The New Science of Psychedelics


 

The following is excerpted from The New Science of Psychedelics: At the Nexus of Culture, Consciousness, and Spirituality, published by Inner Traditions.

In this book we'll be exploring a wide array of unorthodox ideas about the evolution of consciousness and the future. The New Science contains a collection of fascinating anecdotes from my many interviews with accomplished iconic thinkers, and discussions on how these interactions interfaced with the ideas, insights, and revelations from my numerous psychedelic experiences.

My career as an interviewer, science writer, scientific researcher, and science fiction author has been inseparably linked with my thirty-three years of experimentation with psychedelic drugs and hallucinogenic plants. The areas that I was inspired to research, the subjects that I was motivated to write about, the people that I chose to interview, and the questions that I decided to ask them have all been thoroughly influenced by my regular and disciplined use of cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, DMT, salvia, and other psychedelic sacraments.

Since 1989, I've been interviewing some of the most thought-provoking thinkers on the planet, with a special interest in how psychedelics have effected their work. In The New Science I alternate between describing my psychedelic experiences and my interview encounters, quoting from the many dozens of in-depth interviews that I have conducted over the years, in order to shed some light on the mysteries that can occur during a psychedelic journey.

In the book, I quote from my interviews with such luminaries as Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, John Lilly, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia, Ram Dass, Noam Chomsky, George Carlin, Deepak Chopra, Ray Kurzweil, Andrew Weil, Jack Kevorkian, Edgar Mitchell, Albert Hofmann, Stanislav Grof, Joan Halifax, Alex Grey, H.R. Giger, Simon Posford, and Rupert Sheldrake.

Some of the many varied topics explored in the book include: the interface between science and spirituality, lucid dreaming, time travel, morphic field theory, alternative science, optimal health, what happens to consciousness after death, encounters with non-human beings, the future evolution of our species, and how psychedelics effect creativity.

DJB Meets THC

My interest in meditation, and the writings of Robert Anton Wilson, led me to experiment with the cognitive-changing, sensory-enhancing properties of cannabis. In 1976 I purchased a small quantity of the illegal herb from a fellow student in my art class, and I picked up a small pipe with a wooden bowl at my local mall. I tried smoking the condensed, dried brown buds three times in the pipe without any noticeable effect. Then, on the fourth try, it finally worked.

I was taking tokes from my pipe in an extra bedroom, downstairs in the home that I grew up in, while my mother spoke on the phone upstairs in the kitchen. I was listening to her voice and laughter seep through the ceiling, and it seemed to be unusually interesting for some reason–dreamlike and amusing–almost like it was a parody of her speaking in a cartoon. I was hearing these archetypal and strangely humorous qualities in my mom's voice when I suddenly realized that I was totally and completely stoned. I found the perceptual shifts, cognitive changes, and sensory enhancement that cannabis brought to be absolutely delightful and I marveled at everything around me.

Getting high for the first time felt like being let in on a great cosmic secret. As Timothy Leary exclaimed about his first cannabis experience, "Wow, how long has this been going on?"

I was astonished by my own thoughts and my imagination became greatly enhanced. At times it became hard to determine if what I was seeing was really there or not. I saw ghostly images of my dead grandfather and dead uncle, standing together looking at me from the foot of the bed. A translucent genie wrapped in folded cloth swam out of the heating vent, as the heater came on, speaking with the air-blowing sound of the heater, saying, "I've come to soothe you." The "oo" in "soothe" was drawn out into a long, trance-inducing auditory experience, that resonated with the sound of the heater.

I soon became ravenously hungry, but was far too nervous about being stoned in front of my mom, so I waited. After my mom left the kitchen, I cautiously made a heroic climb up the Mt. Everest-sized staircase and discovered that the coast was clear. I sat down at the kitchen table with a bowl of Kellogg's Rice Krispies and a container of cow's milk. For around 30 minutes I sat there in absolute divine bliss, eating bowl after bowl of Rice Krispies. They were the most incredibly delicious Rice Krispies that I had ever tasted in my entire life, and I just couldn't get enough of them. It was a completely magical experience, sitting there at the kitchen table, eating a sublimely delicious cereal–that spoke to me about the secrets of existence in it's snapping, popping, and crackling language–while the elves on the glowing box smiled at me.

