It can be argued that our ability to store and pass human knowledge down from one generation to the next is the single most distinguishing feature of human societies. However, what is ultimately passed down does not always travel a straightforward linear path. Science historian James Burke showed, in his famous 1978 book and BBC series Connections, the surprising nonlinear path that scientific knowledge and invention has taken from the past to the present. Burke’s central thesis was that it was not possible to trace the development of any one piece of the modern world in isolation because everything is interconnected in a web of inter-relationships, like a gigantic human gestalt. For example, collective behaviour emerges from individual actors who each have no awareness of the final destination. So, the development of scientific knowledge can come from many unusual or overlooked sources.
One of those largely ignored areas that has had a definitive but unquantified impact on human experience is drug culture. As we shall see, entire civilizations have at one time or another deemed it socially acceptable to ingest large and regular doses of psychoactive substances. A psychoactive drug is a chemical substance that changes brain function and results in changes in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behaviour. This includes not only things like illegal narcotics, but also common everyday items for sale in a shop near you like alcohol, sugar, chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes. Many of these have now been found to be harmful and are classified as illicit today, and unfortunately many are still legally sold.
In ancient cultures, drug use began as a means for practitioners to form a deeper spiritual connection, as an aphrodisiac, or as a folk remedy to heal mental, emotional or physical ailments. More recently, in the 17th century, they began as ways to treat pain or as a panacea. As drug use spread, however, the dark side of addiction and psychological impairment became apparent.
The mass consumption of psychoactive substances raises an intriguing question: what effect does a mind-altered state have on the way a culture experiences the world. That experience ultimately informs the culture’s worldview, and subsequently of the knowledge it produces. If entire cultures indulged in mind-altering substances, it is reasonable to expect detectable changes in worldviews, narratives, mental models and decision-making behaviour? Human beings under the influence of psychoactive substances experience reality in a different way. Drugs can offer a way to stripe away our deep conditioning to reveal the raw, naked world that exists before mental framing of it. This space is the sphere of the intuitive mind, not the rationalist. It is perhaps this view that offers a potentially tantalizing naked experience of reality, free of relative, learned frames of reference. If it is absolute truth we are after, rather than relative, safe psychoactive compounds may offer a way to experience it.
Given that mind-altering drugs have permeated our culture over the past three centuries, it must have played a not-insignificant role in the convoluted course history has taken to arrive at our current world. As democracy began to take on more traction, what part did the outsized impact of a collective drug-induced haze have on it? Did the non-linear spurts of out-the-box, creative thinking suggest ideas that may not have otherwise emerged? Did a drug-induced state affect the policies that developed? Did it change who voted, and who didn’t, and therefore the evolution of policy?
One argument is that our modern world can be argued to be the outcome of the Enlightenment. Therefore, The application of reason to every facet of society is the prima facie of our modern age. Yet, as we shall see in our survey of this period of history, opiates entered benignly into the lives of many citizens while they were promoted as a universal panacea. This was at a time when medical knowledge was limited, and diseases took many lives causing much misery. Dropsy, consumption, rheumatism, and ague were all familiar parts of everyday life. Even as late as the 19th century, there was still no known cures for cholera and dysentery. These two terminal diseases often caused death by excruciating diarrhea. In a short period, opiates became entangled in the lives of a large percentage of Europeans across the continent. By the time their addictive qualities became known, it was too late. Historians have a good idea of the scale of drug abuse during this time. However, it is difficult to know the full impact about the effects of psychoactive compounds on culture, epistemology, and politics of the 17th to the 20th century as it was so prevalent.
Although few large scale studies have been conducted on the collective cultural impact of opiate addiction, the many historical accounts of high doses of widespread usage of opiates can be combined with currently known neurological impacts to develop a plausible theory of cultural and knowledge impact. Some of the known risks of opiate addiction include varying levels of cognitive impairment, dissociation, psychological dysfunction, and severe brain damage if taken at sufficiently high levels.
If we trace the history of the drug culture, we find that it has been a part of humanity since our earliest days. Many ancient civilizations used concentrated plant compounds both for healing and as a way to achieve altered states of consciousness. However today some people have morphed psychoactive compounds into a substance that is harmful and abusive. It is also somewhat of a twist of irony that many of today’s destructive illicit narcotics have their roots in modern pharmacological research labs whose aim was to find drugs that benefited humanity. That is a progress trap.
Further tracing drug culture, anthropologists have found that psychoactive substances to many different indigenous cultures throughout human history. 2,500-year-old hallucinogenic huffing bowls have been discovered on islands in the Lesser Antilles. It is known that the people of the Andes mountains in South America chewed coca leaves for several millennia. Ayahuasca, a mixture of Amazonian plant ingredients centred around the Banisteriopsiscaapi vine, has been used by South American tribes in sacred ceremonies for longer than we can know, and the same goes for Peyote and psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico and Iboga plant in Africa. So, not only have psychedelics profoundly shaped the worldview of our early ancestors, but also of our recent ancestors. They shift in time can also be paralleled in a shift in use, for drugs have become much more harmful recently.
One drug, that has, and continues to have a profound effect on humanity is the seed of the poppy. It has a long history of widespread use wherever it travelled. There is even early anthropological evidence of it from a Neolithic burial site near Barcelona. The ancient Greeks considered opium sacred, and poppy seeds were described In ancient medical texts such as the Ebers Papyrus written in 1550BC, describing it as a sedative. In the Minoan civilization (2700 to 1450 BC), it was described as a sedative to calm crying babies. Still more evidence points to Arab scholars using opium to treat disease and as a general anaesthetic. Opium was introduced as a method to protect and treat wealthy patients after the plague. It was popular with citizens in the Persian Empire during the late medieval period, rulers of the Mughal Empire ate opium and the combination of wine and opium intoxicated emperor Jahangir. Opium, among other drugs became widespread, and remains so today.
The modern trade of opium began when European countries began cultivating opium and selling it to China. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders became aware of the lucrative medicinal and recreational demand for Arab-supplied opium in China. Portuguese colonialists had learned about the North American aboriginal use of smoking tobacco and were inspired to create a new product for the Chinese market – opium mixed with tobacco which could be smoked. The new product became a hit, and recreational smoking of opium quickly ballooned. Addiction spread rapidly, creating such a crisis in China that in 1729, the emperor Yung-cheng criminalized the recreational smoking of opium. Yet, the extraordinary steps he took were of no avail because demand was so high. In 1764 in the province of Bengal, India, the British won the Battle of Buxar and the British East Indian Company (EIC) took over the former Mughal emperor’s opium production monopoly. The British had a powerful motivation to grow opium more efficiently and then sell it to China. Because of the growing trend of consumerism in Britain, there was an increasing hunger for all products Chinese, including teas, spices, silk, and porcelain pottery. However, the Chinese at this time had no desire for European products.
Consequently, there was a huge trade imbalance. Britain needed something valuable to sell to China, whether by legal or illegal means, and opium fit the bill. So the British experimented and perfected the efficient growing of opium in Bengal and began a long relationship with Chinese smugglers to get the poppy into China. The British would receive gold and silver and use that to purchase teas, spices, silk and porcelain pottery to bring back to Europe. The black market trade became so lucrative that annual shipments increased from 200 chests in 1729, 1,000 chests in 1767, 10,000 chests in 1820 and 40,000 chests in 1838. By that time, the trade imbalance was in favor of Britain.
