THE MESCALINE PHENOMENA
by J. R. Smythies
HALLUCINATIONS occur in a great variety of medical conditions such as epilepsy and cerebral tumour, toxic deliria and various psychiatric conditions, and in the syndromes produced by the action of certain drugs upon the brain. In most cases the sanity and observational integrity of the victim may be called into doubt, and the phenomena may be dismissed as 'mere' fancies. The proper study of hallucination depends upon the choice of a non-toxic agent which will produce clear, vivid, and unmistakable hallucinations in a normal subject, and will at the same time leave his observational integrity intact and his critical judgment unclouded. He should in fact feel and appear perfectly normal except that his sense-fields should contain sensa which have no counter-part in the physical world. Although there are a number of well-known agents (for example hashish and opium) which will produce visual hallucinations, these have the obvious disadvantages of being dangerous habit-forming drugs and of clouding reason to some extent. There is only one agent which fulfills the conditions given above: the alkaloid, mescaline. The effects produced by mescaline are not widely known outside a small circle of psychiatrists and psychologists who have investigated its actions. Certainly, as far as I know, no one has commented on their importance for philosophy. It is my aim in this paper to give a brief account of its actions and to indicate their relevance to philosophy. My main purpose is to present the facts.
Mescaline, a vegetable alkaloid, is found in nature in the juices of a small Mexican desert cactus, Anhalonium Lewinii. The Mexican desert Indians prepare a brew, peyot, from the plant and use this for their religious ceremonies. Scattered references to this practice may be found in the writings of the Spanish Jesuit priests of the seventeenth century, and the drug was known to the Aztecs as teonatacatl. It was only discovered for Western science in 1886 by the great pharmacologist, Lewin, after whom the cactus is named. His reports aroused a certain amount of interest at the time, and a number of investigators carried out research into its action. Weir Mitchell and Havelock Ellis were among the most notable of these1. A second wave of interest in the drug was aroused by the publication in 1927 of Beringer's and Rouhier's monographs2. Since then mescaline has been used chiefly by psychiatrists who have taken it to undergo themselves something of the experiences of their schizophrenic patients3. Rouhier, indeed, hoped that the drug would be of use in psychoanalysis, and Havelock Ellis expressed the opinion that a drug with such marvelous effects would soon become popular. But neither of these hopes have been realized, and this extraordinary substance remains in almost complete obscurity.
Mescaline has quite a simple chemical formula and its mode of action is well known. It interferes with the action of one particular enzyme in the brain which consequently becomes unable to use glucose properly. When taken by a normal subject it produces marked changes in perception, sensation, feeling, in some cases thinking, and in the relation between the ego and its environment, some of which changes are so remarkable as to defy description. It produces varied effects in different subjects, and the following account represents what may be expected to happen if a number of subjects are chosen. Each will experience in varying degree some different combination of the totality of possible effects. None will experience them all. A few will experience only the minimal reaction. There appears to be a correlation between the quality of the experiences and the personality of the subject. The unexpected features of the mescaline phenomena are, to make my point briefly, that the hallucinations or visions it produces are of surpassing beauty and possess the utmost poetical integrity.
Some two hours after taking mescaline the subject will begin to see, if he keeps his eyes closed, vague patches of color floating about in his visual field. These soon develop into more complex sensa: mosaics, networks, flowing arabesques, interlaced spirals, wonderful tapestries, and patterns and designs of all sorts, all swiftly coming and going and all in the most beautiful colors and exquisite design. Then formed objects appear, great butterflies gently moving their wings, fields of glittering jewels, silver birds flying through silver forests, golden fountains and golden rain, masks, statues, fabulous animals, soaring architecture, gardens, cities, and finally human figures and fully formed scenes where coherent histories are enacted. If the subject opens his eyes the colors of objects become much more intense, deep, rich, and glowing, and they change their shape in curious and pleasing ways. One of my subjects, a highly intelligent and level-headed doctor, spent a quarter of an hour gazing at a plain glass full of water and trying to describe to me the perfection of its diamond brilliance. I myself was astounded by the heightened sparkle and glow of a wonderful mellow inner light that some wine glasses in a cabinet developed. One curious feature of this change is that it appears to be somewhat selective. Some objects become more beautiful than others. These are most likely to be the sort of simple object that a painter would choose to paint as a still life. An artistically worthless picture in a cheap magazine remains as ugly as ever, even though its colors may become richer.
