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Downloads from the Modern Dawn of Psychedelics

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Downloads from the Modern Dawn of Psychedelics

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

The modern dawn of psychedelics in the 1950s and 60s saw profound, ancient potions rediscovered and newly distilled in the laboratory, then shrink-wrapped for mass consumption. Before the dosing of millions of youthful Boomer minds came a decade of quieter, more contemplative exploration by some of the leading thinkers and figures of the day. These included writer Aldous Huxley, congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, and actor Cary Grant. They were the intelligentsia on acid. 

At the time, Huxley and two fellow psychedelic explorers – Humphrey Osmond, the psychiatrist who introduced the term “psychedelic” in a correspondence with Huxley, and neuropsychologist John Smythies, who Huxley credits as helping inspire his landmark book, The Doors of Perception – conceived of an innovative research project. They wanted to study the creative impact of mescaline on some of the leading intellectuals of the day. The philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H. described this project, Outsight, as “the greatest thing that never happened in psychedelia.” Among the projected participants were C. D. Broad, A. J. Ayer, H. H. Price, J. C. Ducasse, Gilbert Ryle, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, and novelist Graham Greene. Peter Sjöstedt-H. noted that “[a] lot of interest was shown by these figures but, alas, the funding for Outsight was never awarded – a rejection the organizers blamed partly on the stuffy reductivism of the time.”

Remarkably, psychedelic practice could have had quite a different birth in the early-to-mid 1950s, with the likes of Jung and Einstein passing through their own “doors of perception” and returning to tell the world about it. Scientific studies abounded by the late 50s, paired with truly beautiful and prescient writing about the psychedelic experience. A chunk of it was captured in a 1964 big blue book sporting a cover embossed with a silver starburst: The Psychedelic Reader edited by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzer, and Gunther Weil.

The book began with an article titled “Can This Drug Enlarge Man’s Mind?” penned by English philosopher Gerald Heard. To my mind, Heard gave us one of the most beautiful and compelling visions for what psychedelics like LSD might be good for. His words are perhaps a bellwether for a future in which these medicines of self-discovery and healing will also serve as elixirs of revelation and innovation. 

Heard offers the following right at the start: Narcotics numb it [the mind]. Alcohol unsettles it. Now a new chemical called LSD has emerged with phenomenal powers of intensifying and changing it — whether for good or ill is a subject of hot debate.”

As an early experiencer of LSD himself, Heard’s initial intuition was that acid was the key for opening a doorway to higher states of creativity, a veritable “way to genius.” He asked:

“Can LSD provide any assistance to the creative process? Even when given under the best of conditions, it may do no more than ‘give an experience.’ Thereafter the subject must himself work with this enlarged frame of reference, this creative schema. If he will not, the experience remains a beautiful anomaly, a gradually fading wonder…

What, then, should be done about it? What, then, should be done about it?

“It is the unique quality of attention which LSD can bestow that will or will not be of benefit. Intensity of attention is what all talented people must obtain or command if they are to exercise their talent. Absolute attention—as we know from, for example, Isaac Newton’s and Johann Sebastian Bach’s descriptions of the state of mind in which they worked—is the most evident mark of genius functioning.”

Humphrey Osmond coined the term “psychedelic” by putting together two Greek words: ψυχή, pronounced psychḗ, meaning soul or mind, and δηλείν, pronounced dēleín, meaning to manifest. Osmond felt the “mind manifesting” power of these substances might enable access to hitherto underutilized potentials of human cognition. In the early 1960s, there was quite a glow on the then completely legal classical psychedelics: LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. Just after President Kennedy’s 1963 announcement of an American goal to land a man on the moon, NASA announced it would use LSD to train lunar astronauts (as I read in a newspaper article in the Leary archive). 

This was the state of affairs when engineer Willis Harman, psychologist James Fadiman (who became a renowned psychedelic author and the “father of microdosing”), and another big name in psychedelic history, Myron Stolaroff, performed a pilot study with two dozen professionals that focused on mescaline and LSD’s creative potential. Published in 1966, “Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem-Solving” came out just two months after LSD was criminalized in California and Nevada. One study participant, an architect, reported on his remarkable creative mind-state during the session:

“I looked at the paper I was to draw on. I was completely blank. I knew that I would work with a property 300 ft. square. I drew the property lines… Suddenly I saw the finished project. I did some quick calculations… it would fit on the property and not only that… it would meet the cost and income requirements. . . it would park enough cars… it met all the requirements. I visualized the result I wanted and subsequently brought the variables into play which could bring that result about. I had great visual (mental) perceptibility; I could imagine what was wanted, needed, or not possible with almost no effort. In what seemed like ten minutes I had completed the problem. . . I was amazed at my idealism, my visual perception, and the rapidity with which I could operate.”

These researchers fell silent with the judge’s gavel, along with many other promising avenues of investigation in psychotherapy, when psychedelics were criminalized. It even led some to prison for significant productive portions of their lives.

Is it Time to (Re)Open the Fourth Path for Psychedelics?

After an enforced hiatus of nearly 60 years, I believe that humanity is on the brink of (re)opening this research and practice as a “fourth path for psychedelics” to amp up our nerdiest states for creative breakthroughs in science, technology, design, leadership, and other fields. In recent years, there has been renewed interest in the other three paths:  1) indigenous and cultural use; 2) personal growth and expression; and 3) therapeutic medical applications. To quote Tim Leary, how might we “find the Others of the fourth path?” 

