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The Science of Dune

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Smart Pop Classics: Melange

In the Smart Pop Classics series, we share greatest hits from our throwback essay collections. This week in “Melange” from The Science of Dune, Carol Hart, Ph.D., explores some of the consequences of mind-expanding substances like melange, as well as their unintended side-effects.

Long ago and far away, I went to an experimental college in Florida, where the experimenting was not just with teaching methods and grading systems but with mind-altering drugs. Alcohol use was frowned upon. So bourgeois! So ’50s! But just about everyone smoked pot, and perhaps a quarter of the student body had dropped acid or tried other psychoactive drugs. My roommate Margot was on a Carlos Castaneda-inspired quest for enlightenment via her drug of choice, LSD. One afternoon she walked into our room, her green eyes still glassy and staring, and told me about her latest mind-bending discovery. She had walked for miles upon miles along the bay while she was tripping and had talked to the mosquitoes. She asked them not to bite and they agreed to spare her. She held up her bare, unblemished arms as proof—see, no bites!

Walking along that bay with its bug-infested backwaters and coming back without a half-dozen bites would be a near miracle. From a rationalist perspective, there were some obvious explanations that occurred to me at the time. Perhaps Margot had been out for so many hours that the swelling had gone down, and she simply hadn’t felt or noticed the bites while she was tripping. Or perhaps the drug had affected her skin chemistry and the composition of her sweat so that the mosquitoes were not attracted to her. I kept my skepticism to myself, made some polite “Wow! Cool!” remarks, and went back to my studying.

After rereading Dune and thinking about the properties of melange, another perspective on Margot and her friendly mosquitoes suggests itself. The Bene Gesserit or the Guild Navigators might say, “That’s it? You took a powerful consciousness-expanding, space- and time-warping drug, and all you used it for was preventing bug bites?”

Their scornful superiority would be a bit unfair: merely reading Castaneda could not have given Margot the knowledge and training needed to send her awareness soaring through time and space as they do. Aside from a vague desire for out-of-body experiences (and a specific wish to be itch-free when she came back to that body), Margot had no goals for her LSD adventures.

Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, always lamented the casual and recreational use of hallucinogenic agents. He had hoped that experimenting with LSD would take place as formal research involving neuropsychiatrists, theologians, and artists engaged in serious exploration of perception, religious experience, and the unconscious self. “Deliberate provocation of mystical experience, particularly by LSD and related hallucinogens, in contrast to spontaneous visionary experiences, entails dangers that must not be underestimated,” he wrote in LSD: My Problem Child. “Special internal and external advance preparations are required; with them, an LSD experiment can become a meaningful experience” (32). Both the melange adepts of Dune and the shamans of Old Earth would likely agree with Hofmann’s assessment.

The Roles of Ritual and Expectation: Shamans versus Day-Trippers

On first reading, one of the more SF aspects of melange is the broad spectrum of its users and uses—a true mélange of effects. For the Guild Navigators, melange allowed them to quest through time to find the paths on which to guide the Heighliners. For the Bene Gesserit, the agony induced by spice essence initiated a Reverend Mother’s communion with the Other Memory of all her forebears. For the Fremen, the spice was a daily food and (in the form of the Water of Life) the aphrodisiac that powered their sietch orgies. For the wealthier classes of the Empire, small daily doses vastly extended life expectancy.

Here on Old Earth, we have never discovered a substance to extend life expectancy (not for want of trying). But we do possess a number of natural psychoactive substances that share features of melange. Fantastic as the effects of melange may seem, there are some equally impressive parallels among our own mind-altering agents: marijuana, opium, coca leaves (cocaine), ayahuasca (dimethyltryptamine, DMT), magic mushrooms (psilocybin and psilocin), and peyote (mescaline). Like melange, these hallucinogens have traditionally been used to transcend time and place, to understand the distant ancestral past, and to peer into the bifurcating paths of destiny. Like melange, their functions were medicinal, ritual, and political.

