Selling the chemical Brain
History of chemical manipulation
Chemicals have been used for their temporary psycho-active effects on brain function for centuries: psilocybin, mescaline, marijuana, cocaine and others have been used in many cultures, generally for peak experiences or expanded awareness—often by shamans and priests. In others, the drones, the laborers, take drugs daily (khat, coca leaves and marijuana are examples) to “make it through.”
But no culture has ever come close to the commitment made by western societies over the past 5-6 decades to chemically interfering in standard brain function. Medical schools focus nearly entirely on the chemical brain, physicians closely guard their monopoly on prescription of these drugs while downplaying use of energy-based approaches such as acupuncture/acupressure/yoga/tai chi and neurofeedback. We buy $80-billion a year of psycho-active drugs. More than 1 in 4 Americans use them.
Studies on them make up the huge majority of research on brain chemistry—nearly all showing that specific drugs beat sugar pills—nearly completely ignoring questions of long-term effects or effects of the increasingly popular “drug cocktail” which results in young children receiving powerful stimulant, anti-depressive, anti-convulsant and anti-psychotic drugs to help them sit still in a classroom.
The “battle” between chemistry and energy
Industrial society is built on three major tenets: economy of scale, distribution and limiting competition.
Energy-based approaches are delivered one-at-a-time; pills are manufactured in millions with costs falling as volume rises.
Energy-based approaches result in lasting changes; pills produce temporary adjustments, so they are taken daily or more for years.
Energy approaches require development of skills, opening of offices by the thousands. Pills have a built-in distribution network of physicians—not just psychiatrists and neurologists, but pediatricians, GP’s, dermatologists, geriatricians by the tens of thousands—already in place, already option-of-first-choice for many, already invested in chemical approaches, already supported by health insurance.
Energy approaches can’t be patented to block competitors from doing the same thing; pills are protected by the federal government.
So the battle for brain function essentially comes down to mom-and-pop stores vs. giant chains. Chains spent hundreds of millions a year advertising drugs; mom-and-pop had to set up a Facebook page and a website and aim for word-of-mouth.
Which is the cure and which is the disease?
As often happens, there was a serious unintended consequence from this stampede to medicalize and drug differences in attention, mood, performance, behavior. These drugs were powerful. To maintain the monopoly of physicians, they had to be prescribed. To be prescribed, the patient needed a diagnosis. As we’ll discuss a bit later when we talk about the pathology model, the result has been that tens of millions of Americans (with other nationalities jumping aboard) are now identified, duly-diagnosed, with medical records that define them as having a mental illness. And tens of millions more diagnose themselves based on internet sites, themselves with ADHD, social anxiety disorder, all manner of addictions to food, sex, exercise and of course drugs, alcohol, etc. Is it possible that in a few decades “mental illness” is the leading cause of impairment and disability worldwide?! That’s really some seriously effective marketing campaign!
A diagnosis, in the beginning, is a beautiful thing. “Oh thank heaven,” we think, “It’s not my fault. I’m sick!” You can’t really do much about your brain chemistry, can you? You go to the professional. You do what they tell you. It’s easy. But then you realize being sick means you are powerless. Now you are taking two medications, or three, or four. You’re muddled and spacey, you’re taking pills for the side-effects of the pills you are taking to fix your problem…and you’re problem still isn’t really fixed.
David and Goliath
So how is it possible—with all the money in chemistry, all the market power, the easy-out solution for the person seeking change—how is it possible that energy training is growing strongly? How is it possible—with all the “peer-reviewed controlled double-blind” studies showing how safe and effective mind-altering drugs are—that Goliath is having to admit that: well, no, there really ISN’T a “chemical imbalance in the brain” that explains everything…at least not that we can find.
Psycho-active drugs are becoming “cash cows” for the largest drug companies. 7 of the most powerful have closed or dramatically reduced their research to develop, test and demonstrate new drugs. The “new” drugs being brought to market for years have just been modifications of existing drugs. They continue to show very small effects (if enough studies are done) compared to placebos. Existing products can be put out to field and milked for profits for years to come.
Medicine is already hard at work on electrical coils to send electrical pulses through the brain, magnetic stimulation and other “do something” technologies too complex and costly to be done at home or in small offices.