China tried to break the illegal supply chains set up by the British in the first Opium War in 1839-42 and again in the second Opium War in 1856-60, but to no avail. In 1849, the American gold rush brought thousands of Chinese migrants to work in the California gold fields, and they brought their opium smoking habits with them. Migrant Chinese workers set up opium dens in “Chinatowns” throughout the western United States. By 1870, opium smoking had spread to become a favorite pastime for many Americans. By the second Opium War, Britain and France had allied to fight the Chinese army. The Chinese government was forced to legalize opium and levied a small import tax. By that time, imports were between 50,000 and 60,000 chests annually and continued increasing for the next three decades. By 1906, opium had run its course and was on the decline in China. In 1907, China signed the Ten Years’ Agreement with India to limit importation, cultivation, and consumption of opium so that it ceased entirely over a period of ten years.
While the opium trade was starting up in China, back in Europe, the medicinal properties of opium caught the attention of one Thomas Sydenham, a physician who in 1676 published a recipe for an opium tincture called laudanum and thereafter, it was used to treat all manner of ailments up until after the second world war. Indeed, it would seem that the whole of Europe had become dependent on it.
In The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Social History of Drugs, a comprehensive modern history of narcotics, historian Richard Davenport-Hines describes the growing fascination of opium displayed by classically educated men. Exposed to a new literary genre of traveller’s tales, they were the first to embrace experimentation with the new drug. French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517-64) travelled in Asia Minor and Egypt, and in 1546 reported that “There is no Turk who would not buy opium with his last penny; he carries it on him in war and peace. They eat opium because they think that thus become more daring and have less fear of the dangers of war. In war-time, such quantities are purchased that it is difficult to find any left.” Samuel Purchas, the vicar of a Thames-side parish who met many sailors, reported similar such tales of the Turks. Davenport Hines also shares the account of Cristobal Acosta, a Spanish physician who in 1582 published a treatise on the drugs and medicines of the East Indies. In it, Acosta gives an account of how the sexual effects of opium were known among medical students and doctors alike of Arab, Parsee, Turkish, Corazon, Sundasi, Malayan, Chinese and Malabar descent. Imaginative men who took opium to enhance their sexual performance often instead suffered premature ejaculation, Acosta wrote. It overheated them. However, for unimaginative men, it helped them to last longer and climax at the same time as his female partner.
In 17th and 18th century Europe, opium became not only acceptable and legal but indispensable for medical treatment of all manner of disease. Of course, there was no such thing as Tylenol or other Pain Killers. Kramer wrote “Opium would become indispensable to the practice of medicine. It would be used freely to allay suffering, not only from pain, and cough, but also from insomnia, and neurological and psychiatric disorders.”
Kramer described the experience of many physicians, who prescribed opiates as a universal pain panacea, unaware that it’s over prescription would result in a drug addiction epidemic. While some regarded psychoactive compounds with deep suspicion and fear, science seemed to revel in experimenting with them. Early experimenters like Robert Hooke were fascinated with the exotic medicines global trade had brought back to England. Hooke himself purchased samples of cannabis, conducted experiments on anonymous subjects, and reported their effects back to members of the Royal Society.
Pharmacists such as John Awsiter expressed concerns about addiction in the 17th and 18th century. He wrote that were the pleasure-inducing effects of opium became universally known, widespread habituation would ensue. In the 19th century, while some authors reported the sedative effects of opium, others contended that opium would act as only as an exciter, increasing physical vigour and clearing the mind. Although the mechanisms behind opium were still mostly unknown, it had nevertheless become a major form of therapeutic support during the Victorian era. In those days, it was routine to walk into a chemist and buy laudanum, cocaine, and even arsenic without a prescription. Opium preparations and tinctures were sold like sugar is today. To illustrate this, let us refer to French doctor J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur who noted the particularly addictive qualities that women displayed, saying that “taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deep-rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence.” In trying to do good, physicians were unknowingly becoming perpetrators of harm.
In spite of the apparent dangers of addiction, depression and neurological disorders, it was the positive effects associated with opium such as pain relief, psychedelic experiences, and euphoria that drew entire nations to it. Opium helped dull the terrible pain that some experienced. After all, with primitive medical treatment, even a simple scratch could outright kill a person. Life indeed was nasty, brutish, and short. Therefore, by the time of the Enlightenment, opium had become almost ubiquitous. It was a universal drug used for its many benefits, needed by the legions of ill. In the United States, the Civil War launched the opioid crisis by issuing 10 million opium pills and 2.8 million ounces of opium powder and tincture to its soldiers.
In Victorian England, one tincture stood above all, laudanum, a concoction invented by the physician Thomas Sydenham which included two ounces of opium, one ounce of saffron, a drachm of cinnamon and cloves, all dissolved in Canary wine. Three famous poets, Shelley, Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe were said to be opium addicts. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is reputed to have taken 40 drops of laudanum a day when she began her correspondences with her future husband, Robert Browning. Other notable addicts include George Grabbe and Francis Thompson as well as writer De Quincey and novelist Wilkie Collins. 13
Quincey revealed that he took opium for the first time in 1804 when studying in the Worcester College, Oxford, as pain relief for tooth pain. He described the initial impact it made on him
“… within one hour, oh, Lord! What an extraordinary change! What a resurrection from the most unreachable depths of spirit! What a revelation of my inner world. The disappearance of my pains seemed insignificant. This negative effect was consumed in the abyss of a divine and suddenly revealed pleasure. Here was the panacea for each and any human suffering; here was the secret to happiness.”
In the Romantic era, poets were known to have relied on laudanum to help them access places within their psyche that could not be accessed any other way. In The Milk of Paradise, M.H. Abrams analyzes the impact of opium addiction on the literary work of four leading writers of the day, Crabbe, Coleridge, De Quincey, and Francis Thompson, who were all addicted to opium. The waking dreams revealed by their writings indicate wild swings from the heights of bliss to the abyss of terror.
Given that medical science today knows so much about the profound and often detrimental impact such drugs have on the brain, it is surprising that no large scale historical study has ever been conducted to examine the social effects that widespread and centuries-long consumption of such a powerful hallucinogenic would have on European culture, knowledge, behavior, and norms. Is it conceivable, for instance, that the mind-bending nature of the drugs would induce states of amazing creativity insights, leading to brand new discoveries?
Indeed, the common association of drugs and artists heralds back to the poets and artists of the Romantic era, who, as we’ve seen had regularly taken Laudanum. It is not inconceivable then, that the significant legacy left behind by the Romantic era can be attributed, at least in part, to psychoactive substances. The pre-eminent poets of the era such as Woodsworth, Keats, Shelley, Blake, Coleridge and Byron tapped into their own imagination. sometimes through psychoactive journeys, to illuminate and develop a coherent vision of the world, one that would restore our spirituality. Poets made the claim to be interpreters of reality. Shelley himself said ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ In music, composers moved away from the formal structures of classical composition and towards deeper emotional expression. Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Berlioz and Mendelssohn set the stage, and were followed by Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, and Tchaikovsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, Bartok, Mahler, Stravinsky, Puccini, Rachmaninoff, and in modern times, George Rochberg and David Del Tredici. This list is far from exhaustive.
