We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive...." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: "Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?"
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again... For how could one express in words these emotions of the body?
-Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I want to know what we talk about when we talk about experiences for which we have little common language. People talk about the sublime feeling they have in face with a work of art, and they call it ineffable. They say, there are no words for what this has done to me, but I shall speak anyway (hence criticism, hence art bollocks). People talk about wine. They write on it, and they write somber, beautiful notes that conjure and evoke, and incite and compel, and so, naturally, we go and buy cases of it at the shop, we sit and mutter to ourselves, drinking, over the dinner table, words like 'taut' and 'iridescent' and 'forthright' and 'burnished', and wonder at what those words taste like (well, I do).

There is what we learn when we are small, and convention and culture are being stitched into us, and there is no resistance then, our minds like very capable sponges of the kind hawked on late-night television. That is one type of thing. Later, when we are large, and expert in being learned, we try to expand the borders of what we can say. But we did not learn to taste (wine) together, or to see (art) together, and so the words, even as we use them, feel less precise, less catching. We waver, drawing analogies in the sand. We wonder at our abilities to taste and see as others do. We hope we are talking about the same sort of thing.

Illicit drug use is like this. Perhaps more so. It is common, but not too common; there are communities of use, but not a community of use, as there is with the legal drugs of pleasure and habit - alcohol, coffee, tobacco, cannabis - for which our experience is structured by the expectations and attitudes of the culture in which we imbibe. The use of drugs beyond the pale - of acid and ketamine, vicodin and methamphetamine, pills, poppers, angel dust, tweak, molly, aunti, alice, susie-Q (and so on) - is stigmatized, marginalized, made to exist in backrooms and alleys, rather than coffeehouses and bars. It comprises a more mosaic set of experiences. There are the ravers, the coke fiends, the burners, the teenagers playing Russian roulette in the basement with the spoils of father's medicine cabinet, the mothers who quaff their kids' prescription adderall, the boys in the band, the inmates, the junkies - and these are but a few of the stereotypes, the categories we might draw circles around and make claim exist. That drug laws are variably enforced, as a function of race, class, and geography, only compounds the issue. There is no unified culture of use in America.

In the public discourse, drugs have long been associated with crime, with illness, danger, and addiction. Less is said about what it is like to use them, or what place they have in the lives of those who do. Perhaps it is offensive even to ask. Perhaps it seems indulgent. Drugs are certainly not hidden, of course. They play starring roles in popular films and television shows; provide narrative arc to celebrity gossip ("Lindsay Lohan train wreck reel"); we have even waged war against them, or so Richard Nixon liked to tell us. Lately too, prescription uppers have become a playground for intrepid young journalists, whose love affairs with stimulants are woven into dull cautionary tales about the inanity of hyper-efficiency. ("There's a downside," says Molly Young of adderall, in closing an essay extolling its many virtues, and wondering, seemingly, if she can admit there never was.) And so drugs are typecast as either villain or tempting mistress, and caricatured accordingly, their cartoon renderings a vehicle for our discomfort.

That drug use is taboo, even for being so readily on display, is reflected in our language. There are straight-edge folk who can use "high" or "drunk" in a sentence, like a blind child who knows the sky is blue, and it seems they have some idea what they're saying (though likely all they know is a bit about language, and the way words go together). But what of drop, trip, toke, roll, jack, score, smack, sniff, pack, peak, split, blow? Everyday words, surely, but ones that, in the mouth of the drugstore cowboy, acquire meanings altogether different from their common use. It is a curious Christian Scientist who knows just how to wield them.

So what does the language of drug experience look like? What verbal behavior does use provoke? No doubt the psychonauts have words for their flights of fancy, as the botanists have for tiny, furling shrubs, as the Eskimos have for snow (though they say that's a hoax). But every voyage is a solo feat. How can users fix the meanings of words which relate to internal distortions in perception and time, to ecstasies beyond reckoning?

