To The Best of Our Knowledge
Originally appearing here.
Could LSD boost your creativity? Yes, says psychologist Jim Fadiman, a pioneer in research on psychedelics. He tells Steve Paulson about a remarkable experiment in the Sixties when dozens of senior scientists were given psychedelics. Nearly every scientist came up with creative solutions to problems they’d been struggling with for months.
Jim Fleming: First, the story of a remarkable study on creativity. It was the mid-60s in Menlo Park, California, and dozens of scientists were brought into a lab to test a simple question: “Would a single hit of LSD boost their creativity?” Psychologist James Fadiman was part of this research team. Steve Paulson recently sat down with Fadiman to talk about the experiment and later studies of psychoactive drugs.
Steve Paulson: Jim, take me back to the summer of 1966 when you and your research team in California invited a number of scientists into your lab and gave them LSD. What were you looking for?
Jim Fadiman: We were determining whether one could use LSD in a moderate dose in a very safe setting to solve very difficult scientific problems. This was not to have visions, this was not to have extraordinary music, this was simply to see if you could use the lens of a psychedelic to tightly focus down on a scientific problem that our scientists had been struggling with up to three months and had so far failed.
Paulson: So this was an exercise in creativity to see if LSD could unleash people’s creative powers.
Fadiman: Exactly. And we limited ourselves to hard science because it was generally known that artists were already experimenting with it and that was interesting but hard science is a much better way to determine if you’ve actually made a creative breakthrough.
Paulson: Now this was 1966 and this was actually government regulated, right?
Fadiman: Yeah, we had an investigational drug license from the Food and Drug Administration to use these substances both clinically and in this other way.
Paulson: So you brought in a bunch of scientists.
Fadiman: We brought in senior scientists from a number of the local industries that were developing a lot of different products. And we also brought in some professors who were doing theoretical research so we had problems ranging from NOR Gate Theory, which is an abstract mathematical area used in circuit design to space probes, for solar properties, microtome, improvements in tape recording technology. We also had some architects and we basically said we want projects that your clients have consistently already turned you down with.
Paulson: So you gave them, what, one dose of LSD?
Fadiman: We gave them one dose of LSD or mescaline and we used them interchangeably. One dose and then we gave them several hours of internal reflection with music and eyeshades and then basically we allowed them to go full-bore on their problems. And to our delight, with the first group, it went exactly as we said it would. And then from that point on we simply were allowing people to participate because what happened is people would go back to their lab groups and then we would get calls, “Can we also participate in this experiment?” So it was a very pleasant and genuinely exciting experience for these scientists and all but two of our subjects had had no psychedelic experience prior. So this was their only exposure.
Paulson: So you’re saying that one dose of LSD somehow allowed them to figure out, perhaps solve, certain problems that they’d been struggling with for three months?
Fadiman: That was exactly the case. And the reason we wanted them to have struggled is we wanted them to be emotionally involved and to have emotional blocks by this time, meaning when the client’s been mad at you for three months, when you’re trying to earn a living and your supervisor is saying, “Are you making no progress?” So we wanted problems that they essentially had been frustrated by. So that it in a sense upped the amperage of their desire to solve the problem. And solutions rolled out with amazing regularity.
Paulson: After just one dose of…
Fadiman: One dose. They were given three to four hours basically of intense work. The comments from a number of them is the work is not noticeably better than their own good work, but instead of weeks it was minutes. And that of course was extraordinary in its own right. And the other side of it is that we asked them, several months later, had there been any residual creative effect? And what they said is, “Yes.” Up to several months, and we didn’t really ask beyond that, they had increased creativity, slowly diminishing back to their baseline. And the main way they were more creative is they were more focused, they were able to let go of solutions that weren’t working. And the other thing, and this is peculiar to psychedelic, they were much more easily able to see patterns that they had not noticed before. So many of them said, “I suddenly was able to take a totally new approach.”
Paulson: So how do you explain this? What was going on in their minds?
Fadiman: Well what seems to happen with psychedelics is that the self, the personality, the part that’s frustrated, or irritated or concerned “Am I really smart enough?” all those things are lowered in intensity. And if you think about a problem, for which you’re capable of solving, in a way all the information for the solution must be already present. But what you’re blocked is, is finding it and putting it together in the right way.
Paulson: So you kind of already know this, or somewhere in some deep recess of your mind, you know the answer. The question is how to access it.
