Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Drug Report: December 2013: Inhalants, From the Mundane to Outre

Today's Keith Richards's birthday: he's 70, and if Robert Johnson had to sell his soul at the crossroads, what sort of blockbuster deal with El Diablo did Keith have to make, circa...1964? Robert Johnson had to struggle to make it to 37, hellhounds on his trail. Robert Johnson got ripped off! (And not just by Led Zeppelin.)

Anyway: I've been thinking about the ingestion of drugs via inhalation. I recently re-read an insane novel called The Gas, by Charles Platt. Subtitled "A Novel of Sex and Violence" it was published by the great outlaw Maurice Girodias of  Olympia Press fame and went through several printings. When an edition appeared in 1980 in England The Gas helped put the publisher behind bars for three months. Later, the iconoclastic publishing house of Loompanics (now out of business) of Port Townsend, WA, brought it back into print. The premise: a cloud of toxic gas is accidentally released from a biological warfare lab and spreads across southern England. The effects of the gas? It accelerates hormone production in men and women, so they become insanely horny and violent. Another effect is that it relaxes inhibitions. So you can see why I made it my bedstand reading once again. I first read it 15 years ago or so. It was worth it. And yes, this is the same Charles Platt who interviewed Robert Anton Wilson and wrote for Wired and covered the early hacker scenes. A taste from the book:

"Not yet! Not yet!" The priest was still fucking her, turning over and over in the blast of air. Suddenly he stiffened and vented a triumphant scream. Jism started rushing up past his face in long, sticky streamers that were dragged out of Cathy's cunt by the roaring wind.

Admittedly, it's not exactly Flaubert.

This was probably the first time I encountered, in fiction, a priest and a girl having sex while skydiving. The whole book is like this: a phantasmagoria that reads as if the writer was deeply in thrall to both Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. Wonderfully profane surreal anarchistic fiction, this one. See if you can get a copy with the xmas money grandma sent ya.

William James and the First Modern Psychedelic Revolution
Some writers (the OG) claim 1874. That's when William James received in the mail a copy of Benjamin Paul Blood's 37-page privately-printed pamphlet, The Anaesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy. James reviewed it for The Atlantic Monthly to boot! Blood - a prolific letter-writer and odd intellectual tinkerer (others called him brilliant but "unfocused") - had experimented with nitrous oxide (AKA "laughing gas") and other anesthetics for 14 years and proclaimed the experience as superior to any known philosophy, the "genius of being is revealed," and even more grandiose claims for the power of the gas. 

A year before this James had begun his long career at Harvard. (Deja vu, anyone?)

James of course experimented with nitrous many times. After more experience, he published a short essay, "Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide." He thought the gas shed much light on Hegel's philosophy, both Hegel's strengths and weaknesses, particularly the notion of a self-developing dialectic of contradictories. James sees the opposite at work in the signals from nitrous oxide: Rather contradictories resulted in a self-consuming process, moving "from the less to the more abstract, and terminating in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity."

Nota bene: James's notes on the sort of wordplay that came to mind under the drug. The line he thought most meaningful was this one: "There are no differences but differences of degree between different degrees of difference and no difference." (I seem to remember writing stuff like this, age 22 and very stoned on weed, after hours of trying to navigate Wittgenstein, then attempting to chill out with Pink Floyd and headphones...but maybe I just dreamed I did that.)

[To Robert Anton Wilson fans: I do not know the source that RAW imputes was James under nitrous, in which he saw what he wrote when he came-to as "Overall there is a smell of fried onions." I may have missed it in another paper by James. It doesn't seem to be in James's monumental Principles of Psychology (1890), but I may have missed it. Of course, RAW wasn't immune to mixing up his sources, and the fried onion hallucination may have been by some other eminent psychonaut. RAW was one of the great self-experimenters and once wrote - actually, his stenographer was his wife - on a horrific trip under belladonna in 1962, "The literary critics will all have to be shot because of the Kennedy administration in outer space of the Nuremburg pickle that exploded." (Gimme the gas over any of the Solanacea drugs, any day!) One passage in Wilson's Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, from the omnibus edition - The Homing Pigeons - has Markoff Chaney recalling his nitrous trip at a dentist's in which he received the message, "Flossing is the answer - Ezra Pound." Then, on p.534, Chaney, "remembered that the great psychologist William James had once thought he had the whole secret of the Universe on a nitrous oxide trip. What James had written down, in trying to verbalize his insight, was OVERALL THERE IS A SMELL OF FRIED ONIONS. Chaney wanted to know what is was like to be in the state where fried onions would explain everything. He sniffed deeply and expectantly as the mask was placed over his nose, and waited." But the message he received from nitrous was about flossing, courtesy of a phantasm Pound. Chaney took the message seriously.]

