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Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story

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Pihkal (phenethylamines I have known and loved) is a unique book written by renowned psychopharmacologist Alexander shulgin and his wife Ann shulgin. This book gives details of their research and investigations into the use of psychedelic drugs for the study of the human mind, and is also a love story. The second half of the book describes in detail a wealth of phenethlyamines, their physical properties, dosages used, duration of effects observed, and commentary on effects.

978 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1990

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About the author

Alexander Shulgin

12 books239 followers
Alexander "Sasha" Theodore Shulgin[1] (born June 17, 1925) was an American pharmacologist, chemist and drug developer.

Shulgin was credited with the popularization of MDMA, commonly known as ecstasy, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, especially for psychopharmaceutical use and the treatment of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In subsequent years, Shulgin discovered, synthesized, and bioassayed over 230 psychoactive compounds. In 1991 and 1997, he and his wife Ann Shulgin authored the books PiHKAL and TiHKAL on the topic of psychoactive drugs. Shulgin discovered many noteworthy phenethylamines including the 2C* family of which 2C-T-2, 2C-T-7, 2C-E, 2C-I, and 2C-B are most well known. Additionally, Shulgin performed seminal work into the descriptive synthesis of compounds based on the organic compound tryptamine.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 143 reviews
Profile Image for Infinite Jen.
77 reviews182 followers
December 23, 2022
“How long will this last, this delicious feeling of being alive, of having penetrated the veil which hides beauty and the wonders of celestial vistas? It doesn't matter, as there can be nothing but gratitude for even a glimpse of what exists for those who can become open to it.”

Those of you who’re psychologically damaged enough to have been following my reviews for awhile know that I am pathologically disposed towards ramping into topics through the use of gratuitous psychedelic anecdotes, metaphors, similes, and questionnaires, like an orca discharging its powerful aquatic propulsion system (eg. hydrodynamic body with undulating fluke) one final time into the hydrogen chalcogenide, universal solvent, polar inorganic compound that is at room temperature a tasteless and odorless liquid, nearly colorless with a hint of blue (i.e. water) before striking the V shaped cadaver of a beached and improbably contorted blue whale acting as a type of simple machine which is used to manipulate the direction and magnitude of a force (i.e. a ramp) and rising in a curve whose equation is in the form y = ax^2 + bx + c (i.e. a parabolic arc) and momentarily, from the vantage point of several dumbstruck extrapedestrial ocean goers congealing like a blood clot in the main artery of the boardwalk, appearing to occupy the coronal decanter of Helios like a rubbery, sun-dappled ichor poured into its incandescent heart, before descending, like a bullet of pearl white cream dissolving into midnight, through a nearby beachfront shop with breathtaking violence. The manager, observing the ballistics of this unidentified geometrical intruder in painfully vivid colors due to ingestion of 3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine (i.e. mescaline) observes the explosion of glass like the shrapnel of a shattered terrestrial reality deluging his apparel shop with what he takes to be the cry of Prometheus, champion of humanity, bestowing the arts and sciences upon mortals, in full defiance of the Greek pantheon.

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” He mutters, with wide eyes as he walks by the killer whale now sartorially inundated across the visual spectrum with Tommy Bahama shirts and nosing through twinkling particles of dead ontologies. He steps through the remains of his previous life and out into the new. He thinks of Sasha Shulgin, who defied the morbid stupidities of a society which sees nothing wrong with the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, but decrees that non-addictive substances of transcendental benefit be made illegal, in order to bring fire to the rest of us. And he knows, right then and there, that some perturbation of consciousness discovered through judicious practice of psychonautics, some extremely rarified holotropic state, contains the birth-machine for a parallel universe. One in which he can answer Nietzsche’s demon in this exultant fashion, because his eyes have been opened to insights which lurk just below the ostensible, waiting to rupture the surface tension like Makani, the escaped zoo orca who has, through a reflexive indulgence of acrobatic conditioning, permanently reconfigured the partitioning of his attentional resources and destroyed his former fiscal livelihood.

And so you may be wondering why a book that seems so singularly apropos of Jen has languished this long without a public display of affection, and to you I would say, “That’s a real Pihkal”. But, as I consider this book to be an essential part of every psychedelic library, I am here to rectify my lagging initiatives by swimming back through time with the assistance of psychoactive phenethylamine chemical derivatives (notably those that act as psychedelics and/or empathogen-entactogens.) and endorsing this book by speaking very little about its autobiographical and technical contents, (other than to say I found them remarkably edifying) and continuing to prattle.

