New Thoughts on Mind Altering

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright January 2012


This essay came about in response to my thinking on two articles I read this week: a 24 Jan 12 BBC News magazine article, "100 years of the war on drugs" by Tom de Castella, and a 23-29 Jan 12 Bloomberg Newsweek article, "Are E-Cigs Cool?" by Joel Stein.

What these brought to mind was how chronically judgmental human beings are to how other people do mind altering.

Humans undertaking mind altering activities dates way back, into pre-history. Other humans being judgmental about those activities probably dates back just as far.

Mind altering activities have enormous variety. Here are just a few that come to mind: taking drugs, listening to inspiring music, dancing vigorously, meditating, and religious rituals. Some of these are mildly mind altering, some are dramatically so.

Judgments about which of these are acceptable to the community also show enormous variety -- all of the activities I mentioned above are socially acceptable in some communities and heartily disapproved of in others.

So... what's the rhyme or reason behind the choice of what to approve or disapprove? And what are the consequences of the choice?

That's what this essay is about.

Why Mind Alter?

The first question must be: why should humans want to engage in mind altering at all? The answer is: For many reasons, but two basic themes seem the most common: for enjoyment and for insight.

The enjoyment aspect can be as simple as feeling good while under the influence but it can be more complex, such as feeling good because of engaging in a communal activity. (Some Roger Speculative Physiology: This feeling good while in a mind altered state may come about because the brain gets tired more easily than other parts of the body, especially the parts dealing with reasoned thinking (learned thinking). This part of the brain tires easily because, evolutionarily, this is the newest and most high performance part of the brain. Turning reason off for a while may be comforting in a way similar to sleeping.)

Seeking insight usually means trying to see the world from a different perspective. It is often described as trying to tear through the veil of the day-to-day reality we experience to find deeper truths and meanings in life.

Why be Judgmental About Mind Altering?

The basic reason for being judgmental about mind altering is that it's scary to watch. A person with an altered mind is acting crazy, and crazy people can do a lot of damage to a community, so a community cares.

The basic reason for not being scared is when it becomes clear that the mind altering is temporary, and the person acting crazy can recognize limits -- they are not going to do serious damage to the community.

The harsh judgment about a particular kind of mind altering comes from two sources: a) when the person making the judgment feels that the person doing the mind altering cannot recognize limits -- they are doing damage, or b) when the kind of mind altering the judger is witnessing is strange, and therefore looks inherently full crazy and uncontrollable.

This second form of harsh judgment is often enhanced by Us versus Them instinctive worries -- if the mind alterer comes from a different tribe or culture the first impulse is to presume they are doing it wrong.

The Dark Side of Harsh Judgment

The dark side of harsh judgment is disenfranchisement. Enfranchisement is the feeling that what a person does affects the community and that the community is paying attention to them. Disenfranchisement is the opposite, and as the feeling grows stronger it leads to deep chronic community problems such as crime, violence and corruption.

Sadly, the link between these deep chronic problems and the disenfranchisement are rarely recognized by those applying harsh judgment to mind altering issues -- they have a blind spot to this in their vision of the community.


Mind altering is as old as mankind. It is also a deeply emotional issue -- one that swirls with instinctive thinking. But we live in a civilized world, and technology allows many changes in how we can conduct our mind altering. This means we need to be applying a lot of rational thinking to this issue. Instinctive thinking is not going to supply the best answers.

One of the key issues that we should be concerned about when making choices about the appropriateness of mind altering techniques is enfranchisement. This is an example of a place where that badly twisted concept "tolerance" needs to be enacted in it's original meaning -- live and let live -- so we can build community enfranchisement and reduce chronic problems of crime, violence and corruption. Live and let live is a learned concept, not an instinctive one. It's learned, and the benefit of learning this thinking style is allowing Industrial Age cultures and social organizations to thrive.


--The End--