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Brains on Drugs

How tinkering with consciousness became a societal sin

Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind by Mike Jay. Yale University Press, 376 pages. 2023.

Coming of age in Nowhere, Ontario, my weekends were my own. While rumors circulated of the occasional bush party, or evenings spent standing in a semicircle in a local park, drinking rye whiskey out of a recycled water bottle, I regarded these adolescent excursions in underage drinking with a certain anxiety. Instead, I resolved to get hammered alone, and on camera, in an effort to understand my subjective experience from a more objective, and sober, remove. Shot on my father’s camcorder, “Drunk Avec Moi” captured me, seated in a chair in my parents’ basement, glugging down successive tumblers of purloined vodka cut with pulp-free Tropicana orange juice.

Rewatching it in the clearheaded light of day, I observed the effects of alcohol on myself. While I sat there, slumped, enjoying a movie on video cassette (Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, if memory serves) I became, in turn, more excitable, more annoying, and, finally, sleepier. I showed the tape to my buddy, and we immediately filmed a sequel. “Drunk Avec Toi” was mostly lots of us yelling and laughing. It climaxed with footage of the pair of us, blasted, dancing like bozos to an MP3.

Beyond being my first serious exercise in documentary filmmaking, these boozy home videos were also part of a storied tradition, which cultural historian Mike Jay covers in his lively new book. Psychonauts is a chemical and literary history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when self-experimentation proved “the most satisfactory method for investigating drugs that change perceptions, moods and consciousness.” Jay is as interested in the ways drugs—from cocaine to morphine and laughing gas to hashish—are experienced as in how those experiences are communicated. From Sigmund Freud’s extolling of cocaine’s medicinal and therapeutic benefits to Timothy Leary’s psychedelic pied piper schtick, Psychonauts is a riveting story of how modern notions of science, morality, and consciousness coalesced under the influence of a range of highly potent potables.

While it now carries a negative connotation, drug as originally defined was a totally benign word. It simply referred to any substance used in preparing medicines or, even more generally, to any dry good whatsoever: circa the eighteenth century, waging a “War on Drugs” would have made about as much sense as declaring a “War on Objects.” But by the late nineteenth century, that ordinary meaning had changed. “‘Drugs,’” Jay writes, “became a shorthand for a collection of substances that, when not used under appropriate medical supervision, carried the risk of self-poisoning, addiction, or mental illness.” By the mid-twentieth century, the very act of “taking drugs” was regarded as totally reprobate, outlaw behavior.

It was his philosophical peers’ enthusiasm for the writings of Hegel that originally compelled him to inhale nitrous gas.

This rather drastic swing was, as Jay’s book makes clear, not just a matter of linguistic usage but of a broader cultural shift in attitudes about civilization’s relationship to the conscious mind. A century earlier, in 1850, willingly consuming some tonic, gas, or sticky resin with the explicit aim of reorienting ones relationship to reality (or what philosophers might call “consensus reality,” the common conditions of everyday experience that we generally take for granted as “real”) was not only accepted but widely encouraged. It was a mark of renegade, downright romantic, heroism. Jay’s conquistadors of consciousnesses include mesmerists, Masons, prodigious hash-eaters, sex magicians, esotericists, Charles Baudelaire, and William James, the latter of whom is depicted on the book’s cover in trippy tie-dye colors. The jacket design, like the book’s title—the word psychonaut did not enter common parlance until the 1970s, coined by the eccentric German philosopher, novelist, and memoirist Ernst Jünger—is deliberately anachronistic, an attempt to connect the current “renaissance” in psychedelic drugs, which sees potent hallucinogens like psilocybin and DMT recast in the familiar terms of clinical therapies, to an even longer, stranger history.

In this respect, William James makes a worthy cover boy. A prototypical proto-psychonaut, James’s chemically induced excursions into the introcosm (to borrow a term from Julian Jaynes) of his own consciousness served as a complement to his serious, sober work as a philosopher and psychologist. In fact, it was his philosophical peers’ enthusiasm for the writings of Hegel that originally compelled him to inhale nitrous gas. (Others, flummoxed by the German philosopher’s torturous sentences and knotty ideas, may merely turn to drink.) “He was instinctively repelled by Hegelian dogma,” Jay writes, “its pompous insistence on absolute truth, its sterile abstractions, its lofty disdain for the pragmatic and the specific.” But under the intoxicating influence of various gasses, James found himself experientially closer to that truth. Nitrous, James would write, “made me understand better than ever both the strength and weakness of Hegel’s philosophy.”

It also led to revisions in James’s own thought. His experiences with gas, and later, peyote, provided him with insight into mystical and religious states, which he elucidated in his landmark 1902 study, The Varieties of Religious Experience. “Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler,” he wrote therein, and “the sense of a profound meaning having been there persists.” For James, nitrous oxide allowed him to comprehend religious epiphany and transcendence, and to account for their qualities.

That the actual writings he produced while accessing these experiences constituted little more than “meaningless drivel” by his own account hardly mattered. The experiences themselves were “full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.” And while James’s own under-the-influence writings may lack any substantial literary merit (cf. lots of lines like: “Reconciliation of opposites; sober, drunk, all the same!”), his notion of human consciousness as a “stream,” also elucidated under the spell of nitrous, would sway a generation of modernists, from Virginia Woolf to James Joyce.

Others among Jay’s eclectic range of psychonauts has more established literary bona fides than James. Between about 1844 and 1849, a Parisian cadre called The Club des Hashishins hosted writers like Alexandre Dumas, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, and Victor Hugo for extended hash-eating hangouts. Readers of French literature felt the contact high almost immediately. Hashish, as Jay explains, “blurred the lines between dream, reverie and waking life in ways that brought reality itself into question.”