“The most compelling insight of that day was that this awesome recall had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid. Everything I had recognized came from the depths of my memory and my psyche. I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.”

So let me ask you: Have you ever, while cock blocking 5-HT2C from consummating with your serotonin receptors through the selective axon terminal prophylactic 2C-B, discovered that your normal states of consciousness are acting as a kind of psychic gyroscope in which the conservation of angular cognitive momentum is keeping you from tipping over into zones conceptually unpaved? Did you find these diverging paths of verdant heterodoxy so irresistible that you decided to jam a telescoping baton into the blur of spokes thrumming with self perpetuating executive control, thus launching yourself over the handlebars like an errant sack of haggis at the Highland Games which is ripped from a contestant’s hands prematurely by non-linear dynamics of wind and tiny irregularities of proprioception, strafing onlookers with suet and oatmeal before pulverizing an elderly woman like a 1 kg wrecking ball of boiled sheep viscera, causing her to collapse into a heap of ankle length tartan skirt and color coordinated blouse and vest while blasting her clan badge and every other lose vestige of cultural motif into the nearby woods?

“Use them with care, and use them with respect as to the transformations they can achieve, and you have an extraordinary research tool. Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place, psychologically. Know what you're using, decide just why you're using it, and you can have a rich experience. They're not addictive, and they're certainly not escapist, either, but they're exceptionally valuable tools for understanding the human mind, and how it works.

I’ve been there, friends. More times than I’d care to admit. And, having absorbed one too many torpedos of sheep pluck, I am here to tell you that there are safer and more effective ways of achieving self-discovery through pharmacology. Do your research. Understand the importance of dosage, setting, and support. Read books like this and learn from more experienced psychonauts. And whose words warrant consideration if not the Necromancer of Molly? A man responsible for the discovery, synthesis and personal bioassay of over 230 psychoactive compounds for their psychedelic and entactogenic potential, who co-wrote this book along with his partner in crime (Ann) to chronicle their love of transcendent molecules, and each other.

“Just the two major legal drugs, tobacco and alcohol, are together directly responsible for over 500,000 deaths a year in this country. Deaths associated with prescription drugs are an additional 100,000 a year. The combined deaths associated with all the illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and PCP, may increase this total by another 5,000. In other words, if all illegal drug use were to be curtailed by some stroke of a magic wand, the drug-related deaths in the country would decrease by 1 percent. The remaining 99% remain just as dead."
Profile Image for Dimitris Hall.
365 reviews55 followers
September 1, 2014

Sometimes you read some books you think everybody should read, if only just so that they can correct their misconceptions on certain things.

Alexander Shulgin was a researcher of psychotropics which he had been inventing in his laboratories and testing on himself for almost half a century. Actually, no; merely calling him that would be like describing J.S. Bach simply as a Baroque musician. If it wasn't for him, a great many psychoactive compounds, including MDMA, the tremendous potential for psychotherapeutic use of which it was also he who discovered, would have never seen the light of day; people wouldn't have enjoyed them and found insight in their use... The field as a whole would be much poorer.

In fact, given the prolonged forbidding legal status of the production, distribution and even use for the majority of known psychedelics since the '60s, without Shulgin there would have hence been next to no research at all in this field of human knowledge and experience we are repeatedly and stubbornly denying ourselves from. He was one of the most important beacons of reason, curiosity and tenderness on this topic, and that is why I wanted to get my hands on PihKAL: anything written by Sasha is required reading on this subject.

Since it's a big book and it's expensive and difficult to get it even used, I tracked it down on .pdf soon after I got my Kindle, which makes it easier to enjoy hard-to-find works like this on digital format. The day after I started reading it, there was news that Shulgin had passed away - at the age of 88 and after inventing and trying hundreds of successful and not-so-successful "drugs", no less.

Shulgin in this book told his life's story and how he got interested in the things that made him famous (it has to do with the placebo effect and the power of the mind); how he met his wife, who co-authored this work with him; he described his little psychedelic sessions with friends in a very affectionate and effective way.

In their remote but blessed corner of the universe they tread new ground and wrote all about it. It was epic.

Read this and come back to me mumbling something about wanting to keep it natural and chemicals-free. I dare you.

I'm perfectly aware that I might be getting on your nerves with these Kindle shots. The first two should be easy enough to read if you want to get a feel of what it was like reading these highlight-worthy quotes. But in this last bit the font is too small, and I admit it's probably way too much effort reading text from those .jpgs. They serve as aesthetic enhancements of the review. Or I could just call them my reviews' seasonings, like they have in restaurants on every table: complete with salt, pepper, oil, chili perhaps, here in Bulgaria garlic sauce... Optional, but there for you if you feel like it.

