The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported more than 500 cases of severe respiratory illness from vaping, including several deaths. What is curious is how the CDC emphasized the role of e-cigarettes in all this, while practically ignoring the fact that most of the cases involved inappropriate usage of the devices. Many of the victims had laced the devices, which exist to provide a safer way to inhale nicotine, with THC and CBD oils found in cannabis. Others used cartridges prefilled with THC, and purchased from “informal sources.” The logical response would have been for the CDC to warn the public to use e-cigarettes only as directed, especially since cannabis is technically illegal at the federal level—and the CDC is a federal agency. Instead, the CDC focused all its ire on e-cigarettes, almost suggesting that their regular customers go back to smoking tobacco. President Trump quickly followed with plans to ban on all flavored e-cigarettes, including “adult” flavors such as mint and menthol.
This is the kind of event that social scientists like to analyze, for the contradiction suggests some deeper explanation lurking beneath the official line.
Politics may explain some of it. Smoking tobacco is mostly a problem of the lower middle class. The upper middle class rarely smokes, and so doesn’t need e-cigarettes to kick the habit. But the upper middle class is not neutral on vaping. Upper middle class parents fear e-cigarettes because of their high rate of abuse among teenagers. Because the upper middle class enjoys more political clout, CDC policy should not surprise.
A non-event in the form of a Philip Morris product called iQOS is also suggestive. Because iQOS heats tobacco at lower temperatures, it avoids the harmful chemicals arising from traditional smoking. Yet unlike e-cigarettes, which use pure nicotine, iQOS uses actual tobacco; in theory, iQOS represents less of an advance in harm reduction than e-cigarettes. Yet teenage use of iQOS is low compared with e-cigarettes, and so fails to show up on the upper middle class radar screen. Hence, the CDC and FDA ignore iQOS while going after e-cigarettes.
Still, upper middle class parents do not simply call up the CDC and FDA and tell them what to do. Other factors must be involved. Cannabis, for example, is big business. The global cannabis market is now $50 billion, and is expected to reach $65 billion in 2025. Cannabis interests and upper middle class opinion may have combined to sway policy against vaping. Yet the global vaping market is $40 billion, and is expected to rise to $50 billion by 2025. A few billion dollars difference cannot really explain why the CDC and FDA are leveraging a cannabis problem to aggressively police e-cigarettes.
That cannabis use among teenagers is a serious problem only adds to the confusion. It is the most common illicit drug used by teenagers, more than cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy combined. Teenage cannabis use is at its highest level in 30 years. During the 1980s, when many teenagers smoked and even dealt in cannabis (then called “marijuana”), protective upper middle class parents quashed the budding effort toward cannabis legalization. Why is the same sense of urgency not felt today? Moreover, why does public opinion condemn e-cigarette use as a gateway to cannabis among teens, and in some quarters even support a vaping ban, but then adopt a neutral attitude toward cannabis legalization? The public health establishment reveals the same paradoxical attitude. Relative to the outpouring of papers on the dangers of vaping, the public health establishment barely comments on the cannabis issue.
Something bigger—more cultural—explains why vaping has run afoul of the authorities while cannabis continues along the glide path to legality. This cultural element has ramifications beyond cannabis and e-cigarettes, and affects the future of the entire stupefaction industry.
How We Think About Life
Consider the following syllogism: to understand law one must know law books; to understand law books one must know paper, from which law books are made; to know paper one must know trees, from which paper is made; to know trees one must know botany. Therefore, to understand law one must know botany.
The syllogism is ridiculous, and yet it exists today in various forms throughout American life.
In medicine: To understand unhappiness one must know the mind; to know the mind one must know the brain; to know the brain one must know neurotransmitters; therefore, to understand unhappiness one must know neurotransmitters. On the basis of this syllogism, millions of Americans today treat their everyday unhappiness (as opposed to true clinical depression) with psychoactive medication, crediting their unhappiness to a neurotransmitter imbalance problem. On a per capita basis, the use rate of these medications is higher in the United States than anywhere else.
