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March 11, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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The Great Escapes

Seven acts of varying degrees of utility

Life is hard. First, Second and even Third World problems run rampant in our society, and so it should come as no surprise that we all need to escape sometimes. While our individual methods may differ, one thing that’s common to all of them is that they have some sort of effect on our bodies. After all, it wouldn’t be much use doing any of them if they didn’t.

Drugs

If you are not familiar with the concept of drugs, you’re either lying or so doped up it’s a minor miracle you’re still able to read. Drugs predominantly affect the reward pathway, which is probably the coolest name for a body part you’ll read about today. This is the part of the brain responsible for driving our feelings of motivation, reward and behaviour. Its main purpose is to reinforce behaviour by making us feel good when we engage in behaviours necessary for our survival, including eating, drinking and having sex. It is responsible for trying to make sure certain behaviours are repeated, and produces pleasure to encourage use to repeat those behaviours.

The primary neurotransmitter in the reward pathway is dopamine. If enough dopamine is released into the brain’s reward circuits, euphoria results. Dopamine-based exhilaration is at least partially responsible just about any time a person experiences pleasure. Almost all drugs causing drug addiction, including alcohol, cannabis and nicotine, cause dopamine release and produce a high by overstimulating the brain’s reward pathway. These drugs can cause a jolt of intense pleasure by bypassing the five senses and directly activating the brain’s reward circuitry. In that way, drugs are a lot like the cheat code to life.

Like all cheat codes, though, there is always a danger. If drugs are used only occasionally, the brain’s corrective systems typically restore proper balance once the drugs wear off. however, prolonged and repeated use results in the brain reacting by reducing the number of dopamine receptors. As a result, heavier users will need to use more and more of the drug to get high—a phenomenon commonly
referred to as tolerance. As the brain continues to adapt to the presence of the drug, regions outside the reward pathway are also affected, resulting in brain-regions responsible for judgment, learning and memory beginning to physically change. The damage to the reward pathway can be permanent, resulting in a change in the function of neurons and as a result changing how addicts think, resulting in behaviours like denial, irrationality and obsessive drug use, to say nothing of a tendency to form extreme hairstyles.

Another important neurotransmitter in the brain is serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for regulating moods, appetite, muscle control, sexuality, sleep, and sensory perception. MDMA (ecstasy) causes an increase in serotonin, resulting in the mood-elevating effect. however, by releasing these large amounts of serotonin, the brain becomes significantly depleted of this neurotransmitter, resulting in negative behavioural effects (‘come-down’) users experience for several days after taking MDMA. On a long-term basis, heavy MDMA users can suffer confusion, depression and selective impairment of working-memory and attention processes. LSD (acid) works similarly to serotonin and interferes with the way the brain’s serotonin receptors work. On a short-term basis it distorts perception, causes hallucinations, heightens senses and affects emotions. On a long-term basis it has been linked to prolonged anxiety and depression after use of it has stopped.

Screen Time

Since their invention, moving pictures of various kinds have caused all sorts of debate over their relative merits and power to influence the mind. Watching TV and films puts the viewer into a highly suggestible, sleep-like hypnotic state. This state is largely caused by screen flicker, which lowers your brainwaves into an alpha state. This state of mind is normally associated with meditation or deep relaxation. In this state, the information which you are exposed will be directly downloaded into your subconscious mind, where it can alter existing beliefs and form new beliefs without you even being aware—something that advertisers and educators alike capitalise on. Furthermore, when you watch TV, brain activity switches from the left side of your brain (responsible for logic and critical analysis) to your right. As a result, it uses an emotional response which results in little or no analysis of the information. For this reason, people who watch too much television can
experience a distorted view of reality.
Your brain is less active when you watch Tv than when you sleep. Since your brain’s health is largely determined by how actively you use it, watching too much TV can have a detrimental effect. Numerous studies have reported that TV viewing is associated with an increased risk of death. This may be due to a lack of physical activity associated with TV viewing, or as a result of the physical degeneration of the brain.

Music

Music is an art form that has been around much longer than any of us can remember, particularly those of us who have been watching too much television. Everyone has their own particular tastes, and many of us have seen that crazy study where scientists made a plant grow faster with the aid of heavy metal, because, well, science. We’ve all had at least one teacher who will swear by some kind of musical style (usually Baroque) that provides an aid to study, but why blindly believe an educational professional when there’s actual data on hand? Research shows that listening to music can reduce the rates of chronic pain and depression, create a positive emotional experience leading to the secretion of immune-building hormones, improve memory, improve athletic performance and make you learn better. It also has been shown to improve productivity, fight fatigue and aid relaxation.

Exercise

Whether it’s a result of bowing to pressure from the patriarchy to conform to an ‘ideal’ figure, or just chasing a workout ‘high’, exercise is continuing to be a popular pastime for many people all over the world. While  this activity is markedly different from its traditional origins in warfare and blood sport, modern forms retain many of the same biological effects. Exercise results in the secretion of endorphins. Endorphins are another neurotransmitter in the brain and are often released in response to stress and pain to decrease their sensation. In addition, secretion of endorphins as a result of exercise leads to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones and enhancement of the immune response. It also has the long-term effect of making one a total babe, with often-reported developments of bangin’ bods and tight booties. Somewhat less desirably is an anecdotally observed tendency for frequent exercise users to neglect leg days and to do curls in the squat rack.

Sex

A popular subset of exercise, sex has been observed in humans since the abandonment of the prior rib-based reproductive system. Like any other form of exercise, sex releases endorphins. These endorphins can relieve pain. Studies show men who have regular sex reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke. For women, regular sex increases estrogen production and lessens the symptoms of PMS.

Sex can also make your brain grow better. Princeton researchers measured the blood levels of the stress hormones glucocorticoids in rats. They found that sexually experienced rodents proved less anxious than their virgin counterparts, and had better brain cell growth in the hippocampus, a major area related to memory in both humans and rats.

An occasionally intentional consequence of sex can be the creation of offspring, which occurs when a man and a woman love each other very very much and sometimes when they don’t. Sex is often combined with one or more of the other behaviours on this list, to varying degrees of effectiveness.

Facebook Stalking

Whether you know it by that name or merely as ‘research’, persistent use of Facebook is the newest item on this list, and probably the fastest-growing. A recent study found that teenagers and young adults who are persistently logged on to Facebook are more likely to show psychological disorders, like mania, paranoia, aggressive tendencies, antisocial behaviour and increased alcohol use. Another study found a strong link between the number of Facebook friends someone has and how much grey matter they have in particular areas of their brains. Grey matter is often correlated with intelligence. However, they are not sure whether Facebook helps increase grey matter or people with grey matter tend to just naturally have more Facebook friends. There hasn’t been much comparable academic work done on users with more people in their Google+ circles, perhaps because there aren’t enough people using Google+ to make up a legitimate sample size.

Reading

Reading is an activity which every single one of you is doing right now as your eyes scan across this page. Reading acts as a good workout for the brain as it requires concentration. An English study found that 63 per cent of participants reported feeling more relaxed while reading. Research also shows that reading improves analytical thinking and helps brains develop more cognitive reserve, which has been found to shield people from the effects of brain injury. It may be assumed that this depends in some small way at least on the material being read by the subject: reading. Salient, of course, has the effect of making users impervious to any kind of physical harm, as well as devilishly good-looking and more intelligent than their peers. While that is yet to be verified by a single reliable source, we aren’t letting ourselves get discouraged and will continue lining the pages with experimental super-drugs.

 

Caitlin Craigie

Carlo Salizzo

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