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A Psychedelic Journey to the Origin of Life

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A Psychedelic Journey to the Origin of Life

This article is the second in a series from the Co-founder and President of the Center for MINDS (Multidisciplinary Investigation into Novel Discoveries and Solutions). To read the first article, click here

I have long been convinced that the mind-manifesting powers of psychedelics have the potential to help humanity meet its greatest scientific, technical and leadership challenges. By illustration, I can offer my own example. Using psychedelics interwoven with other practices, I tackled one of science’s major mysteries: How did life begin? 

The result is a widely cited hypothesis and globally tested scenario for life’s origins which has helped shift a scientific paradigm. Today, my colleagues in astrobiology no longer assume that life started at hot vents deep in the oceans. For many, the focus has shifted to locales on land — notably hot spring environments. This shift has also transformed science’s consideration of where life might start in the universe and how common it could be, and provides an upgraded framework to address the age-old question: Are we alone? 

Coming out of the psychedelic closet can be reputationally risky, especially in the hard sciences. However, with this hypothesis now securely accepted by our field — even if some might find the creative toolset I used to derive it unorthodox — I feel ready to share how psychedelics played a key role in my process.

Why do this now? Because I know that there are others for whom this story will resonate and it just might help them find ways to tap into their own creative problem-solving genius. Let’s face it, humanity is increasingly enmired in overwhelming existential challenges. Without bringing a good deal of helpful and healthy genius online, we might have to seriously ask ourselves: Will we even make it?

Throughout history, humanity has developed tools to meet the most pressing challenges. Our most novel innovations have often come through flashes of insight — downloads seemingly from another dimension that take over our waking reality almost like a psychedelic trip. So, perhaps there is actually a connection between these downloads and psychedelics? Today we may have the know-how to better understand and catalyze these extraordinary states of mind, and psychedelics could well play a part in that. By taking up this quest we might bring forth a century of genius to meet our greatest challenges and, if we do this well, emerge into a sustainable and brilliant future.

For readers to fully grok this tale, I now offer my own creation story. 

The Making of an Endo-Tripper

It was July of 1969 and while my seven-year-old self was wholly unaware of the Woodstock festival about to strum into life on a farm in upstate New York, I was very much focused on the imminent Apollo XI moon landing and sat glued to our portable TV at the family vacation cottage. Lightning and attendant thunder crashed outside as grainy images of a footfall on another world shimmered onto a black and white screen. Little did I know, but another, perhaps even stranger world was beginning to stir deep within my own mind. I began to notice that when closing my eyes after a particularly stimulating day, red washes would pulse across my visual field. I thought… is my brother turning lights on and off in our bedroom? No, I realized that it was something else, something emanating from deep within. Over several nights, I watched as the washes sped up and then slowed. A budding scientist even then, the nine-year-old me began to experiment by turning the knobs of my mind to see how I could better resolve this mysterious transmission. 

Over the next year I improved on my receiving hardware by learning how to tune down many aspects of my thinking mind: off goes the list of things to do tomorrow, off goes any sort of figuring out, and off goes the imagination trying to take my attention away to somewhere else. All that was left of my conscious self was a simple observer, hanging there in mental space like a clear glass marble. Viewing the scene from the position of this crystal sphere, my neuro channels seemed to become more plugged in and like magic, the red washes resolved into faded color images. Some of these resembled landscapes and others behaved like flying objects. If I didn’t focus on the scene too closely (almost taking an oblique view of it) I was rewarded with the occasional brilliant colored form sailing past. 

Science has labeled the liminal state between wakefulness and sleep hypnagogia. The most inventive genius of the late 19th century, Thomas Alva Edison, was famously known to hold steel balls which would drop as he was dozing off, thereby waking him up to take notes of any creative widgets witnessed while passing through the hypnagogic state. A few decades earlier, chemist Friedrich August Kekulé was falling asleep in front of his fireplace when he received a vision of molecules forming into snakes. One such snake formed into a circle, an ouroboros consuming its own tail, and he realized that the structure of benzene was a closed ring.