In religion: To understand spirituality one must know how people “feel” spiritual; to understand feeling one must know the mind; to know the mind one must know the brain, especially the temporal lobe, which has been linked to spiritual feeling; therefore, to understand spirituality one must know the temporal lobe. The syllogism supports many Americans in their belief that spirituality is a feeling that exists independently of religion, and that somehow involves the brain. Today, 27 percent of Americans call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” with many of these people purposely dieting on so-called brain-nourishing foods to enhance their spirituality.
Variations on the syllogism abound. In politics, “hate speech” is criticized for its psychological dangers, which are traced back to the amygdala, the brain’s so-called “threat center.” In academia, rather than define truth or beauty, subfields such as neuro-philosophy, neuro-humanities, and neuro-aesthetics explain how the brain processes these concepts. In mass shootings, a shooter’s declared motivations are thought to be rooted in some obscure psychological law, beneath which sits a form of brain pathology that, once discovered, might prevent future shootings—hence, mass shootings are called a “mental health problem.”
In each case a discussion about some aim in life drifts toward a scientific discussion about the origin of that aim—that is, rather than talk about happiness or spirituality as people experience it, we discuss why we feel happiness, or why we feel spiritual, or why we appreciate art, or why we are violent. Life itself is not understood; instead, people try to understand the mind and the brain, from which life proceeds.
Reasoning about life apart from its aim has given rise to the modern stupefaction industry. The word “life” is very short and very clear, and everyone knows what it means, and people obviously still talk about life in that sense that is comprehensible to everyone. People still say, “Life will get better when I make more money,” or “My bad relationship is ruining my life.” But this everyday conception of life has a rival now in an altogether different meaning of life, pushed by neuroscience, where feelings about life are examined at their origin. The life everyone knows—the joys people desire and the sufferings people hate—competes now with “life” in the neuron for the title of life, and for our attention.
During the first half of the 20th century, psychology and psychiatry began the drift away from the traditional conception of life. Doctors traced the source of people’s troubles back to mental phenomena that science had invented—for example, the “guilt complex,” “repressed memories,” and “toxic shame.” In the second half of the 20th century, neuroscientists drifted further away. They located the source of life’s troubles in brain matter and neurotransmitters. They abandoned the old way of thinking about life; in its stead, they investigated the question of why certain feelings associated with life arise. As the new approach seeped into popular culture, everyday people grew more comfortable with stupefying themselves—that is, changing their state of consciousness directly through chemical agents—since feeling good through brain chemistry now constituted “living,” rather than an escape from life. Since neuroscience had redefined life from all that went on around us to the brain processes that accompany life, stupefaction no longer meant oblivion, but instead a way to engage life head on.
The new order reveals itself in different ways. For example, when I asked a psychiatrist why a person suffering from everyday unhappiness should be on Prozac, she replied that each person’s brain reacts differently to life events, causing psychic experiences to vary along a spectrum. What might cause mild unhappiness in me, based on how my brain reacts to events, she explained, might result in a more intense feeling of despair in someone else, which I could not comprehend. By focusing on the “life” of the brain, neuroscience had created a world inside each person beyond the ability of any outsider to grasp or judge. Each person’s brain refracts life through its own “life,” beyond criticism, and demands its own unique response that might include chemical antidotes. No more calling people who stupefy themselves “weak” or “decadent,” as that meant applying the standards of one person’s brain, or many people’s brains, to someone else’s brain. Only when stupefaction results in a lost job or poor health can it be criticized, and even then, rather than be called “bad,” it is called a “disease.”
I first encountered the power of this new idea while practicing anesthesiology. In the past, doctors demanded at least some physical explanation for a patient’s pain before treating it, even if the cause was invisible, as in pain arising from a misfiring of nerves. A patient could not just say, “I’m in pain, doc. Give me some narcotics.” Starting in the 1990s, pain became a completely subjective experience—officially. If a postoperative patient appeared comfortable, with vital signs stable and a facial expression suggesting boredom, but then self-rated his pain as “ten out of ten,” I risked a lawsuit if I failed to aggressively treat that pain. The patient had only to say, “I am the person who feels and no one else. You cannot know my inner experience of pain.”