In the Amazonian rainforest, ayahuasca (Vine of the Soul, also known as yajé) is used by shamans to communicate with the spirit world, to diagnose the supernatural causes of illness, and to give them the prescience needed to solve problems confronting the tribe, such as perceiving the battle plans of an enemy. Ayahuasca is also taken ritually by the men of the community, who chant and sing of the visions that unfold under the power of the sacred drink. Because of the prescient qualities of the visions as experienced by the Amazonian peoples, one of the principal psychoactive compounds isolated from ayahuasca was originally named telepathine, until it was found to be identical with the already named harmine, found in another hallucinogenic plant, Syrian rue.

The traditional process of preparing the Vine of the Soul has an ingenuity comparable to the Freman method of distilling the Water of Life by drowning a stunted sandworm or “little maker” to produce a liquid that then must be detoxified by a Reverend Mother. The power of the Amazonian brew depends upon the synergistic combination of plants containing tryptamine derivatives (primarily DMT, dimethyltriptamine, a powerful hallucinogen) with those containing psychoactive beta-carboline alkaloids (harmine, harmaline). When taken orally, the tryptamines would normally be inactivated by monoamine oxidase in the liver and gastrointestinal tract. However, the beta-carboline alkaloids are natural analogs to a pre-Prozac class of antidepressants known as the monoamine oxidase inhibitors. The presence of the betacarboline compounds (which have milder psychoactive properties) allows the more potent tryptamines to escape digestion and pass through the blood-brain barrier. For all the claims made about molecularly targeted drugs, pharmaceutical chemists have rarely designed a drug as sophisticated as the ayahuasca of the Amazonian peoples.

The mystique of ayahuasca has attracted tourists ready to pay a high premium for an authentic shamanistic experience, as well as hothouse efforts in temperate North America to grow the vines. Outside of its ritual uses, when taken by researchers or novelty seekers ayahuasca has unpredictable effects that can be overwhelmingly negative. Yet, to the indigenous peoples of the rainforest, it enables visions of the gods, the creation of the world, and the ancestral past, as well as telepathic contact with others. Their expectation of a revelation gives them the strength to withstand the vine’s equivalent of the “spice agony,” the jarring physical symptoms of pain, nausea, vertigo, and prostration that precede the liberating visions. Outside of the cultural context that gives them meaning, the visions produced by ayahuasca can be disturbing and disorienting in the extreme if, when everyday reality is stripped away, the consciousness is unprepared to interpret what takes its place.

As experienced by ethnobotanist Wade Davis, ayahuasca has a power and terror approaching melange: “Soon the world as I knew it no longer existed. Reality was not distorted; it was dissolved as the terror of another dimension swept over the senses . . . the terror grew stronger, as did my sense of hopeless fragility. Death hovered all around . . . my thoughts themselves turned into visions, not of things or places but of an entire dimension that in the moment seemed not only real, but absolute. This was the actual world, and what I had known until then was a crude and opaque facsimile” (Shadows in the Sun 157).

Ethnobotanists stress the role of cultural and individual expectations in conditioning the hallucinogenic experience. From his own experience and that of others, Wade Davis wisely commented that “the pharmacologically active components do not produce uniform effects. On the contrary, any psychoactive drug has within it a completely ambivalent potential for good or evil, order or chaos. Pharmacologically, it induces a certain condition, but that condition is mere raw material to be worked by particular cultural or psychological forces” (Shadows in the Sun 166). Similarly, Michael Balick and Paul Alan Cox wrote that “there is considerable reason to believe that the use of hallucinogenic plants outside of their traditional religious contexts can produce sorrow rather than transcendence, confusion rather than enlightenment” (Plants, People, and Culture 159).

That religious context can both direct and heighten the experience. Many of our common legal psychoactive plants were once reserved for ceremonial use, including tobacco (think of the Native American peace pipe) and the currently popular stimulant kava. “The real power of kava,” said Balick and Cox, “comes from the cultural context in which it is drunk. Consumed in one’s home, kava has an effect that is scarcely noticeable. But drinking kava under a thatched roof ten meters high in the presence of the assembled chiefs of the entire district, all of whom scrupulously follow the ancient forms of rhetoric, is a truly memorable experience” (Plants, People, and Culture 162).

