A new study says the reason cave paintings are in such remote caverns was the artists' search for transcendence.
- Hundreds of prehistoric paintings have been found in subterranean chambers with barely enough oxygen to breathe.
- Low oxygen causes hypoxia that can induce exalted mental states.
- A new study says the artists chose these hard-to-each caverns in search of an oxygen-starved high.
Artists of all types have been known to ingest a — shall we say — creative lubricant or two. One of the paradoxical things about art, even for people who love making it — maybe especially for those people — is that it's sometimes hard to get started, despite the fact that it's even harder to stop.
A new paper suggests this problem and solution go way back.
As archaeologist Yafit Kedar from Tel-Aviv University in Israel was in France enjoying some cave art deep within the ground, she started to wonder why their creators would choose to create images so far away from natural light sources. These places are also airless, where what little oxygen there could have been would have been consumed by the burning torches the painters needed in order to see what they were painting.
Maybe, she thought, the reason these long-ago artists chose to create in such remote chambers was because of their lack of fresh oxygen. Perhaps the painters would have been down there creating in a hypoxic, trancelike state. In that pre-agricultural, pre-chemistry time, cave painting might have been a way to get inspirationally baked.
There are some 400 known prehistoric cave paintings found in Western Europe dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period from 40,000 to 11,00 years ago.
The Greek oracles were probably high, too
Credit: matiasdelcarmine/Adobe Stock
This might not be the only historical example of people inducing an oxygen-starved state to achieve transcendence or something like it. A 2006 study from scientists at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome hypothesized that hypoxia might have been the source of the trances out of which Delphic oracles extracted their visions.
Plutarch had written that trances began when the oracle—really generations of female oracles, all of them ceremonially named "Pythia" — inhaled sweet noxious fumes from cracks in the ground beneath the temple. Lead author of the 2006 study Giuseppe Etiope suggested that these gasses may well have been nothing more miraculous than carbon dioxide and methane filling a poorly ventilated space, thus casting Pythia off into a netherworld of semi-consciousness.
The air down there
Credit: Aleksandr Volunkov/Adobe Stock
On the surface, the air we breathe is 21 percent oxygen. Kedar and her colleagues created computer models that revealed the likely levels of oxygen in the painted caves. They found that in some such caverns, oxygen levels can drop to 18 percent in just 15 minutes. Some models fell to 11 percent. Hypoxia is likely at oxygen levels below 14.5% percent.
Fire torches exacerbate the problem. Up near the surface in a cave open to outside air, a burning fire's exhaust flows up and out while fresh air comes in beneath it. In a narrow passageway, however, the carbon dioxide and oxygen mix, and the lighter oxygen floats upward and on out of the cavern toward the surface.
The deeper a painter went with their torch, the more extreme was the loss of oxygen. Some of Kedar's models of deep caverns found just 9 percent oxygen, the lower limit of survivability.
Kedar hopes to validate the modeled outcomes by measuring oxygen levels in existing painted caves. For now though, the models point to the "transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space."
What is a hypoxic high like?
Hypoxia releases dopamine and can produce euphoria, visions, and out-of-body sensations. Modern visitors have reported experiencing some of these same sorts of mental phenomena when viewing the artwork.
The paper suggests that, "The cave environment was conceived as both a liminal space and an ontological arena, allowing early humans to maintain their connectedness with the cosmos." The hypoxic mind may well have found it easy to imagine that they were seeing beyond the rock, and indeed, beyond their world.
"The images envisioned in such a hallucinatory state appear to float on the cave surfaces (walls, floors, and ceilings) as if these constituted a membrane connecting the upper and lower worlds," write the authors.
Considering the likelihood of hypoxic conditions inside caves, it may be that it was the promise of a transcendent experience that drove the painters deep into the ground rather than any inherent meaning attached to the caves. As the paper concludes:
"It was not the decoration that rendered the caves significant; rather, the significance of the chosen caves was the reason for their decoration."
While most of these deaths are driven by external factors, interventions can still help prevent them.
- A decades-long study suggests childhood interventions are effective against deaths of despair.
- The students who had interventions went on to drink less, engage in less risky behavior, and reported less self-harm.
- The findings suggest that similar programs have the potential to save countless lives.
