In mid-'60s LSD research study, dosed scientists achieved creative breakthroughs

Illustration: Jonathan Castro, for The Heretic

A wonderful long-read at The Morning News by Tim Doody, on 1966 LSD studies that took place as the US government's position on acid research shifted from "sure, go ahead, scientists" to "nope, this is now banned." The series of tests described in the article took place at the International Foundation for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park, CA. Scientists from Stanford, Hewlett-Packard, and elsewhere participated. The volunteers each brought "three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months." They took "a relatively low dose of acid," 100 micrograms, to enhance their creativity.


Over the course of the preceding year, IFAS researchers had dosed a total of 22 other men for the creativity study, including a theoretical mathematician, an electronics engineer, a furniture designer, and a commercial artist. By including only those whose jobs involved the hard sciences (the lack of a single female participant says much about mid-century career options for women), they sought to examine the effects of LSD on both visionary and analytical thinking. Such a group offered an additional bonus: Anything they produced during the study would be subsequently scrutinized by departmental chairs, zoning boards, review panels, corporate clients, and the like, thus providing a real-world, unbiased yardstick for their results.

In surveys administered shortly after their LSD-enhanced creativity sessions, the study volunteers, some of the best and brightest in their fields, sounded like tripped-out neopagans at a backwoods gathering. Their minds, they said, had blossomed and contracted with the universe. They’d beheld irregular but clean geometrical patterns glistening into infinity, felt a rightness before solutions manifested, and even shapeshifted into relevant formulas, concepts, and raw materials.

[The volunteers] remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. But here’s the clincher. After their 5HT2A neural receptors simmered down, they remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. And the establishment agreed. The 26 men unleashed a slew of widely embraced innovations shortly after their LSD experiences, including a mathematical theorem for NOR gate circuits, a conceptual model of a photon, a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device, a new design for the vibratory microtome, a technical improvement of the magnetic tape recorder, blueprints for a private residency and an arts-and-crafts shopping plaza, and a space probe experiment designed to measure solar properties. Fadiman and his colleagues published these jaw-dropping results and closed shop.

Do read the rest. (thanks, Miles O'Brien!)


  1. Good Heavens! They were Brain Doping! Surely they should be banned from their respective fields immediately, and all credit for their inventions nullified, in the sacred spirit of fair play or something…

    1. I expect patent trolls to try and seize the rights to their inovations.

      Because, if a SCIENTIST takes acid, then that taints the results, even if they work. But if a CAPITALIST profits from them, then there’s NO MORE TAINT !

  2. Many believe that our minds already have the ability to tap into this creativity, and the LSD is only opening the doors. The whole trick is in how to get there without the substance.
    Seems as though creativity and productivity are at odds with each other in this country. We (most of us) are taught to “color within the solid lines and cut on the dotted lines”, and that art class is from 1:15 to 2:05 on Tuesdays and Thursdays (if you are lucky).Sent from my 10’x10′ Beige Cube

    1. I was thinking along similar lines to your comment. The ideas came from within the participants’ own heads, the ideas were all theirs. How did the LSD work for their creativity? Did it “open something up” within the mind or did it act as an inhibition inhibitor, for lack of a better term?

      1. Ideas aren’t really “things” that “exist” “inside people’s heads.”  That’s the content theory of knowledge and it’s been pretty soundly debunked.  Thoughts and ideas are patterns.  Your normal mode of consciousness is dominated by certain patterns; LSD subdues those normal patterns by which your brain organizes information and one result is that other, weirder, patterns are able to form that otherwise couldn’t.

        I’m actually skeptical that meditation can actually reproduce the effects of LSD, although it certainly can reproduce certain aspects of them. 

        1. It is semiotic drift which prevents us from seeing certain patterns clearly. Ideas (or the illusion of ideas) result from drift. Acid and meditation can each go some way in overcoming drift (in Eastern philosophical systems to ‘still the mind’) but can never quite overcome them. All societies develop means of trying to overcome drift to find clearer patterns (some more successful than others). It is not drift which creates God and religion but the dichotomy between drift and the possibility of its evolutionary total suppression both for any one individual and for society.
          The problem now is that our language has become essentially ideological.

          1. I kind of feel you are saying something which is close to the truth, and wish you could explore more on what is this drift and how to deal with it.

