Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Intoxication, Addiction and the birth of Addiction

Foreward (written after the post): This article is very vague in what it tries to explain - the evolutionary insight into addiction. It actually relies on evolutionary theory.

This post is a little about what happens in the brain when we get intoxicated or addicted to a substance. I suppose this post will highlight a little about the neurobiology of the brain. I don’t consider everyone to be an addict in any way; but I believe people are more susceptible to be a victim of addiction in general. The only way to understand ‘why this is so’ is to understand the biochemistry of the brain, and a little evolutionary history about it. Before I move on, I just want to clarify the two terms – intoxication and addiction:

Intoxication is the state of being affected by psychoactive drugs. It may also refer to the effects of consuming poison or excess amounts of harmless substances. Since I am not talking about intoxicating substances which are lethal or cause instant death I am ruling out the second definition. Intoxication may result in relative euphoria, feeling of pleasantness, etc. These are common symptoms. However not everyone experiences the same symptoms the same way. For some the relative euphoria is a sign of panic, and hence they develop a hate toward these substances. However the general trend is that people rather enjoy the feeling. Addiction is the next level of intoxication. It is much more serious. It is the physical dependence on a psychoactive substance which, when suddenly stopped, causes what is known as withdrawal symptoms. Some common withdrawal symptoms are anger, lethargy, depression, anxiety, etc.

Brain Evolution
Sometimes our brain can be considered to be a huge response system. It responds to various stimuli. And to get these signals or messages across to various regions for processing, the brain relies on its intricate mesh of neurons and neural network. There are some signals that can trigger panic, or readiness to attack, etc. These particular signals are ‘wired’ for the primary reason of survival. We perceive panic or the readiness to attack through a phenomenon called emotion. Neurologically, this is how we would behave when there are certain levels of chemicals (neuro-transmitters) present, taking a particular emotional phenomenon in context; for e.g. when feeling sad or suffering from anxiety, we can observe high amounts of a neurotransmitter called serotonin. (Serotonin has other function like regulating sleep, the cardio-vascular system, etc).

There are two kinds of emotion – positive emotion and negative emotion. Positive emotion works in a scenario where the brain (or the organ called the brain) has realized that there is something positive. For e.g. edible fruits on a tree. If we come to know that we are able to eat fruits from a tree, and that they are abundant, we would naturally be happy. This is a positive emotion which would make us want to consume more fruits from that tree. You can derive a corresponding case for a negative emotion too. Hence as a conclusion you can say that the brain seeks positive or rewarding scenarios most of the time for the simple reason called survival.

The reward system
Now that you know that the brain seeks for positive signals, you should also know that there exists neural pathways or channels and/or reactions which would generally come under the an umbrella the reward circuitry system. In the days of prehistory, the reward system in humans was relatively undeveloped. Perhaps early humans who primarily relied on hunting/gathering for survival did not require one. They were not exposed to intoxicating substances like modern humans. Reward for them was being a successful hunter and acquiring lots of food. Or being reproductively successful, etc. But as food became scarce they became physically unfit for hunting; they discovered that these intoxicating substances could boost their hunting stamina, or even sometimes their reproductive success. However, these substances were not administered in amounts that would cause chronic addiction.

As we became more civilized and started to settle our urge to hunt and feel superior etc, still remained. These programs were still running inside their brains. And consuming intoxicating substances was the only way out. Thus we see the evolutionary birth of addiction.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Monogamy Demystified

My previous post would form the proper context for this post, however for the googlers and other curious people who ended up here, the question I am trying to answer is simply:
...why monogamy?

Our ancestors (the evolutionary one, not social one) were primates. Primates, even today indulge in polygamy. Hence its not surprising if I told you polygamy is practised in some human cultures in one form or the other. So this means polygamy was a good part of our evolution. 

Then why is it not as popular today like it was before...?

Right now I believe monogamy is more of a social construct rather than pure natural evolution. In other words I say it is social evolution. It kind of forms the basis for humans to be able to live in a society. There could have been a time, in the nomadic or in the agrarian days, where the males actually decided to invest in reproduction.

Investing is good thing for the offspring. There is more guarantee that the offspring can reach adulthood; by then he or she would have also learned necessary skills to go about life. The group of people had an idea of the skills they needed to impart to the next generation. So on one part it was about training the generation.

There was another socio-evolutionary aspect of this kind of investment. It was that the group needed more of these trained generation to advance their society. Indirectly, we can conclude that the law of survival is still obeyed. And so is the gene expansion program being obeyed in a restricted sense. These two factors could have led to the group's survival.

The males didn't have to fight wars over trying to possess a female anymore. This meant fewer injuries. Plus, their investment into parenting, training the child, etc play an important process in social evolution.

From the reasons I've stated here I believe monogamy is about being able to live in a society. Monogamy gets all the advantage of a nuclear family too. But one should not think that monogamy was the definite reason why the society is a lot stable today than erstwhile. In fact we have no proof that monogamy really leads to a stable peaceful society. But considering the graph so far I think this is what it appears to “be”. But don't be deceived.

