Mike Jay


Psychonauts is all about self-experimentation, both for scientific purposes and recreationally. The world’s relationship with drugs has changed considerably, so once attitudes change it can sometimes be easy to forget what came before. It’s probably not surprising to learn that a lot of early developments in modern drugs came from self-experimentation. I imagine it’s difficult to stumble upon supposed ‘wonder drugs’ without wanting to get involved yourself. The last half century’s zeitgeist of demonising drugs has led to accounts from prominent scientific figures to be swept beneath the rug. Psychonauts explores those accounts and opens up a world of forgotten experience.


Scientific research on drugs often clashes with their personal nature. Objective science is quantified and data-driven, demanding precise observation and accurate measurement. Inevitably limits are placed on how far you can make sense of drug experiences in this way.

There is an implicit goal in science to attempt to ascribe rationale to everything and anything. The idea that everything that exists in this world, both internally and externally, can eventually be explained. I think some things have no answers and sometimes you just have to accept that. Sometimes the goal of getting closer to something can often be the wrong direction to take.

Psychonauts attempted to distance themselves from the restrictions of science. The term was coined by Ernst Jünger in his 1949 novel ‘Heliopolis’. It was used to describe a character who ‘captured dreams’ and went on ‘voyages of discovery in the universe of their brain’.


It’s difficult to talk about drugs without discussing addiction. The book highlights the arrival of the ‘addict’ and that addiction as a diagnosis is relatively new, despite opium’s antiquity. Eduard Levinstein published some of the first work theorising the issue of drug addiction. He saw this type of craving not as a mental disease but a novel addition to other human vices.

It was viewed as an unwanted but inevitable by-product of the inventions he saw as the core drivers of modernity: the printing press, the steam engine and the telegraph. He deemed addiction as a by-product of modern civilisation: a consequence of advancing science, the accelerated speed of life, the global diffusion of knowledge, mass marketing consumer choice and individual freedom. What’s changed?

‘What is a vice? Merely a taste you don’t share.’


Of course the focus of drugs is on the mind and the experience throughout the 19th century was breaking down what those had thought previously. Kant’s philosophy proposed that human experience and knowledge was embodied, bounded by the senses and hardwired categories of thought such as time and space. During this time drugs such as nitrous oxide and cocaine started to transform the way many scientists started to think about the mind. William James would describe his experiments with nitrous oxide as ‘a world of pure experience’, dissolving Kant’s categories as the physical world receded.

Reconciliation of opposites; sober, drunk, all the same!
Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
But -
What escapes, WHAT escapes?

There is a reconciliation!
Reconciliation - reconciliation!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn’t hurt!
Reconciliation of two extremes.
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it is pure onsense!

Frederick Myers hypothesised that different classes of drugs functioned as proxies for different levels of the subliminal mind, whatever that means. It’s odd because describing drugs in this way feels restrictive, which comes back to the nature of the scientific method. There is this urge to define every experience, that something has to fall within a certain category. Experiences are already diluted through translation, so it seems reductive to further diminish its value. All these hypotheses seem to find their way to disappointing conclusions anyway.

William Ramsay wrote, ‘my feelings are sometimes those of despair at finding the secret of existence so little worthy of regard. It is as if the veil that hides whence we come, what we are, and what will become of us, were suddenly rent, and as if a glimpse of the Absolute burst upon us. The conviction of its truth is overwhelming, but it is painful in the extreme. I have exclaimed, ‘Good heavens! Is this all?’.

‘The conviction that all fellow-creatures are products of my consciousness was solipsistic and ultimately meaningless.’


The widespread use of anaesthetics both medically and recreationally make it one of the least taboo drugs to talk about. Modern anaesthetics were quite revolutionary and led to an interesting mix of theories about the nature of anaesthesia. A variety of literature focused on the separation of the self/soul from the body.

Annie Besant, who was a prominent figure in the Theosophy movement, wrote that anaesthetics drive out the greater part of the ‘etheric double’, so that consciousness cannot affect or be affected by the body. In her view, the effect of these drugs was analogous to the practice of mediumship, in which the etheric double became detached from the medium’s body and was able to animate extraneous objects. Such as producing apports from thin air, moving planchettes and even taking on physical existence in forms such as ectoplasm.

‘A single screw of flesh
Is all than pins the soul’

The fascination with dissociation led to theories about the splitting of consciousness. Though usually stemming from head injuries or emotional trauma, this would be temporarily observed as an effect of anaesthesia. From nitrous oxide to ether, individuals would exhibit a self that was totally unaware of the other. Everyone might possess an unconscious ego, which is constantly on the watch, which contemplates, which gives attention, which reflects, and lastly which performs acts - all unknown to the conscious ego.

These ideas and observations shape our relationship with things like memory and identity. This has been explored by many people but most prominently in H.G. Wells’ short stories. Asking questions that expand our definitions of personality, the limits of suggestion and mental control.

As here we find in trances, men
Forget the dream that happens then,
Until they fall in trance again

One story that I did like was the use of ether by Guy de Maupassant who wrote a short story called ‘Dreams’ in 1882. He regularly used ether and more than once, walked into his house seeing himself sitting on the sofa.

‘Without precaution the ecstasy is likely to turn into a nightmare. Pleasure changes to suffering, joy to terror…’


The rise of a plethora of drugs in the 19th century was obviously a large factor in the arrival of individualism. It’s a widely held opinion that the 19th century was the first true era of the individual. Progressive thinkers at the time attacked the destructive ‘hyper-individualism’ that encouraged selfishness and greed. Emile Durkeim diagnosed the twin threats of modernity as ‘egotism’ and ‘anomie’ - a social condition that left individuals isolated from one another and bereft of the traditional support of community and its established norms.

Altering consciousness is an extreme form of hyper-individualism, drug users were free-riders who detached themselves from their fellows, while still expecting them to pick up the costs of their habit. As these costs were soberly quantified, alcohol and other drugs were increasingly viewed through the lens of their risks, harms and dangers.

The 19th century had been the century of the individual, the twentieth was that of the collective: group identity, solidarity and mass movements. Then to the 21st century where the hyper-individual both fetishises and demonises drugs.

‘In 1900 everybody got down off their stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten.’


I do sometimes wonder about how much we can ever properly know ourselves. The expanse seems so wide, so who knows where the limits lie? The mind will always be an object of fascination but will understanding ever really capture the real essence of our experience. We have magical experiences everyday, sober or not. But what does it mean to understand them?

Drugs can change your life, they can ruin your life or they can bring you right back to where you started. Whilst drugs may open you up to the idea that everything is meaningless or everything is full, you have your whole self to find out what gives you life.

Thank you Mol x