In art, Romantic painters also strove for deeper emotional expression. In sculpture, Auguste Rodin tried to capture the inner lives of his subjects. In portraiture, painters explored feelings, inner psychological states, nature through animals and the innocence of children. In political ideology, empathy for the oppressed, liberation, emancipation and the individual’s contribution to social progress were common themes.
These professed intuitives rejected the rationalism of the Enlightenment and encouraged their audience to look for the healing power found in nature and in their own imagination to transcend the difficulties in everyday life. Romantic reverence for nature encouraged the travel into new physical and imaginative spaces. Romantics saw the journey of life as one of liberation and the world as one filled with unlimited potential. The Romantic perspective continues to have a profound impact on culture today. The 1960s counter-culture revolution with its focus on rebellion, a “back to nature” sensibility, exotic Eastern mysticism reflected Romatic sensibilities.
In 1803, German chemist Friedrich Serturner isolated morphine from opium, producing a pain killer that was ten times the strength of those that came before. During the American civil war, morphine was prescribed to soldiers, and when the war ended, 400,000 soldiers came home morphine addicts.
In 1855, the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke isolated a chemical derivative of coca leaves, a cocaine alkaloid he called Erythroxylon, and his Ph.D. student Albert Niemann purified it. An aspiring neurologist named Sigmund Freud caught wind of it in the journal, Therapeutic Gazette. Owner of the Gazette, Parke-Davis sponsored the 28-year-old Freud to endorse it. Freud started experimenting with the drug himself and found that it successfully combated his depression and indigestion. Freud wrote: “If one works intensively while under the influence of coca, after from three to five hours there is a decline in the feeling of well-being, and a further dose of coca is necessary in order to ward off fatigue…”
Subsequently, he became a big advocate and believed it could be used to treat morphine and alcohol addiction, asthma, eating disorders, an aphrodisiac, and anti-depressant. He also thought that it could act as an effective local anesthetic. Freud formed bedrock concepts of psychoanalysis such as id, ego, superego, libido, and the Oedipus Complex during a period he is known to have experimented with large amounts of these psychoactive substances. Fortunately, as time went on, Freud found out the dangerous side effects as well. In prescribing to a friend, Von Fleischl-Marxow, who had become a morphine addict, it only turned him into a cocaine addict, and he died of a cocaine overdose thereof. The miracle substance was given the generic name “cocaine” by 1880 and turned up as an active ingredient in coca wines, cigarettes and, of course, Coca-Cola.
Meanwhile, the morphine addiction crisis motivated an English chemist named Alder Wright to search for a less addictive pain killer than morphine. In 1874, Wright synthesized what he thought was a safer replacement, known as heroin. In the 1890s, German pharmaceutical Bayer marketed Heroin as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant, promoting it for use by children for cough suppression and colds.
The German defeat in the 1936 Olympic Games, where black American athletes excelled, threatened the theory of the superhuman German. They had to find a way around that. When they looked for evidence, the German authorities suspected that African American athletes might have been taking a doping agent. The story goes that this suspicion was all that was needed to encourage German chemists to produce a better drug. Methamphetamine was first synthesized into crystallized form by the Japanese chemist Akira Ogata 1919. In 1937, Fritz Hauschild, the head chemist of German pharmaceutical Temmler discovered a new method to synthesize methamphetamine. Temmler patented it, and the drug Pervitin was born. In 1938, it was introduced for sale as an over-the-counter drug in the German market and quickly became the drug of choice amongst many Germans looking to enhance their performance. Unlike today, it was not considered an illicit drug at the time. According to Norman Ohler, author of the book Blitzed, Drugs in the Third Reich, Pervitin was considered “the people’s drug.” Hard to believe today, but an entire nation was legally hooked on crystal meth. Anyone could take it without supervision. The popular chocolate Hildebrand was laced with crystal meth and was advertised with popular slogans such as “Making housework more fun” and “Hildebrand chocolates are always a delight,” no wonder!
Each chocolate was laced with approximately 14 milligrams of meth, about the equivalent of one line of meth today. It was recommended to eat between 3 and 9 chocolates, according to Ohler. Housework could be accomplished in a third the time, and since it curbed the appetite, it also helped housewives to slim. Now, we have no wonder why it was so popular amongst housewives.
According to Ohler, people took it for a diverse variety of reasons: when they had to tackle a difficult task, housewives also took it for menopause, young mothers for postpartum depression before breastfeeding, students to help cram. However, that wasn’t all the reasons people took the drug. Secretaries used it to type faster, actors to refresh before going on stage, writers for all night work sessions, night guards or night shift delivery drivers to stay awake all night, or production line workers at auto plants to increase productivity.
The main focus of Ohler’s book is its use in the army. It played an important role in Hitler’s victory over France, Poland, and other European countries. Pervitin allowed officers to go for 40-hour stretches without sleep and came to be called “the wakefulness pill.” In the same year, it was introduced to the public; it caught the attention of army physiologist Otto Ranke, who began to envision it as the ideal war drug. It could keep tired pilots alert and create an army of fearless soldiers able to endure extreme fatigue and pain. Ranke ordered tests performed on university students who performed exceptionally well in spite of being short of sleep.
These impressive results convinced Hitler, and in 1940, Hitler ordered millions of Pervitin tablets to be dispensed to soldiers to prepare for the Blitzkrieg of Europe. The Allies were unaware of the super drug that Hitler had enlisted into service. At the time, the French troops were mainly in Belgium and had left their northern border next to the Ardennes mountains unguarded. The assumption was that Hitler’s army could not possibly cross the mountains in three days. Once they saw Hitler’s army move into the Ardennes mountains, the French military could get back in time to defend against them. All this would have been true except for Pervitin. The drug turned Hitler’s army into super soldiers who did not need much rest. The Nazi army reached the border town of Dean in a remarkable three days and went on to take France and the rest of Europe at lightning speed.
As the war dragged on, the drug helped soldiers to cope with the horrors of war. However, they simply traded one set of problems for another. Many became addicted, and that brought on the symptoms of sweating, dizziness, depression, and hallucinations. Some soldiers reportedly died of heart attacks while others committed suicide during psychotically induced episodes.
Drinking was another drug that soldiers became addicted to, in spite of warnings of harsh penalties. After the war, returning soldiers on both the Allied and Axis side became the new wave of drug addicts. Pervitin was easy to obtain after the war as well, either on the black market or as a prescription drug. It was prescribed for a range of ailments from depression to diet suppression. Medical students used it to stay awake and cram. All of this simply lead to another progress trap. But Germany wasn’t the only country that employed psycyhoactive compounds during wartime. The US military fed amphetamines and steroids to their soldiers in VIetnam, causing post-war addiction issues. They also dispense an anti-fatigue drug called modafinil to jet pilots today. ISIS combatants have been reported to use a methamphetamine-like psychostimulant while fighters have reportedly taken a drug called Captagon (fenethyline). All of these drugs help soldiers to stay awake, become more aggressive or to numb pain. Like Hitler’s soldiers, Captagon can turn an ordinary person into a killing machine who can take a bullet and not feel pain. The military is cognizant of the power of psychoactive compounds to distort reality in another way, that is beneficial to their purposes, but harmful when viewed from moral and philosophical perspective. Inducing an unnatural state of aggression, that can have long term social consequences on social stability. It reminds us of another example of importance in this book – the distortion of knowledge used in propaganda to sway a vote.