Bruce’s “weird machines” assortment from 1978-9 contextualized by Eric Bell Designs.

A growing fascination with my local hypnagogic TV station resolved into a desire to strengthen it and somehow keep it online, running as a sort of background process in my waking consciousness. At twelve, I picked up a pencil and began to draw out the first fantastical scenes running in this inner movie studio: weird machines with sweeping curves traveling over vivid alien landscapes. My pencil sketches graduated into full-color drawings and the larger landscapes found their way onto sheets of Bristol board. These landscapes evolved into complex maps and board game designs. After I discovered computers at our local college, these cardboard simulations were transcribed into code in my attempt to run those worlds in bits. By my twenties, I was using this neuronal rendering kernel to envision and program many types of worlds on early personal computers. It was my secret sauce for creativity and the basis for my profession. 

These days I term this modality “endo-tripping,” meaning that my TV-tube mind could be powered up, dialed in, and solutions downloaded through entirely endogenous means, not helped along by exogenous externally introduced stimulants. In fact, drugs, let alone psychedelics, were not on my radar, as I feared that they might somehow mess with this natural creative machinery. My creative mental motor cranked away nonstop for decades, outputting designs for 21st century optical computers in the early 80s, building one of the first graphical interfaces on PCs back in the late 80s, shaping the emergence of avatar virtual worlds on the internet in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s sketching out spacecraft and mission designs for NASA.

My avoidance of all psychotropic stimulants (even coffee and cannabis) came to an end at age 36 when I was introduced to Terence McKenna. It was 1998 and late in his career. The two of us formed a pact to exchange places: Terence entered into my virtual worlds of avatar cyberspace and I journeyed into Terence’s psychedelic magisteria. This is quite a fascinating tale for another time, but suffice it to say, I was totally cracked open by my first mushroom experience on 10+ grams of his original La Chorrera strain. As I was to soon discover, a strong “endo” capacity was to be a great preparatory practice for working within the medium of “exo-tripping,” especially with the most powerful psychotropics of all—the classic psychedelics. And yet, while I entered trip after trip toting my handy observation sphere, I left the main control panel of “endo” powered down, fearing that if it was ever touched by psychedelics my innate neuronal machinery might short circuit.

Over a decade of “exo”-exploration ensued and I explored the many dimensions and distinct personalities of “the classics.” During trips or in the integration afterwards, I developed a practice to chronicle each encounter through detailed notes and drawings, aiming to capture these deeply embodied and at times otherworldly realities. I have to admit that sometimes trying to scribble down any representation of these experiences seemed ludicrous. I recall Terence reflecting that: “You sometimes just can’t ‘English them.” (However, I think we can all agree that sometimes he quite successfully “Irished them.”) 

I began to frequent the homes and gatherings of the underground psychedelic community, getting to know and love their generous and mystical sensibilities. At the first MAPS conference in San Jose in 2010, I was introduced to Ken Symington, a lesser known yet pivotal figure in the lives of Terence and many other psychedelicists. Ken looked deeply into my eyes and spontaneously invited me to join his regulars on a trip to the Peruvian Amazon, to take la dieta and drink the jungle tea ayahuasca. This potent medicine was finally calling me and I was about to undergo the most profound transformations of my life, and my science.

First Comes the Healing

Bruce in the Amazon.

A hard and painful knot I first felt in my gut back in my twenties was the first order of business for my time in the Amazon. I knew that I couldn’t go to my grave carrying it! But where did it come from? Was it formed and bound into my belly during the eleven days I spent in the adoption ward after I was given up by my birth mother? Or was it wound together in the womb by the anguish of my biological parents? Or perhaps it was installed later through the life shocks experienced by my delicate, spectrumy self? 

