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Charles Tart, Ph.D.

Exploring the Near-Death Experience: An Interview with Charles Tart, Ph.D.

By David Jay Brown

Charles Tart, Ph.D. is a psychologist and parapsychological researcher. He is best known as one of the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology, for his psychological work on the nature of consciousness–particularly altered states of consciousness–and for his scientific research into psychic phenomena.

Tart earned his Ph. D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963. His books Altered States of Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychologies have been widely used as academic texts, and they were instrumental in allowing these areas to become part of modern psychology. Some of Tart’s other popular books include States of Consciousness, On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication, and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People.

Tart’s most recent book The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together is the best book that I’ve read about integrating science and spirituality. Tart clearly and patiently demonstrates precisely how new scientific evidence is breaking down outdated paradigms, and he believes that the scientific evidence for psychic phenomena is helping to bring science and spirit back together. He says that his “primary goal is to build bridges between the scientific and spiritual communities and to help bring about a refinement and integration of Western and Eastern approaches for knowing the world and for personal and social growth.”

Tart is currently a Core Faculty Member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, emeritus member of the Monroe Institute board of advisors, and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, where he has served for twenty-eight years. To find out more about Tart’s work, see: www.paradigm-sys.com 

I interviewed Charles on December 16, 2009. Charles is a very eloquent speaker, and he speaks about anomalous phenomena with great precision. We spoke about near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and how psychedelic experiences and other altered states of consciousness are similar to and different from a typical near-death experience.

David: How did you become interested in studying altered states of consciousness?

Charles: I think that part of it was just curiosity. Ever since I was a child I’ve wondered how my mind worked.

David: Can you describe what a near-death experience is commonly like?

Charles: I can always refer to people Raymond Moody’s list of fifteen characteristics that are important in every near-death experience (NDE). But to sum it up in a shorter fashion than that, it happens like this. You think that you’re dying. There are periods of unconsciousness, and commonly–but not universally–you find yourself floating up above your body, which may be in an operating room. You go through the very powerful psychological shock of hearing your doctor pronounce you dead. That’s quite a heavy psychological proclamation. (Laughter) Then, if the experience develops further, I’d call it an out-of-body experience (OBE), because during an OBE you’re fully conscious. Then the NDE goes on to become an altered state of consciousness, not just a feeling of being outside your body. Now, of course, in real life there are times when it’s hard to decide whether an experience is a NDE or just an OBE, but those are the ideal cases.

David: I thought that an OBE usually implied an altered state of consciousness.

Charles: No, the typical thing about an OBE is that a person feels like their mind is perfectly normal, and therefore the situation that they find themselves in is ridiculous and impossible. This is different than being in a dream, for example, where you’re (from our waking perspective) out of your body all the time. When you’re dreaming, you don’t know that you’re not occupying your physical body in a normal way. You’re in dream consciousness. And it’s the clarity of consciousness in an OBE that causes people to think that this simply can not be really happening. People generally feel perfectly awake, perfectly consciousness, and yet they’re floating up to the damn ceiling. So they automatically think, this just can’t be happening!

David: I’ve had OBE-type experiences with psychedelics–such as DMT and ketamine–but I was unquestionably in an altered state of consciousness at the time, and it seemed more like going into other dimensions of reality, which I guess is closer to dreaming than the type of OBEs that you’re describing. With all my psychedelic use, I’ve never had an experience where it felt like my normal mind was just floating above my body. I find that absolutely astonishing that people have that experience.

Charles: Yes, that’s the archetypal OBE; the mind remains clear. There are a lot of psychedelic experiences where the concept of what it means to be in a body can get pretty hazy. We call that an OBE, but I think that can be confusing. I like to get clarity in the descriptions that we’re talking about, and that’s why I say that this feeling of your consciousness being clear, normal, and logical is characteristic of the OBE.

David: How is a NDE similar to and different from a psychedelic experience?

Charles: I wish that I could say we have a lot of studies that have made detailed phenomenological comparisons, but of course we haven’t.

The NDE is, of course, centered around the fact that you think that you’ve died, which is a pretty powerful centering device. It usually includes the feeling of moving through a tunnel, toward a light, contact with other beings, and a quick life review. A psychedelic experience may not have all of these characteristics. Some of the characteristics may be present, but certain details of the NDE may be missing, like the quick life review or the speedy return to normal consciousness. Now, this is interesting. This is one of the very vivid differences between psychedelic experiences and NDEs. With NDEs you can feel like you’re way out there somewhere, and then “they” say that you have to go back, and bang! You’re back in your body and everything is normal again. With psychedelics, of course, you come down more slowly, and don’t usually experience a condensed life review. So that’s what the major difference is. But psychedelic experiences also reach over a far wider terrain of possibilities.

Let me tell you something about the life review. It’s extremely common in NDEs for persons to undergo a life review, where they feel as if they remember at least every important event in their life, and often they say every single event in their life. Sometimes it even expands out into not only remembering and reliving every single event in their life, but also into knowing psychically the reactions of other people to all their actions. For some it must be horrible, because it seems that you would really experience their pain. I very seldom hear people say anything about a life review on psychedelics. Yeah, occasionally past memories have come up, but not this dramatic review of a person’s whole life.

David: Do you see any similarity in the consequences, or the aftereffects of a NDE and a psychedelic experience? Do they have any similar consequences, or long-lasting effects for people?

Charles: The are sometimes consequences that overlap and are mutual, but I would say that the NDE is more powerful. It’s more powerful in the sense that a person may make more drastic changes in their lifestyle, or in their community, if they try to integrate the acceptance of the NDE and make sense out of it. It’s also more powerful in the sense that it’s more liable to cause more lasting changes. A psychedelic experience can also have powerful life-changing effects. But let’s face it, some people can pretty much forget their psychedelic experience afterwards, much less alter their lives. It can simulate certain aspects of the NDE, but it doesn’t carry the same force that the typical NDE does.

David: This actually rings true with my own experience. My psychedelic experiences were pale compared to the time that my car went over a cliff.

Charles: Ah, okay. I didn’t know that you had a NDE.

David: For about a year, the experience allowed me to appreciate life in a completely new and joyous way, and it eliminated my fear of just about everything, including death. However, this new state of perception faded away after about a year. I’m wondering what sort of biological value or psychological function you think that NDEs have?

Charles: To the people who have them, they usually feel that they’ve gotten profound insight into the way that their life ought to be, just from that one experience. With psychedelics, again, there’s a wide of  range of experiences. It can range from a low sensory-enhancement level–where you see a lot of pretty colors and images, and afterwards you just say, now let’s go out and get back to work–up to really deep levels of insight into the nature of one’s mind. So there’s a very wide range of experiences that are possible with psychedelics.

But with NDEs there is the feeling of being absolutely beyond one’s life experience. This raises interesting possibilities then because not everybody who comes near death reports having had a NDE. Could there be a lot of NDEs that are psychologically repressed? Does this happen sometimes? It’s an interesting discussion I’ve been having with some of my colleagues. If you do or don’t recover a memory of this state, how do you know if it’s something that really happened or not? It’s possible that our minds might make something up, or repress certain experiences, so it’s tricky. But it’s also quite interesting that some people come close to death and don’t report having a NDE.

David: What sort of relationship do you see between the NDE and various altered states of consciousness?

Charles: (Laughter) You’re asking me about my life’s work, David. My really active research has been on altered states of consciousness. I began my research on dreams and hypnosis and it was very fascinating stuff. I loved the laboratory work that I was doing, but I slowly became aware that there were a lot of other methods for altering consciousness, and a lot of different altered states. So I had to stop specializing so much, and tried to get a feeling for that whole spectrum, including psychedelics, and learned about methods like meditation. We also included emotional states of consciousness. So your question is almost like asking, what’s the relationship of life to life? You’ve got to narrow it down more specifically. (Laughter)

David: I guess I was just looking to see if there were any aspects of a NDE that are common in other altered states of consciousness, or whether you think there’s something really unique about a NDE.

Charles: Oh, I think it’s pretty unique. Very few people have had a near-death experience, and say, well, there was a little element of this and a little element of that.

David: I’ve heard of some situations where people had hellish NDEs.

Charles: Yes, there are a few like that. The fact that there are only a few is disappointing to right-wing Christians, who think the majority of people should get a taste of Hell, because that’s what they deserve. But it’s very rarely reported. The rarity of reports might be because they actually are very rare. Or it might mean that a lot of cases, if you look at them more closely, are partially forgotten or not reported quite accurately. A NDE could also be very scary to some people who are really afraid of OBEs or altered states of consciousness. Or it might be that they are much more common than we think, but people just don’t report them. Can you imagine someone saying, “I almost died and God told me that I was going to Hell.” That’s not a very good way to enter a social relationship. (Laughter)

David: (Laughter) No, I guess not. Charles, what do you personally think happens to consciousness after death?

Charles: After doing more than fifty years of professional work with consciousness now, one of the things that’s really been interesting to me is that its become more and more clear that there’s an aspect of consciousness that appears to transcend physical or material reality. At the same time, it’s also clear to me that a lot of our ordinary consciousness is very dependent on being shaped by the nature of our bodies, or at least by our brains. Clearly, that shaping is completely gone from one’s reality after death.

I was once asked what I thought about the evidence for survival after death, and I summed it up by saying this. When I die, I expect that I’ll probably be unconsciousness for a bit–but I expect to recover from it. On the other hand, I’m not quite sure that the “I” that will recover from death will be the same “I” who dies. I think that there’s going to be some major changes in whatever survives, and this is a gross generalization.

There is a very large body of literature about the possibility that consciousness survives death, and I’ve been running a discussion group with many of the world’s experts about this  for years. The commonality of the NDE helped to decrease my bias against what I thought was an impossibility. However, I think that although consciousness probably survives death, it probably doesn’t survive in quite the same form as we’re used to. However, if people merely believe in an afterlife it may influence their interpretation of the evidence.

David: I think that it’s just so fascinating that, depending on how one looks at the situation, there’s an abundance of evidence both for and against the survival of consciousness after death. Like psychic phenomena, I think that a big part of what people usually believe about what happens to consciousness after death is based more upon their spiritual or philosophical assumptions than on an examination of the scientific evidence.

Charles: I should also add here too that I’m one of the few people who tried to say, let’s rationally look at the phenomena that might suggest survival, and try and make sense of it–with a little proviso that ordinary rationality is not the only way to understand something. That was very hard to do, and very few people, I think, are anywhere near objectively looking at the evidence at all. Most people form a belief, stubbornly try to protect it, and don’t want to look at anything that might challenge that belief.

Earlier in this conversation I said that I’d like to see a fair, evidence-based comparison between the NDE and other states of consciousness, but I discovered that people, even doctors, aren’t usually interested in asking questions that challenge their beliefs. But this is not science. To me, everything is open to examination. Everything. Now, this doesn’t mean we can really see everything, but we have to look at everything–even those areas where we have a lot of emotional investment.

 

Roland Griffiths, Ph.D.

Psilocybin Studies and the Religious Experience:
An Interview with Roland Griffiths, Ph.D.

By David Jay Brown
Roland  Griffiths, Ph.D is a psychopharmachologist and professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins University in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Although  Dr. Griffiths’ psychopharmacology research has been at the cutting-edge of neuroscience for over thirty-five years, he is probably best known for having led the landmark study with psilocybin, published in the August, 2006 issue of Psychopharmacology, under the title, “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”

This study confirmed what many people had long suspected, and it also helped to join Dr. Griffiths’ two most passionate personal interests–neuroscience and meditation. I interviewed Roland on December 18, 2009. Roland was very gracious, reflective, and appeared to choose his words carefully. We spoke about his research with psilocybin, his interest in spiritual experiences, and how psychedelics may provide help for people who are dying.

David: How did you become interested in doing psilocybin research?

Roland: : I’m trained as a psychopharmachologist. I was trained in both experimental psychology and pharmacology. For the past thirty-five years, I’ve been doing work in both the animal lab and the human lab, characterizing the effects of mood-altering drugs, mostly drugs of abuse. About fifteen years ago, I took up a meditation practice that opened up a spiritual window for me, and made me very curious about the nature of mystical experience and spiritual transformation. It also prompted an existential question for me about the meaningfulness of my own research program in drug abuse pharmacology.

On reflecting about the history of psychopharmacology and the claims that had been made about the classical hallucinogens occasioning mystical and spiritual experience, I became intrigued about whether I could turn the direction of some of my research program toward addressing those kinds of questions. Through a confluence of interactions and introductions, I first met Robert Jesse of the Council of Spiritual Practices, and he introduced me to Bill Richards, who had a long history of working with these compounds from the 1960s and 70s. We decided that we would undertake a research project characterizing the effects of psilocybin.

