Folk Medicine to Pharmacology

From Folk Medicine to Modern Pharmacology

The human experience is frequently characterized by our feelings toward certain aspects of our environment.  We are frightened by things we do not understand, calmed by familiarity, anxious in the face of uncertainty, exhilarated by our accomplishments and depressed by our losses.  Gradually, over the course of our individual development, we come to expect certain situations to produce certain types of feelings.

There are many chemical substances that have the power to alter this relationship between environment and feeling.  Anxiety can be transformed into tranquility, exhilaration into sobriety, and torpor into vigor.  When these substances are administered in a formal manner, they are called drugs, and the study of the effects of these drugs on mood and other behaviors defines the field of psychopharmacology.

Historically, the more common chemical substances that change behavior have been plant products that were widely available and self-administered.  Tea and opium were available in the Orient; tobacco and coffee in the Americas; and alcohol throughout the world.  The substances were valued by each culture for the effects that they had on behavior, but each culture also developed written or unwritten guidelines to regulate the use of the substances.

In addition to the commonly available plants, each geographic region has more obscure plants that may contain psychologically active substances.  Information about the identifying features and effectiveness of these plants were passed on to family elders and to religious leaders.  These individuals became valued for their knowledge of the effects of chemical substances, and became the informal practitioners of folk medicine.  This gave way to the development of still more formal knowledge of these effects, and to the gradual development of formal medical practitioners.

Today, we have literally hundreds of different drugs that are known to change behavior.  Some of these have been borrowed directly from folk medicine and simply represent the modern processing and reformulation of a drug application that may be centuries old.  Others have been discovered by accident when a chemical reaction has gone awry or when a drug has been administered to treat one malady and it ends up being effective for some totally different problem.  Although important contributions have been made from both of these sources, the vast majority of our modern drugs have been developed through systematic research on the relationships among drugs, behavior and the underlying chemistry of the brain.

Drugs and Behavior  >