Authors: Paula Cartwright
The Psychoactive Café
By Paula Cartwright
2011 Paula Cartwright
Edited by Lynn O'Dell (Red Adept Reviews)
Cover design by Agnes Berzina
when illegal drugs are replaced with a battery-powered gadget that taps
directly into your pleasure centres? In this realistic novella set in the near
future, a group of graduate students develop a device that lets everyone get
buzzed. It has surprising effects on the world economy – and everything else.
has a Ph.D. in psychology and a career in international public policy and
is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be
re-sold or distributed to other people. If you’re reading this book and did not
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choice. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a
work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any
resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
other books by this author at
From the ‘End of the Drug Wars’ Oral History Project.
Edited interview transcript with Julie Davies, member of
the Vice development team.
Before we start, I just want to point out that the device,
in some form, would have been developed anyway. Our little team just sped it up
by a couple of years.
For me, it began in the Psychoactive Café, the most popular pub
on campus. The PA Café was founded by Psychology grad students to show movies
when the university was founded thirty years ago. In those days, movie nights
were still big social events, especially in winter. The café has kept up with
the times and doesn’t show movies any more, as such.
It was winter, February, the worst part of the year in northern
Manitoba. The five of us were grad students – me, Chenko, Naseer, Miguel and
Xiang. That’s spelled with an X, by the way, not Sh, but you know that, of
course. I was the only one born in Canada, which was totally normal at Thompson University. Few Canadian students wanted to go to university in the sub-arctic,
and foreign students didn’t know what they were getting into.
Chenko was a Canadian citizen, but had spent most of his
life in Russia; at least I think so. The rest of us were used to warmer
climates – Toronto, where I come from, is subtropical compared to northern
Canada – and we were having a hard time dealing with the cold and the dark,
especially Naseer and Miguel. We’d been lured with money and equipment. TU was
trying to make a name for itself by investing in bright young scientists, and
it was building a reputation for ground-breaking research on pain management.
My faculty advisor was studying how meditation techniques could manage chronic
pain, and my dissertation….
Oh, well, I’ll get into that later.
I remember our conversation vividly. We were talking about
how to improve the PA. It’s in a former lab space in a concrete basement, and
despite that unpromising location had become a major destination for the entire
university. It had been tweaked over the decades by generations of psych majors
and engineering students.
The acoustic tiles had been ripped out of the ceiling and
replaced by a sound-deadening fabric that changed colours with the lighting,
from pearly gray to cerulean blue to the darkest indigo. The lights were
invisible, hidden behind the ceiling, and could be adjusted to mimic different
times of day. There was some kind of projection system that could add drifting
clouds and, since the last upgrade, convincing stars, probably LEDs liberated
from a research project.
The space was divided into several big rooms by movable
floor-to-ceiling dividers and doorways covered with thick curtains. Each room
was located in a different part of the world. The one we were in during that
conversation was in Switzerland, in the mountains. The room was big enough for
seven or eight tables, and the place was crowded.
I was looking out the fake window – a huge high-density
screen synchronized with three other windows, one on each wall, each facing a
different direction – facing the meadow, enjoying the spring flowers. I could
see the wind ruffling the grass and the sunlight moving on the mountains. It
was kind of cheesy because the dividers were made out of cubicle fabric, and
they ended abruptly at the fake sky above our heads. The illusion wasn’t great,
but it sure beat looking at the snow in the dark under fluorescent lights. This
time of year we could go days without seeing the real sun, going into the lab before
dawn and coming out long after the sun had set.
We had checked the other rooms before settling on this one.
There was the ever-popular Caribbean island, the spaceship view-deck favoured
by the engineers, and an African savannah complete with giraffes in the
In the old days, the PA had scenic posters on the walls
surrounded by fake curtains tacked onto the partitions. A couple of years ago,
in a major upgrade, it started using feeds from a big government-sponsored arts
project that went around the world installing 'window cameras' in various
scenic locations, recording continuously for days in excruciatingly high-definition
3D and audio. Our Swiss mountain was on a ten-day loop, synchronized with local
time. Every tenth day, people would crowd in for a spectacular lightning strike
at 3:46 p.m.
Not every room was based in real-life videography. After
protests from the engineers, one of the rooms was permanently reserved for
computer graphics and given over to a Holodeck Committee, which bickered
endlessly over the programming like kids battling for the remote control.
Anyway, Miguel was saying that PA clones were sure to hit
the private sector soon, and then virtual cafés would get really elaborate.
Maybe warm breezes with contextual smells, and permanent rooms with walls and
fake skylights instead of office partitions.
That was what we were talking about. How to improve the
illusion so that we could escape this ice-bound campus whenever we wanted.
Miguel was pitching for bigger-scale multi-media, like 3-D
visuals that could keep deepening and changing perspective as you went right up
to the window and looked out. Naseer was saying that was inefficient, that we should
go with wrap-around helmets and gloves and skip the need for meat-space
entirely, just get together in virtual reality. Miguel started cross-examining
Naseer about how long it would be before we could emulate smell in a virtual
environment, and Chenko said, “Hey Julie, what do you think?”
