The Heretic - Dr. James Fadiman and his research into LSD

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Nikola Tesla
The Heretic

The Morning News

Tim Doody

July 26, 2012


At 9:30 in the morning, an architect and three senior scientists—two from Stanford, the other from Hewlett-Packard—donned eyeshades and earphones, sank into comfy couches, and waited for their government-approved dose of LSD to kick in. From across the suite and with no small amount of anticipation, Dr. James Fadiman spun the knobs of an impeccable sound system and unleashed Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68.” Then he stood by, ready to ease any concerns or discomfort.

For this particular experiment, the couched volunteers had each brought along three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months. In approximately two hours, when the LSD became fully active, they were going to remove the eyeshades and earphones, and attempt to find some solutions. Fadiman and his team would monitor their efforts, insights, and output to determine if a relatively low dose of acid—100 micrograms to be exact—enhanced their creativity.

It was the summer of ’66. And the morning was beginning like many others at the International Foundation for Advanced Study, an inconspicuously named, privately funded facility dedicated to psychedelic drug research, which was located, even less conspicuously, on the second floor of a shopping plaza in Menlo Park, Calif. However, this particular morning wasn’t going to go like so many others had during the preceding five years, when researchers at IFAS (pronounced “if-as”) had legally dispensed LSD. Though Fadiman can’t recall the exact date, this was the day, for him at least, that the music died. Or, perhaps more accurately for all parties involved in his creativity study, it was the day before.

At approximately 10 a.m., a courier delivered an express letter to the receptionist, who in turn quickly relayed it to Fadiman and the other researchers. They were to stop administering LSD, by order of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Effective immediately. Dozens of other private and university-affiliated institutions had received similar letters that day.

That research centers once were permitted to explore the further frontiers of consciousness seems surprising to those of us who came of age when a strongly enforced psychedelic prohibition was the norm. They seem not unlike the last generation of children’s playgrounds, mostly eradicated during the ’90s, that were higher and riskier than today’s soft-plastic labyrinths. (Interestingly, a growing number of child psychologists now defend these playgrounds, saying they provided kids with both thrills and profound life lessons that simply can’t be had close to the ground.)

When the FDA’s edict arrived, Fadiman was 27 years old, IFAS’s youngest researcher. He’d been a true believer in the gospel of psychedelics since 1961, when his old Harvard professor Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass) dosed him with psilocybin, the magic in the mushroom, at a Paris café. That day, his narrow, self-absorbed thinking had fallen away like old skin. People would live more harmoniously, he’d thought, if they could access this cosmic consciousness. Then and there he’d decided his calling would be to provide such access to others. He migrated to California (naturally) and teamed up with psychiatrists and seekers to explore how and if psychedelics in general—and LSD in particular—could safely augment psychotherapy, addiction treatment, creative endeavors, and spiritual growth. At Stanford University, he investigated this subject at length through a dissertation—which, of course, the government ban had just dead-ended.

Couldn’t they comprehend what was at stake? Fadiman was devastated and more than a little indignant. However, even if he’d wanted to resist the FDA’s moratorium on ideological grounds, practical matters made compliance impossible: Four people who’d never been on acid before were about to peak.

“I think we opened this tomorrow,” he said to his colleagues.

And so one orchestra after the next wove increasingly visual melodies around the men on the couch. Then shortly before noon, as arranged, they emerged from their cocoons and got to work.

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. Fadiman and his colleagues published these jaw-dropping results and closed shop.

At a congressional subcommittee hearing that year, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy grilled FDA regulators about their ban on LSD studies: “Why, if they were worthwhile six months ago, why aren’t they worthwhile now?” For him, the ban was personal, too: His wife, Ethel, had received LSD-augmented therapy in Vancouver. “Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that it”—Sen. Kennedy was referring specifically to LSD here—“can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”

His objection did nothing to slow the panic that surged through halls of government. The state of California outlawed LSD in the fall of 1966, and was followed in quick succession by numerous other states and then the federal government. In 1970, agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration released a comprehensive database in which they’d sorted commonly known drugs into categories, or schedules. “Schedule 1” drugs, which included LSD and psilocybin, have a “significant potential for abuse,” they said, and “no recognized medicinal value.” Because Schedule 1 drugs were seen as the most dangerous of the bunch, those who used, manufactured, bought, possessed, or distributed them were thought to be deserving of the harshest penalties.

By waging war on psychedelics and their aficionados, the U.S. government not only halted promising studies but also effectively shoved open discourse of these substances to the countercultural margins. And so conventional wisdom continues to argue that psychedelics offer one of a few possibilities: a psychotic break, a glimpse of God, or a visually stunning but fairly mindless journey. But no way would they help with practical, results-based thinking. (That’s what Ritalin is for, just ask any Ivy League undergrad.)

