There used to be a time, not too long ago, when psychedelic drugs were a subject of fascination among intellectuals. This of course was before they became adopted by the sixties counterculture and swiftly demonized and legislated against. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for the sixties counterculture and the psychedelic philosophies of people like Leary and Wilson. However, in our rose-tinted nostalgic fascination with the sixties the earlier intellectual interest in these drugs is often forgotten. This is not to say that thinkers such as Leary and Wilson weren’t intellectuals, in fact I would argue that they are two of the great philosophers of the 20th Century. They were just a little early. What I mean to say is that prior to that movement there was a time when people who were effectively buttoned-up were experimenting with these drugs. There was a time when the media reported on psychedelics with a measured and fascinated tone. There was a time when discussing the psychedelic experience was inches away from being an acceptable activity.
To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.
Now this is not only beautifully written but it is also a world away from sixties sloganeering “Turn On, Tune in, and Drop Out” (valuable as that advice might also be). The notion that such an experience might be of “inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual” seems downright radical in the modern era which is sadly lacking intellectuals willing or able to articulate the value of the psychedelic experience never mind arguing for its adoption on a wide scale (bar a few notable exceptions we will address later on). If Huxley’s book introduced the psychedelic experience to a serious, literary audience a widely read 1957 article in Life magazine published by the ‘New York banker’ Gordon Wasson entitled Seeking the Magic Mushroom (available here) introduced it to a wide popular readership. As Wikipedia points out, this article had repercussions far beyond the edification and entertainment of the general audience it was intended for:
In 1957, R. Gordon Wasson, the vice president of J.P.Morgan, published an article in Life extolling the virtues of magic mushrooms.This prompted Albert Hofmann to isolate psilocybin in 1958 for distribution by Sandoz alongside LSD in the U.S., further raising interest in LSD in the mass media. Following Wasson’s report, Timothy Leary visited Mexico to experience the mushrooms.
To get an even clearer idea of how psychedelic drugs were an intellectual-dare we even say ‘middle class’- object of fascination in the fifties there is no more convincing (and retrospectively amusing) evidence than the video below from 1955 of Conservative (!!!) MP Christopher Mayhew under the influence of 400 mgs of mescaline for BBC’s Panorama. For anyone wanting to follow this up this version of the clip is taken from the longer BBC documentary Hoffman’s Potion, which can be watched here.
Naturally it is almost impossible to imagine a contemporary politician-let alone a Conservative- volunteering for this sort of televisual experiment today. The current legal status of these drugs would be one issue but more importantly the criminalisation of these substance by the end of the sixties served to take them from their original contexts as spiritual tools or objects of philosophical curiosity and instead restricted discourse on the subject to the criminological aspects. In short, psychedelics have been reduced in mainstream discourse to just another drug with a capital D. Compare this to the fairly benign (though no less magical) perception of psychedelics seen in this 1961 episode of the American series One Step Beyond in which host John Newland travels to Mexico to find out about, as the episode calls it, “The Scared Mushroom’.
Again we are in a lost world where gnosis is experienced while wearing a suit and tie and mind-bending experiences are articulated with formal precision. Brief tangent: A recent episode of Mad men did well to capture the flavour of this period when the psychedelic experience was considered an intellectual pursuit. In the clip below Roger and Jane Sterling drop acid in the apartment of Jane’s therapist. What’s brilliant about this scene is the sheer matter-of-factness about it. These are professionals wearing tailored clothing in a well-furnished Manhattan apartment rather than the typical imagery of hippies in mud soaked fields. Nor are there any of the typical tropes usually found in media depictions of the psychedelic experience. No swirling patterns or wild hallucinations. It’s all very subtle and witty and brilliantly captures the milieu of the time with the anthropological acuity typical of the show.
Of course, the last 40 or so years have seen drugs of all stripes undergo a transformation from intellectual pursuit to dangerous illegal substance. While there remains a certain affinity between youth counterculture (or perhaps just youth generally) and drug use there is a depressing lack of public intellectual engagement with them. Never the less the affinity between intellectual endeavour and psychedelic drug use has never really gone away. For instance, a fun article over at io9.com titled 10 Scientific and Technological Visionaries Who Experimented With Drugs highlights several instances in which drug use benefited certain thinkers and scientists. Just focusing on psychedelics we find Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953. io9 reports that Crick
told numerous friends and colleagues about his LSD experimentation during the time he spent working to determine the molecular structure that houses all life’s information.In fact, in a 2004 interview, Gerrod Harker recalls talking with Dick Kemp — a close friend of Crick’s — about LSD use among Cambridge academics, and tells the Daily Mail that the University’s researchers often used LSD in small amounts as “a thinking tool.” Evidently, Crick at one point told Kemp that he had actually “perceived the double-helix shape while on LSD.”
Here’s a few more from the article:
Steve Jobs: LSD was a big deal for Steve Jobs. How big? Evidently, Jobs believed that experimenting with LSD in the 1960s was “one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life.” What’s more, he felt that there were parts of him that the people he knew and worked with could not understand, simply because they hadn’t had a go at psychedelics. This latter sentiment also comes through in his recently-published biography, wherein Jobs goes so far as to associate what he interpreted as Bill Gates’ dearth of imagination with a lack of psychedelic experimentation:
John C. Lilly: Neurocientist John C. Lilly was a pioneer in the field of electronic brain stimulation. He was the first person to map pain and pleasure pathways in the brain; founded an entire branch of science exploring interspecies communication between humans, dolphins, and whales; invented the world’s first sensory deprivation chamber; and conducted extensive personal experimentation with mind-altering drugs like LSD and ketamine. It bears mentioning that Lilly’s experiments with interspecies communication, personal psychedelic use, and sensory deprivation often overlapped.
