Long before any scientific knowledge about electricity existed, people were very well aware of shocks as well as they were witnesses to the sparkling lightning bolts thundering through the sky. These elemental phenomena were attributed to Gods, holding mysterious powers, as much healing as destructive. Electricity defies a phy-sical existence; its presence confined by moments and fleeting, but its impact undeniable. Can we trace this intangible power? What marks does it leave beneath our skins…
As the night grew dark, so did my mind. It got misty, then clouded and somewhere along the way toppling over and in between sweaty bodies, blistering beats found my eardrums, sedated me. I tripped and tumbled, lay laughing on dry summers grass, chatting with strangers, overcharging my neural connections. A black-out. Did I just slip myself a mickey there? I won’t deny it. Fragments of memories zip back and forth through my skull. Rolling off from a grassy knoll, toilets, a queue, I lost my phone, the out-of-place palm tree functions as meeting point, one friend leaves early – why?, neon lights skitter, I flee from the stroboscopes, James sits green-faced but happy in a corridor near the mens, his friends dance without music, I dance, I fall back and find my crowd again. Our legs swagger, so we think we can dance, we can. If it’s movement it counts and the electric sounds not just enter through our ears. They immerse us and every vibration embraces us, finding its way through our suddenly conducive skins to our simultaneously beating hearts and cranium.
MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-methampheta-mine) produces feelings of increased energy, euphoria, emotional warmth and empathy toward others, and distortions in sensory and time perception. MDMA acts by increasing the activity of three neurotransmitters, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The emotional and pro-social effects of MDMA are likely caused directly or indirectly by the release of large amounts of serotonin, triggering the release of the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which play important roles in love, trust, sexual arousal, and other social experiences.1
Neurotransmitters are those funny little chemicals that tell our cerebral organ to step right then left, enjoy, disapprove, crave, hurt, feel, shiver, run or remain quiet. I have been long misguided by the idea that pills & potions actually put something new there to change our perceptions. Like adding colorant to water, emulsifying the natural course of our thought streams. Strange behaviors to be attributed to a tinkering with the recipe of gray matter that somehow comprise our thoughts & feelings. On closer inspection (or simple online consultation) even the laymen can learn that these chems are actually not at all ‘unnatural’ in its sort – they merely increase a natural function. They are lubricants to the electrical currents flowing through our brains, or perhaps ‘dam breaks’ offers a better metaphor. They rush latent emotions with high voltage speed through our sanctuary. The brain, of course, harboring more depth than can be explored whilst journeying to the center of the earth. So whatever impulses, artificially induced or as result from a natural encounter, jolts that flood of emotion laundering over our common sense, I have begun to assume that it is never alien to us to begin with. Maybe these sensations are locked away pits of lava, intentionally or accidentally punctured by a pick axe of chance. Damned up lakes shaken awake through a seismic quake unleashing the madness of its streams. But what is contained there is your own, cravings, wants, needs, pains and pleasure which just needed one touch to manifest itself. Like a switch turning on a lightbulb, the circuit is there, only the obstruction needed to be cleared.
I can’t remember stumbling through the front door to the staircase that arrives at my apartement, nor stumbling through that door. Yes – house guests in the living room, let’s wake them! It’s kaaraoke time! No, I’m held back by some voice of reason. My bedroom has been sacrificed to party-goers. A somewhat unplanned sleeping situation. Who made it back here, anyway? A stranger in my bed.., makes more sense to tumble in with you. I pass out. Or I pass out halfishly. The night before and the surrender of sleep are both jumbled like a cut-up movie edit, less Tarantino, more so ‘Joe’. Irony makes two people sleep on a single person mattress. We twist not to intrude in each others space, we turn, we lay silent. Through the haze our hands find each other and interlock. That’s it. We hold hands. We wake up holding hands, and that’s all there is to it. Nothing that issues apologies or excuses to be made. No harm done. No alarms to be set off.
