Until the twentieth century, scientists investigating the effects of drugs on the mind did so by experimenting on themselves. Vivid descriptions of drug experiences sparked insights across the mind sciences, pharmacology, medicine, and philosophy. Accounts in journals and literary fiction inspired a fascinated public to make their own experiments—in scientific demonstrations, on exotic travels, at literary salons, and in occult rituals.
But after 1900 drugs were increasingly viewed as a social problem, and the long tradition of self-experimentation began to disappear.
From Sigmund Freud’s experiments with cocaine to William James’s epiphany on nitrous oxide, Mike Jay brilliantly recovers a lost intellectual tradition of drug-taking that fed the birth of psychology, the discovery of the unconscious, and the emergence of modernism. Today, as we embrace novel cognitive enhancers and psychedelics, the experiments of the original psychonauts reveal the deep influence of mind-altering drugs on Western science, philosophy, and culture.
“The history is captivating, and [Jay] does a great job balancing research with vivid anecdotes and fascinating excerpts from cultural figures’ writings. It’s a welcome reconsideration of the role drugs play in life, medicine, and science.”—Publishers Weekly
“Fascinating. . . . Complex and riveting. . . . Readers should anticipate quite a trip.”—Tony Miksanek, Booklist
“Mike Jay is at the forefront of global research on the history of psychoactive substances. In this moment of renaissance in research on the mind-altering properties of psychedelics, Jay’s Psychonauts offers crucial intel and historical perspective.”—Marcus Boon, author of The Road of Excess
“A thought-provoking history of the pioneering questers who self-experimented with drugs in the name of science and creativity. Mike Jay’s account of coked-up doctors, hashish-eating poets, mushroom-munching mystics and toad-licking scientists is an exhilarating read.”—Anna Katharina Schaffner, author of The Art of Self-Improvement
“With this rich, nuanced account, Mike Jay posits the War on Drugs as a mere blip on the long, proud, and very influential history of self-experimentation with psychoactive substances by artists, scientists and philosophers—the titular explorers of the mind.”—Carlyn Zwarenstein, author of On Opium
“With elegance and erudition, Mike Jay conveys the fascinating, often quixotic history of scientists, philosophers, and other daring ‘psychonauts’ self-experimenting with a pharmacopeia of substances, exploring the mysteries of consciousness by chemically altering the brain. Jay deftly guides the reader through the most confounding puzzles about our mind’s pictures of reality; about meaning-making, truth and illusion. A gorgeously written, page-turning pleasure to read.”—Brian D. Earp, author of Love Is the Drug
“Breezy and profound, Psychonauts is a wildly entertaining history of drugs through the writings of stoned intellectuals like Sigmund Freud, William James, and Baudelaire. They got high, saw God, tried to articulate the experience, and mostly failed. But their attempts, like this book, are a total blast.”—Ben Westhoff, author of Fentanyl, Inc.
About the Author
Mike Jay has written extensively on scientific and medical history and contributes regularly to the London Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal. His previous books on the history of drugs include Mescaline, High Society, and The Atmosphere of Heaven.