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Doubts about psychedelics from Albert Hofmann, LSD’s discoverer

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Albert HofmannPsychedelics are back! As readers of Scientific American know, scientists have recently reported that psychedelics show promise for treating disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety in terminal cancer patients. This weekend, researchers and other enthusiasts are gathering in New York City for a two-day celebration, "Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics," sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, along with other groups.

Overall, I’m thrilled by the psychedelic revival. I’ve had good trips, which gave me first-hand evidence of the drugs’ therapeutic potential. But like many other people I’ve also had bad trips, which left me feeling alienated from, rather than blissfully connected to, the world. In fact, it’s worth recalling that the godfather of psychedelic research—the chemist Albert Hofmann, whom I interviewed before his death in 2008—occasionally harbored doubts about these potent drugs.

In 1943, when war wracked the world, Hofmann was in Basel, Switzerland, working for the pharmaceutical company Sandoz. On April 16, he was investigating a compound related to ergot, a toxic extract of a fungus that infects grain-producing plants. Hofmann hoped that the ergot compound, which he had originally synthesized five years earlier, might have potential for stimulating blood circulation.

During his experiments, Hofmann was overcome by what he recalled later as "remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness." He guessed that he had absorbed the ergot compound through his skin. Three days later, to test his theory, he dissolved what he thought would be an extremely small dose of the chemical—250 millionths of a gram, or micrograms—in a glass of water and drank it. Within 40 minutes Hofmann felt so disoriented that he rode his bicycle home.

When he arrived at his house he spotted a female neighbor, who looked like a "malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask." Inside his house "furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms." Hofmann feared he was losing his mind or even dying. He was tormented by the thought that his wife and three children would never understand "that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution."

Gradually, "the horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude." This sense of well-being persisted through the following morning. When Hofmann walked out into his garden after a rainfall, "everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh new light. The world was as if newly created."

Thus did Hofmann discover the psychotropic properties of lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD. Hofmann’s psychedelic research continued. In the late 1950s he showed that psilocybin and psilocin are the primary active ingredients of Psilocybe cubensis, a "magic" mushroom consumed as a sacrament by Indians in Central and South America.

I met Hofmann in 1999 in Basel at a conference on altered states of consciousness—including drug-induced states—at which Hofmann received a prize. We spoke in a lounge of the ultramodern conference center as speakers and guests milled around us. Then 93, Hofmann was a stooped, white-haired man, in coat and tie. He spoke in halting, thickly accented English, but he energetically defended his legacy.

Hofmann blamed Timothy Leary, the renegade Harvard psychologist turned psychedelic guru, for the backlash against LSD and other psychedelics in the 1960s. "You should not tell everybody, even the children, ‘Take LSD! Take LSD!’" Hofmann said. Young people "are still in growth, and it is a very dangerous stage."

LSD is "very, very potent," Hofmann acknowledged, "and everything that is potent is dangerous." If used improperly, LSD "can hurt you, it can disturb you, it can make you crazy." But Hofmann believed that scientists and psychiatrists should be allowed to investigate LSD’s effects and prescribe it in a safe, controlled fashion. "I don’t want to promote absolute freedom," Hofmann said, "but the medical professions should have access to it."

Although it can harm people by provoking reckless or suicidal behavior, LSD is neither toxic nor addictive, Hofmann said; it has never killed anyone by overdose. Used with respect, it has enormous potential as a tool for investigating human consciousness and as an adjunct for psychotherapy. Psychedelics can also stimulate the "inborn faculty of visionary experience" that we all possess as children but lose as we mature. Hofmann hoped that in the future people would be able to take psychedelic drugs in "meditation centers" to awaken their religious awe.

Although Hofmann was not conventionally religious, he believed in God. "I am absolutely convinced," he said, "by feeling and by knowledge—my knowledge as a natural scientist—that there must be a creative spirit, an intelligence, which is the reason for what we have." Everything that exists, Hofmann said, pounding the table between us with his fist, is a manifestation of this plan. "It is impossible to have this without a plan," he insisted. "Otherwise you have only material, material, material!"

