Luminous: A brief history of getting high

Mike Jay

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Original Air Date: 
January 27, 2024

It’s remarkable how fast psychedelics have gone mainstream. Just look at how so many major universities are racing to set up their own psychedelic institutes. Psilocybin and MDMA are now considered the most promising treatments for depression and PTSD that we’ve had in decades. But this is not the first time psychoactive drugs were hailed as miracle cures. Heroin and cocaine were also once considered wonder drugs. Today, what’s so striking is how the public conversation about psychedelics ignores this deeper history of intoxicants.

British historian Mike Jay wants to challenge this narrative of psychedelic “exceptionalism.” In his book “Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind,” he digs into the 19th century’s rich history of psychoactive experiences — and tells the story of seminal figures like Humphry Davy, Sigmund Freud and William James – and lots of other people I’d never heard of.

Jay is also upfront about his own psychedelic experiences. He’s had plenty of them. And he believes the scientists and doctors who study psychedelics should talk more openly about their own mind-altering experiences — which is definitely not the case for most of them.

This conversation also ran as a print piece in Nautilus Magazine. Here’s an excerpt:

Steve Paulson: We seem to be at a crossroads in how to think about psychedelics. There’s a strong push to medicalize these substances, but psychoactive experiences have always been unpredictable and wild. What do you make of the current psychedelic moment?

Mike Jay: I think what we might call drugs—or more specifically, psychedelics—sit on a kind of cultural fault line that we’ve inherited from the 20th century. There are two words that emerged during the 20th century. The first is “drugs” in the sense that we’re using it. That word is a product of the Progressive Era in the early 20th century. From the very beginning, it had a whole bunch of negative connotations baked into it. There were dangerous drugs, addictive drugs, criminally illicit drugs. Think of “the war on drugs.” When I was growing up, I assumed it had been going on forever, so it was surprising to discover that it’s actually a creation of the 20th century. Then in the mid-20th century, there was much more interest in mystical experience and the possibility of using drugs for personal growth or healing. That was the point at which the word “psychedelics” emerged.

You can read the full piece on the Nautilus website.


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- Hey, it's Steve and this is Luminous, a podcast about the science and philosophy of psychedelics from To the Best of our Knowledge. It's remarkable how fast psychedelics have gone mainstream. Just look at how so many major universities are racing to set up their own psychedelic institutes. Psilocybin and MDMA are now considered the most promising treatments for depression and PTSD that we've had in decades. But this is not the first time psychoactive drugs were hailed as miracle cures. Heroin and cocaine were also once considered wonder drugs. And today, what's so striking is how the public conversation about psychedelics ignores this deeper history of intoxicants. British historian Mike Jay wants to challenge this narrative of psychedelic exceptionalism. In his book, "Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind," he digs into the 19th century's rich history of psychoactive experiences. And he tells the story of seminal figures like Humphry Davy, Sigmund Freud, and William James, and lots of other people I'd never heard of. Mike is also upfront about his own psychedelic experiences. He's had plenty of them, and he believes the scientists and doctors who study psychedelics should talk more openly about their own mind altering experiences, which is definitely not the case for most of them. I reached Mike at his home in London and we had a really fascinating conversation. Hope you enjoyed as much as I did. Well, Mike, it seems like we are at a crossroads right now in how we think about mind altering drugs, especially psychedelics. I mean, on the one hand there is this really strong push to medicalize these substances, to make them safe enough for FDA approval. And yet for most of human history, there has been something very unpredictable and kind of wild about psychoactive experiences. So what do you make of this psychedelic moment that we're in right now?

- I think what we might call drugs, or we might be more specific and call psychedelics, sit on a kind of cultural fault line. And I think there are two words which emerged during the 20th century. And the first is the word drugs. And that word is a product of the progressive era of the early 20th century. And from its very beginning, it had a whole bunch of negative connotations baked into it. If you look at its early uses, you can see that the words that are being elided are dangerous drugs, addictive drugs, foreign drugs, criminal, illicit drugs. You know, we think of that now as the war on drugs. And certainly, you know, when I was growing up, I assumed it had been going on forever. So it was surprising to discover that it's actually a creation of the 20th century. And then I think in the mid 20th century, another kind of cultural mode emerged that was much more interested in introspection, interested in inner experience and mystical experience, and interested in the possibility of using drugs for personal growth or for healing or therapy or peak experiences. That was the point at which the word psychedelics emerged.

- And Humphry Osmond, the psychiatrist who coined that word psychedelic, I mean, he was very self-conscious about wanting to use that. I mean, he did not like the word drug because of the negative connotations. And I mean, the literal meaning of psychedelic is mind-revealing, which obviously has a very positive ring to it.

