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LSD and the Evolution of Consciousness

This essay, which tells the story of the inventor of LSD and his ‘problem child’s’ turbulent history, is taken from Hofmann’s Elixir: LSD and the New Eleusis. It first appeared on

If, as Albert Hofmann believes, it was not he who discovered LSD, but rather LSD that found him, then indeed it chose wisely.  For, as those who know him are aware, Albert and his Wunderkind are a very well-matched pair.  It is a rare thing in the modern world, or in any world, for a man to live beyond a century.  But to live so long with senses so intact and above all with his luminous intellect undimmed, is so exceptional as to suggest a strikingly remarkable individual.  He takes pride in the collage, made by an admirer, juxtaposing portraits of Newton, Einstein and Hofmann, three men who have fundamentally transformed the way we conceive reality.  Apart from his scientific achievements, it is his personal qualities — the nobility of his character, the humanity and breadth of his vision, and his humility and awe before the beauty of Creation — that mark him out as an outstanding natural philosopher.

While his longevity may have been helped by a happy marriage, hiking, daily hanging upside-down or eating raw eggs, surely the primary cause was the sensation, born of his boyhood transfigurations (which coincided with the cataclysm of the First World War), that he had been chosen by some divine force to help redeem a despairing civilisation:

None will break ranks though nations trek from progress.
Then when much blood had clogged their chariot wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint…

Albert Hofmann can still locate the exact spot, on the wooded Martinsberg above Baden, where the first of his transfigurations occurred.  The Tibetan tantric tradition might explain that event as an experience of the Great Bliss, the untrammelled awareness of the natural state or ‘Buddha-mind’, variously described by adepts as youthful and fresh, extraordinarily vivid, and as ‘primordial enlightenment’.

His sensation that his life had a profound purpose was perhaps confirmed by his two half-conscious decisions, firstly to synthesise LSD-25 on 16 November 1938, and secondly, despite animal bioassays having proved its inactivity, to re-synthesise it on 16 April 1943.  The scientifically inexplicable state of ‘extremely heightened fantasy’ which he experienced that day, recalled to mind the visionary episodes of his boyhood, confirmed his hunch that he was at the threshold of some great discovery, and prevented LSD being again assigned, as he had hitherto planned, to more animal bioassays and so to oblivion.

The ‘horror-trip’ which followed his taking of 250 micrograms of LSD three days later was a stark warning: like the Nibelung’s Ring, Albert’s elixir had magical powers — to do great good if wisely used, but to do great harm when used in ignorance.

From the moment he confirmed its power, his new life-purpose was to encourage the wise use of his ‘spiritual atom bomb’.  He hoped that LSD’s psychedelic activity, quantitatively and qualitatively far superior to that of mescaline, the only other hallucinogen then known in the West, would be a valuable tool in neuroscience, in the treatment of the mind, and in the education of the human species.   He presumed that, like mescaline, LSD’s non-medicinal use would be confined to artistic and literary circles, to such exceptional thinkers as Aldous Huxley and Ernst Jünger: ‘I had not expected that LSD, with its unfathomably uncanny profound effects, so unlike the character of a recreational drug, would ever find worldwide use as an inebriant.’

This expectation was to be confounded.  By the mid-1960s LSD was receiving sensational attention in the mass media, especially in the United States.  Some hailed its power to improve spiritual, emotional and sexual performance, others blamed it for psychosis and suicide.  Timothy Leary, whose personality was the very antithesis of Hofmann’s, appointed himself LSD’s ‘apostle’, claimed it as the most potent aphrodisiac ever, and caught the attention of millions with his anarchic advice to ‘Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out’.  Coinciding with the height of the Cold War and with Vietnam, this was too much for the US authorities, which made LSD illegal in 1967, and in 1972 unleashed the worldwide War on Drugs.  Possession of LSD was forbidden, and its use in neuroscience and psychiatry stopped.  It was officially declared to have no medical or scientific use whatsoever.

For Albert, this disaster confirmed his resolution to stay alive and alert for as long as possible, to advocate the beneficent use and positive value of LSD, and patiently to await the turn of the tide.  In the 1970s he became involved with Gordon Wasson and Carl Ruck in research into the Eleusinian Mysteries, which suggested that the sacrament used in the most potent ceremony of the classical world was chemically close to LSD, confirming his belief that LSD could help catalyse a spiritual renaissance which might yet pluck modern man from the abyss of his own destruction.