My adoptive mother described me as “in his own world” the moment my new parents brought me home. Did I retreat and sequester myself into a protective capsule to make it through this ruptured entry into the world? With all this in mind, I came to Peru to find both a medicine and an ally with whom I could partner on a deliverance to healing and, as I was to later experience, to journey far beyond to extraordinary revealing. Arriving at my tin-roofed tambo on a small tributary of the Rio Aguaytia west of Pucallpa, I sat and set the intention for this work, making an earnest request for help from the material sacrament of the medicina and the ethereal entity it invited in, the madre ayahuasca. It was time to dance with aya and emerge from the capsule.

Looking back on the start of this journey, after years of visits to the rainforest and dozens of experiences, I felt that I had built a relationship with aya as an embodied “she.” She took a vast variety of forms, both magnificently visionary and shockingly visceral. Often I was utterly taken over, having no choice but to submit to the will of what I sensed was an extremely powerful intelligence. At other times after the acute storm of the medicina, I could seat myself inside my crystal sphere-observing camera as I learned to do when I was a child. From that vantage point I could witness extraordinary unfoldings within and surrounding me while checking in with intuitive awareness and reason as to when and how to take action.

My first encounter with aya was to this day my most potent lesson. It came on the first night with the first cup. Finally beholding aya in all her majesty, she had me look down into myself, and there raged my inner kindergarten: my own little selves or sub-personalities engaged in a brawl, each simply wanting to be seen and heard. I then took the intuitive step to become their caring kindergarten teacher, calling their attention and speaking to each of them, empathizing with their plight. I felt a sudden quietude overtake me as their struggles ceased. It was astonishing. I later asked: Is this form of release what many spiritual practices term a “liberation” or “enlightened” state? My next question was: How best can I land this abiding sense of schoolyard harmony and not return to the suffering of endless inner turmoil? I then decided to sit these innocent young parts down as a group and shared the new story of how it could feel inside a differently attuned me. I am still working on this, but things are much better for the kids. The mornings I check in with them are much better than the days without this attuned tune-up!

The next night I was ready to ask for help with the knot. I felt the medicina unbind it. Riding the observer down into my glowing gut, I found the knot and, finally being seen, it unfolded into an embryo, the unborn me. I witnessed it, loved it, and then labored with the help of our maestro curandero to complete its birth. Untethering from the psychical umbilical cord with my mother, my most deeply rooted little self was finally released, much to my relief. Each of the dozen initial encounters with aya produced its own flavor of liberation, followed by a revelatory sense of joy that was quite alien to me. In my late forties I was finally starting to read my own boot code, imprinted in me so long ago and still driving how I woke up each new day. Sometimes I made bug fixes in the OS of me only to find their effects were temporary. In the vicissitudes of regular reality, I often found myself back in the conditioned states arising from that old boot code. And so I was obliged to return to the medicine circle for a few more years, each experience ratcheting me forward to a more sustained sense of freedom and clearer capacity for self-knowing.

The curandero and musician’s places in the “malloca” in the remote Peruvian Amazon where our medicine circle engaged in its work. (Photo: Bruce Damer)

Beyond the extraordinary revelation of my inner workings, there was aya’s undeniably stupendous beheld majesty. Submitting again and again to her skilled visceral artistry, I began to no longer fear her serpentlike appendages wild probing under my ribcage. Over time I developed an increasingly rich and eye-to-eye relationship with aya. One night I asked her straight up: “Do you have a separate life beyond us when we are not on the medicine?” Her answer was surprising: “No, I need you to manifest me!” I then realized that what I was experiencing was an act of co-creation, and this relaxed me into the next, deeper phase of the work.

I then began to consider bringing to encounters with aya more of my personal offerings, including my endo-tripping. In all of my previous psychedelic experiences I had shut down this special machinery in my mind in a bid to protect it from possible damage or outright erasure. Down-dosing aya to a near homeopathic 1/24th of a cup, I reached a sort of plateau of equanimity with her. She was no longer serving up a raging and totally dominant storm, but had become more of an equal partner who could share space with me. I was then able to bring more subtle moves of myself to our interrelating dance. 

