Resonance Dreaming: Nitrous Oxide, Nos and Hippie Crack

Nobody by drfranken

At one point there gathered an intensity.

Midday on Saturday and the music festival was pulsing in the throng of its three-day ecstasy. After a wonky Friday night, Cole and myself had taken shelter from the glaring, hot sun and were sitting in a no-shoes, hookah and chai café. Colourful drapes were hung across the sides of the tent and two Barbie dolls, dressed in bondage gear, swung surreptitiously from the roof above. Between us was a red, square, low-riding table; jutting up from a rug-covered floor. A blueberry-packed shisha pipe, with two long hoses wrapped carefully around it, was perched in the centre, and mugs of chai and cans of lager nestled happily  together at the base.

A small group of trippers, with baggy linen trousers and faded tops, who’d also done the journey up from the South-West had joined us. We all splayed out on cushions excitedly chatting; a strange mix of Bedouin calm-comfort and British mid-rave-wreck intensity. It turned out we were all from a similar area of Cornwall, knew many of the same people and drank in many of the same pubs. A ready-made rapport as we shared a cultural heritage; a geographical pointer that opens up the doors of conversation. Not that this mattered greatly, as with any good music festival the proximity of our selves with the event is all one needs to make a great new friend at every turn; even if after the three-day ecstasy they become only impressions, they are, by-and-large, good impressions.

A waitress sauntered elegantly over to our table; she was dressed in a thin, light green blouse, which was cropped short and ran tight  just below her breasts and a darker, thick pair of green Thai-fishing trousers hung loosely around her hips. Her long, dark brown hair was tied up very loosely and the area around her right eye and cheek was delicately painted with an intricate blue pattern, wave-like and layered with patches of sparkle. I remember watching as dolphins appeared, swimming in and out of the tide, until her eye caught me and she smiled. Bending down between Cole and I she asked: “Would you like some balloons with your hookah?”

“Nos?” We both answered.

“Nos. Hippie crack. Balloon?

We nodded and she disappeared out back. Soon after, the slow hissing sound of a nitrous oxide filling balloon whistled and hissed out to our ears. When she returned she was holding one blue and one red balloon. They were small extensions of her arms. Handing me the red one, she said “enjoy”, smiled and went and sat down with some trippers in the corner, immediately falling into her own bubble of conversation. An elation dashed across our faces: “Chin, chin” Cole said, proffering his balloon, “to Davy”. We clashed the two balloons together and thus plunged into the first of a dozen or so nos-led ecstasies that late summer weekend.

PunkShoot by drfranken

I wonder how Humphry Davy (1778-1829) felt the instant he partook of a Nitrous oxide hit? Davy was a Cornishman who, in 1799/1800, published one of English literature’s oldest works of drug writing[i] and pioneered an enlightenment-fuelled exploration of the gas. The Pneumatic Institute laboratory, in Bristol, came to be the hub of experimentation, in fact “literary experimentation with drugs had its birth in the friendship between Davy and [Samuel L.] Coleridge” (Boon 90). Though the poet Coleridge (1772-1834) didn’t write explicitly on nitrous oxide, it did become an early source of fascination, as he and other romantics sort a new descriptive, penetrative language, an evolving tool-kit from the emerging scientific disciplines to communicate the wonders of nature. Back then Davy was on the cusp of this new experience; he might well have seen the world transforming before his eyes.

“The laboratory must have become more than simply the source of the gas: it must, on some levels, have taken on the qualities of a sacred shrine, a sublime place of power, the inner sanctum of the mysteries” (Jay 30). But although a spirit of discovery and a sense of otherness must have temporarily bound researchers together in some sort of tribalism, the sort that one sees repeated throughout cultural drug history, by many accounts the laboratory was a theatre of individualism wherein one could find a “subject in the grip of a temporary lunacy, groaning, giggling, babbling, uncontrollably acting out inscrutable fantasies” (ibid.). And so it was with my first balloon of the day that I ignored the outside world, closed my eyes and gorged on myself during what is the very short lived nitrous oxide high.

I clasped my mouth to the red balloon. Breathing comes so naturally; rhythmically in and out, in and out, a circularity demonstrating our mutual-becoming with the world around us. Is it any wonder that systems of yoga and meditation and the stirrings of singers and sportsmen put the control of breath at the heart of their arts. In this manner, the arts and the processes of life become synonymous and the romantics must have breathed the gas as if it were the very ground of the art-subject, the imagination, a place where experience is undercoated by the brush of breath. Shrinking, growing, shrinking, growing, the balloon became my external lung for a minute or so, and slowly, at first, but quickly stepping up into a crescendo, the nos took effect; my eyes closed to a changed sensual world; my becoming-molecular as my perceptions became the extension of my breath.

