Why Humans Drink & Get High
Before undertaking this kind of topic, a few things need to be clarified. The medical, treatment, and law enforcement communities can disagree about the different ranges between alcohol or drug “use,” “abuse,” and “addiction.” Not all people who have tried alcohol or drugs have “abused” them. And not all individuals who have used mind-altering chemicals have experienced “addiction”. Thus, this discussion postulates the multifaceted reasons why humans as a species are drawn to these experiences in the first place. For a long time now, the notion that “getting high” to have fun or “running away from your problems” have been rejected as the primary reasons people seek out alcohol or controlled substances. The discussion is much deeper and deserves alternative and sometimes counter-intuitive theories.
Some say that “Beer is older than bread…”
Go ahead and search for the origins of alcoholic beverages and you will find educated disagreements as to which came first. Whichever of the two is older, may miss the bigger point: mind-altering substances have been around since the Stone-Age–and humanity has sought the feeling of intoxication for centuries. Why?
The origin and cultivation of beer (going back as far as 10,000 years ago in Ancient Sumeria) has been credited with being one of the most important civilization-building substances known to humankind. Stockpiling it to survive harsh seasons, it’s theorized that our ancestors needed beer to speak candidly amongst one another around the fire, celebrate important rituals, and even muster the courage to be more social in harsh primitive society.
The Ancestors Who Were Getting High
Similarly, almost every ancient culture has been documented as having conducted shamanic and recreational rituals with mind-altering substances: Egyptians used Blue Lotus, Central and East Asia used Betel Nut (13,000 years ago), Peyote and Psilocybin for Native Americans (9,000 to 8,000 BC), Pythia used by Oracles in Ancient Greece, and Opium use spanned across the Middle East to Asia since 3,400 BC. All cultures overwhelmingly used these substances for both spiritual as well as medicinal reasons.
Nevertheless, beyond the social activities associated with mind-altering drugs and alcohol, there must have always been an underlying desire in the human species that has sat deep within our human fabric. For some people today, it is far too easy to proclaim that any substance use as: “it’s to have a good time,” or “it loosens me up when I’m stressed,” or “I just want to take my mind off of things.”
In searching for some answers, eye-openning research has explored the deeper psychological needs and metaphysical yearnings of ancient and modern humans. Having to make sense of it all, I found some studies very persuasive and highly thought-provoking.
I am not alone in this journey. Two pieces that were highly influential to my understanding of this topic were written by Jonathan Rowson from the UK and Tammy Saah from Stanford University. Some of their realizations have been mixed together with my own. But you may discover a lot of overlap nevertheless.
1. We Seek to Magnify Our Emotions.
Whether it’s to enhance good feelings, or cloud the bad ones, using substances that change our perceptions or internal reality may have played a critical role in our evolution as humans. This could have been done to cope with personality disorders, the harsh stress of early human environments, and to satisfy deep yearnings within us by trying to understand the bigger questions in our lives. Either way, there are theories that our predisposition to seek chemicals outside of ourselves to change what is within could be a result of evolutionary influences.
The research is compelling because the human brain has developed special receptors systems for substances found in plants that were not available within the mammalian body. Because of this evolutionary shift, early humans were able to alter, mask, and ultimately modify their internal psychological struggles by enhancing a very important tool in our bodies: Our emotions (which have very critical decision-making functions to our species). Copyright © 2005 Saah; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.
Tammy Saah, from Stanford University School of Medicine’s Transplant Immunobiology Lab made a powerful and noteworthy proposal that to understand the science of addiction, it helps to study the evolutionary nature of it through biology, psychology, and social influences. In her work, “The Evolutionary Origins and Significance of Drug Addiction”, she postulates the importance of evaluating the co-evolution of mammalian brains and very ancient psychotropic plants. Noting that the use of mind-altering substances has existed since as far back as the early hominid species, Saah indicated that these plants were primarily seen as food sources rather than external chemicals that alter our reality.
What this equates to is a deeper more robust explanation for why some individuals want to “chase that first high”, alter a powerful memory/thought, or find a way to “deal” with emotions that rise to levels of anxiety or depression. A glass of milk won’t do it; so our psyche will crave a stronger dose to modify what we feel.
2. We Want Less Associations.
We are impaired by alcohol’s effects because our neurons don’t communicate the way they do when we’re sober. But this is what we want when we drink. When we think too much (or have too much on our minds), the world is overwhelming and too much to handle. Breaking down associations in our mind simplifies the world and lets us take a break.
Some would say this is what is experienced when we “take our mind off of things.” But the brain has a way to do this for us–by breaking down connections in the brain we no longer have to juggle as many thoughts at one time. Those who suffer from bouts of anxiety and depression have been known to create powerful neural connections that fire off rapidly whenever unwanted worries or troubles make their way into our conscience. To combat these floodgates of thoughts, humans sometimes find alcohol or drugs to break up the pattern.
To get a better understanding of this: try to ask a person with an anxiety disorder what it feels like to have a panic attack. They will tell you that it always starts with a single disruptive thought. That thought then snowballs into a dozen more thoughts. Within no time, those dozens of worrisome connections cloud the ordinary daily routine and can rise to obsessive and almost paralyzing thought patterns. Without knowing it, anyone can experience a panic attack during a stressful time. Drugs and alcohol become a go-to source to break up that pattern and break divide the associations. Some physicians describe this as “self-medicating” behavior.
3. We Want to Escape From Ourselves.
In a way, it’s the opposite of Number 1 (Magnifying Emotions). Psychology calls this “cognitive narrowing”. It’s the idea that we can focus on something that is on our mind at the time we drink. If we want to feel good about some fantasy reality in our brain, few things will break our focus and make us aware that it’s unrealistic. Conversely, if we cannot get our minds off of something that troubles us—this will also be a state of mind that we can’t break out of.
To make this point in the contropositive, consider any movie or show that places you in a particular state of mind. Sometimes we want to return to that feeling so we will put on that movie we’ve seen before, or play a song we enjoy (even a sad song sometimes). Either way, we seek outside stimuli to enhance what we want to feel.
In contrast, our inner minds sometimes need a break from that magnifying glass. Hence, we tend to use cognitive narrowing by letting wine, a xanax pill, or cannabis to get away from that focus on what’s going on inside.
4. We Want to Challenge Taboo
Have you heard of the “happy drunk” or the “flirty drunk”. Some people may suddenly feel free to jump into an alternate reality where their usual self would not be comfortable to do so. This may be where most deep psychological issues do most of their work. If you can think of any encounter where someone is more violent or less hung-up on their sexual proclivities, this is where the sober world does not allow that kind of behavior to follow instinctual urges.
In a way though, this could be another version of escaping from ourselves. If someone is intoxicated or high, they can accomplish deep-seated urges that get caged up for too long. When that happens, the less we want to focus on who we are for most of the day, and more on enhancing who we would like to be (or think we should be).
5. We Seek Unity and Transcendence.
Perhaps the deepest reason we drink could be the one question that haunts us the most: Life’s Meaning. Rowson calls the compulsion to drink a “perverted spiritual need.” I find this a fascinating way to say it. William James explains this state of mind as unifying and expansive when a person achieves drunkenness. It’s the “YES” voice deep inside all of us that seeks to reach out and dare.
It’s no question that this kind of mentality leads to behavior we all would not approve of. But one cannot escape the ever-present thought that reaching for any mind-altering substance like alcohol or a drug is a vehicle to somehow experience more: more of the world, more of ourselves, more of others. How people choose to experience that “more” becomes a timeless debate of what’s acceptable or not.
It is beyond our calculating natures to try to list all of the historical moments (both great and tragic) that may have originated from this very moment of someone’s drunkenness. Consider how many decisions to invade a country, make a breakthrough or a risky attempt in business, or a decision to begin or end a life-changing moment could have easily originated during someone’s need to transcend their reality.
6. We Want to Connect With Others
Perhaps related to some or all of the above, our need to connect to something greater outside of ourselves is a powerful feeling. Many individuals are first introduced to drinking and drugs through other people, and the activity is largely done in a social setting. Whether the need is to “fit in” or feel as though they are a part of something is up to interpretation and based on individual assessment.
But the fact that someone feels a certain way with or among others is undeniable. Almost every social interaction, one can say, is a form of shared experience where our enjoyment is magnified by virtue of the fact that we are not alone in doing it. Of course, there will always be the individual who chooses do drink alone. But that’s where a different kind of connection takes place; similar to Transcendence (see #5 above). No one explanation can describe why we ultimately do things. Similarly, it can always be a combination of any of the reasons listed above.
To discover why we drink or get high may be too ambitious of a task to undertake in one article. But to make oversimplified generalizations that we have been told since our early years just doesn’t cut it anymore. A broader and deeper understanding of the human psyche must be included if we are to solve some of our oldest most challenging of humanities’ struggles.
To anyone that reads this and may be attempting to judge the pros and cons of using alcohol or drugs to experience any of the above urges, take note that not everyone is built the same way.
The ecstasy one feels in a mind-altering Yoga session isn’t always obtainable to someone who finds neither the opportunity or the interest in such activity; the same can be said of one who catches the perfect wave on a surfboard. Essentially, any vehicle can help us feel the experiences of any of the listed items above. But to criticize the method one uses to experience unity or escape is equivalent to lecturing someone on the one true formula for happiness.
One day, perhaps, we can find the common denominator in what we seek and extract it into an easy-to-swallow capsule. Until then, we all find our own way of escape, transcendence, and simplicity in life through trial and error. And if we don’t, I’m sure we will keep searching.
Bart Kaspero is Criminal Defense and Civil Rights attorney in Newport Beach, California. His practice focuses on defending those who face DUI and drug-related offenses in Southern California courtrooms–but holds extensive experience in all facets of criminal charges including white-collar crimes. Prior to entering the legal profession, Kaspero studied cognitive psychology at the University of California, Irvine where he found a strong interest in developments on alternative treatments for anxiety, depression, and other emotional ailments. In his day-to-day practice, he aims to uplift his clients by offering new perspective during challenging times and provide direction towards a more fulfilling and healthier path.