Die Illusion von gut und schlecht und die Freiheit von Schmerz

Unser Denken – unser Blick auf die Welt – ist bestimmt von einer Illusion, und zwar die, dass wir Erlebnisse, Erfahrungen, Dinge, Menschen, alles … in die Kategorien »gut« und »schlecht« unterteilen müssen. Wir tun das nicht bewusst, aber wir tun es unaufhörlich, permanent.

In uns sitzt eine Art mentaler Türsteher, der einen neuen Eindruck oder ein neues Erlebnis (z.B. etwas, das wir sehen, lesen, oder Aussagen eines Gesprächs, dem wir folgen) fortwährend in diese zwei Schachteln einsortiert. Die »guten« Eindrücke lassen wir durch, wir nehmen sie an, wir akzeptieren sie, wir lernen durch sie, wir wachsen an ihnen. »Gute« Eindrücke sind verknüpft mit »guten« Gefühlsregungen: Freude, Spaß, Zufriedenheit, Genuß.

Die »schlechten« oder »bösen« Eindrücke dagegen werden ausgesondert. Sie kommen in eine Art geistiges Verlies, in das wir am liebsten keinen Blick wagen. Diese Eindrücke erzeugen in uns »schlechte« Gefühlsregungen wie Angst, Wut, Scham, Schuld, Trauer. Wir wollen diese Eindrücke nicht. Wir wehren uns gegen sie. Wir bekämpfen sie. »Böse« Eindrücke erzeugen in uns Schmerz. Wir wünschen uns, dass es sie gar nicht gäbe, denn dann hätten wir diesen Schmerz nicht. Der Wunsch bleibt jedoch unerfüllt, und wir sind überzeugt, dass ein Leben ohne diesen Schmerz nicht möglich ist.

Ich habe eine gute Nachricht. Ein Leben ohne diesen Schmerz ist möglich, denn die Unterteilung von Eindrücken in gut und schlecht ist ein Fehler in unserer mentalen Software. Die Kategorien »gut« und »schlecht« existieren nämlich überhaupt nicht. Sie sind eine Illusion, eine mentale Konstruktion. Die Dinge sind nicht von sich aus »gut« oder »schlecht«. Dies sind Attribute, die wir ihnen zusprechen, ihnen aufstülpen – weil wir sie so bewerten.

Die Dinge – alles, was passiert; das Leben, das Universum, und der ganze Rest – sind nicht »gut« oder »schlecht«. Sie sind einfach. Sie existieren.

Die Bewertung »gut«/»schlecht« entstammt unserem eigenen Bild von der Welt, und dieses Bild ist ein Konstrukt. Es ist unser Modell von der Welt, das wir uns über die Jahre zurechtgelegt haben, um uns in ihr orientieren zu können. Es ist eine Konstruktion, die uns immer mal wieder geholfen hat, bestimmte Situationen zu bewältigen oder einschätzen zu können. So weit ist unser Weltmodell auch hilfreich, nützlich und gesund.

Die Probleme – und damit die Schmerzen – entstehen, wenn wir vergessen, dass unser Weltmodell eben nur ein Modell (ein Konstrukt aus Überzeugungen und Glaubenssätzen) ist und nicht die Realität. Anstatt die Realität so zu sehen, wie sie ist, sehen wir sie durch die Filter unseres Modells.

Das ist an sich gar nicht problematisch – wir können gar nicht anders; so sind wir als Menschen mit unseren überragenden kognitiven Fähigkeiten nun einmal gestrickt. Das Problem ist, dass es uns an irgendeinem Punkt nicht mehr bewusst ist. Dieser Punkt liegt bei den meisten von uns schon recht früh in der Kindheit.

Unbewusst gleichen wir also laufend unsere Sinneseindrücke ab mit dem Bild, das wir von der Realität haben. Eindrücke, die mit unserem Modell übereinstimmen, werden als »wahr/gut« aufgenommen, während die, die ihm widersprechen, als »falsch/schlecht« ausgesondert werden. Unser mentales Weltmodell formt unsere Erwartungen. Es verschleiert unseren Blick und verhindert, dass wir der uns umgebenden Realität gegenüber tatsächlich frei sind und sie so willkommen heißen, wie sie ist. Denn die Realität ist. Sie ist nicht x oder y. Sie ist.

