It is a strange and esoteric chemistry that moves the inner dial of our moods. Who hasn’t taken a micro-second whipsaw ride from ebullience to hopelessness? For me, some days in the studio are all flow. On others, nothing goes right. If only I could clear a pattern headed in the wrong direction as easily as the horse’s snort described in Alexander Star’s New York Times review of Daniel Lord Smail’s new book, “On Deep History and the Brain,” (cleverly titled, I Feel Good).
Here’s a sample:
Why do horses snort? Sometimes, at the approach of a stranger or the appearance of a plane high above the pasture, a horse will widen its eyes, flare its nostrils and send a stuttering column of air out into the world. On other occasions, horses have been known to snort for no reason besides their own boredom. By suddenly creating a sound, the slack-minded horse elicits an automatic “startle response” — flooding its brain with chemicals, delivering a jolt of excitement and relieving, at least for a moment, the monotony of a long day in an empty field. The horse has in effect fooled its own nervous system — and benefited from the self-deceit.
If horses can alter their own brain chemistries at will (and have good reasons to do so), what about human beings? In “On Deep History and the Brain,” Daniel Lord Smail suggests that human history can be understood as a long, unbroken sequence of snorts and sighs and other self-modifications of our mental states. We want to alter our own moods and feelings, and the rise of man from hunter-gatherer and farmer to office worker and video-game adept is the story of the ever proliferating devices — from coffee and tobacco to religious rites and romance novels — we’ve acquired to do so. Humans, Smail writes, have invented “a dizzying array of practices that stimulate the production and circulation of our own chemical messengers,” and those devices have become more plentiful with time. We make our own history, albeit with neurotransmitters not of our choosing…
Ever since the invention of agriculture, Smail claims, we have seen “an ever greater concentration of mood-altering mechanisms.” Some of these mechanisms Smail refers to as “teletropic”: they work primarily to affect the moods of others, stimulating a wash of neurochemicals at a distance. A baby cries and arouses its mother’s instinct to care; a priest intones a Mass and relieves parishioners of stress hormones. The modern era, however, belongs to what Smail calls “autotropic” devices, devices that alter our own moods. In modern Europe, coffee from the Arabian peninsula became a stimulant to “mind, body, conversation and creativity” for the rich and the mercantile. The cultivation of sugar on Caribbean slave plantations made cheap rum freely available, further inebriating the working classes. Individuals became ever more expert at changing their own chemistry, sometimes just for the pleasure of modulating one set of sensations into another. But ingesting substances was only the beginning. The same era saw the rise of novels and erotica, shopping and salons. Books are also autotropic devices, regulating attention and mood; indeed, in the 18th century, their impact was often likened to a fever, jeopardizing readers’ purchase on reality and their physical strength. In the age of Enlightenment, man overthrew kings and subjected himself to mild and intermittently pleasurable addictions.
Of course, there was more to the Enlightenment than that. It’s not clear how a neurohistorian of the future would treat attitudes and beliefs alongside cravings and moods. Nor does Smail directly address the larger implications of what has been called “the psychoactive revolution.” What happens when we learn not just how to alter our moods but also to identify the chemical and electrical constituents of our experiences while we are having them? Is there a price to pay when we make the care of the brain a pre-eminent virtue?…
Smail focuses more attention on the “pursuit of psychotropy” than on its consequences. Still, an intelligent disquiet runs through these pages. As we “grow numb to the mechanisms that stimulate our moods and feelings on a daily basis,” we ceaselessly shift from one device to another. The prospects for human foresight and self-knowledge would seem dim. In the 1860s, Walter Pater wrote that “art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Has art become superfluous? Smail suggests we are all the choreographers of our own chemical dance, enjoying the “spikes” and “dips” as they follow one another, and simply for their own sake.
I love the Pater quote in the last paragraph–art offers “nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” So Zen, yet so long ago.
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