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Can Psychedelics Make Us More Moral?

With a renaissance going on in psychedelic research, is making us better people included? 

Psychedelics are experiencing a renaissance. As serious scientific research is occurring with ayahuasca, psilocybin, MDMA, and others, we’re moving away from a prohibitive mindset into a more expansive, open-minded inquiry into the therapeutic benefits of various substances.


In truth, the ban has been brief. While substances are heavily regulated—aggressive policing of a more benign substance like marijuana causes irreparable harm in economically distressed and racially profiled communities—psychedelics have been used for the entirety of recorded history, and probably much longer.

During its half-century stretch of illegality, questioning psychedelics has always been about health, personal or public. Drugs are bad, says the suburban housewife or urban executive as they ingest a daily cocktail of multi-billion dollar pharmaceuticals. Even food itself is a drug. Chemistry informs the foundation of our sense of self, our philosophies, our behavior.

It has always been about marketing. For example, we know sugar kills through its role in the various diseases of affluence, just as we know marijuana has never killed anyone. This misunderstanding of how chemistry affects our bodies not only pertains to health and economics, but morals as well. This is the very question Brian Earp is asking.

For hundreds or even thousands of years, traditional societies have used psychotropic substances to catalyze moral learning to help children transform into morally mature adults.

Earp, a research associate at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, does not limit his discussion to psychedelics. For example, psychopathy is a chemical misfiring: emotional stimuli, such as words like ‘murder’ and ‘rape,’ have no effect on a psychopath’s nervous system. In fact, extreme violence can have a calming effect. No amount of prison time or behavioral therapy will change this.

Could a moral drug enhancement instill empathy in such a person? If so, should it be used? Earp is not ignorant of the ethics of such a drug. Looked at from a broader social perspective instead of an individualist mindset is one important factor. If there’s a possibility that a psychopath could harm members of a society, would such a drug be beneficial, especially if the person desires it? What if they don’t?

Psychopathy is a small but very real instance. What about extending this idea of moral neuroenhancement to people with depression? Anger management issues? Excessive anxiety? This does not imply that a person needs a daily dose. Research has shown that psilocybin has an effect even after one episode:

Subjects also reported, and community observers corroborated, that as a result of the psilocybin experience, they experienced lasting positive changes in outlook and behavior, including “altruistic/positive social effects.”

While Earp’s proposal sounds futuristic, the drugs are already available. “It’s just a matter of in what ways are they used and when,” he says. With microdosing and synthetics booming in popularity, a broader understanding of how a variety of chemicals operate is a necessary step researchers need to take.

Is the day when your doctor prescribes LSD for a bad temperament far off? The possibility looms. While the concept of morals is tenuous and regional, recognizing that certain substances have the capability of positively transforming behavior will help us overcome a longstanding cultural fear of psychedelics. An honest conversation about their potential therapeutic use is at hand. The only thing that isn’t going to help is pretending the conversation doesn’t exist.

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
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Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

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