Perhaps I should have looked to the poets for answers. Instead I turned to the dusty vaults of Erowid, combing through its records of ill repute with an open terminal window, a cup of Four Barrels's finest, and all the wiles of a kid on the hunt for the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. What fruits were born of such adventures await below.

The Red Pill or the Blue Pill?

Ayahuasca Cannabis Cocaine
Heroin Hydrocodone Ketamine
MDMA Mescaline Methamphetamine
Psilocybin Gallery View Word Counts



Frequent Nouns: time, experience, life, body, night, friend, point, room, hour, vision, hand, people, part, head, thought, trip, mind, moment, ceremony, sense, shaman, pure, energy, music, water

Frequent Verbs: feel, have, be, seem, come, go, tell, say, think, become, start, ask, realize, find, take, want, know, get, decide, need, keep, give, try, do, talk

Collocates: abruptly twisting, accurate timepiece, across the river, am no longer, am still integrating, an explosion of, awe inspiring, back and forth, battery acid, be floating around, black hole, blew smoke, boiled down to, calm me down, caught up in, cheshire cat, childlike elements, choose pleasure, close attention, close my eyes, completely surrendering, could barely, crazy spiraling motion, drift away, dry heaves, during this phase, each other, ecstasy throughout, eternally connected, experienced traveler, eyes locked, feels like, forgiving path, found myself, friend of mine, galactic Bodhisattva brigade, give myself permission, got very hot, gradually silhouettes, greatest beauty, grinned approvingly, higher selves, horrible glittering, hyper dimensional, intricate colored, let go, lie back, mad hatter, majestic purple color, most intense, newspaper poorly crumpled, once again, open my eyes, other side, our minds, our souls, plant matter, please teach me, present moment, proved to be, retreat center, self-destructive behaviors, sense of tranquility, showed me, sinister caricatures, song that lasted, speckles shimmer, swirling colors, syrian rue, the divine presence, the greatest beauty, the only way, throwing up, too much, to take effect, total surrender, underwater creatures, visionary splendour, work of art, wrapped itself around



Frequent Nouns: time, experience, eyes, mind, trip, friend, thoughts, people, world, head, body, night, room, life, smoking, point, house, effects, minutes, water, patterns, vision, sense, mouth, light

Frequent Verbs: be, have, feel, start, think, go, seem, look, decide, begin, make, know, come, get, smoke, realize, take, come, try, look, have, tell, see, want, walk

Collocates: quality bud, hysterical laughter, weird muscular sensations, frame rate, peripheral vision, high level, my inner artist, mother nature, lucid dreams, whirling noises, straight lines, make eye contact, crawl into bed, giant spiders, inner alien, computer screen, a girl named, paper doll, set in, watching TV, playing guitar, pair of headphones, internal monologue, under the influence, closed my eyes, in another dimension, cannot conceive, no idea where, lyrical language, profound nonsense, slow motion, can barely speak, mouth is dry, fade away, done something wrong, soon enough, kaleidoscope vision, hard to follow, field of vision, third dimension, makes sense, dry mouth, our minds, slowed down, stronger than, large amount, laced with anything, no idea where, the real world, far away, kept thinking, the most intense, profound insight, kept getting more, important thing, ever seen, worth it, spaced out, fucked up, freak out, over and over, smoked pot, smoked a lot, panic attack, calmed down, back to normal, seemed like forever



Frequent Nouns: time, friend, line, night, drug, gram, minutes, nose, effects, experience, hours, people, hour, feeling, heart, point, days, times, powder, smoking, mouth, euphoria, room, years, body

Frequent Verbs: feel, have, be, go, take, want, do, start, take, decide, begin, stop, use, tell, make, think, keep, make, sleep, snort, smoke, gave, depress, walk, try