Alle Wertungen, die wir in uns tragen, sind nicht Eigenschaften dieser Realität. Es sind Attribute, die wir ihr selbst irgendwann zugewiesen haben und an denen wir seitdem festhalten.

Wenn wir das verstehen, wird uns klar, dass wir nicht gezwungen sind, diese Wertungen aufrecht zu erhalten. Wir können uns von ihnen lösen – sie loslassen. Wir müssen die Dinge nicht mehr in »gut« und »schlecht« oder überhaupt irgendwie bewerten. Wir können sie einfach sein lassen und akzeptieren, dass sie so sind, wie sie sind.

Das heisst nicht, dass wir resignieren müssen – dass alles so bleiben muss, wie es ist. Wir sind und bleiben intelligente, schöpferische Wesen, die die Fähigkeit und Macht haben, unsere Umwelt zu verändern.

Aber es ist uns jetzt möglich, ohne den Schmerz zu leben, der entsteht, wenn wir uns einer zwiegespaltenen Realität aus »gut« und »schlecht« bewegen. Wir werden offener, freier. Unser Bewusstsein kann sich erweitern. Wir können uns wieder erlauben, mit unseren Gedanken Regionen zu erkunden, die wir uns verboten hatten, da sie in unserem mentalen Modell das Etikett »schlecht« trugen. Wir werden ruhiger, ausgeglichener.

Uns kann weniger erschüttern, denn erschüttert zu werden, impliziert, dass wir etwas erleben, das unser Weltmodell nicht zulässt oder nicht vorgesehen hat.

Stattdessen betrachten wir die Welt wieder wie das kleine Kind, das wir früher einmal waren – das mit großen Augen all das aufgesogen hat, was »da draußen« so passiert. Wir müssen nicht mehr bewerten. Wir können uns freuen, dass wir hier sind, und dass wir das alles erleben dürfen.

 

Ein Test für Homöopathie

Durch einen Kommentar auf meinen Artikel Homöopathie ist Wahnsinn bin ich auf eine Idee gekommen, wie man vermutlich einen überzeugenden Nachweis oder zumindest starken Hinweis erbringen könnte, dass behauptete oder tatsächlich beobachtete Effekte von Homöopathie vollständig durch Suggestion oder Autosuggestion erklärbar sind.

Kontext und Hintergrund (für die, die den Artikel nicht gelesen haben): ich bin unentschieden (agnostisch/fragend) gegenüber Homöopathie. Offensichtlich erzielen genug Leute damit Erfolge, als dass man sie ignorieren könnte. Andererseits gibt es keine schlüssige Erklärung für den Mechanismus, die nicht im Widerspruch steht mit dem aktuellen physikalischen Verständnis der Welt. Wenn es einen tatsächlichen Mechanismus gibt, ist dieser etablierten Nachweis- und Verifikationsmethoden nicht zugänglich, sonst hätten wir ihn beobachtet. Daraus schließen Viele, dass es einen solchen Mechanismus nicht gibt. Eine andere mögliche Schlußfolgerung wäre jedoch, dass unsere Methoden nicht so allumfassend oder universell sind, wie wir denken. Eine wichtige Einschränkung ist, dass unsere Methoden im Rahmen unseres vorherrschenden Verständnisses von Materie und Energie arbeiten, welches möglicherweise unvollständig ist.

Mein vorgeschlagener Test ist folgender: ein signifikanter Anteil (sagen wir: 50%) sämtlicher homöopathischen Präparationen wird aus reinem Träger, also Zuckerkugeln oder Wasser bzw. anderem Lösemittel produziert. Der Träger kam an keinem Punkt in Kontakt mit dem homöopathischen Grundstoff. Er wurde auch ansonsten in keiner Weise bearbeitet oder beeinflusst, sondern direkt abgepackt und in den Verkauf gebracht. Ein Code (Hash) auf dem Präparat oder der Charge verweist auf eine Datenbank, in der vermerkt ist, welches Medikament »leer« bzw. »fake« ist und welches nach homöopathischen Verfahren hergestellt wurde; diese Datenbank wird jedoch für die Dauer der Studie, sagen wir, 20 Jahre, vor jeglichem Lesezugriff geschützt, also versiegelt. Unabhängige Prüfer müssen dafür Sorge tragen, dass das Verfahren eingehalten wird. Einzelne Verfahrensschritte müssen protokolliert und idealerweise kryptographisch signiert werden, so dass man Manipulationen nachträglich vollständig ausschließen kann.

