“Richly detailed and frequently illuminating.”—Rhys Blakely, Times (UK)
“Excellent.”—Clare Bucknell, New Yorker
A New Yorker Best of the Week Pick
A provocative and original history of the scientists and writers, artists and philosophers who took drugs to explore the hidden regions of the mind
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.
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.
“Jay is a leading expert on the history of Western drug use, and Psychonauts is the latest in a series of excellent studies in which he has investigated the roots of a kind of psychoactive exploration that we tend to associate with the nineteen-fifties and sixties.”—Clare Bucknell, New Yorker
“Psychonauts is a timely reminder that a prohibitive approach to drugs is not the historical norm. Drugs are changing and Jay hopes the term itself will change with them.”—Marcus Ellingham, Financial Times
A New Yorker Best of the Week Pick, 2023
“Fascinating book . . . not something you get taught at school.”—Thomas W. Hodgkinson, The Guardian
“In this richly detailed and frequently illuminating book, Mike Jay argues that Davis and Weil were merely reviving a centuries-long tradition—inebriation in the name of science.”—Rhys Blakely, Times (UK)
“Jay’s book has serious contemporary relevance given our current problems.”—John Quin, The National (Scotland)
Listed in New Statesman’s Best Books of the Academic Presses, 2023
“Dense with fascinating information, some of it obscure, all of it well referenced, Psychonauts is an essential addition to any psychonaut’s library.”—Andy Roberts, Fortean Times
“Psychonauts is a fascinating study of the cyclical attitudes towards self-experimentation with drugs. As Jay notes, modern-day self-experimentation can add to medical understanding of drugs’ potential.”—Elizabeth K. Gray, History Today
“Psychonauts is an engaging survey of the modern, Western history of drug-assisted voyages toward self-discovery . . . historians would do well to add this volume to their library.”—Social History of Medicine
“A splendidly curated collection of the accounts brought back from those far worlds by self experimenting travellers; a parade of brave, curious and charismatic characters…” —Charles Foster, Times Literary Supplement
“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.
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