Friday, October 7, 2011

LSD and the Creative Mind


The following post is adapted from the new book "This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America."
The letter is published with the permission of the estate of
LSD-inventor Albert Hofmann. For more on events related to the book, see
the Facebook page or follow Ryan Grim on Twitter.

* * * * *

Steve Jobs has never been shy about his use of psychedelics, famously
calling his LSD experience "one of the two or three most important
things I have done in my life." So, toward the end of his life, LSD
inventor Albert Hofmann decided to write to the iPhone creator to see if
he'd be interested in putting some money where the tip of his tongue
had been.

Hofmann penned a never-before-disclosed letter in 2007 to Jobs at the behest of his friend Rick Doblin, who runs an organization
dedicated to studying the medical and psychiatric benefits of
psychedelic drugs. Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, died in April 2008 at the
age of 102.

See the letter here.

Written just after his 101st birthday, the letter's penmanship is
impressive for a man of his years. I showed it to my grandmother, Ruth
Grim, who was 8 years Hofmann's junior and did amateur handwriting
analysis as long as Hofmann had been tripping. Without knowing who he
was, she said in an e-mail that "something happened early in his life
that made him twisted about things. Maybe he felt threatened.
Also--creative with his hands, hard on himself, thinks a lot, stubborn,
careful with the way he expresses himself, not influenced by other's

Doblin says Hofmann often said he had a happy childhood and wouldn't
characterize him as twisted. Hofmann, for his own part, often referred
to LSD as his own "problem child" and in his letter he asks Jobs to "help in the transformation of my problem child into a wonderchild."

He specifically asks Jobs to fund research being proposed by Swiss
psychiatrist Peter Gasser and directs Jobs to Doblin's Multidisciplinary
Association for Psychedelic Studies.

Doblin and Hofmann were close; Doblin gave the doctor his first tab of
ecstasy in the '80s when it was still legal, he says, and Hofmann loved
it, saying that finally he'd found a drug he could enjoy with his wife,
no fan of LSD.

Doblin provided a copy of the letter to me; Hofmann's son, Andreas
Hofmann, executor of his father's estate, authorized its publication.

The letter led to a roughly 30-minute conversation between Doblin and
Jobs, says Doblin, but no contribution to the cause. "He was still
thinking, 'Let's put it in the water supply and turn everybody on,'"
recalls a disappointed Doblin, who says he still hasn't given up hope
that Jobs will come around and contribute.

That Jobs used LSD and values the contribution it made to his
thinking is far from unusual in the world of computer technology.
Psychedelic drugs have influenced some of America's foremost computer
scientists. The history of this connection is well documented in a
number of books, the best probably being What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, by New York Times technology reporter John Markoff.

Psychedelic drugs, Markoff argues, pushed the computer and Internet
revolutions forward by showing folks that reality can be profoundly
altered through unconventional, highly intuitive thinking. Douglas
Engelbart is one example of a psychonaut who did just that: he helped
invent the mouse. Apple's Jobs has said that Microsoft's Bill Gates,
would "be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once." In a 1994
interview with Playboy, however, Gates coyly didn't deny having dosed as
a young man.

Thinking differently--or learning to Think Different, as a Jobs
slogan has it--is a hallmark of the acid experience. "When I'm on LSD
and hearing something that's pure rhythm, it takes me to another world
and into anther brain state where I've stopped thinking and started
knowing," Kevin Herbert told Wired magazine at a symposium commemorating
Hofmann's one hundredth birthday. Herbert, an early employee of Cisco
Systems who successfully banned drug testing of technologists at the
company, reportedly "solved his toughest technical problems while
tripping to drum solos by the Grateful Dead."

"It must be changing something about the internal communication in my
brain," said Herbert. "Whatever my inner process is that lets me solve
problems, it works differently, or maybe different parts of my brain are

Burning Man, founded in 1986 by San Francisco techies, has always
been an attempt to make a large number of people use different parts of
their brains toward some nonspecific but ostensibly enlightening and
communally beneficial end. The event was quickly moved to the desert of
Nevada as it became too big for the city. Today, it's more likely to be
attended by a software engineer than a dropped-out hippie. Larry Page
and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google, are longtime Burners, and the
influence of San Francisco and Seattle tech culture is everywhere in the
camps and exhibits built for the eight-day festival. Its Web site
suggests, in fluent acidese, that "[t]rying to explain what Burning Man
is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to
explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind."