I'll sign off this review with a transcript of the picture above, because I know that sometimes food is best eaten pure.

PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (Shulgin)
- Your Highlight on page 208 | location 3183-3185 | Added on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 14:20:42

I looked up at him and smiled, showing all my teeth, "I learned long ago that the most dangerous opponent is the one who tells you he hasn't been near the game in years. He's the one who'll wipe the board with you, while apologizing for being so terribly rusty."
PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (Shulgin)
- Your Highlight on page 215 | location 3294-3297 | Added on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 14:34:12

"You told me that you invent new psychedelics and that you have a group of people who try them out after you've made sure they're safe and ,/ He interrupted, "Not safe. There is no such thing as safety. Not with drugs and not with anything else. You can only presume relative safety. Too much of anything is unsafe. Too much food, too much drink, too much aspirin, too much anything you can name, is likely to be unsafe."
PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (Shulgin)
- Your Highlight on page 219 | location 3349-3351 | Added on Wednesday, 11 June 2014 14:39:51

"Of course, there are many ways to alter your consciousness and your perceptions; there always have been, and new ways will keep being developed. Drugs are only one way, but I feel they're the way that brings about the changes most rapidly, and - in some ways - most dependably. Which makes them very valuable when the person using them knows what he's doing."

And... sorry, I just couldn't hold myself. Quotes really do a better job at reviewing themselves than I ever could.

PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (Shulgin)
- Your Highlight on page 176 | location 2690-2698 | Added on Sunday, 8 June 2014 04:37:06

Sam said, "I don't know if you realize this, but there are some researchers - doctors - who are giving this kind of drug to volunteers, to see what the effects are, and they're doing it the proper scientific way, in clean white hospital rooms, away from trees and flowers and the wind, and they're surprised at how many of the experiments turn sour. They've never taken any sort of psychedelic themselves, needless to say. Their volunteers - they're called 'subjects,' of course - are given mescaline or LSD and they're all opened up to their surroundings, very sensitive to color and light and other people's emotions, and what are they given to react to? Metal bed-frames and plaster walls, and an occasional white coat carrying a clipboard. Sterility. Most of them say afterwards that they'll never do it again." "Jesus! Right now, after what I've just gone through, that sounds worse than awful." "Not all of the research is being done that way, thank God, but too much of it is." "What a shame," I said, saddened by the picture, "What a shame!"

Profile Image for Michael.
8 reviews4 followers
December 14, 2007
I discovered this book and its sister publication (TIHKAL) during an interesting period of my undergraduate career. The book has three parts. The first part documents Dr. Schulgin's development of Zectran at Dow Chemical and his ever evolving interest in psychoactive drugs and finally his love affair with his wife Ann. The second part is the "Love Story" depicted from Ann's point of view. The third part of the book is an index of interesting chemicals and a rather detailed library of their synthesis protocols.

While reading this book I attended a lecture given by Nobel laureate Kary Mullis. Kary Mullis received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1993 for the development of PCR. During his lecture he commented on the first scientific paper he published in Nature, in 1968. He described it as a sophomoric astrophysical hypothesis called "The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal." He told the audience he ate LSD while writing it. Needless to say Nature is still probably a little embarrassed about publishing it.

This is when I decided that scientists may have more fun.
July 2, 2013
I'm not going to write a traditional review of this book. Everyone has already done that. I AM going to try to describe what it has done for me.
Along the same lines as Huxley, Dr. Shulgin has opened doors for me. If it weren't for these authors I never would have even begun to appreciate organic chemistry. Its nuances, its complexity.
Shulgin probably (arguably) single handedly made the phenethylamine class of drugs, as a whole, available to the masses. Some specifics in the class more so than others since he didn't discover and synthesize all of them. Although he did rediscover (in a way) certain ones that were lost in the scientific journals. Ones abandoned, hypothesized but unsynthesized, "untasted."
You have to read the book to fully appreciate what he has done for science, for the appreciation of sympathomimetic amines that we have today.
His research and personal "tasting" as he calls it of most of what he synthesized has given us most of our current knowledge of the phenethylamine class. Threshold dosages, racemic vs. dextro- and levo- isomer effects on the mind and body, duration of action, theory of action of active groups on different parts of the phenethylamine backbone molecule, etc. etc.
His resynthesizing of MDMA after being forgotten about by science for so many years single handedly made it the crème de la crème of entactogens that we know today.