Collocates: Friday night, fast forward, handed me, for some reason, grams of pure, procure some, sniff coke, high quality, huge lines, too expensive, coked up, energy and euphoria, laid back, wind up, staring at, rubbing up against, danced for, coming down, hands are shaking, burning sensation, did another line, take a hit, do it again, I wanted more, a good time, a rush of euphoria, sex on drugs, love feels, feeling my pulse, heart was beating, heart pounding, a heart attack, still sweating, this time around, nowhere near, always wondered, addictive personality, social stigma, fucked up, group of friends, everyone else, rubbed it on, front teeth, on my gums, drinking water, attention deficit, wash over, wore off, left over, since then, right now, no idea, made me feel, light headed, wide awake, energy rush, super paranoid, bad feelings, dry heave, dry mouth, feeling of dehydration, side effects, ended up, stood up, thought it would, feel as if, think to myself, in my life, wanted to try, at once, all in all, a crazy experience, couldn't stop



Frequent Nouns: friend, time, drug, minutes, needle, people, life, night, dealer, roommate, world, addiction, hours, house, line, coke, cigarette, blood, effects, block, room, foil, sense, junkie, mind

Frequent Verbs: feel, be, have, go, start, think, get, try, say, do, take, find, come, use, look, make, try, shoot, know, decide, sleep, begin, buy, ask, inject

Collocates: describe it, black tar heroin, the bitter taste, it went like, cigarette before, the tin foil, more powerful, a dark brown, months ago, fell into, my fears, didn't want to, had no desire, I wasn't going, buy some, will power, the next corner, make sure, his place, my friend, poster child, get addicted, almost instantly, went ahead, stared at, a good vein, shot up, that injecting, with needles, it felt like, better than, to smoke it, on the floor, continued to shoot, throughout the night, i could barely, on the couch, she sat, nodding off, stronger than, a little more, i ended up, i woke up, the first time, my first, in the past, i thought about, numbness of, my eyes, my heart, my stomach, my lungs, all over, it burned, could barely walk, across the street, too fucked up, right now, kind of hell, the entire world, wake up, sober up, an opiate, no longer, waking up, an addict, addict always



Frequent Nouns: time, pills, drug, experience, bottle, pain, water, minutes, body, effects, hours, friend, feeling, hour, head, people, eyes, night, world, stomach, glass, room, warm, nausea, prescription

Frequent Verbs: feel, have, be, go, take, decide, take, seem, make, notice, come, think, get, begin, talk, start, make, try, know, find, become, turn, walk, say, want

Collocates: instantly got, pharmaceutical opiates, Vicodin pills, prescribed me some, read the label, skipped breakfast, an empty stomach, diet coke, pill bottle, decided to take, cold water extraction, watching TV, chatting on AIM, jack off, stay awake, my wisdom teeth pulled, jaw pain, didn't expect, tingling sensation, cloudy headed, state of mind, breathing deeply, complete relaxation, sensation throughout, world around me, finding myself smiling, once again, close my eyes, i fell asleep, they make me, my legs were, like jelly, my head was, my hands on, becoming less, rolled around, body feels, experimenting with, felt as if, the first time, my mouth, got tired, got comfortable, coming down, get addicted, help me



Frequent Nouns: time, body, experience, eyes, mind, room, brain, drug, trip, consciousness, reality, life, minutes, sense, words, effects, head, space, state, friend, place, point, thoughts, existence, control

Frequent Verbs: feel, be, have, start, seem, take, begin, think, say, make, take, go, come, know, tell, try, remember, decide, leave, move, keep, want, do, look, need

