The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Bruce Damer. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Bruce Damer. He’s the chief scientist of the BIOTA Institute, and he’s a research associate molecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz. And he’s an astrobiologist, working on the science of life’s origins and the future for sustainable paths for humanity. You can find that and a lot more about Bruce and his work at biota, that’s B-I-O-T-A, .org.
Bruce: Thank you, Jim. Good to be back.
Jim: Yeah. We had Bruce back on twice, at EP 167 and EP 171, on part one, part two on our discussions about the origins of life. And I have had a tremendous amount of good comments about those two episodes. So people interested in learning more about the origins of life, you can hear Bruce’s rather deep theories in EP 167 and 171.
Today, we’re going to though talk about something and almost entirely different, and that is, I’m going to quote the title of a talk that Bruce gave, sums it up pretty well, Tapping Into Genius: Psychedelics as Tools for Scientific Discovery. That should be cool. Let’s start off with the easy one. What is genius?
Bruce: Yeah. What is genius? It’s from a Latin term, meaning to beget or to create, and it was sort of thought that it was something either you were born with, or, in the Middle Ages, it was thought that it was a spirit that rested on your shoulder and whispered into your ear. Dick Hartz supposedly had an angel sitting on his shoulder, talking about, you must approach the world with measure and numbers. So he came up with, well, the Cartesian system of graphs and plots.
Jim: Yeah, of course, that goes way back to the Greek muses, and various religious founders claimed that they were talked to by Moroni the angel or Gabriel. Who was one that gave the Koran to Muhammad? So yeah, this goes back a long way in human history, the idea that maybe it’s a spirit talking to you.
Bruce: And if you go all the way up to the Renaissance, where you really see the flowering of genius, at least that we know about. Although I would put it to you that the dude, if there were dudes back a million years ago, who was sparking, who was making a hand ax in Africa and had a piece of flint, was actually chopping off a piece of flint, noticing sparks flying, and then realizing that those sparks were like little fires in the air, and scattered the sparks onto some dried straw or twigs or something, and created fire on the earth, and then figured out how to make it all transportable like, “Oh, this is a way we make fire and we can carry it with us, and we can basically settle the earth now and our brains will develop because we can cook this tough to eat bison and stuff like that,” I would suggest that that was a spark of genius or flash of genius back a million years ago.
That person put it together, put all those disparate thoughts together in a kind of what you call a free association storm that Dean Simonton characterized in his writing about genius, and that you then have to produce something that actually lands on the earth, the campfire, the cooking fire, the hearth, and you have to then propagate it, so geniuses recognized by its products. And so we see Leonardo da Vinci, and we see Albert Einstein and all these scientific artistic geniuses, they’re just very productive. So they turn their stuff not into stories, maybe religious geniuses turning downloads or flashes of insight into stories or allegories, but the scientific, technical and leadership genius cranks out stuff we can use.
Jim: Yeah. Though I would also say, when I’ve thought about this a little bit over the years, that the thing that marks out the higher geniuses at least, is that they made a bigger leap than you would think was possible. The amazing year of Einstein’s four great discoveries, how the hell did he do that, right? It does not follow straightforwardly from even high-powered rational thinking. Rational thinking only gets you prepared. It provides a framework. But then the real geniuses sail off into the void, out of sight of land or something like that, to mangle a few metaphors, and find something on the other side that doesn’t violate any strong rational basis, often resolves some anomalies like famously Einstein did, but then finds a whole new territory, which is pretty amazing.
Bruce: And, Jim, in your observation about Einstein, there are a couple of clues of the building blocks of genius. One was that he went into a void. He called these his thought experiments, Gedanken experiments, and that he was taken over and entered a world. In one case, he was riding, or running or riding his bicycle alongside a beam of light. And that led to special relativity. In another, there was a man or Einstein was floating in an elevator in free fall. And then the elevators transposed to space and slowed down so that his feet was on the ground, or actually accelerated in space and he realized that acceleration was the same as gravity, and that led to general relativity. And he described that reverie as giving him the happiest thought of his life.
So what I’ve come up with is a kind of a framework to describe those, or at least a term, I call it endo tripping for endogenously sourced, almost psychedelic experiences, which have happened to me since I was a little kid. Endo tripping. Exo tripping would be if you take something, a stimulus from outside, including things like breath work that changed neurochemistry actually, so it’s kind of an exogenous introduction. So it’s perhaps the artful winding of endo and exo that can really fuel genius, and that Einstein was an endo tripper.
And the second thing that you brought up from Einstein’s experience was the set in setting, but also the setup. So the set in setting was, he would have these experiences in places he liked. He’d be riding his bike. He’d be hiking. He’d be at a cafe in Switzerland or something like that. He’d be in conversation, or late at night at the patent office, doing patent reviews. He had this set and the setting and this setting was good for him. The set was that he was working on these problems. But he had also something called the setup, which was that he had loaded his mind with all of the relevant starting materials that were fact-based. They were known to science, and then all the good questions. So the setup allowed him to have that download, have that endo trip, which he could then land as part of the setup in language in those four publications. And I think it was 1904 or 1905, his miracle year.
Jim: Yeah, ’05, I think. Yeah. Yeah. Quite amazing. Yeah. Let’s talk about that setup a little bit. This is something that’s kind of quite contemporary issue because there’s a school of thought and education that you don’t actually need to know anything. But with Google there, the ability to spot up a Python script, to do something in hell now with GPT-4 to ask for a summary of anything you want, no point in filling your brain up with stuff. I feel that is really, really dangerous, and that’s the road to grotesque mediocrity because, as you say, the setup…
I mean, I got to think, I am no genius. I’m a pretty smart guy, but no genius. I know some geniuses so I know the difference. But the very good creative work that I’ve done in my life have all come from sometimes months of accumulating thinking and knowledge and facts and their relationships. And then finally, you get that gestalt, that breakthrough, that enlightenment that just comes in a flash. And for me, it often comes in the morning after I have been stymied that late afternoon or early evening, go to sleep with my setup, I love the term, with the stymie, and then somehow, it breaks through into a flash that solves the problem. And if we stop investing in our setup, we’re doing ourselves, and probably our whole species, a major disservice.