Then, afterwards, I went to lie down on my bed, closed my eyes, and started seeing "visions." Dreamlike images shifted before my eyes, and this was my favorite aspect of the experience. I lied there for around an hour, before falling asleep, watching the fascinating imagery flow behind my eyes with utter astonishment.

Since that fateful day that I first got high, I've now used cannabis, almost daily, for over three decades.

Cannabis opens up my senses. It greatly enhances my sensitivity to all forms of sensory stimulation–taste, smell, vision, touch, hearing, etc. Music, food, sex, massage, art, film, and television all become enhanced with new dimensions, and one can become completely immersed in cultural creations as though they were real. Movies take on mythic and archetypal qualities. Every pleasurable sensation is experienced as pure Heavenly bliss. Colors become subjectively brighter, humor becomes more amusing, and music takes on more depth and texture, as one discovers additional levels of auditory detail within it.

Thoughts and mental imagery become much more fluid under the influence of cannabis, and there is an increased propensity for insights into one's life and revelations into the nature of reality. It helps to raise my spirits when I'm feeling down, and it allows me to see my life from a new perspective, which I find both sacred and invaluable. It also helps to bring my body into a state of homeostasis, one of physical and mental balance, and it allows me to experience euphoria, bliss, and pain-relief without any side-effects.

I began using cannabis regularly by the time that I was fifteen, and I continue to ingest it to this day. I consider it one of my greatest allies, and it has been an especially wonderful addition on my psychedelic journeys with other substances.

I've come to use cannabis predominantly when I write, and find it to be an essential part of my creative process. I follow Timothy Leary's suggestion when he said, "If you write straight, edit stoned, and if you write stoned, edit straight." Whenever I work on a piece of writing, I alternate between editing the piece while under the influence of cannabis and not. I find that this process allows me to see the work from multiple perspectives, which synergize with one another, and I enjoy doing this immensely.

Robert Anton Wilson told me that he worked in a similar fashion. He said:

I have always had strong tendencies toward compulsive rewriting, polishing, refining etc., and marijuana has intensified that. In fact, these  days I seldom stop fine-tuning my prose until editors remind me about deadlines. As Paul Valery said, "A work of art is never completed, only abandoned," and I regard even my nonfiction as a kind of art."

DJB Meets LSD

I tried LSD for the first time when I was 16 years old. My curiosity to engage in this illegal form of self-exploration arose from several intersecting factors. In my high school health class, I was told that LSD made people see new, never-before-seen colors, which was supposed to frighten me, but instead fascinated me. I also noticed that some of the smartest and funniest kids at school were using acid, and they seemed anything but brain damaged to me. Additionally, since I was a child, I had always been interested in unusual states of consciousness, and my experiments with meditation and marijuana helped to enhance this curiosity. So, after watching a close friend enjoy his first LSD trip, and noting that he appeared to retain his sanity, despite all his uncontrollable laughter, I decided to give it a try.

One night during the school year of 1977, in the suburbs of central New Jersey, I swallowed a tiny "purple microdot," which was about the size of a pin head, and probably contained around 100 micrograms of LSD. My friends hung out with me for a few hours after taking it, but I didn't feel anything unusual. So after around three hours my friends left and I went bed. Then it began to hit me. The first thing that I noticed was that the walls in my room appeared to be breathing. My bedroom walls began to expand and contract in organic rhythms, mirroring my own breath, and I started to become frightened that I was losing my mind. I had heard that people can forget who they are on LSD, so, as my anxiety began to escalate, I started repeating my name and address over and over in my head, like a mantra, so I wouldn't forget who I was.

"My name is David Jay Brown. I live at 16 Lee Way, Somerville, New Jersey. My name is David Jay Brown…" I silently repeated over and over again, with increasing difficulty. My ego was rapidly dissolving, my sense of self was expanding, and I was desperately (and, in retrospect, comically) trying to hold on tight to the gooey remains of my melting ego, as my mind spilled out of my head and began to fill the room. I closed my eyes and was astonished by the colorful morphing visions that appeared within me. Terrified beyond words that I had permanently damaged my brain, and that I was going insane, I also realized that if I could possibly paint onto canvas the extraordinary imagery that I was seeing behind my closed eyes, I would be the greatest artist who ever lived.

