Drugs as stochasticity in the mind

I’d like to present a motivation behind why some people might take drugs. Often, when prompted for a reason why, people might say something like “To expand my consciousness” or “To discover something about myself”. Of course, this does somewhat depend on the drug and who you ask, a lot of people just like them for the thrill or the immediate sensations. I’d like to explore the former reasons however.

Optimisation techniques

Since I’m a programmer, and enthusiast about artificial intelligence, I’m going to approach it from this angle. Particularly genetic-algorithms, simulated-annealing, neural-networks, and other optimisation techniques that have a solution space that one can visualise as being a rugged fitness landscape of peaks and troughs.

The height of a point on this landscape indicates the fitness of being at that particular point. Imagine you are standing at said point. If you move slightly in one direction it may increase your fitness, decrease it, or it may stay the same. All the above machine learning methods, in some way, are moving along a multi-dimensional landscape of fitness, all are trying to reach the peak fitness value. The problem however, is that, generally these methods only move in the direction of increasing fitness (although the specifics may be different). If you find yourself at the top of a peak, you’ve reached the locally optimal solution, but you’ve no way of knowing if you’ve reached the globally optimal solution.

The way these optimisation techniques get good results however, is by including an element of stochasticity or randomness. Either this randomness is added to the path that the solution point takes along the landscape, such that it will sometimes move down slopes, or suddenly jump onto another nearby hill. Or the optimisation is run many many times from different start points, and by chance, one of these start points is likely to be at the base of a peak that represents a pretty good solution, even if the solution isn’t the best.

Even including a small amount of this random behaviour can have a significant effect on the performance of these techniques. Obviously it depends on the problem you are trying to solve, and particularly how rugged it’s fitness landscape is. If the landscape is just one huge peak, then it doesn’t matter where you start, you’ll get to the best solution eventually.

Storing patterns in the mind

This is where I start getting beyond my formal training, and I’m relying on various books I’ve read, but can’t remember where or when, so this could be me just spouting mumbo jumbo. You’ve been warned.

I read somewhere that one of the leading ideas about the purpose of dreams, and sleep in general, is to find a low energy state in which to store information. Thus, when you’re asleep, your brain is trying to juggle all the data that is running around in your active, short term memory and meld it with the existing neural pathways. This is another optimisation problem, based on all your existing memories and knowledge, which are stored in intricate patterns and interleave one another, how do you include the new memories while using the least energy. Or put another way, what is the most efficient way to store the new experiences and information you’ve received since you last slept? This information is probably weighted by how important it is in your day and such importance may be described by either the emotional response it invokes or through sheer repetition (which is how neural pathways are strengthened). The latter explains why if you do something monotonous all day, even if it’s of little consequence to your life, you’ll often end up dreaming about it anyway.

The long term result

Since memories are being layered over our existing neural pathways, it isn’t causing significant change. Unless of course something major happens in life which requires adaptation. We can easily get stuck in our ways, or in our thought routines, since the patterns that build up while storing memories are the same patterns that result in our intelligence, behaviour, and conscious existence. Often people think about intelligence and memory as separate entities, and I very much doubt they are. Memory are patterns in your mind, just like your intelligent thought. I admit however that certain areas of the brain are dedicated to the storage of particular types of knowledge, but the use of this knowledge is thought, and without the thoughts activating the knowledge it may as well not exist.

Anyhow, basically what I’m trying to say is that our mind, as it consolidates knowledge, memories, and our experience, can get stuck on a hill on the fitness landscape… not only for the lowest energy state, but also for the best interpretation on the knowledge that has been integrated into our minds, and the most satisfying direction in life.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut.

Drugs shake it up

Why I think people take certain drugs, is that it distorts the fitness landscape for whatever optimisation problem is being run by the human mind (I don’t really think intelligence is as simple as an optimisation process, it’s just for the purposes of this argument). It’s like the stochasticity that machine learning methods use to explore hills in the fitness landscape that are nearby and possibly have better overall fitness.

Many recreational drugs have had a past as an aid in psychotherapy. I think this might be why.

But then again, a drug’s effects could lead to a less fit peak for the brain to climb, thus for some people drugs have a negative impact. How do you know what result to expect? I guess you don’t, but it’s probably safe to say that some drugs are more likely to result in the net benefit to you, while others are not.

I recommend Erowid if you want information about a recreational/nootropic drug.

Disclaimer: I am not condoning drug use, or otherwise. These are just my musings.