While melange’s effects are clearly more in line with the most powerful awareness-enhancing agents we possess, its power also is greatly influenced by mindset and setting. Billions of the more affluent citizens of the Empire ingested it daily, apparently without experiencing its enhanced awareness-spectrum effects. Possibly it was to them as coffee, tea, kava, and tobacco are to us—a mildly addictive psychostimulant when habitually consumed without ritual or training to focus its effects. As with ayahuasca, peyote, and LSD, “the pharmacologically active components do not produce uniform effects” at higher levels of exposure. Piter, Baron Harkonnen’s Mentat, had the dark blue-tinted eyes of a high-dose user (the Baron grumbled that Piter ate spice like candy), yet his melange use did not seem to grant him prescience. He was unable to foresee the escape of Jessica and Paul, or Yueh’s double act of treachery that cost Piter his life. A sadistic sociopath, Piter is described as a “twisted” Mentat, with no explanation other than the brief Dune glossary entry that twisted Mentats were a specialty product of the Tleilaxu. It is just possible that Piter’s dependence on melange as a recreational drug (he referred to it as one of his expensive “pleasures” [Dune 17]) was the vehicle for corrupting and degrading him.

In sharp contrast, melange endowed Paul Atreides, who also possessed Mentat abilities, with a vision far beyond that achieved by the Guild or the Reverend Mothers. Paul did not attribute his immense prescience to genetics, to the Bene Gesserit breeding program, but to the training given to him and the timing of his exposure to the spice. “He could look to his own past and see the start of it—the training, the sharpening of talents, the refined pressures of sophisticated disciplines, even exposure to the O.C. Bible at a critical moment . . . and, lastly the heavy intake of spice” (Dune 194–195). However great its potency for the prepared mind, the overall effects of melange have several distinct parallels to our own terrestrial hallucinogens:

  • Telltale changes to the eye. Hallucinogens such as LSD and ayahuasca produce extreme dilation of the pupil; from their daily large doses of spice, the Fremen and the Guild had a deep dark blue coloring to the sclera.
  • Suspension of time. Seconds become hours, or time stops altogether. Paul was unconscious for three weeks when he made his experiment with changing the Water of Life, but believed it had only been a few minutes.
  • Ecstatic (or sometimes frightening) sense of communion with others. Depending on the cultural context, this mystic communion might be with ancestral spirits (the Other Memory of the Bene Gesserit), or gods, or with the universe itself.
  • Out-of-body sensations. Jessica “felt that she was a conscious mote, smaller than any subatomic particle” (Dune 354).
  • Loss of self and merger into a oneness. Jessica experienced something she called a “psychokinesthetic extension” of self (Dune 354).
  • Euphoria. A major component of the experience with terrestrial hallucinogens, euphoria was part of Jessica’s experience of the Water of Life. “The muzziness of the drug was overpowering her senses. How warm it was and soothing. How beneficent of these Fremen to bring her into the fold of such companionship” (Dune 359).
  • Death-rebirth experience. This is Hofmann’s characterization of the progression from physical agony or terror and to euphoria that is characteristic of LSD and related hallucinogens. The spice agony that a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother had to undergo seemed to follow a similar course from pain (the spice essence could be fatal) to awakening to a shared communion with her predecessors.
  • Visions/hallucinations. Phantasmagoric shifts of color and shape are typical of LSD, but the experience may bring a sense of traveling through space or time to visualize ancient cities or strange civilizations. Sometimes a voice comments upon or interprets the hallucinogenic experience. It seems that the Other Memory of the Bene Gesserit was not the product of their discipline so much as it was the gift of the spice. At the moment of his death, planetologist Liet-Kynes, who had the eyes of a melange user, had his own experiences with Other Memory (his hallucination of his father).
  • Prescience and life-changing realizations. For the Amazonian shamans, ayahuasca allowed the soul to leave the body to search out the explanation for illness in the individual or problems threatening the community and to decide the course of action. When Paul tasted the unchanged Water of Life, he saw the ships of the Guild filling the space above Arrakis and understood why they were there—that they, too, were addicted to the spice—and knew what he needed to do to reclaim Arrakis for House Atreides.