Bruce: I totally agree, and that these fundamental, powerful emergent discoveries, in a way, are really not possible for AI to make. I mean, AI right now is just a big search engine and putting the next word together, so it’s not AGI, as Ben Goertzel talks about here on the podcast. These are narrow AIs that sort of simulate as though there’s a thinking mind behind there. So if we give over our minds and say, “Well, we’ll stop being able to do free association. We just won’t load our heads with anything,” and we’ll just pull it off of a shelf, and then we stop having access to genius, to having truly new emergent breakthrough discoveries or ideations.
Jim: Yeah. The interesting thing about it is that, I think one of the key things and why LLMs at least won’t be able to make this next leap to true scientific genius, is that they are still in the symbolic and rational realm when, as you say, as we could say, to make the break into something like perceiving special relativity, you got what he did. He used a cross-modal way of thinking, as you said, the bicycle example, and then the example of the falling in the elevator for general relativity. It goes all the way back to Newton and the apple. Nobody had thought about gravity in a sense of it being a field that had some regular attributes, and that cross-modal experience triggered it for him.
Now, of course, it is true, GPT-4 has cross-modal capability, they say, though they haven’t turned it on yet, and I wonder if that’s part of the reason that it would be too scary what the result might be.
Bruce: I don’t think there’s enough stuff there to do what human brains do. In recent years, the model for creative genius or creative breakthroughs has emerged in the scanner, so we kind of call this genius in the scanner. So people literally have been, for instance, the Iowa Writers Workshop, Nancy Andreesen, who’s a researcher at University of Iowa, put some of the great writers, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, into the scanner in the early 2000s and gave them word association things. And those minds, those highly trained, highly set up minds, showed a different pattern of processing those words, a kind of horizontal scattering, a massive sharing. They were doing free association.
And then later on, Carhart-Harris and the team at Imperial College London were actually giving people psilocybin in FMRI, more advanced scanners, and watched what is called the default mode network start to do free association, direct cross-bridging, without necessarily being regulated by this PCC component, which is the posterior cingulate cortex, which is kind of the vote taker, the predictor. And these are new models of consciousness based on a lot of Karl Friston’s work on free-energy principle and this fascinating work. So we’re actually getting an inside look of what happened. So if we could put Einstein in the scanner, we would’ve seen, during his download, his visionary Gedanken experiments, we would’ve seen a huge frontal cortex load of cross-bridging transmissions as it needled the solution out. And I doubt whether any AIs have been built, even AGIs have been conceived to be able to do that scale of operations.
Jim: And of course, it’s interesting, even at a much higher level of abstraction, I would suggest that, but this might be pointing to, is the utility of avoiding premature convergence. How often, like a reflex arc, you see a candy bar, you stuff it in your face, right? Human life is full of those things. Your boss says something and you feel like punching him. But the great thinkers don’t do their thinking in terms of the reflex arc. They look at not just A, but B and C and D and E and F, and the relationships between them, and they take that on. And the ability to hold back from premature convergence may be part of what we’re seeing here.
And if we think about what we do know about the neuroscience of psychedelics, which I’m sure you’ll get into more, one of the quantitative results from, for instance, the EEG scans of people taking DMT or other psychedelics, is that the average range of signal goes way up. And so there’s a lot more crosstalk going on in the brain than there is in the non-psychedelic brain.
Bruce: Yeah. And in fact, one of the challenges, and I wrote about this in the book chapter I sent you that will be published in a wonderful book coming up by Dennis McKenna and the McKenna Academy, will be published this year, it’s all about ethnopharmacology. But in that chapter, which is called It’s High Time for Science, one of the things that’s pointed out is, you have a characterization of people who are capable of geniuses almost… They’re a different neurotype. Maybe they’re a little on the autism spectrum, but they definitely have a lot more openness and ability to hold multiple thoughts, multiple points of view, and then the ability to let go to be divergent. And at the same time, when you take a psychedelic, it also does that. So a psychedelic often somehow quietens the convergent control mechanism and lets the divergent process go.
Now, the irony about all that is that you can get all kinds of thoughts and ideations. And we’ve seen this in the history of not just psychedelic use, but all kinds of ideation, all kinds of, in a sense, great flights of fancy, land things that don’t necessarily work in the world or fall into the realm of stories. So we have new religious cults and traditions form and things that not necessarily very productive. So the scientist and the engineer, and even the business leader, who’s taking psychedelics, has to apply convergent thinking, at some point, to the divergent storm of association that is going on. And that’s the dance. That’s the trick. And it’s from good training, I think, and also self-observation and a little skepticism about what is going on. So you maintain the observer, and very much in the Buddhist way, the observer is watching the process, and it’s throwing things out and keeping other things and keeping some things for later from these insights. So it’s a whole dance around what David Nutt, who is a psychedelic sponsor research in the UK, he said, “This will work for the prepared mind.”
Jim: And I like that you talked about the dance, because again, to think that, you take a trip or you do some endogenous process, and you will get the answer in one fell swoop is generally not the case. I still recall the early days of smoking reefer back when I was in college, that was quite a big thing in the ’70s, and inevitably, you’d have these things that you said, “Ooh, I had figured out the meaning of life, or the Big Bang is wrong,” and you’d write something up about it. And then the next morning, you’d read it and you’d realize it was total drivel. But there was probably some sparks in there that if they had been processed further, if you think about it as a process, where this is just one part of an extended process, I think that’s really what you’re pointing at there, right?
