Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just because we can?

Ah, the ever-relevant Huxley...

A few lines of dialog at the end of chapter 3 in Huxley's Brave New World outline the development of soma, the drug for every occasion, to evade every unpleasant mood:

"Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized in A.F. 178.

"He does look glum," said the Assistant Predestinator, pointing at Bernard Marx.

"Six years later it was being produced commercially.
The perfect drug."

"Let's bait him."

"Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant."

"Glum, Marx, glum."

The clap on the shoulder made him start, look up. It was that brute Henry Foster.
"What you need is a gramme of soma. All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol;
none of their defects."(53-54)

In a recent NPR story Is Emotional Pain Necessary?" Alix Spiegel explores our ability to chemically avoid difficult and unpleasant experiences like grief. Huxley's fictional soma is not mentioned but our growing pharmacopeia is increasingly blooming with mood altering drugs and Big Pharma is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Clearly, some of these pharmaceuticals are helpful and bring much needed relief to many people, but it may be time to reconsider whether some of the emotions or experiences we try to avoid might actually be important, if painful, to encounter directly.

For example, no matter who you are it is certain that you will experience grief at some point in your life - unless you're a sociopath.
Spiegel's story reveals that in the most recent draft of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the book used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental illness, a debate is roiling about whether grief should be considered a treatable mental illness if it lasts longer than two weeks.

The natural grief we experience at the death of a loved one includes loss of appetite, loss of sleep, lack of concentration but "in the new manual, if symptoms like these persist for more than two weeks, the bereaved person will be considered to have a mental disorder: major depression. And treatment, either therapy or medication, is recommended."

So that's it: you get a 2-week limit for grief and then it's back to work. Longer than that and you're considered sick and in need of treatment.
This is one of the reasons that soma is so useful in Huxley's fictional World State - it keeps the wheels of production spinning. No pesky human emotions to slow things down or cause disturbance.

In the last three chapters of Brave New World, John Savage challenges Mustapha Mond to justify the ways of the World State. In the process of their conversation, John argues for facing rather than avoiding difficulties, challenges and pain. These unpleasant experiences strengthen our will, make us more self-aware, and remind us of our ability to survive.

"The Savage nodded, frowning. "You got rid of them. Yes, that's just like you. Getting rid of everything unpleasant instead of learning to put up with it. Whether 'tis better in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them . . . But you don't do either. Neither suffer nor oppose. You just abolish the slings and arrows. "It's too easy.""

It was the easy life of the Eloi in H. G. Wells' The Time Machine that left them physically and intellectually weak:
"What, unless biological science is a mass of errors, is the cause of human intelligence and vigour? Hardship and freedom: conditions under which the active, strong, and subtle survive and the weaker go to the wall; conditions that put a premium upon the loyal alliance of capable men, upon self-restraint, patience, and decision."