Telegraph, Saturday May 21st 2005, pp 17-18
(Note: This version is very slightly different from the published,
Every year, like a social
drinker who wants to prove to herself that she's not an alcoholic, I
give up cannabis for a month. It can be a tough and dreary time - and
much as I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, alcohol cannot take
Some people may smoke dope just to relax or have fun, but for me the
reason goes deeper. In fact, I can honestly say that without
cannabis, most of my scientific research would never have been done
and most of my books on psychology and evolution would not have been
Some evenings, after a long day at my desk, I'll slip into the bath,
light a candle and a spliff, and let the ideas flow - that lecture I
have to give to 500 people next week, that article I'm writing for New
Scientist, those tricky last words of a book I've been working on for
months. This is the time when the sentences seem to write
themselves. Or I might sit out in my greenhouse on a summer evening
among my tomatoes and peach trees, struggling with questions about
free will or the nature of the universe, and find that a smoke gives
me new ways of thinking about them.
Yes, I know there are serious risks to my health, and I know I
might be caught and fined or put in prison. But I weigh all this
up, and go on smoking grass.
For both individuals and society, all drugs present a dilemma:
are they worth the risks to health, wealth and sanity? For me, the
pay-off is the scientific inspiration, the wealth of new ideas and the
spur to inner exploration. But if I end up a mental and physical
wreck, I hereby give you my permission to gloat and say: "I
told you so".
My first encounter with drugs was a joint shared with a college friend
in my first term at Oxford. This was at the tail end of the days of
psychedelia and flower power - and cannabis was easy to obtain.
After long days of lectures and writing essays, we enjoyed the
laughter and giggling, the heightened sensations and crazy ideas that
the drug seemed to let loose.
Then, one night, something out of the ordinary happened - though
whether it was caused by the drug, lack of sleep or something else
altogether, I don't know. I was listening to a record with two
friends, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I had smoked just
enough to induce a mild synaesthesia. The sound of the
music had somehow induced the sensation of rushing through
a long, dark tunnel of rustling leaves towards a bright light.
I love tunnels. They come on the verges of sleep and death and are
well known in all the cultures that use drugs for ritual, magic or
healing. The reason for them lies in the visual cortex at the back of
the brain, where certain drugs interfere with the inhibitory systems,
releasing patterns of circles and spirals that form into tunnels and
I didn't know about the science then. I was just enjoying the ride,
when one of my friends asked a peculiar question: "Where are you,
Where was I? I was in the tunnel. No, I was in my friend's room. I
struggled to answer; then the confusion cleared and I was looking down
on the familiar scene from above.
"I'm on the ceiling, " I said, as I watched the mouth down
below open and close and say the words in unison. It was a most
My friend persisted. Can you move? Yes. Can you go through the walls?
Yes. And I was off exploring what I thought, at the time, was the real
world. It was a wonderful feeling - like a flying dream, only
more realistic and intense.
The experience lasted more than two hours, and I
remember it clearly even now. Eventually, it came to seem more
like a mystical experience in which time and space had lost their
meaning and I appeared to merge with the universe. Years
later, when I began research on out-of-body and near-death
experiences, I realised that I'd had all those now-familiar sensations
that people report after close brushes with death. And I wanted to
find out more.
However, nothing in the physiology and psychology that I was studying
could remotely begin to cope with something like this. We were
learning about rats' brains, and memory mechanisms, not mind and
consciousness - let alone a mind that could apparently leave its body
and travel around without it. Then and there, I decided to
become a parapsychologist and devote my life to proving all those
closed-minded scientists wrong.
But I was the one who was wrong. I did become a parapsychologist,
but decades of difficult research taught me that ESP almost certainly
doesn't exist and that nothing leaves the body during an out-of-body
experience - however realistic it may feel.
Although parapsychology gave me no answers, I was still obsessed
with a scientific mystery: how can we explain the mind and
consciousness from what we know about the brain? Like any conventional
scientist, I carried out experiments and surveys and studied the
latest developments in psychology and neuroscience. But since
the object of my inquiry was consciousness itself, this wasn't
enough. I wanted to investigate my own consciousness as well.
So I tried everything from weird machines and gadgets to
long-term training in meditation - but I have to admit that drugs have
played a major role.
