Oliver Sacks: "Altered States: Self-Experiments in Chemistry," New Yorker, August 27, 2012
ABSTRACT: We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in. Many of us find Wordsworthian “intimations of immortality” in nature, art, creative thinking, or religion; some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercises. But drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand. These shortcuts are possible because certain chemicals can directly stimulate many complex brain functions. Every culture has found such chemical means of transcendence, and at some point the use of such intoxicants becomes institutionalized at a magical or sacramental level. The sacramental use of psychoactive plant substances has a long history and continues to the present day in various shamanic and religious rites around the world. At a humbler level, drugs are used not so much to illuminate or expand or concentrate the mind but for the sense of pleasure and euphoria they can provide. Many people experiment with drugs, hallucinogenic and otherwise, in their teen-age or college years. The writer did not try them until he was thirty and a neurology resident. Discusses the writings of Thomas De Quincey, Aldous Huxley, Havelock Ellis and others. Writer describes his own use, during the nineteen-sixties, of a variety of drugs, including LSD, cannabis, opium, chloral hydrate, and morning-glory seeds.