Dissociative drugs like nitrous oxide and ether are famously epiphanic—users come back convinced they’ve understood some fundamental aspect of reality, or solved the meaning of life.
With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination.
—William James, Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide
I recently had the good fortune to sit with a group of brilliant people around a 25-pound tank of nitrous oxide1, and was able to dip in and out of the dissociative mindstate at least 100 times over the course of eight hours. I’ve recorded my experience here, along with some thoughts on how my own nitrous revelations rhyme with other reports.
I have sheet after sheet of phrases dictated or written during the intoxication, which to the sober reader seem meaningless drivel, but which at the moment of transcribing were fused in the fire of infinite rationality.
—William James, Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide
The nitrous revelation is notoriously ineffable. Newfound knowledge turns to ash as the user reenters reality. Many philosopher-psychonauts—including William James, Sir Humphry Davy, Peter Mark Roget, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—have tried to record their epiphanies, with comical results.
Here’s Holmes describing an experience with ether:
The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted…staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”
“The wise will ponder.”
The idea of ineffable knowledge isn’t unique to dissociative (or even psychedelic) drugs. It’s been a mainstay of contemplative religious practices as long as people have been meditating. Some truths, it seems, can’t be put into words.
I’m inclined to agree with Holmes. Let’s ponder.
Both nitrous oxide and ether have been used medically2 as anesthetics—they knock people out severely enough to perform surgery. But recreational users typically ingest smaller amounts of the drug, allowing them to explore the space between normal waking reality and complete unconsciousness.
When I inhale nitrous, I move into a much simpler mindstate. My awareness is filled by raw sensations: color, pattern, shape, tone, texture, vibration. Or as one of Sir Humphry Davy’s patients put it:
I felt like the sound of a harp.
Meanwhile, the external world fades into the background, or disappears completely. I may forget that I’m sitting outside, that I’m with other people, even that I’m a human being. Conceptual thought recedes, and is replaced by a direct experience of raw sensations.
This might be a purely visual experience (e.g. a closed-eye hallucination); it might be a purely auditory experience (users commonly report an echo, affectionately dubbed the “wub wub wubs”); or it might be a more multi-modal combination of sensory experiences. But even then, it’s simpler than a normal waking mindstate, in the sense that it contains less information.
Dissociative drugs seem to pare down the state space of consciousness3, both in terms of breadth and dimensionality. This smaller space has no room for the external world, for high-order concepts like “humanity” or “outdoors” or—in extremis—“me”.
The ego and its objects, the meum and tuum, are one.
William James, Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide
So the dissociative experience is a regression of intelligence, a forgetting. On nitrous, I leave the waking world and enter into a solipsistic dream, a universe composed entirely of my own sensations. The deeper I go, the simpler those sensations get, marching towards the zero-state of total unconsciousness.
At the right dose, I can observe the entire journey, as I transition from waking life to near-death and back. It’s like being reborn.
During the earliest stages the child perceives things like a solipsist who is unaware of himself as subject
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
I have a recurring memory-hallucination that appears during some nitrous trips.
I start to hear my mother’s voice echoing in the "wub wub wub” auditory vibration. At first it’s only a broken syllable or two, but occasionally the words start to take on meaning: she’s telling me to pick up a toy nearby.
As best I can tell, this is a memory from early childhood. I think it’s the moment I “came online”—the moment I realized that there’s a world out there separate from my sensations, that I’m an agent operating within a larger reality. That I can do stuff.
Obviously I can’t say for sure whether this memory is real, hallucinatory, or something in between. But that feeling of coming online is common during the nitrous comedown (or what I call “resurfacing”). The world reassembles itself, and I remember I’m a human being with a name, occupying space, with needs and relationships and responsibilities.