The Biochemistry of Transcendence

The experience of LSD both inspired and sabotaged serious academic research into the mechanisms of hallucinogenic agents such as ayahuasca. Seventy years ago, Albert Hofmann, a Sandoz research chemist, was engaged in a project to synthesize and screen derivatives of ergot, a fungus found on rye, for medicinal properties. The twenty-fifth compound in his series, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) failed to demonstrate any unique properties in the initial laboratory and animal studies. The ergot screening project had already identified several promising drug candidates, including the anti-migraine drug ergotamine, still in use today. LSD seemed less active than a related compound, ergonovine, seen as having therapeutic potential for preventing postpartum hemorrhaging. So it was dropped from further clinical development by Sandoz.

Five years later, in 1943, acting on “a peculiar presentiment,” Hofmann decided to synthesize and screen LSD once more (LSD: My Problem Child 12). Later that day, he noticed some odd but distinctly pleasant visual effects and suspected an accidental exposure to the novel compound as the cause. So he took what he considered to be a miniscule dose of the agent, just 0.25 mg (which was five to ten times the doses taken by my roommate Margot). After an unsteady bicycle ride home with his laboratory assistant to guide him, he was plunged into terrifying hallucinations in which he feared for his sanity and his life. “A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa” (LSD: My Problem Child 15). The reassurance of a doctor that his vital signs were normal, with extremely dilated pupils as the only abnormality, helped him through the crisis, and then the hallucinations became more pleasant.

Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color (LSD: My Problem Child 16).

Like a good scientist, Hofmann made a full report of his experiences. His colleagues were skeptical that such a minute quantity of a compound could produce such extreme effects, until they tried it themselves. Under the trade name of Delysid, Sandoz made LSD available for researchers to explore two potential, rather contradictory indications: first, as a psychiatric treatment “to elicit release of repressed material and provide mental relaxation, particularly in anxiety states and obsessional neuroses” (LSD: My Problem Child 3) and second, as a model for studying experimentally induced psychosis. Hofmann himself hoped the drug would be a modern ayahuasca, a vehicle for enlightenment and cure used only under the guidance of disciplined professionals, the scientific equivalent of shamans and Reverend Mothers.

Just a few years later, serotonin (5-HT, 5-hydroxytriptamine) was discovered, first in blood serum, then in various tissue samples, and finally in the brain. Once the chemical structures had been elucidated, it was quickly noted that two of the four rings in LSD’s chemical structure are identical to the ring structure in serotonin, and the side chain attached to serotonin’s ring structure is identical to another part of the LSD molecule. The similarities were so striking that suspicion was immediately raised that LSD might be exerting its profound hallucinogenic effects by mimicking, augmenting, or displacing serotonin in the central nervous system.

The discovery of LSD spurred interest in the chemistry of plant hallucinogens being gathered by botanists and anthropologists in the Americas. It was Albert Hofmann who successfully isolated the psychoactive components of the Mexican magic mushroom (Psilocybe mexicana) in 1958, fifteen years after his first experiments with LSD. He found that psilocybin and psilocybin are also structurally very similar to both serotonin and LSD. When he tested them on himself, he reported the effects to be so similar that LSD is virtually an extra-strength version of the fungus. Many of the plant hallucinogens, including DMT, the major psychoactive compound of ayahuasca, are tryptamines, a class of compounds related to the amino acid tryptophan and its product, the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Knowing that these psychedelic compounds closely resembled serotonin was only a first step to understanding how these drugs act on the brain. Serotonin has bafflingly complex roles in different parts of the brain and body. As a neurotransmitter, serotonin modulates mood, pain awareness, impulse control, aggression, vomiting, and appetite. Outside the brain, serotonin regulates contraction and relaxation of the smooth muscle lining the blood vessels and the intestines, and triggers blood platelets to stick together to make a clot. Abnormalities in the serotonin system underlie depression, anxiety, eating disorders (bulimia, bingeing, anorexia nervosa), alcoholism and other addictions, migraine, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Like other hormones and neurotransmitters, serotonin is released by one cell to trigger a specific response in a target cell by interacting with a molecular receptor on the cell surface. This interaction triggers a cascade of internal signals that result in some specific change in the cell’s activity. Serotonin itself is a very simple molecule that is found throughout the animal kingdom, from garden slugs to primates, and also in many plants. The complexity of the serotonin signaling system results from the multiplicity of receptor types on target cells. There are fifteen known receptor subtypes grouped into seven families, from 5-HT1A to 5-HT7. Clearly, any drug that hits receptors for a neurotransmitter with so many duties—from pain perception and mood regulation to gut peristalsis—can have multiple effects. Action on the serotonin system would readily explain why LSD can produce its roller coaster of emotional states, from terror and despair to exaltation within a few hours. Ecstasy (MDMA) produces euphoria without psychedelia (or only mild visual effects) by flooding the brain with serotonin. But it is by no means obvious why a serotonin mimic would produce hallucinations as one of its effects.