These effects may not be explained by supposing that the subject is mentally deranged or 'drunk,' as in most cases it is clear that he is perfectly normal in these respects. There is commonly no interference with the powers of careful observation and objective reporting. These inspected events are quite simply extremely beautiful. Everyone who has taken mescaline will make it plain that it is necessary to experience these phenomena oneself in order fully to understand them, and to realize that all the superlatives that may be used in an attempt to describe them are miserably inadequate. Having given that warning, let me present the following extracts from the accounts of the various investigators.
1. From Prentiss and Morgan:4
Stretched out upon the bed with the eyes closed an ever changing panorama of infinite beauty and grandeur, of infinite variety of form and color, hurried before me.
2. From Weir Mitchell:5
The display which, for an enchanted two hours followed, was such as I find it quite hopeless to describe in language which shall convey to others the beauty and splendor of what I saw...
A white spear of stone grew up to a great height and became a tall, richly finished Gothic tower of very elaborate and definite design, with many rather worn statues standing in the doorways or on stone brackets. As I gazed every projecting angle, cornice, and even the face of the stones at their joinings were by degrees covered or hung with dusters of what seemed to be huge precious stones, but uncut, some being like masses of transparent fruit... All seemed to possess an inner light, and to give the faintest idea of the perfectly satisfying intensity and purity of these gorgeous colored fruits is quite beyond my powers. All the colors that I have ever beheld are dull in comparison to these. As I looked, and it lasted long, the tower became a fine mouse hue, and everywhere the vast pendant masses of emerald green, ruby reds, and orange began to drip a slow rain of colors. After an endless display of less beautiful marvels I saw that which impressed me most. An edge of a huge cliff seemed to project over a gulf of unseen depth. My viewless enchanter set on the brink a huge bird claw of stone. Above from the stem or leg hung a fragment of some stuff. This began to unroll and float out to a distance, which seemed to me to represent time as well as immensity of space. Here were miles of rippled purples, half transparent and of ineffable beauty. Now and then soft golden clouds floated from these folds, or a great shimmer went over the whole of these rolling purples, and things like green birds fell from it, fluttering down into the gulf below. Next I saw dusters of stones hanging down in masses from the claw toes: as it seemed to me miles of them down far below into the underworld of the black gulf.
3. From Havelock Ellis:6
The visions never resembled familiar objects; they were extremely definite, yet always novel; they were constantly approaching, and yet always eluding the semblance of known things. I would see thick, glorious fields of jewels, solitary or clustered, sometimes brilliant and sparkling, sometimes with a dull rich glow. Then they would spring up into flower like shapes beneath my gaze, and then seem to form into gorgeous butterfly forms or endless folds of glistening, fibrous wings of wonderful insects; while sometimes I seemed to be gazing into a vast hollow revolving vessel, on whose concave mother-of-pearl surface the hues were swiftly changing. I was surprised, not only by the enormous profusion of the imagery presented to my gaze, but still more by its variety. Perpetually some totally new kind of effect would appear in the field of vision: sometimes there was swift movement, sometimes dull, somber richness of color, sometimes glitter and sparkle, once a startling rain of gold, which seemed to approach me. I was further impressed, not only by the brilliance, delicacy, and variety of the colors, but even more by their lovely and various textures-fibrous, woven, polished, glowing, dull, veined, semi-transparent.4. From Knauer and Moloney:7
High above me is a dome of the most beautiful mosaics, a vision of all that is most gorgeous and harmonious in color. The prevailing tint is blue, but the multitude of shades, each of such wonderful individuality, make me feel that hitherto I have been totally ignorant of what the word color really means. The color is intensely blue, rich, deep, deep, deep, wonderfully deep blue. It is like the blue of the mosque of Omar in Jerusalem... A beautiful palace, filled with rare tapestries, pictures, and Louis Quinze furniture has been peacefully unfolding itself, room after room, each a little different from all the rest, all marvelously bright and beautiful, and all colored in the same scheme -- violet, cream, and gold.
5. From Rouhier: 8
It is night -- water -- yet more water -- always with the reflection of the moon. It is wonderful to see. A great expanse of water on which a long galley is gliding-a young girl is standing on its prow. An unseen light is flooding it with brilliant mauve beams following the movement of the boat. The water is spattered with mauve reflection -- the violet glimmer plays on the white sails of a fleet of accompanying galleys...