Over a dozen sessions I threaded aya together with other personal contemplative practices: attentive listening, expressive posture, deep attuning with music, tapping core energies and emotions, and extending awareness out to the life of the rainforest. I came to name this “winding the vine.” By weaving together so many practices, a new, much stronger unitive navigation system was formed. I began to sense that this system was a cordage capable of carrying me to realms vastly farther afield. I was ready for my next climb. 

It was a clear jungle ceremony night in October of 2013 and it had been almost two hours since I took my aya microdose. Slowly my closed-eye visual field began to stir with activity, morphing into a wavy pattern coming from above. Carefully and without losing that connection I reached inward with a thought and pushed a button to power up endo’s full control panel. Feeling a tingling sensation, a flood of sparkles entered my visual field from below. These two fields, exo and endo, met in the middle and I felt a surge of vibration pulse through my body. It felt as if these two visionary subsystems arrived riding the same N,N-Dimethyltryptamine molecule, one which science tells us can made by my body and the other sourced from the body of a plant. They felt fully compatible and I was about to experience something entirely new.

Continuing to hold myself in quiet attention, I listened out into the night. Each cackle of a bird, crack of a twig, or hoot of a new world monkey was now loaded with meaning. Everything spoke to me and I felt in total synchrony with the rainforest habitat, as fully at home as our deepest prosimian ancestors must have felt tens of millions of years ago. This rapt attention resolved into a curving shape in the dense darkness of the malloca. I was surprised as I realized it was the image of a suspension bridge strung across a forested canyon. My observer moved in closer and I hovered over an early 1950s automobile. Prone across the width of a dimly lit back seat lay a man and a woman. It was North Vancouver, Canada in the Spring of 1961 and I was about to be conceived. I asked the unseen projectionist broadcasting this scene: “What do I do?” “Become it, become it now!” was the response. I reasoned that I should try to simulate the thing which would make me, so I clasped my knees to my chest shaping my body into a bullet-like form: my father’s sperm. Next, I was transported into another reality, inside my birth mother’s body where I was witnessing that sperm capsule swimming toward me. I was the globe of the other part of me: my mother’s egg. Unity occurred as the two met and I was made. 

Sensing the presence of people behind me, I turned to look. There were two silhouettes exchanging whispers. I could not make out their words, but I then realized they were my birth parents deciding to give me up. My body then fell into a fetal shape manifesting into my mother’s belly. There, warmth and love penetrated through me. It was the most deeply well state I had ever experienced. A second or two passed. The whispers stopped and that feeling dropped away. My parents had decided to give me up. However brief, aya had given me the most precious gift of my life: the full sensation of my mother’s love. The knot was gone. I now had clear access to the entirety of me.

Time for the Revealing 

Clarity and peace suffused me. I sat up and searched for aya’s presence to express my gratitude. Possibly due to the less taxing nature of a gently interwoven exo-endo practice, I felt the capacity to take another substantial journey and projected a question her way: “How would you like to travel back to the beginning, to the birth of us all?” I opened myself for a response and a new portal opened. It was a line of sperm swimming backwards. Becoming each sperm in turn placed me on a reverse course through my ancestry. The sperm that begat me merged back into my father’s body, then an essence of him (and me) dropped into another sperm and swam into my grandfather’s body. This went on through innumerable human bodies which began to morph into primate bodies which became tree-dwelling prosimians and then ground-crawling tetrapods. This scientifically-revealed journey through the collective ancestors’ tales continued as the scaly tetrapods picked up fish tails and fins and slid into rivers and out to waiting oceans. 

It was then that I asked aya to take her seat as we were about to launch on the next leg, an endo rocket ride. I pulled back hard on a lever fully lighting up my endo rendering engine and loaded in a previously stored trip from the shelf. On screen appeared a daunting cloud, the 3 billion-year-long lineage of single-celled organisms.

There was no way but through, and a furious blur of join-points of microbial common ancestors flew by. At one point I felt my brow to measure the heat coming off my braincase just in case it was getting dangerously high. In that case I would have to bail out of the endo-trip. Relief came as I finally broke out of the cloud into an alien, orange sky. A brown haze lay heavy over a reddish rocky peninsula lined with roaring volcanoes. Nestled below the blackened flanks of a blown open caldera were a series of steaming, interconnected pools, some being flushed by the jets of geysers. I was about to land on the Hadean Earth, a truly alien planet, and it was now 4 billion years ago.

