I take illegal drugs for inspiration

Daily Telegraph, Saturday May 21st 2005, pp 17-18

(Note: This version is very slightly different from the published, edited, version)
© Sue Blackmore 2005

Every year, like a social drinker who wants to prove to herself that she’s not an alcoholic, I give up cannabis for a month. It can be a tough and dreary time – and much as I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner,  alcohol cannot take its place.
Some people may smoke dope just to relax or have fun, but for me the reason goes deeper. In fact,  I can honestly say that without cannabis, most of my scientific research would never have been done and most of my books on psychology and evolution would not have been written.
Some evenings, after a long day at my desk, I’ll slip into the bath, light a candle and a spliff, and let the ideas flow – that lecture I have to give to 500 people next week, that article I’m writing for New Scientist, those tricky last words of a book I’ve been working on for months.  This is the time when the sentences seem to write themselves. Or I might sit out in my greenhouse on a summer evening among my tomatoes and peach trees, struggling with questions about free will or the nature of the universe, and find that a smoke gives me new ways of thinking about them.
Yes, I know there are serious risks to my health,  and I know I might be caught and fined or put in prison.  But I weigh all this up,  and go on smoking grass.
For both individuals and society, all drugs present a dilemma:  are they worth the risks to health, wealth and sanity? For me, the pay-off is the scientific inspiration, the wealth of new ideas and the spur to inner exploration. But if I end up a mental and physical wreck,  I hereby give you my permission to gloat and say: “I told you so”.
My first encounter with drugs was a joint shared with a college friend in my first term at Oxford. This was at the tail end of the days of psychedelia and flower power –  and cannabis was easy to obtain. After long days of lectures and writing essays,  we enjoyed the laughter and giggling, the heightened sensations and crazy ideas that the drug seemed to let loose.
Then, one night,  something out of the ordinary happened – though whether it was caused by the drug, lack of sleep or something else altogether, I don’t  know. I was listening to a record with two friends, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I had smoked just enough to induce a mild synaesthesia.  The  sound of the music had somehow induced the sensation of  rushing through  a long, dark tunnel of rustling leaves towards a bright light.
I love tunnels. They come on the verges of sleep and death and are well known in all the cultures that use drugs for ritual, magic or healing. The reason for them lies in the visual cortex at the back of the brain, where certain drugs interfere with the inhibitory systems, releasing patterns of circles and spirals that form into tunnels and lights.
I didn’t know about the science then. I was just enjoying the ride, when one of my friends asked a peculiar question: “Where are you, Sue?”.
Where was I? I was in the tunnel. No, I was in my friend’s room. I struggled to answer; then the confusion cleared and I was looking down on the familiar scene from above.
“I’m on the ceiling, ” I said, as I watched the mouth down below open and close and say the words in unison.  It was a most peculiar sensation.
My friend persisted. Can you move? Yes. Can you go through the walls? Yes. And I was off exploring what I thought, at the time, was the real world. It was a wonderful feeling – like a flying dream,  only more realistic and intense.
The  experience lasted more than  two hours,  and I remember it clearly even now. Eventually,  it came to seem more like a mystical experience in which time and space had lost their meaning and I appeared  to merge with the  universe. Years later, when I began research on out-of-body and near-death experiences, I realised that I’d had all those now-familiar sensations that people report after close brushes with death. And I wanted to find out more.
However, nothing in the physiology and psychology that I was studying could remotely begin to cope with something like this. We were learning about rats’ brains, and memory mechanisms, not mind and consciousness – let alone a mind that could apparently leave its body and travel around without it. Then and there,  I decided to become a parapsychologist and devote my life to proving all those closed-minded scientists wrong.
But I was the one who was wrong. I did become a parapsychologist,  but decades of difficult research taught me that ESP almost certainly doesn’t exist and that nothing leaves the body during an out-of-body experience – however realistic it may feel.
Although parapsychology gave me no answers,  I was still obsessed with a scientific mystery: how can we explain the mind and consciousness from what we know about the brain? Like any conventional scientist,  I carried out experiments and surveys and studied the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience.  But since the object of my inquiry was consciousness itself,  this wasn’t enough. I wanted to investigate my own consciousness as well.
So I tried everything from weird machines and gadgets to long-term training in meditation – but I have to admit that drugs have played a major role.