But back to William James. He wrote about an experience on chloroform - another anesthetic - for his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). First: know that James was a lifelong melancholic who wanted to be able to believe in God, but couldn't find it within himself, as he later wrote in his books on pragmatism. Here's James, reflecting on an anesthetic/gas high:

I thought that I was near death, when, suddenly, my soul became aware of God, who was manifestly dealing with me, handling me, so to speak, in an intense personal present reality. I felt him streaming in like light upon me...I cannot describe the ecstasy I felt. Nitrous oxide and ether, especially nitrous oxide, when sufficiently diluted with air, stimulate the mystical consciousness in an extraordinary degree. Depth beyond depth of truth seems revealed to the inhaler.

Dale Pendell adds: "Ether became popular as a party drug in the late nineteenth century. Many used it as a substitute for alcohol. Oliver Wendell Holmes experimented with it at Harvard, where there was much talk about ether's power to produce mystical and mind-expanding experiences. [emphasis OG: what is it with Harvard?] - Pendell, Pharmako-Poeia, p.86

May 27-28, 1960, Hotel Comercio, Lima, Peru: Allen Ginsberg stays up all night with a quart of ether writing a long poem, "Aether: 4 Sniffs & I'm High"

4 sniffs and I'm High,
Underwear in bed,
               white cotton in left hand,
       archetype degenerate...[this poem goes on for pages and pages, and is totally crazy! - OG]
[skipping down]
Sooner or later all Consciousness will 
              be eliminated
                             because Consciousness is
      a by-product of ---
                                      (Cotton & N2O)
see much, much more: Collected Poems 1947-1980, pp.242-254, "Aether"
NB: Ginsberg went to Columbia.

Homeless Kids, No Supervision: Industrial Inhalants
If you have money and you're inhaling to get high: cannabis, hash, powder cocaine, amyl nitrate (AKA "poppers"), nitrous oxide. If you're on the street, no parents around, times very rough: you escape via industrial solvents, too numerous to name. Glue, spot remover, spray paint, Hexane, Freon, nail polish remover, hairspray, PC cleaner, lighter fluid...whatever you find around. Whatever you can steal. Temporary escape, and a good chance for further brain damage.

Inhalation of Stem Cells to Fix Your Brain
Some hotshots down on Biotech Beach in La Jolla, CA (who use the term "insufflation" instead of "snorting" of course!), say they have in the pipe several treatments for various diseases, in which stem cells can be insufflated. They'd noted that tumors of the pituitary gland had been successfully removed through the nose without causing undue tissue damage. They are saying that proteins, gene vectors and stem cells can all be inhaled and are getting ready to try to treat multiple sclerosis. The folks at StemGenex say of course it sounds crazy at first, until you realize that swallowing a pill subjects it to the treacherous terrains of the gut, which quite often makes mincemeat of novel drugs. Lots of acids and phages in there. Even if the drug runs that gauntlet successfully it's subject to an Access Denied trip at the crucial blood-brain barrier. They say their stem cells can slip around the perineural sheath cells or become endocytosed and "retrogradely transported along either the olfactory nerves or the trigeminal nerves." Furthermore, embryonic stem cells readily fuse with microglia, which then make it clear sailing to the mature neurons. (Got that? Want me to draw a picture fer yas?) ["Can Inhaled Stem Cells Fix Your Brain?"]

                                           trigeminal nerve pathways, basic 

Dr. David Edwards of Harvard
Where else? This modern alchemist has developed AeroShot, for a company called - I kid you not - Breathable Foods. What does AeroShot do? It's sort of like an asthma inhaler, but it delivers Niacin and 100 mg of caffeine to the back of your tongue, and it's like you've instantly had a shot of espresso. A $3 cartridge gives you six to eight hits. I take it it's for grad students and lawyers and those in the hurry-up-we-need-everything-done-now rackets. If they can't score Adderal or Provigil. It's considered a supplement, so the FDA can only put out warnings and scare notes. AeroShot says don't take their product if you're under 12; FDA thinks 18 would be more sane. Etc. Released in January, 2012, the FDA got all worried by March. They're afraid it will be used as a party drug, and mixed with alcohol, you won't know how drunk you are...because you're so revved up on AeroShots. If the FDA is so worked up over this, they should look at the hospital records for young people wheeled in on a gurney after doing JagerBombs. I've sat at bars when packs of young men and women in their early 20s did JagerBombs ritualistically. The worst I can tell: they're freakin' obnoxious! 

