Tripping in LSD’s Birthplace

By John Horgan
46 Fair St., Apt. C6
Cold Spring, NY 10516
Phone: 845-803-6825

One of the strangest trips of my life took place in November 1999 in Basel, Switzerland, while I was researching a book on mysticism I flew to Basel to attend “Worlds of Consciousness,” a leading forum for scientists studying psychedelic drugs. Basel was an apt locale for the meeting, because in 1943 a chemist working for the drug-maker Sandoz in Basel made the discovery that launched the psychedelic era. Albert Hofmann was investigating a compound derived from the ergot fungus when he felt what he described later as “a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness.” He guessed that he had absorbed some of the ergot compound through his skin. Three days later, to test his theory, he imbibed an extremely small dose of the chemical, 250 millionths of a gram, or micrograms. He soon felt so disoriented that he rode his bicycle home, where he experienced all the heavenly and hellish effects of lysergic acid diethylamide.
Hofmann’s contributions to psychedelic chemistry did not stop with LSD, his “problem child.” In the late 1950’s, he analyzed Psilocybe cubensis, a “magic mushroom” consumed by Indians in Mexico, and found that the primary active ingredient is psilocybin. Soon scientists around the world were investigating these and similar compounds, which the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond dubbed psychedelic, based on the Greek words for “mind-revealing.”
By the late 1960’s, American officials alarmed about psychedelics’ surging popularity had prohibited their use, and legal investigations of the drugs ground to a halt. In the 1990’s, however, a few dozen scientists in Europe and the U.S. quietly resumed research on these odd compounds. When I learned about this work in the course of researching my book on mysticism, I was intrigued for personal as well as professional reasons; I had dabbled in psychedelics on and off since the late 60’s, when I was in high school.
It was therefore with great anticipation that I made my way to the “Worlds of Consciousness” meeting, held in a convention center just down the street from my hotel in Basel. The meeting offered two very different perspectives of its subject matter. In the convention center’s lobby, vendors peddled visionary books, art, and music. The hall also featured an exhibit of psychedelic drawings by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. The drawings showed pouty-lipped, warhead-breasted, cybernetic vixens flayed, tortured, transmogrified by unimaginable psychic forces.
Beside this subjective evocation of the psychedelic experience, a display of “scientific” posters—with titles like “Psychoneurophysiology of Personalized Regression and Experiential Imaginary Therapy”--seemed almost parodically dry. The meeting’s schizoid character was reflected in its speakers, too. One group wore counterculture clothes and discussed altered states in a subjective, even subversive style. The other wore relatively conservative attire, including jackets and ties, and employed the clinical, objective rhetoric of science.
The guest of honor at the conference was a stooped, white-haired man with a fierce, Churchillian mien: Albert Hofmann. Now in his 90’s, he still avidly followed the field he helped create. One day we spoke during the lunch break, and Hofmann, in halting, heavily accented English, defended his “problem child” with vigor. He blamed Timothy Leary for giving LSD such a bad reputation. “I had this discussion with him. I said, ‘Oh, you should not tell everybody, even the children, “Take LSD! Take LSD!” LSD “can hurt you, it can disturb you, it can make you crazy.” But properly used, psychedelics stimulate the “inborn faculty of visionary experience” that we all possess as children but lose as we mature.
Hofmann recalled a psilocybin trip during which he hallucinated that he was in a ghost town deep inside the earth. “Nobody was there. I had the feeling of absolute loneliness, absolute loneliness. A terrible feeling!” When he emerged from this nightmare and found himself with his companions again, he felt ecstatic. “I had feeling of being reborn! To see now again! And see what wonderful life we have here!” The gruff old man stared above my head, his eyes gleaming, as if born again this very moment.
In his writings, Hofmann occasionally divulged deep misgivings about having brought LSD and psilocybin into the world. In a letter in 1961, he compared his discoveries to the discovery of nuclear fission; just as fission threatens our fundamental physical integrity, he said, so do psychedelics “attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self.” Psychedelics, Hofmann fretted, might “represent a forbidden transgression of limits.”