        2. I’m really curious about meditation vs LSD. Ajahn Brahm is one of the leading proponents of reaching the “jhana” (deep meditation where you are not conscious of your body) stages of meditation, the stage where you are able to actually ask questions to yourself and receive revealing answers.

          1. In China they have a concoction with E, K and other stuff. Seems to elevate consciousness and really expand your mind. Like watching a dozen IMAX screens at once.

    2. I don’t fully understand this comment: “The whole trick is in how to get there without the substance.”

      Why is that the whole trick? Why does the path matter? Is it really that different to trigger these chemicals manually by performing yoga or practicing tantra, by spinning yourself into another mindset (Sufi whirling), or by performing some sort of magickal ritual to the HGA?

      1. I agree with you! But my point was that as a whole society, these practices are not what is being taught. Instead, the ideas you propose can include large life style changes (mind altering epiphanies typically don’t just happen after your first yoga practice), while at the same time people still need to pay bills, pick up the kids from soccer practice, work late on that 3rd quarter project, and figure out what color to paint their wall to match their new couch.

        Instead, we are a quick fix pill popping society. Getting back to the task at hand is valued much more in our society, rather than taking a spiritual and mental journey towards enlightenment.

        1. I don’t think that we’re a quick-fix pill-popping society nearly as much as is popularly believed.  If we were, our available medications wouldn’t boil down to alleviating serious/significant problems that aren’t resolving on their own; we’d have “supplements” for creativity or other positive things readily available, and few people would judge others (as you just did) for seeking help when it’s needed.

          My experience has been that the tendency in our society is instead for people to assume that non-visible problems they haven’t had aren’t a big deal, and that folks with them just aren’t trying hard enough.  It’s seemingly very hard for most people to believe or empathize with anyone that says they truly need pills as other approaches didn’t or wouldn’t work..

          1. I kind of like vonbobo’s line of questioning about alternatives to taking LSD to achieve the same effect.

            Right now my hypothesis is that the most viable alternative is meditation to the jhana states, which.. as vonbobo suggests, probably needs some lifestyle changes to achieve.

        2. Yeah. I used to live in a Zen Buddhist temple and after much effort I began to see some of the things that LSD had already shown me. I treasure that experience, but was it so much more beneficial than the LSD? Not really. Your position seems to be that using airplanes to travel takes away some of the benefits of walking. Which is true, but who cares? 

  3. This just in: there is apparently a link between acid and change in perceptions.

    That said, this article is pretty dope, no pun intended.

  4. Quite often I find myself having cognitive problems, which I resolve by inducing a state in which I hallucinate.  After I recover from this state, I generally find my cognitive function to be significantly improved.

    The technique I utilize is something I call “sleeping.”

    If that approach works, and I don’t think anyone can argue that it doesn’t, why couldn’t LSD have similar effects?

  5. Sigh. These days, 100 mcg seems to be “the standard dose” instead of “a low dose”.  Or so they say, because nobody I’ve talked to actually seems to know what they’re selling.

  6. The story is told of a US Army general who, while on these LSD studies, lay on the floor saying “wow” over and over again, while visualizing nuclear war scenarios against the USSR.

  7. Brilliant piece, thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.  As luck would have it, I JUST finished reading Fadiman’s stellar book.  So, not only was this a great piece, but a fantastic refresher.

  8. 100µg isn’t tripping balls-out, but it’s hardly the kind of threshold dose someone might take just to make their day a little more interesting.
    Anyway, I’d caution that one important element in getting something useful out of a brain ferment like this is having the discipline to examine your ideas critically afterwards. These test subjects were engineers and apparently were able to sort through their experiences in a really productive way. Some people I’ve known who dropped a lot of acid ended up with a lot of strange ideas that they apparently didn’t have much ability to winnow.

    1.  Having a controlled environment and a guide is increasingly looking like a foundation stone of a good trip

  9. If you are willing to plug through some of the more obscure AA literature, you will find that Bill Wilson thought that LSD seemed like a good possible treatment for alcoholics. Studies were being done back then and they are only just now resuming.

    1. Hmmm…perhaps, but in a very controlled environment. I am an alcoholic and while in the deep depths of the lying/stealing/anything it took to continue my destructive behavior phase while in college, I dosed and the underlying guilt took me into a very bad, paranoic trip. 

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