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Authors: Paula Cartwright

The psychoactive café

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The Psychoactive Café

By Paula Cartwright

Copyright2011 Paula Cartwright

Version: 2011-June-06


Edited by Lynn O'Dell (Red Adept Reviews)

Cover design by Agnes Berzina

EPUB ISBN:9780986960901 

Published byStaffordshire MSI



What happenswhen illegal drugs are replaced with a battery-powered gadget that tapsdirectly into your pleasure centres? In this realistic novella set in the nearfuture, a group of graduate students develop a device that lets everyone getbuzzed. It has surprising effects on the world economy – and everything else.

The authorhas a Ph.D. in psychology and a career in international public policy andresearch.



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not bere-sold or distributed to other people. If you’re reading this book and did notpurchase it, then please purchase your own copy at the ebook retailer of yourchoice. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is awork of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are theproduct of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and anyresemblance to any persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

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From the ‘End of the Drug Wars’ Oral History Project.  

Edited interview transcript with Julie Davies, member ofthe 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 upby a couple of years.

For me, it began in the Psychoactive Café, the most popular pubon campus. The PA Café was founded by Psychology grad students to show movieswhen the university was founded thirty years ago. In those days, movie nightswere still big social events, especially in winter. The café has kept up withthe times and doesn’t show movies any more, as such.

It was winter, February, the worst part of the year in northernManitoba. The five of us were grad students – me, Chenko, Naseer, Miguel andXiang. That’s spelled with an X, by the way, not Sh, but you know that, ofcourse. 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 hislife in Russia; at least I think so. The rest of us were used to warmerclimates – Toronto, where I come from, is subtropical compared to northernCanada – 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 wastrying to make a name for itself by investing in bright young scientists, andit was building a reputation for ground-breaking research on pain management.My faculty advisor was studying how meditation techniques could manage chronicpain, and my dissertation….

Oh, well, I’ll get into that later.

I remember our conversation vividly. We were talking abouthow to improve the PA. It’s in a former lab space in a concrete basement, anddespite that unpromising location had become a major destination for the entireuniversity. It had been tweaked over the decades by generations of psych majorsand engineering students.

The acoustic tiles had been ripped out of the ceiling andreplaced by a sound-deadening fabric that changed colours with the lighting,from pearly gray to cerulean blue to the darkest indigo. The lights wereinvisible, hidden behind the ceiling, and could be adjusted to mimic differenttimes of day. There was some kind of projection system that could add driftingclouds and, since the last upgrade, convincing stars, probably LEDs liberatedfrom a research project.

The space was divided into several big rooms by movablefloor-to-ceiling dividers and doorways covered with thick curtains. Each roomwas located in a different part of the world. The one we were in during thatconversation was in Switzerland, in the mountains. The room was big enough forseven or eight tables, and the place was crowded.

I was looking out the fake window – a huge high-densityscreen synchronized with three other windows, one on each wall, each facing adifferent direction – facing the meadow, enjoying the spring flowers. I couldsee the wind ruffling the grass and the sunlight moving on the mountains. Itwas kind of cheesy because the dividers were made out of cubicle fabric, andthey 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. Thistime of year we could go days without seeing the real sun, going into the lab beforedawn 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 favouredby the engineers, and an African savannah complete with giraffes in thedistance.

In the old days, the PA had scenic posters on the wallssurrounded 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 artsproject that went around the world installing 'window cameras' in variousscenic locations, recording continuously for days in excruciatingly high-definition3D and audio. Our Swiss mountain was on a ten-day loop, synchronized with localtime. Every tenth day, people would crowd in for a spectacular lightning strikeat 3:46 p.m.

Not every room was based in real-life videography. Afterprotests from the engineers, one of the rooms was permanently reserved forcomputer graphics and given over to a Holodeck Committee, which bickeredendlessly over the programming like kids battling for the remote control.

Anyway, Miguel was saying that PA clones were sure to hitthe private sector soon, and then virtual cafés would get really elaborate.Maybe warm breezes with contextual smells, and permanent rooms with walls andfake skylights instead of office partitions.

That was what we were talking about. How to improve theillusion so that we could escape this ice-bound campus whenever we wanted.