The increase in the number of deaths of despair over the past few years has been catastrophic to some communities and demographics. Among Americans aged 25 to 44, suicide has become the second leading cause of death, liver disease has risen to sixth alongside dangerous drinking habits, and the number of opioid overdoses continues to increase.
There are several factors behind these statistics. The decline of economic opportunity for large swaths of American society, the well-recorded pushing of opioid painkillers on people who didn't need them, and genetic predispositions towards certain behaviors are among them. However, many studies have shown that there are a number of quite malleable elements that can be the subject of intervention in addition to these external or genetic factors.
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences followed two decades of interventions with at-risk children and recorded their outcomes compared to peers left to their own devices. The findings may offer a partial solution to the crisis.
The road to despair often begins in childhood
Studies have found that there are "behaviors of despair," such as a tendency towards suicidal ideation or substance abuse, which can lead to deaths of despair later. These behaviors are predicted by other factors, such as impulsivity or a lack of healthy stress coping mechanisms. In principle, these factors can be addressed by intervention programs. If these behaviors are controlled or prevented at the source, then the later deaths can be prevented as well.
The program they used, Fast Track (FT), is an intervention program centered around the idea that multiple factors can leave a child without the social skills, academic preparedness, or ability to regulate the behavior that can help prevent them from having issues later in school and as young adults.
Starting with at-risk children in kindergarten in 1991, the researchers identified children in participating schools that scored high on a diagnostic for aggressive behavior in the classroom. These children and their parents were sorted into control and experimental groups. Those in the experimental group got the whole package of interventions. These focused on building the student's social skills, reducing their impulsivity, helping the parents form a more positive relationship with their child, and in-school interventions to help the student succeed.
Check-ins and tests followed over the subsequent years, in hopes of determining the success of the interventions.
The results were dramatic. There was an immediate reduction in aggressive or disruptive behaviors at home and school. While these benefits seemed to decline as the children reached middle school, they returned as they reached high school.
Later on, when the students began to report their drug and alcohol use, those who had interventions engaged in hazardous drinking 46 percent less than their peers who had not. Their weekly opioid use was 61 percent lower, and they were much less likely to report suicidal tendencies. These benefits existed for students of all demographic groups.
The children who were in the study are now in their 30s. With any luck, they will do better than many of their peers.
What can we take away from this? That a long-term, holistic program aimed at giving students the skills they need to succeed may help prevent many of the behaviors of despair, which can lead to adverse life outcomes. The authors argue that the program's long-term nature, up to 10 years in some cases, was vital to its success. Additionally, they say that the program's multifaceted approach, especially when focusing on interpersonal relationships, allowed it to help the students overcome challenges that could have driven them to drug use or self-harm:
"...our findings suggest that prevention programs aimed at facilitating the solid acquisition of key social, behavioral, and academic skills in children at risk for conduct problems could be one way to reverse the alarming rise in early and midlife mortality due to deaths of despair."
The findings are not nationally representative, though they include results for a diverse group of students from across the country. While the authors maintain that the results are generally applicable, it remains possible that some detail could arise in a more comprehensive study that was not seen here. The study could not control genetic predispositions to despair, perhaps causing the results to skew one way or the other.
Despite these limitations, the study's basic findings are likely generally applicable. Additionally, it supports previous studies that suggest that these interventions' focus should be on helping the children acquire specific academic, social, and behavioral skills.
While teaching at-risk students social skills and helping them in school won't end the crisis we find ourselves in by itself, this study offers us a powerful tool for saving lives. Let us hope that it will be used alongside more comprehensive efforts to make life better for everyone.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The Suicide Hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
'Critical Tourist Map of Oslo' offers uniquely dark perspective on Norway's capital.
- Your standard tourist map is irrepressibly positive about its location—but not this one.
- Norwegian activist/artist Markus Moestue reveals the dark and shameful sides of Oslo.
- He hopes his 'Critical Tourist Map' will inspire others to reveal the dark side of their cities.
"Only negative stuff about Oslo"
Tourism is a conspiracy of euphemisms. Visitors only want to see the best parts of the places they visit. And the places they visit only want to show them their nicest bits. But now, Norwegian activist/artist Markus Moestue is completely reversing that premise. His 'Critical Tourist Map' of Oslo shows the worst, most shameful parts of the Norwegian capital. "It's just like a normal tourist map," he says, "but everything is negative."