Back in those student days, it was the hallucinogens, or
"mind-revealing" psychedelics, that excited us - and the
ultimate hallucinogen must be LSD. Effective in minuscule doses, and
not physically addictive, LSD takes you on a "trip" that
lasts about eight to 10 hours but can seem like forever. Every sense
is enhanced or distorted, objects change shape and form, terrors flood
up from your own mind, and you can find joy in the simplest thing.
Once the trip has begun, there is no escape - no antidote,
no way to stop the journey into the depths of your own mind. In my
twenties, I used to take acid two or three times a year - and
this was quite enough, for an acid trip is not an adventure to be
I've met the horrors with several hallucinogens, including magic
mushrooms that I grew myself. I remember once gazing at a
cheerfully coloured cushion, only to see each streak of colour
turn into a scene of rape, mutilation or torture, the victims writhing
and screaming - and when I shut my eyes, it didn't go away. It
is easy to understand how such visions can turn into a
classic "bad trip" , though that has never happened to me.
Instead, the onslaught of images eventually taught me to see and
accept the frightening depths of my own mind - to face up to the fact
that, under other circumstances, I might be either torturer or
tortured. In a curious way, this makes it easier to cope with the
guilt, fear or anxiety of ordinary life. Certainly, acceptance is a
skill worth having - though I guess there are easier ways of acquiring
Then there's the fun and just the plain strangeness of LSD. On one
sunny trip in Oxford, my friend and I stopped under a vast oak tree
where the path had been trampled into deep furrows by cattle and then
dried solid by the hot weather. We must have spent an hour there,
gazing in wonder at the texture of this dried mud; at the hills and
valleys in miniature; at the hoof-shaped pits and sharp cliffs; at the
shifting patterns in the dappled shade. I felt that I knew every
inch of this special place; that I had an intimate connection with the
Suddenly, I noticed a very old man with a stick, walking slowly
towards us on the path. Keep calm, I told myself. Act normal. He'll
just say hello, walk by, and be gone.
"Excuse me, young lady," he said in a cracked voice.
"My eyes are weak and, in this light, I can't see my way.
Would you help me across?" And so it was that I found myself,
dream-like, guiding the old man slowly across my special place -
a patch of mud that I knew as well as my own features.
Two days later, my friend came back from lectures, very excited.
"I've seen him. The man with the stick. He's real!"
We both feared that we'd hallucinated him.
Aldous Huxley once said that mescaline opened "the doors of
perception"; it certainly did that for me. I took it one day with
friends in the country, where we walked in spring meadows, identified
wild flowers, marvelled over sparkling spider's webs and gasped at the
colours in the sky that rippled overhead.
Back at the farmhouse, I sat playing with a kitten until kitten
and flowers seemed inextricable. I took a pen and began to draw. I
still have that little flower-kitten drawing on my study wall today.
On another wall is a field of daffodils in oils. One day, many years
later, I went to my regular art class the day after an LSD trip. The
teacher had brought in a bunch of daffodils and given us one each, in
a milk bottle. Mine was beautiful; but I couldn't draw just one.
My vision was filled with daffodils, and I began to paint, in bold
colours, huge blooms to fill the entire canvas. I will never be a
great painter but, like many artists through the ages, I had found new
ways of seeing that were induced by a chemical in the brain.
So can drugs be creative? I would say so, although the dangers are
great - not just the dangers inherent in any drug use, but the danger
of coming to rely on them too much and of neglecting the hard work
that both art and science demand. There are plenty of good reasons to
shun drug-induced creativity.
Yet, in my own case, drugs have an interesting role: in trying
to understand consciousness, I am taking substances that affect the
brain that I'm trying to understand. In other words, they alter
the mind that is both the investigator and the investigated.
Interestingly, hallucinogens such as LSD and psilocybin are the
least popular of today's street drugs - perhaps because they demand so
much of the person who takes them and promise neither pleasure or
cheap happiness. Instead, the money is all in heroin, cocaine and
other drugs of addiction.
I have not enjoyed my few experiences with cocaine. I don't like the
rush of false confidence and energy it provides - partly because
that's not what I'm looking for and partly because I've seen
cocaine take people over and ruin their lives. But many people love it
- and the dealers get rich on getting people hooked.
This is tragic. In just about every human society there has ever been,
people have used dangerous drugs - but most have developed rituals
that bring an element of control or safety to the experience. In
more primitive societies, it is shamans and healers who control
the use of dangerous drugs, choose appropriate settings in
which to take them and teach people how to appreciate the
visions and insights that they can bring.
