In the fall of 1957, while studying engineering physics at OSU, I was working as an intern in America's nascent space program at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and opened up the "missile gap". (The high point of my summer in Huntsville was a one-on-one interview with Werner Von Braun on the principles of ballistic rocketry.) To catch up with the Russians, the US quickly began shoveling lots of money into American science. So when I graduated (at the top of my class) from OSU in 1959, I was awarded a "Sputnik scholarship" to any graduate school I pleased and thus, courtesy of the Soviet missile program, I ended up at Stanford.

By 1963 I had completed my course work, passed my prelims, chosen a thesis advisor, and started my thesis work on a small particle accelerator located in the basement of Stanford's Inner Quad.

Meanwhile, in a campus folk dance class, I met Ann Manly, a pretty psychology undergraduate who introduced me to her friend Rae Larson, a psychology graduate student. Like all undergraduate women, Ann lived in a dorm, but Rae was renting a cozy little house in East Palo Alto where Ann spent most of her free time.

As well as a friend to both women I served as a psychological guinea pig for their classes in Psychological Testing and was subjected to interminable rounds of IQ, personality and mental pathology tests. I learned almost nothing from these tests except that I was quite clever (which I already knew) and that I had a pathetically low ability to memorize strings of numbers (which surprised me--isn't four digits all anyone needs to remember?).

Their feminine charms and curious psych tests attracted me but, in addition, Ann and Rae had enrolled as subjects in an off-campus program which was investigating the effects of a new mind drug called LSD. The Institute for Advanced Study (IFAS) in Menlo Park was founded by Myron Stoleroff, an Ampex engineer, and was staffed by a number of Stanford faculty and graduate students some of whom I knew as friends, notably Jim Fadiman and Willis Harman.

I had heard of LSD.

During my first year in California, I had picked up a book by Alan Watts (whom I had never heard of) describing his two LSD sessions in a rural setting. In "The Joyous Cosmology", Watts describes religious and philosophical insights perceived under its influence as well as enhanced perception of natural objects. This book, to my mind still one of the best introductions to the effects of LSD (on a religious philosopher), aroused my curiosity about this new mind-altering drug. I wished I could try some myself.

The LSD program at IFAS in Menlo Park cost $600, priced out of reach for a poor graduate student, but I hoped I could at least experience LSD vicariously through the adventures of my friends Ann and Rae.

One theoretical model for the IFAS project was that they would set up a situation that precisely inverts the classic Freudian "primal scene".

In Freud's model of neurosis the child experiences a profoundly distressing emotional event (his parents copulating, say) which his immature mind cannot integrate into his map of the world. The memory of this psychologically indigestible primal scene is repressed, say the Freudians, surfacing only as inexplicable neurotic symptoms.

If an unutterably horrible experience on an unprepared mind can make your life worse, how might an indescribably beautiful experience by a mind specially prepared change a person's life for the better? This was one of the questions that the people at "the Foundation" in Menlo Park intended to address.

The primary goal of the Foundation was to help you design your first psychedelic experience for maximum positive impact. You chose the friends you wanted to be with, the setting, the music and the questions you wanted to ask (acid as oracle). The therapist who would be your guide got to know you through the (inevitable) psychological tests and interviews. To investigate your possible reaction to the "ego loss" sometimes experienced under LSD, a supervised session under "carbogen" was scheduled. This gas is a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide which triggers a physiological "drowning reflex". Some participants in the IFAS program reported that the panic induced by carbogen was worse than anything they experienced under acid.

As Ann & Rae were wending their way through the IFAS program, anticipating their first acid trip, they and I were reading everything we could get our hands on about this new mind-altering drug. Coincidental with the investigations going on at Stanford, a program at Harvard led by Doctors Leary, Alpert and Metzner was gathering steam and they began publishing their own results as well as classic accounts of what they called "expanded awareness" in a new journal called "The Psychedelic Review".

Either in the Psychedelic Review or in one of the many papers referenced there, we discovered that there were several naturally occurring sources of LSD and LSD analogs. One of these sources was the common morning glory seed, a variety of which was used in ceremonies by natives of Mexico. The effective dosage of LSD lies between 100-500 micrograms and the literature implied that one seed was equivalent to one microgram of LSD.

In the fall of 1963 I visited a nursery in San Jose and purchased a 10-pound sack of morning glory seeds--a variety called Heavenly Blue--and decided to run my own psychedelic session with Ann and Rae as guides.

On the afternoon of Oct 5, 1963, in Rae's comfortable little house in Palo Alto, I ingested 300 seeds ground up and mixed with peanut butter to improve the taste and settled in to wait for the visions. The taste of morning glory seeds is really horrible. Recalling that taste still makes me shudder. Much worse than peyote or ayahuasca.