In a clip on his website, he's seen wheeling a self-made kiosk across Oslo to distribute his work to passersby: "You guys want a free tourist map? It's a critical one: only negative things. So, nothing about sweaters or lasagna, only negative stuff about Oslo and Norway." Some hesitantly accept the map. Most walk by, nonplussed.
In the same clip, Moestue muses: "If you feel like you live in the best country in the world, take a moment to consider: Is that really a fact? Or is that just the result of a very successful national propaganda?"
One thing is for sure: Norway does have a very positive opinion of itself, and successfully projects that image to the rest of the world. Like its neighboring countries in Scandinavia, it regularly tops global rankings of happiness, equality, eco-awareness and other positive social indicators.
But Moestue argues that there is something rotten in the state of Norway, and he uses the otherwise irrepressibly positive medium of the tourist map to make his point.
"The Critical Tourist Map of Oslo might help you shatter a few myths about the greatness of Norway. Among the topics you'll learn about is Norway's aggressive foreign policy, our involvement in colonial slavery, the unfair asylum system and why Amnesty International has their eyes on our prisons."
A short overview of the places and issues he singles out (see map for full text) follows.
"Cleverly constructed doublethink"
The Royal Palace in Oslo. "The Royal Myth was created by King Olav in 1973, when he arranged a photo of himself pretending to pay for a tram ticket," says Moestue.
Credit: Palickap, CC BY-SA 4.0
Det Kongelige Slott (the Royal Palace) – Slottsplassen 1
"The Royal Myth was created by King Olav in 1973, when he arranged a photo of himself pretending to pay for a tram ticket. That iconic image showed the king being just like us. But of course, it was such a big deal because he's not one of us. This is very cleverly constructed doublethink."
Stortinget (Parliament) – Karl Johanns gate 22
"In 2011, these people voted to bomb Libya. 588 Norwegian bombs helped reduce that country from one of the most stable states in Africa into one of civil war with extreme suffering for its people."
Tordenskioldstatuen (statue of Tordenskiold) – Rådhusplassen (east side)
"Our national hero Tordenskiold operated as a slave-trader during the colonial era. Norway actively downplays this part of our history and has not provided any apologies or paid any reparations."
4. Oslo Prison
Oslo fengsel (Oslo Prison) - Åkebergveien 11
"Amnesty International has complained that this prison in Oslo keeps prisoners in isolation for up to 23 hours a day. This equals torture and may have long-term implications for the prisoners' mental health."
5. Lesbian bench
Karl Johanns gate (?)
"This bench is a memorial for all in Norway who have been discriminated against—and still are—because of their sexual orientation. Still today you can find discrimination, and some religious sects are still trying to 'heal' young people from homosexuality."
6. Indigenous peoples
Samisk Hus (Sami House) - Dronningens gate 8B
"Many efforts have been made to assimilate the indigenous people of Norway. Sami and Kven have had their cultures diminished. Use of their languages and symbols was discouraged, sometimes outlawed. Today, these languages are under threat of extinction."
The gap between history and reality
"In most countries, what we are taught about our own nation in school does not correspond much to reality," says Moestue. This map sets about correcting that shortcoming, at least for Oslo and Norway.
7. Oslo Courthouse
Oslo Tingrett (Oslo District Court) - C. J. Hambros plass 4
"Norway often claims to defend freedom of speech. But unfortunately, we are one of many countries that has not wanted to protect Julian Assange. When the Dalai Lama visited Norway, our prime minister refused to meet with him."
8. Government building
Regjeringsbygget (the Cabinet Building) – Akersgata 42
"In 2011, a Norwegian right-wing terrorist bombed this building, and killed 69 people in another location that same day. Altogether, 77 people lost their lives. He was a former member of the political party FrP. In 2018, the justice minister from FrP was forced to resign after spreading the same conspiracy theories as the terrorist had—mainly hate speech towards Muslims and the Labor Party."
Utlendingsinternat (National Police Immigration Detention Centre) - Trandumveien 80, Mogreina
"Asylum seekers in Trandum camp, north of Oslo, are held in conditions worse than in prison, including days of complete isolation, no chairs and minimal medical assistance. They have not had any trial and have not committed any crimes."
