The science of Dune: Could we really make smart drugs?
'The spice' is an extremely precious commodity that greatly enhances the user's mental abilities. Could we recreate this in real life?
In the universe of science fiction epic Dune, spice melange, usually just referred to as ‘the spice’, is a valuable narcotic substance. It's formed exclusively in the sands of the planet Arrakis from the excretions of young sandworms.
The spice confers health benefits, for example increasing life expectancy. It’s also highly addictive, creating a vast demand and making it an extremely precious commodity. Whoever controls the spice inevitably holds control over every other faction in the Dune universe.
This may have historical parallels in the real world. As science writer Dr Carol Hart noted in her chapter on melange in the 2008 book The Science Of Dune, “In pre-Columbian America, the coca leaf was, somewhat like melange, largely reserved for the noble and priestly classes of the ancient Incas. In fact, the ruling classes retained their power in part by their monopoly on the coca leaf.”
Spice also has dramatic mind-altering properties, enabling a post-human species known as the Guild Navigators to see across vast swathes of space in order to guide spacecraft on long interstellar journeys. The Navigators live in tanks, continually inhaling orange spice gas in such quantities that it grossly mutates their bodies.
Even moderate exposure to the spice stains the entire eye of the user a deep dark blue, a trait seen in the Fremen people of Arrakis, due to their constant exposure to the substance – and perhaps not unlike the persistent pupil dilation that can accompany real-world recreational drug use.
The Bene Gesserit are also avid spice users. It imbues them with the power to see into the future – and heightens their mental abilities, which in a loose sense might mirror the rise today of nootropic drugs, ‘smart pills’ taken by those seeking a mental edge. Their makers claim the drugs can improve cognitive functions like memory, attention, creativity and motivation. Indeed, they are sometimes prescribed to treat conditions such as ADHD and dementia.
Yet there is concern over the non-prescription use of nootropics. A 2020 study by the Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, found that these ‘supplements’ can contain drugs not yet approved for pharmaceutical use. “Use of these supplements poses potentially serious health risks,” says study author Dr Pieter Cohen.
- This article first appeared in issue 369 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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Dr Paul Parsons is a science writer and analyst based in Aylesbury, England. He is a lapsed cosmologist, a former managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine, and once spent a summer working in a toilet roll factory. His books include 'The Beginning and the End of Everything', 'The Science of Doctor Who' and, most recently, '10 Short Lessons in Space Travel'.