Back in those student days,  it was the hallucinogens, or “mind-revealing” psychedelics, that excited us – and the ultimate hallucinogen must be LSD. Effective in minuscule doses, and not physically addictive, LSD takes you on a “trip” that lasts about eight to 10 hours but can seem like forever. Every sense is enhanced or distorted, objects change shape and form, terrors flood up from your own mind, and you can find joy in the simplest thing.
Once the trip has begun, there is no escape – no antidote,  no way to stop the journey into the depths of your own mind. In my twenties,  I used to take acid two or three times a year – and this was quite enough, for an acid trip is not an adventure to be undertaken lightly.
I’ve met the horrors with several hallucinogens, including magic mushrooms that I grew myself.  I remember once gazing at a cheerfully coloured cushion,  only to see each streak of colour turn into a scene of rape, mutilation or torture, the victims writhing and screaming – and when I shut my eyes,  it didn’t go away. It is easy to  understand how such visions can turn into a  classic “bad trip” , though that has never happened to me.
Instead,  the onslaught of images eventually taught me to see and  accept the frightening depths of my own mind – to face up to the fact that, under other circumstances, I might be either torturer or tortured. In a curious way, this makes it easier to cope with the guilt, fear or anxiety of ordinary life. Certainly, acceptance is a skill worth having – though I guess there are easier ways of acquiring it.
Then there’s the fun and just the plain strangeness of LSD. On one sunny trip in Oxford, my friend and I stopped under a vast oak tree where the path had been trampled into deep furrows by cattle and then dried solid by the hot weather. We must have spent an hour there, gazing in wonder at the texture of this dried mud; at the hills and valleys in miniature; at the hoof-shaped pits and sharp cliffs; at the shifting patterns  in the dappled shade. I felt that I knew every inch of this special place; that I had an intimate connection with the mud.
Suddenly,  I noticed a very old man with a stick, walking slowly towards us on the path. Keep calm, I told myself. Act normal. He’ll just say hello, walk by, and be gone.
“Excuse me, young lady,” he said in a cracked voice. “My eyes are weak and, in this light, I can’t  see my way. Would you help me across?” And so it was that I found myself, dream-like,  guiding the old man slowly across my special place – a patch of mud that I knew as well as my own features.
Two days later,  my friend came back from lectures, very excited.  “I’ve seen him. The man with the stick. He’s real!”
We both feared that we’d hallucinated him.
Aldous Huxley once said that mescaline opened “the doors of perception”; it certainly did that for me. I took it one day with friends in the country, where we walked in spring meadows, identified wild flowers, marvelled over sparkling spider’s webs and gasped at the colours in the sky that rippled overhead.
Back at the farmhouse,  I sat playing with a kitten until kitten and flowers seemed inextricable. I took a pen and began to draw. I still have that little flower-kitten drawing on my study wall today.
On another wall is a field of daffodils in oils. One day, many years later, I went to my regular art class the day after an LSD trip. The teacher had brought in a bunch of daffodils and given us one each, in a milk bottle. Mine was beautiful; but I couldn’t draw just one.
My vision was filled with daffodils, and I began to paint, in bold colours, huge blooms to fill the entire canvas. I will never be a great painter but, like many artists through the ages, I had found new ways of seeing that were induced by a  chemical in the brain.
So can drugs be creative? I would say so, although the dangers are great – not just the dangers inherent in any drug use, but the danger of coming to rely on them too much and of neglecting the hard work that both art and science demand. There are plenty of good reasons to shun drug-induced creativity.
Yet, in my own case, drugs have an interesting role:  in trying to understand consciousness, I am taking substances that affect the brain that I’m trying to understand.  In other words, they alter the mind that is both the investigator and the investigated.
Interestingly, hallucinogens such as  LSD and psilocybin are the least popular of today’s street drugs – perhaps because they demand so much of the person who takes them and promise neither pleasure or cheap happiness. Instead, the money is all in heroin, cocaine and other drugs of addiction.
I have not enjoyed my few experiences with cocaine. I don’t like the rush of false confidence and energy it provides – partly because that’s not what I’m looking for and partly  because I’ve seen cocaine take people over and ruin their lives. But many people love it – and the dealers get rich on getting people hooked.
This is tragic. In just about every human society there has ever been, people have used dangerous drugs – but most have developed rituals that bring an element of control or safety to the experience.  In more primitive societies, it is shamans and healers who control  the use of dangerous drugs,  choose  appropriate settings in which to take them and teach people how to appreciate  the visions and insights that they can bring.