Equinor Oslo – Martin Linges vei 33, Fornebu (farther location than shown on this map)
"State-owned energy company Equinor spends millions on advertising aimed directly at the Norwegians. Their non-stop campaigning has made the Norwegian population one of the most climate-illiterate in the world."
11. Nobel Peace Center
Nobel Fredssenter (Nobel Peace Center) – Brynjulf Bulls plass 1
"The myth of Norway as a peace-loving nation has been widely promoted. However, since Norway's contribution to the bombing of Serbia, the attack on Afghanistan and the U.S. war against Iraq, this image should be adjusted."
East Side Oslo – Nylandsveien area
"Even though most drug use takes place on Oslo's West Side, the poorer East Side suffers more arrests and fines. Lots of resources are spent on the war on drugs, but the policy is lacking a holistic approach."
13. Jewish deportations
"During WWII, more than 600 Jews were deported from Norway to the Nazi death camps. The Norwegian police arrested the Jews and put them onto ships. After the war, the police chief in charge was pardoned. His next job was to hunt communists."
"In most countries, what we are taught about our own nation in school does not correspond much to reality," says Moestue. This map sets about correcting that shortcoming, at least for his own country. "Is Norway the most happy place, the most environmentally conscious, the most peace-loving or the most ethical [country on Earth]? Hardly!"
Seagull resting in Tordenskiold's hat. "It sometimes feels like Norway has no colonial history and nobody ate any sugar in the 17th century."
Credit: Michal Klajban, CC BY-SA 3.0
Perhaps somewhat too convinced of the malleability of public opinion, Mr Moestue muses: "People don't want to just come to Oslo, look around, go back home and say: Hey, I've been to Oslo, to have the best kebab or to have some mediocre Chinese food there. No. People want to go to Oslo and then they want to go back home, and they want to say: I've been to Oslo. I've seen Oslo. And it's really, really bad."
Most foreigners - and a good deal of Norwegians - will probably not know that the country has a colonial past, for example. "We had fortresses in Africa and colonies in the Caribbean. Norway actively downplays this part of our history and has not provided any apologies or paid any reparations," says Moestue. But "it sometimes feels like Norway has no colonial history and nobody ate any sugar in the 17th century."
However, don't mistake Mr Moestue's negativism for nihilism. Ultimately, his map has a positive point to make: "I feel that Norway is using too much resources appearing to be good, and too little effort actually doing good!"
And there's another thing the artist hopes is map will achieve: "I'm hoping others will make their own tourist maps about their own cities. If they look hard enough I'm sure it's also pretty bad!"
Learn more about Mr Moestue's map on his website.
Strange Maps #1056
Got a strange map? Let me know via firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's "the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date," said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
- Oregon voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
- The state also legalized the therapeutic use and sale of psilocybin mushrooms.
- As the laws go into effect, other U.S. states will be watching to see how the experiment plays out, influencing future votes across the country.
Amid the uncertainty of the unfolding U.S. 2020 presidential election, Americans decided one thing on November 3 with refreshing clarity and unity: It's time to move away from the war on drugs.
In the nine states where ballots featured legalization or decriminalization measures, all passed. That includes recreational and medicinal marijuana in South Dakota, medical marijuana in Mississippi, and recreational marijuana in Arizona, Montana and New Jersey.
But Oregon passed the most sweeping and historic reforms, voting to partially decriminalize all drugs—even heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Oregon's measure 109 also legalized the therapeutic sale and use of psilocybin mushrooms, which, as a new era of psychedelic research continues to show, have proven remarkably effective at treating conditions like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of course, drug decriminalization isn't legalization. Oregonians caught in possession of small amounts of hard drugs will be fined $100, whereas they would've been fined up to $6,250 and sentenced up to a year in jail under the previous law. The initiative, called the Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, also allows people caught with drugs to avoid paying the fine if they undergo a health assessment at an addiction recovery center.
"Today's victory is a landmark declaration that the time has come to stop criminalizing people for drug use," said Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was behind the measure. "Measure 110 is arguably the biggest blow to the war on drugs to date."