Could opiates also have become a factor in the relentless drive of German industrialization? Such intense and narrowly focused drive could result in massive impacts in the manufacturing of the war machine.
The use of psychoactive substances can result in significant physiological changes and shifts in perspective. This can be extremely useful, in the case of drugs like Zoloft and Insulin. They change how the body works, and in extension the way the mind works; indeed, powerful drugs can sometimes change brain chemistry permanently. As a result, people’s beliefs, biases, and understanding can also vary. As they interact with others, this directly influences how we, as a larger society, collectively understand the environment around us and how we interact with it.
As we saw earlier, due to their ubiquity, psychoactive substances played some role in the creative output of 17th and 18th century Europe, as witnessed by the work some of the best writers of Europe of the era. Studies from the lab of South African anthropologist Professor Francis Thackeray suggest an intriguing potential connection between William Shakespeare and cannabis or cocaine. By using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, his lab analyzed fragments of 24 clay tobacco pipes dating from the early 17th century found on the grounds of Shakespeare’s former house. Traces of cannabis were found in eight pipes, nicotine in one and cocaine in two. Hemp was commonly used for paper and clothing at the time, but it was also used as a muse among creatives.
Thackeray’s study also suggests Shakespeare’s contemporaries Sir Francis Drake and Sir William Raleigh may have brought back coca leaves and tobacco from the New World. Finally, Thackeray draws a connection from Shakespeare’s writing. In sonnet 76, Shakespeare writes “Invention in a noted weed.” Thackeray points out that Shakespeare could have meant that he was willing to use weed for creative writing since the word invention can be associated with creative writing. In the same sonnet, Shakespeare writes that he would prefer not to be associated with “compounds strange,” which Thackeray suggests could be a reference to cocaine. Regardless, the historical studies that show many creatives took psychoactive substances regularly for the express purpose of stimulating their creative output. How did a century of widespread opioid use affect the quality, quantity, and type of knowledge produced by 18th century Europe? How did it change the way Europeans saw the world, each other, life, or their place in the world? Moreover, importantly, how does the knowledge stemming from altered states of consciousness affect the views that emerged during this era, and found their way into our modern world?
As history shows, there have been definite benefits that emerge from the use of psychoactive substances. It heightened and greatly enhanced the creative output of entire generations of writers, thinkers, philosophers, poets, artists, scientists and many others. It is more than just conceivable that the wide availability of psychoactive substances has played an important, if not an unintended role in the advancement of cultural knowledge. With millions of people, including many children taking doses of psychotropic drugs that we would consider large and even harmful today, we cannot discount the potential cultural impact it had. Opiates are far more potent than cannabis and have significant mind-altering potential. More research into the cultural implications of opioids that were mass consumed could be an essential part of future humanities studies, to shed light on their possible role in shaping our cultural knowledge.
But how could we possibly measure this? Armed with CRISPR, the new gene editing tool, could a new generation of savvy biohackers and scientists re-engineer illicit drugs to eliminate the harmful and addictive qualities, and retain only the beneficial qualities? Given the disastrous results of modern pharmacology to create drugs to treat addiction and pain, such an endeavor could be taken with the most stringent application of the precautionary principle. Could this improve our society? Could such a solution go beyond methadone to solve the drug crisis?
At a time of profound global crisis as we find ourselves in, new solutions will emerge from unexpected places. We need to recognize these places and learn how to place value in them. Recently, Christian Muller and Gunter Schumann proposed a new framework for non-addictive psychoactive drug use that could answer these questions. In their research, they cite epidemiological data that shows that the majority of people who consume psychoactive drugs with an addiction potential will never become addicted. As this seems to be a safe experience, they propose that this majority take these drugs because they are useful for their personal goals. The perspective shift and new insights that arise from the safe consumption of psychoactive substances might give us insights that can help us ameliorate harmful social biases, progress traps, and echo chambers that currently harm society. These chemicals, introduced into the chemical computer that our brain is, could radically re-write what we are capable of. We should not be terrified by this, but rather explore the possibilities.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes mass psychoactive experimentation in the modern era more than the counterculture revolution of the ‘60s, with San Fransisco as ground zero. As we know there were many positive impacts associated with this culture. The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and singles such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was a clarion call to the culture of the time, and millions responded. Furthermore, Allen Ginsberg and other beat poets helped set the stage with their anti-capitalist work beginning in the 50s, extolling the virtues of Eastern religion, gender equality, and economic justice, stoking the imagination for decades to come. Everyone was tripping on acid and encouraged to do so, not only by the Beatles but by Jefferson Airplane, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Mommas, and the Papas, Credence Clearwater and especially The Grateful Dead. Singer Scott Mackenzie invited everyone to San Francisco, and that they did on the infamous Summer of Love. These were but some of the incredible benefits from psychedelics at the time.
Ironically, in 1967 in Haight-Ashbury, at the spatial-temporal peak of the movement, it fell into rapid decline. Psychoactive drugs played a significant role in both its rise and fall. The San Francisco Oracle, the Haight-Ashbury hippie newspaper announced the Golden Gate Park Human Be-In event:
“A new concept of celebrations beneath the human underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared, so a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.”
The media coverage of the vibrant Haight-Ashbury community attracted the attention of youth across America like a magnet, and 100,000 hippies came in response to the announcement of the festival. At the 30,000 strong Human Be-In counterculture gathering at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Leary turned Marshall McLuhan’s slogan “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” into the mantra of the counterculture.
However, no sooner had the Summer of Love began, when the winter of discontent set in. The higher level of consciousness promoted by the event met with the sobering reality of the real human psyche. The very same people drawn by the message, and enabled by drugs, ended up bringing about massive drug overdoses, drug-induced rapes, and violent crimes. The organizers simply had not prepared for the scale of the youth invasion. Subsequently, overpopulation and unsanitary personal hygiene led to the rapid spread of contagious disease. To make this situation worse, the movement suffered more publicity blows from the Manson murders and the Hells Angels linked killing of a teenager at a Rolling Stones concert. Those who came to San Francisco with the promise of a new tomorrow, went home disenchanted, penniless, and sick.
Without a clear guiding philosophy, the use of these drugs by large, unsupervised, communities is often problematic. However, there is no doubt that it had a significant impact on the community of the world at the time.
Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and his friend and Shelter editor for the Whole Earth Catalog, Lloyd Kahn, typified the mind-altering nature of the LSD that Leary promoted as a way to finding oneself. The first time Kahn took acid, he said “I saw a flower breathing, and it wasn’t a hallucination. Flowers do breathe, but you don’t see it.” This is an example of a truth that drugs could help us find. However, by the time the 60s rolled over to the 70s, LSD had lost its allure to the average drug user and gave way to the harder drug, cocaine. Resultantly, many hippies weren’t into the harder drug and followed Leary’s advice to drop out.
