The story is told of a young chemist who, one evening, accidentally ingested a droplet of an unknown fluid from one of his test tubes, the leftovers of a past experiment.
Within minutes his mind went reeling and he was subjected to not only the wildest hallucinations, but also what he felt were world-altering insights into the nature of the universe.
The next day, after the drug had worn off, he tried to describe his experience to his colleagues and friends, but could not find the words to do it justice. Everyone he spoke to shrugged it off as a particularly vivid dream and went about their daily chores.
Frustrated, the next evening he placed a larger drop on his tongue, intentionally this time, and entered into a mental state beyond his imagining; he seemed to grasp, with no effort on his part, the very nature of existence. He not only saw God, he realized that he was and always had been part of God. He understood holistically and simultaneously every scientific axiom and principle — including ones that had not yet been discovered — as all being aspects of a single unified theorem of the cosmos, a theorem which he could inspect at his leisure, as if he were holding it in his hand.
But the next morning, once again, he could not remember the specifics of his insights, and his attempts to recount his breakthrough fell on deaf ears; his fellow scientists could not make heads nor tails of what he was saying, and his friends remained unmoved at his futile ramblings about God and the universe.
The young chemist was convinced down to the deepest recesses of his soul that he was perceiving a new level of reality, and vowed to record his new awareness and bring it to the world, thereby ushering in a glorious new age for humanity. So on the third night he locked himself in his lab with a large notebook and his favorite pen, and pledged to write down all his insights as they occurred.
He took another drop. His mind expanded. And he started writing.
It was glorious! His visions and realizations were even deeper than those of the previous night, but this time around he was able to describe it all in real time as it was happening. His pen flew across the page, words tumbling from him like a waterfall, delineating in lush detail everything he saw and grasped. He laughed in ecstasy with each new brilliancy, and sobbed in gratitude that he was able to preserve it forever and thereby change mankind for the better.
When he woke up the following morning, he once again had forgotten the details of his experience, but this time it would not be lost. He leapt up and found his notebook on his desk. Heart pounding, so excited that he was short of breath, he opened the cover and began to read.
But the first page was blank.
As was the second.
Frantically, he began flipping through the pages: they were all blank, until he got to the very last page. There, in his own distinctive handwriting, but so small and cramped that he could barely read it, was the only sentence he had written all night:
The stench in here is terrible.
Various versions of this story have been circulating for nearly a century. The one most-often cited appeared in Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, in which Russell attributed it to William James (although, oddly, the quote has never been found in James’ work itself):
William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was “A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”
The parable is supposedly based on a real incident, though its origins (just like the insights of the protagonist) are probably lost forever. But no matter — it happens time and again with many people who use drugs. Some years ago a former NBA star (his name eludes me at the moment) published his autobiography in which he relates a similar incident. After a brilliant college basketball career, he entered the pro league and with his newfound riches began using cocaine. He quickly became addicted and one day snorted several lines right before an important game.
Oh what a game it was! He dribbled up and down the court like a cheetah, running circles around his hapless opponents. He sank basket after basket with unerring accuracy. He charged the lane and leaped higher than he had ever leapt, dunking the ball flamboyantly to the cheers of the crowd.
The next day, the coach invited him to the office for a conference. The player sat down expecting praise for his performance, but instead the coach chewed him out for his atrocious antics which had lost the game. Confused, the player insisted that he had played brilliantly — until the coach then replayed a tape of the game. The player watched in horror as the video revealed the truth: He hogged the ball, was frequently charged with “traveling,” passed the ball erratically and often out-of-bounds, and made dozens of absurd shot attempts from mid-court, all of which completely missed the basket. Whenever he rushed forward to attempt a dunk, the referees charged him with various personal fouls as he knocked the opponents to the floor.
The reason I bring all this up is that Owsley Stanley died on Sunday, eliciting many praiseful obituaries and self-satisfied reminiscences about the psychedelic era. For those not familiar with the name: Owsley was the man who brought LSD to the masses. He did not invent the drug, nor was he the first to make it or try it. But he was the first LSD dealer:
Before enrolling at UC Berkeley in 1963, Mr. Stanley served in the U.S. Air Force and studied ballet in Los Angeles. He dropped out of school after one semester once he discovered the recipe for making LSD in the Journal of Organic Chemistry at a UC Berkeley library.
While working a technical job at KGO TV, Mr. Stanley started manufacturing large quantities of LSD. Bear Research Group reputedly made more than 1.25 million doses between 1965 and 1967, essentially seeding the entire modern psychedelic movement
For years, Stanley was the only person in the world manufacturing LSD on a large scale, and he singlehandedly transformed a little-known drug from a curiosity known only to a handful of Harvard professors and government researchers into one of the primary recreational drugs of a generation.