In den nächsten 20 Jahren kommen die Präparate zum Einsatz. Es wird jeweils die Kennung notiert zusammen mit den Rückmeldungen der Patienten und weiteren Daten wie tatsächlich nachweisbaren Behandlungsergebnissen. An keinem Punkt ist bekannt, ob ein Patient ein homöopathisches »Verum« oder »Placebo« bekommen hat. Da in den meisten Fällen kein Molekül des Grundstoffs mehr im Träger nachweisbar ist, nützt auch eine chemische Analyse nicht zur nachträglichen Unterscheidung.

Nach Ablauf der Studienzeit wird die Kennungs-Datenbank zum ersten Mal geöffnet und mit den Behandlungsdaten abgeglichen. Stellt man hier keinen Unterschied zwischen Fake- und echten Homöopathika fest, dann dürfte als gesichert gelten, dass Homöopathie vollständig auf Suggestion reduzierbar ist. Im anderen Fall muss man davon ausgehen, dass ein Suggestionseffekt nicht allein verantwortlich gemacht werden kann, sondern der Homöopathie ein tatsächlich wirksamer Mechanismus zugrunde liegt, den es weiter zu erforschen gilt.

Falls ersteres, spräche vieles dafür, Suggestion als therapeutischem Mechanismus sehr viel mehr Aufmerksamkeit zu widmen als dies zurzeit noch getan wird. Denkt man dies weiter, liegt es nahe, eine solche Studie gar nicht nur auf homöopathische Präparate zu beschränken, sondern auf Medikamente im Allgemeinen. Wir könnten dabei entdecken, dass auch zahlreiche nicht-homöopathische Medikamente keinen Effekt jenseits von Suggestion haben.

In der Praxis ist die Durchführung einer solchen Studie sehr schwierig, da man dazu auf die Kooperation aller Mitwirkenden angewiesen wäre, insbesondere die der Hersteller, für die das Studienergebnis sehr nachteilig sein könnte.

Falls eine solche Studie jemals durchgeführt werden kann, ist meine Vorhersage, dass die Abweichung zwischen Verum und Placebo in vielen Fällen sehr gering sein wird, dass also die Wirkung von Suggestionseffekten dominiert ist – sowohl bei vielen Homöopathika als auch allopathischen Präparaten.

Die Schlußfolgerung wäre dann, dass ein wesentlicher Anteil medikamentöser Effekte nicht, wie angenommen, auf mechanistischen Interaktionen auf biochemischer Ebene basiert, sondern auf Suggestion – also den Einfluß unseres Bewusstseins.

Nach dieser Vorstellung würden sowohl Homöopathika als auch Allopathika im Wesentlichen lediglich eine Art Trigger oder Impuls an das Bewusstsein liefern, durch dessen Einfluß die eigentlich heilsame Veränderung stattfindet. Ein triviales Beispiel für einen solchen Impuls ist Geschmack: wenn ich etwas zu mir nehme, und es schmeckt bitter oder auf andere Art unangenehm, dann wird eine Assoziationskette ausgelöst: bitter => Medizin => Medizin wirkt => mir geht es besser. (Man könnte durch ein Experiment wie oben beschrieben herausfinden, ob schon der bittere Geschmack alleine denselben Effekt hat. Dazu muss das Placebo exakt denselben sensorischen Eindruck erzeugen wie das Verum, ohne den eigentlichen Wirkstoff zu enthalten.)

Zu einigen dieser Gedanken hat mich ein Buch von Andrew Weil inspiriert, im US-amerikanischen Original mit dem Titel »The Natural Mind« (In der deutschen Übersetzung u. a. »Das erweiterte Bewusstsein«). In der deutschen Ausgabe vom AT-Verlag hat es den etwas irreführenden Artikel »Drogen und höheres Bewußtsein«.

