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by Ciaran Regan
Columbia University Press, 2006
Review by Stephen Chadwick, Ph.D. on Jul 25th 2006

Intoxicating Minds

Ciaran Regan is professor of neuropharmacology at University College, Dublin.  He claims that what we need is 'a grand excavation of the myths surrounding drugs'.  This book is not intended to include cutting edge research, but to a certain extent the book does at least start the ground work.

The book is particularly interesting because it is an examination of many types of drugs, from 'recreational' drugs - such as nicotine, alcohol and LSD, to those used specifically for medical purposes - such as Prozac and benzodiazepines.  In discussing such a vast array of drugs together, Regan avoids entering into any moral or legal debates.  This is a book concerned with the historical evolution, anthropology, causes and effects of drugs, rather than the wider issue of whether or not they ought to be used.

There is also much hard science to be found.  Regan has managed to provide an account of the chemical and neurological processes that underlie human brain function, and the effects that various drugs have on it, in a clear and concise manner.  Although the discussion of the chemistry and neurophysiology may be a little complex for those with no knowledge of the area, this reflects the difficulty of the subject matter rather than any inadequacy in Regan's account.

As well as outlining the required pharmacology, he also provides a basic sketch of genetics and the way that the presence or absence of certain genes can affect an individual's response to drugs.  Building on this notion he introduces the idea that humans and drugs have actually co-evolved.

As an example of the way many drugs can alter the functioning of the brain, Regan examines the effects that drugs can have on the acquisition, storage and retrieval of memory.  In order to discuss this he spends a fair amount of time outlining relevant psychological research as well as some of the commonly proposed theoretical concepts.

Regan claims that 'this book is intended for anyone who is curious about mind-altering drugs'.  I'm not sure if everyone with such curiosity will find it satisfying.  It is perhaps a little dense in places for the general reader - as it provides a fairly large amount of scientific data and theory - but at the same time it is too general for the academic.

One criticism concerns the overall structure of the book.  It flows a little too freely between discussions of history, anthropology, hard science, sociology, psychology and politics, without any clear signposts.  Although this is obviously the intention - after all, these issues are closely connected - it does not always make it easy to recognize the underlying thesis.  The chapter and section titles are also rather obscure making it a little difficult to navigate.  However, a fairly substantive index is provided.

Overall, the book is an interesting survey of many aspects of a fascinating subject.


© 2006 Stephen Chadwick


Stephen Chadwick, PhD teaches on the Philosophy programme at Massey University, New Zealand.