The toxic berry of Atropa belladonna which contains the tropane deliriants scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine.
The toxic berry of Atropa belladonna which contains the tropane deliriants scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine.

Deliriants are a subclass of hallucinogen. The term was coined in the early 1980s to distinguish these drugs from psychedelics and dissociatives such as LSD and ketamine, respectively, due to their primary effect of causing delirium, as opposed to the more lucid and less disturbed states produced by other types of hallucinogens.[1] The term generally refers to anticholinergic drugs, which are substances that inhibit the function of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Common examples of deliriants include plants of the genera Datura and Brugmansia (both containing scopolamine) as well as higher than recommended dosages of diphenhydramine (Benadryl).[2][3] A number of plant deliriants such as that of the Solanaceae family, particularly in the Americas have been used by some indigenous cultures to reach delirious and altered states for traditions or rituals, such as rites of passage, divination or communicating with the ancestors.[4] Despite their long history of use, deliriants are the least-studied class of hallucinogens in terms of their behavioral and neurological effects.[5]


The term was introduced by David F. Duncan and Robert S. Gold due to a characteristic delirium-like effect which is known to manifest as a reoccurring symptom for anticholinergic hallucinogens.[1] The term deliriant originates from delirium (dēlīrĭum) which comes from the Latin verb delirare, which means 'to go off the furrow', 'to derail'. liria (furrow) - The earth thrown up between two furrows, a ridge. ex, e - out of, from. delirio - frenzy, madness, deranged.[5] It is said to be a figurative reference to going off or out of the furrow when ploughing (agricultural) so as to be analogous to the mental aberration that is delirium.


The hallucinogenic experience and delirium produced, particularly by anticholinergics is characterized by stupor, agitation, confusion, confabulation, emotional bluntness, dysphoria, memory deficits, incoherency of thoughts, akathisia, realistic visual hallucinations or illusions (as opposed to the pseudohallucinations experienced on other classes of hallucinogens) and regression to "phantom" behaviors such as disrobing and plucking.[6] The effects of anticholinergic drugs have been likened to delirious fevers, sleepwalking, a fugue state or a psychotic episode in that the subject has minimal control over their actions and may have little or no recollection of the experience. This is a notable departure from the effects of serotonergic psychedelics.[3][7]

The plant-based alkaloids scopolamine and atropine are notorious for their characteristic hyperactive effects and ability to cause stark and dream-like hallucinations.[5][3] The hallucinations themselves are often described by users as disturbing, unpleasant or dark in nature.[8][2][9] Other commonly reported behaviors and experiences include holding conversations with imagined persons or entities, smoking nonexistent cigarettes (even with nonsmokers), visual hallucinations of spiders or shadow figures or being unable to recognize one's own reflection in a mirror.[2] Deliriants in particular appear to be noted for their powerful effects on users' behavior.[5] Anthropological assessment of the sacred Chumash Datura cult in Southern California ascertained that within the tribe; frequent or repeat users of datura tended to gradually become more and more antisocial, often adopting behavior patterns that the rest of the tribe viewed as "capricious malevolence".[10] Scopolamine has also been shown to exert a greater impairment on episodic memory, event-related potentials, memory retention and free recall compared to DPH (an anticholinergic and antihistamine).[11] Some antihistamines may also act as deliriants in high doses.

Deliriant substances

Datura stramonium (jimsonweed) 4-valved seed capsule
Datura stramonium (jimsonweed) 4-valved seed capsule

Naturally-occurring anticholinergic deliriants are found in the plant species Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), various Brugmansia species (Angel's Trumpets), Datura stramonium (Jimson weed), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), and Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) in the form of the tropane alkaloids scopolamine, atropine, and hyoscyamine. Other, lesser known plant sources of scopolamine and related tropanes include Scopolia carniolica endemic to Europe, Latua endemic to southern Chile, Solandra endemic to Mexico and Duboisia myoporoides, which is endemic to Australia and contains both scopolamine and nicotine.[12][13][14]

Synthetic compounds such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) are also deliriants. Nutmeg (although purportedly not as strong or as unpleasant as diphenhydramine or scopolamine) is also considered a deliriant due to its propensity to cause anticholinergic-like symptoms when taken in large doses.[15] The effects caused by myristicin and elemicin found in nutmeg's essential oil can last up to several days, similarly to the tropane alkaloids found in datura.[16][17] The mushroom referred to as fly agaric with its active agents ibotenic acid and muscimol may also be considered a deliriant, although fly agaric is probably more accurately described as a hypnotic.[18][19] In rare cases, highly toxic plants from the Aconitum (wolfsbane) genus have been used as "deliriants" by certain groups practicing European witchcraft, the left-hand path or asceticism due to the unpleasant but supposed altered state of consciousness which can be a side effect of wolfsbane poisoning. Plants of the aconitum genus contain the neurotoxin aconitine and in the case of Aconitum ferox, an extremely toxic alkaloid called pseudaconitine, which is in rare cases, taken as an ordeal poison and entheogen on the Indian subcontinent by ascetic groups such as the Aghori where it may be mixed with other psychoactive plants or poisons such as datura and cannabis. Risk of death is considered very high when taking A. ferox and its use is restricted to only the most experienced adepts of their particular school of Shivaism.[20][21][22]