Bruce: Yeah. And in my practice, literally working on the origin of life with endo tripping for decades, and then endo and exo tripping in the last, I’d say, 10 years, what I’ve done is I’ve developed a sort of a meta practice. You’re into meta everything. So this is kind of a cool addition to the meta modern idea in that what you do is you have a download, you filter out the valuable things for it, and you store the segments of your visionary experience in your media library in your head. And when you have the next trip, or the next endo trip or exo trip comes to you, you actually load, from that media library, you load what you worked on before as the starting point, the starting framework, as such that the trip or the download is guided to evolve, to take an evolutionary step about what you.
So I have a practice of rapid retripping inside an oncoming trip of a previous trip, so I can do it like an editor. I can say, “Now, this is where we want to start from, guys. Let’s go from here. Let’s try to evolve this model.” And of course, this is how the creative process works for engineers trying to design the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, of course, they’ll do that. They’ll have their morning coffee and they’ll say, “Now, how far apart do we need to put those caissons?” They will continuously reload a model. But you can do this, believe it or not, in these elevated states, and you can have a relationship with the states such that you can do it. And for the origin of life, I edited together three or four previous visionary experiences to get that final jump that occurred for me in the jungle in Peru in 2013. So that was the final edit, the denouement, the last chapter that came as a result of this editing process.
Jim: Ah, so many things to follow up on. Yeah, the way you describe that, it reminds me a bit of a practice that was popular back in the ’80s called lucid dreaming, where you would essentially prime yourself before you went to bed to get your dreams to be more in the domain where you wanted them to be. I can’t say I ever tried it, but I didn’t… A guy that worked for me, my CTO in my second company, truly brilliant guy, was a great believer in it, and he used it to solve technical problems, business problems, romantic problems, et cetera, and he claimed it worked.
Bruce: Yeah. And in fact, if you have the propensity for lucid dreaming or great imaginal sweeps, where you’re kind of living in your imaginary world, you probably have the capacity for endo tripping where it just takes you over daytime. And you probably, when you encounter strong psychoactives, especially tryptamines, things like LSD, psilocybin, you’re probably kind of purpose built for the full activation of… It’ll amplify what’s already there. So it’s kind of, for me, when I first started taking them, I had avoided psychedelics like the plague until I was 36 years old. And then at that time, I met Terence McKenna in the late ’90s, and he actually provided me a beautiful big stash of psilocybin or cubensis mushrooms.
Now, of course, me being totally inexperienced, I didn’t have a scale and I just ate the whole bag, one night in the wilderness in the Southern Sierra Nevada, on my own. And of course, it worked. I wasn’t sure it was going to work with my weird system, but it did work. But what I remember noticing was, it’s very similar to what already happens to me in terms of endogenous tripping. It was just magnified tremendously, and there was much more access to what possibly was already just shimmering beyond the veil there.
Jim: Interesting. Why don’t you take a little diversion there and tell us about your history as a somewhat weird kid and endogenous tripping?
Bruce: Yeah, and I think that the listeners will be nodding their heads, or a big proportion of them will be up to this, because what would happen to me was I was 7, 8, 9 years old. If I had a stimulating day and I was taking a nap or going to sleep, I would notice all this color movement behind closed eyes. And several nights, I would open my eyes like, is my brother flashing me with a flashlight right now? No, it’s a dark room. These wash patterns, it’s almost like fractals, you’d call them today, were moving like soap on dishes. And I realized, “Oh, this is coming from inside. This is somehow being generated. It’s like my own TV station.” And just like a TV, if you twiddle the knobs, this is 1960s televisions, you might be able to resolve the picture a little better. And it worked.
And so if I could tune myself out, my thinking brain that was thinking about tomorrow or language or stuff like that, if I could turn that down, these washes would grow and they would become more colorful, and then they would open into worlds with entities, and spacecraft and all kinds of things would just come de novo, like it’s being projected. And I loved these things. We didn’t have color TV, we had a black and white TV, and so I could actually get really nice high-res color. And it was sometimes very faded, but you could never predict what was going to show up.
And so, by the time I was 12 or 13, I started drawing these things, the inspirations that would come out of this. I drew thousands of drawings. And actually, that entire thing, I kept it going through my teen years, which hormones and girls and cars really kind of knocked out this kind of little kid stuff, which I think is probably DMT flashes, dimethyltryptamine. And I kept it going and it became my profession, Jim. So I used those internal worlds to design board games when I was a teenager, code when I was in my twenties, the whole graphical operating system I built, then spacecraft, virtual worlds, and now working on the chemical origins of life. It’s all based upon that internal movie making system that I just allow episodes to… They come in and they download and they play in 3D, and I run a recording camera to capture them. I draw them out and put them in notebooks. I write the description in scientific technical language so it can land somewhere. And then I just iterate.
And I’ve been doing this now like 40 years, and it really has worked. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this on your show is to kind of bring this to a wider public and ask, are there other people that do this out there, that endo trip? And are there people that have found ways to advance that or to twiddle their own knobs? And then go beyond, if you experiments with, say, tryptamine psychedelics, how has that amplified your experience? Because it may be that with the microdosing revolution, and the macrodosing, that there are thousands of us that are doing these experiments and they’re actually, it’s productive for our work, where we have to deliver products or theories or discoveries or designs for business, those kinds of things.
Jim: And now, in your conversation, you talked to a lot of people. It’s amazing how often I run into somebody who mentions they’ve chatted with you recently. You talked to a lot of folks. Have you found anybody else that has this endogenous tripping capacity?
Bruce: Yes. Yeah. In fact, I talked at a conference years ago, and a dozen people came up.
Bruce: Came up to me at the end, say, “This happens to me. I never had a name for it.” One person said, “I fall into mathematical worlds. And my partner, she is waving her hand in front of my eyes and like, ‘Are you there? I mean, what’s going on?'” And he was in a world of mathematical equations. There was another guy who said, every time he got on a certain bus from Hartford to New York and there was music on, he would fall into the actual world of the album itself, so Yellow Submarine, in total vivid endogenously produced. And the movie runs and it runs out, and your imagination isn’t pulling it forward. It’s just happening. And so more and more, I’m now meeting people that are blending those modalities.