At the 2007 event, I set up my tent at Camp Shift--as in "Shift your
consciousness"--next to four RVs rented by Alexander and Ann Shulgin and
their septu- and octagenarian friends from northern California. The
honored elders, the spiritual mothers and fathers of Burning Man, they
spent the nights sitting on plastic chairs and giggling until sunrise.
Near us, a guy I knew from the Eastern Shore--an elected county
official, actually--had set up a nine-and-half-hole miniature golf
course. Why nine and a half? "Because it's Burning Man," he explained.
Our camp featured lectures on psychedelics and a "ride" called "Dance,
Dance, Immolation." Players would don a flame-retardant suit and try to
dance to the flashing lights. Make a mistake, and you would be engulfed
in flames. The first entry on the FAQ sign read, "Is this safe? A:
Probably not."

John Gilmore was the fifth employee at Sun Microsystems and
registered the domain name in 1987. A Burner and well-known
psychonaut, he's certainly one of the mind-blown rich. Today a
civil-liberties activist, he's perhaps best known for Gilmore's Law, his
observation that "[t]he Net interprets censorship as damage and routes
around it." He told me that most of his colleagues in the sixties and
seventies used psychedelic drugs. "What psychedelics taught me is that
life is not rational. IBM was a very rational company," he said,
explaining why the corporate behemoth was overtaken by upstarts such as
Apple. Mark Pesce, the coinventor of virtual reality's coding language,
VRML, and a dedicated Burner, agreed that there's some relationship
between chemical mind expansion and advances in computer technology: "To
a man and a woman, the people behind [virtual reality] were acidheads,"
he said.

Gilmore doubts, however, that a strict cause-and-effect relationship
between drugs and the Internet can be proved. The type of person who's
inspired by the possibility of creating new ways of storing and sharing
knowledge, he said, is often the same kind interested in consciousness
exploration. At a basic level, both endeavors are a search for something
outside of everyday reality--but so are many creative and spiritual
undertakings, many of them strictly drug-free. But it's true, Gilmore
noted, that people do come to conclusions and experience revelations
while tripping. Perhaps some of those revelations have turned up in
programming code.

And perhaps in other scientific areas, too. According to Gilmore, the
maverick surfer/chemist Kary Mullis, a well-known LSD enthusiast, told
him that acid helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction, a
crucial breakthrough for biochemistry. The advance won him the Nobel
Prize in 1993. And according to reporter Alun Reese, Francis Crick, who
discovered DNA along with James Watson, told friends that he first saw
the double-helix structure while tripping on LSD.

It's no secret that Crick took acid; he also publicly advocated the
legalization of marijuana. Reese, who reported the story for a British wire service after
Crick's death, said that when he spoke with Crick about what he'd heard
from the scientist's friends, he "listened with rapt, amused attention"
and "gave no intimation of surprise. When I had finished, he said,
'Print a word of it and I'll sue.'"

------- The Letters -------

Dear Mr. Steve Jobs,

Hello from Albert Hofmann. I understand from media accounts that you feel LSD helped you creatively in your development of Apple computers and your personal spiritual quest. I'm interested in learning more about how LSD was useful to you.

I'm writing now, shortly after my 101st birthday, to request that you support Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Peter Gasser's proposed study of LSD-assisted psychotherapy in subjects with anxiety associated with life-threatening illness. This will become the first LSD-assisted psychotherapy study in over 35 years.

I hope you will help in the transformation of my problem child into a wonder child.


A. Hofmann
* * * * *

Dear Rick,

Thank you for all you do for my problem child. I am pleased to add whatever I can do from my part.

I learned much from your great letter, to do things after waiting for the right moment, how clever and careful you organize and do your work.

I do hope that my letter to Steve Jobs corresponds to your expectation, especially what regards the choice of the writing paper. [Doblin had asked Hofmann to use his personal letterhead. It's not what you're thinking.] I believe that I followed your prescription.

Hopefully Dr. Gasser will be successful with his request.

Cordially -


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