Now, I am not condemning Stanley for this. When he was mass-producing LSD in the early-mid ’60s, it was not yet illegal to do so: the government did not ban it until the end of 1968. Nor could Stanley have had any foreknowledge of how LSD would (or would not) affect individuals or society at large. If anything, he was an ethical drug dealer: He made famously pure batches of LSD, and sold them at reasonable prices, because in his estimation LSD would benefit the world.
It is not Owsley Stanley who became the problem, but rather all those writers, intellectuals and celebrities who promoted LSD as a drug that inspired creativity, facilitated enlightenment, and which expanded mental horizons. This was one of the Big Lies of the ’60s and ’70s: that recreational drugs (especially psychedelics) can be beneficial.
It is not the purpose of this essay to trace the history of LSD, which is well-documented elsewhere. Nor is it a discussion of drug abuse in general, nor of the pluses or minuses of the 1960s cultural upheaval. Rather, it is only to address this one question: Are the insights, experiences and perceived breakthroughs that people feel while on LSD (or any other psychedelic or psychoactive drug) “real” in any sense, or is it all an illusion?
Take for example this mid-’60s video of a British girl on LSD trying to describe her visual impressions:
She is overwhelmed by the intensity and beauty of the colors she sees:
Interviewer: Now, so far, are these visual things the only effects you find?
Girl on LSD: No.
Interviewer: What other effects?
Girl on LSD: It’s all to do with color. It’s all to do with round, with shape. It’s — Everything‘s color, everything, you know is…oh, it must be to do with orange. Not only with orange, but oh. I haven’t seen color. I live in a monochromatic world. I can’t use color. [Shakes head.] I can do everything.
This next video shows some American hippie girls tripping on LSD who are similarly tongue-tied when asked to describe their soul-altering new mental state:
This same inability to convey in any effective way the nature or profundity of one’s LSD insights remains almost universal among LSD users. Millions have taken it, but none have ever come back from a trip with any real words of wisdom. They may fool themselves into thinking they have words of wisdom, but honestly, have you ever heard an LSD user say anything significant or worthwhile, either during or after a trip?
The proof is in the pudding. Despite all the claims made about the LSD experience, it has had virtually no consequence in the physical world. Proponents claim that under LSD, they are much more creative. But can you name even one memorable melody, painting, poem or other artistic output which was written or created by someone on LSD? Why, sure: various meandering hippie jam-band improvisational performances were made while the musicians were high; but aside from that dubious achievement, the LSD artistic opus is extremely thin. And those few things (like hour-long guitar solos) produced under the influence of psychedelics are, frankly, decidedly mediocre. Most of the creativity associated with the psychedelic movement was made by people while sober as an attempt to simulate for the audience what a psychedelic experience is like. Thus, most psychedelic music was written by musicians not on LSD at the time of the writing, who were trying to recreate the audio hallucinations they remembered from earlier trips. The same applies to psychedelic artwork and posters: The artists had to have a clear mind to actually do the work and simulate what a visual hallucination looks like: while tripping they couldn’t concentrate long enough to actually produce anything. The same applies to writing, speaking, and any other form of creativity.
And the situation gets more stark when it comes to spiritual insights. I’ve read countless books and essays by “LSD gurus” explaining how LSD brings people to a new level of enlightenment, and brings people closer to nirvana or God or reality or whatever. But in every single instance, they failed: Never did I hear a spiritual insight, or receive a pearl of wisdom, coming from the lips of an LSD user. Whatever experiences they had in their own minds simply did not translate to the outside world.
Most significantly, former LSD users who claim to have been altered or enlightened by the experience do not seem to be any better off mentally than everyone else. In fact, overall, former LSD users on average seem to have more mental illnesses than does the general population. This may by due to “self-selection bias” — only unbalanced people experiment with drugs in the first place — but whatever the reason, we most definitely have not seen a generation of Jesuses and Buddhas emerge from the LSD scene to save the world with awe-inspiring spiritual revelations. Where is the wisdom? We’ve had 50 years of large-scale LSD use, and not only have the users been unable to change the world for the better in any way, they don’t seem to have changed themselves in any way, except in a few cases to become boring old drug-casualties or sanctimonious motivational speakers.
Furthermore, take a few minutes to watch this historically significant video of a self-described “normal” housewife who volunteered in 1956 to take LSD as part of a medical experiment:
She sees her visual “hallucinations” so vividly that even the viewer might begin to think that they were “real” — that under the influence of the drug she was seeing reality, and that those of us not on LSD have spent our lives seeing a permanent illusion.
