By Jamis H. MacNiven
It started with the Psychedelic Science Conference in Oakland. This was a gathering of 2,400 researchers, doctors and people associated with the current state of psychedelics. These drugs have a wide range of therapeutic applications including treating depression, addiction and trauma recovery. And sure these drugs are also used to travel deep into inner space. This conference takes place only once every four years so the pent up energy of the crowd was, ahh, well… a trip.
To me it appeared as if half the people at the jamboree were there to popularize these drugs for personal growth and to expand consciousness and the other half were there to study and promote the use of these incredibly powerful chemicals to get off drugs. The people who were not there or at least not pushing their agenda were the marijuana people. Me, I’m worn out with all the marijuana talk. Illegalization has been tragic and legalization comes with another set of problems. The fact is that for many people marijuana suppresses ambition and worldly engagement like other intoxicants. While not chemically addictive, dependence is an issue fraught with difficulties for many people. “Not me,” you say. (OK fine, but you’re the one who leaves half a glass of wine.)
The thing about psychedelics is that they are not addictive. Some will object to this statement but research and the overwhelming evidence demonstrates this. So what drugs are we talking about? There are the usual suspects. LSD, mushrooms, ayahuasca and mescaline. MDMA is actually an amphetamine and not strictly a psychedelic but is generally included due to its similarity to psychedelics. And there are actually hundreds of other drugs. There are drugs being used that the general public has little or no familiarity with like 5 Me-O DMT and ibogaine (a term so rare the spell checker offers me Imogene) as an alternative.
These last two are of particular interest because of their profound effects and the purposes for which they are being used. 5 MeO DMT is toad venom from the skin glands of a desert toad found around the Arizona-Mexico border. Extracting this venom (this does not hurt the toad) and smoking it in a vapor produces profound visions and personal insights with a single deep inhalation. The religious among us report seeing or actually being God. Trauma victims often say they give themselves permission to step away from their troubles. People report that they have been spread out into the universe and have become part of complex universal truths delving deeply and gaining a profound understanding of their place in the cosmos. Then they come back and look at those around them and wonder, “Why are these people still here? I have been gone sooo long.” But no, you are out among the heavens for as little as five minutes. There is a history of actually licking toads but the effect is less intense or even imaginary.
Of more interest to me is ibogaine. WARNING! Down this road, the path narrows and the pavement falls away. There are no signposts.The trees close over your head and you descend into a bizarre and possibly dangerous universe. Proceed with care. You have truly entered The Twilight Zone (play the theme song in your mind).
Iboga is the root bark of a shrubby vine from Gabon, Africa. The extracted material is ibogaine. In 1970 I lived in a commune in Berkeley where I protested the war and studied in roughly equal amounts. In our house we had been known to dabble in the psychedelic arts from time to time. One day a person came who had been in the Peace Corps. in Africa and he told us about a drug used by the locals. They swallow the drug and then fast and dance while shaking their spears at the heavens. Then they take off into the bush to hunt wild animals because on this drug they feel they are one with the spirits of the jungle. The Peace Corps. guy said he had not tried the drug but he thought it was “a lot of work.” “OK, sure give it to me,” I said.
I went to a local park with two ‘minders’ and swallowed a large brown capsule. This was nearly 50 years ago and the effects were so profound that I feel strong echoes today. It was easily the most profound and unexpected experience I’ve ever had (even greater than when John Cleese leaped at me from behind while I was walking in a forest).* There is a reason this drug is called The Grandfather. I’m telling you right now do-not-take-this-drug! (I’m not worried, the chances of you finding any is close to zero.)
It lasts for at least a day and a half and during that time you are in danger falling off cliffs, decanting yourself out car windows at speed or toppling from balconies. This is once you able to walk, which will be quite some time. There are reports of heart attacks (though this is dubious). About the trip itself I’ll just say that it last for a minimum of 24 hours and often much longer. In that it is absorbed and dispensed intramuscularly it stays in your system for a long time. The effects stay in your psyche for a lifetime.