Recently, a friend and neighbor here formed a company called Pachama, based on visions from Ayahuasca. And their C-suite, their leadership used ayahuasca as a medicine, and of course, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, at least the primary one, is DMT. But it’s DMT that gets through your gut because of the presence of an MAOI compound that prevents the DMT from getting broken down, so you’re saturating your system in DMT, which is what Rick Strassman called the spirit molecule. And so you’re getting high levels of DMT for hours. And this group used that medicine and that set setting and setup to come up with their business plan, which is using satellites to image forests that are being planted to generate carbon credits. Their customers are Microsoft, Apple and a lot of the biggest companies in the world, very successful company called Pachama.
So that was an example of not only using these techniques that may have been innate to that group, but accelerated, amplified, accentuated to say the question, the setup question is, how do we build a company? And all the way down to the AI they’re using, the way they organize themselves, their pitch deck, all coming from the use of these tools. And they found their own, in a sense, way to genius in terms of a venture.
Jim: Now, would you say that these people would’ve been geniuses in their natural states? Or was this essentially a prosthetic that let them reach deeper into the genius domain?
Bruce: I think that is a very good question. Who’s to say who is a genius? Because it’s all retrospective. If someone has passed away and their life’s work is discovered but they weren’t even known during their life, someone might declare that this mathematician is actually a genius, an unsung genius, undiscovered genius. So it’s really kind of a retrospective thing.
But I think that if you look at the products of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive at Apple, their incredible run of design since the late ’90s until Steve’s death, and it just kept going. But they revolutionized multiple industries and designed incredible products, which we all have. And there was an innate… So they weren’t using psychedelics as far as I know, but Steve Jobs used LSD as a younger man and described it as one of the most profound experiences of his life that sort of opened him up to that you could do things to change the entire direction of humanity. You could really do that. It gave him the courage and maybe a little bit more mental fluidity and flow state to expect that he could actually pull this off. But he had some kind of innate design sense that Bill Gates admired a lot in Steve Jobs. And Jony Ive was the perfect partner for when they rebooted Apple.
Jim: Yeah, of course, it was far from perfect. I mean, Jobs also came up with the Newton and the Lisa and a few other crazy ones, so by no means was he a hundred percent hitter. He had a good streak there going there for a little while between, I guess the key one was actually the iPod. If it hadn’t been for that, Apple probably would’ve died, or at least would’ve been pushed down to a fiscally small scale that it would’ve been fairly obscure. And then from the iPod, it wasn’t that giant a leap, interestingly, to the iPhone. But anyway, it’s a conversation for another day. Still, I got to have our conversation about the history of computing sometime.
So let’s get back though to this process, and maybe talk about yourself first, and then to the degree you know about, these people with the tree monitoring. You talked earlier about the fact that the output of any given cycle of a typical experience, maybe some signal, but also a lot of noise. How did you personally work through that to continue to concentrate the signals? You talked about drawing pictures and things of that sort. What else was there in your toolkit?
Bruce: A big one, Jim, for the landing of the whole setup of the solutions was mentorship. So in my twenties, I had mentors when I was writing all this code. The code had to run. So I could scroll through a hundred pages of code and stop with my finger put up on the keyboard where the bug was. I could use that type of intuitive high speed thing. But the code in the end had to present a user interface that people wanted to use. So I needed mentorship and guidance.
And in the 2000s, it was NASA. So I had to apply, applied for 30 grants from NASA and other agencies and companies like Raytheon. Then you had to make sense. So your visionary thing about the design of a human asteroid mission crew to an asteroid actually had to work. So it had to go through peer review, engineering peer review and plausibility. And then of course, in the 2010s, Dave Deemer was my scientific, or is my scientific mentor. And mentorship, I had an endo trip about cycling protocells, flowing between hot and cold water at hydrothermal vents in the ocean. And I thought, “Wow, here’s a mechanism by which the membranes form on the edge of the vent. They get bundled up. They encapsulate polymers.”
Jim: Can you talk about how, maybe a little bit more fine grained, how this relationship between your endo trips and your mentors or other external constraints, if you want to call them that, kind of worked? Do you have an actual example?
Bruce: Yeah. Here’s the example, Jim, that I shared in the UK a year ago. It was my coming out of the closet, the psychedelic closet in science. I had a ayahuasca trip in the fall of 2013, which was tremendous. And at the end of the trip, I kind of became the first dividing protocell in the warm little pool. Saw all the molecular structures moving like piano keys, like the polymers moving, and then became the attempt to divide. This is like a very intense dream. And the division failed and created a black dead compartment. But then the source sort of parent protocell was more alive. And I realized, there was a metaphor there that death wrote the code of life. And that became… A question is how could that even happen chemically in a single protocell floating there?
And then three months later, in an endo trip, it all came as a huge download, about a 45-minute download, when I was back in these pools, watching whole communities of protocells, learning how, through molecular evolution, how to do the trick of division. And then I realized the full flash of insight, which was, it was a network effect. It wasn’t just a single individual. It was a combinatorial network effect of protocells coming together into blobs, in the progenitor medium. And that entire thing downloaded in about 30 to 45 minutes.
Then what you have to do is you think you’ve got a pretty good handle on it, but you have to put it through mentorship and peer review. So I sketched the whole thing out, wrote pages of notes of all aspects, not quite getting the chemical language right, sent it to Dave Deemer, my colleague at UC Santa Cruz, and he basically framed it and whittled it and tested it and got it into the box that would be actually experimentable and that it would pass peer review. And we put it into publication a year later, and it passed peer review and is published, and it’s very highly cited article from 2015. So it’s like, that’s the process.
