#1 How can scientists empathize with their participants if they had not taken the substance themselves?

Here we go, my first stream of consciousness blog post I’m sharing with all of you. As I said on the static page for this blog, I wrote nearly 200 streams before. Some of these I’ll post on this platform, many I will keep for myself as they are personal or things I’m not ready to share yet. 

The inspiration for today’s topic is an autobiography written by psychedelic scientist John C. Lilly called The Center of the Cyclone. I’m happy with his book being my first stream blog post, but in actuality I have been researching and writing my first book on psychedelics since September. We might say that I’m starting this blog already in the middle of things. As well to note: I intend to write about the actual pages read for the day. Today’s post and the next will be the entire book. 

Lilly is one of my heroes. He is a psychedelic scientist and explorer extraordinaire. He is known for a number of things such as: researching isolation and then developing sensory deprivation tanks to explore states of consciousness devoid of any stimuli, studying the effects of LSD while in his isolation tanks, working with dolphins including giving LSD to them, and spending time and teaching at the Esalen Institute in California. 

What I admire most about him is his ethos regarding drug research: never do an experiment on someone unless you have participated first in said experiment. For example, do not give LSD to anyone in experimental settings unless you have taken it yourself. I agree with this claim. How can scientists empathize with their participants if they had not taken the substance themselves? Why should participants trust scientists who dare not take such substances? If someone wanted me to take some novel psychoactive substance without knowing firsthand what it will do to me, I would pass. If it’s so risky or unknown then you do it, don’t even consider giving it to me. And this is exactly what Lilly did: he developed methods first for his isolation tanks, going in sober, inventing and testing oxygen masks (in the early models), testing the water’s buoyancy with different salt solutions, etc. Later he would test various dosages and dosing regimens of LSD in the tanks. Some of his findings were reported in academic journals, others were reported in his autobiographies. 

What we can learn from Lilly is that he used his body as a canvas, the zero point for probing the corporeal and cognitive unknown. He reminds me of the artist/biohacker, Stelarc, who modifies his body with technology just to see what happens as far as I can gather, or to make us question the limits and ethics of our bodies and minds and how we use them. Was Lilly an artist in his own way? I would argue yes. He knew the risks; he knew he could die. He says in his book that his fear of death diminished after taking psychedelics, although his fear of becoming permanently psychotic remained. We don’t know for certain how fragile or strong the mind is in general, let alone the spectrum of individual minds. I suppose Lilly’s experiments and that which he was probing attracts a particular kind of person, a particular kind of curiosity, an unquenchable desire to know. However, to know at what cost? How far is someone willing to go to know? How far is society willing to accommodate such a probe? I suppose there would have to be some kind of utility to the research, as is the current red thread in most research today. It is difficult to get funding unless you have a good idea of what you expect to find or what use the discovered knowledge has to society. I don’t think Lilly knew what he would find. As well, what he found can be considered esoteric, it doesn’t fit well into our current science in addition to being difficult to measure with our current instruments that, one could argue, define our reality. I give him credit though: he was the first in many ways. I bet many people who frequent floating centers around the world do not realize that the floatation tank was invented by a would-be psychedelic researcher named Lilly who experimented with LSD in his float tanks.

He also called himself as an explorer. I agree. I won’t speak too much about cognitive liberty here, but it is worth highlighting the different between physical exploration and mental exploration. It seems to me that more people are more okay with people going to the far reaches of our planet, even into space, and at some point beyond, but when it comes to exploring the mind people tend to become wary. Why is that? How will we know what the human vehicle is capable of in its totality unless some people are allowed to do just that? Of course, exploring the unknown is not for everyone but shouldn’t we allow those who want to go to go? Go. Do it. Know the risks. Read the literature and research of those who went before. Be as prepared as possible. Know you might die or become permanently psychotic. And if one does happen to “lose it” after an intense exploration of the mind, either with drugs or without, then, future explorers will know certain failed methods how not to explore such domains. I’m reminded of Edison who said, and I paraphrase, that there is no failure, only 10,000 ways of how something does not work. Lilly would have agreed that if he died during one of his many experiments that it would have been seen in a positive light, as one way of how not to explore the mind. Do your research and know the risks. 

Lilly, J. C. (1972). The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space. New York: The Julian Press. 

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