Hofmann had had frightening psychedelic experiences, including the early stages of his first LSD trip in 1943, but they usually yielded to more positive emotions. Hofmann’s worst trip occurred on a psilocybin trip, when he hallucinated that he was wandering all alone deep inside Earth. "I had the feeling of absolute loneliness," he said. "A terrible feeling!" When he emerged from this nightmare and found himself with his companions again, he felt ecstatic. "I had feeling of being reborn! To see now again! And see what wonderful life we have here!"

Yet in his memoir LSD: My Problem Child (McGraw-Hill, 1980), Hofmann acknowledged that some of the young drug-users who had appeared at his doorstep over the years seemed terribly disturbed. He confessed that he sometimes had misgivings about having brought LSD into the world and helping to popularize psilocybin. He compared his discoveries with that of nuclear fission; just as fission threatens our fundamental physical integrity, so do psychedelics "attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self." Psychedelics, he feared, might "represent a forbidden transgression of limits."

Hofmann also worried about psychedelics’ metaphysical implications. The fact that minute amounts of a chemical such as LSD can have such profound effects on our perceptions, thoughts and beliefs suggests that free will, which supposedly gives us the power to shape our destiny, might be an illusion; moreover, our deepest spiritual convictions may be nothing more than fluctuations in brain chemistry. To emphasize this point, Hofmann quoted from an essay that stated: "God is a substance, a drug!"

In other words, psychedelics can undermine as well as promote spiritual faith, and they can shatter as well as heal our psyches. We should keep these risks in mind as the psychedelic renaissance continues.

Uncredited photograph of Albert Hofmann from GEARFUSE

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  1. 1. gesimsek 4:30 pm 09/24/2010

    Actually,it was not Mr. Hofmann who invented the most potent mood and mind altering substance but somebody else who invented a place called Hollywood.

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  2. 2. WRQ9 11:24 pm 09/24/2010

    As LSD and other psychedelics deal so intimately with conscious and unconscious thought patterns I’m not sure we can ever be scientific about it’s potential effect. I agree with a great deal of the sentiment expressed by doctor Hoffman, but issues of fantasy and reality still prevail regarding value.
    By use of LSD I was able to interpret more freely the framework of my conscious mind, a subconscious latticework for dealing with qualities of the known/unknown world. What strikes me as most uncomfortable about that is the ambiguous nature of what Rumsfeld called the things we don’t know we don’t know. This area contains most of the meaningful parts of our existence.
    We feel we understand something, yet when we are able to see it from another perspective, we cannot be so sure. This is the knowledge that both preserved me and haunted me in my LSD experiences. I find that that exact duality to be my greatest lesson in life, the true nature of perceived opposites.
    In a seemingly unrelated issue I found that same theme to be redundant in terms of my troubles and windfalls due to dyslexia. Therefore I do not feel that a "turned on" mind is superior to an unmolested one, but if preexisting damage is seemingly insurmountable, I think this chemistry provides an alternative.
    Most of us are born knowing which is the right foot to start from, to have to choose again is a demand only society can make.

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  3. 3. Bill_Harris 1:22 pm 09/25/2010

    If you would like to learn more of the history of LSD therapy in six 10 minute segments, including interviews with Dr. Hofmann, presented by the National Film Board of Canada, you can find it here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFfblVjCwOU&feature=player_embedded
    Certainly LSD is a powerful tool, which it would behoove humanity to learn how to use. Incarceration of all psychic pioneers is not the answer.

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  4. 4. enrico 6:09 am 09/26/2010

    You don’t have to be on LSD to see "everything glisten and sparkle in a fresh new light and to see the world as if newly created."
    And with regard to "Everything that exists is a manifestation of God’s plan." ,
    did Hofmann ever read "The Blind Watchmaker"? From what plan does God arise?

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  5. 5. jtdwyer 7:49 am 09/26/2010

    In my opinion, if you have never taken LSD it’s extremely unlikely that you can comprehend the experience being described, which includes signal overflow conditions produced by unrestricted reception of extremely high amplitude sensory signals.