And you don’t ever really talk about where the visions came from, the tools you used, your personal experience, because that’s kind of a taboo, and it’s kind of a turnoff to the scientific mind. It’s become very skeptical, “Oh, this guy’s a little nuts.” But then so was Francis Crick, the eccentrics, especially in our field, Francis Crick. And Kary Mullis is a bit of an eccentric, the inventor of PCR gene sequencing. And so science tolerates these eccentricities and eccentric people, but it only gives you respect if you can get that into a testable hypothesis, peer reviewed articles, and that other people can replicate it.
Jim: Yeah, it’s very interesting. That actually touches exactly on one of the better podcast episodes I ever did, which is with a guy named Michael Strevens, who’s a philosopher of science at NYU. And he’s written a book called The Irrational History of Science. He intentionally put the irrational in there, and he proposed in the book and in our conversation something he called the Iron Law of Science, which was that the only thing that defined what science was, was a form of written, and he emphasized written, communication that was written from a perspective of empiricism and testability, and that was it, period.
And he made the whole point about the fact that the inspiration, as we all know in science, the coming up with the hypothesis is not a rational deductive process, and he was quite strong. It can come from anywhere. It could come from religious fervor or exercise or psychedelics or a bump on the head, and all that is fair within the game of science, as long as you can land it in objective language of empiricism.
Bruce: Yeah. And in fact, that is a beautiful sort of division of the two great magisteria, the mysticism, the scientific mystics that come up with a revolutionary ideas, who are very different characters than the more technical… I would say there’s a technician aspect to science. In chemistry, it’s all about your belly at the bench and doing experiments over and over, and you’re adding a little bit to what is known, but you’re not making revolutionary proposals, transformative discoveries. And often, it’s people coming from outside of a field who aren’t even grounded or accepted by the field they come into. A great example is Luis Alvarez.
Jim: Yes. Absolutely.
Bruce: Right? Coming from sort of astrophysics and studying all that and coming into early earth or paleontology, early earth geology and proposing, “Hey, there could have been asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs, and if you actually look for a layer of iridium, I think it was at that age, it might show it.” And so he was pooh-poohed and resisted because he wasn’t from within the ranks of the field. And lo and behold, when people dug down, they found the layer of ash and iridium all over the earth, totally transformative insight that couldn’t really come from within their ranks.
Jim: Let’s change directions just a little bit. You mentioned McKenna, and I believe, was it the son of Terence McKenna that you engaged with, or was it Terence himself?
Bruce: Terence himself.
Jim: Ah. Yeah. Now, he has hypothesized all kinds of interesting theories about how things like mushrooms may have had an effect, all the way back to the days of the apes.
Bruce: Yeah. The famous stoned, or infamous stoned ape theory.
Jim: Yeah. So why don’t you run that through and see if you can connect it by some fashion to these ideas about psychedelics and genius.
Bruce: Well, Terence, he actually considered this his one actual scientifically testable hypothesis, his one serious thing that he did, beyond the time wave and all these other things, that our ancestors on the plains of Africa would come across coprophilic mushrooms growing on various dung piles from all the animals there, and be curious about them and eat them, and that that actually was a major factor in the development of our brains, per se. And in ideation in mental and visual acuity, it was a selective advantage for hunting and for tracking and for just about everything, maybe even procreating. And that psilocybin in our diet was key, and that we grew, we advanced, we developed language, all these things, and then Africa dried out and the mushrooms disappeared.
Now, of course, when Terence was proposing this in the ’90s, there was absolutely no evidence at all, one way or the other. But the stone ape theories sort of come back. It’s come back in some more serious consideration in the last few years. So Terence may be having a great shit-eating grin because of this, that he’s actually done something serious for science.
Jim: All right. And so one could, I suppose, say, and this will be the takeoff for our next point, that these early humans on the Savannah may have inadvertently been microdosing.
Bruce: Exactly. And what we should also remember is that, minds, even if you look back to Eleusis, the time of the great mystery schools in the Mediterranean, our diets were different. Our worldviews were different. Really, our neurochemistry is probably different. So something like hin, what we would consider just ordinary herbs, might have had a psychoactive power.
And there have been discoveries recently in vessels in Spain that suggest that the Eleusinian practice or Eleusinian rites were based upon some kind of ergot-based, which is a kind of natural form of LSD. And that wines in the festivals of Rome tended to be one part grape or one part alcohol and six or seven part herbal remedies. So these herbal beers and wines were heavily psychoactive. And the Eleusinian rites at the Telesterion Temple in Greece themselves, which went for 1,600 years, were psychedelic experiences because it was the set and setting the story of Persephone’s return from Hades, was described by Plato. It was described as the great experience of your life, the creation of human beings from essentially animals from the Apro-Paleolithic who became human and built civilization.
Leading off the stoned ape, you also have Syrian rue. You have a lot of psychoactive compounds in the Middle East, South Asia and the new world, that were potentially heavily influenced the development of the intellect and thought and culture, and then the building of technological civilizations.
Jim: Let me try to staple this to evolutionary theory. So let’s hypothesize that Terence McKenna is right, and that some form of relatively pervasive dosing in tryptamine-type drugs provided a new, potentially more powerful way to use the brains that apes had been carrying around. Early man had, a million years ago, what they were about half the size that we have now, something like that, that would’ve been early homo erectus probably. And of course, brains are funny. They’re powerful, but they’re also expensive and risky. They consume a vast amount of energy. Our 3-lb brain consumes 20% of the energy in our bodies, so relative to our mass. It’s what would be 1%, probably. So it’s 20 times the energy consumption per unit of mass. And if you realize that primitive people are always living on the verge of death from starvation, they’re only a few weeks away from starvation, most of the time, ramping up energy consumption is a dangerous thing to do. And if you don’t get a return for it, evolution will not support that path of evolution.