Recreational use

A woman diagnosed with chronic dementia (1896)
A woman diagnosed with chronic dementia (1896)

Despite the fully legal status of several common deliriant plants and OTC medicines, deliriants are largely unpopular as recreational drugs due to the severe dysphoria, uncomfortable and generally damaging cognitive and physical effects, as well as the unpleasant nature of the hallucinations.[9][8]

User reports of recreational deliriant usage on the drug resource website Erowid generally indicate a firm unwillingness to repeat the experience.[23] In addition to potentially dangerous mental effects (accidents during deliriant experiences are common)[24] some tropane alkaloids, such as those found in plants of the Datura genus, are poisonous and can cause death due to tachycardia-induced heart failure, hypoventilation and hyperthermia even in small doses.[25] Anticholinergics have been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia with long-term use even at therapeutic doses, therefore they are presumed to carry an even greater risk when used at hallucinogenic dosages.[26][27] Scopolamine in particular has been implemented in scientific models used to study the cholinergic hypothesis for Alzheimer's disease and other related dementias.[28]

Despite these overtly negative effects both on the physical and mental health of the user, usage of deliriants for recreational purposes has still gone on for centuries and was said to be introduced in Europe and surrounding areas by the Romani people who would smoke or ingest plants such as datura to experience hallucinations.[29] It's also been said that certain groups who used deliriant plants, especially in hedgewitchery (wortcunning) practices, would traditionally also mix in medicinal or neuroprotective plants either directly during the intoxications or later on to counter negative health consequences or symptoms such as dysphoria or senility.[30][31][32]

Occultism and folklore

Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger. Note on the left an older witch reading from a grimoire while anointing the buttocks of a young witch about to fly to the sabbath upon an inverted besom with a candle upon its twigs
Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath by David Teniers the Younger. Note on the left an older witch reading from a grimoire while anointing the buttocks of a young witch about to fly to the sabbath upon an inverted besom with a candle upon its twigs

Deliriants such as henbane, belladonna, mandrake, jimsonweed and fly agaric are associated with and featured in many stories and beliefs within European mythology.[33][34][35][32] In ancient Greek myth, wreaths of henbane leaves were used to crown the newly deceased to make them forget their former lives as they crossed or wandered near the River Styx in the underworld.[7] The belladonna plant genus, Atropa is named after the Greek Fate, Atropos, who cut the thread of life.[35] In early medieval times, Mandrake was believed to have commonly grown under gallows where bodily fluids dripped from the bodies of deceased murderers, with some sources stating blood and others claiming semen or urine.[7][36][37]

Tropane-containing nightshades have played an integral role in Old World folklore and European witchcraft.[13][36][30] Henbane is reputed for having been used in Greco-Roman magic during ancient times as well as being associated with black magic and maleficium during the Late Middle Ages.[13] During this period in medieval Europe, the Central European species Scopolia carniolica was also used as an admixture in love potions.[38] Belladonna was purported to aid in the "flight of witches" where they reportedly would experience "bacchanalian carousal" or hallucinatory dreaming.[30][39] Mandrake (the root of Mandragora officinarum) is mentioned twice in the Bible,[40][41] and was also frequently mentioned as a typical ingredient in flying ointment recipes since at least as far back as the Early Modern Period.[33] During this time period, the New World plant datura stramonium (jimsonweed) was discovered in North America by colonialists and eventually lumped in with the other classic 'witches weeds' of the nightshade family that were endemic to Europe.[33][13] Datura has a long history of usage both in Mexico and the Southwestern United States by indigenous cultures using it for ritualistic, sacred and magical purposes.[42][43][4] In modern times, both Datura and Brugmansia are still used for sorcery, black magic, and shamanism in Latin America.[44][45] In certain South American countries, members of the Brugmansia genus have been known to be occasionally added to ayahuasca brews by malevolent sorcerers (brujos) or bad shamans who wish to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. Genuine shamans (curanderos) believe one of the purposes for this is to "steal one's energy and/or power", of which they believe every person has a limited amount.[45]

Since medieval times, extremely noxious plants of the Aconitum (wolfsbane) genus were also associated with folklore and magic and were used for similar purposes as the tropane-containing nightshades.[13] Despite being a highly poisonous and often deadly plant to work with, it was still often included in recipes for flying ointments and magical salves; likely as a way to help counteract both the cardiac and hyperthermic side effects of the scopolamine.[20][30] The aconitum genus (specifically aconitum napellus) was firmly associated with superstition and witchcraft in Europe, particularly when it came to mythos surrounding werewolves and lycanthropy.[46][30] This is believed to have originated at least partially from wolfsbane's alleged tendency to cause paresthesia which supposedly can be reported to feel like one's body is covered in fur.[20] In Greek mythology, the goddess Hecate is said to have invented aconitum which Athena used to transform Arachne into a spider.[47][48]

Classes of deliriants

See also


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