The somber porch of a church before which is standing an old woman in white. A monk comes out of the church followed by a young girl also in white. He carries a lantern which lights up all three. Their movements are slow and majestic. They each have an amazing personality. This little picture is inexpressible in depth of meaning and expression. It is an illuminated and living sculpture.
This subject subsequently described her experiences thus: that she had received 'an experience of unimaginable art, unforgettable and of an intensity for which there are no words and which it is necessary to experience in order to understand.'
Changes may also be produced in other senses. Auditory hallucinations of wonderful music and voices speaking in strange languages have been reported but are rare. The perceived body may undergo the most extraordinary changes: parts may grow or shrivel, become stone-heavy and cold, the perceived limbs may' detach themselves from the body and lie on the floor beside the observer. This latter effect may strike an onlooker as being amusing since the subject's physical limbs are clearly in their proper place. This amusement does not survive the onlooker's own experience of this phenomenon. Touch and pressure sense may also be affected and hard objects may be felt to be soft and malleable. An irresistible desire then arises to engage in the novel experience of molding stones and kneading the walls of the room. Fragrant perfumes may be smelt and curious tastes experienced. Finally, in the realm of sensation, the interesting phenomenon of synaesthesia may occur. Sounds may be accompanied by 'appropriate' visual imagery, as may emotions, but the process sometimes goes further than this and forms of perception intermediate between the various senses may be experienced. The subject may, for example, be quite unable to say whether his experience is visual or auditory. Schilder9 believes that such synaesthesiae represent very primitive forms of sense perception.
The most complex changes take place within the ego. This may be felt to split noticeably into its subjective and objective components and states of derealization or depersonalization may be produced. The boundaries normally separating the ego from its environment may be eroded and in this way a psychotic state is induced. One of Beringer's subjects exclaimed: 10 'I am fretwork; I hear what I am seeing; I think what I am smelling; everything is fretwork;... I am music; I am climbing in music; I am a touching fretwork; everything is the same.'
In the sphere of the emotions mescaline may produce a bubbling sense of well-being; a state of ecstasy; a state of what the subject may describe as the 'ending of all desire;' or a fearful state of terror and despair. Most commonly, as far as the emotions are concerned, a mild sense of well-being is all that is experienced.
From the point of view of physics, three of the most interesting effects of mescaline are those that it exerts on the subject's perception of space, time, and movement. Spatial relations in the visual field become grossly disordered. The perceived room may grow enormously in size or take on an entirely new shape. Rooms and houses become distorted after the manner of the sets in 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.' One of Beringer's subjects reported rather amusingly: 11 'I looked out of the window and was particularly surprised at the changes in the size of the houses; they seemed to have grown after the manner of skyscrapers... The bread I held in my hand did not become smaller; what I bit off at one end grew again at the other.'
Time sense often becomes distorted and its passage very much slowed down. The subject will judge the passage of a few minutes to be an hour. Actions do not appear to be carried out in slow motion but tea time goes on forever. The subject will feel quite literally that he is at the Mad Hatter's tea party.
The most interesting changes take place in the perception of movement. Ordinarily still objects may be seen to rock to and fro in a rhythmical manner, the walls to sway, and the angles of the room to become alternately acute and obtuse.
One of Beringer's subjects reported thus: 12
I am sitting before a shelf which is attached to the wall and on which there are several bottles, empty glasses and small test tubes. The shelf has not its normal shape; the boards are curved as though they were made of rubber. The whole shelf becomes alternately higher and lower; now it is leaning towards me, now it retreats to the wall. Other objects in the field of vision take part in these movements. The bottles also behave as though they were made of rubber; they fold up after the manner of opera hats;
and again most interestingly: 13
The perception of a moving burning cigarette was a great surprise to me. Not a continuous line or circle was seen, as under normal conditions in the dark room, but a number of small glowing balls. At the end of the movement I could see the entire movement as it were fixed by a number of glowing balls standing in the air. Then these balls jumped all of a sudden in a great hurry into the glowing end of the cigarette. They did not fade, but all of them went along the curve to the terminal point just as if they were connected by a rubber band. Everything was so distinct that I was able to count the glowing balls; at one time I counted sixteen; there was no luminous line between the glowing balls; it was quite dark... The faster the movement, the more the transition from balls into lines and a decrease in the distance between them...
