Tuesday, December 6, 2016
Installment 2: Psychedelics in America: H1 Jake Danuser
In my first installment, I talked of renowned philosophers who used entheogens. In this installment, I will bring my history of entheogen-using philosophers to present day, as well as speak more directly about the entheogens themselves, in order to give the reader a better understanding of the effects of the chemicals. By the end of this installment, I hope to present a more optimistic view of the use of psychoactive substances to discover the truths, or as Plato has coined them, perfect forms, of life.
Any history of psychoactive substances would be incomplete without at least mentioning Albert Hofmann and his discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide number 25 (LSD-25). Albert Hofmann was a researcher working in Switzerland for a company named Sandoz. Sandoz was paying Hofmann to do routine research into compounds synthesized from ergot that may aid in controlling bleeding during childbirth. It was during this research that Hofmann originally synthesized LSD-25 in 1938, but it was not until five years later, in 1943, when Hofmann discovered the psychoactive qualities of LSD-25.
Every LSD enthusiast knows the story of Hofmann’s self-experimentation with LSD. On April 16th, 1943, Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested a small dose of LSD from handling the chemical. Hofmann noted a certain restlessness, accompanied by a pleasant intoxicated state. Hofmann found the light rather glaring and laid down with his eyes closed to ease the experience. Behind his eyelids Hofmann was greeted with “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors,” after about two hours this condition subsided and Hofmann went back to work as usual, noting no unwanted side effects. Three days later, Hofmann self-dosed with 250 micrograms of LSD-25. This time Hofmann was taken off guard by the effects of the substance. He asked a laboratory assistant to accompany Hofmann to his home. Due to war time restrictions, Hofmann was forced to ride his bicycle home, thus coining April 19th as Bicycle Day, a holiday for LSD enthusiasts. After Hofmann reached his home, his anxiousness and fear turned into joy and an unparalleled sense of open-mindedness. This experiment proved LSD as a psychoactive substance that could produce significant shifts in perception and consciousness at extremely low doses.
In 1949, Sandoz labs brought LSD to the United States for further research into the clinical application of the chemical. Throughout the 1950’s, LSD was used in psychiatric tests performed on undergraduate students as a study of consciousness. Meanwhile, the CIA investigated the abilities of LSD in interrogation and torture, testing on both fully consenting military personnel and unknowing civilians alike. As an effect, by 1960, many young, bright-eyed men and women had acquired a taste for the molecule. LSD began to sweep across the nation.
Men like Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, and Owsley “Bear” Stanley were instrumental in the spread of LSD through American streets, culture, and history. Leary, a Harvard psychology professor, gave LSD and psilocybin mushrooms to his students, encouraging them to, “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and use psychoactive chemicals as a way to expand one’s perspective and views. Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters are famous for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests. Kesey spent weeks on tour with the Grateful Dead. Kesey prepared a batch of LSD-laced Kool-Aid before each concert and distributed the LSD to any who wanted to partake.
Traveling with Kesey was Owsley, a genius chemist. Owsley produced LSD of the highest purity in mass quantity and gave it freely to any whom he believed used LSD as a way to expand their mind. Kesey and Owsley are credited for turning on many artists, being the LSD behind The Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour, as well as the LSD that fueled The Doors (named after The Doors of Perception). These were the early pioneers of the Hippie counterculture movement that the late 1960’s are heavily characterized by. The idea that bound them together was the pursuit of enlightenment, not unlike Plato’s search for the form of good, through the use of LSD.
The magic of LSD lies in its effects on the synapses of the brain. LSD mainly affects the serotonin receptors in the brain. In order to understand the effects of LSD on the mind, think of the brain as a muscle. The more you use your brain to think a certain way, or think of a certain thing, the stronger that connection, or muscle, becomes. For example, someone who was raised Christian will have strengthened the synapses relating to God, Jesus, and other biblical ideas. It becomes natural for them to think of everything in Christian terms, making them feel as if their beliefs are correct because they are simply logical. LSD, when ingested, kicks the brain into overdrive, activating normally segregated parts of the brain. While on LSD, the brain starts creating new serotonin receptors. Due to the new serotonin receptors, which are instrumental in the eye for producing vision, visual hallucinations are produced. The brain, noticing the unnatural hallucinations, begins to stop trusting old pathways and creates entirely new ones. This causes the participant to feel an unprecedented open-mindedness. Many report that on LSD they feel as if they were children again, experiencing the world for the first time. Participants experience shifts of mood ranging from euphoria to manic fear, with effects lasting 10-14 hours depending on the participant.
During the psychiatric tests in the late 1960’s, LSD was often given to alcoholics to see if the addiction could be fought and beaten using the effects on the brain caused by LSD. The results were generally positive, showing 59% of the participants reducing their alcohol consumption, as compared to 39% who did not ingest LSD. Six months after the tests were concluded the group who ingested LSD were shown to be 15% more likely to be sober.
