The Psychedelics of Electricity

Marshall McLuhan at the 67 Perception LSD Conference at the University of Toronto (The Star)

John Fraim

 

Media guru Marshall McLuhan met LSD evangelist Timothy Leary for the first time in 1966 at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Leary was in town to testify at the U.S. Senate Hearings on psychedelic drugs. The two hit it off and seemed to understand each other in that special way  fellow travelers in life do. Both were at the height of their fame.

The psychedelic drug LSD had become a symbol for the counterculture of the 60s. However, by the later-60s, things had reached a crisis in the minds of many lawmakers. Leary, the former Harvard professor who had “turned on” and “dropped” out, was the leader of the movement to bring LSD into popular culture.

After meeting McLuhan, Leary commented there was no need to turn on McLuhan to LSD since the professor already got high on the yoga of his art form: talk. Leary said of McLuhan, “He talks in circles, and spirals, and flower forms and mandala forms.” And, McLuhan offered advice to Leary like a marketing consultant might offer advice to a client. He urged Leary to promote LSD the way advertisers promote a product using slogan like “The new and improved accelerated brain.” McLuhan advised Leary to “associate LSD with all that the brain can produce – beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance.” But above all, he should stress the religious aspect. “Find the god within.” He encouraged Leary to come up with a winning jingle or catch-phrase along the lines of: “Lysergic Acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that’s a lot.”

McLuhan told Leary to “always smile” and radiate confidence, never appear angry. He predicted that while Leary would “lose some major battles on the way,” he would eventually win the war. “Drugs that accelerate the brain won’t be accepted until the population is geared to computers.”

Not long after their initial meeting, they both attended the Perception 67 LSD Convention in February 1967 at the University of Toronto. At the conference, they were joined by beat celebrities like Allen Ginsberg and 2,000 students from the University of Toronto. McLuhan attended the conference with his wife Corinne and wore a psychedelic “third eye” for most of the time. The conference ended with an ear-thrashing courtesy of a hairy, psychedelic rock collective from New York called The Fugs.

* * *

In many ways, the Perception 67 LSD Convention marked the end of the first era of LSD. It had been an interesting thirty-year-run for the drug since it was first synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938 while researching lysergic acid derivatives. (An excellent story of this is told in the book Mystic Chemist). By the mid-1960s the backlash against the use of LSD and its perceived corrosive effects on the values of the Western middle class resulted in governmental action to restrict the availability of the drug by making any use of it illegal. In the 1970 Controlled Substance Act, LSD was declared a “Schedule I” substance with a “high potential for abuse” and was without any “currently accepted medical use in treatment.” It was removed from legal circulation.

Besides the government crack-down on LSD use, the culture was turning from away from the psychedelic hippie culture of the 60s. The devastating war in Vietnam was coming to an end and youth culture was interested in dancing to disco music like “YMCA” from The Village People or “Stayin’ Alive” from The Bee Gees rather than protesting war and dropping out. And too, cocaine and marijuana had replaced LSD as the drugs of choice for the new decade.

But the major signal for the end of LSD’s first era was the incarceration of Tim Leary at California’s Folsom Prison in 1973. Officially, Leary was facing a life sentence for cannabis possession and escape. But unofficially, he was jailed for his psychedelic drug research and for broadcasting widely, as McLuhan had suggested, the benefits of LSD.

Tim Leary in Folsom Prison 1974

At this time, the radical leftist Michael Horowitz had become the archivist for Tim Leary. As Horowitz notes, in the spring of 1974, he was engaged in gathering “texts from notable writers, scientists, and cultural figures in support of Leary.” According to Horowitz, this was part of “The Plan” which was hatched a year earlier with Leary during a prison visit. The Plan was to publish “a festschrift” of a collection of essays written in honor of a scholar by his peers in order to bring attention to his achievements, his draconian treatment by the law enforcement arm of the U. S. government, and his current plight. In the days before internet petitions, one hoped to kickstart a movement that would grow into protest rallies, bring media attention to the injustice of jailing a philosopher for expressing his thoughts in public, and eventually freeing Leary from prison.

Horowitz notes that tributes were solicited from the “usual suspects.” These included the Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, and Ken Kesey. Tributes were also solicited from the psychedelic luminaries like Alan Watts, Ralph Metzner, Laura Huxley and Anais Nin. Most importantly, writes Horowitz, the American PEN Club, headed by Arthur Miller.

