Friday, December 2, 2022

Nutmeg is a drug

I guess I've known that in theory since I read The Swiss Family Robinson as a child (on which more below), but I'd always assumed it was only psychoactive in very large doses. When I was a teenager, one of my favorite beverages was buttermilk with a pinch or two of nutmeg, and I never noticed any psychotropic effects. About a week ago I decided to try that drink again after decades of not drinking it, and I guess this time I put in a little more nutmeg than was good for me. It wasn't much -- two cups, each with a bit more than half a teaspoon, I would guess -- but it was enough!

No, I didn't see a styracosaurus or anything, but I was in a trance state for the better part of two and a half days. It was a fairly light trance, and I was able to function more-or-less normally. In many ways it was comparable to the light trances I sometimes used to put myself in when reading or preaching, the chief perceptual symptom of which was what I used (incorrectly) to call "tunnel vision." Tunnel vision properly refers to the loss of peripheral vision, but in my childhood I used it as a name for the feeling (in certain trance states) that everything around me was immensely distant, as if it were at the other end of a long tunnel I was looking through. (This was usually induced by intense concentration, so I suppose it did have some connection to "tunnel vision" in the colloquial sense.) Another way to express it would be that it feels as if you are looking through binoculars at everything -- everything is as large and clear as it would be if it were close to you, but you know that it is not in fact close to you.

Aside from this, there was a strange idea -- an idea more than a sensation -- that there was something unusual about the surface of my body, that I was "prickly" or "covered with moss" or "bristling with triangles" (some of the phrases that came to mind at the time). I experienced no hallucinations in the strict sense, but I did have unusually vivid mental imagery, somewhat reminiscent of the abstract art of Stanslaw Kors. I was quite sleepy throughout the trance period, and when I slept I had "deep" dreams -- that kind where you wake up feeling as if you've been underwater -- of which I remember very little. I remember that the dreams were entirely in Latin, often with a disembodied "running commentary" in that language, and that at one point I had a conversation with a mantis shrimp, which also spoke Latin. (I had never dreamed in Latin before, nor have I since.)

After the effects of the nutmeg had worn off, I tried to find out more about it. Apparently nutmeg is classified as a "deliriant," alongside such drugs as datura, hensbane, deadly nightshade, and -- quelle coïncidence! -- mandrake.

My experience was not at all pleasant or mind-expanding, and I do not recommend it to anyone.

I remember that as a child I read a lot of different books -- all oldish, 19th century or so -- about people surviving on desert islands. I understand that many such books were written after Robinson Crusoe -- a whole genre called the robinsonade -- but I can't name any of them. There was Robinson Crusoe itself, The Swiss Family Robinson, and -- what else? I remember I read a lot of them. Searching the Internet for lists of robinsonades, I only turn up such works as Treasure Island and Lord of the Flies, which are not at all the sort of thing I have in mind. Anyway, in one of those books I read, the protagonists encountered a bird behaving strangely, as if intoxicated, and then discovered that it had been eating nutmegs. This was my first exposure to the idea that nutmeg could be intoxicating. Before reading that book, I had read something -- it may have been Tau Zero by Poul Anderson -- that mentioned people getting drunk on eggnog, and I had inferred from that that some forms of eggnog were alcoholic. (As a Mormon, I knew only the non-alcoholic version.) After reading the robinsonade, though, I decided it must have been the nutmeg that made them drunk. Only much later, I think not until my early teens, did I learn that I had been right the first time and that eggnog is typically an alcoholic drink.

After my own experience of nutmeg intoxication, I wanted to track down the robinsonade episode, so I tried to remember as many other details about the book as possible. All I could get was that there were agoutis and bustards, and that the plural forms nutmegs and lichens -- slightly odd in modern English -- were used. Searching for agouti bustard nutmegs island turned up only one book: The Swiss Family Robinson. This surprised me a bit -- I had remembered that it was not Swiss Family but one of the other nameless similar books. Searching the Gutenberg version for nutmegs, I found this:

In a short time nest-building commenced, and among the materials collected by the birds, I observed a long gray moss or lichen, and thought it might very possibly be the same which, in the West Indies, is gathered from the bark of old trees, where it grows, and hangs in great tuft-like beards, to be used instead of horse-hair for stuffing mattresses.