Let’s say you can’t do that much with a homo erectus brain, so that having twice the brain would be worthwhile, unless you had the stimulus or extra capacity that came from the psychedelics. So the combination of a homo rectus brain plus a prosthesis for doing something, abstraction maybe, I don’t know, whatever it is, planning perhaps, provided a road forward for evolution to grow brains. Now, it’s kind of a crazy story because it would require that these psychoactives be available for most of that history, which I don’t know if McKenna had any evidence of that.
Bruce: And here’s a sort of even simpler one, the story we started out with, which was the genius that learned that sparks shot off of a flint could light a fire. Now, what that would’ve done is allowed for cooking and warmth in a portable fire, which when you cook meat down, it’s way more bioavailable. So one of the hypotheses is is that led to a lot of the brain growth. And the irony was that after several hundred thousand years of brain growth, through being able to cook stuff and have incredible amounts of bioavailability, our brain cases grew to the point where birth was difficult. So birth became hazardous.
Jim: Exactly. That’s why I said the hazard part. That has still been the cap on human brain size is the maximum feasible size of the female pelvic opening.
Bruce: And precisely so, at that very time, natural selection comes in and says, “Okay. If you dudes can’t figure out how to create the technology and the practices around safe birth, you’re all going extinct.” And the big brain case was a fatal evolutionary mutation. But the brain ironically gave us skills and patience and observation and the ability to assist birth. So we’re one of the few species that actually helps each other in birth, because we had to. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be here.
Jim: Yeah. Social technology, a midwifery. Without that, probably, the brain would be smaller than it is today.
Bruce: Yeah. Isn’t that an amazing bunch of…? That’s the dance again. Yeah.
Jim: Yep. Yeah. Or what John Vervaeke might call opponent processes, right? So much of what’s interesting comes from A and B and somewhat opposition, but then turning into a dance that spirals forward.
Jim: This is a very interesting and a good example of that.
Let’s now turn more to the psychedelics themselves. I will confess, which I’ve done on the show before, that I was a dabbler in LSD when I was a lad, and psilocybin. And oddly enough, ether. There was a group of us that had developed… We found the specifications for 19th century ether apparatus, and we would try to stay at the hypnagogic state, the state between waking and sleeping. And I got to tell you, some of the most amazingly powerful trips came from those hypnagogic states.
But I will also say, these were kind of dangerous in the raw experiments without any guides, without anybody knowing what they were doing, just a bunch of college kids, or just post-college kids, making it up as they went along. I survived. I will confess, some of my friends, if they didn’t die, none of them did, but they substantially derailed their lives into much less good outcomes than they might have. So, that’s sort of, I think, a long opening for a discussion of the good, the bad, and the ugly about introducing psychoactive chemicals into our lives.
Bruce: Yeah. And this might call for reaching way back, 60 years ago this month, in the very first article, in the first journal called Psychedelic Review. It was in Harvard Yard on the newsstands, a publication of scientific and scholarly papers about psychedelics, edited by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and their cadre. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass and many others. The very first sentence or quotation in that issue in June, May-June of 1963, was by the philosopher Gerald Heard. And all of these guys must have encountered LSD in the previous years, back in the ’50s. And he writes, “Narcotics numb it,” numb the mind, “Alcohol unsettles it. Now a new chemical called LSD has emerged with the phenomenal powers of intensifying and changing it. Whether for good or ill is a subject of hot debate.”
And he goes on in this tremendous article that really is prescient about the use of these very, very powerful psychotic drugs. And that he corresponds them, saying, “Intensity of attention is what all talented people must obtain or command if they’re to exercise their talent.” Now, that implies discipline. Absolute attention, as we know, for example, Isaac Newton, Newton’s and Johann Sebastian Bach’s description of the state of mind in which they worked is the most evident mark of genius functioning. So back then, psychedelics were thought of as mind manifesting powerful technical tools, mind manifesting being the Greek translation of the term psychedelic that was coined by Humphry Osmond in 1957 in a buttoned down period of history. But all of these early pioneers felt that it was for the intellect. They didn’t look at healing potential. They didn’t understand the tribal, ancient ancestral use of these compounds at all. They were kind of dissociated from it. And so that was their kind of pure conception of what these tools were useful for.
But if you look in Heard’s phrases that I just read, it does imply a kind of mature mind, that I don’t think that any of them would’ve suggested to give it to 16 year olds going to rock festivals, which is what happened within two, three years. You hit the trips festival, the acid tests, and incredible eruption that rolled through our period of maturing in the ’70s, with no set and setting really understood, and no setup, no observer, no understanding of what shows up, what traumas or what little parts, as an internal family systems, what parts of your sub-personality of the society of mind that Marvin Minsky describes, that show up on powerful psychedelics. No understanding, no tools, no going in with a map of yourself, of your psyche. So there were casualties. And I think the great news is, in the 2020s, as MDMA and psilocybin moved toward clinical use, we have tremendous tools now so that people can land those changes in their psychological health, and even their bodily health, treating anxiety and depression and trauma, things like that.
Here’s a proposal though. This is a term that I coined last year, which was, first the healing, then the revealing. So perhaps, what indigenous communities did was they took these compounds to heal things in the body, trauma of the spirit or community issues. And then when they were done with it, when they’d used that elevated state to do that with the aid of a shaman, for example, then they had the dance. They had the discussion. They had the revealing of what their future would be. Inventions could come out. New relationships, new love emerged within their communities, and that was a natural process in the paleolithic, perhaps. And that that actually can come back.
So within the community context, a great guide, a mature approach to minimize the casualties that you described, we can do this one, two operation of healing, and then with a free flowing, open consciousness and an open system, work on creative things for our world, but in the context of community, so there’s a network of support there. And that perhaps, indigenous communities had it right, and that as we bring this back into our culture in the 2020s, we can copy their example, but with all of our modern tools and understanding.