In our own society, criminals control all drug sales. This means that  users have no way of knowing exactly what they are buying  and  no-one to teach them how to use these dangerous tools.
I have been lucky with my own teachers.  The first time I took ecstasy, for example, I was with three people I had met at a Norwegian  conference on death and dying.  It was mid-summer, and  they had invited me to join them on a trip around the fjords. One  afternoon,  we sat together and took pure crystals of MDMA – nothing like the frightening mixtures for sale on the streets today.
MDMA has the curious effect of making you feel warm and loving towards everyone and everything around you: within a few short hours, we were all convinced that  we knew each other in a deep and intimate way. Then we deliberately each set off alone to walk in the mountains, where the same feeling of love now seemed to encompass the entire landscape.
I was told then that I should make the most of my first few experiences with MDMA because, after five or six doses, I would never get the same effects again. In my experience, this has been true, although prohibition makes it all but impossible to find such things out. In fact, we know horrifyingly little about the psychological effects of drugs that people take every day in Britain because scientists are not allowed to carry out the necessary  research.
That is why  I’ve had to do my own. I once had an expert friend inject me with a high dose of ketamine because I had heard it could induce out-of-body experiences. Known as K, or Special K, on the street, this is an anaesthetic used more often by vets than anaesthetists because of its unpleasant tendency to produce nightmares.
Get the dose right, as I did, and you are completely paralysed apart from the ability to move your eyes. This is not very pleasant. However, by imagining I was lifting out of my body, I felt I could fly, and I set off home to see what my children  were up to. I was sure that I saw them playing in the kitchen; but when I checked the next day, I was told they had been asleep.
Back in the room,  my guide began holding up his fingers out of my  line of vision and, as soon as my mouth started working again, made me guess how many. I seemed to see the fingers all right, but my guesses were totally  wrong.
I didn’t repeat the experiment. It was not nearly as interesting as those drugs, such as  LSD, psilocybin, DMT or mescaline, that undermine everything you take for granted. These are psychedelics that threaten our ordinary sense of self, and that is where  they touch most deeply on my scientific interests.
What is a self? How does the brain create this sense of being “me”, inside this head, looking out at the world, when I know that behind my eyes there are only millions of brain cells – and nowhere for an inner self to hide? How can those millions of brain cells give rise to free will when they are merely physical and chemical machines? In threatening our sense of self,  could it be that these drugs reveal the scary truth that there is no such thing?
Mystics would say so. And, here, we hit an old and familiar question:  do drugs and mystical experiences lead to the same “insights”? And are those insights true?
Since those first trips, I have taken many other drugs –  such as nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. For just a few moments, I have understood everything – “Yes, yes, this is so right, this is how it has to be” – and then  the certainty vanishes  and you cannot say what you understood.
When the  discoverer of nitrous oxide, Sir Humphrey Davy, took it himself in 1799, he  exclaimed: “Nothing exists but thoughts”. Others, too, have found their views profoundly shifted. It seems quite extraordinary to me that so simple a molecule can change one’s  philosophy, even for a few moments, yet it seems it can.
Why does the gas make you laugh? Perhaps it is a reaction to a brief appreciation of that terrifying cosmic joke – that we are just shifting patterns in a  meaningless universe.
Are drugs the quick and dirty route to insight?  I wanted to try the slow route, too. So I have spent more than 20 years training in meditation – not joining any cult or religion but learning the discipline of steadily looking into my own mind.
Gradually,  the mind calms, space opens up, self and other become indistinguishable, and desires drop away. It’s an old metaphor, but people often liken the task to climbing a mountain. The drugs can take you up in a helicopter to see what’s there, but you can’t stay.
In the end, you have to climb the mountain yourself – the hard way. Even so, by giving you that first glimpse,  the drugs may provide the inspiration to keep climbing.

Psychologist Susan Blackmore, neuro-scientist Colin Blakemore and author Mike Jay will be appearing at the Cheltenham Science Festival  (June 8-12) to discuss whether drugs can teach us anything about ourselves. For tickets to the Altered States session at the town hall ( £6, 4pm on Saturday, June 11) or for any other festival  event , please call 01242 227 979 (information: www.cheltenhamfestivals.org.uk)