A Long, Strange Trip – Paul Okami

Freeze Frame: excerpted from Chapter 6: Varieties of Consciousness in Psychology: Contemporary Perspectives by Paul Okami

On April 16, 1943, a chemist named Albert Hoffman was hard at work for the Sandoz pharmaceutical company attempting to synthesize various components of ergot—a fungus that grows on grain and has medicinal (and poisonous) properties. On this particular day, Hoffman was working on his 25th such synthesis; he called it LSD25 (lysergic acid diethylamide). However, as he worked with the chemical he began to experience a stream of intensely vivid and “fantastic” images accompanied by a “kaleidoscope-like play of colors” (Hoffman, 1970).

Hoffman realized that these symptoms must somehow be related to the LSD25, but he was unable to figure out how he could have accidentally ingested enough of the compound to have had any sort of effect at all. He decided to conduct an experiment on himself by ingesting what seemed to him a very small dose of the compound, only .25 mg. His lab notes read:

  • 4:20 P.M.: 0.5 cc (0.25 mg LSD) ingested orally. The solution is tasteless.
  • 4:50 P.M.: no trace of any effect.
  • 5:00 P.M.: slight dizziness, unrest, difficulty in concentration, visual disturbances, marked desire to laugh…. (Hoffman, 1970).

At this point Hoffman’s notes ended because he could no longer write. He had discovered LSD.

Sixty years later, people continue to intentionally repeat Hoffman’s (now-illegal) experiment. Here are several typical descriptions taken more or less at random from a web site devoted to descriptions of LSD trips:

  • My thoughts were powerful, deep and strange…. I looked straight down and focused on the grass. Every single blade was vibrating and pivoting at the root at the same time… the individual blades had little purple tinges around the edges of them… Utterly astounded by this, I stood up and watched as they continued their vibrating & pivoting across the whole field… Blink after blink, it didn’t cease….
  • —Apollo
  • I got the idea that my parents had driven up (an 8-hour drive) and were looking in through the peephole in my apartment door, and that they could see me. I felt an overwhelming feeling of disappointment that they had for me, since I had taken LSD…. I then knew that if I opened the curtains, I would see, literally, all of the people in the world standing on bleachers that extended into infinity, and that all of them would be looking at me, disappointed in me. It made sense that I would be kicked out of my apartment, and would have to go live as a homeless person…..
  • —Shruman Human
  • I tried to explain to [my husband John] what it was like for me. How reality wasn’t reality anymore, and how I didn’t know what our purpose was or what we are supposed to do the next day or the day after. I so appreciated his ability to hear what I was saying, and to respond appropriately…. I felt so much love for [him] then, that it swallowed me. No emotion I have felt was ever that strong. All I could say was that I loved him, that I trusted him, that I needed him.…
  • —Muriel

These experiences constitute altered states of consciousness. But what exactly is it that is being altered? Until about two or three decades ago, scientists did not believe that it was possible to study the nature of consciousness, or if they thought it might be possible, they did not consider it an important problem. But now, many psychologists and neuroscientists have come around to philosopher-psychologist John Searle’s view that “consciousness is the condition that makes it possible for anything at all to matter to anybody.” (Searle, 1997, p. xiv). Thus, consciousness has recently come to be considered a very important topic in psychology, and some consider it the most important topic of all. The emerging field of consciousness studies seeks to find solutions to what has been called the last surviving mystery of science: What is consciousness? In this chapter we begin by considering some proposed answers to this question. We will then review the many varieties of consciousness as they are experienced daily by people all over the world: sleep, dreaming, hypnosis, and the non-medical use of psychoactive drugs.

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