How Doing Psychedelics In Social Situations Has Improved My Life [Long Version Draft, 0.5]

*IMPORTANT NOTE: This post is long, so I also wrote a shorter summary in another post here. *

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life” ~ Steve Jobs

A variety of fears stopped me from using psychedelics until much later in life. My first few experiences were so shockingly positive, I couldn’t help but confess to friends and colleagues how much they had transformed me. This is when I discovered the sheer number of people I knew and admired who shared their own secret stories of life-changing psychedelic experiences.

To be sure, everyone reading this article has been touched by someone who has used and loved psychedelics (and, not just because Steve Jobs said that dropping Acid was one of the important decisions of his life).

On a weekly, if not a daily basis, you probably use their technology and read their news stories. The author Tim Ferriss, who became famous for interviewing the world’s high-performing athletes and businessmen, once said that “most of the billionaires” he knows use psychedelics. Many of the people who impact your life everyday attribute their success in life in no small part to psychedelics.

There is a Grand Canyon-size gap between what psychedelics actually do for society and the way the law views them. Psychedelics are widely used and none of the fears that justify criminalization have happened. Like Marijuana, it is only a matter of time before public fears are washed away by folks talking to someone they know who uses psychedelics.

So, as a first step to inspiring others to talk, I’m going to describe, in as much legal detail as possible*, everything I’ve done and how it’s impacted me, with an eye towards answering all the skeptical questions that kept me from using psychedelics until very recently. It is my hope that the ensuing conversation (and lack of negative consequences) will open space for other posts like this one.

NOTE: There is considerable debate within the psychedelic community about whether we should be talking about anything other than their use in helping people who desperately need therapeutic counseling. Some worry that when wealthy or privileged people advocate for psychedelics, it confuses the public and trivializes the fight for medical use.

So, I want to be exceedingly clear about one point. People do psychedelics for a lot of different reasons, often to deal with mental health issues, which is why the FDA has begun the process of approving them for clinical use.

However, I feel that when more people talk to someone they know or admire that has benefited

from psychedelics, it will alleviate their fears. This is precisely what helped me overcome my misguided fears.

I am not advocating for the unregulated legalization of psychedelics. I simply want to spark an honest conversation about their potential harms and benefits to society.

Ok, Greg, first question: why is this post about “social situations”?

[Image Credit: ToddonFlickr]

The first time I tried any drug other than cannabis, I was at a music festival; I swallowed a pill of Ecstasy, presuming I was just going to dance all night. And, then, the most unexpected thing happened: I was blindsided with an overwhelming desire for empathetic conversation. I poured out my feelings and fears with uninhibited…joy. All of a sudden, my well-restrained inner voice was set free and, to my even greater surprise, I was connecting with friends in more meaningful ways than I had ever before.

I had always struggled maintaining deep friendships, but never knew why. I learned that day that there was a side of me that was both much more lovable and inspiring. This discovery was exciting, yet frustratingly elusive; it sparked my currently journey with a wide variety of psychedelics to unearth a side of my personality that I very much wanted to integrate.

Now I do psychedelics in a lot of different social situations, from tech conferences to birthday parties, to understand how to prune my tendencies for pretentiousness and judgmentalism, and hone authenticity and empathy.

I also think this focus on social situations will dispel common misperceptions about psychedelics as the recreational fancy of privileged hippies who are detached from reality. Psychedelics are very much a practical tool for me.

Wait, Greg, you do psychedelics at tech conferences? Can you give me some examples of how that works out?

Sure. I was recently at a tech conference in Portugal (where all drugs are decriminalized), so let me share one involving LSD:

One day I ingested 25 micrograms of Lysergic Acid (LSD), or about 1/4th of a conventional recreational dose. I’ve been attending large tech conferences for most of my professional career and I developed a reputation as a good “networker”. I was good at selling the fiction of my rising success to strangers, swapping business cards, and developing a dizzying array of shallow connections. I’d been doing this for so long, it became second nature.

On a small dose Acid, my affect completely changed. I did not hallucinate. But, all of a sudden, when people would ask about my work, I wouldn’t recite a resume of accomplishments, but explain the problem I was hoping to solve with unhinged curiosity; I oozed fascination with my subject expertise and invited others to join in on a conversation I found wondrously complex and joyful.

At one particular party, a circle began to form around my story-telling and a woman told me that she belonged to a group interested in paying scholars to think deeply about the issue. That simple conversation would later turn into a major business deal.

I like this story because I wasn’t “networking” on Acid; I was inviting people to be fascinated with me and didn’t care about selling myself or collecting business cards. It was this anti-networking approach that ended up being much more successful and I’m thankful to LSD for showing me the way.