Coming online is also an important step in early cognitive development. Here’s Marion Milner discussing Piaget’s findings:
…a most crucial step in the mental development of a child is learning how to distinguish between thoughts and things. It appeared that, at first, mental happenings must be indistinguishable from physical ones, for a child is not born knowing that what goes on in his own mind has not the same sort of independent existence as what goes on around him…he has no means of telling, for instance, that the whole world is not darkened with his misery…When his mother leaves him she has gone forever, the misery of loneliness is all there is.
[The child’s] view of the world follows as a direct result of this ignorance that thought is different from things. For him things are what they seem to be, so that he believes that the sun does in fact accompany his walks because it appears to…he is self-centered, not because he has an unpleasant nature, but because he is as yet ignorant of the very existence of any other mind than his own, since he knows his own, not as a mind, but as the “all” of experience.
—Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own
Here Milner discusses the negative, solipsistic aspects of the childlike view of life. But mostly her book focuses on the benefits of adopting what she calls “wide attention”, where you allow yourself to be flooded with sensory information, rather than focusing narrowly on a single task or idea.
…sometimes tiredness seemed to dull one’s purposes, sometimes mellow weather, sometimes alcohol. Then I would perhaps suddenly find myself breathing deeply in the calm impersonality of shapes or colors…once when I was lying, weary and bored with myself, on a cliff looking over the Mediterranean, I had said, “I want nothing,” and immediately the landscape dropped its picture-postcard garishness and shone with a gleam from the first day of creation, even the dusty weeds by the roadside…I was so flooded with the crimson of the petals that I thought I had never before known what color was.
Milner isn’t the only person to notice the joys and dangers of entering into that childlike state. Here’s psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris on the effects of LSD:
So let's think. What is it like to be a baby? What's it like to be a child? Our emotions go up and down. We might be in a sort of happy, sort of ecstatic state one minute, giggling, finding everything funny and silly—similar things happen on psychedelics—and then the next minute there's a sudden shift and we're bawling our eyes out, you know? Similar kind of emotional sensitivities and hyper-imaginative processes occur with a psychedelic.
Also something quite intriguing is that sense of wonder, that sense of awe that you certainly see with psychedelics. Sometimes it's framed in a sort of mystical or spiritual way. But it's interesting if you look at some literature, particularly someone like William Wordsworth who talks about the infant state as being a kind of heavenly state where we're sort of closer to what you would call God, in a way.
There’s a common thread here: when we get in touch with raw sensation—whether through drugs or through mindfulness—we also disconnect from external reality. For better and for worse, we become like children.
With the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake, “Nothing exists but thoughts. The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures, and pains.”
—Sir Humphry Davy, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration4
This, for me, is the binary distinction between the nitrous experience and waking consciousness: normally, I begin with the assumption of an external world, which my sensory experience draws from; but on nitrous, sensory experience is primary, and an external world either does not exist, or is somehow built out of my sensations. The vibe is generally Idealistic or Solipsistic—my own mental events become the primary stuff of reality.
This is the obscured meaning behind “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout”—Holmes was overcome by a direct sensation, which became his whole universe.
This attitude might remind Superb Owl readers of physicist Ernst Mach’s philosophy. Mach believed that sensations—rather than, say, atoms or strings—were the ultimate elements of reality. He struggled to defend his philosophy from Idealistic and Solipsistic interpretations, and while I still can’t quite rationalize the distinction, it felt intuitively obvious as I drifted between the depths of the nitrous mindstate and surface-level reality. I watched my world dissolve into sensory impressions, then reconstitute itself, over and over.
Increasingly, I’m convinced that this shift in perspective is the primary mechanism of all contemplative practice.
Meditation asks us to pull back from the external world, and to focus instead on sensations—maybe the breath, or pīti, or an internally-repeated mantra; all meditative states (e.g. jhānas) are described in terms of subjective impressions rather than appeals to external reality.
Psychedelics do the same, a bit more directly: sensations become so novel and divorced from reality that we become entranced by them; attention fixates on the swirling patterns, the breathing walls, the fractals behind our eyelids. Some users leave external reality to the point of psychosis.
And dreamwork does this perfectly—it immerses us in a universe composed entirely of sensations, sealed off from the external world.