Jim: Yeah. That’s sort of an interesting aspect of what some folks I know call an ecology of practices, that this is one of several tools that could actually make us more efficacious in starting to understand both first ourselves and then the world. Do you know of any communities of scholars that are attempting to do this?
Bruce: It’s really new. So we have medicalization going on in the psychedelic world very successfully, and there’s a scholarly community around that. And the conference I was at with Dennis McKenna last year, it’s all ethnopharmacologists who study the ethnographic, the long history of use, the plants, their compounds, the practices. So that’s a great community of scholars. But as far as I know, there is, as yet, no community of scholars around the intellectual, the mind-manifesting aspects.
Now, there were in the early ’60s. So all the way up to Willis Harman, who did the study that was published in 1966, they had 23 professionals. They had an architect, mathematician, a designer, engineers taking LSD and mescaline, and then working on problems. And if you watch Michael Pollan’s Fall Apart Netflix series, the first episode, which is about LSD, talks about the Harman study. And that was a community of people really looking to these tools to seek… The architect visualized an entire house design in minutes, that he couldn’t have done over weeks. It just all came flooding in, the entire design, where the cars were going, all the utilities and stuff. And so that community of practice is probably returning, and you can see the new studies coming out of Europe and now in Brazil, those are clinical trials of people taking psychoactive compounds and then working on creative problems.
So, we are on the cusp of it. And literally, as far as I can tell, this podcast is really the first to ask that question, the communities of practice around psychedelics and high states of creativity, who’s out there? So we’re literally putting the call out right here, right today.
Jim: Yeah. We will put some way to contact you up on the episode page, Bruce. So if anybody’s seriously thinking about how to apply this in domains of serious work, particularly scientific work, get in touch with Bruce. He wants to hear about it, and I’d like to hear about it too. As you were just saying that, I did a quick broad scan of the sciences, and one of them popped into my mind that seems stuck. It’s got probably the highest IQ per participant of any scientific enterprise, and yet, it has seemingly been lost at sea for 10 years. Can you guess what this field is?
Jim: No, that’s an engineering problem. String theory.
Bruce: String theory, yes. Yeah.
Jim: Amazingly smart people, and they have just been chasing their tails for 10 years. Now, it may be that there is nothing in string theory… Or on the other hand, maybe there is, and that we just don’t have… We’re the homo erectus who was breaking rocks, but because he wasn’t doing the mushrooms, he couldn’t make the leap from the sparks to fire. And when he did the DMT, he could. What would happen? What do you think the chances of acceptance would be if 10 string theorists got together, wrote a proposal for the National Science Foundation, suggesting a two-year experiment on guided use of both endogenous and exogenous psychedelic techniques to specifically, and with the kinds of structures you talked about, having mentors, having review, realizing that it isn’t one single epiphany, very likely. I suppose someone wrote this proposal up with 10 reasonably prominent string theorists and sent it to the National Science Foundation.
Bruce: Well, here’s a prediction. I think it would get paid attention to, but potentially, the agency that would fund it… This came over on a conversation I had with Rick Doblin, who is, of course, the founder of MAPS, who’s doing all this research on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. And I had this conversation with him at Burning Man, and he said that the FDA has set up a program that would fund this.
Bruce: They would fund research because what they’re doing is now looking at the next generation of applications for psychedelics beyond therapeutics. So there’s definitely an opening, and some of the foundations that are backing this work were really interested. And a venture capitalist in Austin, upon hearing me blabbering in the kitchen at a party about this, said, “I am really interested in wanting to back this. Do you have a population of people?”
One of the fascinating things is, the Perimeter Institute in Canada is where a lot of the string theorists are. I was sitting with Freeman Dyson, who passed away just before COVID, and a true genius, and he was heading up to the Perimeter Institute, and he was going to… I said, “What are you going to tell them about string theory?” Because there’s string theory happening at the Institute for Advanced Study as well. And he was going to warn them to not put all their eggs in that basket. He didn’t have a good feeling about it. They should broaden their focus. They were too, in a sense, down the rabbit hole on a mental construct that may not be testable.
But I think that a good few sessions, see if there’s anything there. I mean, string theorists may be at the very, as you’re pointing out, at the very edge of some kind of a breakthrough to land their ideations in a testable form. You may be completely correct.
Jim: Yeah. It just struck me as one of those ones that, always been promising but has never landed, which makes you think that there’s a barrier or that’s just a dry hole. And it might be a last attempt to jump over the barrier and see if there really is something on the other side. So I would encourage string theorists out there listening to round up some of your fellows and put it in a grant and maybe get the FDA in it as a multi-agency grant and give it a whirl. It could be cool.
Now, that would be really, really big and probably a really positive thing for humanity to have a deeper understanding of the theory of everything, so-called. But one could also imagine assembling a team of evil geniuses. Maybe that team of evil geniuses is called Facebook. I don’t know. But one could use the same technique for, just as you can AI, right? You can use AI, large language models, eventually AGI, if and when we get there, for either good or evil. What’s your thought about a Dr. Evil assembling a team of thinkers whose idea it is to take over a country or something like that, using these same techniques?
Bruce: As Shakespeare said, “Here’s the rub.” The rub is that when you take these medicines, or these elixirs, sometimes I like to call them for their creative potential, their potential for magic, they tend to strip off and expose the trauma that is underlying all kind of malfeasance in a human psyche. They’re going to make you very vulnerable. They’re going to open you and make you raw. So for a moment, you’re no longer the evil person that you sort of are shown to be by the world. You’re no longer because you become the blabbering baby. You become the simple innocent being because it does strip you down. So then as you build back, what do you construct on the other side as you are reborn effectively? It’s almost kind of a rebirth. So people have the opportunity to dump some of their, maybe psychopathic behavior goes by the wayside for a period of time, and then maybe the old OS loads itself back in.
