Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Putting Descartes before the horse

I suspect that most of the people here would agree with me, although it hasn't exactly come up in an overt way: the majority of kids who come to the attention of adults because of their alcohol or drug using behavior don't, fundamentally, have a drug problem. If kids are smoking pot before class, they have a school problem. If they are drinking six beers at a party and then driving home, they might have a social problem and they certainly have a judgment problem, as most adolescents do. Kids in poor neighborhoods who end up involved with criminal drug dealing gangs likely have an economic problem.

But the basic issue is not that there are bad chemicals out there and we need to sit down and talk with them about chemicals. There might be something we need to talk with them about, or really, there might not be a problem at all -- they might just be experimenting because kids like to try new things. The vast majority who do so do not end up getting into any kind of trouble at all, except for the trouble that overreacting adults make for them.

Now, there are exceptions. Some people, after using heroin or meth or cocaine, or perhaps alcohol -- certainly nicotine, which is probably the most powerfully addictive substance -- for long enough, end up with dopamine pathways in their brains rewired so that they have a powerful compulsion to consume the drug, which becomes a fundamental behavioral drive. That's absolutely a real phenomenon, and it's a hard one to beat. But few adolescents are there yet, with the exception of nicotine. Of course, it's important that they not get there, and we need to learn to recognize and deal with the real problems of adolescence effectively. But if we define the problem as the drug, we're missing the point.

Now, as for my overly subtle title. A few weeks back I did a series on the error of Cartesian dualism. The mind is not a separate entity that exists outside of the body it inhabits, it is a manifestation of the body. With psychoactive chemicals, this works in both directions. That we can take a pill or a potion and find our minds radically changed proves that the mind is inseparable from its physical substrate in the brain. That people, in turn, can come to organize their lives around obtaining psychoactive chemicals proves the same, that free will is an illusion and chemicals moving across microscopic synapses make us think and feel and do. But the whole thing is embedded in a larger social and physical environment. That's where we always have to start.

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