Albert’s hundredth birthday on 11 January 2006, celebrated in Basel by the university and municipality and by a large international conference, may have marked a milestone in LSD’s return to respectability, in its transformation from Sorgenkind to Wunderkind.  Surely the elixir, advocated for over 60 years with such eloquence by so reasonable and venerable a gentleman, merits research to see if it has, in fact, some use for science and humanity?

The year 2006 also witnessed unprecedented international dissatisfaction with US foreign policy. As the military and moral failure of US policy in the Middle East sapped her prestige, so civil society and governments world-wide were emboldened to question the wisdom of that other American crusade, the War on Drugs. Furthermore, the growing concern of numerous scientists and world opinion that climate change is accelerating, and that unrestrained economic growth may be its primary cause, has simultaneously strengthened those who share Albert’s long-held belief that pure materialism, without a spiritual or holistic dimension, is now unsustainable.

There are grounds, therefore, for cautious optimism that the ideas held by Albert, and many others, may be regaining favour, and that perhaps the responsible use of psychedelics may in due course resume its traditional role in human affairs. If so, he should feel profound and justified pride that his wisdom, integrity and persistence have enabled him to fulfil the redemptive mission of which he became magically conscious nine long decades ago on the Martinsberg.

* * *

My own first encounter with Albert’s elixir happened in London in 1965.  My childhood had been shaped by brushes with the numinous, and I was exhilarated by LSD’s power to raise me to an altogether higher level of consciousness, by its creative potential, by its intensification of sensory perceptions, of human relationships, and of the joys of life. As my investigation into the art of manipulating consciousness advanced I became particularly impressed with one of LSD’s most notable and endearing characteristics: that, because it is so dose-sensitive, it could be used either as a catalyst for transformation or, in a smaller, more manageable dose, to add sparkle to daily life, deepen observation, widen the web of neural connectivity and thereby enhance creativity and well being – a true psycho-vitamin.

Early in my life I had become interested in the exploration of altered states of consciousness.  I studied mysticism, sacred and profane, under the tuition of R.C. Zaehner, who opposed Huxley’s view that a mystical experience could be caused by chemical means.  After taking LSD, I recognized the truth of Huxley’s retort that psychedelics were the ‘occasion’, rather than the ‘cause’ of mystical experiences. In other words, the flooding of the brain with combusted oxygen – light – does not of itself bring about a mystical experience, unless the crop it reaps is ripe for harvest.

In the years that followed I grew ever more curious to understand better the workings of the mind, and how the use of this ‘alchemical potion’ could help transform psychic lead into gold.  In 1966, inspired by a great love and a new viewpoint, I embraced the hypothesis that one of the primary underlying elements of LSD’s cerebral effects is the increased perfusion of blood to the brain, thereby supplying millions more brain cells with glucose and oxygen, increasing metabolism, washing out toxins and expanding the network of simultaneous associations.  This can be experienced subjectively as enhanced perception, cognition, and awareness.  As William Blake observed: ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: Infinite.’

Of course there are many ways of extending the spectrum of consciousness, ranging from meditation and chanting to breath control, extreme exercise and the ingestion of psychoactive substances.  Indeed, ever since the emergence of Homo sapiens our ancestors have used practices and substances that induced altered states.  Shamanic practices formed the very core of our cultural history.  Later these practices developed into mysticism and alchemy, and were finally driven underground by a cultural transformation fearful of expanded consciousness.  The burning of witches and heretics sent the mystics running for cover.  The spirit of the Inquisition has continued to this day under the guise of the War on Drugs, the war on altered states of perception.

The evidence that the entheogens (substances that create the divine within) have been key catalysts of human spiritual and cultural evolution makes it all the stranger that, in the present day, these compounds are kept, not in sacred chalices, but in the criminal underbelly of society.  It is indeed an ironic twist that society has made taboo that area of human experience which historically was so central to our evolution. Let us hope that in the 21st century society will re-evaluate this position.

It became a principal purpose of my life to help elucidate the physiological mechanisms underlying enhanced states of consciousness.  Only with this knowledge would it be possible to weigh the benefits and dangers of those states, and so to integrate the practice of intensifying and extending the range of conscious states into the fabric of contemporary culture.  In a scientific age, we need scientific explanations.