From my first endo-trip at age fourteen I had been captivated by the origin of life, one of the greatest questions in science. In the early spring of 1976 my teenage self was out on a hike and bending down to study a mariposa lily breaking through the just-thawed ground, I became inspired with the question of how life might have started. Walking back toward my parents’ house, I found myself suddenly presented with a bundle of molecules floating in my “third eye.” Staring closely at this apparition, I was trying to figure out any pattern to its gyrations when it challenged me: “Figure out how I made a copy of myself!” Unwavering focus on this challenge then carried me through decades of coding artificial life systems, spirited late night conversations with Terence McKenna on the nature of novelty, and building physics-based spacecraft simulations for NASA. To ground my understanding of the origin and evolution of life, I undertook personal visits to iconoclastic scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, and Freeman Dyson. After all of this preparation, I spent three years leading a team to design and run a simulation of trillions of atoms ricocheting in an interstellar cosmic soup to find a general formula for complexification in the cosmos — and earned my PhD in the process. 

In 2009 I fortuitously met my scientific mentor, renowned UC Santa Cruz professor of biophysics, Dr. David Deamer. I brought Dave my “cosmic wiggle” complexity formula and he dedicated dozens of tea times at his home to help me ground my visionary ideations into hard, testable science set in real geochemical settings.

A computer visualization of protocells forming and cycling in a freshwater hot spring pool at the time of life’s origin, approximately 4 billion years ago (Image: Bruce Damer and Ryan Norkus).

My scientific quest and a lifetime of study had brought me to this point: a visionary insight ready to download on a remote tributary of the Amazon. I was descending into an extra-temporal, full-fidelity simulacrum of the very place where life could have been born. The early Earth rock record gives us a well-informed picture of what our planet was like around the estimated time for life’s emergence. Microbial fossil evidence tells us that life was well established by 3.5 billion years ago, while isotopic chemical traces suggest it might have already been present 500 million years before that. For decades, the scientific consensus held that life began deep in the oceans around hydrothermal vents which spew a concoction of minerals and other compounds through rock chimneys into the cold sea. It had been thought that gradients set up in these undersea geysers could help form the organic building blocks of life, but convincing laboratory tests remained elusive. 

Charles Darwin wrote in 1871 that he thought life began in a “warm little pond” and Dave Deamer had shown in the early 2000s that cycles of wetting and drying in lab-simulated hot spring pools could stitch together the biopolymers of life (RNA, DNA and proteins). If simple membrane-forming compounds called lipids were then added, these polymers could be encapsulated and form “protocells,” the first steps toward living cells. Since the 1980s and more recently through direct sample return missions from asteroids, Dave and others showed that the organics needed for the “primordial soup” of life literally fell from the sky on board meteorites and dust particles. By the summer of 2013, a more complete evidence-based scenario was emerging. Dave and I had all the pieces of the puzzle out on the table but try as we might, we couldn’t see the underlying pattern to guide their further assembly. It was just too complex a set of interacting components — it was a multivariate monster!

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Just minutes before back in the malloca, I had experienced an astounding manifestation of my own healing through an embodied re-experiencing of my own genesis. It is perhaps no coincidence that this set the stage to pose the question of how life itself was born. My crystal sphere camera swept down through the hazy atmosphere toward a steaming pool, landing on a precipice just short of its edge. Leaning in, I suddenly felt myself engulfed by its waters. Warm and womb-like, I was surrounded by silvery forms — some empty while others were glowing with colored filaments. These forms were protocells and the filaments were polymers in their trillions, each being subjected to selection. Some broke up while others formed larger conglomerations, sparking up into a colored neon of lifelike functions. Realizing that in such elevated states time is limited, I urgently asked into the ether: “What do I do?” The familiar reply came back: “Become it, become it now!” A particularly complex and colorful protocell then came into view. I moved to embrace it in some way, and suddenly I began to lose consciousness. “What is happening?” I implored and just before my view went dark. The final thought landed: “To be born, you must first die.”