I saw that the scales of the fish as well as the fish itself were distinctly moving. [They were at dinner.] I was unable to eat it. I admired the certainty with which Dr. B. was convinced of the death of the fish. The noodles behaved literally and without exaggeration as a moving heap of worms.
It must be emphasized that mescaline produces predominantly disorders of experience. It is the actual perceived events that undergo these startling changes. There is no question of 'imagining' these phenomena or of seeing things that are 'not there.' In the case of the disordered perception of world events the sense-data of experience quite blatantly cease to follow the detail of the events in the physical world they correspond to, and which the subject knows about since he has been told to expect, for example, the movement of a cigarette in a circle, the appearance of which he knows from memory. In the case of the visions, the appearance that they present to the observer is essentially the same as that presented by the visual field of his everyday experience The words used by these subjects supports this contention. They use such phrases as 'I saw,' 'As I gazed,' 'As I looked,' 'It is wonderful to see,' etc. The visions differ only in their superior aesthetic quality and because they correspond to no object in the common physical world. These phenomena present the following problems. Why should a brain which cannot utilize glucose properly produce such interesting phenomena? How may these visions be related in their internal three-dimensional spatio-temporal structure to the electrical patterns in the cortex, which possess an entirely different spatio-temporal structure determined by the complex convoluted shape of the cortex? I have suggested elsewhere how these phenomena may actually be produced. 14
I will conclude this brief account by quoting the opinions of Klò ver, Havelock Ellis, and MacDonald Critchley concerning the quality of these phenomena.
6. From Klò ver: 15
...it is true that the experiences in the mescal state are not easily forgotten. One looks 'beyond the horizon of the normal world,' and this 'beyond' is often so impressive or even shocking that its after effects linger for years in one's memory.
7. From Havelock Ellis: 16
...a large part of its charm lies in the halo of beauty which it casts round the simplest and commonest things... If it should ever chance that the consumption of' mescal becomes a habit, the favorite poet of the mescal drinker will certainly be Wordsworth. Not only the general attitude of Wordsworth, but many of his most memorable poems and phrases cannot -- one is almost tempted to say -- be appreciated in their full significance by one who has never been under the influence of mescal.
8. From MacDonald Critchley: 17
The usual emotional content of the hallucinations is best described as one of amazement, awe, interest, and delight. The character of the visions is such as to impress the most prosaic and unimaginative observer in a manner of which no natural beauty is capable. Almost all writers have insisted that the most skillful pen or brush could not do justice to the marvel of the hallucinations.
These remarks alone would, I suggest, render these phenomena worthy of the most careful consideration by philosophers.
I am very grateful to Edward Osborn and Humphrey Osmond for their most welcome help and advice.
1S. Weir Mitchell, 'Mescaline,' British Medical Journal, 1896, 2, 1625 & Havelock Ellis, 'Mescal. A new artificial paradise', Ann. Rep. Smithsonian Institute, 1897, I, 537.
2A. Rouhier, Le Peyotl, Paris, 1927 & K. Beringer, Mescalinrausch, Berlin, 1927.
3H. Osmond and J. Smythies, 'Schizophrenia. A New Approach,'J. Ment Sci., April 1952, 98, 309.
4D. W. Prentiss and F.P. Morgan, 'Anhalonium Lewinii,' Therap. Gazette, 9, 577-585.
5S. Weir Mitchell, op. cit.
6Havelock Ellis, op. cit.
7A Knauer and W. J. M. A. Maloney, 'A Preliminary note on the psychic action of mescaline', J. Nerv. Ment. Dis., 1913, 40, 397.
8A. Rouhier, Le Peyotl, Paris, 1927 (my own translation).
9P. Schilder, Mind, Perception and Thought in their Constructive Aspects, New York, 1938.
10K. Beringer, taken from the translation by H. Klò ver, Mescal. The Divine Plant and its Psychological Effects, London, 1928, p. 37.
11From Klòver, ibid., p. 70.
12From Klòver, ibid., p. 79.
13From Klòver, ibid., pp. 74-75 and 78.
14J.R. Smythies, Reply to comments by Professor H. H. Price and others, J. Soc. Psychical Research, January 1952, 36, 557.
15H. Klò ver, Mescal The Divine Plant and its Psychological Effects, London, 1928.
16Havelock Ellis, op. cit.
17MacDonald Critchley, 'Some forms of drag addiction. Mescalism', Brit. J. Inebriety. 1931, 28, 99.