On one of his visits with the incarcerated Leary, he told Horowitz “Be sure to contact Marshall McLuhan. We’ve had some friendly interactions over the years.” Leary added, “He’s also the most intelligent man on the planet. I’m sure he’ll give us something to use.”

* * *

McLuhan responded to a request from Horowitz with the very interesting 1974 letter in support of Leary’s work. Rather than simply praising Leary as a visionary of psychedelics, he related Leary to electronic technology suggesting he might be the “Homer of the electric age.” He went on to observe that “Electric technology, by virtue of its immediate relation to our nervous system, is itself a sort of inner trip, with drugs playing the role of sub-plot or alternative mode. It may well appear a few years hence that the panic about psychedelic drugs relates less to the chemistry than to the hidden terrors which people feel in the presence of electric technology.”

McLuhan’s 1974 Letter to Michael Horowitz

The connection between electric technology and psychedelics was a fascinating idea. It even suggested a new extension an application of McLuhan’s theories about media. However, it was never really explored by McLuhan during the remaining few years of his life. Other things got in the way. In 1975, the University of Dallas hosted him for a few months in their McDermott Chair. There were a number of lesser-known 1976 articles such as Inside on the Outside, The Violence of the Media, Seminar on Myth and Media and Misunderstanding Media Laws. His last published works were in 1977 in City as Classroom and Laws of Media. But Corinne and Marshall had a large family of six children and the costs of raising a large family eventually drove him to advertising, consulting and speaking engagements with large corporations such as IBM and AT&T. In September 1979, McLuhan suffered a stroke which affected his ability to speak. McLuhan never fully recovered from the stroke and died in his sleep on December 31, 1980.

Leary was not one to pursue the connection between electricity and psychedelics after McLuhan’s death. Released from prison in 1976 by Governor Jerry Brown, he moved to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles and for the next decade he toured on the lecture circuit debating a range of issues that generated considerable funds for himself. He continued to take drugs in private but stayed away from proselytizing psychedelics. Instead, he preached about space colonization and extension of the human lifespan. Leary did become fascinated with computers and the emerging the internet and virtual reality. His main acknowledgement of the connection of psychedelics and electricity was his proclamation that “the PC is the LSD of the 1990s” admonishing bohemians to “turn on, boot up, jack in.” He died in 1996.

* * *

Brand LSD continued to move further into the background of culture during the 80s, 90s and the early years of the new century. LSD did hang around the fringes of culture in the punk music and gothic subculture of 1980s dance clubs and the acid house and rave subculture of the 90s. But it was far from the cultural icon it had been in the 60s. It was difficult to shake its association with the faded counterculture of the 60s and the horror stories of overdoes and “bad trips.” The 1970 Controlled Substances Act, signed by President Nixon, had created the Drug Enforcement Agency that listed LSD as a Schedule I narcotic having “no accepted medical use” and “a high potential for abuse.”

With the War on Drugs declared, funding for LSD research dried up and acid was driven deeper underground. A few rogue psychiatrists continued to treat patients with LSD, but they did so quietly and couldn’t publish the results of their practice. By the end of the 20th century, there were few authorized researchers left, and their efforts were mostly directed towards establishing approved protocols for further work with LSD in easing the suffering of the dying and with drug addicts and alcoholics.

Perhaps the major positive thing that happened with LSD in the 80s was the founding of the non-profit research organization MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) in 1986 to revive the rigorous scientific study of psychedelics. Rick Doblin created MAPS in direct response to the criminalization of MDMA (the active ingredient in Ecstasy), which he believed held tremendous potential as a therapeutic agent. The mission of MAPS was to combat the War on Drugs by proving that Schedule I drugs like LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and MDMA had legitimate medical uses. While MAPS was an important step forward in LSD research, its work was still far from mainstream through the 90s and into the early years of the new century.

* * *

As LSD research and use went more underground, electricity became a more pervasive medium of modern life. Yet, as McLuhan noted, mediums operate almost invisibly making them difficult to observe and study. While mankind became good at harnessing the power of electricity, little research was done on the effects of electricity on humans. There was the disturbing quote in 1918 from Vladimire Lenin who said, “Electricity will take the place of God. Let the peasant pray to electricity: he’s going to feel the power of the central authorities more than heaven.” But what did this really mean?