Collocates: read the screen, suddenly I realized, wide open, dissociative effects, time and space, sensory input, neurological impact, anesthetic effect, under the influence, the most intense, panic attack, Timothy Leary, it felt beautiful, to control myself, sitting upright, arms and legs, red and green, nothing more than, into infinity, flying through, levels of existence, other realities, vast plains, what the hell, what to expect, opened my eyes, I remember seeing, gravitational forces started, geometric patterns, different dimensions, stretched out, green blotches, ego loss, infinite number, melted onto, possible universes, electric current, beckoning to, prepare myself, hard to explain, there is no, in my head, my physical body, detached from, began to feel, most powerful thing, know her name, provoked new, wide open, in fact, was it because, totally paralyzed, starting to come, onto the floor, small dose, accompanied by, turned off, were no longer, drip down, other beings, snarfed up, being sick, flying through, stretched out, mental effects, pretty good, very well, detached from, escape from, turn off, figure out, cut myself, last infection, take place, body feels, reminded me, communicate with, make sense, what happened, down the hall, off the lights, leaving me completely, feel some sadness, funny thing is, needs to be



Frequent Nouns: time, people, experience, friend, night, hours, music, life, house, minutes, body, everyone, dose, trip, brother, years, drug, pill, hour, mind, love, home, thoughts, room, effect

Frequent Verbs: feel, be, have, go, take, tell, decide, say, seem, think, want, know, begin, walk, come, start, get, turn, ask, look, become, make, find, realize, keep

Collocates: accurate representation, amplified considerably, became aware of, best friend, bolt upright, breeze caressed, car accident, cartoonish nature, chewing gum, conscious decision, crown chakra, cruise ship, dance floor, drawing near, each other, engulfing euphoria, experience with MDMA, explore reluctantly, feelings are, focus on, fractal images, friend of mine, fuckin' unreal, gag reflex, gauging yourself, geometric patterns, hit me, hypnotic whispers, i could see, i ended up, illusion created, infinite paradise, in love with, in my head, intimately connected, kaleidoscopic daydreams, lazy bastards, life-sucking, looked forward to, low dose, lowered serotonin levels, my ability to, my perception of, oral sex, pure MDMA, so we decided, stage area, starting to come, starting to feel, still very much, than normal, unfortunately narrow reality, very positive, with my girlfriend



Frequent Nouns: trip, time, hours, body, effects, experience, girlfriend, eyes, hour, mind, colors, minutes, time, visuals, dose, head, home, level, life, room, substance, world, amount, feelings, capsules

Frequent Verbs: be, feel, have, think, go, start, seem, trip, decide, take, keep, look, become, come, get, do, make, leave, begin, give, close, want, happen, think, move

Collocates: accoutrements strewn, afternoon wore on, amber-like color, am right here, animals live encaged, anxiety disorder, art conceived, automaton machinery, basically broken, battling depression, becoming hyper sensitized, begins telling, benevolent feeling, bodily calmness, breathtaking variety, chemical aroma, chronically overdosing, closely resembled, color brightening, comfortable crossing, crystalline solid, curious detachment, data indicating, deepest depths, deep spiritual, dramatic increase, ego loss, electric shock, emotionally opened, encompassing reverberations, euphoric lightness, everything is, figures forming, fine poision, finished dressing, flash clarity, general satisfaction, gradually wearing, greatly excited, gruesome deaths, highly soluble, hot ethanol, hysterical happiness, ice bath, illegible sentences rambling, I could feel, I thought I, important books, induced vomitting, leopard print, limbs ripped, lone animal, lung opening expansion, mannequin parts, mescaline trip, mucous membranes, my body, my eyes, my face, my head, my mind, my room, natural rhythm, negative emotions, not remembering, ongoing process, panic attacks, passionate thought loops, perceived depth, perception unchanged, psychologist created, pungent chemical aroma, rapidly changing, rarely bring emotion, reality ego, repeat mantras, sense of, serious buddah, smoothly flowing, society deplores, strange considering, tell ourselves, temporary obsession, tentacles emerged, that night, the mirror, the nitro styrene, there was no, time dilation, to finish, to speak, unidentifiable shapes, unremarkable appearance, upon shooting headfirst, veteran trippers, vigilance comes