 Miguel was pitching for bigger-scale multi-media, like 3-Dvisuals that could keep deepening and changing perspective as you went right upto the window and looked out. Naseer was saying that was inefficient, that we shouldgo with wrap-around helmets and gloves and skip the need for meat-spaceentirely, just get together in virtual reality. Miguel started cross-examiningNaseer about how long it would be before we could emulate smell in a virtualenvironment, and Chenko said, “Hey Julie, what do you think?”

I said, “You guys are barking up the wrong tree.” When Isaid that, they all stopped and looked at me.

I said, “Look, start with what you want. You want to behappy, right? Skip past the details, like whether you want a beer or want tolook at waves crashing on a beach. All of those sensory inputs are mediatorsfor happiness, am I right? They’re what you think will make you feel a certainway. You think that if you load those particular sensory details, you’llexperience a desired state of satisfaction and pleasure.”

Chenko said, “So, you mean it doesn’t matter how effectivethe 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 beback in Toronto with my boyfriend. Hey, I was sixteen. My mom kept saying, ‘Butit’s so beautiful here, why aren’t you happy?’”

Miguel said, “Clearly, sex is a more effective trigger forhappiness than Florida,” and everyone snickered.

I said, “Well, yeah, but not always. If you can get blissedout by a light bulb, or by the sound of a truck passing by, why get all boundup in finding the right boyfriend? Or money, or power, or a nice house on thebeach? Go directly for happiness and don’t get distracted by the proxies.”

Then Xiang piped up. His English wasn’t very good, and hedidn’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 neurallocation of happiness.”

Well, he knew more than I did about neurology so I figuredhe was asking me to explain his research. Xiang was working on the eliminationof post-traumatic stress syndrome through the electrical stimulation ofpleasure pathways in the brain, and my study overlapped  a bit with his.

For my dissertation, I was trying to locate the areas of thebrain that were activated when subjects were feeling intense pleasure during theirdaily activities. That’s why I’d joined this department. TU had recently boughta portable fMRI – that’s a type of brain scanner – that tracks tiny changes inneural activity while subjects carry out their regular lives. It looks like avirtual reality helmet. The psych department split the cost with consumerresearch and political science, and various teams were booking it around theclock with different subjects. I piggybacked on everyone’s research, pullingout all the brain activity data for the moments that subjects rated as beinghighly pleasurable, whether they were in the political opinion sample or theconsumer product sample or the chronic pain sample. I won’t provide the detailshere, though this is an egregious oversimplification of a rather elegantresearch design involving multiple control conditions and international datafeeds.

Generally, it’s difficult to link a brain region withparticular activities because brains are beautifully complex, function slightlydifferently 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 takespainkillers at the wrong time. Mostly, the baby’s brain would just work aroundthe problem like the internet shunting around damage. Once she’s born, she’scompletely normal, but her neural topology is just slightly different from theway it would have been. So you can’t just say, ‘Oh, that’s the lateralorbitofrontal cortex shutting down and the nucleus accumbens lighting up so weknow she’s having an orgasm.’ I had data on a lot of orgasms by then and couldusually recognize one on the monitor from five paces, but occasionally I waswrong.

You might think that we’d already know all about pleasurecentres. They were discovered in the 1950s, when Olds and Milner got rats toignore 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 volunteersas an alternative to sex. It didn’t work, but it did lead to a lot ofself-stimulation. For real.

The problem is that pleasure is a complicated state. Basedon later research, it looked like the ‘pleasure centre’ discovered by Olds andMilner just stimulated an urge to keep stimulating it, like an irresistible,insatiable itch that you scratch until you tear yourself to pieces. It’s avision of Hell.

Intense pleasure generally requires a desire that is thensatisfied, so you need hunger as well as satiation – it’s multi-staged. Like anorgasm isn’t all that enjoyable without the excitement that comes before. Happinessis something even more complex: it’s not clear what role pleasure plays inhappiness. It might be that happiness is a state of keenly remembering pleasurein the past and anticipating pleasure in the near future, like the reverse ofpost-traumatic stress. My own belief is that happiness also includes valuecoherence, but I’m wandering off topic.

Anyway, I was explaining all of this to the guys, most ofwhich they knew so I was going into more technical detail to keep theminterested, and Chenko kept pushing for more and more information about what wewere doing in our research.  