People like Brand went on to set up world-impacting businesses instead. Brand founded the famous Whole Earth Catalog, an idea to supply all those hippies with the things they needed for off-the-grid living. The spirit of independence that its readers demanded resulted in a continuous stream of requests and innovative thinking for products that would help people gain independence from the system. It wasn’t long before Brand began looking at technology to help solve these problems. And that in turn inspired others. The publication motivated a small group of local computer scientists who envisioned a way to spread around the globe.
Steve Jobs was one of those, and he said “The Whole Earth Catalog …. was one of the bibles of my generation…It was like a Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along. It was Idealistic and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.” Jobs early life could be described as hippieish, embracing trips to the far east to learn meditation as well as experimentation with psychoactive substances. When Jobs and Wozniak built the first Apple 1, it was a circuit board screwed down onto a piece of plywood. Jobs and Wozniak were selling their personal computer as a source of decentralized liberation. They encouraged other users to get involved in the DIY maker culture that came out of hippie communes. Jobs, of course, went on to inspire the likes of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and a host of other valley entrepreneurs.
While Silicon Valley’s façade is all business, the spirit of valley innovators can be traced to the ethos of the counterculture. The spirit is one of techno-utopia, a belief that technology can create a world that will free humanity from chains of bondage but make a lot of money on the way. The paradox is that Silicon Valley has become the heart of the mainstream culture, the very culture they rebelled against in the previous generation. Silicon Valley innovations may be the source of many beneficial impacts around the globe. But these are matched by an equal number of costly problems, or progress traps, that have also contributed to our modern lives.
At its core Silicon Valley is the creativity, openness, and passion that lay at the heart of the psychoactive counterculture. The hippies brought those values mainstream.
Today, a distant relative of the early hippie music festivals of the 60s and early 70s is the Burning Man Festival held each year in the Nevada desert. It is a throwback to the idealism of the late 60s and is attended, not surprisingly, by many Silicon Valley workers, carrying on the tradition of psychoactive drugs, idealism, and stimulation of new ideas. This culture is so incredibly valuable, it survived the drug wars and many other seriously negative barriers to success.
The ideas that came out of the psychoactive counterculture and continue to come out of it have gone to affect the whole planet. In many cases, these ideas weren’t new, but the counterculture amplified and popularized them to a new level. Many of the pillars of mainstream political liberalism that millions of people embrace and enjoy today can be traced to that amplification, from recognition of LGBTQ rights to anti-capitalism and the environmental movement. They are extremely valuable today. But, how has the drug-fueled sources of these ideas affected the quality of those ideas?
One attempt to collate psychometric data on psychoactive impacts was conducted on spiders. Researchers have performed experiments to measure the hallucinogenic effects on the ability of spiders to spin their web. NASA scientists conducted an unpublished study on the common house spider (Araneus diadematus), by observing the web pattern it spun under different neurotoxins.
For the spider species tested, caffeine seemed to have the most toxic effect, reflected in the loss of symmetry of the web. The experiment was repeated in a peer-reviewed article using a control substance, amphetamine, and caffeine.
These experiments were intriguing but very little can be concluded about the actual effects on the central nervous system of the spider. Another suggestive test along similar lines can be conducted on entire insect colonies such as ants, honeybees or termites, and could reveal behavior for large groups that could reveal insights about drug use in human collectives. Behavioral biologist Stephen Pratt studies the superorganism of ant colonies. What would the effect of hallucinogenic drugs be on such an ant superorganism? Would the colony experience a kind of “enlightenment,” or would the drug impair their faculties? The possibilities of such an experiment may be too much to ignore. It draws a very primitive yet direct link between the spider’s experience of the world and its behavior. The spider experiences the world stem from a genetically programmed set of behavioral codes, along with whatever it has learned in its developmental process. The psychoactive compounds resulted in a scrambling of those codes. If the neurological structure of the spider is tuned to receive the world in one way, then truth is relative to that tuning. Human beings are tuned to experience the world in a different way, with a different set of sensors. It is hard to discriminate an absolute truth when our experience of reality is so dependent on our biological hardware.
Human beings are not the only species that has found the intoxicating effects of psychoactive compounds irresistible. The BBC wildlife series Spy in the Pod was the first to broadcast footage of teenage dolphins in the wild passing around an inflated pufferfish. The group did not kill the pufferfish but instead it was inhaling a highly toxic poison called tetrodotoxin that the pufferfish releases when it is threatened. It is suspected that small amounts of it act as a stimulant. The footage shows the dolphins passing the pufferfish around, with each dolphin carefully holding it in its mouth. The dolphins are observed to be in a trance-like state after passing the pufferfish around. There is still little direct proof that the dolphins were intoxicated, but much circumstantial evidence.
In another BBC documentary, Animals on Drugs, the lemurs habit of rubbing millipedes on their fur to protect against malaria or insect bites also shows the lemur show outward signs of drug intoxication, such as dilated pupils, drowsiness and heavy eyelids. Furthermore, horses seek out and eat a weed called locoweed. The owners of these horses report that the weed has an intoxicating effect on their animals. So, humans are not the only animals that seek out the benefits of intoxication.
Gordon Wasson writes in his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality that reindeer native to the boreal regions of the northern hemisphere seek out red-and-white psychedelic mushrooms and after eating them, are observed prancing and reveling in an intoxicated state. Moreover, the 2009 BBC documentary – Magic mushrooms & Reindeers – Weird Nature – BBC Animals shows that in Autumn, the reindeer seek out the fly agaric mushroom even under cover of snow. The Sami shaman takes the mushroom ritually, and in a trance, they contact the great reindeer spirit. Their experience under this drug is heightened senses and visions of flying.
In 2009, Tasmania, the world’s leading producer of legally grown opium poppies for the pharmaceutical pain killer morphine, was bedeviled with the problem of Wallabies raiding their poppy fields and getting stoned. The matter became so bad that Lara Giddings, Australia’s attorney general at the time made the statement that Wallabies were “entering poppy fields, getting high as a kite, and going around in circles.”
Given the widespread use of these drugs across the spectrum of human societies, modern history of drug use deserves more serious scholarly attention. It has had widespread cultural impact over millennia, working its way into the foundations of our societies. The benefits of combining historical research on centuries of opioid use with the latest neuroscience can reveal new insights about the evolution of human culture. However, even without extensive research, the broad strokes of history already teach us valuable lessons, especially about the past and current state of human knowledge.
This pursuit of knowledge tainted with drug use and other imperfections, could indicate that there is a need for a way to rank the quality of knowledge. In fact, the modern pursuit of pain relief and performance-enhancing drugs throughout history has resulted in an endless merry-go-round of progress traps creating flawed knowledge. From the Laudanum of the 16th century to Hildebrand methamphetamine-laced chocolate, cocaine-laced Coca-Cola, Pervitin, morphine, heroin, and methadone, this repeating cycle of progress-becoming-progress-trap seems to be resilient to insight.