- That's right. And he and Aldous Huxley who came up with the term together, they were talking really about LSD and mescaline at that point. And Huxley was very keen that it should be connected to mystical experience, to the perennial philosophy, to higher consciousness and so on. So I think we entered the 21st century with both these words and everything they entailed in our consciousness. And we still have the war on drugs. Drugs are still written into our laws as illegal and criminal substances, but we have a much, much more vibrant conversation around the word psychedelics and the possibilities of these drugs.

- So coming back to this particular moment that we're in right now, I mean, in the 21st century, psychedelic research has had this revival now for, oh, a couple of decades. Why now do you think psychedelics are so popular?

- I think it's a very good question. I think it's got many components. Part of it is to do with this old category of drugs within which psychedelics used to be contained, is falling apart in various ways. I think one of the reasons that the word drugs became so handy at the beginning of the 20th century was when they were criminalized, it was very clear what was the drug and what wasn't. You know, the idea was to separate substances into good and bad. And the good you would get, you know, in your pharmacy or from a doctor and the bad you'd have to get from the street from criminals. And I think that distinction's broken down in a 21st century where cannabis, you know, formerly marijuana is for sale everywhere and people are starting to push forward. There's a lot of interest in psychiatry, which had sort of more or less given up on developing new mental pharmaceuticals for various reasons. And there's just been a steadily growing subculture becoming now almost a mainstream culture, you know, with the work of people like Michael Pollan really. So, you know, the idea of drugs and the war on drugs has weakened. It gets a bad press these days, and people are skeptical of it. Meanwhile, the power of psychedelics and the potentials and possibilities that they point to has only got stronger.

- So you have written a history of psychoactive substances going back roughly 200 years. Why did you focus on this period and especially the 19th century?

- I've been interested in the history of drugs in the 19th century for a long time. Drugs are... People recognize they're dangers, you know, they have a certain amount of stigma attached to 'em, but by and large, they're part of mainstream culture, not least because so many of the things that we think of as drugs today, you could simply walk into a pharmacy and buy over-the-counter cocaine, or morphine, or cannabis or whatever.

- Which is astonishing to think about. I mean, a lot of those drugs that, I mean, we consider so dangerous, so forbidden, were once very accessible and easily obtained.

- That's right, and that's why I think, you know, our modern category of drugs wouldn't have made any sense in that period because these just sat on the shelves alongside other stimulants and sedatives and analgesics. And one of the things that fascinates me about this period is how widely drugs were used in science and medicine, how interested people were in the experiences that they produced. So as we now get more interested in introspection and the experiential qualities of mind altering drugs, there's a huge literature back there, a lot of which hasn't really been looked at very much. And it's a fascinating and rich literature, because doctors in the 19th century were very good at describing things, you had to be. There were no tick box diagnoses. So description was the best you could do. If somebody had a cough, you couldn't just say they had a cough. There might be 50 adjectives to describe that cough.

- And one reason why they were so good at describing these things is they often took these drugs themselves. I mean, there was a lot of self-experimentation going on back in the 19th century among doctors and scientists.

- Yeah, so that's really, I've taken that as the central theme of my book. You know, I think it is coming at it to it coal, it is the obvious way to proceed. If you are studying a drug which has effects on the mind that alters consciousness in ways that can only be experienced by the subject, why would you not? If that was the focus of your investigation, start by, you know, experiencing it yourself.

- So the word that we often use today to describe people who have this interest in self-exploration is the psychonauts, the title of your book. And that actually has a very specific origin. That word, it goes back, it was coined by a German writer, Ernst Jünger, in 1949. And Jünger himself is kind of a fascinating figure, you know, a mentor of Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD. But he also had kind of a troubling history too, at one point was a Nazi sympathizer, although later he, you know, resisted Nazi efforts to recruit him. But that in itself is sort of this fascinating moment in this history.

- It is fascinating, as you say, he resisted efforts to recruit him, but he also refused to submit to denazification post-war, you know, in American-occupied Germany, and was forbidden for publishing for a time. During that time, he wrote a novel called Heliopolis, which was a futuristic novel in which a cadre of scientists specialize in synthesizing new psychoactive drugs and using them to make inner voyages into their mind and explore their consciousness. And this cadre of scientists in the novel are called psychonauts. And it's a term that looks forwards and backwards. It looks forward in the sense that, as you say, Jünger was the great hero and mentor to Albert Hoffman, who synthesized LSD. So through Hoffman, the word psychonaut made its way out into the, you know, psychedelic counterculture. And which it tended to mean someone who was a rebel or a renegade, or working outside of science. Because obviously in our modern era, scientists don't self experiment with their drugs, institutional scientists anyway.

