Van Gogh drank absinthe, as it was quite common amongst the artist crowd of his time. Research has shown that absinthe of Van Gogh’s time, like modern absinthe, did not contain enough thujone to cause anyone to cut off their own ear. Further, it doesn’t seem feasible to be as prolific an artist as Van Gogh was if he really drank that much.
Van Gogh had serious mental illness. This is the reason he cut off his ear. Absinthia has spent some time in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam seeking a connection of absinthe and Van Gogh’s ear, and there isn’t one.
Though it is best known as a chemical compound in the spirit absinthe, it is unlikely to be responsible for absinthe’s alleged stimulant and psychoactive effects due to the small quantities present. Thujone acts on GABA as an antagonist (opposite to the effects of alcohol). As a competitive antagonist of GABA, thujone alone is considered to be convulsant, though by interfering with the inhibitory transmitter GABA, it may convey stimulating, mood-elevating effects at low doses. It is also used in perfumery as a component of several essential oils. In the past, absinthe was thought to contain up to 260–350 mg/l thujone, but modern tests have shown this estimate to be far too high. A 2008 study of 13 pre-ban (1895–1910) bottles of absinthe using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) found that the bottles had between 0.5 and 48.3 mg/l and averaged 25.4 mg/l. A 2005 study recreated three 1899 high-wormwood recipes and tested with GC-MS, and found that the highest contained 4.3 mg/l thujone. GC-MS testing is important in this capacity, because gas chromatography alone may record an inaccurately high reading of thujone as other compounds may interfere with and add to the apparent measured amount.
Absinthe has not been demonstrated to be any more dangerous than ordinary spirits. Recent studies have shown that absinthe’s psychoactive properties have been exaggerated, apart from that of the alcohol. Authentic absinthe contains only minute traces of thujone. The highest thujone levels so far detected in pre-ban samples is 48.3 mg/L, the lowest was “none detected.”