An interest in the relationship between electricity and humans began to surface in the 80s with the publication of the book The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life (1985). Written by Robert Becker, M.D. and Gary Selden, the book told the story of the individual’s bioelectric selves. Becker was a pioneer in the field of regeneration and its relationship to electrical currents in living things. His ideas challenged the established mechanistic understanding of the body and argued for a return to the long-discarded theory that electricity is vital to life.

While there has been a recent interest in electricity and human life, ironically, the greatest amount of research in this area was in the early years of electricity in the late 18th century. An excellent discussion of these early years of electricity are contained in the book The Invisible Rainbow: A History of Electricity and Life (2020) by Arthur Firstenberg. The book traces the history of electricity from the early eighteenth century to the present from the point of view of the physician, the physicist, and the average person in the street. It makes a compelling case that many environmental problems, as well as the major diseases of industrialized civilization – heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – are related to electrical pollution.

The Invisible Rainbow by Arthur Firstenberg

As Firstenberg says in the Introduction to the book, “We live today with a number of devastating diseases that do not belong here, whose origin we do not know, whose presence we take for granted and no longer question. What it feels like to be without them is a state of vitality that we have completely forgotten. These are the diseases of civilization, that we have also inflicted on our animal and plant neighbors, diseases that we live with because of a refusal to recognize the force that we have harnessed for what it is. The 6o-cycle current in our house wiring, the ultrasonic frequencies in our computers, the radio waves in our televisions, the microwaves in our cell phones, these are only distortions of the invisible rainbow that runs through our veins and makes us alive. But we have forgotten. It is time that we remember.”

* * *

As persuasive as these arguments might be, there is still much conspiracy theory attached to the idea of connecting modern diseases with electricity. But then Marshall McLuhan was not primarily concerned with the connection between electricity and the body but rather electricity and the modern perceptions. McLuhan actually explored this connection in the 60s long before his 1974 letter to Horowitz. It was contained in his idea that electricity was creating a “global village.” The term  described how humans are increasingly connected by electric technologies eliminating the effects of space and time and making the globe one interconnected, metaphorical “village.” In this global village was a simultaneous daily production and consumption of media, images and content by global audiences. He popularized the concept in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964).

While concept of the global village was developed by McLuhan in the 60s, it was not until 1989, nine years after his death, that his ideas on the global village were collected and given more structure in the posthumous book The Global Village co-authored by Bruce R. Powers. The book showed a detailed conceptual framework in terms of which technological advances might be understood. At the heart of the ideas in The Global Village is contemporary culture is caught between two different ways of perceiving the world. On the one hand, there is the Visual Space, linear, quantitative mode of perception characteristic of the Western world. On the other hand, there is Acoustic Space, holistic, qualitative perception characteristic of the East. McLuhan observes old technologies like print preserve Visual Space while new technologies like the electricity of Acoustic Space destroy Visual Space. The authors warn that movement of Visual Space might not go smoothly as it bumps against the Acoustic Space of the global village.

It is curious, but not serendipitous, that McLuhan’s idea of the global village found a counterpart in the emerging philosophy of postmodernism overtaking modernism in his last years. The new mix of global eclectic elements was observed by one of the leaders of postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition. As Lyotard noted, “Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and ‘retro’ clothes in Hong Kong.” In many ways, postmodernism was an attempt to define the condition of living in this new global village of Acoustic Space.

* * *

Many feel the turning point on the path back into cultural popularity for LSD came in 2006 with an influential article published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology by Roland Griffiths, a respected researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The research showed that a single dose of psilocybin can trigger “mystical experiences” that have a lasting positive psychological effect. The Griffiths article was the product of a years-long effort among psychedelics advocates to cultivate relationships with mainstream researchers. The conclusion of the article was that when administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. The ability to occasion such experiences prospectively will allow rigorous scientific investigations of their causes and consequences.

It began to shift the scientific and cultural conversation around LSD. It also helped that an estimated 26 million Americans, mostly well-educated, had experimented with psychedelics since their criminalization with no ill effects.Griffiths paper laid the foundation for a number of groundbreaking psychedelics studies, including a study out of New York University that tested psilocybin on terminally ill patients experiencing acute anxiety about death. Again, a single psychedelic experience, guided by trained therapists, was enough to significantly improve the patient’s end-of-life outlook, freeing them to reap the most joy from their remaining time. Other recent studies have confirmed 1950s-era research that psychedelics can help smokers and alcoholics kick the addiction.