    While essentially any English speaker can envision a meaning for the words, "everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh new light. The world was as if newly created," very few people who have never had psychedelic experiences can adequately comprehend the sensory experience being described by Hofmann.

    It’s not a matter of imagination or intelligence; IMO there is simply no comparable frame of reference within the context of normal or even religious experiences. If you have never experienced psychedelics, do not deceive yourself by imagining that you understand. I think that virtually all that are ‘experienced’ will generally agree with me.

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  6. 6. ToNYC 4:57 pm 09/26/2010

    Tom sees a risk in using a tool, a powerful tool. What does he really think? Is he about to trade his , say one, good trip for the the so-called bad ride though his own head and set of personal misgivings for a life of nothing at all. Or does he want to get on with the ride and…..Grow up, Tom.

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  7. 7. truegritter 11:28 pm 09/26/2010

    I took a psychedelic substance in Peru 3 years ago – Ayahuasca. I took it with the intention of healing from anxiety and fatigue that I had suffered from for the prior 6 years. I had never taken LSD or any other type of drug prior to that. It has proven to be extremely destabilizing and destructive, as I haven’t been functional since then. How do you explain that?

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 6:29 am 09/27/2010

    I’ve reviewed my comment and I don’t think I said anything that makes me responsible for your bad experience. I can empathize to some extent.

    I’ve never taken Ayahuasca and don’t know how its affects compare to LSD’s. Briefly looking it up in Wikipedia, it is not a single pure, refined chemical with a discrete set of properties but one of several brews containing various ingredients, none of which alone are hallucinogenic. The potency of any brew reportedly varies dramatically. If you acquired a brew made for touristas, you may have ingested some miscellaneous replacement ingredients of convenience – who knows?

    Native Amerindians of Amazonian Colombia use this stuff for religious divination and reputed healing properties: it’s stated that the intense vomiting and occasional diarrhea it induces can clear the body of worms and other tropical parasites. This may be the basis for its medicinal reputation.

    The intense vomiting might have contributed to your bad experience. I wouldn’t chose to start any hallucinogenic experience like that.

    Like the ‘bad acid’ announcement in the Woodstock movie, backyard LSD chemists have been reputed to sometime add especially amphetamine stimulants or other ingredients to supposedly increase potency, producing an inordinate number of ‘bad trips’.

    In my many experiences back around 1970 I had some that were discomforting, especially when they sometimes produced anxiety. I would never suggest LSD to anyone to treat anxiety and ‘fatigue’ which suggests to me that you were having some other symptoms that had never been diagnosed by a physician. Since you said you had no prior experience with drugs, I presume you were under someone’s care or influence who set your expectations for your experience. That is the only other person you can hold responsible for your results.

    Since you had been suffering with anxiety and other symptoms for 6 years prior to your bad trip, I’d guess that you weren’t fully functional prior to your experience with Ayahuasca, and suggest that you can’t attribute your current dysfunction completely to it.

    If you are not already receiving qualified medical treatment, please see a doctor. That’s what I’d do.

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  9. 9. jgrosay 4:32 pm 09/27/2010

    The Timothy Leary’s friends view on LSD is depicted in Tom Wolfe’s "The kool-aid acid test" novel. Some say that the Eleusys mysteries or sacraments, probably the "so called deep mysteries, from the enemy" the St. John’s Apocalypse refers to, apparently involved the ingestion of a mixture containing ergot fungus derivatives, and also during middle age, people suffered some epidemics of hallucinations and gangrene, coming from ergot fungus contaminated grain. In the times of cold war, it seems that one of the largest LSD producing facility was in the communist ruled Ceskoslovensko, I don’t know the purpose of this, but may be it was connected to the drug’s ability to destroy the action of hierarchy-imposing signals amidst a chimpanzee hord for the monkey taking it. LSD was never a massive spread drug, as the factor limiting the supply is the fact that it requires some precursors found in grain fungi and nowhere else, impossible to synthesize . What drug dealers sell as LSD is probably anything but this. In conclusion, an extremely dangerous drug, better not to take even under the world’s best psychiatrist supervision. There are lots of people that became insane after taking or being given this compound. Forget about it.