Dr. Edwards also came up with LeWhaf, which is food that has been ultrasonically vaporized into its active aromas and flavor chemicals. Yes, it's a food cloud, which can be inhaled. I know you're asking, "Why?" Well, apparently you get the "taste sensation" of the food without the calories. In the wildest dreams of Paracelsus...

Alcohol of course is being reduced to an inhaled form too. You can smoke alcohol, even though most alcohol was already "smoked" at the distillery. You can pour alcohol over dry ice and inhale the vapors: you get tweaked VERY quickly. Interestingly, my research tells me you can still inhale the calories of the alcohol. Not all of them, but some. It seems like a bad idea: there's good reason to worry you're torching cells in your lungs that you probably need for more mundane things, like breathing. The upside: your liver is bypassed entirely. But then, your liver helps to break down the poisonous grain, so...I'd say the best thing about inhaling alcohol is the titration problem: because you can take a little sniff at first and then sit back and see immediately how buzzed you are, you can then decide how much to take, without the time lapse that tends to screw with drinkers' abilities to tell when they've had enough. Maybe. 

In the end, it seems like a Bad Idea. But still: how 'bout Harvard's Edwards and his AeroShot and LeWhaf? Go Harvard! Drugs! Drugs! Drugs! [smoking alcohol and LeWhaf]

Anesthesia and Consciousness: Full Circle
I have a dear friend who will have a hip replacement tomorrow, as I write this. She's really scared. I tried to reassure her. I didn't mention that 0.13% of surgical patients who were assumed by the anesthesiologist to be "unconscious" were later found to be immobile but aware of what the surgeon and nurses were saying, aware of the knife. Why? We don't know. Anesthesia is one of the great boons to Humanity, but there's a problem: we don't know, in a deep neurobiological way, why it works. And furthermore, we don't know what consciousness "is." But we're gaining ground.

In the 1990s there were studies on people who were:
1. awake
2. asleep
3. under anesthesia
4. in a coma
5. believed to be in the "locked-in sydrome," where you appear to be in a coma, but you're not: you have awareness.

All the subjects had their brains stimulated by a magnetic field, and EEGs traced where those signals went. If you were awake the "ping" pinballed throughout the brain. The more "unconscious" you were the more the signal showed up "ping"ing (like in those sonar wave things you see in movies where guys are in submarines) in a specific part of the brain, but didn't spread to other areas. Finally! A sort-of scientific way to describe consciousness! 

It may be that "consciousness" is the feedback loops of sensory cortex areas (like the occipital/visual lobe at the back of the brain), and processing areas, like the temporal lobe, which feeds back to the sensory lobe, etc: unconsciousness is like the neighborhood telephone lines cut in one area of the brain: isolated but not "dead." Consciousness may be merely the higher level of inter-activity between different areas of the brain: the local telephone lines are all hooked up and all the calls are getting through. (A dated metaphor, admittedly, but hell: I'm dated.)

This blog post has been a trial for you to read, and I thank you for muddling through it. But I have something for you, as a reward. Here, just place this mask over your mouth and nose and take a deep breath and count backward from 100...

Some Other Sources
Writing On Drugs, Sadie Plant
Artificial Paradises, ed. Mike Jay
"Into the Mystic: Anesthesia and the Search For Mystical Experience," by A.J. Wright, July 2013, Anesthesiology News (you must register, but it's free)
"What Anesthesia Can Teach Us About Consciousness," by Maggie Koerth-Baker, NYT, Dec 10, 2013 (highly recommended!)

                                 Dennis Hopper as "Frank Booth" in David Lynch's
                                           film Blue Velvet: one interview I read with 
                                   Lynch said the stuff Booth was inhaling was
                                       "whatever you want it to be."


Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. I did not find it a trial to read. I met Charles Platt and heard him speak at two World Science Fiction Conventions. Back in 1981 he wrote a piece calling Jerry Pournelle a fascist. Shortly thereafter at the WorldCon in Denver they both appeared on a panel on politics and SF, Jerry at the extreme right and Charles at the extreme left. I had read Pournelle's science column for years, and I found the panel very intertwining.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see science marching onwards to make the kiddies new ways
to ruin themselves.

Twas a pleasure to read. I'm still
pondering the Maggie KB article on
consciousness. I am glad that the
MDs are trying to avoid the alert
while under problem. Having had
far too much awareness during a
recent procedure. But you can't get
experience without experiences to

My scurrilous taste in obscure
erotic literature should have had
a copy of Platt at some point but
alas I'll have to scare up a copy
now. Most of the vintage SF like
that was pretty tame stuff except
PJFarmers Blown. Jerry P was a
bit too narrow minded to make a
decent fascist but that didn't
stop him from being a pain to a
few better people. He's never made
the big time with an Elron award
for his fiction so there must be
some good in him.

