Chemicals to help you write PowerPoint and other cognitive fantasies

14.55, Wednesday 23 Dec 2020

After mentioning in November my discovery of the secret of the universe at the dentist, and my struggle to retrieve it, Tully Hansen, poet, dropped me a note to say that my experience is not unique!

This story has been told variously about nitrous, ether, and chloroform, but here’s a version from an 1870 lecture by Oliver Wendell Holmes: I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind.

And so:

The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, 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.”

So: a class of inhaled anaesthetics triggers an experience of revelation, struggle to recall, and a mundane truth – and this experience is individual yet shared.

I think what catches me by surprise, about this trip to the dentist, is how intensely personal and subjective it felt… yet that’s simply something that nitrous produces, reliably.


RELATED: a reliable effect of salvia is to witness the layers of reality; a reliable effect of DMT is to encounter beings called by Terence Mckenna self-transforming machine elves.

Reliability. Way back in 2007 I was going on about the book Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved which documents the effects of 179 different compounds – and asking why we didn’t already have reliable smart drugs.

I didn’t mean smart drugs like Omega-3s, which apparently boost cognitive performance in a low level and generalised way as a diet supplement, but instead highly targeted, functional, reliable psychoactives: Why don’t we have abstraction modifier drugs now? Why are there no drugs to help me think in hierarchies, or with models, or to make cross connections?

I’m not sure I’d take any, but I still wonder about this.


I wish I could remember where, but I remember reading that the breakthrough with Viagra was getting “erectile dysfunction” listed as a pathology. There’s a book of official pathologies. Once something is in that book, drugs can be developed (with research costs offset against tax); drugs can be marketed and proscribed and bought with insurance, and so on.

So could you pathologise “lack of lateral thinking,” or “dysfunction in authoring structured PowerPoint”, or “inability to consult with the machine elves” – and produce a little blue pharmaceutical to deal with the issue, a blister pack full of 60 minute perspectives, epiphanies, and corporate strategy skills?

I guess I’m looking back at my posts from this year, including this one thinking about using the GPT-3 AI as a creative collaborator, and imagining a different future, one based on molecular biochemistry not machine learning; rather than looking to computers to provide mental prostheses and automate jobs, we instead extend the gamut of human ability with cognitive interventions?

What would it mean to have utilitarian psychoactives? How would the world change?

The mundane consequences:

Right next to the “Out of Office” email setting for when you’re on vacation, a button that turns off your inbox and sets the auto reply just for a single morning, clearing the decks for your weekly creative consultation with the machine elves.

A vacuum cleaner with flashing light patterns specifically designed to capture your attention when you’re on a deep clean trip, absolutely and happily and regularly and chemically fixated on getting your chores done.

A transcranial magnetic stimulation helmet that takes over your legs for your 30 minute commute so you can avoid crowded trains, get your 10,000 steps in, and catch up on your TV shows.

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