The initial study that we undertook was really a comparative pharmacology study aimed at rigorously characterizing the effects of psilocybin using the kinds of measures that have been developed in clinical pharmacology over the last fifty years — measures that we had used extensively in our past research. However, we added another piece to that study, which came from my interest in spirituality. It really provided an opportunity for me to start reading about the psychology of religion, and looking closely into kinds of measures that might tap those type of experiences.

So the final publication of that first study, which came out in 2006, really reads as though it were intended to focus exclusively on mystical experience. The title of that paper, “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance,” underscores the most interesting finding from the study. But, in fact, I went into that study, although very curious about spirituality, completely agnostic about the outcome of the study. I didn’t believe, necessarily, that psilocybin would occasion compelling mystical experiences of the type that I had become so interested in through mediation.

David: : How did the findings from the first study motivate you to do additional research, and can you talk a little about the more recent psilocybin studies that you’re involved in?

Roland: : After completing our first study and then publishing a 14-month follow-up report, we conducted a psilocybin dose-effect study in healthy volunteers that we have yet to publish. Currently, we have a study in anxious cancer patients that’s ongoing (www.cancer.org), and, with Matt Johnson, we are also conducting a small pilot study examining psilocybin-facilitated cigarette smoking treatment. We also just initiated a study that will focus on psilocybin and spiritual practices. We will be giving psilocybin to people who are interested in undertaking meditation, and spiritual awareness practices, to determine how a psilocybin experience impacts their engagement with those practices.

Let me back up just a little bit. The first study showed that psilocybin can, with high probability, occasion mystical-type experiences that appear virtually identical to naturally-occurring mystical experiences that had been described by mystics and other religious figures throughout the ages. We knew that these mystical-type experiences spontaneously occurred occasionally, although unpredictably. It seems that the frequency of such experiences increase under conditions when people fast, meditate, or engage in intense pray or other kinds of ritual or spiritual practice. However, these experiences still occur at relatively low rate.

What our studies are showing is that such experiences can be occasioned at relatively high probability. In the most recent study that we conducted, more than seventy percent of our volunteers had complete mystical experiences as measured by psychometric scales. An important implication of demonstrating that we can occasion these experiences with high probability is that it suggests that such experiences are biologically normal. Another important implication is that It now becomes possible, for the first time, to conduct rigorous prospective research, investigating both the antecedent causes as well as the consequences these kinds of experiences.

With regard to antecedent causes, it becomes possible to ask what kind of personality, genetic, or disposition characteristics increase the probability of these experiences. We described some of the consequences of the mystical experience in our first study, and certainly they’ve been well described in the broader literature on religion, mysticism, and entheogens. These involve shifts in attitudes and behavior, and some cognitive functions that appear quite positive.

Our interest in examining the effects of psilocybin-occasioned mystical experience in anxious cancer patients was that it appeared to be an immediately relevant therapeutic target. It’s very common for patients with cancer to develop chronically and clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression that have a significant negative impact on quality of life. The existing pharmacological and psychological treatments for depression and anxiety in patients with cancer and other terminal illnesses, are currently very limited. Epidemiological data show that spirituality has a protective effect on psychological response to serious illness. We also know that spiritual well-being is negatively correlated with hopelessness in cancer patients, and that cancer patients are interested in addressing issues of spirituality.

Importantly, there had been substantial previous work in cancer patients in the 1960s and early 1970s with LSD and other classical hallucinogens. Research had been done by Bill Richards, Stan Grof and others at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. In fact, Bill’s Ph.D. thesis research focused on this topic. So there was a very good clinical sense that cancer patients would be an interesting target group. Also, having personally looked closely at the spiritual experiences that people in our first studies had reported, it seemed obvious to me that psychologically distressed cancer patients were a very appropriate group to study.

David: : Have you seen anything in your sessions that influenced your understanding of, or perspective on, death?

Roland: : The hallmark feature of the mystical experience, that we can now occasion with high probability, is this sense of the interconnectedness of all things — a sense of unity. That sense of unity is often accompanied by a sense of sacredness, a sense of openheartedness or love, and a noetic quality suggesting that this experience is more real than everyday waking consciousness. I believe that the experience of unity is of key importance to understanding the potential existential shifts that people can undergo after having these kinds of experiences.

Within the domain of the psychology of religion, scholars have described two variations of this experience of unity — something called “introverted mystical experience” and another called “extroverted mystical experience.” The extroverted version of this sense of unity was assessed by items in one of the spiritual questionnaires that we used, the Hood Mysticism Scale. I’ll read you a couple of items. One is, “An experience in which I felt that all things were alive.” Some of the others are: “An experience in which all things seem to be aware.” “Realized the oneness of myself with all things.” “An experience where all things seemed to be conscious.” “An experience where all things seemed to be unified into a single whole.” “An experience in which I felt nothing was really dead.”

So this feature of mystical experiences point toward the nature of consciousness, and an intuition that consciousness is alive and pervades everything. From there, it is not a great stretch to contemplate the possibility of the continuity of consciousness – or, more traditionally, immortal soul. Such an experience can break down a restrictive sense of being defined by your body, in a total materialistic framework. So I think that it’s these subtle and not-so-subtle perceptual shifts that could be at the core to rearranging someone’s attitude about death.

David: : Is this why you think that psychedelics can be helpful in assisting people with the dying process?

Roland: : It’s very common for people who have profound mystical-type experiences to report very positive changes in attitudes about themselves, their lives, and their relationships with others. People often report shifts in a core sense of self. Positive changes in mood are common, along with shifts toward altruism — like being more sensitive to the needs of others, and feeling a greater need to be of service to others. It is not difficult to imagine that such attitudinal shifts flow directly from the sense of unity and other features of the mystical experience — a profound sense of the interconnectedness of all things packaged in a benevolent framework of a sense of sacredness, deep reverence, openhearted love and a noetic quality of truth. So it’s quite plausible that the primary mystical experience not only underlies changes attitude toward death specifically, but also changes attitudes about self, life, and other people in a way that’s dramatically uplifting.

David: : What sort of promise do you see for the future of psilocybin research?

Roland: : I’m trained as a scientist, so I’m very interested in all of the scientific questions that can be asked of this experience. I’m interested in the neuropharmacology of the experience. I’m interested in the psychological and physiological determinants of this kind of experience. And then I’m interested in the consequence of this kind of experience — not only for healthy volunteers, but also for distressed individuals who might have a therapeutic or clinical benefit.

Now, whether or not unpacking those scientific questions will lead to approval of psilocybin as a therapeutic drug, I don’t know — and, in some ways, it’s not important one way or another.

For me, what’s most important is understanding the mechanisms that occasion these kinds of experiences. So I will not argue the future is with psilocybin per se. But it does appear to be an amazingly interesting tool for unlocking these mysteries of human consciousness. As we get a better understanding of the underlying neuropharmacology and neurophysiology, it may be that better compounds or nonpharmacological techniques can be developed that occasion these experiences with even higher probability than we can right now with psilocybin.

Frankly, I can’t think of anything more important to be studying. As I’ve said, the core feature of the mystical experience is this strong sense of the interconnectedness of all things, where there’s a rising sense of not only self-confidence and clarity, but of communal responsibility — of altruism and social justice – a felt sense of the Golden Rule: To do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And those kinds of sensibilities are at the core of all of the world’s religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions. Understanding the nature of these effects, and their consequences, may be key to the survival of our species.

David: : That was precisely the point that I was trying to make when I edited the MAPS Bulletin about ecology and psychedelics. Psychedelics have played such an important role in inspiring people to become more ecological aware.

Roland: : Yes, that follows from the altruistic sensibility that may flow from these types of experiences. Ecology can become a big deal with these experiences. If you really experience the interconnectedness of all things and the consciousness pervades all things, then you have to take care of other people and the planet, right? And to bring this back around to death and dying, if everything is conscious, then death and dying may not be so frightening. There is a big and mysterious story here.

Ray Kurzweil – 2

Reprogramming your Biochemistry for Immortality:
An Interview with Ray Kurzweil

By David Jay Brown

Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist, software developer, inventor, entrepreneur, philosopher, and a leading proponent of radical life extension. He is the coauthor (with Terry Grossman, M.D.) of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, which is one of the most intriguing and exciting books on life extension around. Kurzweil and Grossman’s approach to health and longevity combines the most current and practical medical knowledge with a soundly-based, yet awe-inspiring visionary perspective of what’s to come.

Kurzweil’s philosophy is built upon the premise that we now have the knowledge to identify and correct the problems caused by most unhealthy genetic predispositions. By taking advantage of the opportunities afforded us by the genomic testing, nutritional supplements, and lifestyle adjustments, we can live long enough to reap the benefits of advanced biotechnology and nanotechnology, which will ultimately allow us to conquer aging and live forever. At the heart of Kurzweil’s optimistic philosophy is the notion that human knowledge is growing exponentially, not linearly, and this fact is rarely taken into account when people try to predict the rate of technological advance in the future. Kurzweil predicts that at the current rate of knowledge expansion we’ll have the technology to completely conquer aging within the next couple of decades.

Part of what makes Kurzweil’s upbeat vision of the future so appealing is his impressive track record as an inventor and engineer, as well as the success of his past predictions. Kurzweil is a leading expert in speech and pattern recognition, and he invented a vast array of computer marvels. He was the principal developer of the first omni-font (any type font) optical character recognition software, the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition systes, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments.

Kurzweil has successfully founded and developed ten businesses in speech recognition, reading technology, music synthesis, virtual reality, financial investment, medical simulation, and cybernetic art. In 2002 Kurzweil was inducted into the U.S. Patent Office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation’s largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony, and has received twelve honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.

In addition to coauthoring Fantastic Voyage, Kurzweil wrote The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, and several best selling books on the evolution of intelligence–including The Age of Intelligent MachinesThe Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity Is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil’s books on the evolution of intelligence read like mind-bending science fiction, but are based on a scientific analysis of technology trends. Kurzweil predicts that computer intelligence will exceed human intelligence in only a few decades, and that it won’t be long after that before humans start merging with machines, blurring the line between technology and biology.

Kurzweil works in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I spoke with Ray on February 8, 2006. Ray speaks very precisely, and he chooses his words carefully. He presents his ideas with a lot of confidence, and I found his optimism to be contagious. We spoke about the importance of genomic testing, some of the common misleading ideas that people have about health, and how biotechnology and nanotechnology will radically effect our longevity in the future.

David: What inspired your interest in life extension?

Ray: Probably the first incident that got me on this path was my father’s illness. This began when I was fifteen, and he died seven years later of heart disease when I was twenty-two. He was fifty-eight. I’ll actually be fifty-eight this Sunday. I sensed a dark cloud over my future, feeling like there was a good chance that I had inherited his disposition to heart disease. When I was thirty-five, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and the conventional medical approach made it worse.

So I really approached the situation as an inventor, as a problem to be solved. I immersed myself in the scientific literature, and came up with an approach that allowed me to overcome my diabetes. My levels became totally normal, and in the course of this process I discovered that I did indeed have a disposition, for example, to high cholesterol. My cholesterol was 280 and I also got that down to around 130. That was twenty-two years ago.
I wrote a bestselling health book, which came out in 1993 about that experience, and the program that I’d come up with. That’s what really got me on this path of realizing that–if you’re aggressive enough about reprogramming your biochemistry–you can find the ideas that can help you to overcome your genetic dispositions, because they’re out there. They exist.

About seven years ago, after my book The Age of Spiritual Machines came out in 1999, I was at a Foresight Institute conference. I met Terry Grossman there, and we struck up a conversation about this subject–nutrition and health. I went to see him at his longevity clinic in Denver for an evaluation, and we built a friendship. We started exchanging emails about health issues–and that was 10,000 emails ago. We wrote this book Fantastic Voyage together, which really continues my quest. And he also has his own story about how he developed similar ideas, and how we collaborated.

There’s really a lot of knowledge available right now, although, previously, it has not been packaged in the same way that we did it. We have the knowledge to reprogram our biochemistry to overcome disease and aging processes. We can dramatically slow down aging, and we can really overcome conditions such as atherosclerosis, that leads to almost all heart attacks and strokes, diabetes, and we can substantially reduce the risk of cancer with today’s knowledge. And, as you saw from the book, all of that is just what we call ‘Bridge One’. We’re not saying that taking lots of supplements and changing your diet is going enable you to live five hundred years. But it will enable Baby Boomers–like Dr. Grossman and myself, and our contemporaries–to be in good shape ten or fifteen years from now, when we really will have the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, which is ‘Bridge Two’.

Now, this gets into my whole theory of information technology. Biology has become an information technology. It didn’t used to be. Biology used to be hit or miss. We’d just find something that happened to work. We didn’t really understand why it worked, and, invariably, these tools, these drugs, had side-effects. They were very crude tools. Drug development was called drug discovery, because we really weren’t able to reprogram biology. That is now changing. Our understanding of biology, and the ability to manipulate it, is becoming an information technology. We’re understanding the information processes that underlie disease processes, like atherosclerosis, and we’re gaining the tools to reprogram those processes.