By 2015, the use of LSD had returned into the mainstream of culture not through research but rather a trend called microdosing by professionals in places like Silicon Valley. The trend was related to a popular article in the November20, 2015 issue of Rolling Stone titled “How LSD Microdosing Became the Hot New Business Trip.” LSD was now a tool to combine with work rather than drop out altogether. A key book that highlighted the resurgence of LSD was the 2018 bestselling book How to Change Your Mind by the best-selling food writer Michael Pollan. His research involved a participatory journalism where Pollan went on LSD trips under supervision. He discovered how LSD was improving the lives not only of the mentally ill but also of healthy people coming to grips with the challenges of everyday life. In October of 2019, the Food and Drug Administration took the extraordinary step of granting psilocybin therapy for depression a “breakthrough therapy” designation. This means that the treatment has demonstrated such potential that the FDA has decided to expedite its development and review process. In August of 2020, the popular news program 60 Minutes devoted half their program to the rising use of LSD.

* * *

In 2014, an article was published in the British Journal of the Royal Society Interface with the tongue-twisting title “Homological Scaffolds of Brain Functional Networks.” Since then, it has become one of the journals most downloaded papers. Written by seven researchers in extremely technical language, it used the application of network analysis to neuroimaging data. This has proven a significant paradigm shift from the study of individual brain regions in isolation.

Basically, the article viewed the brain from the perspective of complex networks and the growing science of neuroimaging. Rather than study complex networks through their statistical properties, the report studied brain networks by focusing on the features of a set of topological objects to define homological scaffolds. As one of the authors of the research Dr. Giovanni Petri notes, the work resulted in some fancy 3D visualizations about the shape of the functional connections of the brain network. This carried important and novel information about the mode of information processing in the brain.

“In particular,” Petri says, “we adopted a technique from algebraic topology called persistent homology, which is able to characterise the shape of data in arbitrary dimensions. Using this representation, we found that altered states of consciousness induced by psilocybin – and likely, other psychedelics – stem from very different patterns of information integration with respect to the normal state.” As the article abstract stated, “The results showed that the homological structure of the brain’s functional patterns undergoes a dramatic change post-psilocybin, characterized by the appearance of many transient structures of low stability and of a small number of persistent ones that are not observed in the case of placebo.”

There were many charts and graphs in the study but the most well-known is presented in two 3D spheres. The spheres were featured on the segment of 60 Minutes in 2020. The spheres represented what Dr. Petri referred to as “persistent homology” and mapped connections between main parts of the brain on the outside of the spheres. The two spheres are presented below. The (a) sphere on the left represents a brain on a placebo while the (b) sphere on the right represents a brain on psilocybin.

Homological Scaffolds of Brain Functional Networks

One might think of the two images as representing globes. The main functions of the brain are represented by congregations of colored dots on the surface of the globes. Between these brain functions run colored lines connecting to other functions. The obvious observation is that the globe on the left has fewer connections between functions than the globe on the right.

* * *

While the science of neuroimaging is offering unique, groundbreaking insights into the dynamics of the human brain, might the spheres also offer insights into Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about media and the clash between Visual Space and Acoustic Space? In effect, might the globe on the left represent the old linear print technology of Visual Space and the globe on the right the new non-linear electric technology of Acoustic Space? Might the globe on the right offer an internal metaphor for McLuhan’s global village? As Jean-François Lyotard might say, the postmodern brain.

The congregations of colored dots on the surfaces of the globes might also represent the major fields of knowledge. On the left globe, knowledge fields have less connection with each other than on the right globe. This represents the increasing specialization of academic subjects in a linear, Darwinian scheme of evolution into greater differentiation. In effect, more and more is known about smaller and smaller subjects. In terms of McLuhan’s famous axiom “the medium is the message,” messages within the medium become smaller and smaller.

Is it possible that connections between knowledge functions of the brain – as well as fields of human knowledge – is needed more than discovery of new knowledge? And, is it also possible that more research into LSD and electricity might offer a way forward to these connections? McLuhan is considered the great prophet of media. But someday he might also be considered the great connector between the media of electricity and LSD. One day we might understand the media of electricity and Acoustic Space better by approaching it from a psychedelic perspective. And too, we might understand LSD better by approaching it from a media perspective of electricity. 

(John Fraim has a BA from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School. He is President of Midnight Oil Studios at https://midnightoilstudios.org where he blogs on a regular basis)

 

 

 

 

 

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