Neuroscience’s concept has even penetrated identity politics. When someone complains of being offended, the person committing the offense has no recourse but to shut up or apologize, for the victim need only say, “I am the person who feels and no one else. You cannot know my inner experience.” Similarly, when people from marginalized groups discuss their personal histories, those in the dominant group are told to keep quiet, as the marginalized person’s neural network supposedly lies beyond the comprehension of any dominant group member.
Today, more than half of Americans regularly stupefy themselves with a mood-modifying drug, either legal or illegal, in the form of prescription psychoactive medication; cannabis or other illegal drugs; alcohol; smoking; vaping; or opioids; with many of these people believing themselves to be fully justified by science in their behavior. It is “their way.” Over time, entrepreneurs working with scientists will produce cleaner and more precise compounds, such that stupefaction’s harmful consequences, including lost jobs, relationship problems, crime, and physical side-effects, will fade altogether, along with any residual concern that people feel about stupefaction. Neuroscience’s hold on American culture will not abate. On the contrary, it will cement itself. However, until the perfect agents come along—and they will— the older, more imperfect drugs, such as nicotine and cannabis, will linger, causing confusion and strife.
The CDC and the scientific establishment have it out for e-cigarettes, while cannabis receives a pass. Why this is so illustrates the rules that all future stupefying agents must satisfy as dictated by the neuroscience culture that underlies the stupefaction industry.
The Heresies of E-Cigarettes
A man inhales nicotine through vaping (although it could also be through smoking). He sits at his desk. He is alone. He knows he should get to work, but he doesn’t feel like it. He vapes and continues to sit idle. He’s angry with his boss; he admits that his boss didn’t do anything wrong, but he wants to indulge in his bad temper, and so he vapes and continues to be angry. He is supposed to call someone he doesn’t want to talk to. He remembers that he is late with his call, but he doesn’t want to remember, and so he vapes. A colleague comes over to criticize him; the man wants to escape from criticism, so he blames others—and vapes. He begins work at his desk; he doesn’t like what he’s producing, but he doesn’t want to start over, and he vapes.
The peculiarity of nicotine, distinguishing it from all other stupefying agents, is its apparent harmlessness and ability to be applied to all situations. Cannabis, in contrast, has mind-altering effects ranging from euphoria to drowsiness, making it hard to perform serious work. Nor does the cannabis user expect to smoke throughout the day; rather, he or she elects discrete times to relax or feel “high,” or, if smoking cannabis for medical reasons, to feel less pain or nausea. But nicotine stupefaction can be spread out over the entire day, both at work and at home, and can be directed to every separate occasion. If a person has a disagreeable consciousness, for any reason, nicotine does away with the disagreeableness, letting the person occupy himself or herself with other things and forget.
All this occurs because nicotine is very addictive, more so than most stupefying agents. In addition, among the top-tier addictive agents, including cocaine, alcohol, and heroin, nicotine is the only one that lets a user feel fresh, and think and speak clearly. Thus, the major pleasure of using nicotine comes less from any direct mind-altering effects, and more from satisfying one’s craving for nicotine—that is, from satisfying the addiction. It is a closed loop, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: nicotine leads to addiction, and pleasure comes from satisfying the addiction.
The other stupefying agents work differently. Cannabis produces good feelings directly, such as seeing the world in a new and more pleasurable way. Colors are sometimes brighter; aesthetic appreciation can be enhanced. Alcohol gives the user a warm and fuzzy feeling. Antidepressants provide the user with background contentment, while anti-anxiety agents are calming. But in serious smokers, nicotine mostly satisfies the demand for nicotine, and that satisfaction helps them endure a variety of minor situations with little to no changes in cognition.
