A neuroscientist at University College London is studying whether or not NOS can help people forget distressing events, so I volunteered to be one of his guinea pigs.
One of the things that makes laughing gas the cupcake of drugs—a high so basic and fleeting it makes cocaine look like ayahuasca—is the sheer number of fringe celebrities making it into the tabloids with a balloon selfie.
Is "hippy crack" becoming the millennial answer to the boomers' LSD, or to Gen-Xers' heroin? Just ask the collection of reality TV stars and socialites in the UK posting their balloon selfies on the internet and cruising into the sidebar of shame.
While it's fun to wonder whether or not a generation really is defining itself with a high that makes you feel as if your head is bonging around in a thunder drum for a few seconds, the relentless publicity of laughing gas as a recreational drug is a minor hindrance for Ravi Das, a neuroscientist at University College London who has uncovered an extremely serious use for it.
"The only thing that you ever hear about it in the media is negative, really," says Das. "But I think [in scientific circles] it might be undergoing a bit of a renaissance. The view of it as just a kind of obstetrics analgesic may be changing."
Das's research, published last Friday in the journal Psychological Medicine, shows that laughing gas, or nitrous oxide (NOS), may help to prevent traumatic memories from "sticking" in the brain. Administered straight after a distressing event, the nitrous oxide is thought to disrupt a process that helps permanent memories to form. Das suggested that I test out his theory by allowing myself to be mildly traumatized, then pumped with laughing gas for 30 minutes.
That's how I ended up in a small office at University College London, watching the Gaspar Noe film, Irreversible. It's a notoriously difficult film to sit through. Roger Ebert summarized it as "a movie so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable." Luckily, I didn't have to watch the whole thing—because Das had helpfully extracted the two most brutal, traumatic scenes into a 15-minute montage of grim butchery. A relentless nine-minute rape scene segued neatly into a six-minute fire extinguisher murder, which I watched before completing a questionnaire.
There isn't much to say about the actual footage, other than it is one of the most graphic and distressing bits of cinema I have ever watched. Das had actually intended to use real life footage of car crashes compiled by German police, but study participants actually found Noe's fictional work more traumatic.
"We'd used a lot of different trauma films in the past," he said. "Clips of car crashes and stuff like that. And we found that people's intrusion counts over the course of the week were just at floor level. But a single scene with higher production values increased the number of intrusions people had."
An "intrusion" is a kind of unprompted flashback to the film. The researchers cycled through a range of horror films and real-life footage before deciding that Noe's film was better at disturbing the viewer—and delivering more intrusions—than any other.
"A lot of the other horror films are so stylized and over-gory, and they have this kind of visceral shock value but not the kind of empathy-inducing effects [of Irreversible]," Das said.
I'm not sure if I felt traumatized, exactly, but there is something intensely uncomfortable, claustrophobic, and memorable about both scenes. For reasons that are not apparent to me, the memory of the rapist's erect CGI penis pinging into view is seared on my brain for eternity.
The actual study documented the experiences of 50 participants, and some volunteers didn't make it through the full 15 minutes of video. The most distressing part for me, though, was the acute sense that I was the only one watching, silently, while Das made notes and Chris, my photographer, tried to catch me looking concerned.
My anxiety, however, was about to get even worse, because I was going to spend the next 30 minutes sitting in a chair, getting high on my own.
If you've ever experienced a flicker of paranoia when taking a balloon—the sensation that you've lost a second or two of consciousness—then imagine that strung out over the course of half an hour. Within two minutes, I turned to Das, who seemed very relaxed about the whole watching-me-get-high thing. "I'm high," I said. He laughed awkwardly. I sat silently and slightly shamefully, feeling increasingly dissociated, my short-term memory and ability to concentrate evaporating.
There's no doubt that 30 minutes of laughing gas felt a lot better than 15 minutes of Irreversible. According to Das's research, "intrusions"—those unwanted flashbacks to the film—fell by half in a group that received nitrous oxide rather than just normal air.
The following week involved a review of just how intrusive Irreversible would be in my day-to-day life.
Not very much, it turned out. I had a few grim, uninvited recollections of the rape scene, the most memorable of them happening immediately after I'd left Das's experiment room. I was also asked how much I remembered of what I'd seen, and although a couple of scenes stood out, a quiz revealed that there were entire chunks I'd simply forgotten.
My experience was in line with Das's theory that nitrous oxide has the potential for stopping bad memories in their tracks, but there was a twist in the research: Das also found that for people who already felt dissociated by a traumatic event, nitrous oxide could actually put them in a worse situation.
"Some people have a tendency to dissociate following traumatic events," he said. "People who were more dissociated following the film didn't show the beneficial effect of the nitrous oxide. There was some indication that it may have actually increased injury."
"There are a lot more questions to answer before we'd say it should definitely be used," he added. "But it's an interesting jumping-off point."
Clouding memories with nitrous oxide is obviously useful in a traumatic context, but less so when you'd prefer a mental record of your weekend. Das thinks it's doubtful that a handful of balloons taken recreationally could dissolve your memories of a good time, because you spend very little time inhaling the gas. Canisters are not typically the kind of thing people desperately call in at 2 AM and sit doing back-to-back until they pass out. But if this is you, then Das's research at least presents another reason to re-examine your life choices.
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