What have you done and what will you be describing in this post?

For legal reasons, I don’t ever mention the location of my use. Suffice to say I’ve visited places where they are lawful (like Ayahuasca in South America) or decriminalized (like all drugs in Portugal). I’ve written part of this piece while in Lisbon.

I’ve used:

  • Lysergic Acid (“LSD”)
  • MDMA (“Molly” or “Ecstasy”)
  • Ayahuasca
  • Psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”)

I rarely do a full recreational dose in social settings. Of late, “microdosing”, or about 1/10th of a conventional dose, has become in vogue in Silicon Valley. Microdoses are meant to be extremely subtle, like the difference between having half a glass of wine and chugging down the whole bottle.

While I have done “microdoses” of LSD, Psilocybin and Ayahuasca, I find that slightly larger doses are better for conversation.

“Social doses”, as I like to call them, are about 1/3 of a recreational dose (that translates into roughly 30 micrograms of LSD, 40 milligrams of MDMA and 0.75 grams of dried mushrooms). There’s no hallucinations, but I definitely feel my personality change.

How would you describe psychedelics as different than other drugs?

BOLD regions where Ayahuasca changes brain activity of the Default Mode Network. PLOS One

Neurologically, psychedelics decrease activity in a connected set brain regions known as the “default mode network”, which is associated with a strong sense of self, anxiety and rumination. Under fMRI, we can tell that someone with decreased activity in this network is in an intensely meditative state, but this purely scientific explanation isn’t all that intuitive.

The best general description of psychedelics I can give is that they are tools of extraordinary listening; on psychedelics, I don’t just glance at a mountain, I explore the beautifully intricate geometry of its landscape; I don’t just ruminate on the memory of hurtful conversation with a loved one, I relive it as a vividly immersive daydream from the perspective of the other person; I don’t just think about the logical validity of a theory of social science, I visually simulate the mechanics of how it explains unanswered questions of the economy.

Einstein once said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” He is said to have developed his theory of relativity while imagining riding on a wave of light.

Psychedelics helped me understand the genius of this belief.

Sober, I have a tendency to immediately analyze, categorize and judge ideas as I hear and think of them. Psychedelics delay the mind’s analysis; even just a few more seconds of sustained, uninhibited observation and imagination transforms the way I see art, feel an emotion, or think about an idea.

Psychedelics are often described as years of therapy in a single experience. Maybe it’s because psychedelics compress all the brief moments of genuine listening that normally happens over the course of years of therapy in one, long sustained meditation on oneself without judgement.

In the same vein, Einstein also said that “Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person’s eyes.” I think this is why Ecstasy helped me build closer bonds with my friends than I’d ever known how before.

Dissolving the inner critic and opening up to the world has pretty crazy profound effects on creativity, love and mental health.

Why Do You Think Psychedelics Helped You?

I became a much better listener on psychedelics, and I know this may sound strange, but I think I became a better listener because I stopped suppressing my emotions. I used to have a pretty hostile relationship with emotions; I viewed my need for happiness or feelings of loneliness as a distraction; I prized a strong work ethic, creativity and complex problem solving, not primitive needs.

Psychedelics helped me understand that emotions — even negative ones — are tools of extraordinary learning. I am better at solving nuanced business and relationship problems when I listen to how people and ideas evoke emotions. Now, for instance, when I get bored in conversation, I’m transparent about my frustration of not understanding the value of what is being talked about and (diplomatically) ask questions to steer the conversation until I feel the joy of learning useful information.

Joy, frustration and other emotions are the basis of a great conversation and conversation is the basis of what makes being around others great.

What’s MDMA (a.k.a. “Ecstasy”) like?

[Tablets of recreational Ecstasy. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons]

The first time I ever took MDMA, I remember turning to a friend and admitting “I’m angry a lot”. It was the first time in my life — in a long time — I could remember not being angry at the world. I felt perfectly comfortable confronting my deepest emotional issues and expressing the gratitude I normally felt for others, but never spoke about.

But, I never truly understood why the FDA classified MDMA as a “breakthrough” treatment for soldiers with PTSD until it unexpectedly mended my relationship with old friends. For a bit of background, in the seminal study, 68% of the 107 patients with PTSD showed no signs of the debilitating mental illness after 6-months of MDMA-assisted therapy.

While I’m fortunate not to suffer anything remotely close to PTSD, I do have lingering emotional scars from being bullied as kid. I cried — a lot. I learned that I still harbored buried resentment all these years later, after I attended a get-together with my old friends.

