Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pain Sensitivity

Discoveries like this make me wonder if my doctors have any idea what they're doing. In the past, I've been prescribed nortrypteline, an anti-depressant that supposedly affects serotonin levels and/or serotonin uptake receptors, like most anti-depressants do. This chemical change in my brain was supposed to affect the way I perceived pain, or, I suspect is the more likely reason, "cure" me of my "psychosomatic perception of pain." Whether or not my doctor actually thought I was crazy, though, anti-depressants are routinely prescribed for chronic pain as well as myriad other psychological disorders, not only depression but things like obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders. I am convinced that a large factor in this pattern of prescription is that pharmaceutical companies have bombarded the marketplace with the idea that serotonin is the drug responsible for most if not all "emotional" dysfunctions, that their drugs will "fix" serotonin, and that therefore all you have to do is take this pill to make all your problems disappear.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of research done that supports this position. In fact, a large amount of the available research does not support this position. If they are effective at all, it's likely that they're not as effective as pharmaceutical companies are claiming.

There is even some evidence that anti-depressants can be quite dangerous. They can cause a greater incidence of suicidal ideation in children, as well as a condition called tardive dyskinesia, and may be related to Parkinsons. They also cause a variety of 'side-effects' related to mood, personality, sexuality and memory. Withdrawing from an anti-depressant can also be unpleasant.

It all seems to me to be a huge gamble. The business of making people happy is a big deal, obviously, with more than a few currents of opinion attempting to sway laws and habits, both of doctors and patients. Who do you trust with your brain? How far are you willing to go to find the holy grail of perfect psychological equanimity? For me to be persuaded to participate in this grand chemical experiment with the only mind I have, I would have to see much better evidence than I've seen so far.

Monday, October 23, 2006

magical thinking

First, read this. Then ask yourself, if our problem here is really combating people who are irrational in their view of us, people who view us as props in their religious script- and it seems plausible to me- is fighting a war really the best way to stop it? Harris likens this ideological artifact to a disease, "a cancer in the body politic", and says we must fight it with quarantine and "closely monitoring precisely those populations within [the] country that are most at risk."

But the last time I checked, we don't fight virulent disease by gassing and burning everyone who has contracted them- although that might be effective in containing at least some diseases. Instead, we work our asses off producing an antidote. We produce a vaccine or an antibiotic, we come up with countermeasures that, ideally, leave those subjected to them alive, healthy, and able to live in peace for years.

Would it be possible to develop an ideological countermeasure to radical fundamentalist Islam? Specifically the 'suicide-boming' strain; the others appear, at least to me, to be strains we can live with as a "body politic." I am not sure what form such an ideological vaccine would take, or how it could be administered, but it is certainly an interesting thought.

Harris also dismisses the causes of terrorism that have been brought up- poverty, inequality, economic imperialism, global warming, etc- but in fact his argument does not require him to dismiss them. They may actually be an interesting addition to his argument. He says, "there must first be a preexisting collective need for this fantasy" in order for fantastical or magical thinking to take hold on a large scale, across societies; however, he does not explore what might spur this collective need. Might not widespread poverty impel the widespread belief in a glorious afterlife? Might not economic imperialism impel the belief in a cosmic power struggle between good and evil?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

You know what the Republicans have accomplished?

They've made the most unlikely of people interested in politics. Three of my most unpolitical friends found themselves completely unable to tear themselves away from this synopsis of the latest scandal in Washington.