The actual details of my particular trip are not something I care to recount here. The Grandfather is so powerful that have I met doctors and researchers dispensing and studying it that have not actually taken it. Ibogaine is, in equal measure, fabulous and horrifying.
So what’s the point? Well, this compound is being used around the world in less puritanical places than the U.S. such as Canada, Brazil, New Zealand, The Netherlands and Mexico to treat serious addiction problems in clinical settings. I know several folks who run these clinics as well as some researchers who study the outcomes. The statistics vary but I can say with some certainty that the only thing that stops heroin addiction more completely is prison. The clinics that dispense this drug are run by doctors and I met one who has treated over a thousand patients with no fatalities. The clinicians screen carefully for heart issues and schizophrenics. This drug is not good for those folks.
Why this works is complicated but I think the reason is that most people with life-crushing problems and resultant addictions stem from trauma, fast or slow, at some earlier point. The effects are so monumental and recovery statics so unbelievable that I thought the compound had some sort of chemical effect that actually swapped the brain’s the wiring around but I’ve come to see that it’s really cognitive. Ibogaine seems to allow for a dismantling of one’s personality and self-permission to reassemble the parts in better working order. This is a surmise on my part but it seems as good an explanation as I have found.
Would I ever repeat the experience? No, it would be exactly last on my list. This the very opposite of a recreational drug. So if you look around Buck’s at all the stuff and wonder what went on in my mind. This is a significant cause.
Immediately following the third day of the Psychedelic Science Conference was the five day TED conference. This seriously challenged my ability to find room in my brain for new information. Hard drive full (time to toss out season 23 of the Simpsons!)
TED is held in Vancouver every year and it is a pressure cooker (to you millennials this was an aluminum pot with this funny sort of lid…oh never mind) of random ideas presented on stage by people who are all trying to show how not nervous they are. For many, this is the biggest stage they will ever be on.
Over the years the emphasis has shifted. Some folks lament the diminution of talks on physics and math but taking their place are subjects not even thought of 10 or 20 years back. Global warming is largely off and addiction to networked electronics on. There were many speeches about how we’re in the midst of a new and challenging relationship with the screen. One speaker said she was delighted with her kids being immersed in the screen and we know that grandparents are often pretty happy to use facetime. But the consensus was that the smartphone has serious side effects and the corollary topics of the dark side of social networks was a hot topic.
Tristan Harris told us there are rooms full of thousands of people involved in steering the attention of billions of people toward the aims of a few companies. Companies like Snap and certainly Facebook. Tristen says that firms are actively redirecting our ‘agency’ and they can be viewed as covert attention thieves by scheduling ideas into people’s minds. This coupled with the fact that lots of folks are pretty concerned that lies travel with greater force than truth. Is this because lies are often crafted to titillate an emotional response and truth is only as interesting as the facts allow?
Many of the talks were about social science but none were about politics. At lunch and at the breaks many of us discussed our angst over the political divide in America and around the world. One can talk about sex and religion on stage but for some reason there is little talk about politics.
Many of the lectures gave us a glimpse, no a hard look really, at the near future. One man demonstrated an arm mounted jetpack and actually flew a few feet off the ground in an Ironman-like suit. Another speaker, Todd Reichert, of Kitty Hawk told us he will have a working commercially available personal drone by the end of this year. Personal as in, will fly a person onboard. Ummmm, maybe.
The conference is also a place where singers, musicians, and poets take the stage. Sarena Williams had a talk with Gail King and we heard about her athletic career but the session was also criticized for dwelling overlong on her marriage plans and pregnancy. One commentator said that a man would not have been asked about the number of guests he was planning to have at his wedding. Zing!
The speeches are compelling but the socializing with people you sometimes only see once a year is where it’s really interesting.
