When Palo Alto Historical Association Vice President Rich Green told the nonprofit's board members that he wanted to do a lecture on the powerful hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, they were initially aghast, he said. But then they learned about its long history as a catalyst for Silicon Valley creativity.
Green will discuss the historical aspects of the hallucinogen and its key players -- many of whom were prominent local engineers -- during his talk on Sunday, Nov. 4, titled, "LSD in Palo Alto: The world would never be the same."
The free lecture will be held from 2-4 p.m. at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.
Green first became interested in LSD's impact on innovative technologies, he said, after a chance meeting at a New Year's Eve party with Dr. James Fadiman, a psychologist known for his research of psychedelics. Since then he has gathered dozens of books and artifacts related to Silicon Valley's early hallucinogenic influences.
Palo Alto and Menlo Park became hotbeds in the 1950s and 1960s for research into use of LSD in business, which then grew into a movement with a goal of harnessing the collective human intellect. The thinking was that computers and artificial intelligence could be the engines running that large pool of thinking, Green said. The International Foundation for Advanced Study and Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Menlo Park and the Stanford University Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Palo Alto became the centers for this research, he said.
The International Foundation for Advanced Study, a research nonprofit, was founded by Myron J. Stolaroff, an electrical engineer, Ampex vice president, recording-technology pioneer and Stanford University graduate. His team dosed 350 people with LSD and conducted clinical studies to measure the drug's effects on creativity.
Stolaroff himself was looking for spiritual enlightenment, Green said, but he became known for studying psychedelic psychotherapy.
Fadiman, who graduated from Stanford University with a doctorate in psychology, worked on a psychedelics study at the International Foundation in the early 1960s and also at Stanford Research Institute's Augmentation Research Center. The center was founded by Silicon Valley pioneer Doug Engelbart, who is most associated with inventions including the computer mouse, graphical user interface and key aspects of the internet.
In the 1950s, Engelbart had a hypothesis that harnessing the collective human intellect would help solve complex, urgent problems, according to his paper, "Augmenting Society's Collective IQ."
Willis Harman, another electrical engineer who taught physics and electrical engineering at Stanford University in the 1950s, was a pioneer in the human potential movement. He taught a Stanford graduate seminar called "The Human Potential," which included topics on mediation, psychoactive drugs and parapsychology. He became a social scientist at SRI, where the Alternative Futures Project was to introduce business and thought leaders to LSD.
These scientific approaches to LSD intersected with a broader cultural and spiritual movement. Fadiman, for example, was introduced to LSD by Richard Alpert, known as Ram Dass, a former Harvard University graduate adviser. Fadiman became the LSD "guide" to Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog editor, during his first LSD trip in 1962 at Stolaroff's lab. And Fadiman became friends with noted psychedelic guru and author Ken Kesey when they lived on Perry Lane at Stanford, Green said.
Kesey, a Stanford student, took part in psychedelic drug research at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park. His book "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" came out of the VA hospital experience.
Kesey and Brand, as part of the Merry Pranksters, held Acid Tests events in the Bay Area, where they advocated LSD use to thousands of young people. At the 1966 Trips Festival, 6,000 people came to dance to live music and drink LSD-laced punch.
Younger engineers who had LSD experiences, notably Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, began to see greater creative possibilities after LSD altered their sense of reality, including of spatial relationships and time.
Without LSD, Green thinks that the PC might not have been invented.
"It could only happen in Palo Alto," he added.
Silicon Valley innovation is still being influenced by LSD, Green said. Fadiman, now 79, is a proponent of micro-dosing, which gives the user a sharper focus and helps make creative connections between thoughts in a subliminal way, without the 16-hour heavy "trip," Green noted.
"It's rampant in Silicon Valley now. There may be tens of thousands of people micro-dosing LSD right now," he said. Teams of inventors are taking the micro-doses and convening to work on projects, he added.
But he is quick to state that neither the Palo Alto Historical Association nor the Palo Alto History Museum (of which he is president) condones the use of illegal drugs. LSD is a Schedule 1 drug, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.
But LSD's connection to Silicon Valley, beyond the stereotypical countercultural references, is fascinating, he said.
"My mission here is to report on the history of Palo Alto. There are so many interesting aspects of Palo Alto. This is a story I've never heard anyone tell," he said.