At the event, I decided to drop about 50mg of Ecstasy, or about ½ a recreational dose, to see how this would change my otherwise passive aggressive behavior towards them. As I like to do with psychedelics, I decided to sneak out to a quiet corner and meditate right before the effects kick in.

All of a sudden, in the middle of my meditation, my mind was thrown back to all those painful episodes of bullying, but I was reliving them through the perspective of my friends. Oddly, I felt a genuine sense of love as I Imagined them bullying me. I saw that it was their clunky, inept way of telling me that I was a little dorky and they were concerned about me. But, because guys, especially teenage boys, have difficulty expressing their feelings, they teased me instead of just telling me outright.

I went back to the event, walked right up to one of the people who bullied me, and expressed a heartfelt thanks for their friendship, even though I was so weird as a kid. He gave me a great big hug.

Since that day, most of the emotional scarring around my memories as a kid are gone — replaced by a warm sense of belonging.

And, MDMA isn’t just limited to healing my personal issues. Professionally, MDMA has dramatically altered how I talk about my work.

I used to be terrified of expressing how optimistic I am about the future, for fear that I’d be pegged as naive; instead, I self-censored, becoming a sarcastic and angry writer.

On MDMA at conferences, all of sudden, I heard myself blurting out the kind of optimistic ideas I’d secretly held. To my amazement, the ideas were received quite well and the subsequent writing has become among the most highly cited of my career.

It’s remarkable how much deeper my connections are, even business connections, when I lead with joy and empathy.

What’s Psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) like?

[Dried mushroom. Image Credit: Flickr user waqas anees]

Maybe more than most psychedelics, the active drug in “magic mushrooms”, Psilocybin, triggers a set of experiences that is….varied…to say the least. My first trip at a festival was mostly colorful visuals: the world morphed and bled in both disturbing and beautiful ways. It was fun.

Then, I was taught how to harness the cordycep for therapeutic use, starting my trips with music, ceremony and contemplative meditation. Therapeutically, Psilocybin is like a giant antenna, making me hyper aware of social emotions such as loneliness and gratitude.

On Mushrooms, everything withheld in a conversation feels like so much more of a lie. I want people to express themselves with uninhibited, but respectful passion. I want to feel the emotions behind every argument, request, or or idea. I don’t want some to just tell me they moved up to San Francisco to work in tech, but express the hopes and dreams that compelled them to uproot their lives. It’s much richer information about them.

On larger doses of Mushrooms, I often close my eyes while talking to people, so I can hear every quiver and inflection in their voice. I’ll know when they’re withholding from me.

So, at one conference I took a gram, or about ½ of a recreational dose, of dried mushrooms and headed toward the room where I was moderating a panel discussion. Normally, when I stumble upon random conversations at conferences, I silently judge someone’s idea without offering what I really think, because I’m just there to see who agrees with me and exchange business cards.

Mushrooms, needless to say, change things. I happened upon one conversation about technology and after listening intently to this person’s argument, I slammed the table with my hand lightly and said “bullshit!” with a playful grin. I proceeded to pour out my counterargument with uninhibited enthusiasm and banter. The table erupted in laughter and my new friend remarked that it was best conversation he had had all conference.

Mushrooms have taught me that the very emotions I used to view as a weakness in business, especially loneliness, are strengths.

These emotions animate me to need and appreciate the people in my life. Without them, I’d have to do so much more on my own — and I wouldn’t be compelled to seek others or elicit their unrestrained ideas.

Mushrooms are an extraordinary tool for bonding and honesty.

What’s Ayahuasca like?

[Pre-boiled Ayahuasca tea. Image Credit: Wikimedia user Heah]

Ayahuasca gave me perhaps the most profound experience of my life — a sentiment I hear echoed again and again. It’s a south American mix of plants, served as a thick tea, that triggers intense daydream-like flashes of insight over a ~3 hour period.

The sensation of Ayahuasca is a mixed bag; when my eyes are open, I see translucent fractal-like patterns cover everything; eyes closed, these patterns morph into a human or creature-like avatar that is motivated to pull me on a train of thought that it thinks I should take — like it or not.

Physical bouts of cold, sweating and vomiting come in waves. It is in the depth of the most uncomfortable periods that the greatest insights arise. The anticipation of each coming contraction is a love-hate relationship.

The active drug, Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), is known as an “entheogen”, which means it triggers, for many people, deeply spiritual experiences. For me, as someone who is more humanist than religious, it was a marathon meditation on the purpose of life and the nature of reality, weaved into how this new way of looking at life re-imagines the way I think about my family, friends, business and morality.