Neuroscience culture hates nicotine for this reason, despite the drug’s relative harmlessness. Neuroscience endeavors to grasp the origins of our cognitive life by investigating the brain. The science is not there yet; the connections do not yet exist; but neuroscience believes they will exist, and it bends all the powers of our intelligence to prove the possibility of this at least. Along the way, neuroscientists conduct research on hallucinatory drugs such as cannabis, ketamine, and psychedelics. Although mind-altering, these drugs enjoy some respectability in neuroscience because they are thought to yield insight into our cognitive life, just as antidepressants and narcotics do. They are linked to well-defined brain changes that can be correlated with cognitive changes. Although the information these agents yield in the lab hardly amounts to a full map of our inner life, the research gives people hope that neuroscience is moving humanity closer to realizing science’s vision.
But nicotine yields nothing. And, as a drug, it does nothing. Besides promoting general stimulation, it is mostly a habit that feeds itself, like an itch welcomed solely for the pleasure of being scratched. It is the most primitive form of stupefaction. It illuminates nothing about the neurological origins of cognitive life. It distracts from neuroscience doctrine.
For neuroscience says that we cannot define life in our consciousness, as the traditionalists declare. We cannot define life according to the happiness people feel when they love someone or ride in a new car, or the misery they feel when they lose a race or stub their toes. All such cognitive experiences, infinite in number, the sum total of what people once called “life,” are a kind of illusion, says neuroscience, and life cannot be understood in an illusion. We go astray when we try to understand life through what we experience in consciousness, neuroscience says; nothing reliable or exact ever comes out of such observations. In order to understand the inner life it is necessary to probe brain matter for its origins, says neuroscience, in the same way that biologists probe the body to understand the origins of physical life. Neuroscience conducts tests and discovers receptors, and correlates those receptors with behavior. Only from such observations, and from the laws deduced from them, says neuroscience, can we decipher the laws of the inner life.
From neuroscience’s perspective, nicotine represents a throwback to a pre-scientific age when people located life in consciousness. Nicotine users take seriously fighting with their boss or feeling bored with their work. Rather than try to deaden their minds to life events, they aspire to remain as alert as possible. They want to keep their senses. They merely want the pleasure of satisfying their nicotine addiction, which they admit to. They do not claim to have neurotransmitter issues; they do not justify their activity in science. On the contrary, their mantra is, “It is useless to define life through science, so let’s just live!”
This is why the CDC and the scientific establishment not only despise nicotine, but also view nicotine harm reduction with indifference. Nicotine is heretical, making tobacco and e-cigarettes equally heretical. The fact that e-cigarettes emit less tar and carbon monoxide is secondary; both products involve nicotine. From science’s perspective, the nicotine approach to life has more in common with the Stoics who said life is submission to reason, or with the Buddha, who said life is the abnegation of self. Those philosophies also recognized the supremacy of life in consciousness. Nicotine and philosophical ideas work in an analogous way: Nicotine does not cloud the mind generally, nor does it arouse any particular feeling; it works on conscience, when people have not yet acted but are only thinking, when their consciences alone are working, and where the drug initiates scarcely perceptible changes—as ideas do—yielding surprising, and sometimes shocking, changes in behavior.
Nicotine plays no role in the scientific project to discover life’s origins in brain matter. First, nicotine’s effects on the human body are too general to help neuroscientists probe the origins of cognitive experience. Nicotine receptors are ubiquitous in the human body. They exist in the brain but also in the peripheral nervous system and in skeletal muscle, while nicotine’s stimulating effects work to a high degree through general activation of the sympathetic nervous system, causing a release of epinephrine from the adrenal medulla. This is no different from how a philosophy book works on people, by exciting them and causing their heart rate and blood pressure to rise, and their skin to tingle. A soldier might read political propaganda before heading into battle; he or she might also smoke or vape—the effect is the same.
