COMPASSION IN A PILL? HARD TO SWALLOW.

by Geoff Olson

A pill to make you more compassionate and more willing to hand out spare change to the needy? Scientists have taken a big step in that direction, according to UC Berkeley News Centre of a study published in Current Biology.

Research subjects were asked to play a simple game of financial sharing. After taking the drug tolcapone, they divided money with strangers in a fairer, more egalitarian way than they did after taking a placebo.

Beyond the intriguing fact that there’s a caring n’ sharing substance with the word “Capone” in it, the research promises a better understanding of “the interaction between altered dopamine-brain mechanisms and mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or addiction,” states the UC Berkeley press release.

“Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions,” said Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Any sentence containing the words “treatment of social dysfunction” and “school of business” immediately catches my attention. Sounds like someone’s blue-skying a lucrative scheme to turn compassion-fatigued citizens into blissed-out Boddhisattvas.

If so, this kind of thinking goes way back. “Scientists plan for peace with a pill,” declared a headline in a March 17, 1967 edition of the Observer. Dr. K.E. Moyer of Pittsburgh University insisted that human aggression could be treated by pill, and that brain scientists were “on a threshold similar to that on which the atomic physicist stood in the early 1940s.”

The same year as the story in the Observer, author Arthur Koestler enthusiastically predicted the mass manufacture of a pill to turn “Homo maniacus into Homo sapiens.”

Unfortunately, dreams of social engineering through drugs have often resulted in nightmares, from the narcotized dissidents in Soviet gulags to the ’50s-era victims of the CIA-backed psychiatrist and buzzkill Dr. Donald Ewan Cameron, who put unknowing Canadian patients into insulin-induced comas to erase their memories and “rebuild” their psyches.

The notion of mass-medicating people into institutionally acceptable behaviour has leapt from the pages of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World into U.S. classrooms and study halls. A mind-boggling 19 per cent of high school-age boys — ages 14 to 17 — in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperativity Disorder, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Centre for Disease Control. This has been a highly profitable development for the makers of Ritalin.

And now we’re hearing about oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). The psychiatric bible DSM-5 defines ODD as “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behaviour, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months as evidenced by at least four symptoms from any of the [defined] categories and exhibited during interaction with at least one individual who is not a sibling.”

Official symptoms include, “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” and “often argues with adults.” Teenage rebellion, in other words.

When ODD coexists with ADHD or depression, a long-term prescription for mood-altering drugs is usually not far behind.

There is an irony to mention about the mental health treatment of adults. Clinical trials using psychoactive substances like MDMA, psilocybin and ibogaine — which reportedly can produce lasting health benefits after a small number of sessions — are on the rise, but still tightly restricted. I submit one reason researchers have found great difficulty in obtaining past federal approval and funding for such promising substances is because the preliminary findings threaten the accepted model of mental health management through long-term medication/addiction.

I rather doubt that anyone connected with the Berkeley study believes poverty and other social ills can be seriously addressed by the random charity of tolcapone-tweaked citizens. While society is dominated by the dopamine-spiking elements of money, power, and status, a solution probably isn’t forthcoming in a big pharma blister pack, particularly if the effect of empathogens runs counter to consumerism — which depends on a reliable mass supply of anxiety, alienation and discontent.

Arthur Koestler was a great one for smashing idols and ideologies. And he was wise enough to ask of his own proposal for a peace pill, “Who is to control the controls, manipulate the manipulators?” Exactly the sort of question you’d expect from someone with oppositional defiant disorder.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 27

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