LSD was banned in the United States in 1967 due to negative propaganda, and fear of the new consciousness seemingly created by LSD. The DEA cited LSD as a schedule 1 substance, meaning that it had no medical use and high potential for abuse. Today, most negative views on LSD stem from the belief that LSD has strong negative effects on the brain, and if allowed to be used by the masses, would produce a generation of schizophrenics. This has been disputed by many over the years, including leaders of industry including Steve Jobs, leaders of culture like the members of the Beatles, and many others. Most pro-LSD advocates state that LSD allows one to open his mind, allowing them out of the box thinking, as well as eye-opening humanitarian experiences unprecedented by any other way. LSD still flows through the streets illegally and is not all too uncommon in places frequented by bright-eyed young people chasing enlightenment.
The next and last major herald of entheogen use is a man named Terrence McKenna. Terrence McKenna spent his younger years studying ethnobotany, or the relationship between humans and plants, all across the world. McKenna spent many years in Central and South America, living with tribes in order to gain their trust so that he may experience their shamanic rituals which utilize entheogens. While adventuring through the amazon McKenna found Psilocybe Cubensis, the magic mushroom commonly referred to as golden teachers.
The history of psilocybin mushrooms as an entheogen is extremely long, and widespread, dating back to almost 6,000 years ago in Europe. McKenna and his brother wrote many books on the subject including Psilocybin: The Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide, which popularized the mushrooms across America, and Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, which told the history of natural entheogens as well as made a case for magic mushrooms having a heavy effect on the evolution of the human brain.
McKenna also stumbled upon Ayahuasca, which was briefly discussed in my last installment. McKenna was guided through many Ayahuasca experiences by the shaman of the tribe in which he had taken up residence. These trips had an immense effect on McKenna and caused him to believe heavily in mysticism and the interconnectivity of the universe. McKenna brought his experiences back to America, as well as a little of the substance for others to try.
Both Ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms contain a psychoactive chemical in the same class, tryptamine. Tryptamines are naturally produced by plants and animals all over the world. Dimethyltryptamine is considered to be the strongest hallucinogen on the planet but is also coincidentally produced in the pineal gland in the human brain. Tryptamines, because they are produced within the brain, naturally bind to the serotonin receptors of the brain, creating a clean, yet eye opening experience. Their effects are caused by many of the same ideas that cause LSD to affect the brain in the way it does, new neural synapses are created, old information is abandoned, and new information floods in.
Here I would like to give a brief discussion of Dimethyl-Tryptamine (DMT), because of the amazing effect produced in the human mind, as well as its use as an entheogen. DMT is naturally produced in nearly all natural beings. Many believe that when one has a “near-death” experience where they see angels or demons, or see their life flash before their eyes, that is the effect of DMT being dropped into the brain. DMT can be isolated from a host of plants, and when done properly produces a light yellow powder that can be boiled and smoked. Ayahuasca is a method of boiling the DMT containing substance down so it is drinkable. However, the smoking of pure DMT leads to a ten-minute trip unparalleled by any other experience in the world.
Immediately after smoking DMT the participant will experience extreme light headedness and a ringing of the ears. This state is considered the blasting off phase, as the body and mind feel like a rocket igniting, being sent into the next world. The participant typically closes their eyes and lays back, entering a trance state. The participant will view shapes that are indescribable in both beauty and intensity. Often times people report contact with other dimensional beings such as aliens, gods, or simple shapes. The participant often times finds themselves in an entirely new dimension, where the laws of earth and geometry do not seem to apply. Whatever questions or problems a participant may have weighed heavily on the experience, many report finding answers and meaning in these experiences.
One commonly cited experience that is most easily achieved with DMT, but also achieved by other psychedelics (LSD and psilocybin are commonly used) is ego-death. Ego-death is a state in which the participant feels complete unity with the universe around him. During the experience the participant genuinely feels as if they have died and their soul and being has left their body and joined the universe, experiencing what they believe is every perspective of the universe at once. After coming down from the drug the participant typically feels unprecedented unity with the world around them. Those who experience this have claimed to believe in a view more pantheist in nature, or the belief that all matter in the universe is connected together and that the universe its self is more closely related to God than the traditional idea of God.
McKenna spoke often about this experience as well as many others brought about by the use of entheogens, and ultimately was the man who propelled the use of plants and chemical as entheogens more than anyone else. He was instrumental in the domestic production of psilocybin within America, as well as the methods used to extract DMT from plants for use. McKenna advocated for the widespread use of entheogens by those who sought the experience out of their own volition in order to promote humanitarian beliefs and ecological protection, as well as the general betterment of personal satisfaction.
There are many other men and women who were very important for entheogen use in the United States. These men include, but are not limited to: Alexander Shulgin, a researcher who found hundreds of psychoactive chemicals and published their synthesis and effects; Alan Watts, a mystic known much more for his teachings on eastern philosophy, but who also advocated for moderate use of entheogens to produce mystical experience; and Tim Scully, another chemist who produced LSD and distributed to men who worked in electronics and computers as a way for them to think outside of the box about their projects.
Hopefully, I have provided enough information in a broad enough sense to open your eyes about the effects of substances as entheogens. Please note that I am not advocating for illegal activity as nearly all entheogens are illegal in the United States now, but I do encourage the open-minded questioning of this authority in light of the grand self-discoveries possible through the use of these drugs.
Here are the links to my comments: