Last week I posted a set of videos of animals getting drunk—well, two portayed animals that had eaten fermented fruit, one portrayed African wildlife bumbling around for unknown reasons (unfortunately, they had almost certainly been involuntarily tranquilized), one portrayed clumsy cats coming out of ansthesia, another portrayed pigs being given non-alcoholic beer, and one was a dog fetching (but not drinking) beer. The monkeys were getting drunk, though. The monkeys—who’ve been studied by researchers trying to suss out the prevalence and genetic relationship to alcoholism were seeking out alcohol on their own, though.
Most commenters hated the post, either because videos of animals experiencing potential harm (though none were injured in any of the videos) just aren’t funny to them, or because—in trying to address the fact that some people give their pets alcohol (or smoke them out, or whatever), and to make clear that this is neither a good idea nor usually a veterinary emergency if the doses are small – I was a little too glib about the issue. I apologize for that, and seriously, don’t give your dog beer, even if he or she wants it.
That the post was off-topic was absolutely a fair criticism; that being said, the idea that intoxication is a universal urge, I think, has implications for social-justice movements. I wanted to find out a little more about it, so I called David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins whose recent book, The Compass of Pleasure, discusses the “pleasure urge” in people and non-human animals—including animals that seek out intoxicants.
Linden says we humans—and non-human animals, too, including worms—have an “evolutionarily ancient” pleasure circuit in our brains that activates when we eat, have sex or drink water. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: we need to do all those things to survive, individually and as a species.
But a lot of critters—humans included—have figured out other ways to activate the pleasure circuit Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine are favorites globally, but opiates and stimulants activate those centers as well. What gets really tricky, he said, is that not all drugs that act on the brain activate the pleasure centers. Psychiatric drugs like Prozac don’t, and neither do hallucinogens.
Some animals with behavior issues really respond to SSRIs, and while that’s a whole other can of, uh, worms (worms with rudimentary pleasure centers!), it turns out some animals really like to trip. West African elephants regularly eat the bark of the iboga tree, which has been used by people in the region as a sacred drug: “It’s not a fun, pleasant, trippy high. It’s inward turning.” Siberian reindeer have also been observed to eat psychedelic mushrooms (leading to some almost certainly incorrect, but interesting speculation that these reindeer are the origin of the Santa Claus myth. (The mushrooms, pictured here, are rather Christmasy, though.) In both cases, animals behave oddly when they eat the drugs, separating themselves from the herd, twitching, making strange noises—but they do use them again. “There seems to be some drive in us and in critters to alter our perception,” Linden said.
Fascinating as that is, how is it relevant to social justice? First, Linden argues, observing animal behavior—and how basic the drive for pleasure can be—can give us a better understanding of the science of addiction. He noted that while just 25 percent of people who try heroin become addicted, 80 percent of people who try cigarettes become addicted—and the reason for that difference is that the drugs activate the pleasure centers in different ways. A single dose of heroin provides an enormous flood of dopamine, where cigarettes provide tiny, rationed neural rewards to the user. “It’s like if you were training a dog, and wanted to reward him with a big steak, versus if you cut the steak up into bits and treat him throughout the day,” Linden said. Most of us prefer the tiny, consistent bursts of pleasure to the single flood, and that’s why cigarettes are actually harder to quit.
The research also tells us that addiction is highly varied in the way it manifests: that’s why, with, say, alcohol, some people can take it or leave it, and some people struggle with it their whole lives. “We are, all of us, subject to various subconscious drives and motivations. The kinds of cravings one person experiences aren’t like what another person experiences,” Linden said. “If you understand the biology and medicine that makes sense is a disease model, and the only attitude that makes sense is one of compassion.”
A few months ago, I wouldn’t have thought of that idea as a new one or a radical one: Alcoholics Anonymous, while avoiding discussions of the medical nature of alcoholism, has been calling it a disease since 1935, and the American Medical Association followed suit in 1956. Nonetheless: a few months ago I read a story on a news site about a recently graduated medical student who talked about struggling with drug addiction as a young woman, and even deferring her enrollment in med school after a relapse, but who’d been clean, sober and an excellent student for four years. Uplifting, human-interest fluff, right? Totally non-controversial, right? Oh my God. Wrong. The commenters, and there were dozens of them, eviscerated her not for turning her life around (a few were skeptical that she had), but for having been an addict in the first place. There’s still a prevalent idea that if you’ve ever been addicted to anything, 1) your own lousy morals are solely to blame and 2) your past does, and should, define you for the rest of your life.
Arguments from nature can be a mess, as anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology can know. And what we know about the prevalence of intoxication in animal populations is spotty (I suspect there are multiple barriers to conducting this kind of research). But knowing humans aren’t alone in need to check out of our brains, or rearrange their scenery, is weirdly comforting to me. Knowing we don’t have to moralize about, or be forever defined by, that desire—whether past or present, occasional or dangerously habitual—is an inspiration.