- At least they don't tell us about it. Probably a lot of them actually do, but they don't wanna talk about it publicly.

- No, that's exactly right. And they have reasons for doing that. But I wanted to reclaim the word psychonauts, and take it backwards into the 19th century where it describes not simply renegades and rebels, although there are plenty of them, but also establishment scientists, doctors, and, you know, pillars of the literary establishment. And the word that was used at the time was self experimenter.

- Well, let's go back to the very beginning of the 19th century to the English chemist Humphry Davy, certainly one of the most fascinating historical figures who experimented with nitrous oxide. What was he trying to figure out?

- Humphry Davy went on to become Sir Humphry Davy, the president of the Royal Society, and the great scientific hero of his generation. This is really what brought him his first flush of fame. He was 20, he was very young, he was working in an institution that was synthesizing and testing gasses for medical purposes. And one of the first that he synthesized was nitrous oxide, which was believed at that point to be toxic. But he inhaled a little bit of it just to see, you know, in the heroic self experimental tradition. He found out that not only was it not toxic, but it produced an extraordinarily pleasant sensation, a wave of euphoria and a kind of tingling. He inhaled a bit more and a bit more, and eventually became kind of unarmored from his physical consciousness and found himself in this disembodied universe composed of thoughts and ideas, and came back absolutely fascinated, his mind full of questions about what this meant. You know, how could it be that some drug that had just been synthesized in a laboratory that's not known in nature as far as he knew, how could this affect, you know, not just sort of the autonomous physical system, but these higher functions of mind, things like, you know, happiness and creativity, and even the sort of sense of spiritual revelation. You know, at this time, this was thought to be by most people to be God given. So he was fascinated, wanted to explore further. And he was very fortunate to have a group of friends in Bristol who were ideally suited as volunteers, who included the young romantic poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. He synthesized the gas and had salons where everybody inhaled it. And he asked everybody to describe briefly the sensation. As he said, he was looking for a language of feeling. He said, "This is this wonderful, extraordinary sensation unlike anything else. It's a whole new type of consciousness, but it's incredibly hard to bring this message back, to find words for it." And in a way, it was rather like the romantic poet's own project of finding new words to describe new feelings and sensations.

- Well, it is very striking that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was one of the founders of the English romantic movement, got so interested in these experiments with nitrous oxide, and of course later became an opium addict. And it's not an accident. I think that there were these early experiments with nitrous oxide, and the birth of the romantic movement happening right around the same time.

- Yes, I mean, Coleridge was not proud of his drug use. He was ashamed of it. But this is just the meliar where people are starting to, you know, and the German romantics, Goethe and so on are starting to look for something that goes beyond reasons. You know, they're developing the idea that great poetry should not be worked over and polished. It should never be revised. It should be, you know, that's sort of up rush from the subconscious mind. And that's the sort of authenticity that we're after. So yes, you can see how the philosophy and the literature and the broader romantic movement all emerged. And you can see why nitrous oxide was so interesting at that point.

- So one of Coleridge's proteges, another romantic poet, Thomas de Quincey, wrote this book that became a sensation in England, "Confessions of an Opium Eater", what was de Quincey's interest in opium.

- I think he was doing something very original, which was, the clue is in the title, "Confessions of an English Opium Eater", you know, the book is not actually about opium, it's about the opium eater. So it's autobiography, memoir, but he's using opium to open up a new form of autobiography. He writes about how when he takes opium, and he will often wander around in London at night, losing himself in the theater crowds and having reveries. And suddenly these childhood memories will pop up that he hasn't thought of for ages, extraordinary dreams will appear. And he has the sense on opium, he can wander the labyrinths of his mind and connect all these different dreams and memories and visions and sensations. So it's a new kind of dream autobiography with opium as its light motif.

- Hmm. There were plenty of other people in the middle of the 19th century who really took to psychoactive substances. There was a French physician, you write about, Jacques Joseph Moreau, who wrote about self experiments with hashish. What was he up to?

- Jacques Joseph Moreau was what we would now call a psychiatrist. So he was a physician at a mental hospital in Paris, and he was in the habit of accompanying his sort of wealthy patients on rest tours. So he did some tourism in Egypt where he was fascinated by the absence of alcohol, the relatively low levels of mental illness compared to France, and the prevalence of hashish, and the way in which people who took hashish would talk about their dreams and their visions and their encounters with gin or other supernatural identities, things that might get you locked up in France. But, you know, it seemed to be a different type of consciousness that he got fascinated by, fascinated enough to take hashish himself. At that time in Egypt, it was usually eaten and usually eaten in quite large doses. So Moreau's experiments were very gung-ho. He takes large oral doses of hashish and is prostrated and unable to move or speak for hours, and wrapped up in hallucinations that are unfolding too fast for him to record. So his first interest is as a psychiatrist, he believes in walking as far as you can, as much as you can in your patient's shoes. You know, that's why he was in Egypt in the first place. But as he points out, the one place where we can't accompany our patients is over the threshold into madness. But with hashish, he noticed it himself. So many of the phenomena that he was treating in his patients, hallucinations and deliriums and errors of time and space and paranoid ideation. So he really felt that the great use of it would be for doctors that they should take it themselves, that they would then understand a little bit more what was going on in their patient's head.

