Human Exceptionalism

Soma May be Closer Than You Think

Aldous Huxley was one powerful prophet. Back in 1932, in Brave New World, he warned us that in the future, rather than experience true emotions, humanity would instead opt for the feel good drug soma. (“Was and will make me ill, I take one gram and only am.”) Imagine: No more grief; no more anger; no more disappointment, but also, no more excitement, no more courage, no more love, e.g., no more truly human living.

My friend Caille Millner, an author and editorial writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a good piece about all of this in today’s paper regarding a drug that may dull the intensity of human living. In “Drugging Our Memories,” she writes:

RESEARCHERS claim this drug isn’t like the ones in “Men in Black” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but it seems awfully similar: a beta-blocker that’s being studied for its ability to disrupt painful memories as they’re being made. It’s called propranolol, and at the moment it’s just used to fight hypertension. Scientists noticed, however, that it also had the effect of inhibiting the chemical rush of adrenaline that makes intense memories–good and bad–cling to our minds with such force…The idea of the propranolol is to render those events–just the worst ones, researchers hope–less vividly.


Millner explains why this concerns her:

It takes hard work to build happiness amid a world gone mad. In the instance of grief and trauma, it takes patience, time and a life full of pain and sadness until those feelings transform into things that are different and more complex — and not necessarily free of pain, either. In the land of the quick fix, the get-rich-quick scheme, the 4 a.m. wish-your-way-to-weight-loss infomercial, popping a pill seems more attractive.

The problem of human suffering is one that matters a lot. One of our human duties, it seems to me, is to help each other carry our heavy burdens (and share in each other’s joys). But moving toward the “soma solution” would not only be to take us off of the hook for caring for each other, but could doom humanity to infantilization, since it is through our reaction to pain that we often grow and gain wisdom. Millner concludes:

A large part of what makes us human comes from the lessons we choose to take from our emotional experience–how it shapes our values, refines our beliefs and motivates us to make changes in our lives. It’s the touchstone for how we tell right from wrong–the horrible things that we do to each other only become horrible once we remember our emotional responses to them. If we can’t remember how horrible things are, we’ll be less motivated to make–and be–the changes we need.

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