A Mushroom Dinner

On the last day of the conference, I had several hours to kill before dinner, which I planned to spend with two psychiatrists, American and Russian. As people filed out of the convention hall, I idly checked the wares being peddled at a table in the lobby and realized that they included a number of natural hallucinogens. There was a potted peyote cactus festooned with wrinkled buttons; an aquarium sprouting dozens of beige-capped mushrooms, identified as Psilocybe cubensis; and a bundle of black leaves labeled Salvia divinorum.
Are these for sale? I asked a lank blond youth manning the counter. Yes, he replied with a German accent, and an implied “Duh.”
I had an inspiration: Perhaps I should conclude this psychedelic meeting with a psychedelic trip, to supplement my objective reporting with a subjective experience. I asked the counterman to recommend something, not too strong or long-lasting. He suggested mushrooms. The live Psilocybe cubensis in the aquarium were not for sale, but he could sell me a fungus that produced a much milder high. He told me the mushroom’s scientific name, which sounded to me like Psilocybe simulata. Aha, I cleverly thought, this substance probably simulates the effects of real psilocybin but isn’t as potent. Perfect. I bought an envelope containing four grams of the stuff--the recommended dose--and returned to my hotel room.
Just to be safe, I ingested only half of the brown and yellow fragments in the envelope. Within 15 minutes the walls of my room were seething, as were my thoughts and emotions. This was definitely not simulated psilocybin but the real thing, I realized. I briefly closed my eyes and found myself immersed in a boiling vat of brilliant dyes, bubbling furiously up at me.
Opening my eyes, I reminded myself that hallucinations like this were recently explained to me by Jack Cowan, a mathematical biologist. Cowan said that psychedelics are known to stimulate neurons in the visual cortex specialized for detecting the edges of objects. Cowan’s computer simulations showed how the excessive firing of these specialized neurons generates the geometric patterns--spirals, lattices, tunnels, checkerboards, and convective patterns—that characterize psychedelic hallucinations.
Not even this reductionistic recollection could stem my mounting panic. The walls trembled like membranes, as if they were about to burst and let the clear light of the void flood in on me. Was I headed for what blissful oceanic boundlessness, dreadful ego dissolution, or some fantastical realm beyond imagining? Heaven, hell, or visions? Either way, I wasn’t ready for it. I berated myself for taking the mushrooms so casually. This is not a game, I thought. This is not a game.
I stumbled into the bathroom and stuck my fingers down my throat in an attempt to vomit up the mushrooms, in vain. I debated skipping my dinner date but thought, What did I really have to fear? My dinner companions would be psychiatrists with positive views of psychedelic drugs.
I ventured out of my room and onto the boulevard in front of the hotel. I drew up behind an odd quartet, three humans and a dog. If I had not seen other pedestrians gawking at them, I might have concluded that my eyes were deceiving me. In the center was a man with short-cropped blond hair and cruel, chiseled features, well over six feet tall, clad in black leather. He strode shoulder to shoulder with an equally tall, blond, hollow-cheeked woman, also sheathed in black leather, who was walking a black pony-sized Doberman wearing a spiked collar. Skipping beside this Aryan god, goddess, and beast was a personage scarcely taller than the dog wearing a belled jester’s cap. Male or female? Child or midget? I could not tell.
Agog, I skulked behind this peculiar foursome for a block or so when suddenly I feared they would think I was stalking them. I veered to the opposite side of the boulevard, past a pack of feral children swarming around a shop window. Passing the glass front doors of a hotel, I saw a half dozen people just inside chatting. Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD and psilocybin, stood in the middle of the group, facing me. I had an eerie moment as my psilocybin-addled brain absorbed the image of this psychedelic Prometheus, this external personification of my subjective, inner state. Then I panicked. What if he spots me and calls me over! What will I do? I will be tongue-tied and make a fool of myself! Albert Hofmann will know I’m tripping! I averted my gaze and scurried onward.
