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I also had my own personal reason for steering clear of psychedelics: a painfully anxious adolescence that left me (and at least one psychiatrist) doubting my grip on sanity. By the time I got to college, I was feeling sturdier, but the idea of rolling the mental dice with a psychedelic drug still seemed like a bad idea.

Years later, in my late twenties and feeling more settled, I did try magic mushrooms two or three times. A friend had given me a Mason jar full of dried, gnarly Psilocybes, and on a couple of memorable occasions my partner (now wife), Judith, and I choked down two or three of them, endured a brief wave of nausea, and then sailed off on four or five interesting hours in the company of each other and what felt like a wonderfully italicized version of the familiar reality.

Psychedelic aficionados would probably categorize what we had as a low-dose “aesthetic experience,” rather than a full-blown ego-disintegrating trip. We certainly didn’t take leave of the known universe or have what anyone would call a mystical experience. But it was really interesting. What I particularly remember was the preternatural vividness of the greens in the woods, and in particular the velvety chartreuse softness of the ferns. I was gripped by a powerful compulsion to be outdoors, undressed, and as far from anything made of metal or plastic as it was possible to get. Because we were alone in the country, this was all doable. I don’t recall much about a follow-up trip on a Saturday in Riverside Park in Manhattan except that it was considerably less enjoyable and unselfconscious, with too much time spent wondering if other people could tell that we were high.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the difference between these two experiences of the same drug demonstrated something important, and special, about psychedelics: the critical influence of “set” and “setting.” Set is the mind-set or expectation one brings to the experience, and setting is the environment in which it takes place. Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever’s already going on both inside and outside one’s head.

After those two brief trips, the mushroom jar lived in the back of our pantry for years, untouched. The thought of giving over a whole day to a psychedelic experience had come to seem inconceivable. We were working long hours at new careers, and those vast swaths of unallocated time that college (or unemployment) affords had become a memory. Now another, very different kind of drug was available, one that was considerably easier to weave into the fabric of a Manhattan career: cocaine. The snowy-white powder made the wrinkled brown mushrooms seem dowdy, unpredictable, and overly demanding. Cleaning out the kitchen cabinets one weekend, we stumbled upon the forgotten jar and tossed it in the trash, along with the exhausted spices and expired packages of food.

Fast-forward three decades, and I really wish I hadn’t done that. I’d give a lot to have a whole jar of magic mushrooms now. I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps these remarkable molecules might be wasted on the young, that they may have more to offer us later in life, after the cement of our mental habits and everyday behaviors has set. Carl Jung once wrote that it is not the young but people in middle age who need to have an “experience of the numinous” to help them negotiate the second half of their lives.

By the time I arrived safely in my fifties, life seemed to be running along a few deep but comfortable grooves: a long and happy marriage alongside an equally long and gratifying career. As we do, I had developed a set of fairly dependable mental algorithms for navigating whatever life threw at me, whether at home or at work. What was missing from my life? Nothing I could think of—until, that is, word of the new research into psychedelics began to find its way to me, making me wonder if perhaps I had failed to recognize the potential of these molecules as a tool for both understanding the mind and, potentially, changing it.

• • • HERE ARE THE THREE DATA POINTS that persuaded me this was the case.

In the spring of 2010, a front-page story appeared in the New York Times headlined “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” It reported that researchers had been giving large doses of psilocybin—the active compound in magic mushrooms—to terminal cancer patients as a way to help them deal with their “existential distress” at the approach of death.

These experiments, which were taking place simultaneously at Johns Hopkins, UCLA, and New York University, seemed not just improbable but crazy. Faced with a terminal diagnosis, the very last thing I would want to do is take a psychedelic drug—that is, surrender control of my mind and then in that psychologically vulnerable state stare straight into the abyss. But many of the volunteers reported that over the course of a single guided psychedelic “journey” they reconceived how they viewed their cancer and the prospect of dying. Several of them said they had lost their fear of death completely. The reasons offered for this transformation were intriguing but also somewhat elusive. “Individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states,” one of the researchers was quoted as saying. They “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.”

I filed that story away, until a year or two later, when Judith and I found ourselves at a dinner party at a big house in the Berkeley Hills, seated at a long table with a dozen or so people, when a woman at the far end of the table began talking about her acid trips. She looked to be about my age and, I learned, was a prominent psychologist. I was engrossed in a different conversation at the time, but as soon as the phonemes L-S-D drifted down to my end of the table, I couldn’t help but cup my ear (literally) and try to tune in.

At first, I assumed she was dredging up some well-polished anecdote from her college days. Not the case. It soon became clear that the acid trip in question had taken place only days or weeks before, and in fact was one of her first. The assembled eyebrows rose. She and her husband, a retired software engineer, had found the occasional use of LSD both intellectually stimulating and of value to their work. Specifically, the psychologist felt that LSD gave her insight into how young children perceive the world. Kids’ perceptions are not mediated by expectations and conventions in the been-there, done-that way that adult perception is; as adults, she explained, our minds don’t simply take in the world as it is so much as they make educated guesses about it. Relying on these guesses, which are based on past experience, saves the mind time and energy, as when, say, it’s trying to figure out what that fractal pattern of green dots in its visual field might be. (The leaves on a tree, probably.) LSD appears to disable such conventionalized, shorthand modes of perception and, by doing so, restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time. (Leaves!)

I piped up to ask if she had any plans to write about these ideas, which riveted everyone at the table. She laughed and gave me a look that I took to say, How naive can you be? LSD is a schedule 1 substance, meaning the government regards it as a drug of abuse with no accepted medical use. Surely it would be foolhardy for someone in her position to suggest, in print, that psychedelics might have anything to contribute to philosophy or psychology—that they might actually be a valuable tool for exploring the mysteries of human consciousness. Serious research into psychedelics had been more or less purged from the university fifty years ago, soon after Timothy Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project crashed and burned in 1963. Not even Berkeley, it seemed, was ready to go there again, at least not yet.

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