Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Weird Side Effects

An issue we have touched on from time to time is the growing perplexity in the zeitgeist over the problems of free will and moral responsibility, as the science of mind continues to develop. The Virginia Tech massacre helped to illuminate this cultural conundrum, as the cable networks struggled to fill air time with increasingly desperate and inane attempts to account for Cho Seung-hui's actions in political terms (he was corrupted by campus liberalism, contaminated by Islam, or a Marxist, or this proves we shouldn't let so many immigrants into the country); or as an examplar of cultural depravity (he was warped by violent video games, or horror movies, or the removal of God from the classroom).

Everybody finally realized that there is no such lesson to be drawn from this tragedy, that the young man was simply insane. There was something wrong with his brain, somehow the neurons got hooked up wrong or the wrong chemicals were sloshing around in the wrong places. We no longer have theories of demonic possession to provide a morallly meaningful account of such events -- that an underlying cosmic struggle between the benevolent deity and his satanic rival is contested in the souls of individuals. Cho's disease was a physical phenomenon, exactly what we don't know, but our minds, and our behaviors, are produced by the physical substrate of our wetware, that 4 1/2 pounds of gray and white glop inside our heads, and his just went haywire.

This realization starts to get quite problematic when you step down from such extreme cases to the minor virtures and sins of everyday life. It's bad when people gamble away their kid's college tuition, their retirement savings, or their next mortgage payment. I know of people who have done that, it's actually a growing problem around here since they built those casinos in southeastern Connecticut. Those people are irresponsible, they betrayed their families, and they rightly deserve the scorn of the community.

But did you know that pathological gambling can be a side effect of drugs called dopamine agonists, which are prescribed for Parkinson's disease? It's true, and it's actually astonishingly common. According to Sui Wong and Malcolm Steiger in BMJ (April 21, subscription only), citing a study by Voon, et al in Neurology, in the UK 7.2% of people taking dompamine agonists develop gambling problems. The pervasive availability of gambling opportunities on the Internet, and at the corner grocery store and the newsstand, as well as in the enticing fantasy world of the casino, no doubt interacts with the bad chemicals to make the problem all the more common.

So, it's not much of a stretch to suppose that some people who aren't taking dopaminergic drugs happen to just naturally have the wrong amount of dopamine in the wrong place -- which can lead not only to gambling problems but to compulsive shopping, hypersexuality, and who knows what other harmful or socially disapproved behaviors. Maybe they'll invent pills one day to cure people who shop too much, or talk too much, or goof off at work, or aren't good listeners, or don't spend quality time with their children. Of course, these pills will have unanticipated side effects. Maybe the pill that makes you appropriately thrifty will turn out to make people talk with their mouths full. Meanwhile, what is happening to good and evil?

No comments: