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Why Get High?

In dealing with the subject of substances which are psychoactive in some way in the human brain the problems of language frequently arise. In the hope of reducing confusion, therefore, I should say that I use the term 'getting high' to mean altering the brain in any way by the use of some external substance.

Scientists, philosophers, writers and, in fact, most people have thought about the reasons the human race uses psychoactive substances to alter the workings of the brain.

But, in spite of having over two thousand years of writing on this subject, we still do not know what motivates us to potentially risk our health in the long-term for a short-term change of mind.

I have no intention of reviewing all of the opinions expressed throughout history but I know of none of them which says we do it because we are stupid.

One common theory is that being human means being a discovering creature and the ability to use substances to enhance imagination is an important way to extend the boundaries of thought into areas where exciting discoveries are there to be made.

My own view is that we do it because we are lazy. Many of the substances which get us 'high' are naturally occurring within the brain in certain circumstances. Creating those circumstances, naturally, usually requires some effort on our part. Taking those substances from a plant is a way of getting the effects without the effort.

Though the human race has moved away from many of the crude evolutionary survival requirements, they still affect us. In evolutionary terms, a human's purpose is to produce other humans. To do that we must survive ourselves, which means eating nutritious foods, and we must find and mate with a partner.

There are natural systems within the body which mean that when we achieve one of these evolutionary goals, when we eat a satisfying meal or have sex, we feel good about ourselves.  That feeling good is our reward for making the effort needed to perpetuate the species. And knowing that we will feel good is what drives us to seek the experience; to look for food or sex rather than undertake other activities. The craving we associate with addiction may, therefore, also be a natural system intended to help us reach our evolutionary goals.

Psychoactive substances are a way of getting that feeling without having to make the evolutionary effort. But the problem comes with the amounts used. The natural reward is, intentionally, limited. Feeling good about eating a nutritious meal is only supposed to last until it is time to start thinking about having another one. Artificially replacing those natural highs removes the limitation of the dose.