chemical called resveratrol, is ultimately worse for your health than simply eating synthesized resveratrol (which is being developed as we speak).

So here's my question: With all the well-known health risks associated with cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, why do people voluntarily use them? This is not a question of "Why would you DO that?" But rather, "WHY would you do that?" I'm trying to discover the motivation behind it. And, as a secondary question: If there are some, even fleeting, benefits from cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, are those benefits simply unavailable from alternative, perhaps healthier sources?


lantaro said...

It's really an easier explanation that you would imagine. Instant gratification. At least from a restaurant worker's point of view. The job I work at is very stressful at various intervals, and a quick way to relieve stress is to smoke a cigarette. It's a quick little buzz that calms you down very fast, plus it gives you an excuse to step off the line or out of the dining floor for a quick break. Eventually, however, people get hooked, and just say "It won't happen to me" and keep on smoking, regardless of the health effects.

As for alcohol, it dulls the senses, numbs feelings, and helps you enjoy the company of people you otherwise wouldn't stand to be around. Many people are just bored, however, and decide to get wasted to pass the time. This, of course, leads to alcoholism. Very bad things.

Anyway, that's my thoughts on it. Not saying that any of the above are good reasons, but those are the reasons most of the folks I know do it.

Julia said...

There is a lot in Lantaro's "instant gratification" theory. It's for the narcotic effect. I can come in from work absolutely gasping for a cold beer, or a margarita. It hits a spot somewhere in the mind.

However, there's also another line to it. It's yummy. Margaritas, real ale, a really good pinot grigio, taste good. They're bad for you, yes, and too much of them will do you harm. But chocolate is also yummy. Fries covered in barbecue sauce are yummy. Both of them will fur up your arteries and turn your thighs to cottage cheese. But the risks are outweighed by the enjoyment of something that tastes good.

Admittedly that doesn't apply to cigarettes and drugs. When I smoked, they tasted foul, but it was all about that drag, and feeling the nicotine spreading outwards through my body from the lungs.

We are all addicted to seratonin and dopamine. Alcohol, drugs, bad food, all release those feel-good chemicals. So does exercise. But there's an instant cost to doing exercise of discomfort, or even pain (even if you're doing it right). There is no instant cost with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. You get the high before you get the low.

Does that make sense?

Amanda said...

I'm with Iantaro and Julia on this one. People do them because they feel good.

For sure, I did them because they made me feel better. Even the things that made me feel like crap...they at least made me feel different than the unbearable flat, hopelessness that I usually felt. Of course, they eventually stopped making me feel better and inevitably made me feel worse.

I'm speaking from an alcoholic's point of view, of course, so I can't speak for why people who don't have a problem drink/smoke/whatever.

BusaFan said...

Actually now that I'm a whole three posts behind I'm going to have to agree with all of them. There is a particular instant gratification in it.
For me personally a drink will relax me, obviously I could live without it, but don't. It's like you and Mountian Dew. You could live without it, but choose not to. And really there isn't much worse for you than soda.

So I'd say the answer lies within you... spooky eh?

Sean said...

To look at it from a slightly more scientific-sounding perspective, it's partially a matter of short-circuiting the brain's reward mechanisms. In other words, drugs feel good for the same reason anything feels good -- and they target the 'feel-good' in a very direct fashion.

That said, most people don't like most drugs. For instance, stimulants such as caffeine make me intensely uncomfortable and I do not receive the benefits from them that a lot of people do.

But there is another aspect and that is the ability to ritualistically alter one's brain chemistry in a predictable fashion. When me and my buddy get together and play music we split a six-pack. Over the course of three or four hours that really isn't enough to get us drunk or even buzzed... but it forms part of a ritual that almost always reduces stress and induces feelings of well-being and contentment.

Incidentally, tobacco is a very powerful aid in coping with stress -- look at how it functions in places like prisons and mental institutions where it's such a staple that it becomes a form of currency.

Nathan said...

I'm not going to repeat the previous comments, or disagree with them.