 

Recreational drugs are more dangerous than alcohol, or are they?

I’ve witnessed many times that when drug-prohibition proponents talk about the effects of psychoactive drugs, they will give some kind of very extreme example of a particular drug’s effects – in an effort to convince people how dangerous these substances are and that drug prohibition is therefore justified.

For example, for psychedelics and hallucinogens, the most extreme delusions would be taken as an example of »what the drug does«. For drugs with a sedative effect such as opiates, benzodiazepines or some dissociatives, you’d be shown someone barely responsive or completely passed out. The effects of amphetamines (including »bath salts«) are often exemplified by users who have been binging on high doses for an extended period, typically becoming psychotic and very very unhealthy. (I could list many more examples, but I’m sure you have the idea.)

People will read these descriptions and think: hm, that’s really bad. I wouldn’t want that kind of thing to happen to me. Those drugs really are dangerous. They must remain prohibited.

But let me show you what it would look like if we took alcohol and did the same thing. Imagine someone chugging down a couple of bottles of wine or spirits in a short span of time. After about an hour or two, that person would become extremely uninhibited, display severe loss of motor control, slurry speech, incoherent thinking, possibly even violent behaviour. That person would become rather unpleasant. After some more time, the person would likely experience strong nausea, vomiting, and still later, possibly pass out.

Of course, if you drink extreme amounts of alcohol, your behaviour becomes extreme. But that’s not how you would describe the general effects of alcohol to your friend. You’d say that you can drink a glass of wine, maybe two, and still remain a pretty nice person to have around. The effects of the alcohol would be noticeable, but things would still be pleasant for everyone involved.

You see, the same is true for practically all of the other drugs that many people think are prohibited for a reason.

Here is the thing: most, if not all, recreational drugs can absolutely be used in a way that is as harmless and pleasant as your occasional glass or two of wine at night. But this requires knowledge of the drug’s properties and some experience with using them. Yes, we can argue about toxicity, dependence and addiction potential, and other risks. But the way that these issues come into effect depends very largely on how you use the drug. They are not an automatic property of the drug per se, even if 40 years of anti-drug propaganda have told you otherwise.

If you use alcohol in a bad way, you are likely to have severely negative health effects. Remember how it took you some time before you knew how to use alcohol in such as way that the experience was controlled and pleasant? Again, the same is true for illicit drugs. If you are going to use cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, heroin, etcetera, for the first time, you should be prepared. If you use more than you can handle, you are in for a challenge and possibly a bad time – just as you would be with alcohol.

I didn’t start seriously drinking alcohol at parties until I was 17. (Yeah, I was always a very late developer. By the way, I wasn’t particularly interested in alcohol. I hated the taste at the time, but I didn’t want to be the uncool kid. You know how this goes.) I often drank way too much and got sick and threw up, I misbehaved and lost control, etcetera. I didn’t yet know how to use alcohol in a good way. Everyone who has ever touched alcohol will share the same stories. But I learned how to enjoy alcohol responsibly, as most people do. In the very same way, you can learn how to use any drug responsibly and safely.

Let’s not underestimate the potential risks associated with any substance that alters your state of mind/consciousness (which includes alcohol, nicotine and caffeine!). But let’s be honest when we talk about drug effects. After all, it is not the drug itself that is potentially dangerous, it is the behaviour of the person who uses the drug.

If we want people to be safe when using drugs – any drug – the best thing we can do is to educate them. But first, we need to educate ourselves. The more we know what we’re doing, the safer we are, the safer are the people around us, and the more pleasure can be had by everyone.

Regular Light Bulbs vs. LEDs

Did you know that regular (old-style, incandescent) light bulbs have an electricity-to-light conversion efficiency of only about 2%? Yes, two percent. This means that in a 100 watt light bulb, only 2 watts is actually converted into light. The rest is lost as heat. So when you are using a regular light bulb, what you’re operating is essentially an electric heater that just happens to give off a little bit of light, almost by accident, if you will.

Sounds wasteful? Yes, it’s extremely wasteful. We usually don’t keep devices that have an efficiency this low. It’s not technologically or economically feasible. However, most households all over the world still use these not-really-feasible devices.

Had I written this post 15 years ago, we’d just shrug and move on. As it turns out, converting electrical energy to light energy isn’t easy. The most efficient such device available for regular light (as opposed to lasers) is the light-emitting diode (LED). But 15 to 20 years ago, the commercially available LEDs could only produce coloured (as opposed to white) light and weren’t powerful enough for lighting up rooms. They were (as they still are today) mostly used as indicators (such as power-on lights), signal lights, or for displays.

Fortunately, this has changed. LED technology has advanced greatly. We have white LEDs (which are actually blue LEDs combined with a material, a phosphor, that absorbs the blue light and gives it off as white light) up to powers of many tens and even hundreds of watts, their efficiencies reaching up to 40 percent (in current research) or somewhere between 15 and 25 percent (in consumer products). That is, LEDs are still comparatively wasteful, but about ten times better than regular light bulbs. Doesn’t sound like much? A 10-fold increase in efficiency is huge. In most fields of technology, such an optimisation is unheard of. Imagine your car’s engine being able to produce 1000 horsepowers instead of 100, from the same amount of fuel.

Sure, more efficient lighting products have been around for longer. We have had compact fluorescent lamps (the so-called »energy-saving bulbs«) for decades. Although they have energy efficiencies comparable to LED light (and, as LEDs, are much more long-lasting), there are a number of issues. Their main problem is the ecological impact. Energy-saving bulbs are manufactured using toxic heavy metals such as mercury, where the issue at hand is not so much the toxicity of the small amount of mercury contained in the bulb (you will practically never get into contact with it) but the waste produced both on extracting the mercury from the earth as well as dealing with it when the bulbs are discarded. Also, they require a bit of electronics to drive them (hidden in the enclosure) which requires many materials for its manufacture that are ecologically questionable in large-scale industrial production. (The ecological problems associated with energy-saving bulbs only become apparent at the very large quantities in which they are mass-produced.)

Large-scale manufacture of LED bulbs is certainly not devoid of ecological issues, but much less problematic in this respect. Also, a single, low- to mid-power LED is tiny; much smaller than a regular bulb of the same light output. (Energy-saving bulbs are out of the race here, as they are much more bulky and need many more parts.) Smaller size means less packaging, less mass-transport volume, and so less use of energy for global distribution.

At the moment, we cannot make much use of the space advantage of LEDs. For one, LED bulbs still have to fit into the bulky sockets designed for the old bulbs that have been around since the early 20th century. Also, LEDs need small voltages (in the range of 1.5 to 3 volts), so consumer LED lamps would need special power supplies (electronics, meaning additional parts) so that they can be connected to the 100 to 250 volts of AC power provided in modern homes. Usually, they are designed in such a way as to make a dedicated power supply unnecessary, by cleverly combining a number of individual LEDs, arranged in an enclosure that is about the same size as our old bulbs.

An often-heard complaint about LEDs as well as the now-out-of-date energy-saving bulbs is the colour, or warmth, of the light that they produce. This used to be more of a problem than it is today. You can buy LED bulbs in a variety of colour temperatures, ranging from yellowish (warm) over neutral to bluish (cold). I actually prefer the neutrally white light over the yellowish light that old-style bulbs produce. It’s excellent to work under, and I like the way that it does not distort the hues of the objects it is shined on. A white piece of paper under neutrally-white light remains white, not yellow. I believe our preference for the more yellowish light of old bulbs is mainly an acquired one. If we can get used to light being yellowish, we can get used to it being neutral. The complaints of people disliking the less yellowish light of LED bulbs remind me of those people who simply object to something new because it’s different to what they are used to.

Light bulbs are a very major part of household energy use. If everyone immediately switched to LED bulbs, energy use for lighting would go down by a factor of something between 5 and 10. This is equivalent to one or two (or more?) power stations that we could turn off.

LEDs have a very long life. A decent LED bulb should last a decade, if not longer. Not only does this mean that in the long run, the currently high price of LED bulbs compared to regular bulbs is compensated for in that you won’t need to buy a new one that often, it also means that fewer bulbs need to be manufactured, reducing the overall ecological impact.