Richard Feynman: Feynman was always careful about drug use, for fear of what it might do to his brain — giving up alcohol, for example, when he began to exhibit symptoms of addiction. InSurely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he writes, “You see, I get such fun out ofthinking that I don’t want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick. It’s the same reason that, later on, I was reluctant to try experiments with LSD in spite of my curiosity about hallucinations.” Nevertheless, Feynman’s curiosity got the best of him when he became acquainted with none other than John C. Lilly and his sensory deprivation tanks. Feynman experimented briefly with LSD, ketamine, and marijuana, which he used to bring on isolation-induced hallucinations more quickly than he could when sober.
Kary Mullis: Who, you may be asking, is Kary Mullis? Let’s put it this way: If you’ve worked in a biomedical research lab since the 1980’s, there is an exceedingly good chance you’ve performed a polymerase chain reaction (aka PCR, the lab technique that can turn a single segment of DNA into millions of identical copies), or are at least familiar with it. You have Mullis to thank for that. While Mullis didn’t invent the PCR technique, per se, he improved upon it so significantly as to revolutionize the field of biomedical research,securing himself a Nobel Prize in chemistryin the process. The secret to Mullis’ breakthrough? In a September, 1994 issue of California Monthly, Mullis says that he “took plenty of LSD” In the sixties and seventies, going so far as to call his “mind-opening” experimentation with psychedelics “much more important than any courses [he] ever took.” A few years later, in an interview for BBC’s Psychedelic Science documentary, Mullis mused aloud: “What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR?” To which he replied, “I don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”
While it is important to remember that correlation does not imply causality it is of note that some recent studies have suggested that a link exists between high childhood IQ and the use of drugs in adulthood (see here) and that it is often the inclination of the intellectual, of the thoughtful person, to, as Satoshi Kanazawa puts describes it in Psychology Today, “engage in evolutionary novel behaviour”. Drug use being one example of this. Moreover, this post has been attempting to argue that not only are intelligent people inclined towards drug use but that same drug use often leads to intellectual or creative breakthroughs.
Not always, of course, but more often than is commonly understood.
But here’s a controversial suggestion. It is sometimes stated that Western culture has ‘dumbed down’ in some respects. Why should the realm of drug use be separate from this wider cultural transformation? is the dumbing down of culture responsible for the rise of drugs such as cocaine over the more cerebral pleasures of psychedelics? Perhaps it is time for the intellectual community (if such a thing even exists) to re-embrace the psychedelic experience? It is true that the study of psychedelic drugs is once again picking up speed. However, there exists as noticeable desire by these contemporary researchers to distance themselves from the counterculture of the sixties and from those earlier researchers such as Leary and Alpert whose studies led them to align themselves with that counterculture. This being so, contemporary researchers are understandably careful to couch their findings in the language of the medical benefits of these drugs. While these drugs certainly are beneficial in that sense it would be a pity and a waste if the intellectual-that is philosophical, aesthetic, creative and theological aspects of the psychedelic experience could not be explored further and without shame and fear of rebuke. This is the argument put forth by Dr. James Fadiman a psychedelic researcher who argues that as an approach to psychedelic drugs “the medical model,” is too limited in its scope and uses.
As Tim Doody’s excellent article The Heretic points out, Fadiman had in fact been involved in a 1966 study at the International Foundation for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park, CA. Using scientists as volunteers, each was asked to bring “three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months” and then given a relatively low dose of LSD to enhance their creative thinking. Doody writes that:
Over the course of the preceding year, IFAS researchers had dosed a total of 22 other men for the creativity study, including a theoretical mathematician, an electronics engineer, a furniture designer, and a commercial artist. By including only those whose jobs involved the hard sciences (the lack of a single female participant says much about mid-century career options for women), they sought to examine the effects of LSD on both visionary and analytical thinking. Such a group offered an additional bonus: Anything they produced during the study would be subsequently scrutinized by departmental chairs, zoning boards, review panels, corporate clients, and the like, thus providing a real-world, unbiased yardstick for their results.
In surveys administered shortly after their LSD-enhanced creativity sessions, the study volunteers, some of the best and brightest in their fields, sounded like tripped-out neopagans at a backwoods gathering. Their minds, they said, had blossomed and contracted with the universe. They’d beheld irregular but clean geometrical patterns glistening into infinity, felt a rightness before solutions manifested, and even shapeshifted into relevant formulas, concepts, and raw materials.
But here’s the clincher. After their 5HT2A neural receptors simmered down, they remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. And the establishment agreed. The 26 men unleashed a slew of widely embraced innovations shortly after their LSD experiences, including a mathematical theorem for NOR gate circuits, a conceptual model of a photon, a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device, a new design for the vibratory microtome, a technical improvement of the magnetic tape recorder, blueprints for a private residency and an arts-and-crafts shopping plaza, and a space probe experiment designed to measure solar properties.
To put the point more succinctly, LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. Not spiritual yearnings or psychological difficulties (though no doubt there were these t00) but hard science problems, intellectual problems. This is not to mention all the philosophical, theoretical and aesthetic breakthroughs that such drugs have facilitated elsewhere. In short, there is an infinity of sensations, concepts and experiences afforded by tripping that are of value for themselves and not simply their proven medicinal benefits. As work that fits the medical model of psychedelic drug use continues to pick up speed it becomes increasingly important to re-establish the cerebral (both figuratively and literally) benefits of the psychedelic experience.
And after that, who knows? We might even get to the point where we can even safely admit the greatest heresy of them all-that even if we put aside the medical and intellectual benefits, such experiences are simply pleasurable and fun. But that’s a debate for another day. To end on an appropriate note here is Bill Hicks on the possibility of a positive LSD news story.
See you on the other side