In 1882, the esteemed scholar William James, the “father of American psychology,” wrote about the time he huffed nitrous oxide while giggling to himself. “That sounds like nonsense but it is pure on sense,” he wrote in his journal. The Harvard philosopher explained how, thanks to laughing gas, he—albeit briefly—transcended the physical world. “Looking back on my own experiences [with nitrous oxide], they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.”
James had discovered “potential forms of consciousness entirely different” from the stock version of reality. Behind the “flimsiest of screens,” one can explore a “multiverse” if they have access to the correct stimulus, he wrote two decades later in The Varieties of Religious Experience.
He would “insist that the insights he gained from inhaling laughing gas were central to his understanding of consciousness and mystical experience,” wrote drugs historian Mike Jay, in his new book Psychonauts: the Making of the Modern Mind. Where would James have been without nitrous oxide? It’s a question Jay asks while exploring “a lost intellectual tradition of drug taking” that was forgotten during decades of reefer madness hysteria and anti-drugs dogma.
Jay wrote that drug use significantly influenced James’ views, and he wasn’t alone. Several of the most famous thinkers of the 19th century cannot have their ideas divorced from the drugs they were taking at the same time. The range of early psychonauts spanned several high-society professions, and self-experimenters were hailed “as popular icons” during days gone past. Today, few psychedelic scientists or business leaders come out of the closet for fear of reprisals. Incidentally, laughing gas has just been banned in the UK, with gigglers facing up to two years in prison.
But back in 1799, British chemist Humphrey Davy “launched himself as the scientific hero of his generation with thrilling poetic descriptions of inhaling huge quantities of nitrous oxide and exploring unknown realms of disembodied consciousness,” Jay wrote. His work demonstrated for the first time that the inhalation of the drug, which he produced himself, “could cause euphoria and heightened imagination,” according to a paper in the American Journal of Psychology.
“My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked about the room perfectly regardless of what was being said to me . . . I exclaimed . . . Nothing exists but thoughts!—the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains,” wrote Davy after imbibing the chemical.
Thomas de Quincey, the writer best known for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, waxed lyrical about the mind-altering effects of the drug found within the poppy plant. “A theater suddenly opened up and lighted within my brain, which presented nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendor,” he wrote. Opium use was unrestricted throughout the UK: Poorer people who sought relaxation added it to beer because it was cheaper than wine or gin.
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A 28-year-old Sigmund Freud consumed “a great deal of cocaine” provided by pharmaceutical company Merck in the 1880s. Cocaine was first isolated in 1860 from coca leaves and went on to reportedly be used by everyone from Emile Zola to Queen Victoria and Ulysses Grant. “It has a somewhat bitter taste and produces an anesthetic effect on the mucous membranes,” Freud recalled before writing his landmark report, “Über coca,” analyzing the drug that provided Coca-Cola its oomph until 1903. Coca wine products had already been touted as medical miracles—or “elixirs of life”—and Pope Leo XIII awarded French chemist Angelo Mariai, the inventor of the first coca wine, with a gold medal. He even appeared on an endorsement poster for Vin Mariani, claiming that he carried the drink with him at all times “to fortify himself when prayer was insufficient.”
In the 17th century—when “sober intoxicants” such as cacao, nicotine, sugar, and caffeine arrived in Europe—Robert Hooke, curator of experiments at The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, spoke of using various drugs to manage pain, moods and refresh himself for social occasions. His observation of cannabis’ effects, or bhang, as it is known in India: “He is very merry, and laughs, and sings, and speaks words without any coherence … yet he is not giddy, or drunk … after a little time he falls asleep, and sleepeth very soundly and quietly; and when he wakes, he finds himself mightily refreshed.”
But progressively throughout the 20th century, it became taboo to discuss the positive effects of drugs even though scientists and psychologists alike had found them so useful. The “habitual intoxication of previous generations was condemned,” Jay wrote. Even while some intoxicating drugs aside from alcohol—which proved impervious to prohibition—might not have presented such a widespread problem, “they all got swept up in the same mixture of medical, moral and social opprobrium.”
It was no coincidence that various political motives intersected in the impending drug war. Many of the people who used certain drugs more openly than their higher society counterparts were increasingly seen as a threat to the way of life enjoyed within mainstream society. Later in the last century, dependency-forming stay-awake pharmaceutical pills like modafinil and Adderall were increasingly pumped out by the million, but similar drugs like other amphetamines could only be mentioned if accompanied by a “cluster of pejorative meanings”—dangerous, foreign, criminal.
“Most of what we call drugs now, you could just get over the counter in pharmacies until the 20th century, including cannabis, cocaine, and heroin,” Jay tells DoubleBlind. This epoch of modern drugs was, in many ways, characterized by a cognitive libertarianism that has faded and only begun to return to the mainstream in recent years. “Doctors and scientists; as well as writers, philosophers, and anybody interested in trying drugs and seeing what they did to the mind, the way that you would start doing that by taking them yourself,” Jay says. “It made for an amazing era in science.”
Though it was stamped down, the emerging thesis from Jay’s countercultural encyclopedia is that the roots of western “psychoactive exploration” are not solely from the 1950s and 60s—they reach back much farther. By the late 1890s, scientists had brought peyote into the lab, and mescaline was isolated from the stubby, mostly inconspicuous cactus found in the southern US. It became the first global psychedelic. Ayahuasca hadn’t yet left the Amazon, and trip reports remained sparse. Magic mushrooms had seemingly only been eaten accidentally in the west—at least since modernity—but were eaten as a sacrament in Mexico.
“When they arrived, ‘psychedelics,’” Jay says, “loaded with positive connotations about personal growth, mystical experience, and self-actualisation, colonized a niche that already existed.”