Drug development is now entering an era of rational drug design, rather than drug discovery. The important point to realize is that the progress is exponential, not linear. Invariably people–including sophisticated people–do not take that into consideration, and it makes all the difference in the world. The mainstream skeptics declared the fifteen year genome project a failure after seven and half years because only one percent of the project was done. The skeptics said, I told you this wasn’t going to work–here you are halfway through the project and you’ve hardly done anything. But the progress was exponential, doubling every year, and the last seven doublings go from one percent to a hundred percent. So the project was done on time. It took fifteen years to sequence HIV. We sequenced the SARS virus in thirty-one days.

There are many other examples of that. We’ve gone from ten dollars to sequence one base pair in 1990 to a penny today. So in ten or fifteen years from now it’s going to be a very different landscape. We really will have very powerful interventions, in the form of rationally-designed drugs that can precisely reprogram our biochemistry. We can do it to a large extent today with supplements and nutrition, but it takes a more extensive effort. We’ll have much more powerful tools fifteen years from, so I want it to be in good shape at that time.

Most of my Baby Boomer contemporaries are completely oblivious of this perspective. They just assume that aging is part of the cycle of human life, and at 65 or 70 you start slowing down. Then at eighty you’re dead. So they’re getting ready to retire, and are really unaware

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Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.

Shamanic Medicines & Eco-Consciousness:
A Conversation with Dennis McKenna, Ph.D.
By David Jay Brown

Ethnopharmacologist Dennis Mckenna, Ph.D. is one of the world’s experts in tryptamine hallucinogens. He received his doctorate in Botanical Science in 1984 from the University of British Columbia, and was a primary organizer and key scientific collaborator for the Hoasca Project, an international biomedical study of ayahuasca. McKenna has conducted extensive ethnobotanical fieldwork in the Peruvian, Colombian, and Brazilian Amazon, has helped to develop natural products into medicines, and is the author of more than 35 scientific papers. McKenna also coauthored The Invisible Landscape with his brother Terence. To follow are excerpts from a recent interview that I did with Dennis about ecology and psychedelics, followed by an excerpt from his essay “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny.” The complete interview that I did with Dennis will appear in my forthcoming book, Renaissance of the Mind, and his complete essay, along with references, is available at:www.maps.org/news-letters –DJB

David: I’m curious about what type of relationship you see between psychedelics and ecology. Do you see psychedelics playing a role to help increase ecological awareness?

Dennis: I do. I talk about this in my essay “Ayahuasca and Human Destiny.” I think that this is probably what’s going on, and it’s not just with ayahuasca–it’s with all of these psychedelic plants that are used in shamanic traditions. Rather than use the term “entheogen,” which has one kind of connotation, or “psychedelic,” which has another connotation, I prefer the term “shamanic medicine.” The term hallucinogen doesn’t fully describe these plants either, and, in fact, it kind of misdescribes what they’re about. But I like the term “shamanic medicines.”

In a sense, these are plants that are at the core of a set of indigenous practices, having to do with deliberately inducing altered states of consciousness, in such a way that one can learn from those altered states. Whether, in fact, this actually involves supernatural realms, or some sort of super-consciousness, I don’t know, but that is really what shamanism is about. And I think that what we’re seeing in the millennia-old association between shamanic medicines, or psychedelic plants, and humans is essentially a symbiosis, a form of co-evolution.

This is nothing really that unusual in the plant kingdom. Plants and fungi make a large variety of so-called secondary molecules. There’s an enormous chemical diversity of these secondary compounds, and they’re not essential for life because they don’t occur in all species. But in the species that do make them, they serve a function–and the function that they serve is basically a messenger function. In a sense, the secondary compounds are a language for the plants. It’s the way that plants communicate with other organisms in their environments and maintain their relationships. In some cases the communication is quite simple. It can be something like a repellent, or a defensive compound. But when you’re interacting with organisms that have complex nervous systems, it gets a little more interesting, a little more complicated, and I think that bottom line on the evolutionary scale is that these plants are teachers.

This isn’t really a scientific theory. It’s more a personal belief, I suppose–but it’s one that is verifiable to an extent. These plants are trying to teach our species about nature, and about how we fit into that. In some ways, you could say it’s essentially a conduit to a community of species’ mind. Or, if you subscribe to the idea that all of the species on the planet are organized into something like a conscious being, like Gaia, then these are the tools that let us communicate directly with Gaia, directly with that consciousness. This is done for all sorts of reasons, but partly, I think, to understand both nature, and the processes that go on within it.

For example, shamans use psychedelic plants all the time to understand the properties of other plants that they may use for curing or other types of activities. So there is a library of information out there, and psychedelic plants are kind of like the operating system that lets you access that and understand it. So I think that’s part of the purpose of these things.

I think that the other part of the message–at least in my own personal experiences with psychedelics, and in many other people’s–is that Gaia, if you will, through these plants, through these substances that seem so close to our neural chemistry, is trying to tell us to wake up, to realize the context in which we inhabit this ecology, and reorder our thinking accordingly. The message is that we’re part of nature, and that we have to nurture nature. We have to be humble, and, as a species, we’re not particularly humble. And we have to understand that we don’t own nature, and nature is not there for us to exploit, deplete, and destroy. We have to rediscover a different attitude toward nature, a different way of looking at nature, and living in nature.

And I think that in indigenous cultures, where psychedelic shamanism plays a role, they don’t really have a problem with this. This is why their cultures can be sustainable, and they can live in natural ecologies for long periods of time without really depleting their resources or spoiling their habitats. I think that the message, in some ways, has gotten more desperate. Or maybe it’s our perception that it’s more desperate, as Western culture has become more estranged from nature. And a lot of very peculiar attitudes have cropped up in Western culture, that have now been propagated globally, which I think are very unhealthy and very threatening to the stability of the planet.

So if there is an intelligence resident in nature, that communicates to us through psychedelics, it’s getting a little hysterical. It’s like, hey pick up the phone and listen! There’s important information that you need to hear. So I think that’s where the connection comes with ecology, in connecting with this planetary consciousness, for a number of reasons. One of the things that psychedelics do–and this has been well elucidated through neurophysiology and neuroscience–is they activate (or perhaps in some way they suppress) those parts of the limbic system, those parts of the brain, that are involved with defining the boundaries between the self and the world. They dissolve those boundaries, and we invest a lot of time in defining who we are and what separates us from everything else out there–when, in fact, this is an illusion.

We know that we are all part of a continuum, and a model that’s closer to reality is to realize that we are all one. It’s not simply a cliché. In some ways, that’s a more accurate understanding of how we are and how we fit in the world than the idea that we’re just individual particles separated by barriers from everything else. And I think one thing that psychedelics teach, as many other spiritual traditions do, is that we’re all one, and that it’s an important lesson to learn–especially at this stage. We’re not going to save the planet, we’re not going to fundamentally change the way that we relate to nature, until we take that lesson, understand it, take it to heart, and try to express it in the way that we live and the way that we think. Psychedelics teach many lessons, but at this historical juncture I think that this may be the most important one for our culture, and for our society.

I think that back at the end of the 60s, two things did more to change our perspective as a race, as a species–of who we are and what our place in the universe is–than probably anything else previously. One of them was psychedelics. The other one was going to the moon–or, more specifically, that first photograph of the Earth from space. I think that the first time that we were able to look at ourselves, in a sense, from out there and realize what a small planet we are–what a small part of the totality our supposedly very important affairs are–was a very humbling experience. That helped to put us into perspective, or, at least, in sum they did. I really think that those two things were what sparked, or initiated, what we might call eco-consciousness.

Daniel Siebert

Salvia divinorum and Ecological Awareness

An Interview with Daniel Siebert
By David Jay Brown

Ethnobotanist Daniel Siebert discovered the psychoactive effects of salvinorin A, the primary psychoactive component of the Mexican hallucinogenic plant Salvia divinorum, which is currently being studied for a variety of medical applications. Salvinorin A is considered by a number of researchers to be an attractive compound for pharmacological development because it is a selective and potent kappa-opioid receptor agonist with unique structural properties, strong effects on human mood, and low toxicity. There has been increasing scientific evidence that the pharmacological properties of salvinorin A and/or its chemical analogs may have applications as an antidepressant and pain reliever, as well as possibly treating some types of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and stimulant drug dependence. For more information see: www.sagewisdom.org.

David: Do you think that Salvia divinorum helps to increase ecological awareness and one’s connection to nature?

Daniel: In some sense. I think that when salvia is taken at moderate doses, people often find that they do feel tremendously connected with the natural world. People often describe that as a wonderful feeling, like an extension of their sense of self, where they feel that the ordinary boundaries that divide their sense of self from the world at large dissolve. They feel that their sense of self has expanded, and they feel at one with the natural world–especially when people take it outdoors in a natural setting.

There’s this tremendous connection with the natural world. Birds fly by, and you feel like you understand what it feels like to be a bird. Things like that. Often people feel that there’s a sense of life in the natural world that they were unaware of before. All of the plants seem to have an existential property. Suddenly they have the presence of individual beings, and sometimes this sense of aliveness extends even beyond living things–to where the mountains, the clouds, and everything seem like living entities. So, in that sense, yes it does foster a connection with the natural world, and, I think, a greater appreciation for it. But that’s not something that it does reliably for everybody. It’s something that seems to only be somewhat related. 

Unfortunately, I think that most people experimenting with salvia these days are taking excessively high doses. Most people are smoking these highly concentrated extracts–that are widely available commercially–and are having really brief, extraordinarily intense, disorientating experiences that people are just baffled by. Often these intense experiences are entirely internal, because in high doses people lose all awareness of the physical environments around them. So, when people do it that way, I don’t think that they’re connecting with the natural world at all, except with their own internal natural world. To use salvia in a way that fosters a reconnection with the natural world, I think, it’s best to take it orally, in an outdoor setting, away from cities, people, and those kinds of things.

James Ketchum, M.D.

Psychedelic Warfare? Exploring the Potential of Psychoactive Weapons
An Interview with James Ketchum, M.D.
By David Jay Brown

James Ketchum, M.D. is a retired Army colonel, a Board Certified psychiatrist, and an Assistant Clinical professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. He received his M.D. from Cornell Medical School, and is the author of the book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten.

During the 1960s, Ketchum was a research director for the Army’s Chemical Center at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, where thousands of U.S. soldiers served as volunteers for the secret testing of psychedelic and deliriant drugs as incapacitating agents. The goal was to develop non-lethal military weapons, which could be used to temporarily knock people out without necessarily hurting them.

I found Ketchum’s book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten to be absolutely fascinating and difficult to put down. It’s a treasure chest of rare information, compiled from a massive amount of research that I was largely unaware of. The book is filled with many interesting personal photographs, humorous anecdotes, and it is compulsively readable. Most importantly, it fills a vital historical gap in the archives of psychedelic drug research. From 1955 to 1975 several thousand U.S. soldiers served as volunteer test subjects for psychedelic drugs (such as LSD and strong cannabis derivatives), and deliriant drugs (such BZ and other belladonnoid compounds), where they were administered a battery of physical and cognitive performance tests to see how well they could perform under the drug’s influence.

While reading Ketchum’s book, I was struck by the strange historical irony, that some of the very drugs that were associated in the 1960s with the counterculture’s antiwar movement in America were–at the very same time–being researched as secret military weapons. While the thought of government-funded experiments into chemical warfare agents may give you the chills, Ketchum maintains that his research was motivated by the desire to save human lives and develop more humane, non-lethal weapons. Part of his motivation for writing his book was to clear up the misconceptions that many people in the media have about the Army’s all-volunteer research program, often confused with the CIA’s notorious and nefarious MK-ULTRA mind control program that sometimes even administered LSD to ordinary unwitting U.S. citizens.

Ketchum is a difficult man to pigeonhole, as he has always been somewhat of a maverick. In 1966 he was granted two years off from his research at Edgewood Arsenal to become a post-doc in neuropsychology with Karl Pribram at Stanford University. While in California he spent time documenting the psychedelic subculture in the Bay Area on film, and volunteered time as a physician at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. Ketchum also supports research into the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis and psychedelics; he served for several years as a member of NORML (the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws) and is still active in MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Research). Ketchum’s book contains a Foreword by the legendary psychedelic chemist Alexander Shulgin. Popular cyber culture commentator Ken Goffman (aka RUSirius, author of Mondo 2000) helped with the editing of the book. In 2007, Ketchum even lectured at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, so he’s demonstrated a rare ability to communicate across some pretty varied subcultures.

I spoke with Ketchum on September 8, 2008. I found Jim to be very gracious and he appears to have a lot of integrity when he talks about his research. We discussed his studies at Edgewood Arsenal, why chemical warfare agents may be more humane than traditional weapons, the future of chemical warfare, and the possible therapeutic potential of psychedelics. To find out more about Dr. Ketchum’s work, visit his Web site: http://forgottensecrets.net

David: How did you become interested in psychiatry?