But we still see violence happening in society due to many reasons. Tensions of war, crime, etc all plague society. Monogamy has done its part, and is probably still doing it. These problems are rather lack of resources to counter the rising human population. Imagine those little fights we had over a territory or a person, or on anything you are very much dependent on. The only difference is that they are now on mass scale.

Update (12th Sep 2013) : added some bundles about monogamy - http://bitly.com/bundles/deostroll/w

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The institution of marriage, and monogamy...

I certainly don't want my marriage prospects don't go down because I am writing all of this...

In fact I was only wondering about the term. I always thought that an institution was a place of study. Well guess what! That is not the true meaning. It is an organization with a specific goal. To me it means something has happened a long time ago. Some society's thought process changed, I don't know why this happened, or what was their inference. I don't even know what society “that” was...to be specific. But however the idea of marriage is not unique to any one culture or society. I know it shows some idea with relevance to the human civilization but I don't know what it is or how to explain it.

I looked at the word institution (an organization with a specific purpose) and marriage, and asked myself, what the hell is the purpose of marriage. Being an ideologist of the so non-popular idea of survival, I knew this fact was obvious. But it is not merely survival this “organization” is up to. It is also about mutual survival. Concepts like altruism, family, etc enter the scene here, but I don't really intend to discuss them at this point. If you study this particular phenomenon (marriage) it is about the unit (called a family) that procreates, supports itself and its offspring. In this unit there is always a male and a female; both are adults and are fertile enough to produce offspring.

In most of the cultures the idea here is that both the male and the female “agree” to living like this. They enter a monogamous relationship or sort of sign a contract for it. This has nothing to do with their natural way of being (primitive) human beings, but it denotes a change in some sociological aspect. I don't know what that is or how to explain that. I also believe that this may have some evolutionary psychological backing. However the eternal question still is open...why was polygamy dropped and why is monogamy deemed to be a prominent phenomenon these days?

Monogamy is not monogamy in a true sense

Most of the human cultures around the world 'force' its people to have a monogamous relationship. I say “force” because it is against our normal evolutionary psychology. We were designed to be polygamous. However saying this does not mean I encourage polygamy. On the contrary I rather want to encourage the curiosity behind why monogamy is gaining momentum at present and polygamy is not...? Surely it must let us know the inherent problems with polygamy.

If monogamy was the basic rule of natural human life then some things don't get explained that easily. Like for e.g. in almost all civilized modern cultures we have a system of marriage where in a male and female vow to live with each other. Mostly this is something legal and the event is a public one. As far as the role of evolution is concerned between the two, both of them should mate, have children, support themselves as well as the children.

If everything was fine then we can assume that there is no upper limit to how much times the female can give birth provided her maturity and health are capable of doing so – i.e. producing offspring. Assume that there is also no upper limit as to how many times the male can impregnate the female, provided the same rule for health and maturity follow. If it is a strictly monogamous society we are talking about we see that, for e.g., if the male dies due to some unexpected reason, the female is still very much very much fertile to produce offspring.

But fortunately, some modern societies “do” allow her to satisfy her evolutionary role. However the focus in not on the society which allows her, or why that society thinks that way; it is about the idea of leading a truly monogamous life being corrupted or not followed. Because a truly monogamous life we would not choose to mate with any other prospective partner. But there are a lot of prospective partners out there, and if we did mate with them we could have made successful children too...! This...is not monogamy in a true sense. However the principle fact of monogamy is still preserved. We only mate with one partner and maintain one intimate relationship. This is called serial monogamy.

I know that the institution of marriage has something to do with monogamy these days. But I still haven't actually figured out the monogamy part. I have set a discussion over at biology-online.org. You can visit the thread by visiting this link.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Flirting & Sequestering

I was looking for clues as to why humans became monogamous. But it seems I latched on to another seeming subtle subject. I guess this involves a lot to do with mating rituals, but have you ever wondered why people rather have sex in private where as other animals usually have it in public?

These days the entries are increasingly related to the three letter word that some might feel offended even just thinking about it. But it is better not to stop thinking about it however, because it tells a lot about us - our macro social self. The male species had to copulate with the females in order to survive. The more number of females it copulated with the more chances that his trait and characteristics prevailed in the group. But this was also a time when polygamy was the norm, and it must have also been a pre-hunter gatherer society. Usually one male would have 5 or 6 females under his control. This also meant that he had to defend other males from stealing his females.

Sometimes this meant that the only way that those other males had to become reproductively successful was to lure those fertile females away from that group and mate. This way they sequestered the females to a seemingly private location and mated. This probably explains the psychology behind having sex privately in most human beings. Flirting was one tactic most males resorted to in order to lure the females. However I do not know the psychological origins of this phenomenon at the moment.

But this analogy does not explain why most people feel disgusted when they happen to see a couple in the process of mating in first person? I guess this is probably due to another type of evolution called cultural evolution. The type of evolution that I am more interested in the moment is natural evolution.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The link between the Sympathetic Nervous System and falling in love...