Second, because nicotine addiction brings pleasure when satisfied, it hardly differs from other addictions—for example, playing golf, shopping, or watching pornography. None of these other addictions helps neuroscience probe the origins of our cognitive life. On the contrary, they confirm people in their belief that real life—that is, the life we experience in consciousness, including the joy we experience golfing or shopping—offers solutions to unhappiness or anxiety. To enjoy such pleasures, one need only more time and money, which philosophers ranging from the ancient hedonists to the modern materialists have encouraged people to work toward for centuries. Nicotine addiction has more in common with the social addictions, and the philosophies that encourage them, than with science’s effort to discover life’s origins in brain matter.
Cannabis, on the other hand, fits well into science’s approach to life. Neuroscience is interested in cannabis as potential therapy for anxiety and depression. The drug has been found to have its own brain receptor, CB1. Having a specialized brain receptor confers respectability on any chemical agent. CB1 mediates cannabis’s psychological effects, and therefore, unlike in nicotine, the cannabis mood change has a specific brain origin, making it useful material for neuroscience. The CB1 receptor is a special door to be opened by science in its search for a special insight into the mind’s inner life. One of many special doors. Opioids have specific mu-receptors in the brain that cause euphoria. Ketamine has specific NMDA receptors in nerve cells that produce pain relief, sedation, and possibly anti-depressant action. Neuroscientists have already discovered that cannabis shares common characteristics with benzodiazepenes (Valium-like drugs), which long ago revealed an association between brain matter and mood through specific action on GABA brain receptors.
Although hallucinatory, cannabis has more in common with some of the new, non-hallucinatory mood-modifying drugs, such as allopregnanolone, which reportedly has a calming effect on the amygdala and insula—brain regions activated in loneliness. Neuroscience has already shown that pregnanolone levels fall in lonely people. Although neuroscience recognizes social isolation’s role in loneliness, it hints at treating the symptoms of loneliness directly. A patient taking allopregnanolone for loneliness has much in common with the patient taking cannabis for anxiety or PTSD. Both patients use drugs to attack unpleasant moods at their brain origins.
Nicotine does none of this. It is a general stimulant, not unlike a philosophical idea. It works by satisfying an addiction, not unlike shopping, although cheaper. It is not material for science.
In the future, to satisfy the cultural gatekeepers of the modern stupefaction industry, drug companies will have to ensure that any new mood-modifying drug works more than just by satisfying an addiction, the way nicotine does. Otherwise the scientific establishment will try to destroy it.
Nicotine commits a second heresy. Although satisfying the craving for nicotine makes a person feel better, nicotine itself is not therapy for any of the categories of disease that science has invented. On the contrary, nicotine’s way of working defies categorization.
Take a boss who muses about giving his veteran employee a raise but worries that it will take money from his own pocket. Thinking about the action presents him with difficulties, so he vapes to drive away from his consciousness the nagging question that demands a decision. The undecided question remains undecided until his next period of enlightenment. But at that next period the same thing repeats itself. Months go by without ever facing squarely the moral dilemma, which also lets the man keep the money.
Nicotine is a convenient adjunct to life as traditionally understood. When some people feel themselves to be in a moral quandary, they use nicotine to silence the critic within. Nicotine doesn’t deny the relevance of the quandary; it just provides a means of temporarily escaping it. It supplies an agreeable feeling, along with great clearness of mind, to help forestall a tough decision, or sidestep an issue, or decide in a way that profits the decision-maker. Nicotine has no broader rationale than this.
Neuroscience, on the other hand, ignores the question of how people should decide moral quandaries. Instead, it searches for life’s origins. It groups together various life situations, and extracts from them the one unpleasant sensation common to them all. It then gives that sensation a name—for example, anxiety, depression, pain, or loneliness. This is how the scientific method works: it denudes life events of their particularities, thereby reducing the number of variables, in order to create formulas or theories that apply in all cases. Once an unpleasant sensation exists as a general concept, it establishes the basis for a disease.