- That's fascinating because wasn't that the argument a a hundred years later when Stan Groff was, for instance, doing some of his early experiments, his own use of LSD as he thought this would help him understand his patients, possibly schizophrenics?

- That's right, and when the model of psychotomimetics emerged, to what we now call psychedelics in the 1950s, I guess you could say that Joseph Moreau was the father of that, but he was more broadly interested, I think, in the relationship between this kind of the hashish experience and dream and madness. So just as Humphry Davy had done with the romantic poets, Moreau started a literary hashish salon, which his fame outgrew his, and it's remembered much more widely than he is today. It was called the Club des Hashischins. The Hashish Club salon was held in this beautiful old baroque room in a hotel in the old medieval center of Paris. And many of the great figures of mid 19th-century French literary culture like Balzac, and Dumas, and Flaubert, Baudelaire, and... Passed through its doors taking them into this world of dreams and magic and madness.

- Well, and you say that these mind altering substances also had a big impact on English literature. Robert Lewis Stevenson's, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", Oscar Wilde's, "Dorian Gray". Sherlock Holmes, the great character of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was apparently addicted to both cocaine and morphine. I mean, there was something in the air about why these writers kept going back to this territory.

- Yes, I mean, we, Brits were a bit later than the French. It was really in the sort of end of the 19th century, a generation later, that we kind of caught this fascination. Drugs were fascinating in many ways to these writers, partly as a literary trope. If you wanted to take somebody out of a mundane world into a world of fantasy or science fiction or horror, they could stumble upon some strange drug. But people were also at that point living in a culture which was saturated by sort of drugs at a very commercialized consumerist pharmacy where people were being offered drugs like cocaine all the time with all kinds of miracle cures. And then there'd be other voices in other parts of the medical profession saying they were very dangerous and they seemed to be transforming life, transforming the human experience. And there was a great appetite, I think, for fictions that took these ideas and worked with them and developed them.

- I'm talking with Mike Jay, the author of, "Psychonauts: Drugs and The Making of The Modern Mind." You're listening to Luminous, a series about the philosophy and history of psychedelics. Well, certainly one of the most fascinating examples of self-experimentation was Sigmund Freud, who became obsessed with cocaine early in his career. Didn't he really think that this was going to be the great new miracle drug?

- Yes, he did, and he was, you know, in the early stages of cocaine being taken up by the pharmaceutical industry in the mid 1880s, he was often referred to as the world's leading medical expert on it. He published several papers on it. He was very ambitious for success and for money. At this point, he'd been a medical student, extremely hardworking, really working on two different tracks and quite impoverished and, you know, unable to afford to marry. So there was an element of opportunism here. But I think his work on, certainly his early work on cocaine is fascinating. It unites two different forms of self-experiment. He's working in Vienna with very strictly sort of mechanist and materialist psychologists who trying to drill down and find the mechanisms in the nerves and the brain for all this. But of course, Freud was also romantic. He loved a Von Humboldt and Goethe, and he was fascinated by this richer self-experimental tradition. So he becomes identified with it for better or worse. And as it turns out, very much for worse, because this is the point-

- Wait, wait, early on, before he turned against it, why was he so gung-ho about cocaine? What did he think it could do for people?

- The great disease of the age in the late 19th century was neurasthenia, it's not a term that we use anymore, but I think if we talk about, you know, a lot of the time when we're talking about anxiety or depression, or autoimmune, you know, a lot of the diagnoses we have now are things that would've been, people would've been diagnosed with neurasthenia. And there was a feeling that society had started to run in the rapid time of the machine. Everybody was working long hours working in factories. A lot of people were having nervous breakdowns or suffering, what we'd now call burnout. And there was a feeling that the human mind, and, you know, the human metabolism was just not geared up for this kind of living. So everybody was looking for, as a stimulant or something that could magically provide more energy. And Freud's diagnosed himself as a neurasthenic, and he believed that cocaine was the sort of sovereign treatment for this, 'cause it had many components. It gave you more energy, it was also an antidepressant and euphoric. And he wondered whether it wasn't sort of simply like a drug that stimulated the nervous system and gave you a short-term boost of energy. He wondered whether the mental state that it produced, the euphoria, might not kind of operate a switch in the mind that allowed us access to more energy than normal. So he thought that cocaine might be the thing that would bring us up to speed with modern life.