In our own society, criminals control all drug sales. This means that
users have no way of knowing exactly what they are buying and
no-one to teach them how to use these dangerous tools.
I have been lucky with my own teachers. The first time I took
ecstasy, for example, I was with three people I had met at a Norwegian
conference on death and dying. It was mid-summer, and they
had invited me to join them on a trip around the fjords. One
afternoon, we sat together and took pure crystals of MDMA -
nothing like the frightening mixtures for sale on the streets today.
MDMA has the curious effect of making you feel warm and loving towards
everyone and everything around you: within a few short hours, we were
all convinced that we knew each other in a deep and intimate
way. Then we deliberately each set off alone to walk in the mountains,
where the same feeling of love now seemed to encompass the entire
I was told then that I should make the most of my first few
experiences with MDMA because, after five or six doses, I would never
get the same effects again. In my experience, this has been true,
although prohibition makes it all but impossible to find such things
out. In fact, we know horrifyingly little about the psychological
effects of drugs that people take every day in Britain because
scientists are not allowed to carry out the necessary research.
That is why I've had to do my own. I once had an expert friend
inject me with a high dose of ketamine because I had heard it could
induce out-of-body experiences. Known as K, or Special K, on the
street, this is an anaesthetic used more often by vets than
anaesthetists because of its unpleasant tendency to produce
Get the dose right, as I did, and you are completely paralysed apart
from the ability to move your eyes. This is not very pleasant.
However, by imagining I was lifting out of my body, I felt I could
fly, and I set off home to see what my children were up to. I
was sure that I saw them playing in the kitchen; but when I checked
the next day, I was told they had been asleep.
Back in the room, my guide began holding up his fingers
out of my line of vision and, as soon as my mouth started
working again, made me guess how many. I seemed to see the fingers all
right, but my guesses were totally wrong.
I didn't repeat the experiment. It was not nearly as interesting as
those drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin, DMT or mescaline, that
undermine everything you take for granted. These are psychedelics that
threaten our ordinary sense of self, and that is where they
touch most deeply on my scientific interests.
What is a self? How does the brain create this sense of being
"me", inside this head, looking out at the world, when I
know that behind my eyes there are only millions of brain cells - and
nowhere for an inner self to hide? How can those millions of brain
cells give rise to free will when they are merely physical and
chemical machines? In threatening our sense of self, could it be
that these drugs reveal the scary truth that there is no such thing?
Mystics would say so. And, here, we hit an old and familiar question:
do drugs and mystical experiences lead to the same
"insights"? And are those insights true?
Since those first trips, I have taken many other drugs - such as
nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. For just a few moments, I have
understood everything - "Yes, yes, this is so right, this is how
it has to be" - and then the certainty vanishes and
you cannot say what you understood.
When the discoverer of nitrous oxide, Sir Humphrey Davy, took it
himself in 1799, he exclaimed: "Nothing exists but
thoughts". Others, too, have found their views profoundly
shifted. It seems quite extraordinary to me that so simple a molecule
can change one's philosophy, even for a few moments, yet it
seems it can.
Why does the gas make you laugh? Perhaps it is a reaction to a brief
appreciation of that terrifying cosmic joke - that we are just
shifting patterns in a meaningless universe.
Are drugs the quick and dirty route to insight? I wanted to try
the slow route, too. So I have spent more than 20 years training in
meditation - not joining any cult or religion but learning the
discipline of steadily looking into my own mind.
Gradually, the mind calms, space opens up, self and other become
indistinguishable, and desires drop away. It's an old metaphor, but
people often liken the task to climbing a mountain. The drugs can take
you up in a helicopter to see what's there, but you can't stay.
In the end, you have to climb the mountain yourself - the hard
way. Even so, by giving you that first glimpse, the drugs may
provide the inspiration to keep climbing.
Psychologist Susan Blackmore, neuro-scientist Colin Blakemore and
author Mike Jay will be appearing at the Cheltenham Science Festival
(June 8-12) to discuss whether drugs can teach us anything about
ourselves. For tickets to the Altered States session at the town hall
( £6, 4pm on Saturday, June 11) or for any other festival event
, please call 01242 227 979 (information: www.cheltenhamfestivals.org.uk)
Page created 23 May 2005
updated: Monday, 02 January 2017 16:30