NPR: Ecstasy is “safe” but also entails playing “Russian roulette”

The CDC reports that over 80 thousand people die each other from alcohol-related causes.  And over 20 thousand people die from prescription drug overdoes.

But NPR is fear-mongering about 4 deaths from drugs incorrectly sold as MDMA, a drug that NPR declared to be safe and potentially beneficial last year.

Note that the DEA’s scare tactics are based on the potential that pills sold as ecstasy are not pure MDMA, an extremely infrequent problem that could be eliminated if the government ended its ban.

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Would we be healthier if our doctors lied to us?

At Slate, the famous memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus proposes that implanting false memories could change our behavior for the better:

AG: Could false memories be used for therapeutic purposes—like reducing alcohol consumption?  EL: Absolutely, yes. I’ve had people say to me, do you think you could cure all kinds of problems with the false-memory technique? I hope other people will give it a try.

It’s hard to imagine how this would be implemented:  If somebody signs off on having a false memory implanted, then won’t it be harder for them to accept that memory as factual?

It’s analogous to the problem of how to harness the power of the placebo effect.  Doctors could be instructed to try a placebo before a “real” treatment, in cases where the life of the patient is not at stake and the potential benefits outweigh the costs.  But the patient would have to sign off on this, presumably  reducing the effectiveness.  Maybe  health insurers could offer patients the option of “pre-clearing” the use of placebos (with a lower premium?)

It seems extremely inefficient that our whole system of Western medicine forbids providers from harnessing one of the most powerful natural healing mechanisms.

But allowing providers to practice deception is also fraught with peril!

 

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Surprised by a dying cat

Here’s another classic.  Even better, here’s David Hubel’s Nobel lecture from 1981, in which he explains the happy accident that led to their discovery.

Hubel and his partner had connected a microelectrode to a particular neuron in a cat’s visual cortex.  They were trying to get the neuron to fire reliably in response to visual stimulation (a black dot).  But nothing worked.  And then all of a sudden, it started firing like crazy.  Turns out this particular neuron was “turned on” by the shadow of the glass slide as it was inserted into their projector – a sharp black line moving across a light background.  What’s more, it would only fire when the black line was at certain orientations.  It had no interest in a black dot at all.

This was one of the first papers to show that some neurons in our cortex (our upper brain) are very specifically tuned to a very narrow set of stimuli.  And it spawned a huge course of “single unit” studies in which psychologists test individual neurons throughout the brain to see which environmental conditions will make them fire.  Still a huge part of brain research.

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Is Your Brain Really Necessary?

In a famous paper in the early 1980’s the pediatrician John Lorber asked “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?”  He examines hydrocephalics who – despite losing over 95% of the volume of their brain  – continue to function in the everyday world and often have IQs over 100.  (Hydrocephalics experience a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain.)

I first learned about this paper from my neurolinguistics teacher Suzie Curtiss.  Suzie was studying epileptic children who had a whole hemisphere of their brain removed but went on to live normal lives.  These cases raise wonderful questions about the nature of intelligence and the incredible ability of the brain to adapt (“plasticity”) to serious injuries or novel environments.

This is the first post of its type…. famous papers which turned a field upside down or challenged conventional wisdom.  Note that I’ve linked to a Science magazine article about Lorber, rather than his original academic paper, since I couldn’t find the original online.

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The Bleeding Heart and the Robber Baron

Perhaps you’ve heard of  Bruce Yandle’s idea of  “the Baptist and the bootlegger.”

This is how it goes: A group of puritans – the “Baptists” –  argue that public policy should discourage a particular vice (e.g., alcoholism) by banning consumption.  The self-interested heathens  – the “bootleggers” – swoop in to support prohibition because it limits the supply and forces the price up, resulting in windfall profits for the providers who remain.

See Prohibition, prostitution, the Drug War, etc.

I’ve been thinking about a phenomenon that is the mirror image of the Baptist and the Bootlegger.  Call it “the bleeding heart and the robber baron.”

In this case it’s the well-intentioned lefties – the “bleeding hearts” – who  advocate a policy that will benefit the public (e.g., affordable housing, universal health care, public education).  And then the self-interested, right-leaning corporatists – the “robber barons” – swoop  in to reap economic rents from the policies that give them preferential treatment.

See Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, K12, health insurance companies, the ratings agencies, etc.

In each case, you have support that crosses typical cultural/political lines.  In one case, the lefties take the high road, and the righties follow their self-interest.  In the other, the righties take the high road, and the lefties follow their self-interest.

In both cases, all the rest of us pay the price. Higher prices, higher taxes, higher incarceration rates, and fewer providers to choose from.

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