- Hmm, and he took copious amounts of cocaine himself, didn't he?

- I mean, Sigmund Freud was not then the Freud of today. He was a young medical student, and cocaine was not the cocaine of today. It didn't have that reputation. I think since Freud and cocaine now have that reputation, it's seems very shocking that Freud took cocaine. And it's often assumed that he took huge quantities of it, or was addicted to it, or his judgment or balance were affected by it. My feeling is that the opposite is the case. He was a very sober and cautious fellow, and he took it in very small doses. And I think that was the problem with his self-experimentation, because he only ever took a small dose, usually dissolved in water. He never followed it up with another one. So a few years later when people discovered that you could inject enormous quantities of cocaine and then almost immediately go into manic states of collapse and nervous breakdown, Freud was blindsided by this. It wasn't that he'd taken too much cocaine, he'd taken too little.

- Hmm. So when did things sour for Freud on cocaine? When did he realize, "Oh, this is a problem drug?"

- It was around about this time that our modern medical notion of addiction was coming into focus. And it came into focus really in sort of private clinics. Nerve doctors were the first people who were started seeing patients, and maybe the very first of all these patients was one of Freud's himself, one of his senior colleagues who he worshiped, von Fleischl, who suffered from terrible pain from an infected amputation and was taking a lot of morphine. And Freud recommended him cocaine, which he took and it worked. And during the 10 days that it was working, well, then both he and Freud lept into prints to say, "Here's a cure for morphine addiction." But not very long after that, von Fleischl, who was subject to excruciating pain whenever he stopped taking drugs, was soon enough taking large amounts of cocaine, as well as his large amounts of morphine.

- And then Freud tried to bury this whole history, right? I mean, as he became famous, he sort of wanted to erase this from the historical record as much as he could, you know, and didn't talk about cocaine in his later years.

- That's right. Maybe one sentence about it in his short autobiography. But when his collected works were finally reprinted, the cocaine papers weren't in it. And his first biographer, Ernest Jones, minimized it and described it as the cocaine episode, which makes it sound slightly like a sort of episode of mental illness that we should pass over quite quickly, and just sort of dismissed it as a juvenile aberration. And that's the line that his followers have tended to follow ever since.

- Hmm. You know what I find so striking about this story of Freud and then the earlier stories that we talked about, you know, Humphry Davy and Coleridge is, it seems like the psychoactive substances of their time were responding to something in the culture. I mean, there was something that was missing, something that people were hungering for, and they found these amazing mind expanding substances, almost like they were looking for some sort of salvation in response to what was going on at that time.

- Yes, that's a very good point. I think they're also starting to realize that this rational model of the mind was being superseded. And that drugs were, to use term of Freud's, a royal road to the parts of the mind, the subliminal mind, the unconscious, that weren't normally accessible. And doctors or scientists, you know, who were like Humphry Davy, heroic explorers, you know, there was lasting fame and fortune to be found here. These were drugs which produced- Had extraordinary effects on consciousness. So I think in their different ways, all these figures believe that there's an enormous discovery to be made out there if they can be intrepid explorers of these internal region, the unseen region as another psychonaut, William James called it.

- Well, let's talk about William James, because he is such a key figure in this history, especially in the late 19th century. You know, the great psychologist and philosopher William James who struggled with depression throughout his life, but he was also obsessed with trying to understand the mind and the nature of consciousness. And he had his own nitrous oxide experiences, didn't he?

- Yes, he did, he also, like Freud diagnosed himself as neurasthenic, he took nitrous oxide in the early 1880s, on the strength of a very eccentric paper that he'd been sent by a kind of amateur psychonaut, if you like, called Benjamin Paul Blood, who'd first encountered it, as many people did at the dentist, and had a very extraordinary cosmic epiphany and continued to experiment and believed that it had led him to the ultimate truth. So this peaked William James' interest, and James also had a similar cosmic epiphany for which he came back with a very strange scrolls and little bits of what he'd later call stream of consciousness. But I think it was an experience that really stuck with him because he'd always been interested in mystical experience, and he'd never really had one himself. And he'd felt that he was this kind of cold, rational soul who was never gonna have one. And he worried that there was this huge, obviously important domain of experience that he was never gonna have himself. And so I think William James's nitrous oxide experience was a revelation for him personally as well as professionally.