Even though energy-saving bulbs have become much better in this regard over the last 10 years, there is still a small delay between turning them on and getting full brightness. This has to do with their operating principle, which entails heating a component of the lamp until it has fully »ignited«. With LED bulbs, there is no such delay. As with regular bulbs, as soon as you turn them on, they shine at full brightness.

I think there are so many reasons for switching to LED bulbs that replacing your old bulbs (once they fail) with LED ones is pretty much obligatory. Or, to put it another way, you’d be an ignorant fool not to. You’ll be one of the people who got left behind.

With very few exceptions, we’ve replaced all light bulbs in our flat with LED bulbs when we moved here about 1.5 years ago. It’s been an investment of about 200 Euros, but we’ve already benefited from the reduced energy use: our first (yearly) electricity bill was surprisingly low. And the LED bulbs will see quite a few electricity bills before they fail.

Forget about Earth Hour and other such actionist nonsense that calms your bad conscience but helps no-one. If you truly care about the environment and want to help save energy, then replace all your bulbs with LEDs. Apart from simply turning off any devices whenever you don’t need them, it’s the most sensible and real-world effective thing you can do today.

Depression is Not a Pathological Form of Sadness

Many people seem to think that depression is a kind of very intense, prolonged sadness. From my experience, this assumption is very widespread. You notice it when people talk about it, and it’s reflected in how depression is portrayed in fiction, or movies.

From my personal experience, and from what I have learned in observing depression in others, and from reading about the condition, I conclude that depression doesn’t have a lot to do with sadness at all. And I think it’s important that this distinction is understood.

To me, what depression really is about is a pronounced inability to perceive any kind of emotional state. When you’re depressed, you don’t feel particularly sad. You don’t particularly feel anything. You most likely don’t feel happy, let alone euphoric, and it is this state, this outwardly very faceless lack of emotion, which can easily be mistaken for a kind of sadness. After all, if you’re not smiling, if your body language doesn’t seem to convey that you’re feeling well, then you must be sad.

If you were to feel an intense sadness, if it even allowed you to cry a lot, I’d dare to say that you’re not depressed, but (at least emotionally) very healthy. You may be going through an emotional crisis; you’re possibly dealing with something traumatic that is producing these emotional outbreaks. But that would not be depression. It would not be a condition that needed treatment. It would be natural, healthy, welcome human behaviour.

In depression, there is nothing in you that produces anything. All emotions are subdued to the point of not feeling anything at all. You have no motivation, no urge to become active, to be productive, even to move at all. It is a kind of profound emptiness that, other than simple boredom, you don’t seem to be able to do anything about, as there is really nothing that you have an urge or even impulse to do. People who are seriously, clinically depressed may be unable to get out of bed for days or even weeks, and even just heading to the bathroom to take a shower may be an unmanageable task.

It’s not because they’re extremely sad. It’s because there is no life force flowing in them.

Yes, I said life force, and that’s exactly what I mean. I don’t know what that life force precisely is. It’s known as Qi, or Prana, in various ancient cultures. In modern Western cultures, the notion of some kind of life force isn’t generally accepted. We, as materialists, think in terms of biochemistry, of the molecular arrangement that is the physical machinery of our bodies. We can measure that there is a shortage of neurotransmitters (including serotonin, noradrenalin and dopamine), and we have pharmacological agents that counteract this shortage – and they do work to lessen the symptoms of depression, if not very well.

However, in contrast to the mainstream understanding of psychiatry, I don’t think that depression is caused by neurotransmitter inbalance. What I believe is that a state of depression is reflected (manifested) in an anomalous distribution of neurotransmitters – that this inbalance is a result, or measurable side-effect of the state, but not the cause. It doesn’t even make sense to begin with. If neurotransmitter inbalance was the cause of depression, then what caused that inbalance in the first place? It’s a trivial question that most psychiatrists don’t seem to ever ask.

If you treat depressive people with antidepressants only, they do get better, most of the time. If you then take the antidepressants away, depression is not unlikely to return. Antidepressants don’t cure depression. It’s no surprise to me, since antidepressant medication does affect the symptoms experienced in the depression, such as inability to feel emotions, anhedonia, lack of motivation, incitement and drive. But it does not (automatically) affect the psychological-emotional constitution of the patient, nor does it affect environmental (outside) factors – social relationships, living conditions, job and finance, etc.

