I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Alexander Shulgin: the Invention of Empathy

by Gabriella Arrigoni
Sept. 22, 2011

The day after always comes with a loose, altered idea of fullness and emptiness. The salty furred taste of the day after the party: your ears are still throbbing with a crowd of sounds that don’t belong to your quiet bedroom, but are, somehow, still there, and you’re not sure you really want them to go away. It seems pretty undeniable that every subculture came with its own favourite drug, and that we cannot give a complete account of the history of contemporary music without devoting at least a few words to the world of chemicals and narcotic consumption. This might be true for the times of bebop improvisations and heroin-addicted Charlie Parker, later on for the lysergic hippie psychedelia, and the spiritually dense rhythmic skank of raggae, but even more for everything we put under the definition of rave culture and the evolution and devolution of dance music from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s through acid house, trance, gabber, techno, hardcore, breakbeat, braindance... All this wouldn’t have been the same without MDMA. Not even remotely the same. But I’m not going to talk about the music: to describe music, looking for metaphors to convey its feelings and moulding appropriate synaesthesia for its beats and loops makes me feel terribly ashamed. Moreover, even though our focus here is the so called “godfather of ecstasy”, Alexander (Sasha for his friends) Shulgin has never been interested in becoming a counter-culture hero. The reasons behind his chemical and pharmacological research into psychoactive drugs have nothing to do with the identity of a generation. His main purpose was instead to gain a deeper insight into the human mind.

By testing altered states of consciousness, recapturing lost memories, or boosting the brain's neurotransmitters, he wanted to contribute with new tools and methodologies to both cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind -- a field of research that cannot do without the profitable alliance between scientific approach and theoretical investigation. While neurophysiology alone doesn’t seem to produce significant results once the most mechanical aspects of feeling, reacting and thinking have been revealed, it is interesting to notice how Shulgin is keen to distinguish between the mind and the brain. A classic dilemma in ancient and modern philosophy, the old mind-body problem is still one of the most debated ones. On one side there are, in fact, those thinkers who consider the mind as a set of nervous impulses and do not separate it from the brain, whilst others, similarly to Professor X (Shulgin), argue that the mind cannot be reduced to matter, but is something in itself, something much more complex and working according to its own principles. If so, drugs cannot add anything to it, but just intensify or disclose something already existing. A strong advocate of the unrealised potential of the mind, Shulgin conceives the idea of altered states of consciousness not as the new product of the interfacing of chemicals and the brain, but rather as a sort of revelation, something which is with us all the time: the substances work like catalysts and only allow us to become aware of it.

Besides its potential for learning, MDMA also appeared as a useful resource in psychotherapy. Aware of its beneficial effects in facilitating communication and sense of intimacy between individuals, reducing anxiety and improving self-image, Shulgin introduced the compound to psychologist Leo Zeff shortly after developing a new synthesis for the drug, which was originally synthesised in 1912 by the German firm, Merck. Through Zeff, the molecule gained popularity and started being used by American therapists until it was made illegal by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1985 and placed in Schedule 1 (the most restrictive one). Subsequent legally-approved MDMA studies in humans have occasionally taken place especially as a remedy in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety associated with terminal cancer. However, the so called “penicillin of the soul” is only the most famous and successful of a remarkable series of substances synthesized by Shulgin in his lab as part of the joint mission, with his wife Ann, to unlock unexplored areas of our psychic activity. Empathoges or entactogens, anphetamines and methanphetamines, stimulants, antidepressants, hallucinogens, psychedelic, alkaloids: in his long career, Professor X, whose first big achievement was the invention of a biodegradable pesticide (Zectran), discovered and personally assessed hundreds of psychoactive compounds, whose recipes can be found in his two books: "PiHKAL (Phenethylamines i Have Known And Loved)" and “TiHKAL (Tryptamines i Have Known And Loved: The Continuation)”. A semi-narrative account of the effects of each new substance as it is first tested, these publications deliver so much meticulous information about dosage and duration that they turned into handy cookbooks for the rave and underground scene, obviously winning plenty of criticism from the part of the anti-drug crusaders. A self-proclaimed libertarian and advocate of drugs legalisation, Shulgin believes the government shouldn’t make laws about personal behaviour, and also that, after all, it all depends on how and how often drugs are used: for this reason, providing precise instructions might actually help discourage irresponsible and potentially dangerous use. As with coffee, alcohol, salt or mayo, measure matters.

In the meantime, Sasha (now aged 86) had a stroke, about one year ago; fewer and fewer people define themselves as ravers anymore, the movement died long before the tragedy at the Berlin Love Parade in the summer of 2010. Ecstasy is still around, slightly less popular than in the previous decade. Heroin is trendy again, cocaine is an evergreen and ketamine is on the rise. The drug market is changing and invading the web, marketing strategies are more and more sophisticated, and newspapers talk about changing patterns of consumption, now involving users of all ages and cultural and social background. Clubbers, meanwhile, are looking for new substances, and with them, possibly a new musical era.

Gabriella Arrigoni is an independent curator and writer; former editor
in chief of undo.net, she now contributes to a number of contemporary
art magazine. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) where she also
works as translator. She is part of the collective Nopasswd
in[ter]dependent contemporary culture.