Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

This is your brain on fossil fuel

By David Presti

Brain and Fossil Fuel

This is Your Brain on Drugs was an anti-drug-abuse campaign that first appeared in the late 1980s. Many folks will recall the iconic image of an egg sizzling in a frying pan, and if you dont, it is readily available for viewing at numerous sites online.In the nearly 25 years since its introduction, the this is your brain motif has been applied to a wide variety of subjects.A meander through cyberspace reveals books, essays, and websites on topics including this is your brain on: art, business, cheese, computers, culture, ecstasy, estrogen, evil, Facebook, food, football, games, god, golf, Google, iPhone, jazz, joy, Kafka, love, marketing, media, meditation, metaphors, mindfulness, music, ocean, optimism, ping pong, poetry, politics, religion, shamrocks, sports, tech, Twitter, video games, and weed. And more. While This is Your Brain on Drugs was appreciated from the beginning as a powerful slogan and received kudos early on for being a compelling advertisement, the above list of topics highlights what a truly compelling image it is. As neuroscience becomes ever more a topic of popular discourse and images of the brain and its functional activity become more widely reproduced, the This is Your Brain motif has achieved ever more staying power.

At UC Berkeley I teach large undergraduate classes on topics in neuroscience. During the current Fall semester, I am teaching a class called Drugs and the Brain.It covers the very broad topic of how psychoactive substances mostly deriving from plants, and more recently (beginning in the late 19th century) supplemented by synthetic chemicals have formed very powerful relationships with humans. Sometimes these psychoactive substances are integrated into society and into peoples lives in constructive ways. And sometimes they lead to problems: squandered resources, ill physical and mental health, addiction, and death among them. Mostly it is somewhere in between.

Caffeine is by far the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world. It occurs in a variety of unrelated plants coffee, tea, cacao (source of chocolate), kola, yerba mate, and guarana, to name a few and is generally consumed by way of making a hot water extract of plant material (as for coffee and tea) or by eating the seeds in some form (as for cacao and kola). Caffeine is so integrated into society that most of us have lost appreciation for what a powerful drug it is. Indeed, most people dont even consider it to be a drug. (I am defining drug to be a chemical that in small amounts has a significant effect on the functioning of the body or mind.) Early on in its spread through Europe, caffeine was appreciated as a perfect drug for mercantile society. It meshes wonderfully with capitalism. Its all about waking up, marshaling energy, and getting things done. Doing more and more.

Prior to a few hundred years ago, caffeine was not part of European culture. Then coffee migrated up from northeast Africa. Tea arrived from the Orient and chocolate from the Americas. All around the same time. Europeans could now get up in the morning and have something other than alcohol to drink with their breakfast meal. Talk about a change of pace! As coffee houses proliferated in European cities, some of them evolved into trading centers, banks, insurance companies, and stock exchanges. It seems that sitting around drinking coffee fosters all sorts of creative ideas about productivity and making money.

In addition to being consumed via the traditional plant sources, caffeine is also added (as a pure chemical) to all kinds of widely imbibed products from the classic soda pops to numerous upstart energy drinks and related products. Although a powerful stimulant drug, it is so accepted as part of the landscape that there are no FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requirements to label caffeinated products with the amount of the chemical that has been added. It may be 5 milligrams (although probably not) or 150 milligrams. Perhaps youll get some sense of how much once you drink it. Most people do not get into big problems around caffeine use, although students do tell me now and then that they have been uncomfortably tachycardiac as a result of consuming multiple energy drinks while studying for exams. Some even end up visiting hospital emergency rooms.

In the mid-19th century, cocaine was isolated by German chemists from leaves of the coca plant from South America. In the early decades of the 20th century, the psychoactive properties of synthetic amphetamine and methamphetamine were explored by pharmacologists. Here were stimulant drugs more powerful than caffeine. These drugs have high potential for abuse, in that they are quite prone to the development of out-of-control relationships with human users. Stimulant addiction can be particularly toxic to ones body and mind. Its a hard trip on the body, overstressing the cardiovascular system and depleting energy stores. All-too-often it develops a powerful grip on the mind. Ones life can become dominated by desire for more stimulant, with everything else falling by the wayside. People in the throes of stimulant addiction can exhaust all their resources, lose jobs, family, and friends, and still not stop. Depressant drugs like alcohol and opioids have a self-limiting quality to them: one can only consume so much before passing out. If a cocaine user has a pile of drug in front of them, chances are theyll keep at it until its gone.

Sometimes folks have awareness as to how their life is being destroyed by their stimulant use. And still they cannot stop. And often there is considerable denial as to the severity of the problems. Such is the nature of addiction. Desire and greed. Greed and desire. This is your brain on drugs; this is your brain on stimulants; this is your brain with reward-reinforcement neural circuits propelled into blazing overdrive.

