A liqueur for the genius?

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A liqueur for the genius?
Research has found absinth makes the brain fire like mad, writes Henry Fountain.

THE rich may be different, as the saying goes, but the richly creative are different still. Just what goes on inside the head of an artist or a poet, however, is a mystery. Now, however, we have learnt a little about what went on inside the heads of some of the more creative artists and poets the world has known.

Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley have identified the mechanism by which absinth, the liqueur of choice for the likes of Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Toulouse-Lautrec and others - indeed, for much of 19th century French society - affects the brain. It makes neurons fire like mad.

It has long been known that absinth, a potent, emerald-green distillate of wormwood and other herbs, can cause convulsions, hallucinations, psychotic episodes and, with chronic use, permanent neurological damage. The liqueur has been blamed for the bizarre behaviour of Van Gogh and others, and it was banned in many countries early in the 20th century.

The Berkeley research is the first to show the pathway by which the toxic component of the liqueur (other than the alcohol) does its damage. The work is of more than historical interest, particularly with the rise in popularity of herbal medicines. Wormwood oil is present in some herbal preparations used to treat stomach disorders and other ills. In fact, wormwood, a relative of daisies, got its name from its use in ancient times as a remedy for intestinal worms.

Absinth is still manufactured, in Spain and the Czech Republic. The drink has something of a cult following among people lured by its history, and by the ritual associated with it. The extremely bitter liqueur is traditionally poured through a lump of sugar on a special slotted spoon, and mixed with five parts water. This creates the louche, a milky-white effect that occurs when compounds in the liqueur precipitate out of the absinth-water solution. (Toulouse-Lautrec was said to have favoured a drink called the Earthquake, in which the absinth was diluted with cognac).

"There's a certain romantic image of decadence associated with it that makes it attractive to some people," said Matthew J. Baggott, a research associate at the Drug Dependence Research Centre at the University of California, San Francisco.

Ted Breaux, a microbiologist in New Orleans, knows about the subjective effects of absinth. He is something of an absinth connoisseur, being the proud owner of two 100-year-old bottles of the liqueur, one of which is unopened.

He dismisses most modern absinth, whether made in a factory or a home, as garbage. "Anyone who's ever made absinth back in the old days is dead," Breaux said. "No-one knows what it's supposed to taste like."

Having indulged in the real stuff, however, he understands why it became so popular. "I can see how artists and poets liked it," said Breaux, adding that he never had a convulsion from drinking absinth. "The body feels the effects of the alcohol, but the mind stays remarkably clear."

The New York Times

Making neurons fire like mad does offer a certain romantic image of decadence, especially in OZ on another droll weekend.

Regards from Down Below's decadence free zone

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), April 20, 2000



In Germany Yegermeister was similar concoction,made from herbs and mostly natural ingredients including poppy seeds.Though the mixture in the present day form does not include the "special" ingredient.

-- capnfun (capnfun1@excite.com), April 20, 2000.

"The body feels the effects of the alcohol, but the mind stays remarkably clear."

Sounds like good stuff. Based on the studies of the drugs the afore- mentioned folks used, can we simply conclude that they were nuts with/without the drugs? I have no problem with making my neurons fire like mad, nor do I have a problem with a certain degree of decadence, but I DO like these ears on my head and I'd want to know BEFOREHAND if I'd suffer a tendency to cut one off.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), April 20, 2000.

Coka-Cola was origionally made with cocain in it.

Their adds use to talk about how "refreshing" it was.

I'll just bet it was!

-- Cherri (sams@brigadoon.com), April 21, 2000.


ROFLMAO, good one.

-- consumer (shh@aol.com), April 21, 2000.

Business must be VERY slow at the Art Gallery!

-- Kerry (masz@southcom.com.au), April 21, 2000.

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