There are other serotonin-like substances in the brain and body that are even closer structurally to the hallucinogens: tyramine, tryptamine, octopamine, beta-phenylethylamine (which acts as an amphetamine), and several psychoactive forms of tryptamine, including 5-methoxytryptamine and DMT, the major psychoactive component of ayahuasca. Because these compounds are found only in trace amounts in brain tissue samples, most researchers have classified them as metabolic byproducts of the synthesis of the major neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) and dismissed them as unimportant. Recent studies have identified specific receptors for these so-called traceamines, demonstrating that these chemicals likely have real, if still unknown, roles in how information is processed in the brain. Some still sketchy findings suggest that they may trigger or enhance the release of serotonin and the related neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Given its relative abundance (and the relative ease of studying it), serotonin is still the lead candidate as the primary target of the hallucinogens.

The heavy-duty science of unraveling the functions of the fifteen subtypes of serotonin receptors has been greatly eased by the development of genetically engineered mice—known as knockout mice—that lack the gene for the protein of interest. We know from behavioral studies with these animals that the 5-HT1A knockout mouse is a timid quitter, whereas the 5-HT1B knockout mouse is an aggressive bully and a heavy drinker. The 5-HT5A knockout mouse shows reduced sensitivity to LSD. The functioning of this specific receptor is not yet well understood, but what is known is quite suggestive. Based on studies of its localization in the brain, the 5-HT5A receptor may have regulatory roles in the brain’s internal timekeeping as well as mood and cognitive function. Interestingly, genetic variants of this receptor are implicated in schizophrenia. Receptors in the 5-HT2 class are also targeted by the hallucinogens, with a clear association between hallucinogenic potency and the level of receptor binding. Based on animal models, it has been proposed that activation of 5-HT2A receptors by hallucinogens triggers a hypersensitivity to sensory information in the locus ceruleus, an area of the brainstem that has overall responsibilities for interpreting and responding to environmental threats.

Animal models for studying hallucinogenic effects have some obvious limitations: mice cannot be interviewed about their LSD experiences, so the effects must be inferred by behavioral changes. The widespread recreational use of LSD in the 1960s and its subsequent labeling as a drug of abuse in most countries resulted in a cessation of clinical research. But there are people who hallucinate under perfectly legal and respectable circumstances. In other ages they were revered as saints, shamans, and seers. In ours they tend to keep their experiences to themselves.

Hearing Voices, Seeing Visions

Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us?”
—Orange Catholic Bible (Dune 40)

These were the first words Paul Atreides read in the Orange Catholic Bible given to him by Dr. Yueh on the eve of Paul’s departure from his home planet of Caladan. On Arrakis, as he first awakened to his terrifying powers of prescience, he recognized this timely exposure to the O.C. Bible as part of the “clockwork” of experiences and training that brought him to this moment of his transformation (194). Still later, when he piloted the ’thopter into the sandstorm to ride it out on a vortex, he felt himself on the terrifying brink of another revelation. It came to him out of the words of the Bene Gesserit fear litany (“I shall not fear”), and the now-familiar words of the Orange Catholic Bible still rang in his memory: “What senses do we lack that we cannot see or hear another world all around us?”