The misery of that psychoactive compounds can create follows the same laws of unintended consequences as are found throughout society:
- Affluence leads to diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and early deaths;
- Automobiles are responsible for an average 1.25 million traffic fatalities a year (WHO 2010);
- Fossil fuel and internal combustion technology has led to climate change
- Large-scale monoculture has led to biodiversity loss, species extinction, climate change, and deadly algae blooms
In On Deep History and the Brain (2007) and An Essay on Neurohistory (2010), Harvard historian Dan Lord Smail argues that psychoactive substances have evolved into a new kind of purposeful social control in modernity, giving states an abusive means to distract the general population away from issues that are deeply relevant to them. His argument is based on the idea of teletropy, social control based on psychological manipulation. Smail contends that while organized state violence is a primitive form of teletropy, other kinds of distractions such as movies, gossip media (including social media), novels, music, shopping, sports, coffee, alcohol, pornography and psychoactive drugs enable a new form of control called autotropy, in which citizens willingly manipulate their own emotions.
The political activist Noam Chomsky argues for essentially the same conclusion with the idea of manufacturing consent. Such control and self-distraction renders meaningful democratic engagement ineffective. In Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (2001), one of the hypotheses that author David T. Courtwright advances is that drugs are a colonizer’s tool, giving them the power to pacify and control labor in colonies and plantations. In their day, opium-smoking Chinese coolies were regarded as the most reliable laborers in the world. Workers around the globe including South Africa, United States, China, Russia, Jamaica, and Egypt were commonly paid in alcohol or drugs, or if paid in cash, spent their wages on psychoactive substances. Courtwright does not see a conspiracy of the elites as much as a natural behavior on part of laborers to use such psychoactive substances to alleviate the combination of tedium, pain, and stress of working under the toil of colonizer’s companies. Yet, there are many side effects of such use.
Today, drug culture is ubiquitous as it ever was, and abuse is ripe. A part of the drug culture of today is a consequence of the health care industry’s attempt to use opioids to treat pain. The Global Drug Survey reports annually on the latest global drug statistics. The 2018 version surveyed 130,000 people in 44 countries. Among the findings, Synthetic Cannabinoid Receptor Agonists (SCRA) are rated as addictive as crystal meth, cocaine delivery is faster than pizza delivery in many countries, and the darknet is a favorite place to purchase drugs such as MDMA (ecstasy), cannabis, LSD and novel drugs. It is even reported that the majority of drug users surveyed lost their drug virginity with free drugs.
The WHO reports that 275 million people (or 5.6% of the world population) use an illicit drug such as cannabis, amphetamines, opioids or cocaine (2016) with 192 million cocaine users worldwide. The WHO further states that 31 million people suffer from a drug disorder (2018). How does such a significant population of people with some distortion of their experience, worldview, and judgments affect the knowledge that society produces? How does the socially accepted drugs, such as caffeine, alcohol, and soon marijuana affect the collection of that knowledge?
How can we consider the cultural influence of such significant amounts of psychoactive substance use and abuse to qualify the present state of human knowledge properly and mitigate the possibility of poor collective decision-making in the future?
Recent research sheds light on the cognitive impairment that results from opioid misuse. A research study conducted by Sara L Simon et al. (2002) warned of the global cognitive impairments that result from the use of methamphetamine: “The national campaign against drugs should incorporate information about the cognitive deficits associated with methamphetamine…Law enforcement officers and treatment providers should be aware that impairments in memory and in the ability to manipulate information and change points of view (set) underlie comprehension…methamphetamine abusers will not only have difficulty with inferences … but that they also may have comprehension deficits … the cognitive impairment associated with [methamphetamine abuse] should be publicized…”
Such neurological dysfunction has implications for democratic societies. In 2018, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimated that 24.6 million Americans aged 12 or older, or 9.4 percent of the US population, have used an illicit drug in the past month. In the UK, the Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales 2017/2018 showed a similar level of statistics; 9 percent of adults between 16 and 59 have taken an illegal drug in the last year. With such a large percentage of the voting population abusing substances, and potentially altering their worldviews, it is, therefore, more than a passing interest to know how this might affect voting outcomes. If drugs alter our perception of reality, they also change the quality of the decisions we make.
Today, our world is ravaged by a global opioid crisis, and illicit drugs are accessible everywhere. Illegal narcotics are a multi-billion dollar industry, rivaling the arms industry and oil industry in scale. Many advocates promote the legalization of drugs to eliminate a black market that is responsible for a vast spectrum of crimes. As we shall see later, there are reasons to support such a policy. In addition to ridding the world of the criminality, the benefits of such psychoactive compounds could be made accessible to non-addictive use, while addicts can still be treated humanely.
A growing number of studies record the specific cognitive deficit that results from methamphetamine (crystal meth) use disorder (MUD), such as deficits in memory, attention, and concentration. A meta-analysis of 44 studies that assessed cognitive dysfunction in 1592 subjects with MUD and 1820 healthy controls was published in 2018 by Potvin et al. It recognized:
- Moderate impairment across most cognitive domains attention, executive functions, language/verbal fluency, verbal learning and memory, visual memory and working memory.
- Deficits in impulsivity/reward processing and social cognition were prominent.
- Visual learning and visual-spatial abilities were relatively unaffected.
This current knowledge of cognitive impairment arising from MUD can be back-projected in time to the opioid use disorder from the 17th century onwards. The cultural opioid use disorder affecting a large percentage of historical European or American populations calls into question the veracity of much of the knowledge derived from the 17th century onwards. Could our modern world be built upon a foundation of mass cognitive impairment, resulting in distorted knowledge and poor political decision-making?
While taking opiates such as Pervitin allowed users to perform incredible feats of physical endurance, it also affected other cognitive functions such as working memory, executive function, and verbal learning. Democratic institutions had their birth in the 19th century, but if a large percentage of the voting public was cognitively impaired, this could have a detrimental impact on final policy choices. Some opiates completely disabled the user.
Finally, the history of drug culture has left us with a worldwide drug crisis today. The illegality and easy production of drugs has resulted in toxic mixes which have unknown ingredients, and whose effects are unknown. Given the large percentage of opioid misuse today, we should be concerned of its impact on a whole host of issues. Beyond physical health, there are concerns with social discourse, the compromised creative and innovation potential of society, the quality of knowledge our society can produce, and the quality of decisions our nation makes in political matters.
Philosophers of every age have never been afraid to try new things, in a quest to take hold of the philosopher stone. Modern day philosophers such as Dr. Peter Sjostedt-H in this quest have traced the connection of psychedelics and philosophy going back to Plato. After that discovery, he argues that psychedelics have had a profound influence on the modern evolution of culture. Dr. Sjostedt-H is like a detective, sifting through history. He has linked together an unbroken chain of influential philosophers focusing on their use of psychedelics.
His book, Noumenatics, is a series of short essays on this subject and is named after the noumena, the reality that Kant claimed existed beyond human experience. He begins in Ancient Greece, where Plato’s philosophy influenced successive scholars for millennia. He is recorded to have participated at the Eleusinian Mysteries, a regular event held in Ancient Greece at the Temple of Demeter, where participants drank kykeon, a potion containing barley, mint, water and a psychedelic ingredient.
