Tripping in LSD's Birthplace: A Story for "Bicycle Day"
July 9, 2021 11:14 PM   Subscribe

After consuming magic mushrooms in Basel, Switzerland, I ran into Albert Hofmann, the chemist who catalyzed the psychedelic era.... In his writings, Hofmann occasionally divulged misgivings about having brought LSD and psilocybin into the world. In a letter in 1961, he compared his discoveries to nuclear fission; just as fission threatens our fundamental physical integrity, he said, so do psychedelics “attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self.” Psychedelics, Hofmann fretted, might “represent a forbidden transgression of limits.”

And here is John Horgan: Inspiration struck: I should supplement my objective reporting on this meeting with an actual trip! I asked the vendor to recommend something, not too strong or long-lasting. He suggested mushrooms. ...

~~~~~

Horgan: Just to be safe, I ingested only half of the brown and yellow fragments in the envelope. Within 15 minutes the walls of my room were seething, as were my thoughts and emotions. This was definitely not simulated psilocybin but the real thing. I briefly closed my eyes and found myself immersed in a boiling vat of brilliant dyes, bubbling furiously up at me.

Opening my eyes, I recalled the hallucination hypothesis of mathematical biologist Jack Cowan. Psychedelics, he told me, stimulate neurons in the visual cortex dedicated to detecting edges of objects. Excessive firing of these specialized neurons generates the spirals, lattices, tunnels, checkerboards and convective swirls familiar to psychedelic users.

Not even this reductionist recollection could stem my mounting panic. The walls of my room trembled like membranes, which were about to burst and let the clear light of the void flood over me. I wasn’t ready for a confrontation with ultimate reality. I berated myself for taking the mushrooms so casually. This is not a game, I thought. This is not a game.

~~~~~

John Horgan flew to Basel Switzerland to attend “Worlds of Consciousness,” a leading forum for scientists studying altered states, especially drug-induced states. Horgan had an intense experience then and there, and he wrote about it, reported it well, ended up in Scientific American in 1999. I trust it much more than if it was in some pot oriented journal or magazine; Scientific American has at least a chance of getting the story right.

Bicycle Day, in case you might be wondering, is to commemorate, yearly on April 19, the fact that Hofmann needed to be accompanied home on his bicycle, as Hofmann had done his first heroic dose of LSD April 19 1943, and was afraid he might not make it home on his bicycle if not accompanied by someone *not* blasted out of their gourd.

Hat tip: gingerbeer: I'd not known of Bicycle Day prior to her comment in that MetaTalk, nor known about that great article in Scientific American.
posted by dancestoblue (28 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
> Hofmann occasionally divulged misgivings about having brought LSD and psilocybin into the world

LSD, as a synthetic compound can be said to be introduced by Hoffman, but psilocybin is typically consumed in its organic habitat i.e. mushrooms and was already known and established in some human cultures. Same for mescaline and half a dozen other natural psychedelics. Eventually, they would have been discovered by the wider culture.
posted by daksya at 12:16 AM on July 10 [7 favorites]


In the 1960s and 1970s, the Army stockpiled tens of thousands of canisters of an extremely potent hallucinogen, 3-Quinuclidinyl benzoate, or BZ. BZ, if wafted in aerosol form over enemy troops, could turn them into gibbering idiots for up to 80 hours. BZ was never deployed, apparently because American military commanders feared the unpredictability of its effects; killing the enemy with bullets and bombs was more reliable
Some years ago I read that Operation Eagle Claw, staged by the Carter Administration in April 1980 to rescue the hostages held in the American Embassy building in Teheran but canceled at the last minute, included plans to lay down large quantities of BZ over the embassy and the surrounding neighborhood.
posted by jamjam at 12:16 AM on July 10 [2 favorites]


I thought this was interesting too:

He blamed Harvard-psychologist-turned-counterculture-guru Timothy Leary for giving LSD such a bad reputation.

“I had this discussion with him," Hofmann told me. "I said, ‘Oh, you should not tell everybody, even the children, “Take LSD! Take LSD!”'"

