Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Are You Having a Laugh?

December 15th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Humphry DavyThe abundance of museums dedicated to the history of anesthesia is really something to behold. While we certainly can’t deny the landmark nature of this medical wonder, we were a bit bowled over to discover so many institutions dedicated to exalting its virtues and warehousing its antique equipment.

But therein lies Microkhan gold, particularly the archival materials related to medicine’s surprisingly longtime reliance on nitrous oxide. Before it was relegated to the dentist’s office (and pre-concert parking lots), laughing gas was used in all manner of medical procedures—particularly during childbirth, when women were allowed to self-administer as much nitrous as they desired. Given the substance’s quasi-spiritual effects, we can only imagine that mixing it into nature’s most mind-blowing event changed more than a few philosophical outlooks.

Our recent research into the history of nitrous oxide inevitably led us to the text that started it all, way back in 1800: Sir Humphry Davy’s fantastically titled Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration. This was the first study of the effects of nitrous on human subjects, and its section dedicated to self-reports is a must-read. One of our favorite accounts comes from a man named James Thomson, who was obviously deeply affected by his laughing-gas bender:

My inspirations became uncommonly full and strong, attended with a thrilling sensation about the chest, highly pleasurable, which increased to such a degree as to induce a fit of involuntary laughter, which I endeavored to repress. I felt a flight of giddiness which lasted a few moments only. My inspirations now became more vehement and frequent; and I inhaled the air with an avidity strongly indicative of the pleasure I received. That peculiar thrill which I had at first experienced at the chest now pervaded my whole frame; and during the two or three last inspirations, was attended with a remarkable tingling in my fingers and toes. My feelings at this moment are not to be described: I felt a high, an extraordinary degree of pleasure, different from that produced by wine, being divested of all its gross accompaniments, and yet approaching nearer to it than any other sensation I am acquainted with…

It is extremely difficult to convey to others by means of words, any idea of a particular sensations, of which they have had no experience. It can only be done by making use of such terms as are expressive of sensations that resemble them, and in these our vocabulary is defective. To be able at all to comprehend the effects of nitrous oxide, it is necessary to respire it, and after that, we must either invent new terms to express these new and particular sensations, or attach new ideas to old ones, before we can communicate intelligibly with each other on the operation of this extraordinary gas.

If only Mr. Thomson had lived to hear Stars of the Lid.

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Nitrous oxide can be some serious stuff. When I got a couple of wisdom teeth pulled last year, I ended up doing it without full anesthesia. Instead, it was just going to be nitrous and Novocain. Well, the oral surgeon really cranked that stuff up. Before he had even started, I went under, started hallucinating and came to thinking I was in the wrong universe. I’m not even kidding. That’s a really bad thing to be thinking when your field of vision is full of bright lights and surgical scrubbed doctors. Thankfully rationality maintained it’s grip and I was able to ride out those feelings to discombobulation until everything settled down.

    On the plus side, I really couldn’t feel a thing. For once the Novocain needles of doom weren’t that bad at all. Nor the part where each tooth had to be cracked apart before it could be taken out.

    After the procedure was all over, one of the interns turned to the oral surgeon, pointed at the nitrous oxide regulator and asked “Isn’t that a bit high?”. The surgeon didn’t even blink before saying “Eh, it’s fine.” After that I didn’t feel so bad about having such wild hallucinations.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I think you’ll enjoy this snippet from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, in which author Peter Biskind briefly recounts 1970s Hollywood’s obsession with nitrous:

    http://bit.ly/7A8s0a

    As is so often the case, it was all fun and games until a prominent member of the film industry died from taking the stuff. He inhaled it from a gas mask strapped onto his face, then suffocated when he passed out. A powerful elixir, indeed.

  • Gramsci

    Even worse, when someone comes to believe in the deep truth of Hegelism. That would send the Hollywood set into absolute chaos, lemme tell ya.

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