Now, an example of this is Charles Manson. So if you research Charles Manson, so he was this kind of innocent kid, a pretty smart kid. He takes some LSD through, it might have been through the VA or the programs up at Stanford. And he was observed to undergo a complete transformation of personality that was very rapid. And he was thrown into ideations and paranoid delusions, which was possibly something was in his system anyway. And he would put together things like stuff from A Stranger in a Strange Land, which is a science fiction story with masons with this, and created this paranoid vision of a world takeover that then he had a certain amount of passion and charisma, so he convinced a whole colony of young people out in the hills of the San Fernando Valley to follow him. And it led to these terrible string of murders, the Manson Family murders in Hollywood, which led to kind of a huge scare.
So his genius came out in his power to convince and lead a group of people, but it didn’t lead to anything really productive for humanity. So that was perhaps the birth of a sort of evil genius through psychedelics, through a young man that didn’t have any support, was probably dealing with trauma that he didn’t know how to manage what was going on in his system, just reacted. So that’s potentially a warning to all of us about… And it’s now understood that there are certain medications that are contraindicated for people, that you should not be on SSRIs and take ayahuasca, for example. And there are also certain psychological conditions that contraindicate taking any kind of powerful psychoactive substance. Alcohol isn’t a good mix either. So I mean, there’s definitely important for screening and wisdom and, in a sense, adulting around all of this.
Jim: That would be an argument for bringing it in out of the shadows where it is today. As you say, most people doing acid today are buying it from a street dealer and going to a rave or something like that, as opposed to bringing it into a part of civilization, shall we say.
Bruce: Yeah. And I think you could call that, we need to validate this practice. We need to actually test it. In what conditions does it work? For what individuals? How do you land insights? And then valorize it, which means give it permission in society. Companies that want to have engineering breakthroughs, it’s valorized. It’s okay to use these practices at your offsite retreat for seeking the breakthroughs in your technology and your biotech startup or whatnot. And so, company drug testing policies and reputational risk preclude this being out from under in the shadows.
And in fact, what we’re going to be doing, Jim, I just want to let people know, starting this summer, we’re publishing a series of articles in Lucid News, which is a large psychedelic online news feed. And we’re going to be putting all of this out to the general public, and with each article, offering a survey for people to click on the link and fill in their stories, they can do it anonymously, and building up that historical anecdotal database of what is going on out there, that will then support research or practice to validate and eventually valorize this as a tool for civilization, and may be an important component for Game B.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah. And of course, the Game B community is the ones that came up with this term, borrowed from John Vervaeke, the ecology of practices or psycho technologies, as part of the way that we’re able to deprogram ourselves from Game A, so-called Game A malware, also learn how to cooperate in a real sense, and the same way our forage or ancestors did, which we seem to have had programmed out of us by the money on money return game, et cetera. And there are certainly a number of people in the Game B community who are interested in psychedelics, some of whom who do some microdosing, et cetera. And this may be an important part of the way forward.
And I think, let’s wrap up here, and talk a little bit about the fact that we may need more genius now than we ever have before. We seem to be at a meta crisis of high complexity. I mean, these are not figuring out how to make automobiles for $300 each, kind of the Henry Ford Taylorism challenge of the early 20th century. These are much higher dimensional questions, and frankly, they feel like they’re just beyond the scope of an awful lot of people to cope with. So talk about the need for more genius at this moment.
Bruce: Yeah. I think we are coming into sort of an existential wormhole or a stress point. So throughout evolutionary biology, when there was, say, an asteroid impact, a planetary freeze over, a huge loss of ecosystem, there were stresses put on populations. And we are actually bringing all those things in on ourselves. We’re bringing an evolutionary stress point through climate change, and through our own massively amplified use of psychological tools, of amplified technology. We’re putting the human population under a stress. And in those circumstances, we either evolve through that wormhole, through that stress point, and become better versions of ourselves, our civilization adapts. Or we literally have a strip down of our civilizations, and we’ve seen that happening in the past with Rome and Easter Island and other places that went just a little too far, a little too overextended on their landscape or on the size of what they were trying to do.
So that’s what’s coming. So really, it’s any tools that are going to help us. And I think the magic combination, it’s like a double hitter, you’ve got healing and then revealing. So if you take some of the most capable people that we have to solve problems of climate change on a massive scale, of re-engineering social networks to become more human positive, of creating new forms of trustable currency and bulletproof forms of value creation, and you put them through a regimen where they can heal a lot of the internal things that are going on that actually keep them back and that might turn them into more evil geniuses. And then on the other side, you give them the tools to flower, to incredibly express their potential. We talked about the human potential movement of years in past. This would really truly be a human potential release.
That is probably our best, I think, mechanism for the upcoming generation, and even people who are currently in leadership or building new enterprises and ventures, the healing then the revealing, to supercharge human beings and also give them lives that are better because there’s a follow on effect. Somebody who’s very positive and creative and giving, generally has a follow on magnifying effect for everybody around them. And I don’t think there’s anything that we can do that’s more important other than raising healthier little children, into an environment like this, that is going to pull us through. For me, it seems like the best investment we could possibly make.
Jim: Alrighty. Well, thank you, Bruce. This is great to end on such an optimistic and forward-looking view. Be sure to check him out at his very interesting work at damer.com, which as usual, will be available on our episode page at jimruttshow.com.
Bruce: So if any of you out there, in Jim Rutt-land, have a story you’d like to share about your own endo tripping, exo tripping, psychedelics, ingenious breakthroughs, elevated states, whatever happens to you, however you make it happen and how you landed in the world, if you visit me at damer.com, we’ll have a link there and we’d love to hear from you. It’ll be the start of our collection of data in 2023 to the older anecdotal database of what the heck is going on out there.
Jim: I love it. Thank you, Bruce. This has been a great episode.
Bruce: You’re so welcome, Jim. Always a pleasure. It’s a great pleasure to be on the farm with you now.
Jim: Indeed. Farm to farm.
Bruce: Farm to farm.