If you are at all interested in the nuances of organic chemistry and pharmacology, especially sympathomimetic drugs and their effects on the human body, or, if you're interested in the spiritual side of these drugs and the windows that they open, or, if you're interested in other people's detailed experiences and you can only live vicariously thru them, then read Shulgin. Not just this book but TIHKAL and anything else about Shulgin and his work is good. It's a great place to start and it'll give you the background you need in order to understand the current understanding, perception, and legal state of psychedelic drugs (beyond just LSD) we have today.
The first part of the book is Dr. Shulgin's own personal story as well as that of his wife and their friends and colleagues who helped out in the experimentation with phenethylamines. I'm not sure exactly how much is attributable to artistic license and how much is truthful. I believe it's "officially" fictional. Self incrimination and all...
The second half of the book is the synthesis, step by step, that Shulgin used to make each of the over 200 sympathomimetic phenethylamines/amphetamines in the book.
This section gives bioassays, dosages, duration, and other notes related to each molecule.
It can be a lot to take in and some parts are a bit awkward. It's written by a scientist not a seasoned novelist after all. But beyond that, as a whole, it's fascinating. I give it 4.5 stars all in all only for the fact that the narrative is a little awkward in a few places and that some of the synthesis techniques are a little outdated (nothing really wrong with classics, though, is there?).
Profile Image for Bird.
85 reviews
May 14, 2008
Should be: Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. Phenethylamines are a chemical family that contain many psychotropic chemicals, including methamphetamines, ecstacy, adam, 2-cb, 8-cb, etcetera. This seems to be a different edition than the one I read. Mine was in only two sections, the first a detailed description of the trips produced by various phenethylamines, the second a chemist's recipe book. I found it fascinating because it was not a hippy book about how to get high with kitchen chemistry but had a chemist's view, complete with dosage notes, times, descriptions of experience that used consistent yardsticks, and the chemical structures and evolution of exploration.
Profile Image for Rose.
438 reviews
May 25, 2012
This book is utterly amazing. The first half is a very endearing sort of dual biography from Alexander and Ann Shulgin, and the second half is a description of quite a number of substances created and/or tested by the Shulgins and friends.

I went into the book desiring mostly the second half, but fell in love with the first half as well. Shulgin is truly a genius and his way of viewing the world is touching and very powerful. The same goes for Ann. Many times while reading their story I found myself completely enraptured and falling in love with the both of them. One quote from Ann is one I intend to live my life by.

Admittedly, the back half of the book is rather complex and contains the chemical recipes for creating most of these substances. I did not understand a great deal of this, so I read only the parts that discussed the effects and dosage of each substance. I am sure it is a veritable wealth of information about the chemistry of these materials and I look forward to learning more about chemistry so that I can one day go back and be able to understand this half of the book.

I believe this book is a must-read for anybody who has any interested in psychedelic substances and the drug war. Shulgin has manufactured many substances that are falling into recreational use today, and only by learning more about these drugs can we ensure that people are able to make safe and informed decisions about the substances that they put into their body while trying to explore their mind.

I was very impressed, and I look forward to TIHKAL.
Profile Image for ba.
167 reviews3 followers
July 30, 2007
If you like hallucinogens, you'll probably like this book. If you want to invent a new smart drug, this book is also for you.It's a (admittedly very wordy) memoir of a chemist exploring consciousness-expanding substances at the edge of legality, and in the process finding love.
Profile Image for OSKR.
86 reviews
February 8, 2016
This impossible to categorize book is ostensibly the story of Alexander Shulgin, a.k.a. “Dr Ecstasy”, the man with the most claim to have actually discovered the drug. It's a hefty tome, half chemistry and half autobiography – the latter part being half written by his wife Anne. The book seems to be largely distributed under the acronym, PIKHAL.

Shulgin's life is remarkable, simply because he gets away with so much. Most chemists of international accalim don't typically advocate illegal drugs for example. Every weekend Shulgin and a close group of friends take differing doses of newly-devised psychoactive drugs. It seems Shulgin himself has probably been ingesting psychedelic substances every second day for his entire adult life, perhaps inadvertently proving that responsible drug use is no detriment to scientific genius.