In his book on drugs and writers The Road of Excess, Marcus Boon writes that the anaesthetic experience is often associated with sound. He quotes Ernst Jünger as saying that ether inhalation results in “an acoustic revelation” and also writes that “the anaesthetized patient in Theodore Dreiser’s play Laughing Gas (1915) hears The Rhythm of the Universe chanting “Om! Om! Om! Om! Om! Om! Om! Om!”” (Boon 105). It was my overwhelming experience that this observation seemed accurate. It felt that as I entered into new perceptions that the last sound that came to my ears became caught in an intense loop; a fast, trance-like but alien beat that pitched very highly before fading. Several times later, when flowing from the intensity, I was convinced that it was just an amplification of some festival beat from close by, but the music in the café was always revealed to be an acoustic guitar; not a ripping, hard-trance beat that amplified ecstatically into the centre of my brain.

The second round of balloons swiftly followed the first, just as they did all afternoon – hippie crack – and while pinching it tightly between my fingers I noticed my brain still humming; then a deep inhale, a long exhale, a deep inhale, a long exhale and so on until the balloon whimpered out. Moments after the peak of the aural experience my eyes opened. An instant of incoherence as the becoming-spun-over, then Cole came into focus. Without worrying about words we both decided that he should fly the empty, red balloon from his hand over into mine. He sat barely a couple of feet away. As it floated up serenely we looked at one another, back to the balloon, over to one another, back to the balloon, for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly, it landed in my unmoved hand.

Gatewey to Life by drfranken

According to philosophers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari “all drugs fundamentally concern speeds, and modifications of speeds” (Deleuze 282). I was experiencing the speed in rotation; a cycle of becoming; from the trance-beats in my ears looping over and over, the hippie crack effect of a rapid series of experiences, to the impossible number of re-glances in a fractional passage of time. Small modifications in my behaviour and perceptual-grasp that manifested on different circuits of velocity.

In the moments following, a great sense of excitement and amazement rose up between Cole and I. Though wide-eyed, smiling and brimming with energy we seemed unable to immediately vocalise what had happened. Unwittingly however, our gasps and buzzing-selves caused a great rippling effect and the attention of the number about us suddenly grasped us in unison. But still their questioning seemed to dig no facts out of either of us. We still couldn’t quite put into words what had happened; suffice to say that it seemed very important and though remarkable, still unwordable. A moment’s revelation that’s suddenly dashed before its comprehensible to the reasoning mind: “It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity” (James 388). When that moments revelation danced on the matrix of perception, only to become-other than itself, its impression appeared to be threaded into a group mind.

Another round of balloons follow another round of balloons. The Happy Hookah experiment became an exercise in group consciousness – controlled, directed and yet unarticulated. Five of us placed a finger into the centre of the little table so that they all touched one another. “Chin, chin” we resounded and then five circuits of velocity entered into the becoming at the same moment, each concentrated to a point yet supposedly separated by the gulf that exists between minds. In many respects, the very premise of ‘an exercise in group consciousness’ flies in the face of conventional thinking, as the mind is a private space, and therefore that experiment was an experiment without ground. But then, if there was a point, groundlessness was perhaps it. Consciousness is itself the philosophical problem that rises up and out of this particular becoming-molecular; tied as it is now to the notions of psychodynamics. According to Aldous Huxley (1894-1963):

“As for privacy—all immediate experience is strictly private. Nobody can experience another’s pain or pleasure or way of looking at the world. All one can experience is a set of clues and symbols, through which, at one or more removes, one may infer the experience of another person. On the non-verbal level there is either the loneliness of the isolated ego, or the Aloneness of the mind that has broken out of its prison of cultural conditioning and egotism and is as fully receptive to given reality, on every level, as it is possible for the human creature to be. I have had hardly any experience of psychodelics [sic] in a group, but presume that, when there is a good rapport, this is due to the fact that the chemical has transformed a group of insulated loneliness into a group of open & receptive Alonenesses” (Huxley 1999;246)

This is an extra illumination to Huxley’s Mind-at-large theory; his Bergsonian tempered explanation of consciousness as read through the use of psychedelics and described in The Doors of Perception (1954). When the reducing valves of consciousness are opened, and the evolutionary-biological filters cease to be primary, does our mind retain its individuality? Is the Mind-at-large still a mind alone, a Mind-among-others? Huxley, it would seem, would say ‘yes’. Perhaps, the efficacy of psychedelics and anaesthetics cannot be compared, their bio-chemical actions do of course differ, yet it seemed to me, after the Happy Hookah experiments, that the problem of consciousness could be approached differently. Rather than being a question rising out of the conscious Self; could the conscious Self be the result of something entirely different?

I don’t know at what point, if indeed there was one, I stopped considering my finger on the table but as my aural landscape grew up around the thought, I noticed that there were many other pitches and threads of sound than there had been before; a bolder bass line, a frantic melody, a snare-drum punctuating the alien beats. Each and every element was somehow unique, in that I could pick them out but only comprehensible within the whole perception as the velocity of every beat lay in sync with every other; they resonated. Then, as the aural landscape finally gave way, I attentively watched myself bringing my outstretched arm back to my side and as it arrived I popped back into an ordinary state of ecstasy. There were, by then, no fingers left on the table and I was told later that mine had been the last to leave; not something I’d considered either way at the time.