And it is this claim that is at the core of the “Big Lie.” The LSD gurus would have us believe that psychedelics don’t induce hallucinations, but rather remove the “hallucination of monotony” that we experience throughout our lives. That only through LSD can you truly perceive what reality is like, and that if you fail to take LSD your senses are continuously dulled.
In particular, rewind the video above and watch the section between 3:30 and 4:10. The woman describes seeing an infinitely beautiful “curtain or spiderweb” directly in front of her face, which then proceeds to pass directly through her, an experience so intense that it dissolves her sense of ego.
The important question to ask is: Was there really, in physical reality, a curtain or spiderweb which passed through that woman’s body? Something that LSD enabled her senses to see, but which we could not see due to our dulled perceptions? Or, alternately, was it all just an hallucination on her part?
My opinion: Until we have some kind of tangible evidence that the “curtain or spiderweb” (and any other hallucinations) are real, we have to presume that they are imaginary mental constructs caused by the LSD acting on the brain. I’d like to believe the hallucinations were real, just like I’d like to believe that ghosts are real, but until any solid evidence is forthcoming, I’m going to maintain my skepticism. As should we all.
But if the hallucinations and impressions are not real to us, only to the person on LSD, then of what significance are they? Well, they’re significant to the user, at least, one might argue. But that brings us back to my earlier point: If the user can’t describe or convey the experience either while it’s happening or afterward, and if the user in the subsequent days and years seems spiritually and intellectually unchanged, then what purpose does LSD serve, aside from being just yet another recreational drug that provides the user with a fleeting out-of-the-ordinary mental state?
I can hear the detractors already, saying (as they always do), “If you haven’t taken acid, you’ll never understand.” But, you see, I have taken LSD — not once, but twice. And both times unwittingly.
The first time I was only ten years old, when a group of older teenage druggies thought it would be funny to spike a milkshake with acid and offer it with no explanation to some of the neighborhood kids, myself included. I did not know until days afterward that I had even been “high,” and the memory of the experience is by now almost completely gone, but I do recall the sense that a “filter” had been removed and that I was perceiving things in their raw state.
The next time was only a few years later, when I was about 14 and once again a “friend” slipped me a dose of LSD without my realizing it; but this time, she told me what she had done after I had swallowed it but before it took effect, so I entered the trip at least knowing that I was on drugs.
I had always been (and remain) a very meditative person, someone who “experiences the stillness” and can appreciate a million mesmerizing patterns in a fleck of dust or a passing wisp of fog. I had also read far too many kids’ books about the supernatural and had for years tried to induce “out-of-body experiences” as I drifted near sleep, or at least have lucid dreams in which I had conscious control of myself in a dreamscape. (Not sure if I ever succeeded, but it was interesting trying.)
Anyway, the sensations I felt while on that second trip were not unfamiliar to me, because they seemed to create in my mind a waking lucid dream in which I could appreciate every little detail of everything around me. It was not wildly different from the types of consciousness I had frequently experienced on my own beforehand (condemned as “daydreaming” by grumpy grownups).
Because I already knew how to achieve a non-pharmaceutical version of a “trip” (often just by lying on the grass and staring at the sky), I felt after my LSD experience that I understood better than most people the effect that acid induces in users; psychedelics were just a chemical way to turn off the distracting inner thoughts and preconceptions and to just absorb the world’s stimuli unfiltered. But this foreknowledge also made me feel afterward that the LSD experience had not changed my level of awareness; I was like, “Oh, that. OK.”
Fifty years is a long time for a drug to prove its worth. And after five decades, LSD has basically nothing to show for itself. The world is not a better place as a result of LSD. Individuals are not better people, on average: Most users don’t seem to exhibit any lasting changes at all, and those few that perhaps show better insight are more than counter-balanced by those who seem to have gone a little nuts.
Owsley Stanley himself seems to have unfortunately fallen into that second category. As his obituary revealed, he seems to have believed wholeheartedly the topsy-turvy logic found in the unintentionally hilarious end-of-the-world sci-fi film The Day After Tomorrow:
Mr. Stanley became a naturalized Australian citizen in 1996, living off the grid with wife Sheila in the bush of Queensland. His decision to move to the tropical northern side of the country in the early ’80s was based, in part, on his belief that global warming would lead to a new ice age and the region would be the most likely to survive.
Mr. Stanley lived on an all-meat and dairy diet. He believed vegetables were toxic and blamed a heart attack several years ago on the broccoli his mother made him eat as a child.
That’s what LSD does to your mind. You think you have insights and wisdom — no really, you’re absolutely convinced — but you end up thinking that global warming causes ice ages and broccoli causes heart attacks.
Sad. Sad for Owsley Stanley. Sad for all the other burnouts. And sad for an entire generation still trying to prop up the Big Lie of pharmaceutical enlightenment.