I came to as a scream worked its way up and out of me. Light returned to reveal the scene of a strange new world. I was in a new body composed of an undulating bag of bilayers of lipid membranes surrounding silvery molecular complexes. Zipper-lines of polymers conjoined in continuous movement made up my sinews and tissues. Before I could grok this at all, the sense of something ripping caused my vision to pivot. I came to focus on a fluid-filled sac tearing itself off from my undulating body. The connection to me pinched away and the sac floated into the distance, its interior black and seemingly dead. As the sac departed, my observer was drawn back to track a complex of polymers moving up and down like the keys of a piano played by an unseen hand. Somehow the tearing off of the sac and the player piano polymer were tied together by the scream. It was done, and I felt alive, or rather, my protocell body felt truly alive for the first time.

I then felt a tug out of this reverie as though drawn by a tractor beam. A voiced thought pronounced: “You can’t stay here, it’s time to go.” I acquiesced and I was out of the pool hovering in space, but I clearly was not about to come all the way down. I did a status check and realized that I still had some capacity for exploration, perhaps just enough to ask one more question into the ether, so I did: “I felt a hand, almost like an intelligence, playing the polymeric keys, but before life there cannot have been any such intelligence, so what goes?” All of my scientific training precluded the concept of a conscious intelligence before life, and that instead life was the substrate from which consciousness and intelligence arose. Any proposal of a knowing hand playing the protocell’s polymers to coax it toward life was just not permitted. But I had sensed a sort of mind doing the manipulation and sought to falsify (or perhaps validate?) my own subjective experience. 

Presenting myself in an upright posture to invite an answer, I waited. A full moon over the surrounding jungle lit up the tops of the rainforest giants and palms. The glint falling from them resolved into wisps of gaseous clouds, which coalesced into star fields and then entire complexes of galaxies. The scene opened wide into a panorama of the universe which then rotated and began a rush toward me. I felt the weight of this enormity crash into my consciousness and it knocked me back onto the wooden floor of the malloca. I had my answer: the universe grew large and diverse enough to have the combinatorial power to bring forth life, and us. There was no need for the hand of an unseen creator to manipulate the polymers. The creator and the totality of the cosmos were and are one. The departing sac represented death, the failed stillbirth of a protocell trying to create another. The undulating polymers were the re-coding of the instructions to allow the protocell to try again. Selection was the sole hand at work and it was a powerful force, entirely sufficient to create life and all of its progeny, including us. Selection’s handmaiden, death, wrote the code for the birth of life at its very beginning as she still does today.

Stunned and filled with a great sense of peace, I returned to my tambo and for hours worked through this scene until sleep came for me. There was more to come: the riddles raised by this download set off a cascade of conjectures and scientific discoveries that would last for over a decade. My next article will share how it all landed and is still rolling forward today.

To learn more about the Center for MINDS, please visit the website and subscribe to our newsletter. If you have had your own insights (through psychedelics or other practices) that led to solutions in science, technology, design or leadership, please contact us and fill in our brief survey


Podcasts, video

Bruce on the Jim Rutt Show on a New Path for Psychedelics (February, 2024), introducing MINDS:

Bruce’s coming-out-of-the-psychedelic-scientist-closet talk “It’s High Time for Science” which inspired MINDS (May, 2022):

Bruce’s 2015 TEDx Santa Cruz talk on the Origin and Purpose of Life:


Article #1 in this series, “Downloads from the Modern Dawn of Psychedelics” (January, 2024):

Bruce and David Deamer and their Hot Spring Hypothesis (Astrobiology, 2020):

Preprint of Bruce’s chapter for ESPD Volume III (upcoming 2024) provides a historical and scholarly basis for the return for psychedelics and creative problem solving:

Image by Bruce Damer, via DALL-E.

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