The convention-center lobby, my rendezvous point, was dimly lit and seemed deserted. Then someone called my name, and two men strode out of the shadows and approached me. The man who had addressed me was John Halpern, a Harvard psychiatrist with whom I had arranged this dinner date. Halpern introduced me to Evgeny Krupitsky, a psychiatrist who heads a substance-abuse clinic in Saint Petersberg, Russia. Krupitsky has a thatch of salt and pepper hair, a Groucho Marx moustach, and a perplexed, kindly expression.
Not yet thirty, Halpern was prematurely balding, but his face and demeanor were otherwise boyish. He radiated jittery, impatient energy, and he spoke extremely rapidly. He seemed to be a different species than Krupitsky and I, a spider monkey to our slow lorises. Rubbing his hands together briskly, Halpern told us that he had, after extensive research, made reservations at the best restaurant in Basel.
There’s something I should tell you, I stammered. The words seemed to come from someone else, a dummy standing beside me.
What’s the problem? Halpern replied, scrutinizing me.
I, uh, took something a while ago, I heard myself say. A drug.
What’d you take? Halpern asked. When I hesitated, he added, incredulously, You don’t know what you took? He barraged me with questions, to which I haltingly responded. Halpern was familiar with the exhibitor who had sold me my intoxicant. He rapidly deduced that I had purchased Psilocybe semilanceata, also known as liberty caps, indigenous to the Pacific Northwest and other cool, moist climes. Sometimes called “the champagne of psychedelics.” I had eaten the mushrooms about, what, two hours ago? I should be peaking about now, seeing some visual effects, feeling pretty high. I nodded, immensely relieved to have my condition so expertly categorized.
Did I think I could handle dinner, Halpern asked, or did I want to bow out? If he and Evgeny could put up with me, I answered, I wouldn’t mind joining them. Great! Halpern said.
I blurted out that I felt like an idiot for having taken these mushrooms in such a casual manner. I knew from personal experience how dangerous drugs could be; you could end up in a mental hospital.
Smiling, Halpern reminded me that he and Krupitsky commit people to mental hospitals for a living. He was sure Evgeny would agree that psychedelics rarely cause genuine psychosis—the kind that requires hospitalization--in otherwise stable people; there is almost always a history of prior mental illness. That is not to say psychedelics are risk-free, particularly if you’re a neurotic teenager. As Halpern spoke, Krupitsky nodded at me reassuringly.
Outside the convention hall, Halpern hailed a cab and jumped in the front seat; Krupitsky and I sat in the back. We seemed to drive forever, arcing over stone bridges, sailing across squares, creeping down narrow winding streets. Buildings, cars, trees, signs, everything looked streamlined, gorgeous, opulent, bathed in glycerin, and aroused in me a tactile, feathery pleasure. As we rounded a cobblestoned corner, a silver Porsche glided noiselessly past us, like a stingray cruising the ocean floor. The restaurant bordered a canal whose surface was as satiny and textured as a raven’s wing. The restaurant’s windows were beveled, like huge diamonds, and ringed by Christmas lights. The restaurant was equally lovely within. The candles, crystal, silverware, flowers, laquered wood all glowed rosily, as did the shy, French-accented lass who served us.
After ordering for Krupitsky and me, Halpern served as conductor of our conversation. At Halpern’s urging, Krupitsky told me about his investigation of ketamine as a treatment for alcoholism. Ketamine is a general anesthetic—used more often in veterinary than human medicine--that when injected at subanesthetic doses triggers an extremely disorienting hallucinogenic episode lasting an hour or so.
Since the early 1980’s, Krupitsky has been successfully treating alcoholics with ketamine supplemented by individual and group psychotherapy. He was careful to qualify his results. He noted that those who go through with ketamine therapy after being forewarned about its harrowing aspects may be more highly motivated to stop drinking than run-of-the-mill alcoholics.