You could ask: what’s the point? What do we gain by forgetting reality and slipping into a dream? It sounds more like ignorance than epiphany.
I’d argue that the world of sensation has its own dynamics, a subjective analog to physics. Internal states evolve according to a discoverable set of rules. Dissociative, psychedelic, meditative, and dream states allow us to explore and experiment in that space. They can help us find where happiness, sorrow, love, and fear all come from. We can learn to use attention to guide the flow of qualia.
And—contrary to the experience of most nitrous users—the skillful are able to take this knowledge back to the external world. With practice, we can become experts at navigating the daily interplay of reality and emotion.
The above describes the meta-revelation of my eight-hour nitrous trip: like dreams or meditation, nitrous allows us to enter into a subjective world composed entirely of sensation, where we can explore and learn.
But while exploring and learning, I also absorbed a handful of sub-lessons, which I’ll recount here. I don’t really expect the lessons to come across in writing, but they might provide some insight into why it’s valuable to step back from reality into subjective space; they might give a sense for what can be learned there.
A distinct memory from one of my deepest trips inward: I was in a black void, with a colorful visual pattern in the center. I found I could “breathe” life into this pattern, as though blowing on an ember. (I think I was bobbing my head back and forth, but at the time had no concept of having a head.) I wanted to sustain the intensity, to keep the ember glowing, but that’s like trying to exhale indefinitely: impossible. Once I relaxed into the ebb and flow of it, and accepted that every growth would be followed by decay, the experience became much more pleasant, but in an equanimous or eudaimonic rather than hedonic way. I saw, viscerally, the folly of chasing pleasure. The experience was worth a thousand Buddhist scriptures.
I also noticed, over the course of several trips, a repeating loop of emotion. While the depths of dissociation are generally very pleasant, occasionally I would experience a moment of fear or dread. This would inevitably be followed by a cathartic acceptance, then a sense of equanimity, and finally a return to joy.
At the same time the rapture of beholding a process that was infinite changed…into the sense of a dreadful and ineluctable fate…This instantaneous revulsion of mood from rapture to horror is, perhaps, the strongest emotion I have ever experienced.
—William James, Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide
To expand a bit: I would typically enter this cycle at the joy stage, overcome by pleasant audiovisual and tactile sensations. But eventually a thought would creep in: “it’s going to be over soon”; or “am I forgetting something important?”; or “am I really sure nitrous isn’t neurotoxic?”; it was always a sudden realization that not everything can be this good. But I’d eventually accept this fact, feeling a mixture of sadness and acceptance. Once I was no longer actively resisting the pain, I’d slide into a pleasant equanimity, aware that pleasure isn’t everything but still enjoying myself. Then the joy would build, kicking off another loop (and maybe another pull on the nitrous hose).
Usually one hit from the nitrous tank would induce a single tour through this cycle. Other times the cycle would repeat itself every few seconds in a dizzying spiral; the spiral might even loop back on itself, creating one large cycle from many smaller cycles.5
The more I look for it, the more I see this loop playing out in my daily life, on all timescales. I see in romantic relationships, in the arc of my career, in the plots of stories, even as I write this paragraph. Initial excitement eventually crests and gives way to fear or disappointment, which in turn hits a nadir and reverts to the mean.
Under nitrous, typically the fear portion of this loop would be mild and brief—often less than a second. But there was one trip where, as I re-entered waking life, it magnified tremendously. At each turn of the loop I’d recall a new form of suffering—sickness, torture, factory farms, depression, slavery—as though learning about it for the first time. I’d slowly move through a feeling of disgust and into catharsis. But the equanimity and joy would pass near-instantaneously as I remembered a new form of pain. This is the only nitrous trip I’ve had that was primarily disturbing.
There’s another lesson here, a synthesis of Buddhist equanimity with the lived experience of isolated pleasure and pain: the cycle of valence is inevitable, but different portions of the loop can be magnified or mitigated. Attention seems to be the main factor—if you can deliberately focus on the good, you’ll experience more of it; if you fixate on the bad, well, you’re gonna have a bad time.