I regard depression as a condition where life force – whatever it actually is or consists of; I’m happy to regard it simply as a metaphor at this point – cannot flow freely within the physical-mental-emotional system. It’s not sadness. Rather, it’s a state of being less-than-alive, of being somewhat of a zombie. You’re not dead, but you’re not really alive, either. I think that the »undead« state of major depression serves as a signal, a reminder, that something is amiss. If I’m experiencing depression, it’s a warning that I’m not living properly. I’m not aligned with the life I should be living.

I was fortunate to have understood this, if only fairly recently (about six months ago). I’m no longer trying to get rid of depression, to subdue its symptoms. I haven’t taken any antidepressant medication at all since March of this year (it is September now). I’ve learned that the symptoms are actually there to show me that something’s wrong. It’s no use getting rid of depressive symptoms just so that you can continue living the way you were. Depression is a sure sign that you’re on the wrong track. It’s this realisation, and the appropriate action – changing the track – that will eventually lead out of depression.

Depressive phases will probably return, as they do for me. Whenever that happens – if I manage to snap out of the familiar thinking loops of self-blame, feeling sorry for and judging myself (»Why I am depressed again? What did I do to deserve this now?«) – I remember that depression shows me that I’ve strayed off-track again, that I have relapsed into some kind of behaviour that was taking me away from the life that is »right« for me.

What exactly that »proper life« is, I don’t yet fully know. But I have some apprehensions about it, and they are becoming clearer as I am maturing and growing. One day, I’ll be there, and I don’t think this day is very far away now. But even if I find out my personal »secret« to a happy and fulfilled life, I can still always get off track, and then I’m hoping for depression to come and remind me of it.

Substances that Cause Fear Or Depression

With the benzodiazepines, we have substances with anxiolytic (fear-dissolving) properties. Next to being sleep aids, especially in cases of severe insomnia, they are commonly prescribed against panic attacks, and sometimes to deal with intense, prolonged anxiety (although they should not be used continuously as they have a very strong tendency to cause addiction).

Benzodiazepines (or benzos, as they are commonly abbreviated) work by a mechanism known as positive allosteric modulation (PAM) of GABA receptors, which are certain structures in the nervous system associated with wakefulness and sleep, anxiety and panic, as well as muscle control (including convulsions and epileptic fits, which is why they are also used in case of epileptic seizures).

But if we can affect a signaling pathway inside our nervous system that causes a reduction of feelings of fear, would it be possible to affect that system in the reverse way, creating fear or even panic? It turns out that this is very possible. There are a number of substances with anxiogenic (fear-producing) properties. One that uses the same mechanism as the fear-releasing benzodiazepines, but in reverse, is DMCM, which can actually put users into a state of panic.

By extension of this idea, if we have substances that cause euphoria, we should expect to be able to modify them to cause the reverse effect, dysphoria. I haven’t researched specifically dysphoria-causing substances yet, but I’m sure they exist.

We do have substances that cause depression, as a counterpart to antidepressant agents. One example that I find quite remarkable (and scary) is Rimonabant, which is an inverse agonist at the cannabinoid receptor CB1, that is, it causes the reverse effect of cannabinoids. This compound was developed as a weight-loss medication, as it was well known that cannabinoids stimulate appetite (»food binges«), so a substance with the reverse effect would cause a reduction in appetite. This did work, but it also produced depression to a degree that the medicine had to be removed from the market, as users were becoming suicidal.

So if there are drugs that can make us euphoric, relaxed, fearless, sleepy, painless – or put us into any »positive« (pleasant or desirable) physical or mental state –, we should expect there to be drugs that can do the opposite. As such effects are rarely sought after in an individual, they are mostly used for research. For instance, anxiogenics may be used to first induce fear in a subject, to then test the efficacy of anxiolytic (fear-relieving) substances.

But those substances could also get into the wrong hands. I could imagine that such drugs can be used for torture. I certainly wouldn’t want to receive a cocktail of anxiogenic, depressogenic and dysphoriant agents.