General concepts then guide treatment for that disease. Doctors, for example, do not restrict Valium use only to those cases involving a boss trying to decide whether to stiff his employee. Doctors do not care what moral issue the boss faces, or how the boss decides. They simply diagnose the universal sensation “anxiety,” and treat it, as per the correlation between Valium, brain receptors, and mood.
The entire thrust of neuroscience in the past half century has been to “medicalize” psychological issues along these lines: first, generalize situations to produce a universal sensation; then show how the brain connects to that sensation through receptors; then produce therapies in relation to those connections. Sometimes the second and third events switch places, as, for example, when therapies that lessen unpleasant sensations are shown to work on certain receptors. By doing so, they show how the brain connects with those sensations.
The CDC and the scientific establishment resent nicotine because nicotine bucks the trend. It plays no role in science’s effort to extract universal sensations from particular situations and then treat them with precise antidotes. People inhale nicotine not to oppose painlessness to pain, sleepiness to insomnia, or anti-nausea to nausea. Nicotine use simply satisfies one’s craving for nicotine, producing an agreeable feeling that let’s a person pass the time while also, occasionally, avoiding a moral quandary.
Cannabis, on the other hand, does play such a role. At the very least it offers precise therapy for the universal sensations of pain and nausea. There is “medical marijuana” but there is no “medical nicotine.” Compared to cannabis, nicotine is decidedly non-scientific.
In the future, to satisfy the cultural gatekeepers of the modern stupefaction industry, drug companies will have to ensure that any new mood-modifying drug helps neuroscience in its quest to medicalize life. It must offer a specific antidote to some universal sensation, or, better yet, along with it, an antidote to some universal category of physical disease. Otherwise the scientific establishment will try to destroy it.
Nicotine commits a third heresy. Culturally speaking, nicotine is less harmful than cannabis, but from science’s perspective it is equally harmful.
The traditional attitude toward life views life as a series of stages, such as childhood, young adulthood, and senior citizen, with each stage connected in some way to events in the real world. Some of these events take the form of social milestones—for example, a first day of school, a first kiss, or a first job; others take the form of intellectual and emotional milestones, such as wisdom or the ability to handle disappointment. Neuroscience, on the other hand, looks at life as an evolution in brain development. For example, the traditional attitude toward life views teens as immature and twenty-somethings as responsible young adults. But from neuroscience’s perspective, teens and twenty-somethings have much in common, as the brains of both are still developing. On the other hand, thirty-somethings, seemingly so close to twenty-somethings in life experience, are actually thought to be far apart, as thirty-somethings have begun the aging process and annually lose brain cells.
Upper middle class parents have always hated nicotine, but in the past they hated cannabis even more. In the traditional attitude toward life, nicotine use was a cultural marker for a rebellious teenager. The teenager had lost his or her childish innocence and somehow fallen into “the wrong crowd.” Parents knew that many gamblers smoked. They also knew that many prostitutes smoked. Yet cannabis was even worse. Teenagers on cannabis seemed headed for skid row, as cannabis’s stupefying aspects were more intense. A teen addicted to nicotine could still go on and get a decent job; a teen addicted to cannabis would have a much harder time doing well in law school or medical school.
Neuroscience’s perspective on life ignores these cultural concerns. Its focus is on brain development. Nicotine has been shown to interfere with brain development during adolescence and into a person’s twenties. It also interferes with fetal brain development. Cannabis exhibits similar effects. But for this reason nicotine and cannabis now enjoy a kind of rough parity. The advantage nicotine enjoyed on this front has disappeared. These days, I often hear upper middle class parents fuss about nicotine’s brain effects, but I rarely hear them complain that e-cigarettes might lead their teens into a life of crime.
To upper middle class parents today, nicotine may even be slightly worse than cannabis, for at least cannabis offers scientific advantages. Cannabis can be used to treat cancer pain and nausea, which upper middle class parents fear in their own futures. In addition, unlike nicotine, cannabis is a natural herb, and upper middle class parents have grown used to taking herbs for medical problems. Indeed, they associate herbal medicine with establishment medicine, with both existing in the scientific firmament.