Jim: When I was eight years old I wrote a composition in class that stated I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up and “help struggling humanity.” So when I entered college I started as a pre-med student. Then I shifted briefly to a philosophy major. I left it to major in clinical psychology, and finally reverted to pre-med.  I focused my eye on psychiatry when I got through all this switching around. I got the necessary training in medicine at Cornell University Medical School, but then entered the Army for my internship and residency training. It was only near the end of my residency that the story starts, as far as chemical warfare goes.
David: When you graduated from medical school, what was your initial reaction when you were first approached by the military to do secret research into incapacitating agents?

Jim: The invitation came more than four years after completing medical school, and was actually somewhat of a happenstance. The Edgewood Arsenal program of research into chemical weapons had started to focus on incapacitating agents–which is to say non-lethality, or low lethality agents. No psychiatrist had been assigned to the Medical Labs and a disturbing psychiatric reaction had occurred in one of their studies. My mentor at Walter Reid, Dr. David Rioch, called me in and said a psychiatrist was needed at Edgewood Arsenal and would I be interested in such an assignment? I grabbed at it because it seemed challenging and really interesting.

David: What were some of the chemical agents that you studied at Edgewood and what did you learn about them?

Jim: Before my arrival LSD was the only agent that had been studied in some detail. My predecessor, Dr. Van Sim initiated and supervised most of the human research prior to 1961.  But a new and different agent was provided to the Army a few months before I arrived.  Over time it was referred to by a number of names, but finally was called simply BZ. I spent the better part of three years studying it intensively and eventually writing up a detailed summary. I also did, however, some additional work with LSD, and with a variant of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), provided by Harry Pars, a chemist at A.D. Little, with some technical guidance by Dr. Alexander Shulgin, primarily known, then and now, for his creative synthesis of psychedelic drugs.

It was evident that this variant of THC had several times the potency of THC found in marijuana, so there was speculation that it might be powerful enough to be useful as an incapacitating agent. It certainly was predicted to be safe, much like the marijuana to which it was related, but it lacked sufficient intoxicating effects in the dose range we studied. It was obvious that it wouldn’t be a practical agent so after a brief trial with the volunteer subjects, I turned my attention almost entirely to BZ, whose effects I thereafter studied in detail with the help of more than three hundred highly cooperative enlisted soldiers.

Convinced of its effectiveness and safety, BZ was actually adopted by higher Army echelons as the first (and only) standard incapacitating agent. It was produced in quantity and loaded into volleyball sized bomblets for delivery as an aerosol from overhead aircraft. I had very little to do with this phase, nor was I particularly interested in the dispersal aspects.

Meanwhile, we continued to study additional compounds of similar type, which is to say the “belladonnoid” category since their effects were qualitatively very much like atropine, a drug approved for use for many centuries. Some people may be familiar with atropine, used as a pre-anesthetic to reduce salivation.

BZ differs from atropine in that it is about twenty times as potent and up to twenty times longer lasting than atropine. The dose required by injection or inhalation is only about half a milligram, enough to produce an incapacitating delirium lasting 48 to 96 hours, followed by full recovery.

The other compounds that came under scrutiny after BZ were often even better. Some acted relatively more on the central nervous system, with very little effect on heart rate, or blood pressure. Such physiological effects were more characteristic of atropine and BZ. We guessed that some similar agents might even be better from a safety standpoint. Thus, we went on to study about a dozen different compounds that were structural relatives of BZ–either shorter acting, longer acting, more potent, more predominantly central in action, and so forth. But meanwhile the Army seemed to lose interest in these compounds as a group and put them aside, perhaps primarily for political reasons related to the unpopular war in Viet Nam and the growing protest against chemical weapons of all types.

David: Why do you think that chemical warfare agents may be more humane than traditional weapons, and can you talk a little about what inspired you to write the book Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten?
Jim: It seemed obvious to me that chemical weapons that could produce non-lethal temporary incapacitation would be more humane than conventional deadly weapons. You have to go back in time and change your mindset a little to understand what I mean. Back to the early 1960s the idea of developing a non-lethal chemical weapon was generally accepted and even encouraged. The notion started out with Chief of the Chemical Corps, Major General William Creasy, who had developed the somewhat idealistic belief that LSD might be such a weapon. He became wildly enthusiastic about it and presented his arguments to Congress. As I try to point out in my book, “harm reduction” was just as important to the Army then as it is among civilians today in relation to drug problems.

Congress, in 1955, was wildly enthusiastic about Creasy’s vision of a city being temporarily neutralized with LSD in order to carry out a military mission with minimal loss of life. They voted, with only one naysayer, to triple the Chemical Corps budget, as requested, and they gave their blessing to further LSD research. I shared the enthusiasm expressed by Congress and felt I was working toward a very noble goal. My feelings haven’t changed in that regard but, after I left Edgewood in 1971, I went on to other assignments and left the whole program behind me.

After 1970, I knew the Army was winding down this research, and that I had done all I had set out to do with incapacitating agents. I let the subject slip to the back of my mind, since I had many other new things to do. After most of the documents from the 1960s were declassified most of the physicians involved had gone their separate ways and had no further interest in such work. But I believed that perhaps I should be putting all this together in some form, because no on else had done it. I had such an intention for quite a while, but my various other assignments–substance abuse treatment, drug education, and so on–prevented me from finding time to do it.

But it recently has become obvious that there is a reticence on the part of the government to talk much about what went on in the 1960s. Gradually it all seemed to fade from collective memory and the reports were relegated mostly to seldom-opened file cabinets.

Some people didn’t even know that there had been a program. One of the chemical officers was asked two decades later “What about that volunteer program back in the 60s?” and hiss response was “What program? There was no volunteer program.” The Army, of course, had not denied its existence, but it spent very little time telling anyone the details of what research had been done. I became upset because I felt that that the experimental work was extensive, detailed and important scientifically for the medical and pharmacological community to know about.

What pushed me past the edge of indecision, ultimately, was the 9/11 disaster, which soon led to a marked increase in public concern about chemical weapons, as well as with other so-called weapons of mass destruction. By the way, I make a point in my book that it’s really not accurate to refer to chemicals as weapons of mass destruction. In practical terms, only a small area could be effectively blanketed by an airborne chemical fog–certainly not a city or any large number of people (unless in a closed facility such as a domed stadium).

I finally sat down and started working on my book in 2002, at the age of seventy. It took me about four years to get it all together and I decided to publish it myself. Since then, although I’ve sent out less than 1,000 copies, it’s been purchased by readers in 16 or 17 countries, the latest being Russia.

David: Many people in the media have confused the Army Chemical Center’s research into psychedelics and deliriants in human volunteers, for use as non-lethal weapons, with the CIA’s MK-ULTRA project. Would you like to clarify the difference between these two programs?

Jim: They were entirely separate, and that was another stimulus to me to write this book. The public had acquired the notion that the CIA operations back in the 1950s–when they actually gave LSD to unwitting citizens–was somehow tied to the research that we did at Edgewood Arsenal with the same compound. In fact, it was not. The program that the CIA ran was so secret that most of the other members of the CIA didn’t know much about it.  When it finally came to light, its leader, Dr. Gottlieb, arranged to destroy all the records, so it is no longer possible to know who actually received it surreptitiously.

Edgewood, on the other hand, had a fully transparent program that was approved by the Surgeon General, the Secretary of the Army and the Secretary of Defense, so the program was not any kind of secret. Furthermore, the MK-ULTRA program conducted by the CIA was aimed at seeking drugs that could produce actual changes in behavior. They thought that perhaps they could give LSD to someone and make him confess to something he was holding back, or carry out some mission he had been told to carry out while under the drug’s influence. None of this was achieved, fortunately, and while these illegal experiments in progress, our laboratories at Edgewood began a totally different approach to the development of chemicals that could temporarily incapacitate without any lasting effects. They would be used only for short-term military purposes, and there was no thought of changing personalities, or getting people to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do.

In short, I wanted to articulate that these two programs were completely different, and I went to some length in my book to do so. I hope I succeeded because, really, I still feel quite proud of what we did while working for the Chemical Corps. As you can tell, I didn’t feel very good about the CIA work. A few years ago, in fact, I testified against the CIA in Federal Court as the sole expert witness for the prosecution. Much time was required before the trial writing reports and rebuttals on behalf of a former Deputy US Marshall. In my opinion, he was one of the “ordinary American citizens” who were given LSD covertly in the late 1950s, at the same time other black CIA operations were being carried out close to his place of work.

Although there were several other factors that pointed definitely to the covert use of LSD in that case the judge, unfortunately, didn’t buy it. She said it was possible, but not fully proven and the hearing was ended prematurely. His attorney took it to the Appeals Court and tried unsuccessfully to bring it to the Supreme Court, but so far has been unsuccessful. This poor guy’s life was ruined as a result of his erratic behavior after consuming the drug in a drink at a Christmas party. In short, he was an unwitting victim of the CIA’s unethical behavior, in my opinion, and experienced something he didn’t understand and couldn’t handle. That sort of deception is really the differentiation I have tried to make between the CIA activities and the Army’s later bona fide research with LSD.

David: What sort of reactions have you received from government officials and others who have read your book?http://mavericksofthemind.com/blog/?p=344http://mavericksofthemind.com/blog/?p=344

Jim: It’s interesting. Somehow, I seem to have managed to walk a line that didn’t require me to be a strong advocate in any particular direction. I wasn’t arguing for or against these incapacitating agents. But I thought we should be talking about them, and I thought the public ought to know what we did back there in the 1960s. My book is really a truthful story, supported by pharmacological data, and it was well received by the Chemical Corps people when they learned about it. A number of them bought copies and surprisingly, I was even invited back to Edgewood Arsenal after thirty years to give a keynote address at a major international science conference. It must have been favorably received because I was invited back the next year to give a similar presentation.

So, from the Chemical Corps’ perspective, my revelations of previously unpublished data seemed to present no problem. It was reviewed positively in military publications. It caught the eye of Steven Aftergood, who publishes Secrecy News DailyUSA Today, in turn, chose to write an illustrated article about me and the book. This was followed by a number of published reviews, mostly positive in tone.

The counterculture, on the other hand, which you might think would be skeptical of anything the Army approved of, also liked the book. I think that this was because of the informative content, including the details of the effects of LSD, THC, and other compounds that weren’t available anywhere else. A number of them have written me letters of congratulations and thanks, and have told me that I’ve preserved a bit of history.

Of course I feel good about it and this may sound funny, but I’ve also had no crank phone calls, no letters of protests. I’ve had very few negative comments about the book. There were some reservations expressed by some reviewers, mostly on the matter of informed consent. I argue, however, in some detail, that we really provided more informed consent than many research programs did in those days, but some people think that because we didn’t reveal the name of the drug, these weren’t truly ethical studies.

However, with regard to informed consent, subjects rarely felt they had been insufficiently informed. We created several hoops to jump through, before even being invited to spend two months with us, and consent forms were required not only on arrival, but before each and every test. Many volunteers were not averse to receiving two or more different agents.  Some even agreed to undergo a high dose BZ test twice, to permit double blind procedures.  Much preparation, in the form of baseline testing, preliminary discussion with the responsible physician and, if films or TV recordings were to be used, an additional consent in writing was required. Subjects spent a full day and the night before each procedure, during which they were familiarized with the test environment, and the performance and physiological measures required to establish reliable baselines. Thus, they had an extended opportunity to get to know the nurses and technicians who would be with them during the actual testing.

Although we adhered to the Nuremberg Code, if you read it carefully, it doesn’t really address the subject of testing drugs. There are two provisions that either require the responsible doctor to discontinue the experiment if it appears that it may be producing adverse effects, or to stop it immediately if the subject does not feel able to continue. If you give someone a drug, especially when you have no effective antidote available, there is no way to stop it until the drug itself wears off. So, obviously, the drafters of those provisions of the Nuremberg code weren’t thinking about drug testing but more probably of a physical procedure such as isolation, or tolerance to extreme cold–procedures that can indeed be interrupted at any time at the discretion of the physician or the subject.

While the general nature and duration of each test were explained in some detail, we were not allowed to reveal the name of the drug for security reasons (although subjects often figured out among themselves whether they were on a BZ or an LSD test). There was much paranoia about the Soviet Union learning from our experiments, so we used classified numbers to identify the agents being tested. Most of them had no ordinary names, so knowing their number or even their structure would be of no practical value if medical attention were required in the future.