Shulgin first took mescaline in 1960, and felt a “burning desire to explain its profound action to myself and the rest of mankind”. He set about researching and synthesising drugs of a similar structure, namely phenethylamines, and over thirty years discovered 179 drugs of this class. Some of these drugs have profound effects and have since appeared on the streets. Your local neighbourhood psychonaut is probably familiar with names such as MDMA, PMA, MDA, 2CB and 2CT. Dozens more of these substances apparently also present mind-expanding possibilities.

Throughout his story Shulgin recounts bizarre encounters with US secret agents and scientists of foreign countries. One of Shulgin's smartest moves was to make solid connections with Californian intellectual figures, and to resist becoming an underground figure that the state could demonize. Also described in his story are many “life-changing” drug experiences, such as his accidental exposure to 2CE which caused him to hallucinate a monstrous backside and helped him to deal with personal trauma. Such accounts however pale in comparison to his wife's own experiences, which include full-scale telepathy, and a recurring hallucination happening routinely throughout her childhood. Several other interesting stories about personal development are included, for example: people resolving deep psychological baggage through MDMA use.

Anne's narrative however, is shockingly overwritten. She recounts their courtship and love affair in the style of a Harlequin paperback romance, and goes into an unusual level of sexual detail for a tale about middle-aged intellectuals. Indeed, it prompted me to wonder why an international chemist of such renown would want such lurid personal information made so freely available. This section needs a massive edit.

The last half of the book is a categoric exploration of the phenethylamine family, including brief recipes, precise dosages, reports from different subjects and various ruminations. If you are an occasional drug user looking for a piece of quick information then this may all be too complex. However, if you like chemistry and fantasize about drug labs, then this may be for you. Terms like stereoisomer and dimethoxy are everywhere.

This book makes specialist reading for anyone intrested in recreational drugs and organic chemistry. Currently there is a vast amount of misinformation about drugs in our society, particularly about ecstasy and designer drugs. Reading this book is a step in the right direction.

review appeared at: http://bench-press.blogspot.com.au
18 reviews1 follower
August 13, 2015
Required reading for anyone interested in the use of psychedelic (or, should we say, psychotomimetic) substances as a vehicle to explore the human mind; to illuminate the deepest reaches of the psyche and to better understand the people with whom you have the closest relationships. Or, as a psychiatric aid. Even as a person with no interest in actually using psychedelic drugs, the philosophical insights and stories in this book are worth it. They trip so you don't have to. Shulgin's storytelling is concise and not self-indulgent, and always comes with a sense of humor.
Profile Image for Tim.
151 reviews7 followers
July 21, 2007
A fascinating dual biography of a man dedicated to synthesizing chemicals to unlock the hidden potential of the human mind, and the woman who came to love and support him in all his endeavors. The second half of this book is filled with the chemical recipes for hundreds of phenethylamines, along with descriptions of their entactogenic, empathogenic, hallucinogenic, and other effects on those who choose to partake in them.
Profile Image for J.
35 reviews10 followers
July 26, 2008
The most comprehensive book on the subject available. Too bad I'm not a chemist.
Profile Image for Mark Slee.
63 reviews13 followers
August 8, 2011
Incredibly readable and interesting. It is ultimately what the title says it is -- a love story.
Profile Image for Gregory Eakins.
599 reviews17 followers
November 17, 2020
There are two groups who will love this book: scientists (especially chemists) who are passionate about science, and people who love psychedelics.

Alexander Shulgin lived his life in a unique position where his expertise in the field of mind altering drugs gave him the freedom to dance the lines of legality in the design, synthesis, and consumption of new substances.

No sentence summarizes this book better than the Mythbusters quote, "Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down." Shulgin and his experimental group conducted countless experiments on his creations, all while documenting the dosages, effects, and durations. As anyone who has done psychedelics knows, recounting the experience is at least as hard as remembering dreams. This, alone, makes the data extremely impressive.

Depending on the future legal status of these drugs and the prevailing attitudes towards them, Shulgin's accounts may end up being the only comprehensive knowledge on these substances that we ever have, making this book even more noteworthy.

This book is split into two sections - the first being the "love story," a discussion of Shulgin's lab and where he builds the case for the value of psychedelic drugs as tools for self-exploration. The second half is a recipe book full of detailed synthesis instructions for making the various compounds he discovered. Unless you have a strong background in organic chemistry and some expensive chemistry equipment, you probably won't have much luck actually creating any of these. This isn't the 5th grade science fair, folks.

Ann's ("Alice") portion of the "love story" is absurdly overblown and doesn't fit well into the focal point of the book. I could have done without this section entirely.