But the fear of losing my mind became too powerful, and as the effects intensified, I vowed to flush all of the remaining cannabis in my closet down the toilet in the morning and to never do any more LSD ever again. With no previous training in shamanism or mysticism, I remember seeing a small, condensed version of myself shrinking down inside my own mind, and for some reason this scared the hell out of me. I just wanted this nightmarish experience to end. Time agonizingly slowed down to an almost complete standstill, and it seemed like it was going to be a very long night indeed. "My name is David Jay Brown. I live at 16 Lee Way, Somerville, New Jersey. My name is David Jay Brown…"

Then, suddenly, it struck me with the force of a revelation–hey, some people actually enjoy this kind of experience! I became curious about what was happening to me. What could people possibly enjoy about having their minds dissolve? Everything was so intensified. My body was trembling with hypersensitivity, everything was rippling and vibrating, and I was really scared. Music, I thought, that seemed worth trying. My mom and brother were asleep in neighboring rooms, so I wrapped a pair of overstuffed stereo headphones around my head and put on an album by the Electric Light Orchestra called A New World Record. The first song was called "Livin' Thing."

Within moments I was transported into a state of ecstasy. The music took on incredible depth and dimension, audibly, emotionally, and visually, and every note carried me higher and higher into Heavenly bliss. I savored the boundless music on my headphones until sunrise, and then, at dawn, went outside and sat in a lawn chair in my back yard. I looked up at the sky and watched the clouds, as ever-changing, three-dimensional imagery emerged from them. I stared in pure astonishment at the shifting cartoon and mythic-like images in the sky, as every philosophical or spiritual question that I ever had about God, consciousness, the soul, and reincarnation seemed to be answered immediately in my mind. The answers simply formed in my mind as the questions arose–leaping into my awareness, one after another. By the time that the sun had risen, I knew that I stumbled upon something really big and that my life would be forever changed.

Non-Human Entity Contact

When I interviewed Strassman I asked him if he thought there was any objective reality to the strange worlds visited by people when they're under the influence of DMT, and if he thought that the entities that so many people have encountered there actually have a genuine, independent existence or not. Rick replied:

I myself think so. My colleagues think I've gone woolly-brained over this, but I think it's as good a working hypothesis as any other. I tried all other hypotheses with our volunteers, and with myself. The "this is your brain on drugs" model; the Freudian "this is your unconscious playing out repressed wishes and fears;" the Jungian "these are archetypal images symbolizing your unmet potential;" the "this is a dream;" etc. Volunteers had powerful objections to all of these explanatory models–and they were a very sophisticated group of volunteers, with decades of psychotherapy, spiritual practice, and previous psychedelic experiences. I tried a thought-experiment, asking myself, "What if these were real worlds, and real entities? Where would they reside, and why would they care to interact with us?" This led me to some interesting speculations about parallel universes, dark matter, etc. All because we can't prove these ideas right now (lacking the proper technology) doesn't mean they should be dismissed out of hand as incorrect.

I asked Terence McKenna what he thought about this as well, and how–in these profoundly powerful psychedelic states–he was able to distinguish between independently-operating parts of himself and other intelligences.  He responded by saying:

It's very hard to differentiate it. How can I make that same distinction right now? How do I know I'm talking to you? It's just provisionally assumed, that you are ordinary enough that I don't question that you're there. But if you had two heads, I would question whether you were there. I would investigate to see if you were really what you appear to be. It's very hard to tell what this I/thou relationship is about, because it's very difficult to define the "I" part of it, let alone the "thou" part of it. I haven't found a way to tell, to trick it as it were into showing whether it was an extraterrestrial or the back side of my own head…this is simply a voice…so it's the issue of the mysterious telephone call. If you're awakened in the middle of the night by a telephone call, and you pick up the phone, and someone says "Hello" it would not be your first inclination to ask "Is anybody there?" because they just said hello. That establishes that somebody is there. But you can't see them, so maybe they aren't there. Maybe you've been called by a machine. I've been called by machines. You pick up the phone and it says, "Hello this is Sears, and we're calling to tell you that your order 16312 is ready for pick up." And you say, "Oh, thank you." "Don't mention it." No, so this issue of identifying the other with certainty is tricky, even in ordinary intercourse.