At the same time, there was also, as Jay notes, a spirit of “steely empiricism” at play, even in the libertine salons of fin-de-siècle Paris. Baudelaire, for example, sought to order the hashish high into distinct stages in his The Poem of Hashish. In the first stage, “the links that bind your ideas” dissolve; in the second, your senses are disrupted and “the eyes pierce the infinite”; finally, the hashish-eater comes down to earth, to find that “[a]ll notion of time, all painful sensations, have vanished.” Baudelaire’s poem served as a semi-scientific self-study, but it also revealed a moralizing strain that would come to dominate the emerging drugs discourse. “We are familiar enough with human nature,” the poet concluded, “to know that a man who can instantaneously obtain all the ecstasies of heaven and earth by swallowing a small spoonful of paste will never earn a thousandth part of them through his own labour.” He went on to forthrightly implore governments to ban the drug outright.

Baudelaire’s harsh judgement—that using psychoactive drugs for pleasure would breed indolence—was upbraided by his colleagues. “One can sense a leavening of Catholicism here and there,” Flaubert scolded. But it put the Flowers of Evil author about a half-century ahead of other puritans and nags, who in the early twentieth century worked with great efficiency to reframe these drugs in Baudelairean terms: as elements corrosive to the social fabric. A century later, hash-eating and similar habits came to be viewed as indicative of some broad scourge—one that would be increasingly radicalized, as when the word marijuana replaced hashish or cannabis, in an explicit attempt to link the plant with Mexican immigrants in the United States. The perimeter had been drawn around the domesticated human mind. Consciousness was not something to be tinkered with.

By 1914, legal frameworks had emerged in the United States, Britain, and Canada that forbade the purchase of popular narcotics at the corner pharmacy (though the Coca-Cola company, Jay notes, was still permitted to use cocaine in their syrupy concoction, claiming it was merely a flavor additive). The “disreputable autodidacts” pleading the case for scientific self-experimentation were granted precious little clemency. A vast chemical pharmacopeia was forced underground. That the drug trade thus became the exclusive domain of criminal cartels only further soured social attitudes toward drugs themselves.

In this restrictive climate, recreational drug users became deviants. They also became popular antiheroes, whose very marginalization from society conferred upon them a certain guerrilla status. Writers like Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs (who cultivated what Jay terms, with scientific exactness, a “polydrug regime”), chemists like Alexander Shulgin, and academic-guru-loudmouths like Leary enjoyed extended stints as renegade icons of counterculture. Jay is mindful of this boom-and-bust structure, in which cultural attitudes towards drugs seem almost cyclical: therapeutic language is replaced by the mystical, then the poetic, then by moralizing tirades, defiant calls-to-arms, and then—as now—by the therapeutic again.

Certainly, drug-taking—or at least certain types of drug-taking—enjoys a new vogue. The renewed clinical, cultural, and psychopharmacological interest in certain varieties of psychedelics, empathogens, and dissociatives shows things seemly opening up again. But even this renaissance can seem a bit zero-sum. White, middle-class dabblers enlisted for magic mushroom therapies may be forgiven their indulgences, while opioid users are demonized, or worse, left to die, as progressive policies are ignored in favor of the harder-line War on Drugs approach.

In his final analysis, Jay is attentive to this double standard. He underscores how the current revival in psychedelics specifically risks re-ghettoizing other narcotics, a process that the psychologist and unabashed heroin aficionado Carl Hart has termed “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Indeed, while Democratic politicians mull amnesty and decriminalization for a wide range of high-powered hallucinogens, GOP saber-rattlers threaten to carpet bomb Mexico in order to disrupt the flow of fentanyl—a policy, it’s worth mentioning, that will do nothing whatsoever to disrupt the demand for fentanyl, and will only lead to cheaper, more dangerous substitutes. Hart is right that certain drugs, and certain drug users, are given a wider berth. The problem with this privilege is not that it exists but that it is not more broadly applied.

New eras of prohibition are only ever one bad turn (or trip) away.

Elsewhere, reports suggest that the younger generational cohort, Gen Z, views sobriety as its own radical lifestyle, and abjures from drinking and drug use at higher rates. With forbearance back in fashion, one may well fret for the future of the psychonaut. After all, getting all gassed-up on nitrous and attempting to catalyze a mind-blowing mystical experience seems considerably less romantic (or rebellious) if LSD and ecstasy are available in microdoses via prescription at Walgreen’s. Here again, Jay’s historical long view proves instructive—and reassuring. The vast majority of his menagerie of mind-expanders cultivated their enthusiasms in periods when these drugs were, by-and-large, legal. This climate of tolerance did little do diminish their research, or the quality of their reportage. Indeed, it allowed them to pursue their interest in altering their brain chemistry without fear of criminal reprimand.

From the psychoactive rituals of ancient Greece to the boozy bacchanals of Rome, to hashish-eating clubs, coffee shops, cannabis cafes, Acid Tests, Be-Ins, basement booze-ups, and good old-fashioned bars, there has always been a desire to futz around with workaday consciousness. And the articulation of this experience has always taken varied forms, from the philosophy of James, to the poetic revels of the Parisian hash-eaters, to the wooly revolutionary politics of Leary, to Shulgin’s unadulterated desire to simply create and sample psychoactive drugs for the sake of it. The only thing that really changes are the cultural attitudes toward and legal frameworks delimiting that desire—whether romanticizing, moralizing, affirming, or criminalizing it.

“The world from which the term ‘drugs’ emerged,” Jay concludes, “is receding from view.” It’s an optimistic outro. And one hopes he’s correct. But his story of psychedelics also offers another object lesson: that new eras of prohibition are only ever one bad turn (or trip) away, and the narcos and drug squad spooks and other buzz-harshing busybodies in the rearview are always closer than they appear.