Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, has died at the ripe old age of 102. So in honor of him, now seems like a good time to talk about my experiences with the drug he created.
I took LSD a lot in college, and for a year or two after. Quite a lot. For a while, I was taking it almost every week; and for most of my college years, I was taking it about once a month or so. And after I’d been taking it for a while, I was taking moderately hefty doses. You don’t get a physical tolerance to LSD — but you can get a sort of psychological tolerance to it. After I’d been taking it for a while, a hit or two would give me a light, fun trip — but if I wanted the experience of taking my mind into a radically unfamiliar place, I’d take five, seven, even ten hits.
And for the most part, it was a great experience. Kind of an important experience, too. I had a couple of bad trips (especially early on, before I’d figured out the “don’t take seriously the crazy shit your mind comes up with when it’s tripping” principle)… but on the whole, LSD was a positive, happy part of my life that shaped me in ways I feel good about. Partly it was just fun and entertaining, like fascinating and hilarious movies in my brain. But I actually got some important insights out of it as well: insights that have stayed with me long after I stopped taking the drug.
I could gas on about this subject for hours. But I realize that there’s little in this life more tedious than listening to other people describe their drug experiences. So the main thing I want to say is this: Taking LSD is what gave me the awareness — not just the intellectual concept, but the immediate, visceral experience — of just how much of my perception and intuition was about how my brain worked, and how little of it was about how the world worked. There is nothing quite so humbling as putting a chemical into your body — a chemical measured in millionths of a gram — and having everything you see and feel and know be radically altered, to the point of being unrecognizable.
So in a lot of ways, taking LSD was the beginning of my skepticism. It was the beginning of my awareness that my brain could fool me, that my brain had its own agenda, and I couldn’t automatically trust what it was saying.
Now, the downside is that, in a lot of other ways, it was the total opposite. Many of my stupider woo beliefs came directly out of “insights” I had when I was on LSD or other hallucinogens. The idea that mystical forces were guiding the Tarot cards when I shuffled them. The idea that subatomic particles must have free will, since their behavior isn’t predictable. The idea that every person on Earth was in exactly the right place, doing exactly what they were intended to be doing by the great World-Soul. (A pretty Calvinist idea when you think about it, although at the time I would have rejected that suggestion hotly.) I had drug hallucinations that I took very, very seriously, and believed to be accurate perceptions even after the drug faded. (I was, for instance, convinced for an embarrassingly long time that, when I was under the influence of LSD, I could make rosebuds bloom into roses, simply through the force of my concentrated drug-enhanced will. Loki, have mercy.)
So while I’m overall positive about my LSD experiences, I feel that I should acknowledge this side of them as well. I am strongly of the opinion that a lot of the more fuzzy, uncritical, poorly- thought- out ideas of the hippie and post-hippie movement (New Age woo and otherwise) were the result of an entire generation being unclear on the “don’t take seriously the crazy shit your mind comes up with when it’s tripping” concept.
But you know? All that stuff eventually faded. And what I was left with — along with a lot of warm, happy, hilarious memories of profound and wildly entertaining times shared with friends — was the deeply- ingrained, vividly- understood awareness that my perception and intuition did not necessarily represent reality. It was the beginning of my skepticism. And it was the beginning of the end of my solipsism. In a lot of ways, it was the beginning of my adult compassion: my relativism, my understanding that other people saw reality differently than I did and that this didn’t automatically mean that they were stupid and wrong. It was the beginning of my borderline- obsessive, sometimes irritating dedication to seeing things, as much as possible, from other people’s points of view.
And for that, I’m grateful.
(Tip of the hat to Susie Bright, both for the news and for the “everyone tell your LSD experiences” meme. Also for this unbelievably hilarious video. Video below the fold.)
Photo of Albert Hofmann by Stefan Pangritz, copyright CC-BY-SA.