When I spoke with Rupert Sheldrake I asked him whether he thought that the  DMT entities might be able to sense that there are being stared at. Sheldrake had told me that he thought that people can sense that they are being stared at because, when we are looking at someone, a part of the observer is, in a sense, actually reaching out to touch the person being observed in some way. I was curious as to whether he thought this was true in other states of consciousness, where the person that one is observing is not in consensus material reality. For example, in lucid dreams, DMT-induced states of consciousness, or in a computer-simulated virtual reality, did he think that the act of looking at someone–or some being–in one of these alternative realities is actually expanding a part of that person's mind into another dimension of sorts, or did he think this might be an illusion that's just in the mind? When I asked him about this he replied:

I think these things are in the mind, but I don't think the mind is in the brain. I think in an ordinary act of vision, when we look at something, the mind extends beyond our brain. If I look out of my window now and see a tree, I don't think that image of the tree is inside my head. I think the image is where it seems to be. I think it's projected out. Vision involves a two-way process. Light moving in, changes in the brain, and then projection out of images. And oddly enough, when you think about the conventional theory, that it's all in the brain, it leads to very peculiar consequences. I'm looking up at the sky now, and according to the conventional view, my image of the sky, what I'm seeing in front of me, is actually inside my head. That means that my skull must be beyond the sky. When you look up at the sky, your skull's beyond the sky. Now this is absurd really, and yet that's what the conventional view is telling us, and most people take it for granted, without realizing how very counterintuitive, and very peculiar this speculative theory is. So I think that we go beyond our brain in the simplest act of vision, and I think that many of these other experiences also involve going beyond the brain. I don't think the mind is confined to the brain. So it may be true to say that near-death experiences, visionary experiences, and DMT trips are all in the mind, but that doesn't mean to say they're all in the brain.

Computer scientist Marko A. Rodriguez published a scientific paper in 2008  called  "A Methodology for Studying Various Interpretations of the N,N-dimethyltryptamine-Induced Alternate Reality" that explores how to possibly determine if the entities experienced by people under the influence of DMT are really independently-existing, intelligent beings, or merely the projections of our chemically-altered brains. Rodriguez suggests using a cognitive test that involves asking the entities to perform a complex mathematical task involving prime numbers, in order to verify their independent existence. While it seems like quite a long shot that this method will lead to any kind of fruitful results, I think that any serious speculation about establishing communication channels with these mysterious beings can be constructive.

Smoking, injecting, or snorting DMT in a purified form can be extremely intense and highly stimulating, beyond overwhelming at the higher dosages, and this is how it earned the underground nickname "DPT," which stands for "Double-Penetration Tryptamine." Doing DMT can sometimes be extremely frightening. The heightened state of anxiety that sometimes occurs with high-dose levels of DMT, according to McKenna, stems from the "fear that one will die of astonishment… and is a hallmark of the experience's authenticity."

Anyone who has read Rick Strassman's marvelous book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (another Inner Traditions publication) was probably struck by the report of how one of Strassman's test subjects terrifyingly believed that he was being anally raped by a monster alligator during his DMT experience. I wonder what Terence would have said to this person. In any case, I discovered this mother of all fears firsthand the very first time that I tried DMT.

DJB Meets DMT

I first tried smoking DMT in 1983, when I was 21 years old. I was at the home of a friend named "Bruce," who offered to introduce me to the experience, which I had read about and had wanted to try for years. I blessed his heart, as he scraped together some loose orange-red crystals from the bottom of a kitchen draw, and carefully placed them into the bottom of a huge glass pipe in his living room. Then I sat down on the couch as he fired up the bowl of the pipe from the bottom with a strong blowtorch lighter and vaporized the DMT crystals, while I inhaled three deep lungfuls of the vapor. This was to become the most powerful psychedelic experience of my life.  