In order to further the investigation of the complex mechanisms underlying the full spectrum of conscious states, I set up the Beckley Foundation, through which I could work with internationally recognised scientists at leading institutions, and thereby gain access to the latest neuroscientific technologies.  Strangely, it was not until the 1990s that the core topic of ‘consciousness’ came in from the scientific cold and even then the investigation of ‘altered states of consciousness’ remained beyond the frontiers for established scientific research.  It is these frontiers of exploration on which the Beckley Foundation focuses. Many predict that the twenty-first century will be renowned as the century of neuroscience.

What might be the advantages of experiencing a fuller cornucopia of conscious states, and of being better informed about them?  I think there is a strong argument that taking into account information from a variety of viewpoints tends towards deeper insights, whether this awareness emanates from dreams or meditation or chemically-induced altered states.  Although our species displays astonishing feats of brilliance, there is something strangely myopic and self-destructive about our world-view.  This tunnel vision causes immense suffering worldwide, destroying environments and species.  Over the last two millennia we have amassed incredible technological power, yet our moral insight and self-knowledge has failed to evolve in synchrony.

We should, maybe, keep in mind the cautionary tale of Neanderthal Man.  For over 160,000 years he had been slowly adapting to changing circumstances.  Then, around 50,000 years ago, a mutant cousin, Homo sapiens, whose fat metabolism and brain-structure had undergone complex changes, arrived in Western Europe, and over the next few thousand years Neanderthal became extinct.

It is most probable that the changes in Homo sapiens’ brain-structure resulted in more efficient communication between neurons, and improved connectivity between different parts of the brain, bringing with it a different type of consciousness and behaviour – a new consciousness, similar to our own.  This great leap forward in brain-structure meant that Homo sapiens could experience and integrate an expanded range of conscious states, adding a more complex ring to the associative networks of connectivity, thereby gaining in survival chances.  He could incorporate the experiences emanating from dreams and other states of altered consciousness into his thought patterns, create concepts that could be communicated at a distance through the use of symbols, and give birth to abstract ideas such as ‘spirit’, life-after-death and art – an evolutionary mutation which poor Neanderthal, who was incapable of integrating mental images derived from altered states and creating abstract concepts and symbolic behaviour, could not imitate. This extended viewpoint resulted in our ancestors being more adaptable and winning the survival battle when the going got tough.  However, like Neanderthal Man we too could die out if we fail to integrate the deeper awareness which is born from a fuller range of conscious states.

* * *

When I first met Albert Hofmann in 1997, I asked him if he had ever thought that LSD might improve cerebral circulation.  He answered that he was a chemist not a physiologist, but that he and Anita hung from their feet everyday to get more blood to their brains.  When we later visited him at his beautiful mountain retreat and I had the great honour of having his cat, Amadea, who Albert said never liked strangers, instantly purring on my lap, I felt enormous admiration and gratitude for the man who had brought so much light and love to my own, and many others’ lives.  I promised him that for his 100th birthday, the following year, I would obtain the first official permission for over 35 years to carry out scientific research using LSD with human subjects, thereby breaking the spell which had excluded his Wunderkind from its natural role as an invaluable tool in neuroscience and psychotherapy.  But slow grind the mills of the gods, and only by his 101st birthday were all permissions in place, enabling the research to begin.

Thank you, Albert, for inventing the alchemical potion whose healing powers may enhance the well-being of our troubled species, bringing about a transformation of viewpoint that echoes that experienced at Eleusis in the classical age, and thus facilitates a ‘loosening’ of our thinking so that we may become more adaptable to changing circumstances.

Man the tool-maker, has fashioned a powerful tool with which to expand awareness – the mystic son of a tool-smith has fulfilled the role of master alchemist by creating a sacred elixir that can help our species fulfil its potential to be the noblest and wisest of them all.

Amanda Feilding is an artist and consciousness researcher. She made the film Heartbeat in the Brain (1970) and wrote the book Blood & Consciousness (1978). In 1990 she set up the Foundation to Further Consciousness and in 1998 established the Beckley Foundation, which initiates and directs neuroscientific research into consciousness and its altered states, and also works to bring a rational perspective to global drug policy by hosting high-level seminars and publishing academic reports.

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