The final chapter is a John Galt-like argument for the legalization and use of psychedelic drugs and a more libertarian approach to freedom with some light warnings against the slippery slope of government control. This is Shulgin at his most passionate.

Pihkal should be required reading for chemistry students (especially organic) and should be extremely interesting for anyone interested in psychedelics.
Profile Image for Brendan.
1,387 reviews14 followers
May 16, 2012
A fantastic book on multiple levels. The first, fictionalized love story half of the book was fantastic, providing a relatable story and a human side to the characters representing Shulgin and his wife. Shulgin and, seemingly, most of his research team are nowhere near the stereotypical profile given to most people geuninely interested in psychedelic drugs, and the first half of this book does a great job of introducting his unique perspective to the world. The second half of the book is an invaluable collection of well over a hundred psychedlic drugs, their chemical recipes, proper dosages and "trip reports." I can't wait to dig into TIHKAL.
2 reviews
September 29, 2008
read it. they don't want you to know. it ought to be banned. like the books in fahrenheit 451. and be aware that you might end up on some agency's watch list. maybe already just for reading this review.
3 reviews1 follower
July 5, 2008
months of enjoyment, maybe even years.
Profile Image for Mark.
111 reviews4 followers
January 23, 2020
One of the biggest takeaways people remember reading this book, is Shulgin’s hope to form a relationship with a German woman after an affair, but it didn’t work out, and he ends up with Ann.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
54 reviews6 followers
August 12, 2021
The day after my first time trying internet-ordered LSD, I wandered the neighborhood draped in my sister’s oversized tie dye shirt. I didn’t own any tie dye myself, but wanted to represent my new people. I was 19, swept in the afterglow of my first religious experience. The bliss lasted a few weeks before dramatically inverting. The feeling of oneness typical of psychedelics shifted to a hypersensitivity to the darkness and despair present in our corporatocratic hellworld. I was incapacitated by a racing mind and lucid nightmares for nearly a year as the process worked itself out. This book would’ve helped me immensely if I read it during that time. I thought I was going insane, but can now label it as a “spiritual crisis.”
Ann Shulgen suffered from something similar after ingesting one of her husband’s concoctions. The difference between her experience and mine was that she had a support network of psychologists and psychonauts and was encouraged to integrate the feelings, while I suppressed it. For her, it lasted a week, for me it manifested as paranoia and panic attacks.

This is probably the best book on psychedelics out there. The first half is a duel memoir written by a former insecticide-making dole chemist turned clandestine psychedelic producer, and his more artistically-minded wife. The second half is academic research deemed TOO HOT for the scientific journals of the Reagan Era.
Profile Image for Samantha.
578 reviews14 followers
November 3, 2021
I am surprised how quickly this read, given that it's a daunting 978 pages. however, the second half of the book is basically chemical lab notebooks with a lot of stuff I skipped over (detailed descriptions of recipes for chemicals and a lot of discussion about naming conventions and why he named certain chemicals certain things). in that half, I just read the notes about the actual taking of the drugs themselves.

so basically, this is a book by a chemist who has devoted his career to making and exploring psychedelics. what if you take the mescaline molecule and swap out this atom on the benzene ring? etc. etc. etc. each permutation basically gives rise to a cascade of other permutations. being that animal studies are useless for determining what psychedelic effects a human might experience from this or that chemical, he tries the compounds himself, going from a low dose upwards. if he detects a psychedelic effect and it doesn't seem terribly toxic, he then has a group of friends who take them as well and describe their experiences. the first part of the book is supposedly a novelization (presumably to provide plausible deniability in case any law enforcement agencies wanted to come after him), first in his voice, of his career as a psychedelic chemist, then in his second wife's voice, of her experience meeting him and joining him in testing his creations.

I did not like either of them as presented in the first half of the book. he seemed pompous and annoying but she! it was basically a story of how she pursued him romantically and wow, she was irritating. as a mother, selfish and pretty neglectful plus oversharing. if you want to hear a lot of gross talk about how she felt about her man's buttocks, it's all here for you. they are both super into classical music, which is deeply tied into their romance and their psychedelic explorations. it's like, what happens when uncool people trip.

the second section, where I knew I'd be skipping a lot of the straight chemistry and didn't really think I would like it, was actually preferable in that I could see that shulgin is definitely a very talented chemist, very into his research.

he seems to be after psychologically valuable drugs. psychedelics are beginning to be brought back into therapeutic sessions a bit more these days and that seems to be what he's looking for - drugs that can help people deal with their issues and move past blockages - ideally, a holy grail drug that would reliably trigger the rare psychedelic experience of - well, an enlightenment experience, I guess.