We usually ended up with three to four times the number of volunteers that we could accept for any given two month assignment. Then, after they arrived, we examined and interviewed the subjects, and classified them into one of four levels. Only the “group A” individuals were considered eligible for the higher doses of psychoactive drugs. These would be soldiers who appeared to be unusually stable, based on their personal histories, MMPI profiles, lab tests and psychiatric interviews. We avoided volunteers who had a history of drug abuse or any criminal behavior. Overall, we had really superior subjects, with above average IQ’s, and half of them had at least a year of college education. In summary, they certainly weren’t “unwitting guinea pigs,” as so often described by the media.

David: One of the things that you hinted at in your book, just briefly, was that one of the LSD subjects might have experienced some sort of therapeutic benefit in one of your studies. What sort of therapeutic value do you think that psychedelic agents might have?

Jim: That’s a big subject. Actually, we weren’t looking for therapeutic effects. We weren’t trying to treat anyone. Nevertheless I observed one subject who seemed to undergo a therapeutic experience, as I detailed in a chapter. You might call his improved social behavior an unanticipated beneficial consequence.

In general, I think that the field of psychedelic drugs is a very fascinating one, and that such drugs ought to be studied with respect to their beneficial potential, rather than dishonestly outlawed as dangerous. It’s strange to me how vehement and irrational the prohibitory sanctions have become. With governmental approval, I think that some of the synthetic psychedelic drugs might indeed be useful medications. Actually, that’s starting to be recognized, in the case of MDMA (the drug called “Ecstasy” which Alexander Shulgin introduced to the public), and now a few limited therapeutic studies with LSD are also being carried out.  LSD was, of course, widely studied and used as an aid to psychotherapy until it was made illegal in 1965.

That put a stop to what was a promising avenue of research into the psychological and, some would say, spiritual potential of psychedelics. The draconian prohibitions and penalties our own government has established are both outrageous and, in the opinion of many including myself, unconstitutional. These drugs are not addicting. Psychedelics are certainly not to be compared to cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, morphine, or even alcohol, as far as addiction potential and medical harm are concerned.

Psychedelic drugs do seem to have the ability to open up an individual’s awareness of many surprising things that are actually hiding in their heads. Major insights can occur and people are often astonished “at what’s in there.” Sometimes the world appears in a totally new and propitious light. Bad feelings that they’ve had about themselves, for example, can often be alleviated by realizing that we’re all part of one universe and one family of human beings. And these insights often seem to carry over, long after the drug effects are gone.

Many people have described LSD in particular (and perhaps some of the other psychedelic drugs that haven’t been tried in more than a few people) as having these unique properties. Some really treasure the experience, and believe that it reshapes their life in some way. LSD has even been found to alleviate the suffering of dying individuals. Aldous Huxley was one of the first to advocate its use for this purpose. LSD given to patients during the final weeks or months of their illness, often seems to provide a much more serene feeling about death. The dying patient can see that death is part of the life cycle and that he or she will somehow continue on as part of the universe, even after death. One can only hope the government will eventually allow scientists to continue research with psychedelic drugs and allow their appropriate use by physicians and qualified therapists!

David: What was your personal experience with LSD like, and how did it affect your perspective on the research that you were doing at Edgewood?

Jim: I have to say that it was somewhat anticlimactic. I took it because, at a conference I attended in 1965, it seemed that everyone working with LSD had taken it one or more times. So I thought, “Gee, I’ve never even tried it. I guess I ought to.” And, with a little bit of trepidation, I took a relatively small dose–80 micrograms–which wouldn’t be considered in the incapacitating range by our testing criteria. I took it under the same conditions that I required of the volunteers–namely, being in a padded cubicle, doing arithmetic tests every hour or so, having to Draw-a-Man periodically, fill in checklists, and have my blood pressure, temperature, pupil size, respirations and heart rate checked by the nurses at frequent intervals.

So, although I was more of a “witting guinea pig” (if you will), not much occurred in the way of new insights. In fact, I didn’t even have any marked perceptual distortions. At a higher dose, however, such effects would no doubt have been more prominent. So, personally, I was a bit disappointed in my “trip.” It did not, however, influence my overall view of the research we were doing.  In fact, it reassured me that an LSD trip was something that one could actually go through and emerge intact. It helped corroborate my beliefs about the safety of the drugs that we were studying. They weren’t harming anyone as far as we could tell and we were learning much of value from testing them.

David: Did any of the subjects who were given LSD at Edgewood ever have anything resembling a mystical experience?

Jim: In this setting, I don’t recall hearing anyone say he did. The men certainly had a variety of experiences, but I’m not sure that the term “mystical” would apply. We used fairly low doses, for one thing. As I described in the book, the responses varied from being highly amused to being fascinated with the amazing otherworldly colors that they saw. Subjects did sometimes become irritated with the routine questions being asked, and sometimes they became paranoid about the whole situation. But I don’t recall any so-called “mystical” or “spiritual enlightenment” experiences. I think a lot depends on the setting and the intent of the study. If you give a drug to see how people will perform under the influence, then you mainly tend to ask “how well can you perform under the influence?”

If you give LSD to someone in a therapeutic setting–as with Cary Grant, who took it more than a hundred times as an adjunct to psychotherapy, as did many other luminaries in that era–then you tend to get more reports of a spiritual nature. Some degree of suggestion may play a part, by the way, but I don’t want to pour cold water on the notion that these drugs can indeed be very enlightening. LSD, for example doesn’t always produce a mystical result, but frequently it does, as testified to by many users. Some report it provides a new view of the world–a sense of belonging to a larger system. Some even believe they have been able to be briefly in touch with God or, for that matter, the entire universe. These are undoubtedly very memorable experiences. Although it doesn’t always happen, I do believe such an epiphany happens often enough to justify responsible use of such drugs. These drugs may also provide an enhanced basis for psychotherapy. But, of course, one can’t expect them to answer all of one’s psychological needs.

David: How do you envision the future of chemical warfare?

Jim: Oh boy, I don’t know. As mentioned, there’s strong opposition to chemical warfare agents in any form, including the incapacitating agents. In 1966, I exchanged letters with Matthew Meselson, a leading anti-proliferationist. His opinions haven’t changed much–he presents pretty much the same point of view now as he did then. We did have a cordial exchange. He argued that incapacitating agents might be okay in themselves, but he feared they would open the door to the use of more destructive chemicals. This is basically the familiar slippery slope argument so frequently invoked to discredit some new strategy. It was used by a Republican administration to justify the Viet Nam war, for example. Recently, however, I did seem to succeed in persuading a few people, active in the anti-proliferation movement, that incapacitating agents perhaps could be used safely, and could possibly save lives.

Ironically, this was clearly demonstrated by the Russian successful use of a fentanyl-type gas in November, 2002 which enabled them to rescue more than 80% of the 800 members of a Moscow theater audience taken over by Chechen terrorists. Gas was apparently delivered through the air conditioning system and through holes in the floor and roof, putting everyone into a narcotized unconscious state. Then, 30-40 minutes later, special troops entered and started bringing people out. The doctors used naloxone, the favorite antidote for morphine-like compounds, to reverse the narcosis. I think that overall it was a marvelous result, but, unfortunately, it’s been looked at by some skeptics as a kind of a tragedy. They say, look, 130 people died. Well, I think that 130 is better than 800, and it’s also better, as a secondary consideration, not to have to blow up a beautiful theater.

Whether this dramatic use of an incapacitating agent is going to be picked up by anyone, including the United States, is difficult to predict, because we’ve signed (somewhat foolishly, I believe) the 1993 Chemical Warfare Convention treaty. The treaty outlaws the use of any chemical weapon during any aggressive military action.

Unfortunately, perhaps for political reasons, we were allowed to tie our own hands. Even tear gas, for example, is a forbidden chemical weapon, except when used for police actions in one’s own territory. I believe that has to be changed. Either we have to draw ourselves out of the treaty, which would necessarily take quite a bit of guts, or we have to persuade the world that some chemical agents are less lethal than conventional weapons and that people can be spared death through their proper use in selected circumstances. I’d certainly like to see it go that way.

Colonel John Alexander, an unconventional weapons consultant to the Department of Defense, has long been arguing forcefully for the use of incapacitating agents.  He read my book and told me: “You’re on the right track.”  Alexander, of course, is primarily an expert in physical incapacitating agents, such as sticky foam, bright lights, snares, nets and other devices that can control crowds or stop vehicles. He suggests many ways to neutralize enemy troops without killing them. Since he’s not a physician or pharmacologist, he claims less expertise in chemical weapons. John has proven to be an ally, supporting my views in writing, hoping to promote my book. But he represents a small minority among decision makers in Washington. There is still a great deal of reluctance to talk about, or underwrite, further research with chemical incapacitating agents. Even if there were a renascence of such an effort, there is, alas no longer a volunteer program, and no longer any proper facility in which to do the required testing.

The latest pharmacological proposals that have being advanced are kind of ridiculous, because the drugs suggested are generally far more lethal than the ones we studied, at least in terms of safety margins. But it’s sort of been decreed that we can’t go back to what was done in the Sixties. A white paper–written under contract by three university pharmacologists–contains almost no reference to anything done in the 1960s, other than a passing mention of BZ. These professors are younger than I am and perhaps have little familiarity with work accomplished 40-50 years ago. The chemicals they suggest just don’t make practical sense. They include Prozac, Valium, or perhaps some enzyme or hormone in the brain that might reduce the tendency to fight. None appear to be feasible, and I doubt any of them will ever become acceptable agents.

So I think there would have to be a return to a more rational approach. I hope my book can stimulate reconsideration of the drugs we abandoned in 1973, despite their impressive safety and effectiveness. Whether this will ever happen, who knows?

David: Do you think that the human species will ever learn to live in peace, without war?

Jim: It’s not likely, based on history. Aggression seems to be built into the human condition, as some innate defensive response to those who try to either hurt us or take what we own. It’s built into the biology of the people in this world, and will remain there until we can find some way of modifying that biology. I’m speaking now, not just about pharmacology, Perhaps through genetic engineering we may be able to reduce aggressive tendencies and help people become less inclined to kill, hurt, steal power, or take territory from other people.  It’s only a possibility. But to me, it’s science that offers the one shining hope for the future of mankind.  Just how that will evolve is very difficult to say.

David: In general, are you optimistic about the future, or do you think that the human species is doomed to extinction?

Jim: I’m optimistic. I think that there will be an increasing number of new technologies coming along in the near future. They’re coming now at a very rapid pace, enabling us to look into the brain more closely, for example, and better understand what’s going on. And perhaps we will eventually be able to connect up those events with behavior and mental attitudes. I’m not as pessimistic as many scientists are. I think, yeah, we might blow ourselves up–but we might also find a way to calm down and live peacefully. That’s my hope–through science.

David: What do you personally think happens to consciousness after death, and what is your perspective on the concept of God?

Jim: I don’t know how to answer that. I definitely have a personal belief in God. It’s not within a particular religious framework, although I grew up in a religious family. I feel a personal connection with God that I don’t understand. I’ve met people who express similar thoughts. They sense a higher power, but they can’t really describe it. The idea that there may be a creative intelligence in our universe gives me some hope that maybe, as one person put it, “God invented the universe to discover his own identity.” That’s a challenging and difficult concept, I suppose, but it appeals to me.

David: What are you currently working on?

Jim: Right now, I am in state of suspended animation. My book is out there, and it’s selling to some extent. I hope for sufficient energy to promote it, but I’m not emotionally tied to it. I have other interests, totally unrelated to science. I like to do video editing, and have a vast collection of pictures and films, so I’m not expecting to write anything significant in the near future. I’m willing to talk at a few meetings and I still get invitations. I’m very happy to accept them, but I don’t foresee myself as an agent of change beyond what I’ve done in the form of a book.

Jeremy Narby

Decoding the Cosmic Serpent:
An with Jeremy Narby Interview

By David Jay Brown

Anthropologist Jeremy Narby, Ph.D. is the author of The Cosmic Serpent, Intelligence in Nature, and is the coeditor of Shamans Through Time. He received his doctorate in anthropology from Stanford University, and spent several years living with the Ashaninca in the Peruvian Amazon, cataloging indigenous uses of rainforest resources to help combat ecological destruction. Narby sponsored an expedition to the rainforest for biologists and other scientists to examine indigenous knowledge systems, and the utility of (the hallucinogenic jungle brew) ayahuasca in gaining knowledge. Narby has said that the information that shamans access “has a stunning correspondence with molecular biology,” and that one might be able to gain biomolecular information in ayahuasca visions.

Since 1989, Narby has been working as the Amazonian projects director for the Swiss NGO, Nouvelle Planète. Narby’s bookThe Cosmic Serpent is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s a revelation-after-revelation, “aha!”-filled scientific adventure/detective story about why the image of the serpent appears so commonly in shamanic traditions around the world, and why this relates to the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. I interviewed Jeremy on December 18, 2008. Narby is unusually articulate, and he maintains a good balance of open-mindedness and skepticism. He has a quick analytical mind and appears to enjoy debating intellectual ideas. We spoke about the relationship between ecology and ayahuasca use by indigenous peoples in the Amazon, intelligence in nature, and what he has learned from his experience with ayahuasca.

