DOCTOR QUANTUM DROPS
In the fall of 1957, while studying engineering physics at OSU, I was
working as an intern in America's nascent space program at Redstone
Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik
and opened up the "missile gap". (The high point of my summer in Huntsville was a one-on-one interview with Werner Von Braun on the principles of ballistic rocketry.) To catch up with the Russians, the US
quickly began shoveling lots of money into American science. So when I
graduated (at the top of my class) from OSU in 1959, I was awarded a "Sputnik
scholarship" to any graduate school I pleased and thus, courtesy of the
Soviet missile program, I ended up at Stanford.
By 1963 I had completed my course work, passed my prelims, chosen a
thesis advisor, and started my thesis work on a small particle
accelerator located in the basement of Stanford's Inner Quad.
Meanwhile, in a campus folk dance class, I met Ann Manly, a pretty
psychology undergraduate who introduced me to her friend Rae Larson, a
psychology graduate student. Like all undergraduate women, Ann lived in
a dorm, but Rae was renting a cozy little house in East Palo Alto where
Ann spent most of her free time.
As well as a friend to both women I served as a psychological guinea
pig for their classes in Psychological Testing and was subjected to
interminable rounds of IQ, personality and mental pathology tests. I
learned almost nothing from these tests except that I was quite clever
(which I already knew) and that I had a pathetically low ability to
memorize strings of numbers (which surprised me--isn't four digits all
anyone needs to remember?).
Their feminine charms and curious psych tests attracted me but, in
addition, Ann and Rae had enrolled as subjects in an off-campus program
which was investigating the effects of a new mind drug called LSD. The
Institute for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park was founded by Myron
Stoleroff, an Ampex engineer, and was staffed by a number of Stanford
faculty and graduate students some of whom I knew as friends, notably Jim Fadiman and Willis Harman.
I had heard of LSD.
During my first year in California, I had picked up a book by Alan
Watts (whom I had never heard of) describing his two LSD sessions in a
rural setting. In "The Joyous Cosmology", Watts describes religious and
philosophical insights perceived under its influence as well as
enhanced perception of natural objects. This book, to my mind still one
of the best introductions to the effects of LSD (on a religious
philosopher), aroused my curiosity about this new mind-altering drug. I
wished I could try some myself.
The LSD program at IFAS in Menlo Park cost $600, priced out of reach
for a poor graduate student, but I hoped I could at least experience
LSD vicariously through the adventures of my friends Ann and Rae.
One theoretical model for the IFAS project was that they would set up a
situation that precisely inverts the classic Freudian "primal scene".
In Freud's model of neurosis the child experiences a profoundly
distressing emotional event (his parents copulating, say) which his
immature mind cannot integrate into his map of the world. The memory of
this psychologically indigestible primal scene is repressed, say the
Freudians, surfacing only as inexplicable neurotic symptoms.
If an unutterably horrible experience on an unprepared mind can make
your life worse, how might an indescribably beautiful experience by a
mind specially prepared change a person's life for the better? This was
one of the questions that the people at "the Foundation" in Menlo Park
intended to address.
The primary goal of the Foundation was to help you design your first
psychedelic experience for maximum positive impact. You chose the
friends you wanted to be with, the setting, the music and the questions
you wanted to ask (acid as oracle). The therapist who would be your
guide got to know you through the (inevitable) psychological tests and
interviews. To investigate your possible reaction to the "ego loss"
sometimes experienced under LSD, a supervised session under "carbogen"
was scheduled. This gas is a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide which
triggers a physiological "drowning reflex". Some participants in the
IFAS program reported that the panic induced by carbogen was worse than
anything they experienced under acid.
As Ann & Rae were wending their way through the IFAS program,
anticipating their first acid trip, they and I were reading everything
we could get our hands on about this new mind-altering drug.
Coincidental with the investigations going on at Stanford, a program at
Harvard led by Doctors Leary, Alpert and Metzner was gathering steam
and they began publishing their own results as well as classic accounts
of what they called "expanded awareness" in a new journal called "The
Either in the Psychedelic Review or in one of the many papers
referenced there, we discovered that there were several naturally
occurring sources of LSD and LSD analogs. One of these sources was the
common morning glory seed, a variety of which was used in ceremonies by
natives of Mexico. The effective dosage of LSD lies between 100-500
micrograms and the literature implied that one seed was equivalent to
one microgram of LSD.
In the fall of 1963 I visited a nursery in San Jose and purchased a
10-pound sack of morning glory seeds--a variety called Heavenly
Blue--and decided to run my own psychedelic session with Ann and Rae as
On the afternoon of Oct 5, 1963, in Rae's comfortable little house in
Palo Alto, I ingested 300 seeds ground up and mixed with peanut butter
to improve the taste and settled in to wait for the visions. The taste
of morning glory seeds is really horrible. Recalling that taste still
makes me shudder. Much worse than peyote or ayahuasca.