In “Appendix II: The Religion of Dune,” we learned that the O.C. Bible was the ecumenical compilation of the “fourteen sages” representing the major religions of humanity, including the ancient teachings of the Zensunni Wanderers, the Navachristianity of Chusuk, and the Buddislamic Variants. The verse that Paul read might well have been inspired by any of these traditions, for it encapsulates a perception that repeats itself in many forms: that this everyday world, so vividly and concretely real to our senses, is only the dim shadow of some greater reality.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Paul, Corinthians 1:13

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 14

This world that appears to the senses has no true being, but only a ceaseless becoming; it is, and it also is not; and its comprehension is not so much a knowledge as an illusion.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, Appendix: “Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy”

It is a perception that has been affirmed by many experimenters with ayahuasca, mescaline, and LSD, and it primed Paul for his own drug-induced experience. It is not, after all, soft mysticism but hard science: the world our senses perceive is an illusion or, at best, a blinkered squint at a glittering, buzzing, whirling reality beyond our comprehension. We perceive a few spectra of electromagnetic radiation and name them as colors; what we experience as solidity under our fingertips is another manifestation of indivisible energy, the dance of subatomic particles in space.

Philosophical reflections and hallucinogenic experiences aside, doubting our sober everyday realities is the slippery slope of insanity. Both in popular culture and in the psychiatric consulting room, people who hallucinate are presumed to be psychotic. If not for the causative factor of their hallucinogenic drug exposure, both Paul and Jessica would meet the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia. They show social/occupational dysfunction in their rapid downward spiral after losing control of Arrakis to Baron Harkonnen. Paul’s perceptions would certainly qualify as bizarre delusions to any right-thinking psychiatrist. The Other Memory of the Fremen Reverend Mothers that Jessica accessed through the Water of Life ritual constitutes the classic symptom of schizophrenia: “A voice keeping up a running commentary on the person’s behavior or thoughts, or two or more voices conversing with each other” (Study Guide to DSM-IV 140).

Someone who sees angels, aliens, or ghosts may be tolerated as a harmless crank. People who hear voices are considered potentially dangerous to themselves and others. Auditory hallucinations are the stereotypical proof of madness. No one who is otherwise tightly wrapped will publicly admit to hearing voices, yet it may be fairly common. In studies, 2 to 4 percent of the general population say that they sometimes hear voices when no one is there, with two-thirds of them not meeting other diagnostic criteria for mental illness. For some individuals who do have such a diagnosis, distress at hearing voices may be their major motive for seeking help. A small number of mental health professionals are now exploring the therapeutic value of accepting auditory hallucinations rather than tranquillizing them into silence. This alternative approach suggests that voices are only a psychiatric issue when the individual has difficulty coping with them. Marius Romme and colleagues at Maastricht University have reported that the auditory hallucinations experienced by ordinary people are not substantially different from those of schizophrenic patients. The major difference was that ordinary people tended to perceive the voices as positive and felt in control of the experience. It did not matter how they explained the voice—whether they recognized it as an unconscious projection or believed it to be their guardian angel or perhaps the invisible friend who had been with them from childhood. So long as they perceived the voice as providing guidance rather than overwhelming them with inescapable criticism or demands, they were unlikely to have other psychiatric symptoms.

In Dune and its sequels, those who heard the voices of Other Memory had to control them in order to benefit from their guidance. Otherwise, they became a cacophony of competing personalities that could overwhelm the individual’s sense of self and paralyze decision-making. In Children of Dune, Jessica’s daughter Alia, who was exposed to Other Memory while still in the womb, ultimately failed to control her voices: “Again the other lives within her lifted their clamor. The tide once more threatened to engulf her” (Dune 61). Alia succumbed to the manipulative and malevolent presence of the evil Baron Harkonnen and plunged into madness.