LSD “can hurt you, it can disturb you," Hofmann said, "it can make you crazy.” But properly used, psychedelics stimulate the “inborn faculty of visionary experience” that we all possess as children but lose as we mature.

posted by chavenet at 3:01 AM on July 10 [4 favorites]


Albert was surprisingly available. I called him from Taiwan a few times and he would usually pick up the phone himself. He liked talking to people and would even engage people who would just show up at his house.
posted by rmmcclay at 4:45 AM on July 10 [13 favorites]


Brian Blomerth made a graphic version of this story, and I keep it on my studio desk to look at at stimulate my eyes sometimes. Much recommended for cause it is super trippy!
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52003981-brian-blomerth-s-bicycle-day
posted by Phyllis keeps a tight rein at 5:26 AM on July 10 [6 favorites]


In a new study, Yale researchers show that a single dose of psilocybin given to mice prompted an immediate and long-lasting increase in connections between neurons.

Neuroplasticity has been suggested as a benefit of psilocybin for many years. The study quoted above is one of the first to actually demonstrate it.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:57 AM on July 10 [17 favorites]


Psilocybin always left me feeling refreshed and in a much cleaner emotional and mental place. I really miss that.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:58 AM on July 10 [13 favorites]


I'm glad there was much discussion of how dangerous these things can be to certain people.

I have had many good hallucinatory experiences, but I also am friends with many people with serious mental health issues, and I would never assume that telling them to ingest something like this would help them.

Honestly, the high incidence of undiagnosed mental illness in the USA makes me think it's generally a bad idea to share hallucinogens with almost anybody unless you're sure they've used them before with no bad side effects.

Even then, it's a crapshoot on whether or not it will go badly.

What we really need is decriminalization and better legal access for scientists so we can learn more about how these substances can help while also minimizing their (very real but rarely discussed) negative effects.
posted by deadaluspark at 8:17 AM on July 10 [9 favorites]


I remain jealous of people who have this sort of reaction. And, I remain surprised that the things I think are important about Abby Hoffman don't seem to be the things Abby Hoffman thinks are important about Abby Hoffman. But, I'm not going to claim he's wrong. Interesting article. Thanks!

I am skeptical that there are "feral children" on the streets of Basel. But, perhaps if you're on mushrooms. . .
posted by eotvos at 8:37 AM on July 10


Horgan also wrote about psychedelics in his book Rational Mysticism. The more recent (and very interesting) book about all this is Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind. Entheogenic experiences have real--and lasting--effects, that Hoffman rightly emphasized could be both good and bad. And while the boundary for 'good' seems to be quite generous, which is great for therapeutic/medical uses, the boundary for 'bad' does allow for the possibility of serious mental/emotional harm.

(Bonus for Ted Lasso fans: before starting work on S1 of the show, the whole writers' room read Pollan's book as framing for the main character and his impact on those around him. Be curious, not judgmental.)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:14 AM on July 10 [8 favorites]


The decades of psychedelic and hallucinogenic research lost to the totality of the Know-Nothing criminalization of everything is one of the many modern tragedies. The lost opportunities of reducing all kinds of suffering.

Imagine much more effective anti-depressant effects. The potential for enhanced neuroplasticity coupled with effective therapies to really help people out of maladaptive set patterns of thought and behavior. For that matter, simply gaining much more knowledge of the mechanisms of increasing neuroplasticity could leads to who knows how much benefit for medical therapies of brain trauma from injury, stroke, recovery from neurosurgeries. We could have been decades further along with it all, if only.
posted by Drastic at 9:16 AM on July 10 [11 favorites]


(also, quick note that Albert Hofmann and Abbie Hoffman are distinctly different mid-century counter-culture figures.)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:19 AM on July 10 [29 favorites]


Michael Pollan is doing great work at the forefront of the mainstream discourse about the role of these drugs in our society. His latest op-ed yesterday in the NYT concisely lays out how the war on drugs has left us without a roadmap for legal consumption of these substances.
posted by pahalial at 9:37 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]


What we really need is decriminalization and better legal access for scientists so we can learn more about how these substances can help while also minimizing their (very real but rarely discussed) negative effects.

yes absolutely, we need more solid science on psychedelics. But I suspect it has to go way further than that. If there's ever been a problem that I'd describe as multi-disciplinary, it's the profound WHAT? of psychedelics. I've touched on my psychedelic experiences a fair bit around this joint, and though I'd never call myself an expert on the topic, I'm pretty damned confident that nobody else is either -- it's just too damned vast a subject.