Ayahuasca kind of feels like a visual filter on life. Just like infrared goggles let us see a previously unobservable spectrum of light that normally surrounds us, Ayahuasca is like augmented reality for the interdependence of all things. Thoughts about people, stories from history or emotions instantly became part of an interconnected narrative; all of life made sense as part of one big interwoven timeline — all with a mutual purpose.

At the same time, I felt an extraordinary sense of agency over my future and its possibilities.

For me and others that I’ve done Ayahuasca with, they describe this sense of agency and interdependence as a way to repair past relationships, unencumbered by fears and conventions that prevented them from expressing their gratitude for how deeply important the person is to them.

On the business side of things, since these insights, I’ve spent less energy worrying about the approval of “influencers” or other fancy people I used to beg for attention; I’ve instead focused building my own community. If my ideas are to be successful, it’s because the example of our lives is inspiring, not because I convinced some fancy person to like me.

The shamans who administer the ceremonies often train an amount of time equal to a PhD. They can spend months on-end in the jungle taking the plant almost every day (of varying doses).

More recently, it’s become so popular, commercial touring agencies take entrepreneurs into the jungle on extended retreats and imbibe ayahuasca a few times, interspersed with carefully planned daytime note-taking and sharing circles to help everyone unpack the firehose of insight they drank from the nights before.

But, perhaps, all of this can be explained in a much simpler way: ayahuasca taught me how to better meditate.

It taught me to silence the constant judgmentalism of my subvocal thoughts and listen to everything around me.

Indeed, recent experimental research of participants scanned and surveyed after ingesting Ayahuasca finds increased neurological activity associated with mindfulness, or, as the researchers phrase it, a “reduction in judgmental processing of experiences and in inner reactivity”.

It’s amazing how much insight I can gain when I just listen.

Aren’t psychedelics an “escape”?

For me, psychedelics are very much the opposite of an escape from reality. I’m forced to wrestle with ideas and emotions in a super intense way for hours at a time.

“Psilocybin-assisted therapy might mitigate depression by increasing emotional connection,” explained researcher Leor Roseman from Imperial College London, on a new study of how psychedelics treat mental illness through the exact opposite effect of antidepressants and other types of drugs

“[T]his is unlike SSRI antidepressants which are criticised for creating in many people a general emotional blunting.”

Psychedelics are completely different than other drugs, like alcohol or opioids. They feel much more like work than recreation (though, the experience, for the most part, is pretty enjoyable).

If this gives readers pause about psychedelics, it should. I don’t advocate for the use or legalization of psychedelics without the guidance of a trained professional.

Why can’t you work on your issues without drugs?

For me, the goal of using psychedelics is to never need them again.

Let me give a personal analogy. I suffer from pretty bad attention deficit. As a 20-something, I tried everything to learn to focus. I tried meditation, counseling and coffee…they all failed. Then, I finally broke down and used a prescription ADD medication to the help with the problem.

My first use of the prescription was eye-opening: it was the first time I felt what it was like to concentrate for an extended period of time. For years, I got nothing out of meditation because I didn’t realize that “concentration” was a calm, focused feeling.

Now, I no longer need a prescription for my ADD and can meditate through my issue, because I know what kind of mental state I need to direct my mind towards.

Psychedelics are the same way: they opened me up to experiences I never knew I wanted and to ways of behaving I never thought could be beneficial. Eventually, like ADD meds, I hope to learn enough to never need them again.

Do you worry about “bad” trips?

Not anymore. Fear of a bad trip was one of the main reasons I waited so long. I have a (very) vivid imagination and my thoughts are often consumed by flashes of violent, grotesque or heart-wrenching images.

I didn’t realize how much control I’d have over these mental images, even on large doses. Challenging thoughts definitely came up, but I was able to tackle them much better.

Now, I often hope for challenging trips — the insights are so much more useful.

Is all this really worth legalizing more drugs?

Mental illness is a terrible epidemic and it has taken a greater toll on my loved ones than I care to detail. Suffice to say I’m not just advocating for me or well-off people like me, but because I’m furious that the best possible treatments for mental illness are unavailable to the ones I care about.

Beyond that, I think compassion and empathy are socially beneficial. I think psychedelics, even if only in a small way, can make a better world.

Can you recommend readings?

What’s next for you?

I’m committed to helping people talk about their use. Especially if you work in the tech industry, email me greg @ greg ferenstein [dot] com. I’ll help you compose a blog or (maybe) do an interview with you.

Beyond this, I’m going explore the policy implications of psychedelics and how they can impact issues related to healthcare costs, unemployment and political conflict resolution. I think any ambitious claims about the potential impacts should be made after careful, social scientific research.

*Some minor story details have been changed for legal purposes. Just because a location is mentioned, does not mean I took psychedelics there.