#1   Andrew Brown on 09.21.07 at 5:57 pm

Some people just like to get fucked up, I think. I know (roughly) how psychedelics work in the brain, and if I ever take them, I’m not looking to gain anything other than entertainment. I think your ideas are interesting. I enjoy expanding my consciousness but I never really intend to glean anything from it, and if you’re also talking about cannabis which can exhibit these properties, well, I don’t do it for anything other than fun.

I’m sure other people are different to me though

#2   tatjna on 09.21.07 at 6:08 pm

Interesting. It always fascinates me how machine learning techniques match so closely to biological genetic selection and breeding techniques – including the introduction of stochasticity (outcrossing) – but machine learning is of course faster and the language is different.

Anyway, what I wanted to say was that one of the things that marijuana (thc) apparently does is widen the gap in the synapses – which I’ve always held would lend itself to the formation of new neural pathways.

I also believe that there is no ‘spiritual development’ that can be achieved with drugs, that can’t also be achieved without them, but that some people with no desire to engage in spiritual development have achieved ‘spiritua’l experiences unexpectedly while on drugs, that have changed their lives.

#3   Joel on 09.21.07 at 8:05 pm

@Andrew: Yup, I know that not everyone uses drugs in this way, in fact it’s probably a minority really. I think people who just use them as entertainment sometimes have revelations that they don’t expect, and that these can carry over into sober life.

@tatjna: Yup, machine learning has drawn LOTS from biological systems, such as the brain, ant colonies, bird flight/swarm behaviour, evolution. Plus because the machine learning systems can run much quicker (but with many assumptions of course) it allows stuff learnt from machine learning to be applied back to biology.

I also agree that drugs are not necessary for self-improvement or spiritual development, but that they can invoke unexpected experiences that influence the rest of someone’s life.

Re: THC widening synapse gaps… I think this probably would allow new pathways to form easier, but it’d also probably disrupt weak connections, or connections that have just formed.

#4   Andrew Brown on 09.21.07 at 9:46 pm

I’d like to see proof of this THC synapse widening.
I also know Joel of what you’re talking about, I’ve gotten “revelations” on drugs that I wasn’t expecting. I often don’t give them too much weight though. Although the link may not work, you should go to tripzine.com/pit/ and read that about the brain and the psychedelic pathways. If you’re anything like me you’ll read it all in one go.

#5   Jon on 09.21.07 at 10:57 pm

Interesting post Joel… I know I’ve found… er, ‘my friend’ has found that even if you take drugs for hedonistic reasons, you can often find that the experience gives you new perspectives that stay with you even when you’re sober, and change your life in quite significant ways.

#6   Joel on 09.23.07 at 7:04 pm

@Andrew, thanks for the link, the actual book seems to be offline though. Looked interesting however.

@Jon: Yup, the experience of your friend is definitely the kind of thing I’m getting at. ;)

#7   Zeren on 09.23.07 at 9:49 pm

I’m reading it because you know I’m interested in it but I’m lost with it now, starting at the first subheading and second paragraph. I’ll try later again.

#8   tatjna on 11.19.07 at 2:45 am

Hey Andrew. Sorry it took so long to get back to you, I don’t get comment notifications on this so only just saw your reply.

I don’t know if you’ll see this as ‘proof’ – but this is a pretty comprehensive study of the effects of cannabinoids on the brain, including behavioural neurotoxicity, neurochemistry, electrophysiological effects, cerebral blood flow studies, positron emission tomography studies, and brain morphology – brain morphology being the one we’re interested in here.

The study is published here: http://www.healthconnect.gov.au/internet/wcms/publishing.nsf/Content/health-pubs-drug-cannab2-ch75.htm

However, it’s long, and if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing as I just did, here are the relevant bits.

“A series of studies from the same laboratory (Harper et al, 1977; Myers and Heath, 1979; Heath et al, 1980 discussed below) reported widening of the synaptic cleft, clumping of synaptic vesicles in axon terminals, and an increase in intranuclear inclusions in the septum, hippocampus and amygdala.”

Another study had different results:

“Most recently, Slikker and colleagues (1992) reported the results of their neurohistochemical and electronmicroscopic evaluation of the rhesus monkeys whose dosing regime, behavioural and histochemical data were reported above. They failed to replicate earlier findings: no effects of drug exposure were found on the total area of hippocampus, or any of its subfields; there were no differences in hippocampal volume, neuronal size, number, length or degree of branching of CA3 pyramidal cell dendrites. Nor were there effects on synaptic length or width, but there were trends toward increased synaptic density (the number of synapses per cubic mm), increased soma size, and decreased basilar dendrite number in the CA3 region with marijuana treatment.”

So there you go. One study says yes, the other says not that but some other synaptic weirdness (which IMO could have a similiar effect to widening in the context of my original comment). And of course, this was all with rhesus monkeys not people.

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