Brain and Fossil Fuel
Image by Brooke Greenberg, Green Building Programs, UC Berkeley

Fossil fuels are a societal-level stimulant: unprecedented capacity to marshal energy and get things done has come from our having embraced fossil fuels. 250 horsepower really does mean a rough equivalent of 250 horses (thats a lot of horses!), and the horses will generally poop out long before the engine does. Most agree that fossil fuels have provided stunning benefits to the world. But now we are heavily into an increasingly dependent relationship: addicted to the excesses and conveniences that fossil fuels provide - addicted to our cars, to air travel, to our gadgets. Addicted to needing to do more and more. And the relationship is increasingly dysfunctional, as the adverse consequences of removing carbon from the earth and burning it into the atmosphere become more appreciated. Not surprisingly, there is also considerable denial. Such is the nature of addiction.

Much has been learned from many years of observation, study, and clinical treatment of addictive behaviors. Addiction is a powerful and debilitating condition and change usually comes only with strong intention and great perseverance. What neuroscience has demonstrated, perhaps not surprisingly, is that there are physical changes taking place in the brain in conjunction with the development of addictive relationships with drugs. The behaviors that serve the addiction get wired into the brains neural circuitry very powerfully. And such circuitry changes can be profoundly difficult to rewire. It is in this sense that addiction is a brain disease.

In a similar way, addiction to fossil fuels has become a brain disease. The neural circuits underlying our attachments to the various conveniences that fossil fuels provide also become wired in. It takes clear intention and perseverance to change any habitual behavior. It can be difficult, even the seemingly simple stuff, like not buying bottled water. After all, its cool and refreshing and ever so convenient. And the difficulty and complexity only increase dramatically when there is money to be made - by the right people or corporate interests - by not changing. Even so, relearning how to utilize tap water (in places where that is readily possible) or getting along with smaller cars is probably easier than tapering off cocaine.

Stimulant drug abusers are often incapable of tapering off their addictive use and then continuing to use the drug at a greatly reduced level of intake. It seems that any amount of a drug such as cocaine reactivates the neural circuits in such a way as to move the person back into a full-blown pattern of dysfunctional overuse. Those old circuits are just too tightly wired in to be eliminated enough to not reactivate easily. More often than not, it is necessary to let go of the drug completely. This is not to suggest that something similar needs to be done at this point regarding fossil fuels. Tapering down can go a very long way: getting along with a little less convenience. And substitution with other, healthier for the planet, forms of energy generation can go a long way.

It takes hard therapeutic work to chip away at denial. This is a big part of the work in the clinical treatment of addiction. Regarding our relationship with fossil fuels, the hard work is happening. Scientists and authors are speaking to the subject with increasing lucidity. A new analysis from a team of Berkeley scientists establishes yet again that global warming is really occurring (1). Premier climate scientist James Hansen calls addressing climate change and its connection with fossil fuel use the greatest moral challenge of the 21st century, akin to addressing slavery in the 19th century and Nazism in the 20th (2). Big stuff.

Indigenous peoples of South America have used coca leaf for its medicinal and stimulant properties probably for thousands of years, without significant problems. Cocaine, extracted and purified from the coca leaf, is a different story. Coal and oil, extracted and refined from the earth, are a different story. Perhaps the cocaine is best left in the coca leaf. And perhaps, at this point, some of that coal and oil can be left in the ground.


I am indebted to Dale Pendell for his development of ideas connecting stimulant drugs and unbridled capitalism. I use his poetic books (3,4,5) on the powers medicinal and poisonous of psychoactive plants as texts in my UC Berkeley class on Drugs and the Brain. He has written an extraordinary poem about addiction, especially applicable to stimulant addiction, called Stealing From Tomorrow (6). At a personal level, it applies to drug addiction; at a societal level, it is applicable to our relationship with fossil fuels. In essays on the state of the economy (7) and on money (8), Pendell further explores connections between desire, greed, addiction, and fossil fuel.

(1) Berkeley Earth Temperature Analyses

(2) James Hansen, Huffington Post, April 5, 2010

(3) Pharmako/Poeia, by Dale Pendell, North Atlantic Books (1995, 2010)

(4) Pharmako/Dynamis, by Dale Pendell, North Atlantic Books (2002, 2010)

(5) Pharmako/Gnosis, by Dale Pendell, North Atlantic Books (2005, 2010)

(6) Pharmako/Dynamis, pages 178-183

(7) An Economy Not Worth Saving, essay by Dale Pendell

(8) Money as a Zero-Sum Game, essay by Dale Pendell