and here's where my questions come in. pretty much every human culture already has a history with psychoactive plants, from ayahuasca to psilocybin to ibogaine to peyote, etc. that already seems like a lot to be going on with, for me, in terms of therapeutic psychedelics. but ok, he's into nuanced effects, I guess he's seeing a future where psychedelics could be diagnostic tools for various mental illnesses as well as medicines matched to particular issues. but I have to question exactly what he and his fellow travelers accomplished in their own lives through their prolific psychedelic use. on the one hand, there is the purely recreational aspect that they all get caught up in depending on the chemical they take. looking at the trails and other visuals, experiencing enhanced tastes, listening to music, looking at patterns behind their eyes, enjoying greatly expanded color vision, feeling euphoric, having stoned sex. this all gets treated as a pleasurable byproduct of the larger quest but particularly for his pals, judging from the notes, this seems to be a major draw. there are many many notes about "not insightful but a delightful day with colors and music". I just feel like this more recreational and hedonistic aspect of psychedelics gets really swept under the rug, like of course their purpose is more noble and healthful and not just like a bunch of hippies getting high at concerts. just because you're listening to classical music and not the grateful dead doesn't somehow make you more noble.

and then the book also doesn't give any discussion of long term progress. there are many notes about oh, I realized I am closed off from people, oh, I realized this about myself, oh, I really dug deep into some complex concepts, etc. all the insightful therapeutic aspects of the drugs. but other than the note saying "two days later I still feel a lot clearer" etc. there really isn't any follow up. so if I hung out with these people would I find them to be wiser than average? have they attained a greater level of mental health and stability? are the revelations they have permanent improvements? there just isn't any follow up of this kind. certainly wifey spends a lot of her section talking about her looks and her weight and if a romantic rival is younger and prettier than her - and there's never a point where she's like, I realized all that insecurity and all those body issues were ridiculous and psychedelics just plum cured me of that.

most tellingly on this front, shulgin does have a big shift in his life where he becomes a kinder person, nicer, more open, less cutting. and which drug does he attribute this to? none. this major shift - the only such shift really described in the book - is completely due to him falling in love! (not with wifey, with her rival, ursula, who clearly has major issues that psychedelics have not ameliorated).

so he's a smart guy, he's a dedicated guy, he's spent his life doing a lot of valuable research and he's been willing to be his own guinea pig, he's probably formed some really great bonds and friendships with his cohort by tripping with them all the time. I learned a lot about how you actually do chemistry (even though I skipped all those sections!) and about how your body does its own chemistry on things you ingest, which is interesting and all very complex. I'm glad I read it. I think the therapeutic use of psychedelics is probably a great idea, I've seen some good documentaries on it helping people with terminal illness come to terms with their upcoming deaths, etc. but they can't make annoying people not be annoying, apparently, and their recreational/experimental use doesn't seem like a more profound path than non-drug based spirituality or therapy or even falling in love.
83 reviews78 followers
February 8, 2019
It feels appropriate to begin with a quote about Alexander Shulgin from Hamilton Morris, as it was his words that lead to me reading this book:

"He is the grandfather of Ecstasy, the molecular magician, the atomic conquistador. Over the span of 50 years he has created more new psychedelic drugs than the Amazon jungle ever has. He is more of a mythological creature, a chemical centaur, than he is a real person. But he does exist..."

And just for good measure, a quote from Mckenna, uttered directly to Shulgin, about Shulgin, as they stood among the graves of my ancestors in the Warsaw ghetto:

"You have probably seen more uncharted internal landscape than half of mankind put together".
To which Shulgin replied, "Well, they're a little bit charted now... the seeds are there to be used by anyone else... that's the reason for the book".

It has been an immense pleasure nibbling on these seeds, even planting some of my own. I shall be happily in the Shulgins debt for as long as I live. Ann Shulgin, the godmother of MDMA therapy, is a truly wonderful writer. She brought me to tears several times in this book, much the way sampling her husband's chemicals do. Tears of every kind- joy, sorrow, awe, and relief.