David: What originally inspired your interest in anthropology?
Jeremy: I suppose the real answer is a psychoanalytical one. I grew up in a family with a culturally-mixed background–with Irish, Egyptian, English blood–in the suburbs of Montreal, in a French-speaking neighborhood, but with an English-speaking family. Then, when I was ten, we moved to Switzerland, to another bilingual town. I became a foreigner at that point, and have been since. I grew up as a English-speaking Quebecer in French-speaking Switzerland, right on the frontier with German-speaking Switzerland. By the time I got to be eighteen I could feel a lot of cultural diversity inside me, and I suppose that I was drawn to anthropology, which studies cultural diversity, first and foremost to understand myself and how I stood in the world. In other words–Was I Canadian, Swiss, Irish or Egyptian? So that’s what I think drove me toward studying anthropology.

David: Can you talk a little about what originally drew you to the Amazon as a doctoral student, and about your anthropological work and ecological projects there?

Jeremy: Thank you for asking that, because it allows me to add the political dimension to the psychoanalytical. It’s true that by the time I became a doctoral student in anthropology I was interested in one overarching question, which is–Why are there rich people and poor people in the world? There seems to be enough material wealth to go around for everybody. So that lead me to be interested in what was called “Third World development,” and a professor at anthropology at Stanford pointed out that indigenous peoples were the Achilles’ heel of all the different theories of development–be they capitalist, socialist, or communist.

This was back in the 1980s, when there still was communism. So, in other words, if one really wanted to understand Third World development, and understand the relations between rich and poor countries, it was important to look at a case where development was being carried out in territories of indigenous peoples, because this is where the contradictions would be greatest. So it was for theoretical reasons, and also for a desire to critique Western theories of development. World bank-financed visions of development in those days–in the Seventies and Eighties, in places like the Amazon, for example–consisted of building roads into the rainforests, which they called “jungle” at that point.

They confiscated the territories of the indigenous people that had lived there for a long time, saying that they didn’t know how to use their resources rationally, and then gave the land to individuals with a market mentality, so that they could cut down the trees and do cattle ranching. This was actually deforestation, but they called it “development.” Not only was it not socially appropriate, and grossly violated the rights of the indigenous people who were there, but it was even ecologically and economically inappropriate. Cutting the rainforest down on that scale was simply a recipe for creating sterile savannas. So there was enough there that called for a politically-engaged anthropology, and that’s what took me to the Peruvian Amazon in 1984.
David: What type of relationship do you see between psychedelics and ecology, and do you see psychedelics playing a role to help increase ecological awareness?

Jeremy: In the spirit of dialogue, I would quibble with the question a little bit, because I think that in as much as psychedelics have a relation with ecology, its via people. So people are lacking in the question. Then, I think that psychedelics have different effects on different people. So the short answer to your question is that it depends, and if you could make your question more precise, I could advance with it. I don’t just think that psychedelics–as a group of substances–are any sort of instant ecology-awareness pills.

David: Perhaps you could talk a little about the relationship between ayahuasca use in the Amazon and how this effects the ecological relationships there?

Jeremy: Okay, that’s getting a bit more precise. But, once again, I think that by asking the question that way it does omit who is taking the ayahuasca, what ayahuasca it is, and where they are taking it. I think that the ayahuasca experience is also a function of who’s doing it, where they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it–beyond set and setting, which is just obvious. So, in other words, who are we talking about? For example, the indigenous people of the Amazon and what we know about them historically? Or how ayahuasca has impacted on their eco-cosmologies? That could be a subject of a whole book, but it’s certainly a precise question. You want me to talk about that precise question?

David: Yes, and maybe you could also talk a bit about the worldwide ecology movement, and whether you think that’s in any way related to people who have used psychedelics? A lot of people think that psychedelic experiences have been an important part of the inspiration for the ecology movement.
Jeremy: Yes, it’s true that one runs into quite a few people in the broad ecology movement who say that their engagement has been souped up by ayahuasca, and I guess I would include myself in that bunch.

David: So maybe you could also address a little bit about the use of ayahuasca by indigenous people in the Amazon, and how that effected their relationship with their environment?

Jeremy: I think the way that they look at it is like this. There is a level of reality that is parallel to our own, but that we don’t see with our, let’s say, “normal eyes,” but in certain states of mind you can see it. Ayahuasca is known by the people who use it to make the invisible visible, and first and foremost you take ayahuasca to see, and to see what you normally don’t see. So, in their view, one could say that ayahuasca is an important tool for knowing the world, as microscopes have been for biologists. It’s an absolutely central tool in approaching an otherwise invisible level of nature.

So, in their view, ayahuasca–but also other plant teachers like tobacco–have enabled them to have an ongoing conversation with the powers in nature, entities or essences corresponding to the different species. For them, ayahuasca is the telephone, but the person on the other end is the whole assembly of nature. So what’s important is not the telephone; it’s the conversation that you have with the other species. It would seem that these indigenous societies have been dialoguing–at least in the visions of their shamans–with the essences of plants, animals, and ecosystems for millennia. And they view of nature not as  an object—but as a subject, or a series of subjects, with whom you negotiate if you want game and health.
So yes, ayahuasca is central to the eco-cosmology of many indigenous Amazonian peoples. It is that which enables communication, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be worshipped. Once again, the importance of the conversation, in their view, is because nature really is a bunch of subjectivities, and it really is important to communicate with them, because we’re on the same planet as them. So, how the human community negotiates its relation with other species is precisely what shamans negotiate traditionally in their visions attained using these plants. That’s why these plants are central to their eco-cosmology.

But I guess the reason why I object to the general nature of the question about psychedelics and ecology is that it’s like the question about psychedelics and creativity. If only it sufficed to take psychedelics and everybody could play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix–but it doesn’t happen that way. Some people have taken psychedelics and have done terrible things. Likewise, there are a lot of people in the ayahuasca movement, and they may talk about this and that, but some of them lead pretty un-ecological lifestyles, it seems to me. Unfortunately, there are Westerners that are demonstrating that it’s possible to turn ayahuasca into a kind of a drug, really. So if only everyone who was guzzling ayahuasca became an ecological activist, at least it would be easy to answer the question.

David: I was just wondering whether you’ve seen a pattern of any kind. It seems to me like psychedelics, in general, are basically boundary-dissolving, nonspecific brain amplifiers.

Jeremy: Exactly. So if somebody’s got an ecological sensitivity, then it will amplify it. But if they’re power-hungry, then it will amplify that too. So depicting ayahuasca as this magical thing that draws people to understand nature better, and then to become healing-oriented, would actually be misleading. It’s way more complicated than that. One of the loops that’s missing is that it depends entirely on the individuals, and there’s a lot of variation in the individuals out there.

Another thing that I would like to say about this is that the more I’ve been able to get into the ayahuasca realm with indigenous Amazonian shamans guiding me, the deeper my respect for their knowledge has gotten. So, obviously, the more you really respect people, and actually look up to them, the more it enhances, well, at least my desire to be useful to them. In other words, it galvanizes me as an activist.

David: Is what you’re describing, what you think is the most important thing that Western civilization can learn from indigenous shamanism?

Jeremy: Well, that’s speculative. I’m enjoying arguing with your questions; that’s what I think questions are for. I don’t know what Western society can learn. I mean, for the moment, it’s had a hooligan, vampire-like behavior, and it’s sucked out what it wanted to suck out–mainly for material benefit–and just spat out the rest. Look at what it did to the Inca temples. It just melted them into gold. And look at how it’s treated shamanism for the last five centuries. It said it was the devil’s work, or balderdash, and then went on to label shamans as psychotics. We’ve taken the shamanic plants like tobacco, and look at what we do with them, we turn them into “drugs” that cause harm to health and create addiction. Look at what we’ve done to coca: turned it into a nasty drug.

So there’s been this sort of, I don’t know, ghoulish mercantile touch to what Western cultures have done to indigenous cultures. Yes, it’s about time it changed, but let’s see some action. I don’t want to sit here speculating on the sidelines as to what we could learn. I want to incarnate learning. I want to see more people learning, and I don’t want to be there saying, oh, if only we could do this, then maybe we could all change, and so forth. Enough already of this telling Western people what they could benefit even more from! Let’s start thinking about reciprocity. Let’s become lucid about the last five hundred years of history, and what we’ve imposed. Let’s break with it, denounce our own behavior, and show something different.

David: What are some of the primary things that you think people should be focusing on to help restore ecological balance on our planet?

Jeremy: I’m not any kind of expert on how to re-equilibrate Western lifestyles; there’s a whole bunch of people who talk about that. But I think that the more that we can move away from using hydrocarbons, and the smaller our personal imprints can be, the better. The less light bulbs and everything else that we use, the better. But, nevertheless, here we are having a conversation over a telephone, using tape recorders. The very existence of this conversation in text is the fruit of the electric world. Because our world seems irremediably electric, there aren’t any easy solutions.

But I think that the more of us that can sit with, let’s say, both forms of knowledge, the better. In other words, technological knowledge, and let’s call the other shamanic knowledge, for telegraphic sake. We’re not going to be throwing out the baby with the bath water. We’re not going to get rid of science and technology. On the contrary, it’s too good to throw out. But, obviously, it needs complementing. It needs critiquing and controlling, let’s say.

I think that, for example, one thing that’s also really clear for me–but it’s also a matter of opinion–is the view that nature is just an object, or a bunch of commodities that we can just exploit it as we wish, has led us to the ecological situation that we’re in. I think that it’s been a powerful way of coming to dominate nature, treating all those different beings as if they were objects. One can hold that gaze for 2,300 years, and that’s what we’ve just done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. You can treat beings like objects, because, actually, beings are objects–but they’re more than just objects, and treating them like just objects is nixing a whole important part of their existence.

So I think that getting away from the objective view of nature, and moving toward a deeper understanding of the other beings with whom we share the planet, would probably be a good move. And that would precisely be a combination of knowledges, using science and shamanism. I mean, in as much as you accept that shamans have some kind of dialogue in their visions with entities that represent other species on this planet, one could consider including them on bioethics committees.

David: Why do you think that nature is intelligent, and do you see any teleology in the evolutionary process?

Jeremy: That’s two questions.

David: You don’t think there’s a link between the two? This is in contrast to the blind-chance view of evolution as a random process, which most evolutionary biologists adhere to.

Jeremy: One question at a time. Why do I feel that nature is intelligent? Well, by asking the question, it implies that you may feel that nature is not intelligent, right? I’ve written a whole book about this particular subject. [Intelligence in Nature, Tarcher, 2006.] You’ve got to examine or unpack the concept of intelligence. It turns out that most of the definitions of intelligence have been given in exclusively human terms, and so–by definition–you can’t apply the terms to other species. So “intelligence in nature” is actually a contradiction in terms, if you’re strict with words, because nature is defined in opposition to the human, and intelligence is defined as exclusively human.

But that just shows that we have concepts that separate us from nature, and it’s not so much nature that lacks intelligence, but our own concepts. So you say, okay, there are so many different definitions, because Western cultures have been obsessed with putting a line between human beings and other species, and one of the properties that was supposed to separate us from other species was intelligence. It was supposed to be one of the exclusively human traits, along with tool-making, abstraction, and so forth. And so, as such, it was supposed to be one of the human treasures. It became this very political thing, and that’s why there are so many definitions–because people fought for decades over how to define this human treasure called “intelligence.”
So here we are. But now, through recent biology, we are beginning to realize just how stunningly similar we are–at least on a physical-chemical level, down to the gene sequences, down to how the brains are constructed–to all these other species, and that it’s really true that we have a kinship with bacteria, amoebas, and so forth. When you look into a blade of glass–which is what we’ve been able to do for the last ten to twenty years–we see that, as it goes about its business being a blade of grass–it integrates information from the outside world. It transduces this external information into electrochemical information, and there are signaled conversations between the cells, as the plant integrates the information, makes decisions, and then enacts them.

Then, if you intercept these molecular signals that go between vegetal cells in the blade of glass, you see that many of them are identical to the molecular signals used by our own neurons. So a plant may not have a brain, but it acts like one. If you look at the etymology of the word “intelligence” you find that it comes from “inter” and “legere,” which means to “choose between,” and this implies the capacity to make decisions. Well, it turns out that if you look at how biologists describe how individual cells behave, they are forever integrating information, making decisions, communicating, and acting according to the information received.