Oh, you want more detail about the team? Right.

As I said, there were five of us. Miguel is Columbian. Hewas getting a Master’s degree in industrial design creating virtualenvironments like the PA. In fact, that’s why he’d chosen the university. ThePA had developed a cult following, and he was planning to use it to pilot testsome of his design ideas. Miguel was the best-looking of all of us, and knewit. He was the only one who didn’t show the effects of sunless days, sleeplessnights, and a diet of refined carbohydrates, and he was the only one whomaintained a normal social life.  He went to the gym  twice a week and to thebest hair stylist in town; he’d run his hands through his artfully tousled blackhair, looking glamorous and sophisticated. Not like my nondescript dishwater-blondhair, which I’d lop off with kitchen shears whenever it started getting into myeyes. I enjoyed looking at Miguel, but he was way too high maintenance.

Back to the guys. Naseer was Afghani, also in the industrialdesign program but focusing on immersive video-gaming. He had been aworld-class gamer as a kid, and had a computer science degree from Kabul University. He didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t date, hated the cold, didn’t like talkingto humans, and was, in general, a wet blanket. I was uncomfortable with him; Ialways had the feeling that he deeply disapproved of me but, on the other hand,he disapproved of everyone, so I wasn’t exactly singled out. He burned withanger, with longing for justice, with grief that none of us had the socialintelligence to recognize. And his eyes were an incredible lustrous brown. Onthe rare times he was relaxed, even affectionate with us, his eyes were softand gentle.

Chenko: Blond, skinny and ferrety, always looking around fordanger or something to eat, broad Eastern European cheekbones, high foreheadand hooded eyes. Hard to describe Chenko. He hardly ever talked about his pastexcept in tantalizing glimpses, like saying that Thompson was a lot like Siberia. Very private guy. I used to wonder how he could spend so much time in student pubsand still work on his dissertation on consumer behaviour.

Xiang was a post-doctoral fellow who had joined TU a fewmonths before. He had two biology degrees from Tsinghua University in Beijing,where his family lived, and a Ph.D. in neurobiology from McGill University in Montreal. He’s completely brilliant, and I had a major crush on him, not that heseemed to notice me at all that way. We weren’t in the same research program,but we shared the dataset; I’ll explain later. Xiang was short and broad, inpretty good shape from table tennis, mostly serious because life is serious,but when he smiled his whole face creased up like a laughing Buddha.

And me. I was halfway through my doctoral degree inpsychology, struggling with data analysis, and wondering what to do with mylife after graduation.  

We weren’t exactly friends. Xiang, Chenko, and Naseer playedtable tennis together several times a week. It’s the way geeks stay in shape. Miguelhad just joined us that evening because he and Naseer were in the same class,and I was there because, I’m embarrassed to say, I tagged along with Xiang wheneverI could. Boy, does that ever make me sound like a loser.

Can we go back to the conversation? Where was I?

Okay, so then Chenko suddenly said, “Xiang, how close areyou guys to market?”

Xiang hesitated. He wasn’t supposed to talk about hisproject; he’d signed all kinds of confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements.I was amazed he was even considering a response to Chenko. He looked around atall of us, with this strange, helpless expression. Chenko watched him narrowly,I remember his look, and then changed the subject.

“It’s funny about drug research, isn’t it? Here you are,devoting your lives to helping people in pain. And yet your project will leadto all kinds of suffering.”

He paused until Miguel said, “Okay, Chenko, get on with it.We’re listening.” Xiang still had this strained look on his face but wasn’tsaying anything.

Chenko continued, “It’s completely obvious that in the nextfew years the drug cartels will be able to deliver a whole range of consumablemental states.”

Xiang said, “Drug cartels?”

Chenko went into his mini-lecture, which I’ve heard manytimes since, on the similarities between Big Pharma and the Columbian drugcartels, both of which churn out new designer drugs every season to capturemarket share. The essence of it was that the capitalist system will always givebuyers what they want to pay for, if not legally, then illegally, and only thepolitically disenfranchised will be jailed for it. Miguel waved his hand, likeyeah, yeah, obvious, move on. So then Chenko, who was still mainly looking at Xiang,added, “And the most effective drugs will always be used to exploit and controlunless they are taken away from corporate control.”