Alexander Shulgin and his lab partner David E. Nichols described MDMA as inducing ‘an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones’2 Shulgin offered the drug to his friends, other researchers and people he believed could benefit from it. One such person was Leo Zeff who named the drug ‘Adam’, believing it put users in a state of primordial innocence.3 Shulgin himself has stated he disliked the later to become common name ‘Ecstasy’ and much preferred the denominator ‘Empathy’.4
The distinction between Empathy or Ecstasy seems an arbitrary ‘spin the bottle’ decision in the face of coming up with a snappy name for a stimulant that has hip market potential. But can we really ignore the difference between the implied connection of worlds as opposed to transcending yourself to another world. Space is probably beautiful, but it also seems pretty damn isolated. And we’ve heard plenty of stories of astronauts – or psychonauts for that matter – returning back to earth indefinitely challenged with an inability to connect. Empathy implies a connection that is durable, it shuffles its feet along the borders of understanding but its body is made of feelings. It’s ‘getting it’.
Throughout the fifties and sixties Robert Moog spent the most of his time tinkering, soldering and simply just getting the wires right. Starting out as a theremin maker in the late 1940’s Bob dedicated his life to the development of electronic music. Working with circuit boards and wiring instead of wood, horsehair and metal fixtures, his ‘machines’ were at the time easily dismissed as unfit to create real music. The process of sending signals through the circuitry to manifest itself through amplifiers judged to be too mechanical, too clinical to capture the intangible emotions that stir the soul of a true musician. Moog contested this. ‘I can feel what’s going on inside a piece of electronic music, I have this sense that I know, and to some extent have control over what is going on inside the transistors’, he states in the 2004 for documentary by Hans Fjellestad5. For Moog the electronic currents are similar to the vibrations any string instrument will give you. Moog defends that the electronic signals are run through analog circuits and explains ‘I know for a fact that musicians make contact with the board’, as he points to his head, his heart and the circuit board. He muses about the memory of the instrument, the electricity leaving traces in its circuitry, like the neck and frets of a guitar will mold themselves ever so slightly to its player. The musician and inventor was deeply invested in a holistic view of the universe and viewed not one particle as disconnected. ‘How do we question the nature of reality. We observe the connections with reality on a different level than the connections with the material world. But, all there is is matter, there is a blur between energy and consciousness, all material can respond in one way or another to the vibrations of energy. Different than the energy we learn about in physics. So this has implications of what goes on between a musician and his instrument.’
Fast forward to 2014, musician Nigel Stanford releases the video clip to the first single Cymatics for the album Solar Echoes.6 There are many clips drifting over the internet exploring the visualization of electricity and sound, some home-made experiments with milk or maizena or not uncommon, but the rendering forged by Stanford is to say the least impressive. The camera captures the vibrations of sound manifested through bodies of oil and water. But the true jaw-dropper comes in at the stunning and extravagant finale where the musicians don a metal suit and stand alongside a sizeable Tesla coil. Every twang of each guitar, keyboard taps and drum beat turning into an explosive sharp bright electric orchestra. The video makes it hard to ignore the presence of intangible matter. Don’t we wish Bob was here to witness this…
As the ring mail suits guide the electrical storm safely over the bodies of the performers, our own sweat does the exact opposite increasing our skin conductivity. The polygraph depends highly on this principle, taking in the electric signals with which our bodies betray us. And with every nerve increasing the activity of our glands our own betrayal becomes ever so more evident. No where to hide the truth beyond the frailty of our skins7. If the transfer of our electrons to the lie-detecting machine gives away our deepest secrets, our skin must discharge and exchange an unfathomable amount of voltage in the nooks an crannies of rumpled sheets when our sweat-covered bodies embrace and envelope each other. Sex must be the ultimate polygraph, if only we can heighten our senses to read the signals. And perhaps the guilt of adultery lies in the contemplation that an unapproved broadcast of neurons from your significant other – entrusted to your safekeeping – has been transmitted to a third party.