Fadiman: Exactly. A lot of creativity is this sort. It is that ability to access all of your information without any emotional blocks, that seems to be the reason.
Paulson: One of the peculiar features of this story is that I know that while you were actually doing your research, you got a letter from the FDA saying, “Stop. This is no longer legal.”
Fadiman: We got a letter from the FDA because we had a license to do this work and they said to us, and to 60 other projects that day, to be fair, that as of the receipt of this letter your research is terminated. Our little team looked at this letter and we had four senior scientists in the other room with headphones and their eyeshades, the music going, and we were about to get them up to work on their problems and I was very much the youngest member of the team, and I looked around at my colleagues and said, “I think we got this letter tomorrow.” And they agreed. We put the letter in the drawer, we worked with those last four people and then we discovered the letter the next day and the research was terminated.
Paulson: Why was the research terminated?
Fadiman: Well all the research in the country was terminated. My own theory, and this is total speculation, is this was at the time when there was rampant widespread use of psychedelics, which was fueling the anti-war movement, among other things. It was fueling upset in universities, so there were a lot of people who were frightened of all these movements. And I think someone in Washington said, “We gotta stop these kids taking all these drugs.” And everyone went, “Yes, yes, yes!” And then someone said, “Well who could we stop?” And then someone, and if I knew who he was I’d be angry at him, said, “Why don’t we stop the researchers?”
Paulson: But there had also been a lot of public attention to the misuse of psychedelics and a lot of people say that Timothy Leary, especially, was to blame. I mean, he basically encouraged the irresponsible use of this and some bad things happened to people who took these very powerful mind-altering subs
Fadiman: Well, there’s another way of construing that same history which is if you actually listen to what Tim said, Tim actually eagerly promoted responsible use. So in some sense, Tim is kind of maligned slightly by history. And Ken Kesey is not given enough credit for setting a model of the kind of behavior that just terrified the establishment.
Paulson: Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters had been going around on their bus doing all kinds of crazy things, including taking psychedelics.
Fadiman: Absolutely. So there were lots of forces. There were all the bands who were using, but predominantly the fear in the establishment was not of young people hurting themselves, but of young people coming home and criticizing their parents’ lifestyle and reasons for being, reasons for existing.
Paulson: Now you had your own personal history with this, right?
Fadiman: Oh absolutely.
Paulson: I mean some years before that, you’d been a student of Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass, who with Timothy Leary did those famous studies at Harvard on psychedelics.
Fadiman: I was an undergraduate at Harvard and Dick Alpert, who was an up and rising assistant professor, was my favorite professor and I was one of his favorite students. We actually did research together one summer at Stanford. And after college, I ended up in Paris, and he came to Paris and said to me, “The most wonderful thing in the world has happened to me and I want to share it with you.” Now he was on his way to Paris with Tim Leary to join Aldous Huxley for the first public discussion of this research at an international psychology meeting.
Paulson: What year was this?
Fadiman: This was ’61. So I said what anyone would say, “Well gee, that sounds great.” And he reached into his jacket pocket and came out with a little bottle of pills and I looked at it and I thought, “What on earth is going on?” I mean, I knew nothing about nothing. And I had a few, a moderate dose of what was psilocybin, and sat at a little cafe and the colors got brighter and the conversations behind me, I could hear them all clearly and my French was quite poor so I’d never been able to hear them clearly before. And I then ended up a week later following this little crew to Copenhagen. And then I very soon thereafter came to Stanford as a graduate student. I was offered the alternative of going to Vietnam and it felt like psychology needed me more than the Army. And then I fell in with a small group, with part Stanford professors and part people who were just funding it, and had a much more profound experience October 19, 1961 in which my world view truly underwent a serious transformation that is fortunately not recovered from.
Paulson: What happened during that experience?
Fadiman: During that experience, I understood that there was an “I,” an identity of some sort which was larger than my personality, larger than Jim Fadiman. The feeling of being connected to more, rather than separated from more, became predominant.
Paulson: Now we were saying, this was the mid-60s when you were doing this, height of the Vietnam War, counterculture was in full force, you’re hanging out with Ken Kesey, right?
Fadiman: That’s true.
Paulson: So you were a counterculture guy yourself.
Fadiman: Well I had this wonderful bicultural, so to speak, or multiple personality perhaps, but by day I was a graduate student at Stanford and by night I was a serious psychedelic researcher, and on and off I was also very peripheral to the Kesey world. My wife had actually been dating Ken, and I….