Xiang said, “Why always? Why can’t new drugs be used tobenefit people?”

By this time, it was a conversation between Chenko and Xiangwith the rest of us just listening. Chenko said, “The sponsor of your researchprogram is Mercat, right?” Xiang nodded unhappily.

Mercat may be having trouble now but, at the time of thisconversation, it was hugely powerful. One of the top three pharma companies afterthe last round of mergers, Mercat was investing heavily in brain implantresearch. As a way to cut R&D costs, it was funding university programslike TU’s instead of expanding their own research labs. In return, it demanded totalownership over the intellectual property that came out of its funded research.Researchers are always starving for funds, and so far Mercat was successfullyimposing its IP conditions, but they were increasingly onerous. For example, toget access to my neurological data, I had to sign contracts that gave anythingI found to Mercat for its exclusive use. It just wasn’t fair, given that ninetypercent of the research was funded by governments and the unpaid labour ofgraduate students.

That may have been bad enough, but there was more. Not onlywas Mercat supplying lethal injection drugs to China, the Philippines,Guatemala, and the US, it had just come out in WikiLeaks that they were knowinglysupplying coma drugs for illegal organ farms in India and Thailand. I knew Xiangwas upset about it because it was one of the big topics of conversation in thelabs, how they were going to use our results.

Anyway, Chenko must have noticed that Miguel and Naseer weregetting bored because he suddenly said, “Hey guys, this affects you too.”

“How’s that?” asked Miguel. “We’re just engineers, man.”

“Oh, yeah? So tell me, what would your countries be like ifyou eliminated the trade in narcotics?”

Naseer made a noise partway between a laugh and a snort.“You mean if they won the war on drugs? Like that would ever happen.”

Chenko said, “No, not win the war. End the war. Stop itdead. What would Afghanistan be like if the market for opium dried up?” Helooked at Miguel. “Or the market in cocaine in Columbia?”

I was watching Xiang – he was looking really upset – and stoppedlistening to Chenko for a few minutes. When I tuned back in, they were arguingabout narcotics.

The way Miguel and Naseer were talking, their countries wereessentially in civil wars because of the international drug trade. The Talibanwas still in power, after years and years of ineffective military occupationsby all and sundry, with their weapons financed by heroin sales to the Westernworld. Columbia was overrun by criminal gangs and even more violentparamilitary troops supported by the U.S. government’s war on drugs.

They were both angry. Miguel was saying that Chenko wastalking garbage, that nothing would stop the cocaine trade. And Naseer was shakinghis fists and hissing that drug users were responsible for his homeland'sdevastation, that spoiled rich Europeans and Americans bought emotional stateslike consumer goods and treated the developing world as a factory staffed withprison labour. I noticed that people at the other tables were staring at us.

“Hey, a teeny bit judgmental, don’t you think?” I said to Naseer.He and Miguel both had that tight-lipped religious expression, like evildoersdeserved what happened to them, and we needed to protect innocent victims. Naseerwas Muslim, and Miguel was Catholic, but except for the fact that Miguel drank liquor,had girlfriends, and never went to church and… actually, they were pretty different,except for their views on drugs and virtual reality.

 Chenko held up his hands and said, “Just stop, okay? WhatI’m trying to say is that if we could figure out a way to deliver an equivalentof heroin, or cocaine, that’s freely available to everyone, we would eliminatethe drug trade. Immediately.”  

Well, I had mixed feelings about that idea. The reason I gotinto brain research in the first place was related to drugs. When I wassixteen, my dad died of lung cancer. For years he tried to quit smoking, foryears our family watched him struggle with this stupid, stupid addiction. Hewould drop it for a few months, and then start it up again. He knew it waskilling him, but he just couldn’t seem to kick whatever it was that tobaccogave him.

It took him two long, painful years to die. The only drugsthat reduced his pain to levels that allowed him to function at all were heroinand, when he was on chemo, marijuana for the nausea. But most of the time wecouldn’t get either because of the hysteria around illegal drugs. So there wasno problem letting him have the most deadly drug in the world – tobacco, whichkilled millions of people a year – but he couldn’t get a steady supply of painmeds because they might be bad for him.  He would moan in agony all night. Icould hear him through the walls; it kept me awake, crying in my bedroom.