Oregon made history tonight by becoming the first state to decriminalize drug possession! Our c4 @DrugPolicyAct led… https://t.co/s9pNxUn4HI— Drug Policy Alliance (@Drug Policy Alliance)1604462857.0
The new laws aim to reframe drug use as a public health issue.
"People suffering from addiction are more effectively treated with health care services than with criminal punishments," Oregon's initiative says. "A health care approach includes a health assessment to figure out the needs of people who are suffering from addiction, and it includes connecting them to the services they need."
Marijuana and hard drugs remain illegal on the federal level. But as Americans generally continue to shift toward favoring drug reforms, citizens and policymakers will be watching Oregon to see how the experiment plays out, and the outcomes will likely influence voters in other states. Here are a few things to keep an eye on.
Arrest and incarceration rates
Reduced arrest and incarceration rates for drug possession are likely to be the most obvious changes. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that the new laws will reduce convictions for drug possession by about 90 percent, from 4,057 convictions in 2019, to a projected 378 in 2021.
The commission's report also estimates that drug convictions among Black and Indigenous Oregonians may drop by 94 percent, and that racial disparities in drug arrests could drop by the same amount.
If more Oregonians stay out of the criminal justice system, it could help more people find employment, housing, addiction services and student loans, all of which can be harder to access with a drug conviction on your record.
It's also conceivable that the new initiative will reduce contentious interactions between Oregonians and law enforcement, which, potentially, could lead to lower arrest rates for other infractions, and create fewer opportunities for police interactions to turn violent.
Alternatively, if the initiative frees up time and resources for Oregon law enforcement, the state could see arrests rise for other types of crimes. That may include arresting more dealers and traffickers, considering the new laws only apply to users carrying small amounts. If police focus on the suppliers, it will likely change the dynamics of Oregon's illegal drug trade.
Drug use rates
How will removing the threat of jail and steep fines change drug use and overdose rates? It's hard to say for sure, but Portugal's 2001 decision to decriminalize drugs provides some clues. In the years following decriminalization, the nation's drug overdose deaths and HIV infection rates dropped significantly, while drug usage either stayed constant or decreased.
That drug use remained constant or decreased may be because Portugal only decriminalized drugs, meaning drugs weren't legally available for purchase at something like a marijuana dispensary. But it's also worth noting that Portugal invested money in addiction treatment services, as Oregon plans to do with tax revenues from marijuana sales and savings on correctional services.
"Most accounts of the Portugal experiment have focused on decriminalization, but decriminalization was part of a broader effort intended to encourage treatment," Hannah Laqueur, an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Davis, told The New York Times.
Oregon will be a particularly interesting case study for decriminalization's effects on drug usage, considering the state ranks among the worst for rates of addiction, use, and overdose.
Although Oregon plans to expand investments in treatment programs for drug users, some are worried the new initiative will discourage people from seeking help.
John Kitzhaber, a former E.R. physician in Oregon, called for Oregonions to reject the measure, writing on his blog:
"Measure 110 would eliminate this invaluable tool by reducing the possession of highly addictive drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone to a "violation," which means the court will no longer have the ability to offer people the choice to pursue treatment. It also means that a teenager caught in possession of heroin or meth will only receive a ticket, which in many counties means that parents won't be informed of their child's drug use."
Still, even if Oregon's measure reduces the number of people who get treatment, that wouldn't necessarily be an indictment of decriminalization writ large, but rather the specific way the state is allocating funds. Kitzhaber concluded his post with a sentiment shared by both drug reform advocates and some of the measure's opponents: "Incarcerating people who suffer from addiction should not be tolerated."
We owe a lot to vaccines and the scientists that develop them. But we've only just touched the surface of what vaccines can do.
- "Vaccines are the best thing science has ever given us," says Larry Brilliant, founding president and acting chairman of Skoll Global Threats. From smallpox, to Ebola, to polio, scientists have successful fought viruses and saved millions of lives. So what's next?
- As Covaxx (formerly United Neuroscience) cofounder Lou Reese explains in this video, the issue with vaccines is that they don't work against "non-external threats." This is a problem, especially now when internal threats (things that cause cancers, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses) are killing people more than external threats like viruses.
- The future of vaccine tech, which scientists are already working toward today, is developing safe vaccines to eradicate these destructive internal agents without harming our bodies in the process.