Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Poisons of the Intelligence-Hasheesh

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POISONS OF THE INTELLIGENCE—HASHEESH.[1]
By CHARLES RICHET.

HASHEESH is the extract of Indian hemp. This extract, mixed with different aromatics and vegetable oils, forms dawamesk, a sort of nauseous confection taken before a meal. Then there is the hasheesh smoked in pipes or in cigarettes, and this is the form in which the drug is most commonly taken in the East. The aqueous extract is known as hafioun; it is more active than the other two preparations. It takes nearly four parts of dawamesk to make one of hafioun. It is very difficult to find out any more concerning the Oriental modes of preparing hasheesh; still, though our pharmaceutical information be insufficient, we are pretty familiar with the psychic effects of the drug. I have taken it myself again and again in various doses, and have administered it to many of my friends, and whatever I shall have to say concerning its properties will be based upon my own observations. Taken in moderate doses, it produces a kind of intoxication that is very pleasant, highly advantageous for a correct knowledge of intellectual phenomena, and at the same time free from serious consequences. The worst that is to be expected when one takes either dawamesk or hafioun in suitable quantities is slight disorder of the digestion, and a little sense of heaviness and of cerebral excitation.

If one has not been told what to expect, the first effects of hasheesh pass by unnoticed; these consist of a certain motor and sensor excitability of the spinal cord. There is a twitching in the nape of the neck, the back and the legs, and a shivering that extends over the whole body. It is as though there were puffs of hot and cold air rising to the head; but withal there is a vague sense of comfortableness, and one finds himself in a state of great good-humor, as is the case of most persons after the absorption of a certain amount of alcohol. By degrees the excitation of the spinal cord produces effects that are more characteristic, as muscular exertion of every kind, walking, stretching, dancing, lifting heavy weights; but meantime the mind is calm. Suddenly, however, on hearing some chance remark, the patient is seized with a fit of laughing without any apparent cause, and this continues for a length of time. This having passed, he comes to himself again, and recognizes the first effects of the poison.

Ideas now come crowding on his brain, one following another with bewildering rapidity. Thoughts come and go without any apparent law of succession or concomitance, but in reality they are governed by the immutable laws of the association of ideas and impressions. The patient thinks the persons he sees around him very slow and dull. Language is not swift enough to give expression to his rapid thoughts. There is, as it were, an hypertrophy of ideas. What in the normal state would cause very trifling discomfort, now becomes an unbearable evil, and the patient cries and begs for commiseration. With the air of a tragic actor he will tell you that it rains, or that the wind blows. One's self-esteem is magnified, and he looks down with scorn upon the ignorance of others.

Thus, then, to say nothing as yet of the change in sensation, the moral person is entirely transformed. I am not aware that the resemblance of these phenomena to those of hysteria has ever been noticed. In general, hysterical women are very intelligent, with brilliant ideas and a lively imagination; but their mental activity labors under two defects, namely, the exaggeration of the feelings and the absence of will. The same thing is seen in the use of hasheesh.

But there are other phenomena that are still more characteristic of hasheesh, especially its effects on our notions of time and space. Under its influence, time seems to be of interminable length. Between two clearly-conceived ideas the patient descries a host of others that are indeterminate and incomplete, and of which he is only dimly conscious; but he is filled with admiration at their number and vastness. Now we measure time by the memory of the ideas that have passed through the mind, and hence an instant appears immensely long to one under the hasheesh influence. Suppose, as is common enough in the use of this drug, that in the space of one second fifty different thoughts enter the brain; now, since in the normal state it requires several minutes to conceive fifty different thoughts, the inference will be that many minutes have gone by. Seconds become years, and minutes become ages.

This illusion has no parallel; yet in dreaming, or rather in that intermediate state which is neither sleeping nor waking, we experience something similar. I recollect having been at work one day with a friend, and, as I felt drowsy, asking him to let me sleep for a few minutes. On awaking, I was assured by him that I had slept hardly a second; and yet in that brief time I had had a very complicated dream, and, in consequence of the multiplicity of my thoughts, the time had appeared to be of considerable length. So, if a person be awakened by some sudden, loud noise, he will oftentimes, in the fraction of a second, pass in imagination through scenes and adventures of a very complicated nature. A like illusion may be procured at will by shutting the eyes while one is riding in a carriage: under such circumstances the journey will appear to have no end; on opening the eyes from time to time, and observing the landmarks, the progress will seem to be extremely slow.

But in dreaming and in sleep this illusion as to the lapse of time is vague and ill-defined. Under the influence of hasheesh, on the contrary, it becomes singularly definite. Nor is the illusion of the sight less astonishing, which causes inconsiderable distances to appear enormously great. I do not know whether this illusion has been observed under any other conditions than those of hasheesh-poisoning, nor can I offer any rational explanation of it. It is difficult even to describe it. It causes a bridge, an avenue, to stretch out to unheard-of lengths. On going up a ladder, the rounds appear to reach up to the sky. A river whose opposite bank is in sight becomes an arm of the sea. And, besides these two illusions of space and time, which by-the-way often persist twenty-four hours or more, there are other illusions of the strangest kind imaginable. Hallucinations, on the contrary, are infrequent, though one remarkable instance has been observed by Dr. Moreau, of Tours.