Learning about such pharmacological possibilites made me increasingly aware that affecting our body and mind through chemical means is a great opportunity and power, but it requires great responsibility. All substances may be used for »good« and »bad«. Let’s always remind ourselves of this fact, and remain respectful of, and careful with, whatever powerful medicines we put inside ourselves, or allow others to do so.

A Handheld Mobile GC/MS Device – 10 or 20 Years From Now (Please)

We were just walking outside, passing by some flowers that had a nice smell. I breathed the scent in deeply. It reminded me of something, but what?

I imagined how great it would be to have something like a portable analysis laboratory that would give me a list of the most abundant compounds in the flower smell. A mobile electro-chemical nose, if you will. (The idea isn’t new. The original Star Trek crew already had tricorders, which ostensibly included a chemical analysis capability. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea has been floating around Sci-Fi circles for a hundred years, but it must have been around for certain since the 1950s.)

Here’s my sketch:
IMG_4225

The technology exists (I think), but not at this size (yet). The chemical analysis is performed by a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) combination, which has been standard equipment in any chemical analysis lab for decades. But all the devices I have seen are at least desktop-size and far from portable; except maybe for the compact chemical analysis devices carried by – and custom-made for – certain space probes, such as Huygens.

What is GC/MS? The gas chromatograph (GC) takes in volatile molecules and basically sorts them into packs of the same compound – it separates the input. The separated substances are then passed on to the mass spectrometer (MS), in which the molecules are essentially smashed into little fragments, which are then detected, each individual substance having a certain characteristic profile which allows it to be identified.

The device I’m imagining contains a full, nano-scale GC/MS system as well as some kind of interface (OLED or eInk display with touchscreen, probably), a small embedded computer, and a power source (LiPoly battery or something similar). The interface, computer and power supply bits are straightforward, as is the software that would be required. You could probably build a variant of such a device without its own interface but a connection to your smartphone (wirelessly, via NFC or bluetooth, for instance).

As a user, I would want the technology to have been simplified to such a degree that you’d only have to point the inlet towards the source of the scent you want analysed, press a button, and after a few seconds, you’d get a list of all the compounds identified in the sample, ordered by their relative concentrations (most abundant component first). This aroma profile would be characteristical for certain plants or foods or other things that produce smell (or even vapour that humans can’t smell), so the device would actually be able to tell you what it is that it’s »smelling«.

For example, if I pointed the device at the flower I smelled earlier and pushed the button, I’d get a list of compounds, and then the device would connect to the internet to search for matching aroma profiles (or use its on-device cached data), and I’d get a list of the best matches, hopefully including the name of the correct flower. (As with any such technology, there will be false matches.)

If this technology can be built to a high degree of precision and reliability, I’d imagine that identification of flowers would be trivial. You could analyse practically anything that gives off a sufficient number of molecules for the device to detect and identify. Of course, the less volatile molecules that can be detected, the less reliable the result. If you’d just point the device into the air, you’d get »random smell noise«, where no particular set of compounds is featured prominently enough to afford any identification.

Maybe it will even become possible to build the tiny GC/MS system using the same (or similar) process that’s used to produce integrated circuits today, lowering the production cost and making the device affordable to many. Since the market for such devices is probably not extremely large (yet), I’d imagine the cost at first to be around 2000 EUR, but then becoming gradually cheaper as production is simplified.

Possibly, there will be low-cost variants of such devices aimed at the consumer market. They would have much less of the precision of professional, scientific models, but they would still be good enough for personal use. Low-end consumer devices would possibly skip the chemical analysis part altogether and just identify the source of the sample, as most people don’t have the appropriate knowledge of chemistry, and they probably don’t care.

If devices like this can be mass-produced to such an extent that the price falls really low, it would be feasible for everybody to have such a device permanently installed at home, constantly monitoring the quality of the air, and warning of the release of hazardous smells.

For chefs, you could have specialised devices that could tell you when the food is ready to eat, based on the scent profiles being monitored. This would need a lot more intelligence on the software side, but I think it’s perfectly conceivable.

I can imagine a device like this, but I can’t build it. My knowledge is too limited. So I’m going to sit back and wait for about 10 to 20 years, when this vision will be reality. This is seriously a toy that I want to have!