About half an hour later, to calm my stomach I was sipping a cup of tea
and became fascinated by the way the tea was flowing back down the rim
of the cup. Suddenly the liquid wetting the inside of the cup was
transformed into a cascade of glistening jewels. "Beautiful, but a mere
hallucination," I scoffed, arrogantly challenging the drug to show me
I got to my feet, rushed to the bathroom to throw up. I returned,
sipped some more tea. The hallucinations had vanished. Perhaps because
of my initial bad manners, minimal visual effects occurred that
afternoon and visual effects tended to be rare in my subsequent
experiences with psychedelics.
Then I was swept up in a wave of amplified attention to my inner life.
My mind was racing, full of thoughts, images, relationships. And I
could attend to these thoughts with a powerful intensity not available
in my ordinary state. I saw myself with a clarity never before
achieved, immersed myself in my Nickness in a way I had never thought
When LSD was first tested by psychologists they called it a
"psychotomimetic" (producing artificial psychoses) and thus useful as a
tool for therapists to get a first-hand experience of what it was like
to go crazy. But the term coined by Canadian psychologist Humphry
Osmond (also famous for giving acid to Aldous Huxley) more precisely
describes LSD's effects. "Psychedelic" means "mind manifesting"--a
powerful searchlight into the depths of your own subjectivity, an
intense probe into what it means to be "you".
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Slavic immigrants, was raised
as a Catholic and attended a Catholic prep school, St Charles Borromeo,
which was attached to a seminary. Many of my comrades at St Charles
simply continued their studies within its walls and were ordained as
priests. Our religious studies were more concerned with theory and
doctrine (I adored the arguments of St Thomas Aquinas) than with
spiritual experience. Our teachers were all priests--some of the most
intelligent men I have ever met. We could attend Mass every morning in
the school chapel, some of us serving at the altar. Later with my
degree in physics from Stanford in hand I would say that I was raised
in the Fourteenth Century and grew up in the Twentieth.
The priests at St. Charles offered no courses in mysticism, but in the
library (along with such books as "The Fourteenth--Greatest of
Centuries") I discovered "The Dark Night of the Soul" by Saint John of
the Cross in which he describes his experience of a unprecedented depth
of existential despair. If this was mysticism, I thought, then I wanted
no part of it.
Also, about this time (late 1950s), I came across an article by Aldous
Huxley (whom I had never heard of) in my parents' copy of Saturday Evening Post--an article called "Drugs That Shape Men's Minds". As a eager
but experientially naive student of theology I scoffed at Huxley's assertion that mystical
experiences could be induced by certain drugs. How foolish to imagine that a mere chemical could produce the same effect as years of monastic prayer and discipline!
Meanwhile, back in Rae Larson's living room I was busy exploring the
insides of Nick Herbert with a clarity, an urgency and an intensity
that were never previously available. And as a good physicist I had
planned to do a little science. I was going to examine the time
distortion alleged to occur under acid. To this end I was wearing a
watch with a sweep-second hand and my experiment consisted of simply
observing whether the hand was traveling faster or slower than normal.
The results surprised me.
Immersed in the rich details of my own inner state, it was difficult to
draw my attention to the watch on my wrist. It seemed one of thousands
of options to explore and I would get to it soon. In fact I would get
to it NOW! And then I looked at my watch.
The watch was running at normal speed. But I was completely straight.
I closed my eyes and re-entered the psychedelic state. But every time I
tried to look at my watch it brought me down. It was impossible for me
to be tripping and to do science. I did this three times and gave up.
The universe (or a deeper part of Nick) was showing off its peculiar
sense of humor.
Then it came and tried to get me.
I felt myself dissolving around the edges, vaguely uneasy. This was no
longer fun. Whatever it was that made me ME was somehow fragmenting away. The
foundations of who I was were crumbling. I didn't like this one bit.
I asserted myself.
And it brushed me aside.
I pulled myself together.
And it scattered me into pieces.
Then I realized (again with a bit of humor) that I was fighting with
something that knew all my tricks. All my defenses were useless because
the enemy (enemy?) was already inside the walls, could read all my
codes, knew all of my weaknesses, could see through my pretensions.
I laughed. And dissolved into nothingness. No Nick.
And emerged again. Only to be swept under once more.
The best way I can describe this state is that there is no Nick. But
there is still a very intense awareness, a perception. But it's
entirely impersonal. What's left of Nick is a terror that the LSD has
wrecked his mind and he's going to exist in this state forever. If this
state is the ego loss that the Buddhists so earnestly seek, it's
absolutely worthless. Because there's no one there to enjoy it.
I have experienced this state more than once on subsequent acid trips
and always find it terrifying--although not as frightful as that first
wholly unexpected ego dissolution in Rae Larson's comfortable living room.
Before I tried acid I was entirely ignorant of the range of states of
mind it is possible for humans to experience. One of these experiences
is an immense gratitude for being allowed entry into this world of
expanded awareness. I am glad that I have been given the opportunity to
experience these states; it would have been a real shame to have died
without ever having known that such unusual experiences were possible.
What was the nature of this powerful mind-manifesting molecule? How did it work? I
needed professional help. I would ask a Stanford doctor; there were
plenty at hand. My friend Bob Erickson, then in Stanford medical
school, summed up the science side for me: "You tell me how Ordinary
Consciousness works, Nick, and I'll tell you how LSD modifies that."