Humanfires by drfranken

Around me the intensity whirred at a greater pace. Jimbo, Becca, Cole and myself spoke excitedly with one another, just as Cole and I had done previously. There were echoes, impressions, between us that I could sense had come forth from the experiment but, once more, we were unable to communicate the revelation precisely. Rather, the nos-resonance, or group consciousness, manifested as a sudden impression of social mutuality; an unguided desire to interact in an intensely energetic frenzy.

In the first instance, it seemed to me that the outcome of the Happy Hookah  experiment was to have realised a symphony of vibrations as a group consciousness. It was as if nos were a catalyst for a different quality of consciousness; measured by resonance and not shared knowledge. The problem seemed to be not whether there is one total but fractured mind, or billions of minds-alone, but rather the extent to which different degrees of resonation are realised as differing consciousnesses. Therefore group consciousness, in this sense, is the result of a physical, chemical resonation; it is secondary; it is a symptom. So in answering our earlier question, in relation to this supposed group consciousness, it would appear that the conscious Self does rise out of something else, resonation. Perhaps the “ego” of which Huxley speaks is the conscious Self that is in fact symptomatic not simply of evolutionary-biological filters but of a social resonation – the conscious ‘I’ that the social built – for to belong to a social is to be an individual within it.  

Yet in the second instance, as if cutting straight through my initial line of flight like a dagger, the resonation suddenly felt fractured; could the conscious Self and the group consciousness both arise from resonation? Algie was quiet. It was as if he was sat at another table or that the impression of a  shadow had been cast across him by the experiment. His eyes even more distant than his body; his resonation out of sync; isolated from the group. He later said to me: “I only felt left out afterward, when Jimbo and Becca were talking about how they felt connected.  Becca keeps explaining to me what was happening, but in the end she can never properly describe it. I tend to get that a lot when I’ve taken anything. I’m not really sure what happens but I always get detached from everyone else.” For Algie, there was no mind-alone to begin with, there was a social group mind from which he felt detached from during the becoming-molecular and afterward. However, if Algie became  “detached” from a prior social bond with the group and was left to wander the aural landscape of nos as a mind-alone, then surely individual consciousness is primary, in that it remains individual, only attaching (resonating) or detaching from others?

Was resonance dreaming or I?

As afternoon started seeding the evening, we all passed on from the café and our body broke apart as we each became extensions to different tents, with different music, in different becomings. As intensities in the ecstasy of the festival we shifted from point-to-point but as resonances we carried the afternoon in our step and through our breath; and whenever our wandering paths crossed again all five of our velocities would drop in sync. My final balloon came late on the Sunday night, surrounded once more by Cole, Algie, Becca and Jimbo, and although all the intensity of a late-rave-wreck was beginning to subside, it did it so resonantly, right to the point when even our parting was a mutual decision, decided by an some unseen and unspoken force, like a flock of birds switching direction in the sky only to part on arrival.


Ben Goldacre wrote about hippie crack a few years back in his blog and asked the question what are the real dangers of Nitrous oxide? According to him there is only one known danger in the literature: “There are cases in the literature of people overexposed to nitrous becoming dangerously B12 deficient, but it seems clear that the effects are reversed simply by giving high dose vitamin B12.” Whilst I’d never advice anyone to break the law (although legal for cream whippers, nitrous oxide remains illegal for day trippers) let ye be warned that if worst comes to worst; dose yourself with multivitamins as well. Be safe.

Bibliography & References:

Boon, Marcus: The Road of Excess. London. Harvard University Press. 2002

Deleuze, Giles, Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. London. The Athlone Press Ltd. 1988

Goldacre, Ben. Nitrous oxide starves the brain? Don’t make me laugh. The Guardian. 03/10/2007

Huxley, Aldous. Moksha. Rochester. Park Street Press. 1999

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. London. Vintage. 2004

Jay, Mike. Emperors of Dreams. Sawtry, Dedalus. 2005

James, William. Varieties of the Religious Experience. London. Penguin. 1985

[i] Davy, Humphry: Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration 1800

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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5 Responses

  1. Great fusion of creative and academic writing, Rob. Hope some of it find its way into your novel 🙂

  2. This is one trip Ernst Jünger did not take – perhaps ether has similar effects, as you suggest?

    For anyone reading German, Italian or French, his book “Annäherungen. Drogen und Rausch” (Approaches: Drugs and Inebriation) is the best compendium of drug experiences I know of from a literatati. I find that it even exceeds Huxley in its breadth of experiences, depth of insight and rich cultural background.

    Unfortunately not available in English yet.


  3. Kevin Murray says:

    An excellent read! What a great ride into awareness of this stuff. Thank you!

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