I had gone into pain control research hoping to help peoplereduce their pain but, more than ten years after Dad’s death, I was gettingdiscouraged with my progress. I had started out focusing on hypnotic andmeditative techniques, and they seemed to work, but only after a great deal oftraining. Also, they required skills and concentration that a lot of people in tormentdidn’t have. So I'd taken a side-turn into measuring neural states of pleasure,hoping to figure out how to stop the addiction to tobacco.

Anyway, Chenko had our attention then, all of us. He pausedand looked around the table.. He said to Xiang, “Shall we continue thisdiscussion elsewhere?”

He and Xiang locked gazes for a few seconds, and then Xiangsaid, “Yes, in my apartment.” Our academic paranoia had kicked in. Who knew whatrecording devices might be hidden in the café? The university was involved inlots of research projects with market potential, and corporate espionage wassomething we took for granted.

We paid and left, changing the subject to something neutral,I can't remember what, hockey, probably, and followed Xiang to his graduateapartment. I assumed he had cleared it of bugs, I mean small, unwantedrecording devices, not cockroaches or software glitches, but we didn't ask.



Xiang’s apartment was stark evenfor the standards of neurobiology researchers. We sat on the genericindestructible student couches that came with the apartment, covered in anorange plaid that went out of fashion before I was born. Xiang turned his 3Dmonitor so that we could all see it. Chenko got beers from the fridge andhanded them around, with lemonade for Naseer. Chenko’s grasp of privateproperty rights was tenuous, ironic given his research specialty, or maybe not.Maybe a master’s degree in consumer behaviour was the right platform for whateverhe was trying to do. I was beginning to seriously wonder why he was hanging outwith us, other than for table tennis.

While we were settling in withour drinks, Xiang asked me to give everyone the background information on hisresearch. Like I said, I knew a lot about his study, and his expressive Englishwasn't so good, so I sometimes semi-interpreted for him.

Xiang was a post-doc workingwith an international team studying severe PTSD. The clinical subjects, who hadexperienced everything from torture to combat to car accidents, had run out ofother treatment options and were desperate for something that worked. They werewilling to try anything. Ethics committees were permissive since, at this levelof PTSD, suicide was a high risk.

Xiang’s particular project wasto improve the precision and control of tiny implants that delivered electricalimpulses to the brain. He was refining a new device that was already being usedsuccessfully for intractable pain, but so far hadn’t been used for PTSD.

Xiang’s prototype, or rather histeam's prototype, consisted of three elements, the most advanced of which was acluster of tiny implants, delivered via a hypodermic needle, that migrated tospecific locations in the brain and attached themselves to specific nervebundles. The implants communicated with a control patch glued onto the back ofthe subject’s head and neck – the subjects had to shave their heads where itattached – which in turn was connected by a wire to a handheld remote andbattery pack. It was, like most early prototypes, clunky, inelegant and aboutten times bigger than it needed to be.

Xiang’s team had been working ona device that could eliminate PTSD by suppressing surges of panic as soon asthey started. When a subject became exposed to a personal trigger, like a loudnoise or whatever, he could press a button on the remote and get a blast of instanteuphoria. Over time, the theory went, subjects could train themselves out ofPTSD by desensitizing themselves to the triggers. Early trials were promising.The team was at the stage of making the implants more reliable and refining thecontrols, and they were hoping to submit it for FDA approval as a medicaldevice sometime in the next two years.

Xiang touched my arm to let meknow he wanted to speak. “Now I have something to tell you,” he said.

At this point, everyone in theworld knows about the device, so I’ll be brief.

Xiang told us that his team haddeveloped a reliable way to control the strength of pleasurable feelings. Evenmore exciting, it looked like they could independently manipulate two differenttypes of pleasure, which he described as being similar to desire and satiation,respectively. And by reliable, he meant that they could program the implantedelectrodes to go to the right place for every individual based on iterativefeedback during the implanting stage. In other words, grossly simplified, hecould tell the tiny implants where to go, and when they got there, they wouldcheck with the local nerves to ensure they were hooking up with the right ones.

Once the implants were in place,subjects could dial in to the desired feeling and intensity after a few minutesof training. Easier than learning a new video game.