Thanks, Bob. Forty years later, scientists know so precious little
about ordinary awareness that taking LSD is still experimenting at the
very edges of human knowledge.
The essence of science is unfettered inquiry. Especially in an area so
full of ignorance as the nature of mind, it is folly to lock up
scientists for their choice of tools. Any nation that imprisons its
scientists for investigating psychedelic drugs belongs in the Middle
Ages. As a physicist I question the powers-that-be: "If you trust me
with Plutonium. why not LSD?"
And can this substance, as Huxley suggested, induce mystical
experiences? A few years previously, I had shed my Catholicism like a
outworn garment and Jehovah did not speak to me through the drug
experience. In the soul depths opened up by this mind medicine, no
monotheistic presence emerged. Instead an experience of union, a
continuity of my self with the matter of my being, a confirmation of
the Hindu mantra "Thou are That." was for me the mystic message of LSD.
No wonder the popularity of Eastern religions among acid heads. Here
was direct "hands-on" confirmation of that Oneness with Nature described in the
Vedas and other Eastern scriptures.
And the terrifying experience of ego loss could be received as the
message that "All is illusion". All human notions, physics,
mathematics, the notions of self, society, matter and mind are seen as
flimsy human constructs consumed in the ruthless truthfulness of the
fiery void. The world-as-illusion experience often reported by the
astronauts of inner space could be seen as direct confirmation of the
Buddhist notion of Maya.
While LSD was entering the popular culture through articles in LIFE
magazine and shock stories in the tabloids, William Braden, a reporter
for the Chicago Tribune in his book "The Private Sea: LSD and the
Search for God" provided a perspective on LSD at once sober and
apocalyptic. The real danger of acid, writes Braden, is not that it will
damage the brain, or that it will cause young people to drop out of
society. We already live with drugs such as alcohol that produce effects
like that. No, the real danger of acid is that some of its users claim
that LSD puts them in contact with the illusory nature of the material
world. The real danger of acid is that some freak will journey to the
center of things, discover the movie projector that is producing this
illusion, and turn it off!
As a scientific research tool, LSD is particular interesting because it alters not
merely perceptions but the very entity doing the perceiving. Most of these
states are ineffable, cannot be described because of their strange
variations on the experience/experiencer split. It's not like watching
movies. Sometimes it's more like having the movies watch you. Looking
in a mirror on acid is particularly informative.
Years after that first trip, two experiences stand out from all the
others--mainly because they are describable.
Once I was tripping and my first wife left me outside the market while
she went shopping. There was a rosebush outside the market and I stared
at the roses with AN INTENSITY OF ATTENTION that I have never been able
to muster. All of me--and there was more of me than usual--was watching
those roses. We are defined in a sense by where we put our attention.
In this case LSD seemed both to increase the quantity of attention I
possessed and to focus that attention single-mindedly in one particular
direction. Never ever have I experienced such an amplification of attention as I was able on acid to give to that humble rosebush in its box outside the Woodside Market.
For a scientist, skepticism and an ability to live with uncertainty are
good traits to possess. I find it hard to be completely wholehearted in
my beliefs and am often full of doubts. But one afternoon on acid I
reached a state of complete and utter certainty.
But it was certainty without content. It was as if I possessed a box
whose contents I would believe in without question. But the box was
empty. Acid had shown me the part of my brain where the fanatic in me
lives. That part was empty now, but could be occupied by anything at
any time. That vision made me more sympathetic to people whose fanatic
boxes have things inside--arbitrary things they believe without
question. I might be happier if I had more stuff in my fanaticism box, but I would
also be an entirely different person, probably not a scientist.
In addition to my many teachers, friends and guides, three of the most
important influences on my life have been Catholicism, quantum physics
and LSD. The first gave me an appreciation for the spiritual side of
life, the second an appreciation for the mysterious complexity of the
material world and the third an appreciation of the unexplored depths
of subjective experience.
Like many a psychedelic veteran I keep sewn inside my imaginary flight
suit the words of psychologist William James (a pioneer tripper on
mescaline and nitrous oxide): "Our normal waking consciousness,
rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of
consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of
screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
We may go though life without suspecting their existence, but apply the
requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their
completeness. No account of the universe in its totality can be final
which leaves these forms of consciousness quite disregarded."
Thanks to Ann & Rae for that first acid trip and to all my
subsequent companions and dear fellow explorers of the inner mysteries
opened up by that particular "requisite stimulus" called LSD. And much
appreciation for many conversations with my physicist friend the late
Heinz Pagels who took LSD in the same Stanford program that opened up
Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey to the wonders of the psychedelic landscape.
NICK HERBERT is the author of "Quantum Reality", "Faster Than Light",
"Elemental Mind" and a chapbook "Physics on All Fours". He devised the
shortest proof of Bell's Theorem, had a hand in the Quantum No-Cloning Rule and is presently obsessed with Quantum
Nick's home page resides at:
ACID CARTOON BY RON COBB