Transcendence, Politics, and Dependence

We live in a culture where hallucinogenic drugs are illegal, feared for their potential powers of enslaving the body while liberating the mind. On Old Earth and in the Empire of Dune, the attractions of psychoactive drugs have also been effective means of domination. In pre-Columbian America, the coca leaf was, somewhat like melange, largely reserved for the noble and priestly classes of the ancient Incas. In fact, the ruling classes retained their power in part by their monopoly on the coca leaf. After a period of civil wars and insurrection, the monopoly weakened and coca cultivation spread. Ultimately, the power of the coca leaf was turned against the Native Americans when their new masters, the Spaniards, realized that its consumption would enable their slave workers to overcome hunger, thirst, and altitude sickness, thereby improving their productivity.

It would be missing one of Herbert’s major concerns not to see that melange is a means for controlling both individuals and whole societies. At the opening of Dune, melange is simply the geriatric spice, available only to the very wealthy, with no one as yet suspecting its importance to the Guild or its addictive potential. In God Emperor of Dune, Leto II both hoarded spice and made it more widely available, thereby increasing his tyrannical hold over the far-flung population of his empire. Baron Harkonnen controlled his Mentat Piter by his spice addiction. When Piter was killed, the Baron quickly and coolly replaced him as captain of the guard with Nefud, also an addict, but to the music-drug combination semuta. “A useful item of information, that,” the Baron thought to himself in making his decision to promote Nefud (Dune 184).

In the brief preface to Heretics of Dune, Herbert listed the interlocking themes he had in mind when he sat down to write Dune after six years of preliminary research. As one of those themes: “It was to have an awareness drug in it and tell what could happen through dependence on such a substance” (Heretics of Dune v). The dependence was physical and psychological, both individual and societal. According to the analysis provided by the condemned historian Bronso of IX at the opening of Dune Messiah, “As with all things sacred, it [melange] gives with one hand and takes with the other. It extends life and allows the adept to foresee his future, but it ties him to a cruel addiction and marks his eyes as yours [the priest-inquisitor’s] are marked: total blue without any white. Your eyes, your organs of sight, become one thing without contrast, a single view” (Dune Messiah 2). Although these remarks were angrily condemned as heresy, they mirrored Paul Maud’Dib’s own assessment.

At the moment that Paul achieved his prescience under the pervasive power of the planet’s spice, he realized it was, as he told his mother, a subtle poison, condemning them both to life on Arrakis. Except when he first shared the Water of Life with Chani, Paul never experienced spice intoxication as positive. Shortly before he took his first ride on a sandworm, under the lingering spell of a meal heavy in spice, Paul had difficulty sorting past, present, and future events into their proper order—in effect, asking himself, “When am I?” much as the more familiar sort of dazed addict might ask, “Where am I?”

The prescience itself was not a joyful or triumphant experience for Paul or others of the Atreides. The words at the end of Book One of Dune in which Paul announced to his mother how the spice has given him prescience are loaded with bitterness and anger: “The spice changes anyone who gets this much of it, but thanks to you, I could bring the change to consciousness. I don’t get to leave it in the unconscious where the disturbance can be blanked out. I can see it” (196). Later, as the Freman shared the Water of Life, Paul realized that the people of the desert also had the capacity for the visions granted by the spice, “But they suppress it because it terrifies” (Dune 361). His prescience was a prison for Paul, robbing him of all freedom to choose. Toward the end of Dune Messiah, he cried out to the Duncan ghola: “I’m dying of prescience. . . . People call it a power, a gift. It’s an affliction! It won’t let me leave my life where I found it” (Dune Messiah 256).

In his journals, Paul’s half-worm, half-human son Leto II made the point more forcefully (as he does everything): “What is the most profound difference between us, between you [the reader] and me? You already know it. It’s these ancestral memories. Mine come at me in the full glare of awareness. Yours work from your blind side. Some call it instinct or fate” (God Emperor of Dune 103). Before the Baron took over her consciousness in Children of Dune, Alia wished for the blindness to ancestral memory that most others had, “living only the hypnoidal half-life into which birth-shock precipitated most humans” (Children of Dune 14). To paraphrase ethnobotanists Balick and Cox, it seems that transcendence can bring sorrow, enlightenment ultimately can be confusion.