Frequent Nouns: time, people, drug, night, hours, experience, friend, speed, body, drugs, mind, reality, rush, head, home, line, house, world, point, crystal, everyone, shit, life, sleep, days

Frequent Verbs: be, feel, have, go, start, do, take, try, think, say, talk, know, come, want, get, smoke, become, find, look, end, make, decide, stop, tell, notice

Collocates: 21st century, acrid odor, alternate reality, another bump, an overwhelming, arouse suspicion, be careful, beer bottles, being awake, big city, black film, bloody lovely, bullet proof, chamber clouded, color-coded map, come down, concrete alley, conspiracy theories, control over, convenience stores, crave affection, crawl by, crushed epsom salts, cultural phenomenon, damn good, demons chasing, disappearing rapidly, doorknob turning, double-edged sword, downright frightening, eerie waking dream, elite university, exceptionally un-addictive, experiences fuel, extra nasal secretion, fiending for more, focusing abilities, forced myself to, found myself, fucked up, fueled pilgramage, gay male hustlers, grand finale, hang out, headless chickens, head rush, hit me, huge explosions, ill-advised sexual encounters, immense caution, inanimate objects, inherent tension, interpreted as, intoxicated or, lesser extent, like crazy, made me feel, minded revolutionaries, moderate dysphonia, more comfortable, muscle spasm, my jaw, mysteriously disappeared, notorious counter-culture, offending object, perfectly lucid, performed rituals, periodic table, pinball machine, pink champagne, planetary consciousness, play chess, potent cocktail, pruned indefinitely, pupil constriction, purely platonic, realistic hallucination, remarkably easily, replied confusedly, revolutionary rewrites, sacrifice efficiency, screaming tortured souls, seething mass, severely damaged, shady ass motels, sheeps' clothing, sickly looking, sleep deprivation, smooth talker, spun out, sticky bile, successfully heightened, sweated profusely, taking speed, teeming colony, telepathic link, tell them, the dark forest, the human body, thousand snakes, throw up, tolerance builds, trapped souls, truck drivers, true nature, unconscious mind, unit bomb, was coming down, white devil



Frequent Nouns: trip, time, experience, room, life, people, mind, friends, water, world, body, sense, eyes, thoughts, minutes, place, house, words, state, home, fact, night, someone, love, reality

Frequent Verbs: be, feel, have, say, begin, go, look, start, seem, want, know, think, make, come, realize, take, decide, look, keep, want, get, ask, tell, trip, try

Collocates: amazed how, blinders on, altered reality, those moments, every color, deeper and deeper, traveled somewhere new, towards infinity, whatever I imagine, flowing through my head, every passing moment, crazy grin, death rebirth, bad trip, complete self-loathing, pure evil, crystal clear, mental clarity, existence non-existence, learned to accept, the ultimate truth, more or less, found it humorous, pale ghost, touch with reality, more intense than, drowned myself in, pulled the number, points of view, press into your, tripping so hard, kick in, group unity, fellow campers, kill a rabbit, travel along, experiencing so many, psychedelic substances, voice sounded, same page, full moon, fetal position, psychological stuff, exact same, harder than, positive energy, getting younger, ever seen, earth existence, someone else, round room, original plan, no boundaries, conscious thought, totally different, completely insane, have fun, caught tripping, stoned feeling, being alive, kept telling, strange sort, grams of dried mushrooms, make sense, spinning around, wandered around, getting stronger, surrounded by, press into, would reset, drown myself, curled up, pass out, slipped into, total silence, beyond words, beyond amazing, what would happen

These fragments I have shored against my ruins


Detailed Gallery

The most frequent nouns, verbs, and adjectives, by drug class.



How many words is a trip worth?

Whereas the physiological effects of uppers and downers are of a piece with sensations known from everyday life, psychedelics represent a radical break with normal perception. Predictably, then, psychedelic experiences prompt the longest outpourings; depressants the shortest; stimulants fall roughly in the middle. As one user put it, psychonauts must "reach out for more and more words to capture how extraordinary the experience is"."

