Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hoffman RIP

(UPDATE: Also check out David Gans' Cloud Surfing for more discussion.)

Last night, chemist Albert Hoffman died of a heart attack in his home in Switzerland at age 102. Hoffman changed the course of history with his synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, while studying the medicinal properties of a fungus that grows on wheat.

A small bit accidentally spilled on his finger and he famously wrote afterwards,

Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.
It was an experience that led him to try a self-experiment with a larger dose on which he had a terrifying experience,
By now it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for the altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. We went by bicycle, no automobile being available because of wartime restrictions on their use. On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.

In spite of my delirious, bewildered condition, I had brief periods of clear and effective thinking - and chose milk as a nonspecific antidote for poisoning.

The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk - in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.

Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished me. It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will. I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation. I had not even taken leave of my family (my wife, with our three children had traveled that day to visit her parents, in Lucerne). Would they ever understand that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, an-d that such a result was in no way foreseeable? My fear and despair intensified, not only because a young family should lose its father, but also because I dreaded leaving my chemical research work, which meant so much to me, unfinished in the midst of fruitful, promising development. Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this lysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.

By the time the doctor arrived, the climax of my despondent condition had already passed. My laboratory assistant informed him about my self experiment, as I myself was not yet able to formulate a coherent sentence. He shook his head in perplexity, after my attempts to describe the mortal danger that threatened my body. He could detect no abnormal symptoms other than extremely dilated pupils. Pulse, blood pressure, breathing were all normal. He saw no reason to prescribe any medication. Instead he conveyed me to my bed and stood watch over me. Slowly I came back from a weird, unfamiliar world to reassuring everyday reality. The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past.

Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.

Late in the evening my wife returned from Lucerne. Someone had informed her by telephone that I was suffering a mysterious breakdown. She had returned home at once, leaving the children behind with her parents. By now, I had recovered myself sufficiently to tell her what had happened.

Exhausted, I then slept, to awake next morning refreshed, with a clear head, though still somewhat tired physically. A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.

This self-experiment showed that LSD-25 behaved as a psychoactive substance with extraordinary properties and potency. There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience of the inner and outer world.
The result of these experiences led Hoffman to consider the psychological potential of the substance when administered and overseen by mental health professionals.

To his dismay, it was a mental health professional, Dr. Timothy Leary, who would lead a movement advocating its use in less formal settings. The recreational use of LSD and the culture war of the 60s led to the substance being banned. Hoffman expressed deep regret that non-professional use led to the inability to determine whether it could have been fruitfully used in treatment or not and he strongly and explicitly opposed its use as a recreational substance.

His ambivalence about the substance's potential medicinal use and its limits remained with him throughout his long and thoughtful life as he makes clear in this correspondence:
Bottmingen, 16 December 1961

Dear Mr. Junger,

On the one hand, I would have the great desire, besides the natural- scientific, chemicalpharmacological investigation of hallucinogenic substances, also to research their use as magic drugs in other regions.... On the other hand, I must admit that the fundamental question very much occupies me, whether the use of these types of drugs, namely of substances that so deeply affect our minds, could not indeed represent a forbidden transgression of limits. As long as any means or methods are used, which provide only an additional, newer aspect of reality, surely there is nothing to object to in such means; on the contrary, the experience and the knowledge of further facets of the reality only makes this reality ever more real to us. The question exists, however, whether the deeply affecting drugs under discussion here will in fact only open an additional window for our senses and perceptions, or whether the spectator himself, the core of his being, undergoes alterations. The latter would signify that something is altered that in my opinion should always remain intact. My concern is addressed to the question, whether the innermost core of our being is actually unimpeachable, and cannot become damaged by whatever happens in its material, physical-chemical, biological and psychic shells-or whether matter in the form of these drugs displays a potency that has the ability to attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self. The latter would have to be explained by the fact that the effect of magic drugs happens at the borderline where mind and matter merge-that these magic substances are themselves cracks in the infinite realm of matter, in which the depth of matter, its relationship with the mind, becomes particularly obvious. This could be expressed by a modification of the familiar words of Goethe:

"Were the eye not sunny,
It could never behold the sun;
If the power of the mind were not in matter,
How could matter disturb the mind."

This would correspond to cracks which the radioactive substances constitute in the periodic system of the elements, where the transition of matter into energy becomes manifest. Indeed, one must ask whether the production of atomic energy likewise represents a transgression of forbidden limits.

A further disquieting thought, which follows from the possibility of influencing the highest intellectual functions by traces of a substance, concerns free will.

The highly active psychotropic substances like LSD and psilocybin possess in their chemical structure a very close relationship with substances inherent in the body, which are found in the central nervous system and play an important role in the regulation of its functions. It is therefore conceivable that through some disturbance in the metabolism of the normal neurotransmitters, a compound like LSD or psilocybin is formed, which can determine and alter the character of the individual, his world view and his behavior. A trace of a substance, whose production or non production we cannot control with our wills, has the power to shape our destiny. Such biochemical considerations could have led to the sentence that Gottfried Benn quoted in his essay "Provoziertes Leben" [Provoked life]: "God is a substance, a drug!"

On the other hand, it is well known that substances like adrenaline, for example, are formed or set free in our organism by thoughts and emotions, which for their part determine the functions of the nervous system. One may therefore suppose that our material organism is susceptible to and shaped by our mind, in the same way that our intellectual essence is shaped by our biochemistry. Which came first can indeed no better be determined than the question, whether the chicken came before the egg.

In spite of my uncertainty with regard to the fundamental dangers that could lie in the use of hallucinogenic substances, I have continued investigations on the active principles of the Mexican magic morning glories, of which I wrote you briefly once before. In the seeds of this morning glory, that were called otoliuhqui by the ancient Aztecs, we found as active principles lysergic acid derivatives chemically very closely related to LSD. That was an almost unbelievable finding. I have all along had a particular love for the morning glories. They were the first flowers that I grew myself in my little child's garden. Their blue and red cups belong to the first memories of my childhood.

I recently read in a book by D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, that the morning glory plays a great role in Japan, among the flower lovers, in literature, and in graphic arts. Its fleeting splendor has given the Japanese imagination rich stimulus. Among others, Suzuki quotes a three- line poem of the poetess Chiyo (1702-75), who one morning went to fetch water from a neighbor's house, because . . .

"My trough is captivated
by a morning glory blossom,
So I ask after water."

The morning glory thus shows both possible ways of influencing the mind-body-essence of man: in Mexico it exerts its effects in a chemical way as a magic drug, while in Japan it acts from the spiritual side, through the beauty of its flower cups.
He lived a long, interesting life dedicated to science and medicine, thoughtful and cultured, he changed the way we see things and changed the course of history.