In the future, to satisfy the cultural gatekeepers of the modern stupefaction industry, drug companies will have to ensure that any new mood-modifying drug has minimal effects on brain development. It does not matter if the drug interferes with an adolescent’s morality or desire to lead a bourgeois life, so long as it leaves brain matter untouched. At the very least, to compensate for any flaws in this department, the drug must be able to treat a physical disease, particularly one that upper middle class parents fear.
Science and Stupefaction
E-cigarettes may or may not survive this most recent attack. JUUL Labs dominates the U.S. vaping market. In the wake of the CDC’s announcement and the Trump ban on flavored e-cigarettes, which accounts for 80 percent of JUUL’s sales, the company’s CEO has resigned, staff cutbacks are in the works, and governmental agencies are investigating the company for criminal misconduct. Still, if e-cigarettes disappear, they can one day reappear if they follow the strategy outlined above. Cannabis followed a similar strategy over the past 20 years, and has gone from ostracism to the brink of full-scale legalization. E-cigarettes may have to go into the wilderness before returning.
I do not vape. I do not use any stupefying agents (other than philosophy). I have no favorite product. But I will say this about vaping, that its very existence represents important pushback against the all-enveloping scientific conception of life. Its popularity among adults attests to a belief in the traditional conception of life, where what people experience in consciousness by way of real world engagement is believed to define life. On the most primitive level of stupefaction, nicotine offers an agreeable feeling from time to time, leaving the senses mostly untouched, and real life events still very much in the driver’s seat.
The neuroscience approach to life denigrates nicotine for being physically unhealthy (it is right in the case of tobacco), but also hopelessly primitive. Nicotine tells people that life exists in the world, and in their consciousness of the world, and not in their brain matter. It promises a mild distraction but nothing more; life must still be studied and understood. Neuroscience, on the other hand, seeks the origins of life, and aspires to “solve” unhappiness, anxiety, loneliness, and pain at the level of the brain. The perfect stupefying agent, according to neuroscience, is one that satisfies all psychological needs independent of life, without physical side effects or deficits in reasoning power. It is the age-old dream of arousing only those feelings in one’s mind that one desires. Limitless tranquility.
But while mood-modifying drugs will grow cleaner and more precise, neuroscience will never achieve perfect stupefaction. People with drug-induced contentment will still be able to look around them. When they do, without feeling unhappiness, anxiety, loneliness, or pain, they will feel a strange emptiness in their souls, and, at their very depths, something like a drop of stinging bitterness. No misery, no stress, nothing—only that drop, so small that it will barely be perceived. Yet so bitter that their whole inner lives will be poisoned by it.
For the life they experience in consciousness, arising from countless encounters with the real world, will seem to them almost superfluous. These people will have come into life with a wail; they will leave with a groan; yet in between they will have no emotional care. Every day, when they lie down to sleep, they will be able to say: I spent today without any emotional trouble; life has passed without pain, without unhappiness, without fear, like a calm evening on a peaceful lake. Art, music, poetry, and literature, which exist to convey into people’s minds an indelible impression of the vast grandeur of the human soul, will leave them untouched, strike them as a little monotonous, and seem altogether unnecessary. No reason to grope for eternal light if one doesn’t plunge through infinite abysses. No more metaphysical speculations, no more suggestions of the transcendental, no more wondering about the ultimate nature of reality and the constitution of the world. Such matters will not be worth anyone’s trouble when the brain’s receptors have been completely mapped and correlated with mood, guaranteeing good feeling.
Yet in the deepest recesses of their minds, the well-stupefied will sense they are missing out on something, and they will hold a grudging respect toward those who in an earlier era vaped nicotine. They will marvel at how the latter still needed to worry about what happened in life, and how life’s events dictated their degree of contentment. Those who once vaped nicotine will seem to the well-stupefied the way 19th-century pioneers seem to us: tough, resilient, engaged with the elements, impressive. And the well-stupefied will think privately, “Say what you want about those people who vaped, but they were human.”