I’ve long been a fan of Sam Harris, a well known philosopher/podcaster who has deep thinkers like Daniel Dennett on his show. He and Dan have sparred on more than one occasion about the nature of consciousness and the meaning of ‘it all’. They don’t agree but the discourse is so respectful it can be had to tell that. So it was fun for me to stand with them as they discussed aspects around the deployment of the autonomous automobile. They actually made reference to the ‘trolley problem.’ This is where a runaway trolley will kill 5 people if you do nothing or if you intervene and switch it to another track you, by your agency, kill one person. This is a big issue with the self-driving car.
Sam has been trying different things to solve the funding problem with his podcast and he told me the podcast takes a great deal of his attention (but also has a wider reach than his books). He doesn’t want to take advertising so he has asked his listeners if they will just send in what they think his show is worth. So, with several people watching, I asked him if I could give him what I thought his show was worth to me over the last year and handed him, by any measure, a healthy sum. He recoiled and held up is hands. He said he could not accept cash but then he thought for a second and told me if I could go to the app and do it that way it would be OK. So here was the trolley problem – writ small.
Tim Ferriss is the author of The Four Hour Work Week has a wide interest in a variety of subjects all centered around excellence. From the stage told us that for a time he was nearly terminally depressed and worked his way out of it. When someone lays himself open like this you really pay attention. He said one of top five heroes is the world champion Olympic weightlifter Jerzy Gregorek who with his wife Aliena (also a world record holding weightlifter) have created the Happy Body employing a system of fitness and weight control that I went through several years ago. I credit my doctor Eric Weiss for getting me there and the Happy Body with being instrumental in saving my life when my fitness fizzled and my weight became ahhh…brobdingnagian. I still do the workout every day that they laid out for me many years ago. And guess what? Their program is available right here in Woodside where they live. If you think you are ‘too far gone’ or you think you could perform at an even higher level, these folks can help. But, trust me, don’t walk through the gate if you aren’t serious.
Many of us struggle with fitness and self-relevance. As I walk around TED I sometimes feel mild waves of anxiety when I’m standing between Steven Spielberg or Larry Page. I have to make an effort to keep perspective and realize that one’s joy is one’s own and everybody’s pain is real. Even if your unhappiness is simply because the upholstery on your yacht didn’t come out right or your legs just got chopped off, pain is pain (though of wildly different intensities). On the airplane back home I happened to sit next to a woman who yelled at her husband for an hour about he had thoughtlessly failed to book her an isle seat and what a heel he was generally and how his diet was terrible, kvetching that he was six kinds of a fool. She even found fault with the can of Coke and I could see life for her was a sharp pebble eternally stuck in her shoe. They had obviously been together forever and she saw the world in such dark tones it was truly stunning to witness. Her pain was real even if the causes were trivial. Her husband put up no fight and when I saw him later by himself in baggage I told him he was the most patient man in the world. He just shrugged and said “You get the know her, and she really a nice person.” Somehow I wonder, but he was terrific.
Many presenters at TED are working with people and on projects showed us that much of the world is really disadvantaged and how there are a great many people attempting to do something about it. The head of The World Bank, Jim Yong, told us about the large disconnect between the increase in general aspiration of the citizens of the world and their mismatched actual opportunities. This is due to the internet allowing them bare witness to the world beyond them. It is for this reason that the South African government didn’t allow television until 1971 and didn’t go widespread with it until 1976 because they felt that it might make the black population uppity. Yeah, it did that.
David Miliband, former UK Sec. of State, told us that are presently 65 million refugees and that to turn our back on them diminishes us as people. His statement was powerful but even more compelling was Pope Benedict. Yes, the Pope came to TED by telecast. He spoke for 18 minutes, looking us right in the eye and expressing his concerns over the dark course he thought humanity was taking. With a hypnotic flow in lilting Italian (subtitled) he said that the consumerist society, with its insatiable yearning to acquire and possess, is no path to sustainability and certainly not to happiness. Amen! He also addressed the refugee crisis and advised that we all do our share. I urge you to look up his talk. It is the best one I’ve ever heard in over 10 years of TED. This man typifies what’s best about humanity.