What Dreams May Come?

My skepticism regarding Margot’s LSD-forged friendship with the mosquitoes was somewhat forced. Actually, I admired Margot for her calm, spacey poise and her otherworldly sophistication. I wanted to be more like her and less like me: a gawky rube from western Arkansas. I bought a tab of acid from her and stuck it in among my toiletries, where I looked at it every morning (it was so small to possess such power!) for a couple of weeks, wondering whether I would in fact have the courage to take it.

Growing up among mountains, I had never seen the ocean or any body of water larger than a minor lake. When I first walked across campus to look out on the bay, my spirit left my body, soared across the water to the slender green keys of the distant shore, then came back to me. It happened in one brief gasp of an instant—I barely thought, “I am out of my body!”—and it was already over, never to happen again. I contemplated that little tab of acid every morning with a powerful longing to get that moment back, to hold on to it and make it answer my questions.

I would sometimes feel a long, slow burning wave of ecstasy that came upon me out of the blue sky, the green trees, or across a sparkling stream. I could not make it happen. It was like a breeze that blew through me and then moved on. It seemed to say, “Follow me!” But I couldn’t. And although my days were passed under the full-spectrum, 100-watt glare of reason, my nights were different. From early childhood on, just before drifting into sleep I would have visions. I would see a slow, stately kaleidoscopic progression of gorgeously colored patterns, like a private movie screened on my closed eyelids. If I walked in the woods that day, the featured attraction would be an exquisitely detailed replay of the forest floor, the intricate mosaic of fallen leaves—white oak, post oak, hickory, pine, sweetgum, and dogwood—as real as if my eyes had filmed it for later viewing.

Much later, I learned that my nocturnal visions are known as hypnagogic hallucinations. According to the scientific literature, they are usually very brief, highly unpleasant, and a symptom of narcolepsy. (They can also occur as a side effect of some of the serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Effexor and Prozac.) Of course, no one goes to the doctor to complain of beautiful and prolonged nocturnal visions. Like auditory hallucinations, they only come to the attention of biomedical researchers when the hallucinations are intensely upsetting or symptomatic of an underlying disorder. With the same instinct of conformity shared by most people who hear voices, I never told a soul about mine. A survey by sleep researcher Maurice Ohayon of 13,000 European adolescents and adults found a surprisingly high prevalence rate of 25 percent for hypnagogic hallucinations, usually occurring as fleeting snapshots of the day’s activities. As with auditory hallucinations, unpleasant or terrifying night visions are more likely to be associated with a sleep disorder or mental illness.

They were precious to me, those lovely nighttime visions and those fleeting daytime surges of euphoria. They hinted at some truth or reality beyond self and reason which I could not find explained in any of my textbooks. I thought that tiny tab of LSD might expand, deepen, and reveal what was hidden in those moments and by doing so, fill in the ugly blanks and gaps that I felt inside me. It was the thought of those dark corners that made me pause over the prospect of shuffling off consciousness and opening all the hatches.

Margot’s acid trips seemed to be entirely positive. She, to all appearances, was a calm, mellow person, never displaying anger, self-doubt, confusion, or anxiety. I too tried hard never to show such feelings, but I certainly experienced them. I had heard about bad trips, of course. When the lid was taken off my brain, which would come out: the butterflies or the worms? No matter whether the visions were delightful or horrific, the prospect of being entirely under their sway for some hours—which might feel like centuries—ultimately seemed more claustrophobic than liberating.

I sold the tab of acid back to my roommate at a discount, yielding her a small profit. (She obviously had more worldly sophistication than me, too.) Considering the fictional and nonfictional experiences of Paul Atreides, Albert Hofmann, Wade Davis, and others, I think I made the right decision. But of course I’ll never know.

Carol Hart, Ph.D., is a freelance health and science writer based in Narberth, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. She is the author of Good Food Tastes Good: An Argument for Trusting Your Senses and Ignoring the Nutritionists (forthcoming, SpringStreet Books) and Secrets of Serotonin (St. Martin’s Press, 1996, with a revised and expanded second edition forthcoming in early 2008).


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