- What makes you wonder if he could have written his great book on religion, "The Varieties of Religious Experience", if he hadn't had those experiences with nitrous oxide, if he hadn't had his own mystical experiences?

- Yes, and he places them right at the center of varieties of mystical experience in perhaps its most famous passage, certainly its most famous passage in psychedelic science today, he says that our waking consciousness is just one form of consciousness, and there are all these other forms of consciousness. All you have to do is inhale a gas, or maybe swallow some hashish or... And you're suddenly in a different world where your perceptions are different, your sensations are different, the world feels different to you, you feel differently about it. So what do we do with these experiences? Do we simply disqualify them because they're drug induced? And James felt that was unwarranted. Experience is experience. You can't disqualify certain types of experience just because they're produced by drugs. And all experiences feed into our lives. Just as William James' nitrous oxide experience fed into his own life and altered the direction of his work.

- Well, it seems that William James seems so contemporary today because he was wrestling with the same kinds of questions that we wrestle with now. I mean, he was very much a man of science, a medical doctor who cared a lot about scientific proof. But he also had this fascination with mystical experience, with the paranormal. I mean, he would go and attend seances to try to figure out if they were the real thing. And it seems like he really wanted to understand the mind scientifically if he could, but he wasn't at all sure that science could actually ever really crack the mystery of consciousness.

- Yes, so he saw the study of the mind, he saw introspection as central to it. And I think that's partly why he's so interesting to us now. 'Cause he was in a world as we are now, where mainstream science of the mind was very positivist. You know, by this time, psychology had appeared and starting to map the nervous- The structure of the nerves that correlated with this. And James got less and less interest in this. You know, he thought that the mind was much more complicated than that. It wasn't one simple light bulb of tension followed by another in a series. It was, as he described it, a blooming, buzzing confusion. There are many, many things going on in our minds at the same time. Some of the mundane and trivial others, you know, possibly very profound. And you can't simply put people in a laboratory and extract the contents of their mind in that way. Even if you created the precise same stimuli, then the snapshot that you took of that stream of consciousness would be different. So he was trying to find ways of exploring the mind in these broader terms that sort of verged into, you know, literature and philosophy. So I think his attempts to do that are just fascinating for us today.

- So what happened then in the late 1800s, the early 1900s? Why did drugs become stigmatized? Why did they develop this very negative reputation?

- It's a really interesting question. I think there are many components to it. You can see there are medical concerns about them. These are drugs that are addictive and bad for your health and should only be used under the supervision of a doctor. So you're starting to define a population of drug users. And that population also is very heavily tinged with ethnic stereotypes. The Chinese, for example, are well-known opium users. And cocaine is particularly a problem for the black population of the southern states. And this is the progressive era. This is the time when grassroots campaigns are starting to increase the scope of government.

- This was the time of also the crackdown on alcohol prohibition in the United States.

- Yes, this is leading up to alcohol prohibition. And actually at this time, alcohol is regarded as the most problematic, the most difficult substance. How can we possibly have a civilized society in the 20th century where people are allowed to get drunk all the time? It's simply not gonna work. And also psychology itself at this point is moving away from introspection. This is the beginning of behaviorism and what goes on in the black box of the mind of consciousness. We can ignore that, it's getting more productive running our laboratory rats around mazes than it is listening to people pontificating about their drug experiences.

- My guest is Mike Jay, an independent historian based in London, who's written a series of books on the history of intoxicants. His latest is called "Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind." So to try to put our current moment of fascination with psychedelics in some historic perspective, I mean, given this history that you've just been telling us about going back 200 years, what is it that it might reveal about where we are right now with this psychedelic renaissance that we might not realize otherwise if we weren't aware of this history?

- I think it gives us a very different way of thinking about where we are now. The prevailing assumption in the psychedelic renaissance, as we call it, is this kind of drug experience suddenly emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. It was summarily squashed by mainstream science and medicine, and we're now just beginning to recover it. You know, this story that I'm telling about the 19th century, which goes further back than that, shows a rather different picture. It suggests that the things that we're interested in today, the power of drugs to give us positive experiences, to help us understand the minds, to be therapeutic, to open up dimensions of thought and experience and maybe reality that we wouldn't otherwise discover, this has been a fascination that goes all the way back to the beginning of science. And certainly all the way back to the scientific revolution and the war on drugs, as we call it, which we sort of thought of as the background all our lives. Maybe that's just a brief blip. That's the first half of the 20th century, and now we're back on track on the longer program that we've been pursuing for a long time and have a great deal to learn from its history.

