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Observations placeholder

Davy, Sir Humphry - Sublime emotions, vivid ideas and feeling like the sound of a harp



Type of Spiritual Experience


Humphry Davy had already disproved a theory that nitrous oxide was the disease-spreading contagious gas created by decomposing flesh. He perfected the preparation of nitrous oxide and performed many experiments with it, including extensive inhalation by himself and many others. He reported his findings in a six-hundred page book.

Dr. Thomas Beddoes who founded the ‘Pneumatic Institute’ also experimented extensively with nitrous oxide. The experiments with laughing gas had attracted many visitors, including women. The combination of women and radical politics with wild explorations of consciousness aroused a conservative backlash, and use of the gas by the general public was curtailed.

Laughing gas appeared in the United States in the 1840s. Doctors and other side-show artists (the differences were not always so clear) toured the country giving demonstrations of the gas complete with audience participation. The men inhaling the gas at sideshows would dance around, hoot, howl, jump, or fight - whatever was expected of someone wildly "inebriated."

A National Institute on Drug Abuse monograph refers to the people who toured with these shows as "charlatans," but it was one of them, Dr. Gardner Colton, who finally got the medical establishment to pay attention to Davy's work and to use N2O as an anaesthetic. A young dentist named Horace Wells, who had attended one of Colton's lectures, was the first to extract a tooth from a patient under nitrous oxide. Gardner Colton administered the gas. Wells continued to use nitrous oxide on his own patients until he committed suicide in 1848, but the medical establishment mostly ignored or disbelieved his claims. The first dental clinic devoted expressly to dental extractions under laughing gas wasn't opened until twenty years later, by Gardner Colton.

A description of the experience

Researches Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide and its respiration – Sir Humphrey Davy

Generally when I breathed from six to seven quarts, muscular motions were produced to a certain extent; sometimes I manifested my pleasure by stamping or laughing only, at other times by dancing round the room and vociferating.

Between May and July, I habitually breathed the gas, occasionally three or four times a day for a week together, the effects appeared undiminished by habit, and were hardly ever exactly similar. Sometimes I had the feeling of intense intoxication, attended with but little pleasure, at other times, sublime emotions connected with vivid ideas.

At the end of July, I left off my habitual course of respiration, but I continued to breathe the gas, either for the sake of enjoyment, or with the view of ascertaining its operation under particular circumstances.

In August, I made many experiments with a view toward ascertaining whether any analogy existed between the sensible effects of the different gases which are sooner or later fatal to life when respired, and those of nitrous oxide. During a fit of enthusiasm produced by the respiration of nitrous oxide, I resolved to endeavour to breathe nitrous gas [an entirely different substance, perhaps nitric oxide]. I transferred my mouth from the mouthpiece of the bag to that of the air-holder, and turning the stop-cock, attempted to inspire the nitrous gas. After moving my lips from the mouthpiece, when I opened them to inspire common air, aeriform nitrous acid was instantly in my mouth, which burnt the tongue and palate, injured the teeth, and produced an inflammation of the mucous membranes which lasted some hours. I never design again to attempt so rash an experiment.

To ascertain with certainty, whether the most extensive action of nitrous oxide is compatible with life, was capable of producing debility, I resolved to breathe the gas for such a time and in such quantities, as to produce excitement equal in duration and superior in intensity to that occasioned by high intoxication from opium or alcohol. To habituate myself to the excitement, and to carry it on gradually, on December 26th I was enclosed in an air-tight breathing box, of the capacity of about 9 cubic feet, in the presence of Dr. Kinglake. . . . my emotions were enthusiastic and sublime. . ."

At night I found myself unusually cheerful and active... In bed I enjoyed profound repose. When I awoke in the morning, it was with consciousness of pleasurable existence, and this consciousness more or less continued through the day.

I have often felt very great pleasure when breathing it alone, in darkness and silence, occupied only by ideal existence.

On May 5th, at night, after walking for an hour amidst the scenery of the Avon, at this period rendered exquisitely beautiful by bright moonshine, my mind being in a state of agreeable feeling, I respired six quarts of newly prepared nitrous oxide. The thrilling was very rapidly produced. The objects around me were perfectly distinct, and the light of the candle not as usual dazzling. The pleasurable sensation was at first local, and perceived in the lips and about the cheeks. It gradually, however, diffused itself over the whole body, and in the middle of the experiment was for a moment so intense and pure as to absorb existence. At this moment, and not before , I lost consciousness; it was, however, quickly restored, and I endeavoured to make a by-stander acquainted with the pleasure I experienced by laughing and stamping.

I have sometimes experienced from nitrous oxide, sensations similar to no others, and they have consequently been indescribable. This has been likewise often the case with other persons. Of two paralytic patients who were asked what they felt after breathing nitrous oxide, the first answered, 'I do not know how, but very queer’. The second said, 'I felt like the sound of a harp.'

The source of the experience

Davy, Sir Humphry

Concepts, symbols and science items


Inner speech

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Inhaling nitrous oxide