The vapor tasted like burnt plastic and felt horrible in my lungs, like molten glass scorching the inside of my chest. Within seconds after smoking the first lungful of the DMT I felt like I was peaking on the highest LSD trip that I'd ever been on. The absolutely insane kaleidoscopic patterns that were unfolding before me were an order of magnitude more intense than anything that I had previously witnessed on LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin. Somehow, I managed to inhale two more lungfuls of the awful tasting vapor, and a few seconds later I found myself in a completely different, higher-ordered dimension, complex beyond anything that I can adequately describe in human language.

It was impossible to gain my orientation during the experience, and I witnessed the most incredible things imaginable. This was not a human world that I was in; it was populated by other intelligent creatures, and I was able to see my ever-morphing environment–their world–in 360 degrees. So much was going on around me. I watched in spellbound fascination as legions of small elf-like beings were diving into this strange biological machine, and sliding out of it, like it was an amusement park ride. It appeared to be giving them enormous pleasure to do this.

(Years later, through subsequent experiences with DMT, I began to suspect that this "amusement park ride" was actually entering into a three-dimensional human body and experiencing a lifetime, which seemed like just a brief moment from the perspective of hyperspace. I heard about someone's experience with an extract made from the African iboga root that was similar, where they found themselves in a post-death realm with access to a "reincarnation machine," and beings could experience whole human life times virtually instantaneously from the perspective of that realm.)

Suddenly, I felt myself in the grip of an intelligent being that was doing something to me that I didn't understand. I kept trying to interpret what the being was, and what was happening, and felt utterly helpless. I projected, what seemed like, millions of possible interpretations per second onto this complex being, trying to understand what this being was, or what was happening to me, but nothing in my mind fit, or seemed to make sense. I alternated between states of ecstatic pleasure and absolute terror, as I wondered, was this being a scientist experimenting on me?  Was "he" good or bad? Was this being someone that I already knew somehow? Was "he" a friend? A lover? A parent? An angel? A demon? An extraterrestrial?  Was it God, or my own creator?

In some weird way, it seemed that this being was a giant version of myself, a gigantically-huge and all-powerful "David Jay Brown," that was measuring and adjusting reactions in my brain with extreme precision, as "he" administered a vast series of intensifying stimuli that seemed to be activating all of my senses at once, to their maximum thresholds. Energies poured into me, beyond my capacity to handle, as this being adjusted the range of streaming sensations, twisting (what seemed like) different colored light filters over me, asking me repeatedly, with each click or change: "Like this?" "Like this? "Like this?"  It seemed like "he" was trying to determine when the intensity of the sensations would become too much for me, in one brain area or perceptual range after another, while I was desperately trying to understand what in the world was happening.

This towering being seemed to be measuring and adjusting different threshold sensitivities in my brain for experiencing pleasure and pain. I vividly remember how strong sweet and bitter, sometimes metallic, taste sensations strangely and syneasthetically blended with continuously transforming extra-dimensional visual imagery, as I pleaded with the being to "please stop." I learned later from Bruce, that I actually said these words out loud during the experience, while I was being experimented upon in another dimension. It was simply too much for my poor little monkey brain to handle and much of what happened that afternoon is impossible to remember.

When I started to come back to Earth, it took me, what felt like forever, to just remember that I was a human being who had done a drug. Although it felt like an eternity, only around ten minutes had actually gone by before I was back in my body asking Bruce how long it had been. I sat there saying "wow" over and over, as I watched a powerful and vividly colorful tapestry of bejeweled patterns fluidly unfold, morph, and merge, ultimately solidifying into the walls and furniture of Bruce's apartment. For around ten more minutes, I felt like I was being shown secrets about how everything in our reality was constructed behind the scenes, so to speak, much like on a high-dose magic mushroom trip.

I was back to baseline in thirty minutes after smoking the DMT. This experience became the basis for a scene in the second chapter of my first science fiction novel, Brainchild. Many of the scenes in my science fiction novels came directly from my trip reports, and like Philip K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson, I sometimes had difficulty distinguishing my science fiction from reality.

Encountering that strange being on my first DMT trip wasn't the only time that I felt like an extraterrestrial scientist was experimenting on my brain.

Artwork by Frank Alan Bella, www.bellastudios.com