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  10. 10. Hermit 5:19 pm 09/27/2010

    @jtdwyer

    Ditto on your posts – especially the lack of ability to communicate unique, personal psychedelic experiences to novices using words that can only communicate experiences we have in common. I also certainly agree that the experiences are very powerful and need to be respected. But I had a lot of those experiences in the late 60′s and early 70′s and have been grateful ever since for the insights and enlightenment’s they gave me, both from good trips and bad.

    I would add that we have evolved into a technological world where powerful physical, psychological and biological entities surround us. I think we have to learn to deal with these things with better sense than the War On Drugs, Right to Life or Psychic Readers provide.

    Besides dozens of hallucinogens, there are many other recreational drugs, cheap alcohol, any kind of sex imaginable, fast and cheap foods, computer games, cell phones, casinos, credit cards and entertainments beyond count. All have costs and dangers and can hurt users or others in many, many ways.

    But they are all here and most thinking, mature and sane adults engage them successfully, so I suggest we study this majority who don’t get "addicted" or pregnant or broke or obese or killed in drunken car crashes to see how they do it. Focusing on the losers and blaming it on the "sin" is sick and makes our lives worse in order to give legitimacy to conservative bullying elements in America. Drugs and sex and rock-and-roll are seen as acts of disobedience to punish rather than as real health or safety issues, although health and safety are usually cited as reasons for the persecutions.

    I say, grow up America, or this will continue to get worse. Hallucinogens are excellent tools to explore human experience, as well as desirable experiences on their own merits. Don’t try it if you don’t want to but all the naive bullshitting about hallucinogenic drugs discounts anything true you have to offer. Millions used it so where’s the data showing the dangers? The insane asylums should be full of Flower Children if LSD drives you crazy.

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  11. 11. ormondotvos 6:33 pm 09/27/2010

    1963? I guided dozens of trips in the Haight-Ashbury, following the recommendations of the Stanford group studying it for dose, set and setting.

    NO bad trips, despite many not following the instructions properly. People crash cars all the time. It isn’t the cars at fault.

    My best guess? Disinhibitor of sensory and social filtering functions. We return to William James’ ‘buzzing blooming confusion" and then grow the filters back and experience growing up again.

    Quite a surprise if you’ve never thought about senses and acculturation. Everything I’ve ever read or experienced fits into this explanation. There IS a huge amount of BS written and spoken about this. My general reaction is to give credence in direct reverse relation to the condemnation and control advocated.

    It’s our head. Voluntary experimentation with consciousness is done every day in bars, cars, planes, waves, boats and showers. Lighten up, people. It’s just your head. Feed it.

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  12. 12. ormondotvos 6:45 pm 09/27/2010

    As for Hoffman, the accidental discovery hardly qualifies him as an expert. His research in the field might, but you’re looking at a laboratory drone suddenly thrust into the maelstrom of philosophy of morality, for which he hardly sounds coherent, or well thought out.

    Sh*t happens. It’s how evolution works. Go with the flow. Work on tuning up the human genome and meme family.

    Align culture with human nature first. Then work on human nature. It has much room to evolve toward a bit more dancing life.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 7:27 pm 09/27/2010

    Well said. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone experiment with LSD just for ‘fun’ like so many thousands of us did in the late 1960s and very early 1970s, but I think it did open peoples minds to alternative views at a time when society was extremely regimented (we all liked Ike: we pretty much had to).

    Right now I think the greatest benefit to society would be gained if scientists were able to perform controlled experiments to better determine how the brain functions. I think LSD could provide far more useful information than simply observing active brain regions on fMRIs. I also expect that there could be some highly effective treatment protocols developed for conditions that are now very difficult to treat, perhaps even psychosis, depression and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Of course this is purely speculation, but there’s no possibility of benefit as long as all LSD research continues to be prohibited.
    Thanks.