There seems to be a lot of effort
going into nanotech medical drug
transport these days, the idea of
targetted interventions seems to
be quite promising if it can be
made to work. It may turn out to
be as revolutionary as antibiotics
in the long run.

I'm still digging into the blog
before this one, fascinating stuff.

michael said...


I think RAW said his interview time with Platt was not exactly friendly, and to me that comes across.

I tried to read Pournelle once and found it quasi-fascist and couldn't finish it. I tried to enjoy reading someone whose views on fellow human beings seemed to differ so much from mine, but the prose wasn't good enough to warrant the effort.

michael said...


I had a heavy local anasthetic when I had all four wisdom teeth pulled at once. I was "out of it" and aware the orthodontist and his female assistant were having a rough time with one of the four. It was like, "Here, hold me steady while I put a foot up here for leverage..." But I didn't care. What an utterly odd state that was.

Turns out I had one of those wisdom teeth that grow in sideways; later the ortho told me that's fairly common.

I was going to include some stuff I'd researched on nanotech drugs, but the piece was already too long.

You mention targetted inventions. This seems to be a way bigger deal, far more exciting than most people realize. Why? Because so far most of the breakthrough efficacious drugs that have stood the test of time were "happy accidents." I think most people think scientists said, "Hmmm...people are anxious. Let's make drugs that make them calm," and then they engineer something. It hasn't really worked like that. So far. But with logarithmic advances in knowledge about the neurobiology, it looks like They will be able to do targeted things with nano, genes, stem cells, etc. This could be HUGE.

Eric Wagner said...

I loved Pournelle's writing in high school. I have never had any sense of him as fascist. I loved his science column in Galaxy magazine.

michael said...

This seems a good example of both Platt and myself using "fascism" as a vague, floating signifier. Rather, I found Pournelle right wing authoritarian-ish, and too enamored of killingry.

"Fascism" should be extensionalized, and just for starters:

1. Mussolini's fascism? (extensionalize from there, starting between what was said and what was done?);

2. Hungarian, Romanian, Spanish fascism.

3. Pound's fascism and what he thought Mussolini was about (Pound unbearably naive?), vs. say, Santayana's assents.

4. Some definition and how this Abstract Noun-epithet might fit, anywhere: corporations rule the State and pay little or no taxes. Labor unions/workers are squashed with extreme prejudice or harassed as freeloaders run by organized crime; politics is run like a morality play/entertainment, with the citizenry expected to only give a thumb's up or thumb's down every now and then, there's no real participation; dissent is met with imprisonment or torture or slander by the State or its apparatchiks; Bread and Circuses and Super Bowls and entertainments for everyone!...so they don't get involved in the Corporate State; a bellicose foreign policy and very high spending on the War Machine; a rigid class structure exists but it's not allowed to be talked about because the myth of the Corporate State is that anyone can become rich if they just work really hard, and the mouthpieces for the State invent stories about the weakest and most defenseless in the society being the cause of social ills, rather than those benefitting from the Corporate State. An extraordinary abuse of language becomes evident to a very few who take the time to machete through the haze.

5.) Issues that, in some philosophies would have to do with real human freedom, creativity, open inquiry, public discussion, sex and love and work and health...are thickly over with a thick caste of mysticism, gobbledygook, patently bullshit anti-science ideas, fairy tales for grownups, Authoritarian patriarchical assumptions about "reality" and persecution or marginalization of anyone who tries to punch through this haze if idiocy.

We can extensionalize from there, onward and outward. I have barely touched the surface of "Fascism." Pournelle struck me as the kind of guy who would have advocated for Reagan's "Star Wars" or the rapid militarization of space, so Murrka could kill efficiently anyone who got out of line...which I admit: comes from my interpretations of his signs. Others have read more of Pournelle and can give a finer-grained assessment than I.

Eric Wagner said...

I don't recall anything Dr. Pournelle saying anything vaguely fascist. I remember him tearing apart the right left political model, and I think that helped prepare me for reading Bob Wilson. I just glanced at his Wikipedia page, and I can see where he called himself "slightly to the right of Genghis Khan." Since I saw him as a hero in high school, I may look at him through rose colored glasses, much as I do his friend Robert Heinlein, my biggest high school hero.

michael said...

I must have read the stuff that was "slightly to the right of Genghis Khan," but I really regret slagging a writer that someone else liked; I had minimal contact with one of his books and I didn't like the guy, but I can't even name the book, so I probably shouldda kept the tempus tacendi idea going there.

Toby said...

Only a year later!
I associate the "fried onions" quote with William James or Oliver Wendell Holmes, but with the smell of petroleum or turpentine.
For detailed discussion, check this out here