In the past year I have given a number of public talks and podcast interviews on the fourth path. In response, many Others have begun to show up. As a constituency, they are often quiet and understated. They disclose their practices and their products, often carried out in private, with an intelligence and humility. They do not fit the typical caricature of a psychedelicist, and actually have more in common with the young chess champion in the mini-series The Queen’s Gambit than a multi-colored merry prankster. Many of these Others – this mostly hidden psychedelic constituency – are working in science or technical fields. Some have risen to prominence, even building great companies or making worldchanging discoveries and innovations. But a good proportion of them may not be using psychedelics yet as part of their creative regimen. Therein lies great untapped potential. Just imagine what might come from them finding new ways to realize their gifts through these practices. 

Might you be one of the Others?

Beaming Downloads from the Overmind?

This inquiry begs a question, or perhaps the question: where do flashes of genius actually come from? From Archimedes’s eureka moment, to the happiest thought of Einstein’s life (the equivalence of gravity and acceleration), to numerous other reports of profound insight, they can seem to arrive as a fully formed download streamed in on a holographic beam from what Terence McKenna called “the overmind.” 

Whether it emanates from a hyper intelligent indra’s net, or metabolizes within our very own super-charged productive gray matter, these downloads have shaped history. Their continued availability may well be do-or-die deliveries to sustain a complexity-challenged world. In future articles in this series, I will offer some testable hypotheses on this question.

Coming Out of the Psychedelic-Scientist Closet

I am a technologist and a scientist; I make my living by optimizing my mind’s capacity to innovate. Being a quite sensitive and naturally trippy fellow, able to enter and live in realms of my own imagination from a young age, I studiously avoided all the preferred drugs of my generation back in the 1970s and 80s. My induction into the extraordinary worlds of psychedelia occurred exactly 25 years ago (this month) at the grand old age of 37, through the good graces of psychedelic bard Terence McKenna. 

At a conference in May 2022, organized by Terence’s brother, Dennis McKenna, I decided to come out of the closet, revealing how psychedelics played a role in a key scientific breakthrough while I was working on the problem of the origin of life on Earth. I felt it was a safe moment to share how these medicines not only provided me with much-needed healing, but also served as an elixir which opened a doorway to a truly mind-blowing “revealing.”

I look forward to discussing the details of my “download from Darwin’s warm little pond” in a future article. As  a preview, I am happy to report that my visionary experience led to a leading scientific hypothesis, developed in collaboration with my UC Santa Cruz colleague David Deamer, which was featured on the covers of both Scientific American and Astrobiology. The hypothesis is being worked on by a dozen university teams worldwide.

A Movement Takes Shape

After I shared my story at the conference, other people came out of the woodwork offering theirs. By the end of 2022, the glimmer of a movement was appearing. These Others recognized that they are part of a vital lineage of psychedelic-inspired innovators in science and technology that includes Kary Mullis’s invention of the PCR test and Steve Jobs’s development of the personal computer. Today the momentum has accelerated quite impressively and has led to the formation of a new organization. 

As it takes shape, I hope it will grow into a vibrant movement of “solutioneers” who employ a mix of mindfulness practices and a dash of psychedelics to discover, design, and land important innovations into the world. 

With planetary complexities that seem on the verge of overwhelming us, we need all the genius we can get.

Tripping with Whiteboards?

See Also

As the writer Erik Davis has noted, “We’re at this very strange place of trying to come up with the appropriate languages to wrap our heads around these mysteries…. [This] produces a desire for some kind of cultural framework that can actually take on this complexity.” Part of that complexity is that a psychedelic trip is not a simple thing, and often takes convoluted paths. During what Sasha and Ann Shulgin call “Plus 4” peak experiences, we find ourselves in otherworldly states in which the last thing we might want to do is pose a technical question or sketch out musings on a whiteboard.

Access to useful visionary renderings may nonetheless be available to us on the gentler downslopes off the peak, or perhaps much later, as we come to rest in the far hills of integration. In the face of the enormity of the psychedelic experience, it may be best to  stay humble and curious — hopeful children of the cosmos, seeking to do something in our short lives to return the favor of our remarkable existence.

Introducing The Center for MINDS 

To pursue this new path for psychedelic research and practice, a new organization has been formed: The Center for MINDS, an acronym for Multidisciplinary Investigations into Novel Discoveries and Solutions. Modeled on the successful research nonprofit, MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), MINDS will be a grantmaking center for research, including clinical studies, practice groups, and protocol development. It will serve as a community center for those who pursue  extraordinary “solutioning” through mindfulness practices, psychedelics, and a combination of both. It will also work toward providing a more formal environment for mentorship and training. 

The good news is that research into the creative enhancing capacity of psychedelics is seeing renewed interest. Two compelling clinical studies on the topic have been published in recent years. In a future article, I will discuss these studies, as well as more of the studied anatomy of innovative “downloads” and their relationship to the psychedelic experience. I will also introduce MINDS team members and collaborators, and share some of our near-future visions on this, the fourth path for psychedelics.

Please consider this an open invitation to share your psychedelic-inspired revelations with our team, and potentially even bring them to the light of public discussion. Sharing more of our stories might inspire some truly new tools for creativity and innovation in science, technology, design, and leadership, for a thriving and brilliant human future.

Feel you are one of the Others of the fourth path, or know someone who might be?  Want to share your story or make a contribution? Visit the Center for MINDS, sign up for our newsletter, and take our brief survey

Read article two in this series here.



Bruce Damer’s coming-out-of-the-psychedelic-scientist-closet talk, “It’s High Time for Science” from the ESPD ’55 Conference (May 2022):

Bruce Damer’s appearance on the Jim Rutt Show talking about psychedelics as tools for discovery:

Preprint of Bruce Damer’s chapter for ESPD Volume III (upcoming 2024) provides a scholarly historical basis and offers the case for this work:

Willis Harman, et al.’s 1966 study, “Psychedelic Agents in Creative Problem-Solving”:

Image by Bruce Damer, via DALL-E

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