However, there's a strong display component: I'm doing this unhealthy thing to demonstrate how much better I am than the average joe. I can "hold my liquor", I can smoke without wheezing.

There's a related social aspect: I value membership in this group enough to engage in self destructive behavior to demonstrate my commitment to it.

Sean Craven said...

Heh. Reading Nathan's comment, I remember my brother and his friends had a little ritual they'd do... One of 'em would say, "Smoking is the only socially validated form of suicide." Then they'd take a pack of cigarettes and thrust it at someone else. "Here you go!"


I forgot to mention one of the most significant aspects of drug use, though. It's a convenient and reliable way to temporarily demolish one's ego. If you're very intoxicated you can essentially reduce oneself to an animalistic state where there is no past, future, or self. This is pretty gross on one level; on another it is the essential mystical experience. And while it's associated with psychedelic drugs such as LSD or Salvia divinorum, good old booze can do the same thing.

In cultures like Imperial China booze was regarded in much the same light as psychedelics are in our culture -- something that can lead to deep visionary experiences. The poetry of Li Po and the other Drunken Dragons represents some convincing evidence for that position.

But this experience is accessable without the use of chemicals -- when the brain just flips around and pulls this one on you, you've either had a schizophrenic episode or a gnostic experience. It can be deliberately induced by sitting meditiation, chanting, drumming, dancing, fasting, etc, etc. A lot of ritualistic practices that seem crazy to a non-religious person can lead down this path.

This experience is one that can be tremendously positive, one that leads to real changes in life. The benefit of using drugs to achieve this is that they do not require the mental disciplne that other practices do. But this convenience comes with a price -- anyone who claims that drugging yourself into this state is completely safe and harmless is either ignorant or lying.

Brad said...

Drugs may be a health risk, but so is everything else. Listening to music is bad for your ears. Playing in the sun is bad for your skin. Eating fast food is bad for your heart. Reading When Pigs Fly Returns is bad for your eyes, and commenting on it is bad for your fingers. In light of all of these socially acceptable health risks, its no wonder that many people don't take the demonization of drugs seriously. You're eventually going to die anyway, so you might as well enjoy the process.

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Brad!

I agree with you thoroughly -- but the tendency in the drug culture to minimize the possible consequences of drug use isn't something in which I want to participate. There are very few things that are all good or all bad. It's all in the application.

I ain't saying you shouldn't try, say, a double Black Bush or a hit of Salvia divinorum (both currently legal and readily available and very, very effective); I'm saying you should go into the experience with your eyes wide open... and if your intuition tells you that it's a bad idea, go on and listen to it.

And the risks are real. Even marijuana -- as harmless a drug as you could ask for -- can have serious consequences. Ever spend any time nursing a friend who wasn't prepared to be as high as they wound up getting? When they're convinced that their life has ended because they're never coming down?

And that's a crisis that ends overnight. Ever have to help someone sell their possessions so they could afford rehab? Ever see anyone die of cancer as a result of a lifetime of chemical abuse? Ever...

Look, I think drugs can be a wonderful adjunct to life if used properly. The positive results of drug use can be profound -- I've had my drawing skills improved distinctly and permanently over the course of a twelve-hour trip, among other things.

(Hey, Zach! I may be drawing this thread off-course, so in apology here are some of the details you seemed to be asking for in the first place -- I found myself able to break everything I saw down into flat colored polygons, which is an essential element in observational drawing. Then I found myself able to make the polygons fly apart and reassemble into anything I wanted to see. Yes, that included dinosaurs and naked ladies and cosmic vistas. Totally controlled hallucinations based on the shapes and colors around me. The next day the hallucinations were gone but the ability to see objects as groups of shapes remained and is still with me twenty years later. Of course that wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been able to draw in the first place -- but drugs can let you play with your brain very effectively.)

But drugs are not safe. Of course they're nowhere near as dangerous as cars and I ride in those things all the time.

There is one drug warning that applies to everyone, though. "Hey, kids! If you do drugs, eventually you'll pay money to feel like you've got the flu!"