Long ago and far away, I recall an older hippie guy saying that the only suitable way to address the challenges of psychedelics would be via something akin to a priesthood, but not one connected with any known religion, though it might, in its way, mirror the monasteries of the so-called dark ages where all disciplines were considered not just relevant to the job* at hand, but essential, whether scientific, artful, mystical.

* the job back then being along the lines of better understanding the glory of God and Christ, I guess, the job now being a fully catholic (note the small case) embracing of psychedelic research and knowledge in all of its dimensions.
posted by philip-random at 10:01 AM on July 10 [5 favorites]


* the job back then being along the lines of better understanding the glory of God and Christ, I guess, the job now being a fully catholic (note the small case) embracing of psychedelic research and knowledge in all of its dimensions.

I don't know why this conjures an image in my head of doing acid with high priest Jim Gaffigan.
posted by deadaluspark at 10:03 AM on July 10 [6 favorites]


Some of the new research on the treatment of PTSD with psychedelics looks very promising. I recall one patient saying 'I didn't dream of Afghanistan, for the first time in a decade I slept the whole night'. If this is the breakthrough it seems to be, it might be just in time for the coming PTSD epidemic.

It occurs to me that if this research were done in the 1970s, instead of being defunded by the war on drugs, it could have helped so many veterans of Vietnam with all those maladies associated with PTSD. Just another example of how the war on drugs has made everything worse.
posted by adept256 at 10:11 AM on July 10 [7 favorites]


Also, let's not forget that this "War on Drugs" was moreso "war on things that make US companies less profitable."

This is why things like hemp got caught up in the crossfire, despite not actually being a drug.

And it's also how US pharma giants created an opioid epidemic, but the drug war only treats heroin as actually dangerous. The others are totes fine because they're prescribed by a doctor! /s

I remember a co-worker snorting a crushed up oxy back in my television days in the early 2000's. They were so easy to get a hold of. He offered me some. I politely declined.

Part of the reason the US public is sick of the "drug war" is because we've woken up to the fact that it was a "profit war" for the sake of US pharmaceutical companies.

The fact that none of the Sacklers will rot in prison for the rest of their lives proves it wasn't ever a war on drugs, but a war on poverty and a war on anti-capitalist ideologies.
posted by deadaluspark at 10:21 AM on July 10 [8 favorites]


(also, quick note that Albert Hofmann and Abbie Hoffman are distinctly different mid-century counter-culture figures.)


Thanks. For a moment I thought I might be under the influence of something like KR-3 (single link to spoilers to many Philip K. Dick stories)
posted by otherchaz at 10:25 AM on July 10 [3 favorites]




Part of the reason the US public is sick of the "drug war" is because we've woken up to the fact that it was a "profit war" for the sake of US pharmaceutical companies.

I think it was more politics than profit. One of Nixon's aides explicitly said the war on drugs was leverage against "Blacks and hippies".
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:01 AM on July 10 [15 favorites]


Nixon also denied former Pennsylvania Governor Raymond P. Shafer a cushy promtion in his administration because the Shafer Commission should have ideally found cannabis the continuing moral threat Nixon went tough but alas, it did not find a moral threat, but a misunderstanding of the drug itself.
posted by Kitteh at 12:27 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


LSD is a hell of a thing, sometimes heart wrenching.

But you get used to that then it's just a weird buzz that lasts for a day and some dumbass is droning on and on about "partying" and you're drinking to control the acid buzz and hopefully crashing by dawn or at least some eggs.

There was a point in my life were I would trip with acid noobs just to tell them when they were high that's its just a drug and there is no "insight" relax and chill.