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  14. 14. Aethera 11:52 pm 09/27/2010

    I started using LSD when I was around 12 and I am probably one of the most intelligent, sane, and compassionate people I know. The knowledge I gained, particularly from the first few experiences, enabled me to cultivate a deep Zen-like wisdom in my life starting at an early age and continuing to the present.
    I do believe that states of consciousness within the normal spectrum of those experienced by a very healthy, attuned individual do overlap to some extent with the profound, blissful ones that occur with LSD. But with LSD those experiences go to another level completely. I agree with others that LSD should properly be called an "entheogen" and not "psychedelic".
    As for its dangerousness, I don’t believe that LSD is dangerous. what is dangerous is a consciousness that is not open to itself and one that can be subject to deep, unconscious fears. I don’t feel its fair to blame the drug for people’s lack of psychological/spiritual sanity. As someone once said "Preservation of health is a duty. Few people are aware of such a thing as physical morality." I would state that this extends to spiritual/psychological health as well. If you are a mess because of your own lack of caring for yourself you cannot blame the drug for exposing what is already there. The fact that laws prohibit the use and distribution of this wonderful drug because of this "danger" is misguided.
    LSD reveals what is already there, and if a person is not ready for it because they’ve neglected their psychological/spiritual well-being, they should strive to improve themselves rather than place blame on a chemical.
    I believe in the practice of yoga, and there are types of yoga which extend (e.g. "raja" yoga) into the mental realm. If someone is a couch potato physically/mentally/spiritually then takes LSD hoping for some wonderful, magical, mystical experience without having to discipline and master their own self first, then I believe that constitutes a type of abuse.
    Perhaps because we live in a culture in which people expect to just pick satisfaction off a shelf and buy it that people have unrealistic expectations about what can effect their mind and what types of experiences they can have with mind-altering substances. But the bottom line is that each individual is ultimately responsible for maintaining their own health & well being.

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  15. 15. LetsSaveDemocracy 3:27 pm 09/28/2010

    Of course, if you’ve read Hank Albarelli’s new book, A Terrible Mistake, you should be having doubts about Albert Hofmann. A little strange, seems to me, that a guy would criticize Leary at the same time would with CIA’s MKULTRA, conspiring to dose entire villages, and cover it up?

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  16. 16. LetsSaveDemocracy 6:55 pm 09/28/2010

    Of course, if you’ve read Hank Albarelli’s new book, A Terrible Mistake, about MKULTRA, and the Frank Olson story, you might well be having doubts about Albert Hofmann….

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  17. 17. bucketofsquid 10:54 am 09/29/2010

    Every junkie I’ve known has told me how wonderful the drug of their preference is. A junkie is not a good source of impartial information. One LSD user I knew but have lost track of, had odd flashbacks where he was afraid of chocolate doughnuts or thought his nose was growing. I would call these bad side effects. Perhaps his LSD was tainted by something else.

    This is why I support laboratory testing of LSD. Find out how it works and what it does in short and long term use. Then make it available through competent professionals. If it can fix my brain so I don’t need pills every day just to function then I demand access to it in a safe manner.

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  18. 18. jgrosay 5:30 pm 05/21/2013

    Can the Sheldon’s ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ comics be considered a clinical description of the ‘End Stage’ disease of LSD (and other doping agents) users?

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  19. 19. rshoff2 11:42 am 06/5/2014

    jtdwyer- Perhaps I’m lucky, but never having tripped on acid, I can interpret the written words. I can feel every word of “everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh new light. The world was as if newly created,”. I walk away from that sentence with a feeling of magical peace. Renewal, calmness. Partly because I trust John’s words, partly because his writing style connects for me, and partly because I just can.

    The difference is that the meaning fades rapidly upon distraction. Whereas, perhaps, with psychedelics those feelings may linger.

    My real curiosity lays in how psychedelics may benefit the human mind and whether any permanent physical or unrecoverable changes occur to the brain or mind.

    How does one study that?

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