I vaguely recalled that ketamine had been a favorite drug of John Lilly, pioneer of dolphin-language studies, inventor of sensory-isolation tanks, and all-round scientific polymath. He was the role model for the brilliant-but-unstable psychedelic researcher played by John Hurt in the movie Altered States. Lilly’s career as an eccentric but brilliant scientist supposedly went downhill in the 1980’s after he became addicted to ketamine, known by the street name vitamin K. Lilly injected himself with the drug for days on end; he claimed that in these states he made contact with solid-state, extradimensional aliens who were displeased by humanity’s treatment of dolphins and other animals.
Krupitsky assured me that the patients in his studies take ketamine only a few times, at most, under safe, supervised conditions. The ketamine experience can be ego-shattering, but that in a sense is the point. Therapists hope to get alcoholics to feel revulsion toward their former way of life. One trick the therapists employ is to make the ketamine-intoxicated patients sniff from a bottle of booze at the peak of their session; the patients often feel a disgust that persists long after the ketamine’s effects have worn off. Krupitsky has had so much success that he had been invited by researchers at the Yale Medical School to collaborate on a similar treatment program.
Telling me all this, Krupitsky was soothingly phlegmatic. His English was a bit shaky, though, and he showed no irritation when John Halpern broke in to clarify, annotate, or digress.
Halpern also told me about his investigation of the effects of long-term ingestion of peyote by members of the Native American Church. According to Halpern’s preliminary results, church members show no ill psychological or physiological effects from peyote; in fact, they are in general healthier and happier—and much less prone to alcoholism—than non-church members. Halpern was careful to point out that these benefits could derive from the social fellowship provided by church membership.
Halpern periodically asked me how I was doing, and I kept saying fine. He advised me to close my eyes for fifteen seconds to test my “visuals.” I closed my eyes for few seconds and--dizzied by the riotous polychromatic swirling—opened them again. I’m fine, I reiterated. Halpern launched into a paean to psilocybin mushrooms. Here I was, quite intoxicated, and yet I could still handle myself in a highly structured social setting with no obvious signs of disorientation. Yes, I crowed, I love my job! Halpern and Krupitsky avowed that they loved their jobs, too. I raised my mug of beer, Halpern his goblet of wine, and Krupitsky his tumbler of water. Clinking our glasses together, we toasted our good fortune.
Of course, psychedelics can also cause great harm, Halpern reminded us. He went on to regale Krupitsky and me with stories about the insidious ends to which psychedelics have been put by the U.S. government. Beginning in the early 1950’s, the Central Intelligence Agency created top-secret programs such as Bluebird, Artichoke, and MK-Ultra to test the potential of LSD and other drugs as truth serums and brainwashing agents. Some government employees were given LSD without their knowledge or consent. One, the Army biochemist Frank Olson, apparently suffered an extended psychotic breakdown and died in 1953 after falling from a hotel window.
The CIA paid psychiatrists to test LSD’s brainwashing potential on prisoners and mental patients. A Canadian psychiatrist named Ewen Cameron, the former head of the American Psychiatric Association, tried to “re-program” patients by piping tape-recorded exhortations into their rooms after they had been rendered malleable by barbituates, LSD, and electroshock therapy. The U.S. Army gave LSD to soldiers engaged in field exercises, too. Halpern had seen film footage of the exercises, in which the soldiers staggered about comically.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Army stockpiled tens of thousands of cannisters of an extremely potent hallucinogenic “incapacitant” called BZ. The idea was that the BZ, when wafted in gaseous form over enemy troops, would turn them into gibbering idiots for up to 80 hours. BZ was never deployed, apparently because American military commanders feared the unpredictability of its effects; killing the enemy with bullets and bombs was much more reliable.
Halpern occasionally interrupted this litany to ask me if I found it disturbing. Not at all, I kept replying, I find it fascinating. And that was true. But I also was vaguely convinced that this was my much-deserved penance for having eaten mushrooms so blithely this evening. I was being reminded that the world does not exist merely for my aesthetic delight, and psychedelics—which at their best unveil the world’s astonishing beauty--can also serve evil ends. The same drug that awakens us can enslave us or drive us mad. This is not a game, I thought. This is not a game.


Tag der Veröffentlichung: 20.11.2009

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