With the recent death of Albert Hofmann, the creator of LSD, folks reminisce about the good, and bad, of a drug that changed the world.
By Anastacia Mott Austin
Aging hippies everywhere mourned the death of LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann, and reminisced about their ‘trips’, both positive and negative.
While debate remains about whether LSD―or lysergic acid diethylamide―was a blessing that changed an entire culture, or a curse that needed to be outlawed, most will agree that those participating in its use emerged from their experiences changed. LSD was first discovered by Hofmann in 1938, when he synthesized a form of ergot, or wheat rot, that was known to have psychedelic hallucinatory properties. It wasn’t noted at the time for having any beneficial effects, so its study was discontinued. However, five years later, in 1943, Hofmann took up his experiments again. While creating the synthetic form of ergobasine, Hofmann accidentally ingested a small amount, and says he experienced two hours of ‘not unpleasant’ mild hallucinations of ‘fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors’.
He later intentionally took a larger amount of LSD at his lab, then rode his bicycle home, the recollection of which would turn into an oft-repeated report known as ‘bicycle day’. That ‘trip’ began not nearly so pleasantly, and he experienced waves of paranoia, during which he became convinced that his neighbor was a witch, that he had gone completely insane, and that his furniture was evil. This soon turned into a more pleasant experience, and he saw vivid shapes and colors behind his closed eyelids, and while lying on his bed, experienced any auditory sensation as an additional optical display. The next day, he reported that he felt refreshed, with a renewed sense of spiritual wonder for his life that lasted well into the day, and that his breakfast tasted ‘unusually delicious’.
Further Study and Experiments
Essentially, ever since ‘bicycle day’, people ingesting LSD have been either trying to figure how the chemical acts on the brain receptors to create intense spiritual transformations, or just enjoying the trips. LSD was introduced to the public in 1948, and hailed as a cure-all for a number of ills, including psychiatric disorders and alcoholism. Thousands of studies involving the drug proliferated throughout the late 1940s and into the early 1970s, and over 40,000 patients were treated with it. It showed remarkable success in at least one trial of alcoholics who had not been able to stop abusing alcohol by any other treatment means.
Dr. Timothy Leary, a psychology professor at Harvard University, used the drug extensively and experimented at length with it. It was Dr. Leary who apparently coined the phrase adopted by the counterculture of the 1960s to ‘tune in, turn on, and drop out’.
By the early 1960s, backlash against Leary and his co-professors performing LSD experiments led to his firing by Harvard, and the drug’s status was changed to an illegal controlled substance by the mid 1960s. However, by then, the counterculture had indeed been ‘turned on’, and they were not about to give up on the substance that they said was life-altering. Mass use of LSD during the hippie years is said to have collectively changed the culture, as thousands experienced the spiritually-changing effects of the drug. Just as Valium had been the drug of choice during the so-called halcyon days of the 1950s, and Prozac and other antidepressants would later define the 1990s, LSD marked the 1960s indelibly.
Hofmann himself was troubled by the rampant use of the drug he had discovered, saying that it should be used sparingly, as a means to spiritual enlightenment, similar to the way psychedelic mushrooms or peyote had been used by native cultures. Mind-altering psychotropic substances have been a part of nearly every culture throughout time. They have played important roles in rituals of spiritual awakening and healing, vision quests, and transcendence.
But what exactly creates that feeling of spiritual epiphany, and how does LSD foster a bridge to the enlightened unconscious? Scientists still aren’t exactly sure why LSD creates the sensation of creative awakening or hallucinatory revelations that other chemically similar drugs don’t. LSD and similar drugs are said to act on serotonin receptors in the brain’s cortex. Drugs that don’t create hallucinations act by ‘turning on’ those receptors in one way, while hallucinogenics act in slightly different ways, altering perception. Users of LSD have said they don’t care how or why LSD works for them, just that it does.
People have reported having acid trips that changed their lives forever, by essentially removing a filter of perception. They say they saw things they’d never seen before, on a physical or spiritual plane that had always been there but they were not able to see previously. Others have compared it to a spiritual bridge, which takes the user to a new level of consciousness, similar to what might have been achieved by other means such as prolonged meditation or fasting. By removing the emotional or psychological trappings of the everyday world (similar to what might happen in a lengthy Vipassana session, for example), users report their abilities to ‘see clearly’ the messages that many spiritual practices aim to convey to practitioners, such as ‘the whole world is love’, ‘we are all one being’, or ‘everything is light’.
These visions only last for the duration of the trip―sometimes as long as 12 to 14 hours―but people say that the effects of the visions can affect their spiritual well-being for a long time afterward, sometimes forever. People have said that certain acid trips performed similar functions as spiritual epiphanies, or in fact led to actual flashes of insight that stayed with them for a lifetime. One ‘tripper’ describes the acid experience like this: “First there was the sheer beauty of whatever was in this moment in unhurried, high-focus intensity, devoid of time and space, without all the filters and mental dialog.”
To some, this might sound similar to the aim to clear one’s mind as in meditation or other spiritual practices, to be able to see and experience life more clearly. The tripper adds, “Then [it was] experiencing at-one-ment with the world, as witnessing a world bigger than you, yet being a part of the stream of life.”
Freud might call that letting go of the ego, and Buddhists might say it’s releasing attachment to self. Of course acid trips aren’t always positive. Some people experience truly frightening, overwhelming hallucinations, that also change their lives for the worse. Some might argue that the mindset of the user will only be magnified by the drug, and that a bad trip is only the soul’s message that something needs to give.
Regardless of one’s opinion on LSD, whether it is a facilitator of enlightenment or a spiritual shortcut (which some see as fine, others see as a form of ‘cheating’ to get there), or simply a dangerous, illegal drug, it cannot be argued that the creation of LSD and its introduction into society at large effected a significant change in the cultural landscape of America. And one might argue that Hofmann himself was reflecting the sentiments shared by many an acid tripper, when he said at the end of his life, “I go back to where I came from, to where I was before I was born, that’s all.”