Midway through the twentieth century, two unusual new molecules, organic compounds with a striking family resemblance, exploded upon the West. In time, they would change the course of social, political, and cultural history, as well as the personal histories of the millions of people who would eventually introduce them to their brains. As it happened, the arrival of these disruptive chemistries coincided with another world historical explosion—that of the atomic bomb. There were people who compared the two events and made much of the cosmic synchronicity. Extraordinary new energies had been loosed upon the world; things would never be quite the same.
The first of these molecules was an accidental invention of science. Lysergic acid diethylamide, commonly known as LSD, was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann in 1938, shortly before physi- cists split an atom of uranium for the first time. Hofmann, who worked for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz, had been looking for a drug to stimulate circulation, not a psychoactive compound. It wasn’t until five years later when he accidentally ingested a minus- cule quantity of the new chemical that he realized he had created something powerful, at once terrifying and wondrous.
The second molecule had been around for thousands of years, though no one in the developed world was aware of it. Produced not by a chemist but by an inconspicuous little brown mushroom, this molecule, which would come to be known as psilocybin, had been used by the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America for hundreds of years as a sacrament. Called teonanácatl by the Aztecs, or “flesh of the gods,” the mushroom was brutally suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church after the Spanish conquest and driven un- derground. In 1955, twelve years after Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD, a Manhattan banker and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson sampled the magic mushroom in the town of Huautla de Jiménez in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Two years later, he published a fifteen-page account of the “mushrooms that cause strange visions” in Life magazine, marking the moment when news of a new form of consciousness first reached the general public. (In 1957, knowledge of LSD was mostly confined to the com- munity of researchers and mental health professionals.) People would not realize the magnitude of what had happened for several more years, but history in the West had shifted.
The impact of these two molecules is hard to overestimate. The advent of LSD can be linked to the revolution in brain science that begins in the 1950s, when scientists discovered the role of neu- rotransmitters in the brain. That quantities of LSD measured in mi- crograms could produce symptoms resembling psychosis inspired brain scientists to search for the neurochemical basis of mental dis- orders previously believed to be psychological in origin. At the same time, psychedelics found their way into psychotherapy, where they were used to treat a variety of disorders, including alcoholism, anxi- ety, and depression. For most of the 1950s and early 1960s, many in the psychiatric establishment regarded LSD and psilocybin as miracle drugs.
The arrival of these two compounds is also linked to the rise of the counterculture during the 1960s and, perhaps especially, to its particular tone and style. For the first time in history, the young had a rite of passage all their own: the “acid trip.” Instead of folding the young into the adult world, as rites of passage have always done, this one landed them in a country of the mind few adults had any idea even existed. The effect on society was, to put it mildly, disruptive.
Yet by the end of the 1960s, the social and political shock waves unleashed by these molecules seemed to dissipate. The dark side of psychedelics began to receive tremendous amounts of publicity— bad trips, psychotic breaks, flashbacks, suicides—and beginning in 1965 the exuberance surrounding these new drugs gave way to moral panic. As quickly as the culture and the scientific establishment had embraced psychedelics, they now turned sharply against them. By the end of the decade, psychedelic drugs—which had been legal in most places—were outlawed and forced underground. At least one of the twentieth century’s two bombs appeared to have been defused.
Then something unexpected and telling happened. Beginning in the 1990s, well out of view of most of us, a small group of scientists, psychotherapists, and so-called psychonauts, believing that some- thing precious had been lost from both science and culture, resolved to recover it.
Today, after several decades of suppression and neglect, psyche- delics are having a renaissance. A new generation of scientists, many of them inspired by their own personal experience of the compounds, are testing their potential to heal mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. Other scientists are using psychedelics in conjunction with new brain-imaging tools to explore the links between brain and mind, hoping to unravel some of the mysteries of consciousness.
One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical expe- rience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience. The hoary 1960s platitude that psychedelics offered a key to understanding—and “expanding”— consciousness no longer looks quite so preposterous.
How to Change Your Mind is the story of this renaissance. Although it didn’t start out that way, it is a very personal as well as public his- tory. Perhaps this was inevitable. Everything I was learning about the third-person history of psychedelic research made me want to explore this novel landscape of the mind in the first person too—to see how the changes in consciousness these molecules wrought actu- ally feel and what, if anything, they had to teach me about my mind and might contribute to my life.