The trick is simultaneously remembering that the wheel will inevitably turn. There’s no way to avoid the bad (or the good) entirely.
All that said, we need to address the obvious criticism: couldn’t these “revelations” just be drug-induced delusions? How can we differentiate the two?
Nitrous seems to trigger an epiphanic reaction to just about any thought. For example, my sudden internalization of Mach’s philosophy is paralleled by William James’ nitrous-induced appreciation for Hegel:
Now this, only a thousand-fold enhanced, was the effect upon me of the gas: and its first result was to make peal through me with unutterable power the conviction that Hegelism was true after all…the flood of ontologic emotion was Hegelian through and through
I’ve also had several obviously false epiphanies during nitrous experiences. Many of these had a symbolic, dream-like character. At one point I thought I was in sympathetic vibration with distant aliens, huffing nitrous on their own planet; at another, that the universe had been born around a large campfire.
These “revelations” only lasted for a few seconds before butting up against the cold logic of reality. Other epiphanies sat in a murky gray area between these and the more resilient ideas described above: sudden insights into friendship, cognition, the cyclic nature of time, ritual, exobiology—most of which faded as I came back to the surface.
Here’s cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky describing the dynamics of false epiphanies:
There is a not uncommon phenomenon—sometimes called mystical experience—from which a person emerges with the conviction that some unsolvable problem (like the purpose of existence) has been completely explained; one can't remember quite how, only that it was answered so well as to leave no doubt at all. This, I venture, reflects some mental mechanism (perhaps one of last resort) that, in a state of particularly severe turmoil or stress, can short-circuit the entire intellectual process—by creating the illusion that the problem has been settled. Powerful but dangerous, such a mechanism short-cuts the canons of normal confirmation. One kind of confusion-cycle is thereby broken, but this may damage other ways in which sane minds confront beliefs with evidence. Then, anything can happen.
Compare with William James:
Truth lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding evidence. The mind sees all the logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel; only as sobriety returns, the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly at a few disjointed words and phrases
I struggle to reconcile these false epiphanies with the strong sense that I have, in fact, learned something from my nitrous experiences.
Nitrous amplifies ideas regardless of their value. But if you’re William James reading Hegel, you’ve got a head full of valuable ideas. Nitrous clears the field and makes room for them to flourish; the bad ones might get more space than they should, but they usually won’t take root.
And this tension isn’t unique to drug-induced beliefs. Rational discourse has convinced me of a thousand false things: that Trump couldn’t win; that climate change wasn’t anthropogenic; that COVID started in a lab. Regardless of their origin, beliefs survive or die when exposed to light.
My most spurious nitrous epiphanies were aborted within seconds, while others died after a few minutes. Some continue to thrive years later; maybe one day they’ll perish too. But in the meantime, they’ve been helping me navigate the world, helping me live a happier life. And that’s as good a definition of “knowledge” as any I’ve heard.
While nitrous oxide is relatively safe, like any drug it can be dangerous if misused. Check out DanceSafe for information and harm reduction techniques
Ether has fallen out of favor in modern medicine, largely due to its flammability. But the relative safety of nitrous oxide has made it a popular choice for moderate levels of sedation (e.g. minor oral surgery).
If I can quibble with QRI for a moment: I prefer the term “phase space of qualia”, or “quale-space” for short. “Phase space” makes it more explicit that a state of mind consists of both a configuration and its time-derivative (a la position and momentum); and only a subset of quale-space is what I would call “conscious” (see the “Awaken, My Love!” section).
Easily the best book title ever. I’ll consider renaming this blog to Researches, Chemical and Philosophical
I started to experience rapid cycles after becoming aware of the loop. It was a very intense experience—the emotions involved were all about the loop. It was reminiscent of some LSD-induced thought loops I’ve experienced.
More on thought loops in a future article.