I said, “You guys are barking up the wrong tree.” When I
said that, they all stopped and looked at me.
I said, “Look, start with what you want. You want to be
happy, right? Skip past the details, like whether you want a beer or want to
look at waves crashing on a beach. All of those sensory inputs are mediators
for happiness, am I right? They’re what you think will make you feel a certain
way. You think that if you load those particular sensory details, you’ll
experience a desired state of satisfaction and pleasure.”
Chenko said, “So, you mean it doesn’t matter how effective
the illusion is?”
I said, “Yeah, like when I was a kid, my folks took me to Florida for a vacation, and I was totally bummed out the whole time. All I wanted was to be
back in Toronto with my boyfriend. Hey, I was sixteen. My mom kept saying, ‘But
it’s so beautiful here, why aren’t you happy?’”
Miguel said, “Clearly, sex is a more effective trigger for
happiness than Florida,” and everyone snickered.
I said, “Well, yeah, but not always. If you can get blissed
out by a light bulb, or by the sound of a truck passing by, why get all bound
up in finding the right boyfriend? Or money, or power, or a nice house on the
beach? Go directly for happiness and don’t get distracted by the proxies.”
Then Xiang piped up. His English wasn’t very good, and he
didn’t speak much in groups, but he was totally brilliant and when he talked,
we listened, or at least I did. “Julie,” he said, “Tell us about the neural
location of happiness.”
Well, he knew more than I did about neurology so I figured
he was asking me to explain his research. Xiang was working on the elimination
of post-traumatic stress syndrome through the electrical stimulation of
pleasure pathways in the brain, and my study overlapped a bit with his.
For my dissertation, I was trying to locate the areas of the
brain that were activated when subjects were feeling intense pleasure during their
daily activities. That’s why I’d joined this department. TU had recently bought
a portable fMRI – that’s a type of brain scanner – that tracks tiny changes in
neural activity while subjects carry out their regular lives. It looks like a
virtual reality helmet. The psych department split the cost with consumer
research and political science, and various teams were booking it around the
clock with different subjects. I piggybacked on everyone’s research, pulling
out all the brain activity data for the moments that subjects rated as being
highly pleasurable, whether they were in the political opinion sample or the
consumer product sample or the chronic pain sample. I won’t provide the details
here, though this is an egregious oversimplification of a rather elegant
research design involving multiple control conditions and international data
Generally, it’s difficult to link a brain region with
particular activities because brains are beautifully complex, function slightly
differently for everyone, and have all kinds of backup systems. For example,
say a baby is exposed to a minor insult in the womb, like her mom takes
painkillers at the wrong time. Mostly, the baby’s brain would just work around
the problem like the internet shunting around damage. Once she’s born, she’s
completely normal, but her neural topology is just slightly different from the
way it would have been. So you can’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s the lateral
orbitofrontal cortex shutting down and the nucleus accumbens lighting up so we
know she’s having an orgasm.’ I had data on a lot of orgasms by then and could
usually recognize one on the monitor from five paces, but occasionally I was
You might think that we’d already know all about pleasure
centres. They were discovered in the 1950s, when Olds and Milner got rats to
ignore food and water in favour of stimulating their tiny brains. In the 1970s,
a weirdo called Heath tried to cure homosexuality by wiring up gay volunteers
as an alternative to sex. It didn’t work, but it did lead to a lot of
self-stimulation. For real.
The problem is that pleasure is a complicated state. Based
on later research, it looked like the ‘pleasure centre’ discovered by Olds and
Milner just stimulated an urge to keep stimulating it, like an irresistible,
insatiable itch that you scratch until you tear yourself to pieces. It’s a
vision of Hell.
Intense pleasure generally requires a desire that is then
satisfied, so you need hunger as well as satiation – it’s multi-staged. Like an
orgasm isn’t all that enjoyable without the excitement that comes before. Happiness
is something even more complex: it’s not clear what role pleasure plays in
happiness. It might be that happiness is a state of keenly remembering pleasure
in the past and anticipating pleasure in the near future, like the reverse of
post-traumatic stress. My own belief is that happiness also includes value
coherence, but I’m wandering off topic.
Anyway, I was explaining all of this to the guys, most of
which they knew so I was going into more technical detail to keep them
interested, and Chenko kept pushing for more and more information about what we
were doing in our research.
Oh, you want more detail about the team? Right.
As I said, there were five of us. Miguel is Columbian. He
was getting a Master’s degree in industrial design creating virtual
environments like the PA. In fact, that’s why he’d chosen the university. The
PA had developed a cult following, and he was planning to use it to pilot test
some of his design ideas. Miguel was the best-looking of all of us, and knew
it. He was the only one who didn’t show the effects of sunless days, sleepless
nights, and a diet of refined carbohydrates, and he was the only one who
maintained a normal social life. He went to the gym twice a week and to the
best hair stylist in town; he’d run his hands through his artfully tousled black
hair, looking glamorous and sophisticated. Not like my nondescript dishwater-blond
hair, which I’d lop off with kitchen shears whenever it started getting into my
eyes. I enjoyed looking at Miguel, but he was way too high maintenance.