Curiously, while the vocabulary of psychedelia is richer than that for uppers and downers, it is also more redundant, scoring lower on measures of lexical diversity. What does that mean exactly? Measures of lexical diversity assess how many different word types writers use, relative to the number of words they use overall. For example, the sentence "the the the the the" is composed of five words, but has only one word type ("the"), making it lexically impoverished compared to the sentence, "the girl drew a map", which runs through five distinct word types. Controlling for length, psychonauts use only about three-quarters as many word types as dopers.

This finding is somewhat misleading, however. When we look at the collocates that appear for ayahuasca ("galactic Bodhisattva brigade") versus heroin ("in the past"), it becomes clear that psychonauts make use of a broader array of less common, more distinctive words and phrases to describe their experiences. It is often the case that when we communicate about something ununusal or simply unexpected, we ease our audience into it by adding in redundancies, either in the way we introduce the idea, or in how we explain it after. This can be seen at the word level in the phrases "a nice cold beer" or "a cute little puppy", where the information added by the adjectives is largely redundant, but helps make the nouns more predictable in context. Similarly, unusual concepts or ideas are often implicitly or explicitly redefined by the surrounding context, as in the following:

"The ability of stereotyped students appears to be latent, underestimated by their level of prior performance."

Drug users of all types make use of various parts of speech in similar ways. Across Erowid reports, nouns make up a little over a quarter of all word tokens, verbs a little under a fifth, and adverbs and adjectives an eighth. (Psychedelic use does seem to invite slightly more adjectives than usual, at the expense of adverbs.) All reports are littered with temporal markers, indexing stop, start, when and for how long, with transitions registered in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, and so on.


What's under the hood?

What makes these visualizations possible? The usage data was gleaned from a manually-created corpus of single-drug experiences, which comprises the top twenty-five public postings on Erowid for each of the selected drugs. Erowid is a popular drug library that hosts open forums in which users share their experiences, along with detailed information about the amount and preparation of what they ingest, imbibe, inject, and so on.

To analyze the composite texts, the entries were first manually standardized for spelling, which comes in a variety of forms, both standard (British vs. American English) and non-standard (slang). Drug texts were then run through a simple script that created a dictionary entry for each word type, along with its corresponding part of speech tag (verb, noun, adjective, or adverb) and its frequency (how many times it occurred in the text). Once a lemma frequency dictionary was in place for each drug, this information was fed into Wordle to generate the detailed visualizations for each part of speech. Visualizations across all words were created directly from unfiltered corpus texts with Tagxedo, which sacrifices some advanced functionality, for striking, graphic designs. IBM's free data visualization service, Many Eyes, was used to visually inspect the size of the various drug corpora.

Notably, the script used to analyze the texts relied on modified versions of four of the Natural Language Toolkit's prepackaged modules: the word tokenizer, part of speech tagger, WordNetLemmatizer, and collocation finder. While NLTK's modules are not the current state of the art, they are freely available, well documented, and readily accessible. Demos are available here.

For those who are unfamiliar with these techniques: Tokenization takes a text and carves it at the joints, selecting out individual words, while ignoring spaces and punctuation. Collocation finders extract multi-word sequences that occur together more often than would be expected by chance. Lemmatization collapses across various forms of the same word. So, for example, the WordNetLemmatizer treats 'run' and 'runs' as one verb, rather than two separate ones, and similarly collapses 'go' and 'went'. Part of speech taggers identify which grammatical category a word belongs to, depending on how it is being used in context. Many words, like 'run', can be used as a noun in one context ("She went on a run") and a verb in another ("She likes to run"). The tagger is designed to resolve ambiguities like this, while also handling more straightforward cases.

Many thanks are due to Jordan Dye, a pharmacology consultant on this project, and to Ya Yang, for assisting with corpus creation.