So if you use a simple definition of intelligence, you can find intelligence all the way down to the behavior of individual proteins, and this is what scientists have been discovering in their labs over the last ten or twenty years. We’re even talking about single-celled organisms, like slime molds and amoebas, but also simple invertebrates like bees. Bees are capable of abstraction. They have small brains of about one million neurons, but it’s been demonstrated that they can handle abstract concepts. I mean, it just goes on and on. The list of characteristics that are supposed to be exclusive to humans have more or less melted like snow in the sun. So, meanwhile, we know that we’ve evolved and are part of nature. So how could nature just be a bunch of stupid objects, or machines, if we ourselves are intelligent? On the contrary, it would seem that the whole edifice of biological life here in the biosphere is infused with intelligence–and we’re part of it.
So, now, do you want me to move on to teleology from there?
David: Yes, I’m curious how you view the evolutionary process from this perspective.

Jeremy: See, you may have noted that in this whole discourse I’m trying to stick to the facts that have been established. So what’s going on inside of a blade of grass is what researchers have discovered and published in peer-reviewed journals over the last ten to fifteen years. The fact that we have many genetic sequences that are identical to those found in the bacterium or the banana has been known for ten years.

So there’s no teleology in my discourse about intelligence in nature; I’m just sticking to what science is generating, as far as data. You can put a single-celled slime mold in a maze and it can solve it. That’s a fact. We don’t know how it does that. It doesn’t have a brain; it only has one cell. But we can see through its behavior that it can figure out a maze. Now let’s say that we are detecting intelligence in nature, depending on how we define the world “intelligence,” but we’re detecting more than a mechanical thermostat-like behavior, we are detecting plasticity and foresight. Well, okay, so does that mean there’s a goal in nature? Well that’s another question. That’s why I want to separate these two questions.

David: I see.

Jeremy: Doing teleology is doing theology. I think there are parts of the neo-Darwinian approach that are actually quite theological. Some people, without realizing it, go on to theological terrain.

David: I don’t think that teleology implies theology.
Jeremy: Well, teleology implies a goal–and so as soon as you start talking about a goal, I think that you are a crossing a line and are stepping onto theological territory. That’s why I don’t go there. I’m an agnostic, and I am interested in dealing what can be known. So, for example, take the question of the origin of life. There are at least a hundred thousand scenarios possible, none of them testable. Any certitude about how life started is a belief. You can talk about Stanley Miller and his test tubes, or any of the different RNA worlds, or whatever. All of that, for the moment, is of the order of belief. It’s not of the order of demonstrable knowledge. But they are a lot of people in the scientific world who don’t seem to be aware of this. This is actually an epistemological question.

If somebody says “I believe that life began on Earth by chance, in a spark collision, in a wet pool 3.5 billion years ago,” that’s fine, but that’s a belief. You’re welcome to believe it, like you’re also welcome to believe that a guy with a grey beard did it. But as an agnostic I know that I don’t know, so I don’t even go there. There’s a lot of other business at hand in the, let’s say, verifiable world.

David: Can you talk a little about biophoton emissions from the DNA molecule and how you think this might relate to our experience of consciousness?

Jeremy: I’ve written about that, and I don’t really have too much to add to what I’ve already written. It’s not like I’m a biophoton specialist. I follow, as I can, the research on the subject, but it moves slowly and remains marginal, unfortunately. I would like to know a lot more about biophotons in our brains, and just what relationship they might have with the consciousness we actually perceive.

David: What are some of the most important lessons that you’ve personally learned from your ayahuasca experiences?

Jeremy: Well, heck, the whole thing! I guess the first thing was that when I was a twenty-five year old whippersnapper from the suburbs, who had studied chemistry in high school, and thought I knew what reality was, the ayahuasca experience opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole level of reality that one didn’t normally see, that there was something that seemed associated with plants, animals, and the forest world–that had a mind-boggling, well intelligence about it. It taught me things, and showed me how stupid I was. It showed me how anthropocentric I was. In French, one says to “deniaisé,” which means that it made me less stupid–fast.
It also made me see that there was something there that the materialist-rationalist perspective, which thinks it’s so smart, actually didn’t get and couldn’t get. That kind of defined it, and that made me listen to the indigenous people even more. I just knew there was something there that flew in the face of our categories, and that needed more investigating. And by investigating ayahuasca one was clearly investigating the indigenous approach to knowledge–but also plants and animals themselves, or nature. In other words, thinking about what it is to be a human being, and what it is to be a human being in the rainforest is to be immersed in this breathing, hooting, scratching environment that’s clearly alive. I mean, if you think nature is stupid, all you got do is go into the rainforest at night and listen. It sounds like a bunch of loud  electronic musicians.

David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?

Jeremy: In brief, I don’t know, but I hope to see you at the bar.

David: What are you currently working on?

Jeremy: I’m continuing to study the world and it’s not getting any less crazy.

John Guerin

Learning from Ageless Animals:
An Interview with John Guerin

By David Jay Brown

John Guerin is the founder and director of the AgelessAnimals Project–also known as the Centenarian Species and Rockfish Project. This long-range research project involves investigators at fourteen universities around the world who study animals that don’t seem to age. 

There are certain species of rockfish, whales, turtles, and other animals that are known to live for over two hundred years without showing any signs of aging–a phenomenon known to biogerontologists as “negligible senescence.” No one knows for sure how long these animals can live, but to date there have not been any observed increase in mortality or any decrease in reproductive capacity due to age. Striking examples are a 109 year old female rockfish that was captured in the wild while swimming around with fertilized eggs, and a hundred-plus year old male whale that was harpooned while it was having sex. The purpose of the AgelessAnimals Project is to understand why these animals don’t seem to age and then to apply that understanding to human longevity.

Guerin is an experienced project manager, who conceived of the AgelessAnimals project and orchestrates all of the studies. The two principal advisors to this project are Dr. Leonard Hayflick and Dr. Aubrey de Grey, both of whom were also interviewed for the Mavericks of Medicine collection. Dr. Hayflick, discoverer of the “Hayflick limit” of cellular senescence, states that “Guerin’s project is not only unique, but probes an area of almost total neglect in biogerontology, yet an area with more promise to deliver valuable data than, perhaps, any other.”

When I asked Dr. de Grey about the importance of studying ageless animals he said, “All organisms with organs that rely on the indefinite survival of individual non-dividing cells (such as neurons in the brain) should age, though some, including humans, age very slowly. Some species do even better–we cannot yet measure their rate of aging at all–and studying them may well reveal ways to slow our own aging.”

In addition to coordinating and orchestrating the AgelessAnimals project, Guerin lectures regularly on the subject of ageless animals. To find out more about Guerin’s work and the AgelessAnimals Project visit their Web site: www.agelessanimals.org.

I interviewed John Guerin on March 14, 2005. John seemed eager and excited to discuss his project with me. We spoke about some of the latest research that’s going on with long-lived animals, why this type of research has been neglected for so long, and how studying ageless animals might help us to understand the aging process better and extend the human lifespan.

David: What inspired the AgelessAnimals Project?

John: Back in 1995 I began looking into biotech, biogerontology, and the studies of aging. I read many different books, articles, and scientific papers. The turning point came when I read Dr. Leonard Hayflick’s book How and Why We Age. Dr. Hayflick had a chapter called “Some Animals Age, Some Do Not,” and I thought, Wow, now that’s interesting. I’d heard rumors and old wive’s tales about how some animals live for an extraordinarily long time, but this was the first time that I had come across that information from a scientific source. So I started researching the literature on long-lived animals, and I found out that there’s very little known. On my Web site I have some references on what I found.

I met Dr. Hayflick at a Gerontological Society of America meeting in November of ‘95, and I told him about my project management background. I said, I’d like to join whoever is working in this area, and I asked him who is. His answer was, “Nobody is, but they should be.” So I tried to get something going on my own. I did a lot of research on different animals. I spent about a year looking at koi–the fancy Japanese carp–and it’s very likely that they do live quite a long time, at least over fifty years. They were reputed to live over two hundred years, but the readings were based on scales, and those are not accurate. So they didn’t turn out to be a good candidate to study.

Then in 1997 I got some data from the Alaska Fish and Game. There’s a chart at the bottom of my Web page with a rockfish on it that shows ages for different rockfish that were caught off the coast of Alaska, and the range is between twelve and 107 years. Now, that’s a randomly caught sampling–it wasn’t like they were trying to get older individuals. Those were the ones that fishermen caught and were going to people’s dinner tables that evening. So when I realized that individuals at those ages were available I became very interested. We got samples from the Alaska Fish and Game in 1997. I say “we” because by then I had a couple of researchers at Oregon State University, including the Linus Pauling Institute interested in looking at the rockfish. So the Alaska Fish and Game sent us five older rockfish. After we got the aging results, it turned out that the the youngest rockfish that they sent us was 79 years old, and the oldest was a 109 year old female that still had eggs.

David: That’s extraordinary.

John: Yeah, and kind of sad. How long would this fish have lived if it wasn’t caught? It didn’t die of old age. It was fertile and still going strong in the ocean at 109 when they caught it. So that helped us to focus the project on rockfish. We have had one study on turtles. Whales are a very fascinating subject too, because they’re warm-blooded mammals like we are, and they’ve now been documented to live over two hundred years of age.

David: How does one determine the age of these animals?

John: The most common technique for aging rockfish is the analysis of annual growth rings in the otolith, or ear bone. Basically, rockfish have incremental growth, so under a microscope their growth rings can be counted. There has been independent validation of this, and two recent international symposia have focused entirely on the importance of otolith measurement in fish life history studies. In turtles, the determination of minimum age is relatively straightforward, using tag and recapture methods. Dr. Jeffrey Bada at UC San Diego Scripps did the aging analysis for the whale study. For this study the whales’ ages were determined by using the aspartic acid racemization technique.  In this technique, age is estimated based on intrinsic changes in the isomeric forms of aspartic acid in the eye lens nucleus. The references for these studies are on my Web site.
David: What is the goal of the Ageless Animals Project?
John: Quite simply, the goal is to understand the genetic and biochemical processes that long-lived animals use to retard aging. These long-lived animals have what’s technically called “negligible senescence,” as defined by Caleb Finch at the University of Southern California in Longevity, Senescence, and the Genome (1995).

David: What is negligible senescence?

John: Basically, this refers to an animal species that doesn’t show any significant signs of aging as it grows older. Unlike humans and mammals other than whales, there’s no decrease in reproduction after maturity. There’s also no notable increase in mortality rate with age, but that’s a little harder to prove. I’ve been talking with a statistician and he’s asking, how do you know? To do a study of this type would take a couple of hundred years to complete. But compared to us there’s no noted increase in mortality rate. I mean, if you are ninety years old, you’re much more likely to die next year then you are if you’re only twenty years old. But we don’t seem to see any increase in mortality with rockfish and several of these other animals over time.

David: Why do you think these animals can live for so long without showing any signs of aging?

John: The purpose of the project is to understand why, and how to apply it to extending the healthy lifespan of humans. My background is in business project management; I have a project management professional certification. I’m not a bioresearcher, a  biochemist, or a biogerontologist–but I’m the one who organizes it all, and gets everyone involved. I get the researchers the samples and all that.

Actually, I thought I had a better idea about why these animals have negligible senescence when I started this project ten years ago. But it’s hard to say. Back then we didn’t know whales lived that long. That whales can live for over two hundred years was just discovered in the last five years. Up until then we thought that humans lived longer than any other mammal. So why certain animals would live much longer than others, and much longer than we do as a matter of fact–pretty much double what we’ve known humans to live–we don’t understand.

There are some people who think that this can’t be so, that this would violate the evolutionary theory of senescence, because nature doesn’t select for longevity. But that’s not necessarily true, because what’s commonly seen is that there’s just such a high mortality rate in nature. Even for humans, probably before two thousand years ago, we didn’t live very long. We were hunted by tigers and wild animals, and traits of longevity, presumably, weren’t selected for. But if these animals, like the rockfish, can be 109 years old and still be reproductive, nature is going to allow those genes to keep contributing to the gene pool, so that

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Joseph Knoll

Shattering the Barriers of Maximum Life Span:
An Interview with Dr. Joseph Knoll

By David Jay Brown
Joseph Knoll, M.D., is a Hungarian nuerochemist and pharmacologist. He is probably best known for developing the drug deprenyl (also known as Selegiline), the first selective MAO-B inhibitor, and he has researched the properties of deprenyl for over half a century. 

Dr. Knoll is also the author of the recently published book The Brain and Its Self: A Neurochemical Concept of Innate and Acquired Drives (Springer, 2005), which summarizes his life’s research and his fascinating speculations about the relationship between brain activity and culture. In this book Dr. Knoll describes how his experience as a Nazi concentration camp survivor helped to inspire and motivate much of his scientific research. Although his parents were sent to the gas chamber when he was a teenager, Dr. Knoll survived because he spoke fluent German and was chosen to serve as the personal servant to the Chief of the SS guards. After the war, in 1945 Dr. Knoll returned to his native city of Budapest. He earned his M.D. from the University of Budapest in 1951, and later became a professor and the head of the Department of Pharmacology at the Semmelweiss University of Medicine in Budapest.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Knoll helped to pioneer research into the physiological basis of innate and acquired drives in animals. Trying to make sense of his experience in the Nazi concentration camp, Dr. Knoll became interested in how animals acquire new drives. The research that resulted from Dr. Knoll’s interest in this subject centered around studying the brain changes in rats that had been trained to have an acquired drive for an unnatural object–a glass cylinder. This acquired drive–which urged the animals to search for, and jump to, the rim of a thirty centimeter-high glass-cylinder, and then crawl inside–would often override the animals’ instinctive drives for food and sex.

