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LSD and other psychedelics inspired some of Silicon Valley’s greatest inventions, says author Michael Pollan

Long before Steve Jobs, internet pioneers like Doug Engelbart were dropping acid.

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“How to Change Your Mind” author Michael Pollan
“How to Change Your Mind” author Michael Pollan
Penguin Random House

Talk to someone in Silicon Valley about techies taking psychedelic drugs and they might bring up Burning Man or Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. But the practice is older than that — way older.

“There are very deep roots in Silicon Valley, going back to the ’50s,” journalist and author Michael Pollan said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “There’s something about engineers and psychedelics that needs to be explored.”

Pollan’s new book, “How to Change Your Mind,” is all about the history and future of mind-altering substances, which every human society has experimented with — except the Inuit peoples (“and that’s just ’cause nothing good grows where they live,” Pollan said).

In the 1950s, before the term “Silicon Valley” existed, a handful of engineers at the tech pioneer Ampex were approached by Al Hubbard, the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD.” And with his help, they found that dropping acid could make their jobs easier.

“[Hubbard] wanted to turn on the best and brightest and have the wisdom trickle down to the populace,” Pollan said. “Engineers who were working on chips found LSD very helpful in imagining a structure as complex as a computer chip. Before there were computers, designing a computer chip was much harder! It was a three-dimensional structure, layered, and you had to hold an incredible amount of information in your head.”

The Ampex engineers started a nonprofit called the International Foundation for Advanced Study, giving LSD to people like inventor Doug Engelbart. His first under-the-influence invention was a toy for toilet-training boys, but Pollan pointed out that it was only after this experience that Engelbart did the work he’s most famous for: Inventing the computer mouse, the graphical user interface and key components of the internet.

“Engineers, unlike scientists, deal with irreducible complexity,” Pollan said. “There’s so many variables that, instead of reducing a problem to simplicity like scientists, they have to find patterns in a very complex space. That’s what LSD does — it helps you find patterns.”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Pollan also talked about the path psychedelic substances might take to become legal and more socially acceptable in America. Big pharmaceutical companies might not know how to make money off of a drug that isn’t taken regularly, but he said there’s reason to be happy about the FDA’s apparent interest in a doctor-prescribed version of psilocybin, the drug found in “magic mushrooms.”

“We all have minor-league versions of addiction,” Pollan said. “We all have addictive behavior. We all have episodes of depression and anxiety. We all have these mental patterns that we would love to break. Here is a tool that could make us better than we are. So, how do you give access to those people?”

“Eventually, many of those people are garden-variety neurotics, and they go to shrinks and shrinks give them medicine, and they may then become eligible for some of these experiences,” he added. “We may look ahead to a time when there are mental health spas, in the same way you’d go to a gym. You’d go once a year or something and have this big experience.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • On Too Embarrassed to Ask, also hosted by Kara Swisher, we answer the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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