Paulson: This is before she was your wife.
Fadiman: This is before she was my wife. Definitely. So I was a very marginal member of that much more exploratory and exciting kind of side of things where they didn’t know what they were doing and took enormous risks. We didn’t know what we were doing and we were very very careful.
Paulson: Well then there’s another piece of this history which is going back to your creativity study with the scientists in the 60s, it turns out that a number of well-known scientists and designers and tech people took psychedelics. I mean, Steve Jobs has famously said LSD was one of the two or three most important experiences of his life. There are other stories as well. I mean, there’s an argument that actually psychedelics had a big impact in the founding of Silicon Valley.
Fadiman: Well it’s not an argument, it’s merely a checklist. But what we do know is that a number of heads of corporations in Silicon Valley used psychedelics in this way. They used it with the intention of looking at technical problems. We know that Kary Mullis, a Nobel Prize winner, who developed recombinant DNA that we see in all the legal cases, that came, he says, directly from his use of psychedelics. He did not have the great insight while on a psychedelic. He makes that a point. But he had learned how to get inside a molecule and look around. And that is what led to this discovery.
Paulson: You’ve also been an advocate recently of what is known as microdoses of some of these substances, LSD and some other things. I mean, basically, tiny almost imperceptible amounts?
Fadiman: That’s actually the term. They’re called a sub-perceptual dose, which is less than you would notice. And as one person says, “When you have a microdose, the rocks don’t glisten, even a little.” And so that’s approximately a tenth of what people take perhaps to go to a concert. And what we’re finding is that there are uses for this. One is, it doesn’t bother anyone and it doesn’t bother the culture. So you can take a microdose and go to the bank and be a bank manager or be a physician or be a rock musician. And what you’ll find at the end of the day, and these are mainly written reports being written around the country to me, “I had a really good day. Things went better. I was a little nicer. I was a little kinder. I ate a little more healthy. My kids didn’t bug me, even though they did the thing that bugs me.” So it’s not a major event.
Paulson: Listening to you, it strikes me that you are still the counterculture figure. I mean not in the same way you were in the 60s when you were hanging out with Ken Kesey, but you’re still jousting with the establishment.
Fadiman: Well I would no longer say I’m counterculture. I am asking of the mainstream culture, of which I am a member. I’m married, I have kids, I have grandkids, I’m not that interesting. But the culture now, with all those millions of people who have shared experiences such as the ones I’ve described, are not resisting. The fascinating thing to me is when we do the smallest, most uninteresting little psychedelic study, the press goes wild. And there are hundreds of references to the research and none are negative. That’s the thing that is quite fascinating. There’s something happening in the culture that is not yet understood by the Legislative Branch, and that is that these substances are no longer seen as terrifying. They’re seen as very powerful, but so’s your automobile. But you don’t then jail people for wanting to use them. So the culture has changed. Even in the psychedelic world, I’m considered somewhat right-wing because I think people should use these only if they know what they’re doing. And so I think what we’re moving toward is a kind of user’s license for psychedelics which is, “Do you know what you’re doing? Or you’re not going to hurt yourself or other people?” Also other countries are doing it other ways. Portugal, for instance, everything is legal. Now, what happened? Oh, all the things that the naysayers were terrified of. Use of every psychedelic has gone down, use of hard drugs has gone down, use of cocaine, heroin. Hospitalizations have gone down. People going into treatment has gone up. Why? Because the government says you’re allowed to get treatment for what used to be illegal. So here’s a perfectly normal European country that says, “Let’s
change our drug laws entirely away from the United States model.” And really, I think we’re all amazed at how sane and grownup people, police, hospital systems, judicial systems can be. Now, people are still arrested for crimes in Portugal but they’re not stealing to support a drug habit for which now they can get treatment.
Paulson: This is all quite fascinating. Thank you.
Fadiman: Thank you.
Fleming: That’s Jim Fadiman, author of The Psychedelic Explorers Guide. If you want to hear more about Fadiman’s experiences with Ken Kesey or the origins of transpersonal psychology, you’ll find Steve’s complete uncut interview on our website.
Renowned author and researcher James Fadiman, Ph.D. joins the To The Best of Our Knowledge radio show for an interview about psychedelics and their potential for enhancing creativity. Fadiman explains, “These substances are no longer seen as terrifying; they’re being seen as very powerful, like your automobile.”