Dr. Knoll first synthesized deprenyl in his Budapest laboratory in 1961. He showed that deprenyl improves the availability of dopamine, and slows its age-related decline by acting as a selective MAO-B inhibitor. Even more importantly, according to Dr. Knoll, it has an enhancer effect, and it helps maintain healthy brain cells, particularly in the dopamine-producing area of the brain known as the substantia nigra–the area of the brain that degenerates with Parkinson’s Disease. For this reason deprenyl has been used as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s Disease. It has also been shown to be an effective treatment for Alzhiemer’s Disease and other brain disorders that result in cognitive decline.

Deprenyl has been shown to have many uses as a cognitive enhancer. It is a moderate-level stimulant and antidepressant that has been shown to improve memory, protect the brain against cell damage, alleviate depression, extend the life span of laboratory animals, and heighten sexual desire in both men and women. This impressive substance is available by prescription in the U.S., and although it is primarily prescribed to help people with Parkinson’s disease, memory disorder problems, and sometimes depression, a lot of healthy people also use deprenyl to improve their mental performance. In fact, Dr. Knoll himself takes deprenyl every day, and recommends that every sexually mature person should be doing the same. 

I’ve personally been using deprenyl as antidepressant and cognitive enhancer for over ten years, and I can attest to its powerful brain-boosting effects. It improves my mental performance so dramtically that I’ve used it before every public talk that I’ve given since 1995. Along with other cognitive enhancers, such as hydergine and piracetam, I think that deprenyl has incredible potential for enhancing memory, accelerating intelligence, and improving concentration. There is a good deal of scientific evidence to support these claims. For an excellent summary of the scientific studies in this area see John Morgenthaler and Ward Dean’s book Smart Drugs and Nutrients II.

Many people report that deprenyl and other “smart drugs” have sexually-enhancing “side-effects”, although deprenyl appears to have the leading reputation in this area. According to Dr. Dean–the coauthor of Smart Drugs and Nutrients–“anything that improves brain function is probably going to improve sexual functioning.” This is probably because sexuality and health go hand-in-hand, and sexual vitality is a pretty good indicator of overall health. 

Dr. Knoll and colleagues first reported indications for deprenyl’s potential as a sexuality enhancer in 1983, with reports that old male rats had increased their “”mounting frequency” and “intromission” when they were treated with deprenyl. This contrasted dramatically with the untreated control animals. Many anecdotal reports, from both men and women, have confirmed that these aphrodisiac-like effects apply to humans as well. Because Deprenyl inhibits MAO–the dopamine-destroying enzyme–levels of the excitatory neurotransmitter dopamine rise in the brain, which generally causes people to feel more pleasure and become more physiologically aroused. 

Interestingly, unlike most other MAO inhibitor drugs (such as the antidepressant Nardil), there are usually no dietary restrictions necessary when one takes deprenyl. When taken at moderate levels (under 10 mg.), deprenyl only inhibits the action of  a specific type of MAO–MAO B–which doesn’t interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize the amino acid tyrosine, like a broad-spectrum MAO inhibitor does. This is why most other MAO-inhibiting drugs carry the serious danger of triggering a hypertensive reaction if one eats tyrosine-rich foods, like cheese or wine. Deprenyl has been described by researchers as working with great precision in this regard, and the physicians that I spoke with agreed that it was unusually safe.

In fact, deprenyl is better than safe. This truly remarkable drug has also been shown to increase the maximum lifespan of laboratory animals by close to forty percent. This is the equivalent of a human being living to be around a hundred and fifty years of age. Giving deprenyl to animals is the only experimental treatment–besides caloric restriction–that has been shown to increase maximum life span. [Extending maximum life span–as opposed to extending average life span–means extending the maximum number of years that the longest-lived members of a particular species has been known to attain.]

To fully appreciate how significant deprenyl’s life extension potential is, one has to understand the difference between maximum life span and average life span. Many factors can affect the average lifespan (or the “normal life expectancy”) that an animal lives–genetics, diet, exercise, nutritional supplements, mental attitude, ect. However, even under the very best of conditions, there is an upper limit at which the longest-lived animals of a particular species can survive, and that is the animal’s maximum life span. 

The average life span of a human being is approximately seventy to eighty years. However, the maximum life span of a human being is around a hundred and twenty years. The laboratory animals in the deprenyl studies showed a forty percent increase in maximum life span, the human equivalent of living a hundred and fifty years. Since deprenyl’s primary effects work the same in all mammalian brains, it stands to reason that deprenyl’s life extension effects are likely to carry over to humans, just as the mental benefits do. Many people have certainly verified that the increase in sex drive occurs in both humans and laboratory animals.

To follow are some excerpts from the interview that I conducted with Dr. Knoll in September of 2005. Born in 1925, Dr. Knoll was eighty at the time of this interview. We spoke about how his experience with the holocaust influenced his decision to become a research scientist, how people can utilize deprenyl for its cognitive enhancing and antiaging benefits, and what type of antiaging treatments might be available in the future.

David: How did your experience with the holocaust when you were young influence your decision to become a research scientist, and what inspired your interest in neurochemistry?

Dr. Knoll: It is a horrifying fact that in Germany millions of single-minded little-men, who had previously lived a honest simple life and never belonged to extremist groups, dramatically changed within a few years after 1933 and, imbued with the Nazi ideology, became unbelievably cool-headed murders of innocent civilians during the Second World War. This phenomenon has been documented from many angles in dozens of novels, films, and so on. However, we are still waiting for an adequate elucidation of the brain mechanism responsible for this dramatic and rapid change in the behavior of millions.

As a survivor of Auschwitz, and one of the 1300 survivors of the “Dachau death train,” I had the opportunity to directly experience a few typical representatives of this type of manipulated human beings, and had more than enough time and direct experience to reflect upon the essential changes in the physiological manipulability of the human brain. It was therefore not just by mere chance that, when in the early 1950s I finally had the opportunity to approach this problem experimentally, I decided to develop a rat model to follow the changes in the brain in the course of the

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Albert Hofmann, Ph.D

David Jay Brown Interviews

Albert Hofmann

Albert Hofmann, Ph.D., is the world-renown Swiss chemist who discovered LSD. The impact that LSD has had on the world is certainly immense, and although largely incalculable, I think, it’s fair to say that this super-potent, mind-morphing molecule has deeply effected the foundation of every aspect of human culture–from art and science, to politics, medicine, and spirituality. Dr. Hofmann also discovered and first synthesized psilocybin and psilocin, the primary psychoactive components of the magic mushroom, as well as the psychoactive lysergic acid alkaloids in Morning Glory seeds. He also designed the ergot-derived, cognitive-enhancer hydergine, which is used as a treatment for memory disorders, as a product for Sandoz Pharmaceutical.

Dr. Hofmann was born in Baden, Switzerland in 1906. He graduated from the University of Zürich in 1929, with a degree in chemistry, and then went to work for Sandoz (now Novartis) Pharmaceutical in Basel. Dr. Hofmann’s research goal was to work towards the isolation of active principles in known medicinal plants. Dr. Hofmann worked with Mediterranean squill for several years, before moving on to the study of ergot and ergot alkaloids.

Over the next few years, Dr. Hofmann worked his way through the lysergic acid derivatives in ergot. In 1938, he synthesized LSD-25 (the twenty-fifth in a series of lysergic acid derivatives) for the first time. However, after minimal testing on laboratory animals with no interesting results, he set the compound aside and continued to work with other derivatives. 

Five years later, on April 16, 1943, he re-synthesized LSD-25 because he felt that he might have missed something the first time around. This was was at the height of World War II, shortly after Fermi made his discovery that led to the atomic bomb. Dr. Hofmann said that he had a “peculiar presentiment” to resynthesize LSD and that LSD “spoke” to him. (Many people have speculated about the possibility of a relationship between the discovery of the psychoactive properties  of LSD and the first nuclear explosions, as LSD is thought by many to be something of a spiritual antidote to the aggressive and toxic tendencies of the human species.)

After Dr. Hofmann resynthesized LSD, he wrote in his laboratory journal these famous words: “Last Friday…I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed…I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

Apparently, Dr. Hofmann accidentally ingested a minute amount of the LSD–possibly through his fingertips–and since the drug is active in such small doses (measured in micrograms), Dr. Hofmann became the first person in human history to experience the psychedelic effects of LSD. Three days later, on April 19, he decided to verify his results by intentionally ingesting 250 micrograms of LSD. Compared to other known drugs, this would appear to have been a very conservative dose, since no other drug was known to have effects in such small quantities. 

As it turns out, 250 mcg. is actually quite a hefty dose of LSD, and Dr. Hofmann had a powerful and rather frightening experience that forced him to bicycle home form the lab and spend the day in bed, where he fully recovered in a few hours. The anniversary of this day, April 19th, has become known to many appreciative people as “Bicycle Day,” in honor of Dr. Hofmann’s famous hallucinogenic journey through the streets of Basel on his bicycle while traveling home from the lab. 

Dr. Hofmann told me that he was “convinced from the very beginning of the fundamental impact” of LSD. Although Dr. Hofmann has always seen great spiritual value and creative potential in LSD, he was often dismayed by the way that many young people used it merely to enhance sensory experiences, and by the strict prohibitive reactions toward the drug by virtually every government in the world. Because of the enormous controversy that surrounds LSD, Dr. Hofmann refers to this mighty mind-morphing molecule as his “problem child.” 

Dr. Hofmann continued to work for Sandoz until 1971, when he retired as Director of Research for the Department of Natural Products. Since that time he has continued to write and lecture. Dr. Hofmann tells the story of how he discovered LSD, and reflects on the impact it had in the world, in his book LSD: My Problem Child. He is also the author of Insight Outlook, and coauthor of Plants of the Gods and The Road To Eleusis

Dr. Hofmann is a Member of the Nobel Prize Committee, Fellow of the World Academy of Sciences, Member of the International Society of Plant Research, and the American Society of Pharmacognosy. To find out more about Dr. Hofmann’s work visit: www.lsd.info and www.maps.org/hofmann100.

Dr. Hofmann turned a hundred years old on January 11, 2006. He is remarkably healthy and remains acutely mentally focused. I attended Dr. Hofmann’s centennial birthday celebration and LSD symposium in Basel from January 13 to 15, 2006: LSD–Problem Child and Wonder Drug. Thousands of unusually creative and deeply appreciative people gathered from around the world to honor Dr. Hofmann’s work with the kind of reverence that is usually reserved for saints and religious sages. It was the largest conference ever held on psychedelics and some of the most brilliant and accomplished scientists, artists, writers, and musicians on this planet were there to honor Dr. Hofmann. 

I interviewed Dr. Hofmann with the help of my friend Dieter Hagenbach, who organized the event in Basel. Dieter translated my questions and Dr. Hofmann’s German responses. Although Dr. Hofmann was feeling quite exhausted from the barrage of media attention around his 100th birthday celebration, he graciously agreed to answer my questions. His answers are generally brief, however, they are, I think, succinctly eloquent and profoundly wise. Dr. Hofmann spoke about how he became interested in chemistry, how psychedelics have effected his view of the world, and what he thought about the future evolution of the human species.

David: What originally inspired your interest in chemistry?

Albert: My interest in chemistry was inspired by a fundamental philosophical question: Is the material world a manifestation of the spiritual world? I hoped to find deep, sound answers from the solid laws of chemistry to answer this question, and to apply these answers to the external problems and open questions of the spiritual dimensions of life.

David: When you first discovered LSD did you have an intuitive sense that this drug would have the enormous impact on the world that it  has, or where you generally surprised by what followed?

Albert: I was convinced from the very beginning of the fundamental impact.

David: What motivated or inspired you to go back and synthesize LSD a second time in 1943?

Albert: I synthesized LSD a second time for a deeper pharmacological  investigation.

David: How has your own use of LSD effected your philosophy  of life?

Albert: LSD showed me the inseparable interaction between the material and the spiritual world.

David: What sort of association do you see between LSD and creativity?

Albert: Since LSD opens up what Aldous Huxley called “the Doors of Perception”, it enhances the fields of creative activity.

David: Do you think that LSD has effected human evolution?

Albert: I do not know if it has effected human evolution, but I hope so.

David: What are your thoughts on why LSD is almost universally  prohibited by governments around the world?

Albert: LSD belongs to a class of psychoactive substances that provide the  user with

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