About half an hour later, to calm my stomach I was sipping a cup of tea and became fascinated by the way the tea was flowing back down the rim of the cup. Suddenly the liquid wetting the inside of the cup was transformed into a cascade of glistening jewels. "Beautiful, but a mere hallucination," I scoffed, arrogantly challenging the drug to show me more.

I got to my feet, rushed to the bathroom to throw up. I returned, sipped some more tea. The hallucinations had vanished. Perhaps because of my initial bad manners, minimal visual effects occurred that afternoon and visual effects tended to be rare in my subsequent experiences with psychedelics.

Then I was swept up in a wave of amplified attention to my inner life. My mind was racing, full of thoughts, images, relationships. And I could attend to these thoughts with a powerful intensity not available in my ordinary state. I saw myself with a clarity never before achieved, immersed myself in my Nickness in a way I had never thought possible.

When LSD was first tested by psychologists they called it a "psychotomimetic" (producing artificial psychoses) and thus useful as a tool for therapists to get a first-hand experience of what it was like to go crazy. But the term coined by Canadian psychologist Humphry Osmond (also famous for giving acid to Aldous Huxley) more precisely describes LSD's effects. "Psychedelic" means "mind manifesting"--a powerful searchlight into the depths of your own subjectivity, an intense probe into what it means to be "you".

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Slavic immigrants, was raised as a Catholic and attended a Catholic prep school, St Charles Borromeo, which was attached to a seminary. Many of my comrades at St Charles simply continued their studies within its walls and were ordained as priests. Our religious studies were more concerned with theory and doctrine (I adored the arguments of St Thomas Aquinas) than with spiritual experience. Our teachers were all priests--some of the most intelligent men I have ever met. We could attend Mass every morning in the school chapel, some of us serving at the altar. Later with my degree in physics from Stanford in hand I would say that I was raised in the Fourteenth Century and grew up in the Twentieth.

The priests at St. Charles offered no courses in mysticism, but in the library (along with such books as "The Fourteenth--Greatest of Centuries") I discovered "The Dark Night of the Soul" by Saint John of the Cross in which he describes his experience of a unprecedented depth of existential despair. If this was mysticism, I thought, then I wanted no part of it.

Also, about this time (late 1950s), I came across an article by Aldous Huxley (whom I had never heard of) in my parents' copy of Saturday Evening Post--an article called "Drugs That Shape Men's Minds". As a eager but experientially naive student of theology I scoffed at Huxley's assertion that mystical experiences could be induced by certain drugs. How foolish to imagine that a mere chemical could produce the same effect as years of monastic prayer and discipline!

Meanwhile, back in Rae Larson's living room I was busy exploring the insides of Nick Herbert with a clarity, an urgency and an intensity that were never previously available. And as a good physicist I had planned to do a little science. I was going to examine the time distortion alleged to occur under acid. To this end I was wearing a watch with a sweep-second hand and my experiment consisted of simply observing whether the hand was traveling faster or slower than normal.

The results surprised me.

Immersed in the rich details of my own inner state, it was difficult to draw my attention to the watch on my wrist. It seemed one of thousands of options to explore and I would get to it soon. In fact I would get to it NOW! And then I looked at my watch.

The watch was running at normal speed. But I was completely straight.

I closed my eyes and re-entered the psychedelic state. But every time I tried to look at my watch it brought me down. It was impossible for me to be tripping and to do science. I did this three times and gave up. The universe (or a deeper part of Nick) was showing off its peculiar sense of humor.

Then it came and tried to get me.

I felt myself dissolving around the edges, vaguely uneasy. This was no longer fun. Whatever it was that made me ME was somehow fragmenting away. The foundations of who I was were crumbling. I didn't like this one bit.

I asserted myself.

And it brushed me aside.

I pulled myself together.

And it scattered me into pieces.

Then I realized (again with a bit of humor) that I was fighting with something that knew all my tricks. All my defenses were useless because the enemy (enemy?) was already inside the walls, could read all my codes, knew all of my weaknesses, could see through my pretensions.

I laughed. And dissolved into nothingness. No Nick.

And emerged again. Only to be swept under once more.

The best way I can describe this state is that there is no Nick. But there is still a very intense awareness, a perception. But it's entirely impersonal. What's left of Nick is a terror that the LSD has wrecked his mind and he's going to exist in this state forever. If this state is the ego loss that the Buddhists so earnestly seek, it's absolutely worthless. Because there's no one there to enjoy it.

I have experienced this state more than once on subsequent acid trips and always find it terrifying--although not as frightful as that first wholly unexpected ego dissolution in Rae Larson's comfortable living room.

Before I tried acid I was entirely ignorant of the range of states of mind it is possible for humans to experience. One of these experiences is an immense gratitude for being allowed entry into this world of expanded awareness. I am glad that I have been given the opportunity to experience these states; it would have been a real shame to have died without ever having known that such unusual experiences were possible.