- There's another thing that's going on now, is psychedelics have a very positive reputation right now. I mean, very recently, in the last few years, unlike so many other drugs that historically have been used for mind altering experiences, you know, whether it's cocaine, or heroin, morphine, there's a psychedelic exceptionalism sort of like, you know, psychedelics are their own thing and they stand apart from the rest of this history.

- Yes, I think that's right. And it's partly this business of wanting to escape from the stigma of drugs. But one of the things I noticed, and I've organized the book in this way really, sort of looking at where we are now and the things that interest us now, things like drugs and the limits of consciousness. You know, what happens when we take drugs that disembody us and take us into realms of pure experience? You know, is this a part of the mind that we can't normally access? Is it simply just, you know, white noise produced by a drug adult brain? Or do these other dimensions of mind that we can't normally access? Do they connect? Do they connect to other people via telepathy? Do they connect to other dimensions? Are these these entities that we meet on DMT or ketamine? You know, these kind of conversations were exactly what scientists and writers and doctors were having in the 19th century, but they weren't using DMT and ketamine. They were using mostly things like chloroform or ether, nitrous oxide or hashish. So I think in this sense, we can see that psychedelics, when the term emerged in the 1950s, it occupied a preexisting niche. You know, we already had this conversation about drugs in our culture, and psychedelics have colonized it. So as you say, I think it undermines this psychedelic exceptionalism. It points us to looking more at why these particular substances are being used now, and what kind of heavy lifting the word psychedelic is doing in separating us from a deeper history or a history that relates to other perhaps more problematic drugs.

- So you have talked about all of this wearing your scholarly hat here, you have done all of this research, and I'm wondering how personal this gets for you. I mean, you've posed the big questions. Do psychedelics for instance, you know, tap into some different dimension of consciousness?

- Mm-hm.

- What do you think personally?

- Well, I've experimented thoroughly with all these drugs over a long period of time now. I guess like the time I really immersed myself in this subject was the 1990s. And at that time there was quite a small scholarly literature. And to anybody who'd taken any of these drugs, it was quite obvious that the scholarly literature was written by people who hadn't. You know, you'd rarely get through the first page without realizing that, "Okay, this person hasn't actually taken this substance." And it was always a very top down discipline, the kind of drug history, it was always about the construction of the notion of addiction and origin of drug control regimes. And it always was framed in these terms of what shall we do about the drug problem? And the assumption that anybody who took drugs was part of the drug problem. So this furrow that I've been plowing for a long time, I've always been foregrounding, you know, the drug experience and trying to create a kind of history from below. Yeah, more recently, like in my last book, which was a history of mescaline. I wrote about my mescaline experiences. Points where it was kind of, I thought, useful for the reader.

- Were these experiences revelatory for you personally?

- I think they were, I don't think I'd be writing about drugs and psychedelics 30 years later if they hadn't been. And I think as William James would say, it's not necessarily what you bring back. You can come back from a wonderful cosmic epiphany with a line that kind of evaporates in the daylight and looks like gibberish. And you can't measure the experience on that basis. But I guess I would've to say the way in which these drugs really shook my image of reality early on was just by quite radically recalibrating my sense of how much of the world and how much of reality was actually out there, and how much was being constructed in the mind. So I think they sent me in a direction of realizing that there was much, much more of what we thought was reality was going on in here than out there.

- Well, I mean, the other thing that you're writing about as well is this whole history of self-experimentation.

- Mm-hm.

- Which is a big issue in psychedelic research today. I mean, there are a lot of scientists who study psychedelics who don't want to talk about their experiences. I mean, whether they've had them or not, I mean, I kind of assume that nearly everyone has. I mean, who studies it? I mean, why wouldn't you? I mean, yes, it's illegal, and there are questions of credibility, but on the other hand you have to wonder, can you actually study these experiences if you have not had them? Because it's such a different way of experiencing the world and experiencing the mind. And it seems like maybe that's something that contemporary science has to come to terms with.

