New books — From the February 2018 issue

New Books

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 3 of 3 )

The conjuring of other minds, and the methods that have been invented to examine, care for, and occasionally control them, are central concerns for Lauren Slater in Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs That Changed Our Minds (Little, Brown, $30). Slater, a writer and psychologist, takes a skeptical yet compassionate approach to the history of psychopharmacology, one shaped by her own experience as a patient. Now in her fifties, she’s frank about her gratitude for the cocktail of medications that have kept her depression in check, allowing her to stay out of the psych ward, raise children, and write several books. She’s also a firsthand witness to the limitations and risks of the available treatments — the drugs she depends on have caused memory loss, diabetes, and other problems. All this endows Slater with both a keen sense of urgency and a balanced view: she’s not buying Big Pharma’s party line, but she cannot afford to ignore the way that depression, if left untreated, can also ravage the body.

Shroomin Around, by Djordje Ozbolt © The artist Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, London and New York City

Various facts and stories in Blue Dreams feel familiar — the hit-and-miss development of antipsychotics, MAOIs, and SSRIs; the cynical machinations of drug companies and the routine compromises of psychiatrists — yet the result is a vivid and thought-provoking synthesis. Some of the book’s most striking insights come when Slater, rejecting mainstream psychiatry’s Whiggish claims about increasingly precise diagnoses and constant drug innovation, inverts them to reveal a different form of optimism: older treatments that have fallen out of fashion, often because they’re harder to patent or to make a profit from, still offer promising avenues for exploration. It’s a jolt to realize that the substances Slater and the researchers she interviews are most hopeful about are not strange futuristic compounds but drugs many of us already know in their recreational forms, such as psilocybin, MDMA, and ketamine. A lot of these seem to work not so much by tinkering with brain chemistry as by shifting rigid patterns of thought.

It’s no coincidence that substances like MDMA are frequently combined with some form of talk therapy, which is known to be effective, regardless of the therapist’s theoretical school or training. (I have to laugh, though, when Slater cites a study that reported no difference between the progress of patients who spent up to twenty-five hours talking to experienced therapists and others who spoke to specially recruited amateurs, professors chosen for “radiant warmth,” wit, an “engaging personality style,” and a “willingness not only to draw a person out but also to listen empathically.” The point about the practical worth of certain guild qualifications may be well taken. Still, if anyone knows such a creature, one who doesn’t charge and has twenty-five hours to spare, do feel free to pass on my number.) If Slater has any discernible bias, it’s in favor of human connection, of relationship, despite the messy and unpleasant side effects — the dangerous power imbalances — that this, too, can bring. She’s a writer, after all, and has a lyrical bent, a narrative and aesthetic approach to the mind and its would-be healers. Depression, for instance, she defines as “a disorder of desire in which the world, stripped of its meaning, becomes absurd.”

Does Slater believe that pharmaceutical researchers and psychiatrists should try thinking more like novelists? Certainly she exposes the language of scientism they employ as misleading in the extreme. We still don’t know what causes mental illness — no clear evidence supports theories of “chemical imbalance” — or by what mechanism psychiatric drugs work, when they do. As Slater writes, most pharmaceutical discovery “is really done deep in dream, in vision, and proceeds more like the making of a novel than the compounding of chemicals for a clear purpose.” She sometimes betrays a wish that the industry would embrace this more-art-than-science position with greater enthusiasm and be curious about new possibilities rather than try to squeeze ever more money out of a few problematic drugs. More of them could consider the potential of hallucinogens or even, she suggests, stop seeing placebos, so hard to beat in double-blind trials, as the enemy, and instead think creatively about how their bizarre power might be harnessed to relieve suffering. A staggering number of people are now permanently on psychiatric medications whose long-term effects are largely unknown. Yet Slater seems more or less sanguine about the enormous influence chemical psychiatry wields over millions of minds. She seems to wish only that it could be wielded with a little more imagination.

Previous Page Next Page
3 of 3

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share

More from Lidija Haas:

Reviews From the November 2018 issue

New Books

Reviews From the October 2018 issue

New Books

Reviews From the September 2018 issue

New Books

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content
Close

Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.