Listen to some Carpenters.
posted by Max Power at 1:36 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


... I'm glad there was much discussion of how dangerous these things can be to certain people. ...
... I would never assume that telling them to ingest something like this would help them. ...
... it's a crapshoot on whether or not it will go badly. ...

posted by deadaluspark at 10:17 AM on July 10
I should not ever have even been in the same zip code as LSD. Not in the same area code even. Perhaps not in the same state.

Problem is that there's no way of knowing if you're going to get south with the stuff until you put it into your mouth. I saw friends take it with impunity, and get a lot from it, and not get hurt at all. We'd been lied to about so many things that we didn't believe anything we were told.

LSD just a huge mistake for me. Lots of drinking and drugging and carousing but LSD stands out. Oddly, mushrooms were much gentler, even fun. And I did manage to keep a spike out of my arm, and by the end of the running most of my friends were junkies. So that's something.

But with LSD bolts got loosened that never have got tightened back up. I'd damn sure recommend against it, at the very least tell what it was like for me. Which is to say, not a good plan.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:31 PM on July 10 [7 favorites]


I remember this SNL skit.

Walter Cronkite:
Do you have a question for the President?

Peter:
[on the phone] Uh.. I uh.. I took some acid.. I'm afraid to leave my apartment, and I can't wear any clothes.. and the ceiling is dripping, and uh..

Walter Cronkite:
Well, thanks you very much for calling, sir..

Jimmy Carter:
Just a minute, Walter, this guy's in trouble. I think I better try to talk him down. Peter?

Peter:
[on the phone] Yeah..?

Jimmy Carter:
Peter, what did the acid look like?

Peter:
[on the phone] They were these little orange pills.

Jimmy Carter:
Were they barrel shaped?

Peter:
[on the phone] Uh.. yes.

Jimmy Carter:
Okay, right, you did some orange sunshine, Peter.

Peter:
[on the phone] Very good of you to know that, sir.

Jimmy Carter:
How long ago did you take it, Peter.

Peter:
[on the phone] Uh.. I don't know. I can't read my watch.

Jimmy Carter:
Alright, Peter, just listen. Everything is going to be fine. You're very high right now. You will probably be that way for five more hours. Try taking some Vitamin B complex, Vitamin C complex.. if you have beer, go ahead and drink it.

Peter:
[on the phone] Okay..

Jimmy Carter:
Just remember you're a living organism on this planet, and you're very safe. You've just taken a heavy drug. Relax, stay inside, and listen to some music. Do you have any Allman Brothers?

Peter:
[on the phone] Yes, I do, sir. Everything is okay, huh Jimmy?

Jimmy Carter:
It sure is, Peter. You know, I'm against drug use myself, but I'm not going to lay that on you right now. Just mellow out the best you can, okay?

Peter:
[on the phone] Okay.

Jimmy Carter:
Okay!
posted by clavdivs at 6:51 PM on July 10 [36 favorites]


Came here looking for Maps referral, found Maps referral. Very good.
posted by firstdaffodils at 11:23 PM on July 10 [2 favorites]


In the 2000s there was some bad stuff going around, sold as LSD but actually NBOMe25.

Much more research is needed, one of the big problems with psychedelic anecdota is that there is no way to be sure what someone has taken, what the dosage was, etc. It's possible that a different dosage would create an entirely different experience, or that what was sold as LSD was something else.
posted by chaz at 2:12 AM on July 11 [1 favorite]


One of the reasons it’s so hard to trust others’ psychedelic experiences is the drugs themselves have varied effects, but the other one is that if they’re talking about “LSD,” there’s a good chance it’s actually something else marketed as LSD.
posted by vim876 at 5:52 AM on July 11 [2 favorites]


there’s a good chance it’s actually something else marketed as LSD.

For much of its history, not really. Less than most drugs, anyway. In the research chemical era this is more true, most notably during the acid drought era in the early 00s. But the trend in grey market psychedelics in the last five years or so has been towards selling fairly close chemical relatives of LSD. So your chances of getting not-LSD may be real but also it may be closer to LSD in effect than a DOx let alone an NBOMe or Bromo-Dragonfly or whatever.
posted by atoxyl at 10:06 PM on July 11


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