Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends: Drugs as Instruments

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It’s wrong to lump drug use and drug abuse together, say the authors of a forthcoming paper. On the contrary, most people who take psychoactive drugs will never be addicts, and for them, drug taking may be an adaptive and rational decision.

The second of two particularly fascinating abstracts of forthcoming papers which came across my desk in the last month is Drugs as Instruments: A New Framework for Non-Addictive Psychoactive Drug Use. (For the other recent abstract of a forthcoming paper, see my post earlier today: “Are Bugs Messing With Your Mind?”). Christian P. Müller and Gunter Schumann, of the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, respectively, offer what might at first seem like a drop-dead obvious observation: sometimes people take drugs for their effects on mental states.

Of course there’s more to it than that — Müller and Schumann take on the whole knotty question of whether drug use itself is inherently maladaptive (and how the development and persistence of psychoactive drug consumption could possibly be explained)… But first, here’s the abstract for the forthcoming paper:

Abstract: Most people who are regular consumers of psychoactive drugs are not drug addicts, nor will they ever become addicts. In neurobiological theories, non-addictive drug consumption is only acknowledged as a ‘necessary’ prerequisite for addiction, but not as a stable and widespread behavior in its own right. The present paper proposes a new neurobiological framework theory for non-addictive psychoactive drug consumption, introducing the concept of ‘drug instrumentalization’. Psychoactive drugs are consumed for their effects on mental states. Humans are able to learn that mental states can be changed on purpose by drugs, in order to facilitate other, non-drug related behaviors. Specific ‘instrumentalization goals’ are discussed and neurobiological mechanisms of how major classes of psychoactive drugs change mental states and serve non-drug related behaviors are outlined. We argue that drug instrumentalization behavior may provide a functional adaptation to modern environments based on a historical selection for learning mechanisms which allow the dynamic modification of consummatory behavior. It is assumed that in order to effectively instrumentalize psychoactive drugs, the establishment of and retrieval from a drug memory is required. Here we propose a new classification of different drug memory subtypes, and discuss how they interact during drug instrumentalization learning and retrieval. Understanding the everyday utility and the learning mechanisms of non-addictive psychotropic drug use may help to prevent abuse and the transition to drug addiction in the future.

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Müller and Schumann observe that “Whereas a considerable research effort has been made to understand drug addiction and how it develops…an adaptive role or beneficial effect for psychoactive drugs is often categorically denied” (p. 2). They go on to argue specifically that “people use psychoactive drugs not because their reward systems have been ‘hijacked’, but to advance specific behaviors relevant for their own ‘fitness'” (p. 2).

Now that’s a different take on the usual politically-charged mantra that “drugs are evil”.

Stepping back just for a moment from the political context, though, I have to wonder about the very basics of the apparent split in the received wisdom about drug-taking for the purpose of healing a wound and drug-taking for the purpose of effecting a change in mental state. I wonder why these differ at all. Is it because when we take a drug to help heal a wound, we’re helping to restore our body to its former state, before it was wounded — or to the type of state in which it’s ‘supposed’ to be? Whereas, when we take a drug to change our mental state, we might be aiming for a non-normal state? Maybe. But how about the difference between taking Xanax to reduce anxiety and taking cannabis to reduce anxiety?

What do you think? Is it a no-brainer that sometimes people take drugs for their effects on mental states? What about the separate question of why we seem to view (some) drug-taking to change mental states differently than we view drug-taking to change obviously physical states like wounds? Let us know in the comments!

(This paper has been selected as a target article for open peer commentary at the prestigious journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the foremost print publications in its field. If you’d like to have a look at the full text of the paper, the pre-print is available here: Fincher and Thornhill Preprint: “Drugs as Instruments: A New Framework for Non-Addictive Psychoactive Drug Use”. If you’re interested in writing a commentary on the article directly for the journal, have a look at their instructions.)

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