This is an utterly unique book. It is a collaboration of lovers, written in several sections; first Alex's voice, then Ann's, then both together, and finally, the second half, which is wettest 'dry' science I have ever read- the greatest, most exciting cookbook ever written. This is perhaps the only love story found in legal and illegal laboratories worldwide. And what a love story it is. I don't read many romance novels, but reading this book gave me an understanding of people who do. It was a pleasure watching the spark of the Shulgins love turn into a fire. I was not expecting this book to be so profoundly erotic; anyone interested in the intersection of pharmacology and sex would do well to peruse this arousing tome. So would anyone with an even marginal interest in chemistry, spirituality, and the uncharted internal landscapes of the mind.

Profile Image for Kaspars Laizans.
66 reviews
April 28, 2020
What would happen if a psychopharmacist marries a hippie? And then they coauthor a book together? Highly technical part 3 of the book with all the synthesis descriptions was too heavy for a peasant like me. Apart from experience description part, which also includes some personal insights obtained during "experiments"
Part 2 was way too sexy and esoteric, but does provide some interesting material about ways of dealing with different mental states that can be achieved during experimentation with psychoactive substances.
Part 1 was the most interesting for me personally as a sort of autobiography of a chemist. Like the idea of their psychoactivity scale. Apparently it's a more-or-less official thing :)

All in all wasn't too excited. An ok book, might be a treasure trove of technical information for a skilled chemist. Might also not. Way above my paygrade.
Profile Image for Ethan Grant.
3 reviews
June 15, 2020
This book will continue to serve me well as a reference work.
Profile Image for David.
227 reviews29 followers
February 10, 2009
In true Valentine’s Day spirit, today’s review of PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story is about love. And chemicals. PiHKAL is the acronym for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin gives the definition at the beginning of the book:

phenethylamine: 1. A naturally occurring compound found in both the animal and plant kingdoms. It is an endogenous component of the human brain. 2. Any of a series of compounds containing the phenethlamine skeleton, and modified by chemical constituents at appropriate positions in the molecule.

I first heard of Sasha Shulgin from the Psychedelic Salon, a podcast that features prominent speakers, writers and thinkers that are involved in the psychedelic community. In one of the episodes featuring the Shulgins, Sasha made reference to this book. I first read TiHKAL: The Continuation, the sequel, last year. (The T stands for Tryptamines.)

PiHKAL is broken up into two major sections. The first section is a compelling narrative written by both Sasha and his wife, Ann. They share with the reader how they fell in love, their interactions with friends and family and their exploration of phenthylamine compounds. Each chapter is written by either Sasha or Ann, which is noted at the beginning of the passage.

The second section is a chemist’s dream-come-true, with notes on indole rings and molecule construction. While I skimmed through this section, it is rich with complex chemistry jargon that I don’t understand. For me, the book speaks clearer in the first half. However, as Sasha mentioned in the podcast, either you read the first half and you like it, or you skip it and read the second half for your research.

There are some amazing passages in PiHKAL, ranging from personal revelations about looking out of a window to the heavy distress Ann felt when attempting to win Sasha’s heart. In comparison to TiHKAL, this is a much more personal story, but I missed some of the things that made TiHKAL enjoyable. It’s almost as if PiHKAL is the “here we are” story, while TiHKAL is the “here’s where we’re going” story.

4/5 Stars. 978 pages. Published in 1991.
22 reviews4 followers
June 22, 2011
I finished the first half of the book. The second half of the book is in a different structure, and I have not yet tackled that half -- it is organized in a way that promotes use as a quick-lookup reference on a number of phenethylamines discovered or explored by Dr. Shulgin, and so that is the approach I intend to take with it.

There is a lot of value in the narrative in this book. We are in a state of global crisis, with the so-called War On Drugs quickly becoming absolutely untenable, with more and more people realizing that the only problem we have is the "War" itself. Simply ending the paramilitary and police actions is that the full solution, however. It is not hard to observe the ongoing struggles various countries and cultures are having with tobacco and alcohol, and other substances will provide similar integration challenges, but with much less collective social experience or information to draw on to perform this integration in a healthy and positive manner. Shulgin's little test group provides some very good narratives, sound culturally sustainable ideas, and of course just sound objective and subjective information upon which to draw.

This book is also a wonderful love story. Because of the challenges faced overcome by both Dr. Shulgin and Ann, this story is also on my short list of books to give to anyone interested in exploring the concept of relating to others in a fully open and honest way, in the vein of similar books such as The Ethical Slut.

The content of this book alone is why I've given it four stars. I was somewhat disappointed with the quality of the writing at some points -- nothing I could point out casually, but it just didn't meet my bar for pure simply brilliant writing style. This makes sense. The contributors to this book are not professional writers; in a way, even this drawback makes the book more real, more human, and more accessible.
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