- Yeah, I mean, I think it's enormously valuable to have direct personal experience because even though it's science, what we're studying is a state of consciousness, a subjective sensation that is only available to the subject, otherwise you are just studying its correlates. And I think for some branches of science, psycho-pharmacology, for example, you know, you're used to studying correlates. You spent decades kind of sectioning up rat's brains, you know, and that's what you do. But I think for a lot of people, they are curious about it and it does inform their research. It's a bit like... The analogy I sometimes use is travel writing. Of course, you could write a book about Venice without going to Venice, 'cause you can read all the other books about Venice, but it's hard to argue that your book wouldn't be better if you had actually been to Venice yourself. But I think self-experimentation is a hybrid form. It always has been. There is no perfect or correct way to do it. Part of you is an observer, and part of you is a subject. And you are trying to find the right point on the slider, as it were, between objective data and, you know, giving a thorough, subjective description. And I think another way in which self experiment is hybrid is the literary form that it takes. I think it's partly scientific form. You are partly trying to record data, and we have all these protocols which go way back into the history of science. You know, this is the time and this is the dosage I'm taking. And 30 minutes later starting to notice these sensations. And, but you also want to give a fuller sense of the subjective experience. So maybe what you end up with is also a hybrid of science and literature. So I think if you look at the psychedelic renaissance today, most of it is composed of, you know, very dry papers on neuroscience and receptor chemistry and so on. But then you look at the, you know, the great towering bestseller of the psychedelic renaissance, Michael Pollan's book, and, you know, he puts this into Layman's terms beautifully using lots of metaphors about our minds getting stuck in ruts and being rigid, and psychedelics connecting different areas of the brain and so on. But I think what really attracted people to his book was his self experiments, his descriptions, 'cause people are fascinated by these ideas like neuroplasticity and so on. But what they're really fascinated by is, what's this like? What does it feel like? What might it do for me? So that's where self experiment belongs. And I think even though it's excluded from a lot of neuroscientific research, I think it's very present in the psychedelic renaissance, in the areas where the science meets the literature and the broader public understanding.

- So where would you like this psychedelic renaissance to go from here? I mean, it seems like you're saying that maybe it's become overly medicalized and something else needs to happen, or another sort of dimension of this needs to surface that we're not seeing so much of these days.

- Yes, I'd like to see a thousand flowers bloom. A lot of people who are interested in psychedelics now would use them themselves personally and privately. And you might describe that as self-medication, or you might describe it as recreational, or you might describe it as spiritual. It really doesn't matter how you self describe it. Some people will want to have guides for this experience. And of those people who want guides, some people will want shamanic guides or mindfulness guides. But some people will doubtless want clinically, medically, state-approved psychotherapists. And I think that should be allowed and that should be available. But it seems to me that that's gonna be a subset of the future. And that's really where the entire conversation is at the moment. Then this very tricky question of how the medical profession manages this, how it licenses this. All those questions are important, but I'd like to see more attention being paid to the fact that there are other models beyond the medical and beyond the therapeutic. And I think with the sort of first steps of decriminalization of plants, psychedelics, and in Oregon and in Colorado, we're starting to see this, what I might call a bottom-up model, which I hope might compliment the top-down authorized medical scientific model.

- Do you worry about the dangers, though? I mean, as these substances, psilocybin, other psychedelics become more available, become decriminalized, and a lot of the safeguards come off. I mean, these are very powerful substances that, you know, can cause a lot of harm without proper screening. You worry about the dangers?

- I do. I think if large numbers of people start taking psychedelics, particularly against the background of this hype where everybody's going into it expecting that this is gonna be a one-off experience that's going to resolve their decades-long, maybe lifelong traumas or mental health issues, I think that's an unrealistic explanation. I think many, many people are bound to have terrible and traumatic experiences. And I think we haven't really tested the water in terms of litigation here. You know, do people start, you know, go to see another therapist who says, "What? Your therapist gave you these dangerous drugs in your condition? Are you gonna sue them?" You know, so I think there's an awful lot to work out. And there is a very optimistic school within sort of psychedelic science, which is, oh, there's no such thing as a bad trip. That just means we haven't got the molecule quite right, or we haven't got the setting quite right. Or wear your eye shades and listen to this music, and it'll be fine. I don't believe that's true. I think what we call the bad trip, or what we might call this challenging psychedelic experience is always gonna be part of the story.

- It sounds like you're also saying we're still in the early stages of this psychedelic renaissance. There's a lot that we still have to figure out.

- I think that's right, and I think, I mean, I've certainly learned an enormous amount from talking to and becoming friends with people in indigenous cultures who have a very, very different orientation towards this. And there are many societies around the world that have been using these psychedelic substances for decades, centuries, millennia, and have evolved a very stable way of using them, which has mastered all these challenges. And they're still going strong. They've achieved a kind of homeostasis here, a kind of equilibrium. And I think we'd be very, very foolish not to learn from that.

- Okay. Well, this has been absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much.

- Oh, it's been a great pleasure, Steve.

- Mike Jay is the author of "Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind." You're listening to Luminous, our series about psychedelics from To the Best of our Knowledge, you'll find more interviews on the science and philosophy of psychedelics on our website at And I hope you're subscribing to the Luminous Podcast feed. To the Best of our Knowledge is produced in Madison, Wisconsin. Joe Harkey is our technical director, Sarah Hopeful did the sound design for this episode, and Mark Rickers is our digital producer. I'm Steve Paulson, thanks for listening.

Last modified: 
January 31, 2024