by Ciaran Regan
Columbia University Press, 2006
Review by Stephen Chadwick, Ph.D. on Jul 25th 2006
Ciaran Regan is professor of
neuropharmacology at University College, Dublin. He claims that what we need
is 'a grand excavation of the myths surrounding drugs'. This book is not
intended to include cutting edge research, but to a certain extent the book
does at least start the ground work.
The book is particularly
interesting because it is an examination of many types of drugs, from 'recreational'
drugs - such as nicotine, alcohol and LSD, to those used specifically for medical
purposes - such as Prozac and benzodiazepines. In discussing such a vast array
of drugs together, Regan avoids entering into any moral or legal debates. This
is a book concerned with the historical evolution, anthropology, causes and
effects of drugs, rather than the wider issue of whether or not they ought to
There is also much hard science to
be found. Regan has managed to provide an account of the chemical and
neurological processes that underlie human brain function, and the effects that
various drugs have on it, in a clear and concise manner. Although the
discussion of the chemistry and neurophysiology may be a little complex for
those with no knowledge of the area, this reflects the difficulty of the
subject matter rather than any inadequacy in Regan's account.
As well as outlining the required
pharmacology, he also provides a basic sketch of genetics and the way that the
presence or absence of certain genes can affect an individual's response to
drugs. Building on this notion he introduces the idea that humans and drugs
have actually co-evolved.
As an example of the way many drugs
can alter the functioning of the brain, Regan examines the effects that drugs
can have on the acquisition, storage and retrieval of memory. In order to discuss
this he spends a fair amount of time outlining relevant psychological research
as well as some of the commonly proposed theoretical concepts.
Regan claims that 'this book is
intended for anyone who is curious about mind-altering drugs'. I'm not sure if
everyone with such curiosity will find it satisfying. It is perhaps a little
dense in places for the general reader - as it provides a fairly large amount
of scientific data and theory - but at the same time it is too general for the
One criticism concerns the overall
structure of the book. It flows a little too freely between discussions of
history, anthropology, hard science, sociology, psychology and politics,
without any clear signposts. Although this is obviously the intention - after
all, these issues are closely connected - it does not always make it easy to recognize
the underlying thesis. The chapter and section titles are also rather obscure
making it a little difficult to navigate. However, a fairly substantive index
Overall, the book is an interesting
survey of many aspects of a fascinating subject.
© 2006 Stephen
Chadwick, PhD teaches on the Philosophy programme at Massey University, New Zealand.