I bump into a lot of things and discover stuff. Today I was actually trying to solve the guardian crossword. I was trying to find the answer to the clue that said: greater uplands near Manchester. I googled but could not find any clues. Last attempt, I thought I check out Yahoo Answers, and that is where all the intrigue started... On the main page itself there was a small blog preview about a question. I guess a Yahoo Answers staff (who calls himself mike) volunteered to answer the question on his own; and he had also posted a Yahoo Answers blog entry about it.

I went and checked the question out and hoped to see if I get some real hard answers. But no!!! All that was mentioned was about the sympathetic nervous system. In others words the fight/flight response mechanism. No one has given a perfect answer to date. (May be I'd try answering this one my self if need be...). The question itself was in a way too general. And the answer given by mike only answered one part of it; it dealt with what should happen to an individual when he/she is experiencing stressful situations. In other words, situations that are direct threat to life. For e.g. confronting a wild bear. (Remember the example from my previous blogs?)

The part of the question that didn’t get answered was something related to courtship/dating. A teenage boy on seeing an attractive girl in his class would mostly feel butterflies in his stomach. Well, for one thing that isn’t the exact way I would want to put it, but I feel he is nervous asking the girl out or even simply proposing to her. Reading mike’s answer I wondered, how can you liken this to a sympathetic nervous system or a flight/fight response?

In one way what just happened here could be likened to a mating ritual - a ritual adopted by most modern and civilized human beings. But there is a sense of history/evolution in the mating ritual itself! Mating ritual these days are quite notable. The couple goes dancing, has dinner, or goes out on a trip, or spends the night together in a rented lodge. (These things are not written keeping teenagers in mind at the moment, but all adolescent & post-adolescent human beings). We tend to notice these things very often. But rituals in the past were not as simple as it is today. Well, for one thing, females were sort of scare resource, statistically speaking. There would be more males for a single female. All of these males were programmed to expand his generation or his trait. Till date I don’t know why this specific thing happens, but it is natural law. In such a situation the males would battle it out among themselves, and the victor possesses the female.

The females then were actually okay with all of this. No, seriously!!! While the male individuals do what they were naturally selected to do – fight – females also played their part in it. For females it is necessary to find a strong male. A strong male could help her survive in various situations, and one of the most important and critical times when a female would require a male’s physical support is during pregnancy or gestation.

Okay, we are not yet to the point! The teenage male subject we were talking of earlier is not in a stressful situation, or in any way related to experiencing one in the near future. We are just dealing with a case wherein if he did propose the girl would have said yes and life would have gone normally for the two…there is nothing interfering our assumption. (No, evil brother, father, or ex-boyfriend involved in this story). The actors here are both perfectly healthy people capable of mating – I mean they have matured! We observe that the boy is naturally feeling the heat. I have two theories to that would try to explain this…

Theory #1: Possibly the boy’s so called sympathetic nervous system is evaluating or initiating a response. This could mean one of two things. He would run away in case there was a evil third actor involved – the ex-boyfriend perhaps – or fight with the third evil actor. Our evil boy friend is quite possessive about his asset. Therefore if he does interfere he would sure put up a fight. Which means the teenager (the protagonist of this story) would have to fight or run away. This is logical and also relatable to actual life. The boy must be wondering if her parents, or other family members, friends, or even if her actual boy friend is around...

I had come across an article which tried to answer why a particular primitive human prototype’s cranium was large. It was so because they had to endure harsh battles before actually selecting a female.

Theory #2: Let us assume the boy has proposed the girl and she agreed. Again if we simply thought of fight or flight responses, it does not make sense. But I suppose the sympathetic nervous system/response embraces another kind of response – foreplay. If you were a researcher of human evolution, have you ever heard of the phrase ‘pay for having sex’, before the actual sex? Of course, in any modern day human intercourse it is called foreplay. (I don’t know if it is a euphemism though). I don’t have any direct proof which suggests this; but foreplay could be something initiated by either - the male or female. And this blog entry suggests foreplay actually increases the sexual activity of the opposite partner.

Theory 2 opens another door of questions (which is not specifically related to foreplay or the activity called 'foreplay'). And if you are a small-time evolutionary researcher like me, I’ll leave those questions as homework. And you can ask me what those question are if you have figured them out. Of course theory 2 does suggest our protagonist is probably trying to get ready for foreplay...therefore the raise in biological activity.

For those who have not seen this foreplay thingy coming, I know you might have startled at the idea. But I am not in any way alluding to the fact that foreplay is an essential part of sex. And if you happen to be a teenager who is thinking of having sex, always have protected sex. And even if you don’t have “sex”, life will not kill you. Just be happy you are alive. But say you are dying of cancer and you can't accept this...go ahead kill yourself! :)

PS: The references I have used for this entry are embedded in this entry itself. You can also find them in the right side frame - del.icio.us bookmarks.