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Silicon Valley Psychedelics

Culture

Psychedelic’s New Boosters Meet Old Themes

Emily Witt dropped a revelation in her New Yorker think piece on psychedelics that may startle some people: She didn’t really know what they were.

Psychedelics are well-known to Baby Boomers who were young in the 1960s when the Beatles were recording Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (wink, wink) and Peter, Paul and Mary gave the world Puff the Magic Dragon, but not so much for Millennials, Gen-X and onward.

When Witt first set out to do a story on the subject, she didn’t view psychedelics as a case of “here they are again.” She actually had to read up, because, “For all the peer pressure I’d been taught to resist in public-school D.A.R.E. lessons, nobody invited me to drop acid as a high-school or college student. As a young adult living in Little Rock, Miami, and New York in the aughts, LSD did not factor into the casual drug use of my friends, who tended to use alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, or shared-out Adderall and Xanax prescriptions.”

Psychedelics are now most popular among serious workaholics, nerds, and Silicon Valley coders

Even more surprising, Tao Lin, the author of an entire book on the subject, “Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change,” published in 2018, was similarly clueless at first. “I more than half-believed the stereotypes I’d absorbed throughout my life about psychedelic drugs—that they caused insanity and out-of-control behavior and were hazardous and uninteresting. People on psychedelics, when not going insane, seemed to laze or frolic or dance in fields and not worry or think about anything but only (somewhat pointlessly, I’d always felt) look at things, which they usually described as geometric.”

Witt is right, however, that it’s not a case of “here they are again.” In the 60’s psychedelics were the rage for recreational and mystical use. The users were rebels, students and partiers.

This time, the typical user is a knowledge worker…Psychedelics are now most popular among serious workaholics, nerds, and Silicon Valley coders who want an edge for creativity, pattern recognition, and problem solving.

Psychedelics have always had that potential for mental breakthroughs. In the earliest research trials on them, in the late 1950s and early 1960s at Stanford, researchers were hoping to harness LSD and other hallucinogens for treating mental illness and increasing human intellect. One of the first volunteers in the effort was poet Alan Ginsberg.

That liaison is as good a place as any to mark how psychedelics escaped the Ivory Tower and hit the streets. Ginsberg may have started as a legit research volunteer, but his enthusiasm expanded. A few years later, when Timothy Leary at Harvard asked Ginsberg if he’d like to participate in an LSD experiment, Ginsberg responded enthusiastically. Or as Witt put it, he not only volunteered, he submitted his resume: “LSD in 1959, as a subject in a research study at Stanford University; ayahuasca on a trip to South America the following year; nitrous oxide; ether; mescaline; marijuana; datura; opiates. Part II of ‘Howl,’ he added, was ‘Peyote writing.’”

Whatever each generation has wanted from psychedelics, the drugs have their own powers—remarkable ones at that. They may do more to help us weather the world as it is, and enjoy it deeply, than to discover new universes. LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelics are indeed mystical enablers in a manner of speaking, but “everything…suggests that the most mystical revelations concern earthly themes: birth, death, and the body; family, friends, and love,” says Witt.

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