What was the nature of this powerful mind-manifesting molecule? How did it work? I needed professional help. I would ask a Stanford doctor; there were plenty at hand. My friend Bob Erickson, then in Stanford medical school, summed up the science side for me: "You tell me how Ordinary Consciousness works, Nick, and I'll tell you how LSD modifies that." Thanks, Bob. Forty years later, scientists know so precious little about ordinary awareness that taking LSD is still experimenting at the very edges of human knowledge.

The essence of science is unfettered inquiry. Especially in an area so full of ignorance as the nature of mind, it is folly to lock up scientists for their choice of tools. Any nation that imprisons its scientists for investigating psychedelic drugs belongs in the Middle Ages. As a physicist I question the powers-that-be: "If you trust me with Plutonium. why not LSD?"

And can this substance, as Huxley suggested, induce mystical experiences? A few years previously, I had shed my Catholicism like a outworn garment and Jehovah did not speak to me through the drug experience. In the soul depths opened up by this mind medicine, no monotheistic presence emerged. Instead an experience of union, a continuity of my self with the matter of my being, a confirmation of the Hindu mantra "Thou are That." was for me the mystic message of LSD. No wonder the popularity of Eastern religions among acid heads. Here was direct "hands-on" confirmation of that Oneness with Nature described in the Vedas and other Eastern scriptures.

And the terrifying experience of ego loss could be received as the message that "All is illusion". All human notions, physics, mathematics, the notions of self, society, matter and mind are seen as flimsy human constructs consumed in the ruthless truthfulness of the fiery void. The world-as-illusion experience often reported by the astronauts of inner space could be seen as direct confirmation of the Buddhist notion of Maya.

While LSD was entering the popular culture through articles in LIFE magazine and shock stories in the tabloids, William Braden, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in his book "The Private Sea: LSD and the Search for God" provided a perspective on LSD at once sober and apocalyptic. The real danger of acid, writes Braden, is not that it will damage the brain, or that it will cause young people to drop out of society. We already live with drugs such as alcohol that produce effects like that. No, the real danger of acid is that some of its users claim that LSD puts them in contact with the illusory nature of the material world. The real danger of acid is that some freak will journey to the center of things, discover the movie projector that is producing this illusion, and turn it off!

As a scientific research tool, LSD is particular interesting because it alters not merely perceptions but the very entity doing the perceiving. Most of these states are ineffable, cannot be described because of their strange variations on the experience/experiencer split. It's not like watching movies. Sometimes it's more like having the movies watch you. Looking in a mirror on acid is particularly informative.
Years after that first trip, two experiences stand out from all the others--mainly because they are describable.

Once I was tripping and my first wife left me outside the market while she went shopping. There was a rosebush outside the market and I stared at the roses with AN INTENSITY OF ATTENTION that I have never been able to muster. All of me--and there was more of me than usual--was watching those roses. We are defined in a sense by where we put our attention. In this case LSD seemed both to increase the quantity of attention I possessed and to focus that attention single-mindedly in one particular direction. Never ever have I experienced such an amplification of attention as I was able on acid to give to that humble rosebush in its box outside the Woodside Market.

For a scientist, skepticism and an ability to live with uncertainty are good traits to possess. I find it hard to be completely wholehearted in my beliefs and am often full of doubts. But one afternoon on acid I reached a state of complete and utter certainty.

But it was certainty without content. It was as if I possessed a box whose contents I would believe in without question. But the box was empty. Acid had shown me the part of my brain where the fanatic in me lives. That part was empty now, but could be occupied by anything at any time. That vision made me more sympathetic to people whose fanatic boxes have things inside--arbitrary things they believe without question. I might be happier if I had more stuff in my fanaticism box, but I would also be an entirely different person, probably not a scientist.

In addition to my many teachers, friends and guides, three of the most important influences on my life have been Catholicism, quantum physics and LSD. The first gave me an appreciation for the spiritual side of life, the second an appreciation for the mysterious complexity of the material world and the third an appreciation of the unexplored depths of subjective experience.

Like many a psychedelic veteran I keep sewn inside my imaginary flight suit the words of psychologist William James (a pioneer tripper on mescaline and nitrous oxide): "Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go though life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these forms of consciousness quite disregarded."

Thanks to Ann & Rae for that first acid trip and to all my subsequent companions and dear fellow explorers of the inner mysteries opened up by that particular "requisite stimulus" called LSD. And much appreciation for many conversations with my physicist friend the late Heinz Pagels who took LSD in the same Stanford program that opened up Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey to the wonders of the psychedelic landscape.

MAY 2006

NICK HERBERT is the author of "Quantum Reality", "Faster Than Light", "Elemental Mind" and a chapbook "Physics on All Fours". He devised the shortest proof of Bell's Theorem, had a hand in the Quantum No-Cloning Rule and is presently obsessed with Quantum Tantra.
Nick's home page resides at:


And Quantumtantra Primer at:

acid cartoon by ron cobb