Dr. Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, argued that the psychedelic ingredient was the barley parasite fungus ergot, from which LSD is also derived: “(We can) assume that the barley grown (in the Rarian plain) was host to an ergot containing the soluble hallucinogenic alkaloids. The famous Rarian plain was adjacent to Eleusis. Indeed this may well have led to the choice of Eleusis for Demeter’s temple.” Plato wrote in the Phaedrus: “[W]ith a blessed company – we following in the train of Zeus, and others in that of some other god – … saw the blessed sight and vision and were initiated into that which is rightly called the most blessed of mysteries, which we celebrated in a state of perfection … being permitted as initiates to the sight of perfect and simple and calm and happy apparitions, which we saw in the pure light, being ourselves pure and not entombed in this which we carry about with us and call the body, in which we are imprisoned like an oyster in its shell.” Building on that, Dr. Sjostedt-H makes a plausible argument that psychedelics inspired Plato’s mind-body dualism, which prevailed in western philosophy and religion for millennia. Furthermore, Nietzsche, another character in the psychedelic story, commented, ‘Christianity was Platonism for the “people.”’ Even more so, Alfred North Whitehead said: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This all means that the basis for European philosophy and science was affected by psychedelics.
Building upon that history, Kant broke the long period of the dark ages with his 1784 anti-Christian essay, What is Enlightenment? Furthermore, while Kant himself is not known to have taken opioids, the long list of psychonaut-philosophers who came after him were heavily influenced by him. Thomas de Quincey, who wrote the famous Confessions of an English Opium Eater was one of the first English commentators on Kant. In specific, Quincey claimed that while on opium he could recall the minutest detail of childhood. Then Quincey’s reports influenced the French philosopher Henry Bergson, who in turn influenced the psychonaut, Aldous Huxley. All in turn influencing others to try out the substances, in turn influencing the culture around them.
Humphry Davy, who was a friend of another famous opium eater, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, took high doses of nitrous oxide and wrote: “I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas … I exclaimed to Dr. Kinglake, “Nothing exists but thoughts!”. Davy’s experience with drugs gave him profound insights, which left him with a world view that he would carry to his grave. His last book Consolations in Travel or The Last Days of a Philosopher, he illustrated those views:
“Without the eye there can be no sensations of vision, and without the brain there could be no recollected visible ideas; but neither the optic nerve nor the brain can be considered as the percipient principle – they are but the instruments of a power which has nothing in common with them. … The desire of glory, of honour, of immortal fame, and of constant knowledge, so usual in young persons of well-constituted minds, cannot, I think, be other than symptoms of the infinite and progressive nature of intellect.” As you can easily see, this idea had profound effects upon the progression of western thought.
Arthur Schopenhauer was another philosopher strongly influenced by Kant, and while he is not known to have consumed any psychoactive compounds, he did support their use. He felt that taken properly they could greatly enhance creativity. He saw that mystical consciousness and intuition complemented our rational nature that was promoted by the Enlightenment. When it comes to Friedrich Nietzsche’s wild and influential work, Sjostedt-H believes that Nietzsche’s writing and inspiration were due to what is today called auditory hallucination. It is thought that Nietzsche heard the voices of the Greek philosopher Dionysus and channeled his hallucination into his influential writing.
Nietzsche’s American contemporary William James, in his famous The Varieties of Religious Experience, was acutely aware of the potential of psychedelics to expand our awareness, writing: “Nitrous oxide and ether, especially nitrous oxide … stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree. … [In] the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation. … [Our] normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.” James also claimed that nitrous oxide helped him to make sense of Hegel’s cosmology: “Nitrous oxide gas-intoxication … made me understand better than ever before both the strength and the weakness of Hegel’s philosophy. I strongly urge others to repeat the experiment … its first result was to make peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all.” As we can see, this process can be made easier through the consumption of these drugs.
On March 31, 1910, the French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote to William James, sharing what he would come to call the “reducing-valve” theory: “…I believed myself to be to be present before a superb spectacle – generally the sight of a landscape of intense colours, through which I was travelling at high speed and which gave me such a profound impression of reality that I could not believe, during the first moments of waking up, that it was a simple dream. … How I would like you to pursue this study of ‘the noetic value of abnormal mental states’! Your article [A Suggestion about Mysticism], combined with what you have said in The Varieties of Religious Experience, opens up great perspectives for us in this direction.” And this opinion was not just limited to Bergson. Other intellectuals were of very much the same opinion. Aldous Huxley wrote of Bergson: “Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, “that we should do well to consider … the type of theory which Bergson put forward … The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive.” This is the view that the brain does not produce consciousness so much as filter it.
In April 2016, findings from a brain imaging study sponsored by the Beckley Foundation presented findings at the Royal Society that confirmed this theory. He proved that the brain does not produce consciousness, but instead provides a filter upon it. “Our studies have begun to lay bare the workings underlying the changing states of consciousness. With a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying these states, we can learn to use them better, to manipulate our consciousness, to our own and societies’ advantage. William James explains it as seeing through the veils of perception. Huxley describes the ego as a reducing valve of the brain. How right they were. Now, for the first time, we have seen the empirical basis of these realisations.” Ernst Junger, the Swedish philosopher who continued the tradition of Nietzsche coined the word psychonaut and wrote: “What interested me above all was the relationship of these [psychedelic] substances to productivity. It has been my experience, however, that creative achievement requires an alert consciousness, and that it diminishes under the spell of drugs. On the other hand, conceptualization is important, and one gains insights under the influence of drugs that indeed are not possible otherwise.” He is saying that we are able to change the filter that our brain places on our consciousness with a range of psychoactive substances.
We know that psychoactive substances have already altered the state of consciousness of a large percentage of people on the planet today. This altered state can have profound long term impacts, thus affecting how we see the world and how we shape our narratives, the knowledge we have, and decision-making. The individual who actively consumes psychoactive substances can experience altered states of consciousness, depending on a wide variety of factors including the specific psychoactive substance ingested, the dosage, frequency, genetic predisposition to mental disorder and many other factors. This altered state has the potential to change the individual’s view of reality, personal motivations, knowledge, and decision-making processes. So, from that it is easy to wonder if large segments of a population have shifted their collective views of existence, the knowledge produced by that generation is bound to reflect the altered state of consciousness. Psychoactive substances were embraced by the beatnik generation, which gave way to the hippies and then the psychedelic generation. It is this generation, in particular, that explored the potential positive and creative benefits of altering our views of reality.
To illustrate the effect of drugs on society, a whole category of music emerged to celebrate psychoactive substances, aptly named psychedelic music or acid rock. The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, The Yardbirds “Shape of Things,” and The Byrds “Eight Miles High” marked the beginning of the psychedelic era, followed by Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors. Even later bands like Pink Floyd were inspired by drug experiences, morphing the songs into progressive rock. The psychedelia subculture already alluded to earlier helped usher in alternative worldviews, especially from the far east, and played no small role in the comfort that eastern culture now experiences in Western society.
There is a school of practitioners today, who in spite of the tragic trail drug use has left behind, still believe in the power of psychoactive substances to raise our collective level of consciousness. Indeed, they feel it is more urgent now than ever before that we expand our minds to meet the pressing challenges of this century. These are the modern psychonauts, following in the footsteps of their ancestral explorers before them, who experientially unlock the secrets of the mind. Through the influence of this lineage of psychonauts opioids and psychoactive compounds have undoubtedly exerted a profound impact on human civilization and has helped to shape modernity.