Still, intriguing hints suggest that, despite stigma and risk of incarceration, some of our better innovators continued to feed their heads—and society as a whole reaped the benefits. Francis Crick confessed that he was tripping the first time he envisioned the double helix. Steve Jobs called LSD “one of the two or three most important things” he’d experienced. And Bill Wilson claimed it helped to facilitate breakthroughs of a more soulful variety: Decades after co-founding Alcoholics Anonymous, he tried LSD, said it tuned him in to the same spiritual awareness that made sobriety possible, and pitched its therapeutic use—unsuccessfully—to the AA board. So perhaps the music never really died. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say instead that the music got much softer. And the ones who were still listening had to pretend they couldn’t hear anything at all.

On a Saturday last October, 45 years after dispensing those last legal doses, James Fadiman stood on stage inside the cavernous hall of Judson Memorial Church, a long-time downtown New York incubator of artistic, progressive, and even revolutionary movements. High above him on a window of stained glass, a golden band wrapped Escher-like enigmas around the Four Evangelists. Fadiman appeared far more earthly: wire frames, trim beard, dropped hairline, khakis, running shoes—like a policy wonk at a convention, right down to lanyard and nametag.

A couple hundred people sat before him in folding chairs and along the side aisles of the hall. He adjusted his head microphone, then scrolled his lecture notes and side-stepped the podium. He felt fortunate to be there for many reasons, he said, including a health scare he’d had a few months back—a rather advanced case of pericarditis. “Some of you, I know, have experimented with enough substances so that you’ve ‘died.’ But it’s different when you’re in the ER.” He chuckled. “And you’re not on anything.”

Most everybody laughed at his icebreaker, understood he was comparing, quite unfavorably, his recent experience to the way that, under the influence of high-dose psychedelics, one’s personality has a tendency to scatter like stardust. Which is to say that Fadiman was not addressing an ordinary audience.

He was the first presenter of the day at the fifth-annual Horizons, a weekend-long forum organized to “open a fresh dialogue” regarding the role of psychedelics in “medicine, culture, history, spirituality, and creativity.” The crowd consisted of young and old, dreadlocks and suits, crushed velvet and institutional bonafides. A self-declared prophet sat near Bellevue Hospital’s leading addictions specialist. Both are pro-psychedelics, though they differ on what qualifies as appropriate usage. Said addictions specialist is currently administering psilocybin to people with recurrent and advanced-stage cancer in—surprise!—a government-sanctioned study. Most people enrolled in his study have reported that a single psychedelic session substantially reduced their anxieties related to death, while also qualifying as one of their most spiritual experiences.
“I kind of did the squarest bio I could,” Fadiman said, pointing at a Horizons brochure, “just in case other people were reading it.” Who did he mean? Squares? Feds? He’d chosen to highlight his post-ban work, which sounded mildly interesting though fairly innocuous. Co-founder of the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. Course instructor at San Francisco State, Brandeis, and Stanford. Writer. Member of various corporate boards. Don’t be fooled though. His bio obscures a well-documented notoriety.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test , Tom Wolfe writes about encountering “a young psychologist,” “Clifton Fadiman’s nephew, it turned out,” in the waiting room of the San Mateo County jail. Fadiman and his wife were “happily stuffing three I-Ching coins into some interminable dense volume of Oriental mysticism” that they planned to give Ken Kesey, the Prankster-in-Chief whom the FBI had just nabbed after eight months on the lam. Wolfe had been granted an interview with Kesey, and they wanted him to tell their friend about the hidden coins. During this difficult time, they explained, Kesey needed oracular advice.

Fadiman’s influence transcends counterculture, though. It might even stretch through the very medium through which you’re reading these words. In What the Dormouse Said , John Markoff reports that Fadiman had dosed and counseled numerous “heads” as they were attempting to amplify consciousness through silicon chips and virtual reality. The personal computer revolution, Markoff argues, flourished on the Left Coast precisely because of a peculiar confluence of scientists, dreamers, and drop-outs. And indeed, if you were to illustrate with a Venn diagram the relationships between those involved with Acid Test parties, the Homebrew Computer Club, the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford University, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, various backwoods communes, and, of course, the IFAS research center, you’d see an overlap of communities on the San Francisco Midpeninsula that just wasn’t available to the average IBM computer scientist in Westchester.

It’s true that Fadiman cooled it for several decades, did those square things in his bio, settled into the suburbs, and kept on the down-low any lingering passion for chemically boosted consciousness. But then, in 2010, with the publication of his book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys , it became official: At 70 years old, Fadiman had gone rogue. In a mild-mannered sort of way, yes, with charts, hypotheses, and a winning bedside manner. But government be damned, he was now an outspoken advocate for the careful but criminal use of psychedelics, especially LSD, his favorite.

What’s astounding isn’t so much that he came out of the psychedelic closet for a second time—most everyone retains a certain allegiance to their formative experiences—but that he is far from alone. And we’re not just talking about the tens of thousands of utopians who co-create an ephemeral Mecca in the swirling sands of Black Rock each summer.