There were several talks about the future of work and whether there will be enough of it. Many of us sense that the looming massive unemployment around the world will contribute to as yet unimaginable civil unrest. Certain politicians have promoted the notion that China, Canada and Mexico ‘stole’ our jobs. The fact is, good ol free enterprise caused some jobs to go to these places but around 80% of all the jobs that have been lost have been eliminated by automation and increased efficiency due to the network effect. The conference began with a modern dancer dancing with an industrial robot. Maybe this was supposed to be cute or artistic but to me it evinced an ominous surrender to the machine.
There are breakout sessions and they range across every imaginable topic from yoga to AR. In our Augmented Reality workshop we discussed things like skeuomorphism vs. abstraction. Cool, no? I witnessed the latest AR headset and, as with Virtual Reality, the proponents tell you that it’s really fantastic even photorealist – with a Shroud of Turin-level hype. My take is that VR and AR are in the magneto telephone phase of development. Workable, but pretty crude.
One of the last speakers was Elon Musk in conversation with the curator of the event, Chris Anderson. Elon explained his idea of creating a new way of terrestrial travel by boring commuter tunnels in vast networks under Los Angeles to allow cars to descend in individual elevators which convert to electric skates that whip your individual vehicle at hundreds of miles an hour to your destination. Loooookoooutforrrmmyyycoffeeeee!! Hummm…seems unlikely in the near term.
He showed us a picture of a rocket in design that is four times more massive than the biggest one ever built. Seems likely. He told us he has driven the prototype of an 18 wheeler truck tractor that handles like a sports car. He said he is going to start at least two and maybe four new lithium ion battery factories by the end of this year. And he pledged to really deliver the new Tesla Model X (the less expensive one) this summer. Time didn’t allow the several other projects on his mind like brain-computer interface and solar roof tiles.
And then TED was over and we all ran for our planes. The badges were put away, long and slow airport lines (this is system is ripe for disruption) endured and we blended back in with the broader humanity.
Two days later I took a tour of the Tesla automobile manufacturing plant in Fremont. I suppose there are other factories as impressive but I’ve never seen one. There are 4 to 5,000 people working there and over 500 stationary robots (and uncountable mobile robots) all conspiring to build the two models in production. We traveled in a tram and cruised much of the plant. The five million sq. foot building is already too small after just five years and the 80,000 some cars they produce will soon ramp up to 500,000 cars per year. The scale is unimaginable but what was most remarkable was the coordination of all the parts, the people and the machines. And the place is clean. No smells, no dust or grease and they actually eat off the factory floor as the cafeteria is in middle of the factory with no walls.
Tesla had many of their foundational meetings at Buck’s when Woodside’s Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning dreamed up the venture. They named the company and they created the prototypes. They were building these cars in San Carlos and at one point I took a double decker Burning Man bus over to the plant and we had a Friday afternoon beer bust. We got every one of the employees of Tesla on the bus with room to spare. We would now need a bigger bus I think.
Elon came aboard soon after and has made an outrageous success of the firm with the help of a great many investors and supporters but the entire enterprise started with two guys who thought they could build something legendary. And they did.
So after all my travels where I went to the edge and peered over at the future I am now ready to step back into the past and am soon headed for some of the most backward and sunburnt regions on earth where I expect that not a whole lot has changed in 1,000s of years. But that’s a story for next time.
*I’m totally serious about the previous Cleese comment. About 15 years ago my son Tyler and I were walking down a darkened path at Esalen and without warning this huge man exploded from the bushes and leaped on our backs yelling. “Look out!” This was the most frolicsome thing imaginable made even weirder by the fact that Cleese is not a jolly fellow. In the subsequent years I have known him I never seen this friskiness repeated. He must have been smoken’ toad.