My wife no sooner heard of it than her active brain devised fifty plans for making it of use. Would we but collect enough, she would clean and sort it, and there would be no end to the bolsters, pillows, saddles, and cushions she would stuff with it.

For the discovery of nutmegs we had also to thank the pigeons, and they were carefully planted in our orchard.

In a way, this is obviously my source -- nutmegs, plural, are discovered via birds, and lichen is nearby -- but lichen is singular, and there is no indication that the birds were intoxicated by the nutmegs. But it seems highly unlikely that any other novel would borrow the very specific plot point of birds helping the protagonists discover "nutmegs," and I don't see how I could have misremembered it. The idea that nutmeg could be intoxicating was a new idea for me, learned from the book, not something I could have read into a book that does not mention it.

(Incidentally, was my nutmeg-induced idea that I was "covered with moss" somehow influenced by this passage as well?)

According to Wikipedia, "Over the years, there have been many versions of the story with episodes added, changed, or deleted," to the extent that "Wyss's original narrative has long since been obscured" -- so were all those books I read just different versions of The Swiss Family Robinson? And was the version on Gutenberg bowdlerized so as not to suggest to impressionable young readers the idea of trying to get high on household spices? Now I'm going to have to spend some time trying to track down the version I read as a child, the one with the nutmeg-intoxicated bird.


Bruce Charlton said...

Something like the condition you described is sometimes termed derealization - although under that name is characterized by high anxiety states; which does not fit.

Dis you also experience any emotional blunting, demotivation and anhedonia?

If so, this is like the neuroleptic effect of 'antipsychotics', and also found in some chemically related drugs such as the antihistamines; and SSRI type antidepressants (e.g. 'Prozac'). It is mostly due to anti-dopamine effects.

Luke said...

That seems like quite a lot of nutmeg to me! I put a few shakes in my oatmeal every so often, nearly half a teaspoon would make me choke I think.
My parents had two copies of Swiss Family Robinson and they were different, but I don't remember much from the books so I can't help you with the nutmeg question.

No Longer Reading said...

I searched "nutmegs" "lichens" "agouti" on the book collection and here's what I found.

From "20,000 leagues under the sea" by Jules Verne:

Here's the page where the intoxicated bird occurs ( (pg. 111 if the link doesn't work)

A said...

At University my neighbors wanted to "experiment" with drugs. I remember them mentioning nutmeg and they did try it (and here my memory gets hazy), but I think they were looking for much stronger effects and just ended up taking so much they vomited rather than getting the effects they were looking for. They did get their hands on more powerful hallucinogens at some point, which probably makes nutmeg seem relatively non-effective.

Maybe eggnog could be categorized similar to absinthe depending on the concoction.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...


Ecellent work, Kevin! That's definitely the passage I read. I read a metric ton of Jules Verne as a child, and I suppose I got the agoutis of the Mysterious Island trilogy (some of the 19th-century robinsonades I had in mind!) mixed up in my mind with the nutmegs, lichens, and bustards of 20,000 Leagues (there are bustards on p. 200, though the search doesn't pick them up for some reason).

How strange that both 20,000 Leages and Swiss Family should have featured nutmeg-eating birds.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...


There was definitely no anxiety, and my emotions weren't noticeably "blunter" than usual. (I'm generally a pretty calm person anyway.)

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...


After this experience, I definitely agree with you that that amount of nutmeg is "quite a lot"! Live and learn.

Poppop said...

Get your Man Friday to reach out to my Man Drake and we will get together for nutmeg-sprinkled drinks soon…

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