Though draconian laws still keep psychedelics from the general public, next-generation administrators at the FDA and DEA have been approving research studies again. The taboo broke with a 1992 investigation of how dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a fast-acting psychedelic, impacts consciousness; DMT wasn’t burdened by the cultural baggage of its three-lettered cousin. And what began quite haltingly had become, by the middle of the last decade, if not routine then certainly notable: Terminated research from the ’60s was being replicated and even furthered in dozens of studies by big-name players, including Johns Hopkins, NYU, and UCLA. These studies, which almost exclusively explore the psychotherapeutic potential of psychedelics (as opposed to, say, how they might influence creativity), are getting results that would make a Big Pharma rep salivate. Of the hundreds of volunteers who’ve participated, a high majority have said that psychedelics, given in a safe, supportive setting, helped them to, depending on the study, accept imminent mortality, overcome drug and alcohol addiction, mitigate obsessive-compulsive urges, or heal post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet another study recently passed the approval process despite strong objections from the Pentagon: In the summer of 2011, 16 vets who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD began receiving a combination of talk therapy and MDMA (pure Ecstasy). This, though the DEA still officially states that psychedelics’ “use in psychotherapy largely has been debunked.” The current relationship between regulators and these Schedule 1 substances is a tangle of impossible possibilities—not unlike the stained glass window overlooking Judson’s stage.

“What happens in serious psychedelic work,” Fadiman said to the people before him, “is there’s a sudden reframing of massive amounts of worldview. We don’t know much about what that learning means, but we sure can see the results.” Though he applauds the aforementioned studies, he has come to Horizons specifically to speak on their limitations. In fact, his entire lecture is intended to be an attack on what he calls “the medical model,” an approach to psychedelic drug use that curtails access to only a fraction of society, and for only narrowly defined goals centered around personal therapy.

Fadiman studied the people before him, then widened his eyes with faux innocence. “How many of you are going to be in a legal research study next year?”

No hands.

“Including not me. You not only have to be ill [to participate], but you have to be ill with something fairly awful. Now, how many of you are planning to have a psychedelic within the next year?”

An overwhelming majority of the audience raised a hand, some enthusiastic, others sheepish.

Heads swiveled like periscopes, the better to see all those mea culpas.

“So, I’ll talk to you.”

Widespread laughter: score!

“For a long time after research stopped in the ’60s, I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do the research that interests me the most, that’s the most life-changing, that has the most potential.’ I also realized that … what the government said is, ‘We are restricting some basic freedoms.’”

Throughout the lecture, his left hand poked like a conductor’s stick as he challenged his listeners with a series of questions.

“Can you go to most any group, from tea parties on one end, to us, I think we’re probably on the other, and say, Is religious freedom something that we support in this country?”

“Is it all right to establish or re-establish or discover a connection to the Divine?”

“Is it OK to do something that leads to your own self-healing and improves your connection to the natural world?”

“Is it OK to discover how the universe works? At the moment, we’ve got two Nobel Prize winners who’ve copped to the fact of where they got their ideas.”

Francis Crick is one and the other: Kary Mullis, who was intermittently under the influence of LSD as he developed the polymerase chain reaction, a genetic sequencing technique through which scientists can detect certain infectious diseases, map the human genome, and trace ancestral heritage back thousands of years.

Fadiman was warming up now, standing tall for the 23 million Americans who, according to government stats, have already taken LSD, and the 400,000-plus who will try it for the first time this year. Curiosity continues to trump criminalization.

“We’re not necessarily going to be content if certain psychedelics are available on prescription [for people who are really ill],” Fadiman said. “That’s not what psychedelic freedom is about.”

Just as he began to speculate on how and when “psychedelic freedom” might be achieved, the microphone slipped off his ear, shoulder-bounced, and tumbled to the floor. It sounded like gunshots or a door being bashed in. Fadiman threw up his hands, fingers splayed, head lowered, as if a SWAT team was raiding the auditorium. He had the audience laughing again as a sound tech scrambled to make things right. Nonetheless, his slapstick evoked a sobering truth concerning the tenuous turf between personal and legal conviction. How many people here have ever been in an actual raid? Hands please?

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Nikola Tesla
Niccolo and Donkey
I am very skeptical of the certitude with which this claim is made. These study participants were all inherently creative people, and there is a such thing as a placebo effect.

It's an interesting article over all, but definitely suffers from excessive exuberance and disdain for prudence. Uncertainty and danger are not misplaced concerns with drugs like LSD.

i've done lsd approx twenty times or so. I've only ever had one bad trip and that was because i was doing alot of cocaine and drinking too much while on it.

It really does give you a feeling of great understanding, u sense that you grasp matters of the metaphysical without quite being able to put it into words(at least i can't put it into words). I've also gotten the 'afterglow' effect from lsd many times(i'd wake up and feel way better about life and existence).

i suport lsd.