What’s the Point of Plants that Make Us Feel High?
Philosophers and Scientists (and Stoners) Have
Long Confronted the Question
How did you get here?
Why are you here?
These existential questions mirror the first question we ask a new acquaintance, “Where are you from?” We want to understand our origins and the meaning of our existence. And the search for meaning and the reasons for our existence are never more imperative than when we are suffering.
Even before scientists and physicians understood the intricacies of the human body and the concepts of disease and healing, there was a necessary preoccupation with the alleviation of pain. If medicine had only evolved to eliminate pain, it would be a triumph. Of course, the advancement of medicine and surgery has been much more than the simple eradication of pain—it is the reversal of degradation, the conquering of microbial infection, the management of trauma, the pharmacological alteration of systemic disease, the halting of cancer, the reconstruction of damaged body parts, and the enhancement of biological tissues. But, in the beginning, the instinctual desperation to lessen pain (even when there was no understanding of the human machine) drove early civilized man to the heavens—and to the earth.
Feeling better, experiencing euphoria, or sensing nothing at all became possible with empirical experimentation with botanicals, starting in ancient times. Comprehensive control of wakefulness, or even the ability to induce profound sleep was the Gordian knot of surgery.
The cross-reactivity among plants and animals in our chemical world is startling. Why does ethanol, produced via plant fermentation, have such powerful effects in our minds? How has Mother Nature dictated that the poisonous chemicals in spiders, snakes, and flying insects have their evil potentialities in our bodies? What is the explanation for the efficacy of the simple chemical element, lithium, in the treatment of bipolar disorder and depression? And why do some plants fabricate chemical compounds that have no internal use and seem to have been tapped by the gods to make wondrous substances that only work on the minds and hearts of men?The inkling that plants had biological powers opened the door to hypothesizing about how the body works.
The foxglove plant, an ornamental plant with vividly colored, elongated bell-shaped flowers, produces digitalis, a molecule that is powerfully used to treat cardiac arrhythmias (like atrial fibrillation) and congestive heart failure. In the foxglove, the digitalis base molecule has no physiologic role, and only functions as a pigment, and more importantly, as a toxic deterrent to pesky herbivorous woodland animals. Why would nature fashion a small molecule in a decorative plant that makes our heart contract more dynamically and rhythmically? It’s an enigma, and nature is replete with oddly symbiotic chemicals.
Ancient shamans had no understanding of chemistry and pharmacology, or even the concept of disease treatment. Greek and Roman healers had imagination and curiosity, but a dearth of effective medicines; antiquity’s tool chest was mostly empty, and the few remedies that existed were minimally effective and dangerously toxic. The most important characteristic of any intervention, therefore, was that there was an effect. The cause-and-effect that is most obvious is rapid altered mental ability, like drunkenness or hallucination. Even the most incurious primitive man could link the stupor or agitation following the ingestion of alcohol or psychedelic mushrooms.
The inkling that plants had biological powers opened the door to hypothesizing about how the body works. The Galenic concept of disease treatment in the 2nd century was based upon the theory of opposites. Life was a constant balancing act—good health was evidence of good balance, but imbalance in life was a harbinger of impending disease. Using the foundation of Hippocratic humoral theory, if a patient was plagued with an abundance of phlegm (one of the four main humors of the body), the counterbalancing therapeutic move would be to apply desiccating heat. This is evident in the life of Achilles, who by legend, was nursed on bile (instead of milk), thus giving him a “bilious” and bellicose character.
Paracelsus (1493–1541), and later Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), proposed a completely different concept regarding the systemic balances of the human body. For philosophers like Paracelsus, who contemplated the inner workings of our mortal frame without the use of the microscope and before the advent of organ physiology, our bodies were a confusing matrix. His breakthrough concept of “similia similibus curantor,” now appreciated as pseudoscience, held that a substance that causes the symptoms of disease in a healthy person would cure symptoms in a sick patient. For example, if one were suffering from diarrhea, the homeopathic intervention would be to take a laxative, forcing even more diarrhea. Unbelievably, there are still subscribers to this crackpot mentality.
The homeopathic mindset, and later the modern allopathic outlook, riveted the gaze of medical sages on the effects (and side effects) of botanical potions. Even in the epoch before modern biochemistry illuminated the true-life molecular world, the methodical analysis of plant and earth materials resulted in a catalogue of useful formulations. As scientists demystified air, organized the periodic table, determined the laws of chemical reactions, and finally laid to rest the pseudoscience of alchemy, the potential of refined and purified drugs came into focus.
More important, an obsession with the unfathomable became a possibility: on-command sleep—the purview of gods—and the ability to regulate consciousness at the wave of the hand.
The Greek god of sleep, Hypnos (Somnus to the Romans), had many sons, but his son Morpheus was a god of dreams, delivering messages and prophecies from the gods to mortals through the medium of dreams. With winged power, Morpheus floated into the dreams of heroes and kings, taking the shape of any human form at will, mimicking “their gait, their face, their moods,” according to Ovid. “In the arms of Morpheus” was to be asleep, consorting with the gods.
The poppy plant was tended by the Sumerians at least five thousand years ago, and it has likely been in continuous cultivation in the broad Middle East ever since. While many poppy varieties are prized throughout the world for their striking flowers, it is the Papaver somniferum that is the source of opium and other alkaloids that transformed medicine, ignited wars, and propped up dictatorships.
The source of opium is the “tears of the poppy,” the milky-white latex that is contained within the walls of the poppy fruit, or seed pod. Opium farmers have, for millennia, knifed the outer hull of the green seed pod with parallel scratches, eliciting a milky exudate. The “tears” are allowed to dry overnight, darkening, and collected by scraping the raised, beaded prize. This tarry treasure has been pilfered from floral hosts in its crude form for millennia, ingested by bronze-age farmers for its gut-soothing and sleep-inducing powers, and only later distilled into its constitutive composites, awaiting the invention of the hypodermic needle.
Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) introduced laudanum, a concoction of sherry and opium, in 1680, and it was medicine’s great salve for several hundred years. With the advent of modern chemistry in the early 19th century, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner, a German chemist, perfected the purification of morphine from opium in 1804, becoming the first scientist to refine an individual drug molecule from a donor plant. Industrial production of morphine by the German chemical giants, and later by American companies in the 1830s, meant that self-medicated Westerners could “narcotize” (Narke, Greek for stupor) themselves with over-the-counter morphine and codeine, even into the 20th century. Nothing could be more sublime than to be carried away on Morpheus’s wings when you were in agony, in extremis.
Excerpted from The Invention of Surgery by Dr. David Schneider, published by Pegasus Books. Reprinted with permission. All other rights reserved.