It’s the umpteenth e-mail in one night, boomeranging over an electric freeway and I know I am in trouble. Snide comments, youtube and grooveshark links are the currency in this exchange. Nothing really has materialized yet, though the air is filled with static and potential. It’s frizzy. The innocence of the conversation cannot hide the sparks bouncing of the keyboards. My keyboard at least. I visualize the signals and electric current running through the circuitry with the speed of light, catapulting back and forth in total disregard of a thousand mile distance between one laptop and the other.
Voltage or electric potential tension (denoted ∆V or ∆U and measured in units of electric potential: volts, or joules per coulomb) is the electric energy charge difference of electric potential energy transported between two points.8 Voltage is electric potential energy per unit charge. It is often referred to as ‘electric potential’, which then must be distinguished from electric potential energy by noting that the ‘potential’ is a ‘per-unit-charge’ quantity. Like mechanical potential energy, the zero of potential can be chosen at any point, so the difference in voltage is the quantity which is physically meaningful.9
‘Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows’ is the words Roman poet Sextus Propertius chose to speak about distance and potential energy. I have wondered if a significant distance between two lovers contributes to an increase of this strange electric powering the kisses and caresses of a hopeless affair? Or was the ready available voltage the only way the impossible could be fostered to begin with? And if the difference in voltage is the meaningful element, is it the difference between the way the days are spent when apart. The daily grind of a happy home levels apart from the fast-speed chaos of an uncommitted vagabond. The dazzling surprises of another mind showing an agility in navigating the hurdles of banality in ways you could not have imagined up yourself. Does the scientific conclusion travel forth in time to Paula Abdul confirming to us that Opposites indeed attract? Oppositional forces discharging elemental emotions over distances spanning leagues of turbulent ocean.
If the mundane reality of fact and life does not allow us to have a common territory we will find other ways to institute shared environs. We resort to the landscape of our brains, sending electronic pulses of electronic beats through our neural systems. Surely being subjected to the same frequencies must create an architecture that can function as a mirror image. A phantom headscape. Like a 3-d printer follows codes and identical statuettes miraculously drop from the machine? Beats and melodies chiseling out a Sagrada Familia of complex emotions, tickling our brain stems. We know our time here on earth is short so it is of the essence to erect a sanctuary where we can experience the eternity of our afterlives. We crave for majesty and build a temple of electronic currents engraving statues in our cerebra alike the gods on the face of the Prambanan temple.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) remains highly contested to this day. Our images of this treatment have been painted with violent brushstrokes from literature and film. Yet it remains in practice as a method to temporarily relieve severe depression. Proponents play down the side effects asserting that occurrence of for example short-term memory loss, or more severely change of character, are only temporary, and that modern advancements in the treatment or actually less painful or distressing than going to the dentist.10 Opponents strongest argument comes from many of the doctors practicing the treatment themselves who’ve admitted they do not even exactly grasp how or why it works.11 This however may be a case of sophisticated fear-mongering as research towards the procedure has proven that it functions by manipulating the the levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine excited by the seizures the therapy bringsforth.12
None however disagree that the mind does get effected and scar tissue will remain inside the brain, the side effects fading over time because our brains our smart enough to rewire themselves as needed most of the time. A mind as architecture, the tools to make readjustments invisible and electric, carving staircases, corridors and landings. Then, will all these pulses that zap through us with desire, sex, love, heartbreak, invisible as they may seem, forever change our circuitry?
2. Shulgin AT; Nichols DE (1978). ‘Characterization of Three New Psychotomimetics’. In Willette, Robert E.; Stillman, Richard Joseph. The Psychopharmacology of Hallucinogens. New York: Pergamon Press. pp. 74–83.ISBN 0-08-021938-1.
3. Brown, Ethan (September 2002). ‘Professor X’. www.archive.wired.com. Wired. Retrieved 4 January2015.
5. Official website of the documentary www.zu33.com/moog full film available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5HRa9nEVVU