Knowing what we now know about the neuroscience of drug related cognitive impairment, what conclusions can we draw about the impact of three centuries of widespread drug use on the evolution of western culture? One conclusion can be drawn from the use of opioids. It is that the cognitive impairment from opioids takes on a great diversity of effects ranging from numbness to agitation, from superhuman energy to fearlessness, and from the dullness of mind to wild mental agitation. This complex plethora of effects simultaneously acting upon millions or even tens of millions of ordinary citizens will have a statistical impact on every aspect of society. In an upcoming chapter, we take a close look at the concept of the superorganism, a higher level meta organism composed of individual biological organisms acting in unison. In biology, such organisms are called eusocial and include insects such as ants, termites, and bees whose collective behavior form the colonies behavior. Homo sapiens can also be considered eusocial, and our society the superorganism formed thereof. The effect of centuries of opium consumption throughout Europe and America must have had a profound effect on the human superorganism.
While one of the effects of opiates is cognitive impairment for some, for others it can be enhanced mental function. As we have noted earlier, creatives in ancient cultures have taken psychedelic substances to expand their consciousness. We traced this during the Age of Enlightenment, in which there was a diverse sharing of information that took place in coffee houses all across Europe and the Americas which fomented, among other things, the American and French Revolution. While millions of laudanum users would have unknowing suffered all manner of cognitive impairment, from more susceptibility to political narratives, increasing passion and courage, and providing shots of energy for work into the night, entire lineages of philosophers had intentionally made use of opioids to open their mind’s eye to other vistas of reality. Having visited them and gained new perspectives about life, they wrote, published, and shared these ideas, stoking the imagination of the reader.
Psychoactive substances distort experience, memory, and subsequent reasoning. An altered model of reality will even affect judgment and decisions in proportion to the degree of intoxication. Disappointingly, not many long-term studies between large-scale drug consumption and its effect on human epistemology have ever been conducted, so there isn’t an extensive body of knowledge of the overall impact on cultural knowledge. However, isolated research by historians such as Dr. Peter Sjostedt-H demonstrate that taken altogether over millennia, there is a continuous lineage of philosophers who have been deeply influenced by psychedelics. Collectively, this lineage has had a profound impact on modern thought. That most of them intentionally took psychoactive compounds to see reality from a different perspective speaks volumes of the ability of psychedelics to remove filters conditioned by society.
Today, scientific organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) extoll the virtues of psychedelic compounds for their healing and consciousness-expanding properties. They distinguish between the beneficial properties of such psychedelics and the more harmful psychoactive drugs that left a deep scar on humanity. Nevertheless, they would be wise to pay heed to the cautionary tale of our recent past. Terrible unintended consequences await if we are not careful. Our well-meaning pharmaceutical forbearers attempted to develop painkilling compounds to benefit humanity, and instead created a generation of addicts.
MAPS trains therapists to use the drugs in treatment centers to support scientific research into psychedelics. They aim to enhance spirituality, creativity, and to educate the public honestly about the risks and benefits of psychedelics and cannabis. MAPS has sponsored MDMA trials to treat severe, treatment-resistant PTSD. In one small South Carolina study with 24 patients, 67% were PTSD-free one year after treatment. In 2018, researchers working with FDA and Health Canada launched a phase 3 clinical trial of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. If the findings are consistent with earlier studies, it is possible that MDMA could become a legal prescription drug by 2021.
Stanislav Grof pioneered LSD-assisted psychotherapy in the 1960s. It can be used to help patients reframe past events that have led to psychological trauma. By using controlled doses of LSD, patients can begin to remember their past trauma and rewire their brain to reduce the emotional trauma associated with the event.
Psychoactives such as Ayahuasca and Ibogaine have been used by indigenous people in South America and Africa for thousands of years, but recent overdoses leading to death has cast them in a bad light with regulatory agencies. Conscientious users report profound experiences such as insights that help with longstanding emotional traumas. The positive benefits of these drugs can easily be seen, if one does the research. However, the ethical debate about banned psychoactive drugs is problematic because deaths squash the definite benefits, they may bring due to accidental overdose.
Out of Silicon Valley, techno-entrepreneurs have given birth to the latest trends of transhumanism and consciousness or neuro-hacking, and part of their arsenal is psychoactive drugs. An increasingly popular trend that seeks to enhance human performance is micro-dosing, taking small doses of drugs such as 6-25 micrograms of LSD or 0.2 – 0.5 grams of psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms. Subsequently, users have reported that micro-dosing alleviates depression, cluster headaches, addiction to smoking, and ADHD. Dr. James Fadiman is a leading micro dosing researcher who has published research involving 1500 participants to date. In his 2011 book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide contends:
- The value of psychedelics for healing and self-discovery
- How LSD has improved scientific and technical problem-solving
- How ultra-low doses enhance cognitive functioning, emotional balance, and physical stamina
- 23 million have experimented with LSD
- 600,000 people in the U.S. alone will try LSD for the first time (2011)
- Micro dosing can potentially replace addictive antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and mood stabilizers.
Modern-day neurohackers like Jason Silva promote the use of psychoactive compounds as an aid in the quest to answer the big questions of life. In the past, shamans have used peyote, ayahuasca, ibogaine, mushrooms, and more to open their consciousness to a greater reality. Taking the lessons learned over millennia, modern neurohackers like Silva employ both ancient and traditional psychoactive compounds towards the same spiritual ends.
The history of psychoactive compounds teaches us something important about ourselves. Human beings have a built-in avoidance of pain. If that pain becomes too unbearable, we will take whatever means are available to escape its clutches, even if it involves terrible unintended consequences such as addiction. At the same time, we also have an inherent desire to find meaning in life, especially in light of our mortality. Psychedelics have been an integral part of the both of these journeys. For the knowledge that psychedelics unlock does not belong to the rational and logical realm, but to the realm of intuition. And that real, is not yet amenable to the capturing of its wisdom. It is to that realm which this work intends to open.
Humanity’s long, meandering journey with psychoactive compounds has played a role in shaping modernity. Both cognitive impairment effects as well as their ability to unlock new creative insights have affected the ideas and values built into the foundation of modern culture. The historical and scientific journey of this chapter has showed us that while the normative experienced reality of a human being may seem absolute, the distortions, both harmful and beneficial that are induced by psychoactive compounds can be interpreted as either distorting this normative experience, or removing filters from it to reveal something deeper. If it indeed reveals something deeper, then it exposes the relative nature of our normative experience of reality. In this regard, we have to philosophically question what truth really means. If truth is tied to this human body, with its specific evolved sensors, then how can we apply that to other species experience of reality? In what sense is something true for a human being also true for an bacteria, ant or bird? It seems our exploration opens the door to many more profound questions. One of the secondary aims emerging from our is to develop a psychometric method to assess and measure the change of perspective caused by any psychoactive drug. Such a metric could have much practical value. For example, it could tell us if a drug user has exceeded a level to safely drive a car, operate machinery, or if it has a beneficially enhanced awareness.
The primary aim of our work, however, is to combine modern technology and ancient wisdom to make better decisions, without the need to take drugs. The Enlightenment taught us to see the world only through the lens of reason. Western culture, through capitalism, industrialization, and extraction based on science and technology has excelled at this. The result is not what we expected, however. We have created a world of gleaming human structures at the expense of a decimated natural and social world. It is time to rebalance how humans relate to the world. It is time to rebalance our lopsided reasoning process by reintroducing intuition, the master, and to subdue reason to its rightful place as its servant.