It is oftentimes very hard to draw the distinction between illusion and hallucination, but nevertheless there is a difference between these two manifestations of morbid psychic activity. When an insane patient sees at his elbow a walking, talking spectre, he has an hallucination. But if in a dark forest, at night, one takes some deformed trunk for a ghost, he has an illusion. Illusion presupposes an actual sensation, the perception of which is exaggerated and erroneous, whereas hallucination comes spontaneously without requiring a sensation to give rise to it. Now, under the hasheesh influence, the sensations are exaggerated so as to produce endless illusions. The slightest sound becomes a crash, and we hear the fall of waters, the roar of cataracts, the blare of trumpets, or brilliant harmonies. I have seen persons, naturally almost insensible to music, lifted by a few musical notes into an ecstasy such as we read of in the lives of saints. But, for a description of all these sensations, I would refer the reader to the brilliant pages of Théophile Gautier's "Club des Hachichins."

I will not go over ground trod by Gautier, but will content myself with touching upon another point of psychological interest. We will suppose the illusion to be stronger than anything noticed in the foregoing instances; that instead of being a simple disorder of the perceptive faculties, it affects the conceptive powers. Under normal conditions, external impressions awaken manifold ideas in our minds; besides the association of ideas, there is association of impressions with ideas. For instance, a certain taste, smell, or sound, gives rise to a multitude of conceptions that follow one another according to the direction we may be pleased to give them. The faculty of attention enables us to check the uprising of the conceptions called forth by the taste, smell, or sound. Often, while attention is fixed on an object, we neither hear nor see what is passing without. In reality we do see and hear, but these sensations are obliterated, and pass out of the mind without leaving a trace behind. In the use of hasheesh, in virtue of the loss of will, the intensity of the perceptions, and the excitation of the brain, every external impression calls forth a series of delirious conceptions, and there is no check.

Dr. Moreau lays great stress on the resemblance subsisting between these hasheesh illusions and the systematic delirium of the insane. In most lunatics the delirious idea has its origin in fact, in a sensation, a pain, an impression from without. This forms for them the logical basis of a system of erroneous judgments. If, for instance, they suffer from nausea or gastric pains, they say they have been poisoned; that their enemies have mixed poison with their food. Precisely the same thing is found in the use of hasheesh. Every sensation immediately calls forth an insane thought, or rather a thousand such thoughts. Hence it really appears as though the veil were rent in twain, and that by the use of this drug we are enabled to witness the mind itself at its work. The mysterious and silent travail which in the normal state produces our thoughts and judgments is no longer either mysterious or silent: we can see how the whole is connected, and can look on while ideas are being evolved. But, unfortunately, under the hasheesh influence one is no longer master of his own thoughts, and must, perforce, follow them in their disorderly course. Here we observe close resemblance between the three states of dreaming, insanity, and hasheesh intoxication. In all these external impressions are all-powerful, and the mind is subject, unchecked, to the excitation of the senses.

One great difference between intoxication by hasheesh and that by alcohol and chloroform is that in the former, when the dose is light, memory is intact: one remembers with marvelous exactitude all that he saw, did, or said. But if the dose be strong, the loss of memory is complete; then, too, there is delirium, wild delirium. In such doses hasheesh is dangerous, though I do not think a single case of death from this cause has ever been recorded in Europe. But sometimes the delirium has continued for several days, and assumed serious proportions. No one should take hasheesh without having some person to care for him while under the influence of the drug; oftentimes the hasheesh gives such a sense of lightness and agility that a person will attempt to fly by leaping out of a window.

In the East hasheesh is in very general use. It is nearly always smoked in large pipes, which are passed from mouth to mouth. The smoke is very agreeable, possessing a peculiar aromatic odor. On entering certain Arab cafés at Cairo or at Damascus, one perceives this penetrating odor, which gently intoxicates even those who do not smoke. In this mild dose hasheesh produces a sort of sleepiness, during which external objects assume fantastic forms, and all is like a dream. The monotonous, nasal music has a gentle, tranquilizing effect during this sleep. On the walls of the café are rudely-pictured camels, grotesque human forms, or the surface is marked with lines, quadrangles, and triangles. In the minds of the hasheesh-smokers these rude pictures awaken delightful illusions, and they fancy themselves to be transported to Mohammed's paradise. To further amuse the indolence of the customers, a chanter drones out a long story, semi-religious, semi-heroic. The tale is in couplets, and between the couplets the music strikes up again its interminable rhythm. Now and then a smoker will rise staggering to his feet, and will give expression by yells to the delight with which he contemplates some fantastic image that he sees. The rest of the company then laugh uproariously, but anon will greet the last speaker with "Allah be with thee! Allah be praised!" Never shall I forget this spectacle, which, in a dark corner of the noisy bazaars of Damascus, with the dim light of a smoky lamp, to the sound of the tambourine and guitar with three cords, enabled me to understand one side of Oriental life.

  1. Translated and condensed by J. Fitzgerald, A.M.