From ‘NUS Prof removes blog posts on using psychedelic drugs’, 16 June 2012, article by Ng Jing Yng, Today.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) Chinese language and linguistics professor who suggested the use of psychedelic drugs to spur creativity among youths, has since removed his blog post. He also removed most of his blog entries related to the topic of psychedelic drug use.
Associate Professor Shi Yuzhi in a blog post on Thursday night explained that many people were still not ready to participate in the discussion. He wrote: “To prevent others from misreading or misconstruing (my intentions), I have decided to remove the posts temporarily”. In this same entry, he stressed that he was merely sharing late Apple founder Steve Job’s experiences with psychedelic drugs. “It does not represent my views, I was interested in this issue and wanted to spur public discourse on this,” he added.
Assoc Prof Shi’s actions came after the NUS on Wednesday said that it was investigating the matter. The university has also since publicly distanced itself from Assoc Prof Shi’s comments and was said to be in touch with him. In a blog post on Tuesday, the academic who hails from China made reference to Mr Jobs and his use of LSD, asking if such drugs could be helpful in creating creative thinkers in China. The post has attracted a slew of responses from netizens, some of whom criticised his suggestion while others agreed that his comments were valid.
Lecturer in the Sky with Diamonds indeed. Although Steve Jobs was cited as crediting LSD use during his hipster days for ‘thinking differently’, a more relevant anecdote on how major discoveries may have needed an LSD boost is that of Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA, who envisioned the double helix during one of his acid trips. Other academic advocates of mind-altering substances include physicist Richard Feynman, Sigmund Freud and Mr Cosmos himself, Carl Sagan. The hazy hey-days also brought us a generation of creative individuals such as artists, philosophers, writers, poets and musicians, who, if not smoking pot or dropping acid, were on some sort of drug nonetheless, be it nicotine, alcohol or even caffeine (the proverbial philosophers’ coffeeshop). If we criminalised anything with a pharmacological action on the central nervous system, we’d probably hit a mass writer’s block and a nationwide dearth of imagination. In fact, we’re probably halfway there already. Except that we’re hooked on another sort of drug: Foreign talent.
With all these visionaries having dabbled in ‘turning on and tuning in’, I would think it’s perfectly fine, even logical, to explore the relationship between bursts in scientific advancements and LSD as a tool for inspiration. It is a valid question to ask even if it’s totally untestable, like whether people can turn into literal zombies, or if human beings were seeded from aliens in another galaxy. Prof Shi isn’t suggesting that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, though that’s what the NUS administrators seem to think of his question, fearing that endorsing drugs means more hostel orgies and students jumping nude off rooftops in their intoxication. This quasi-religious censuring is like punishing a priest for telling his flock that MAYBE God is just a figment of our imagination, a dangerous idea that no church is willing to entertain: A student’s ‘little helper’.
It’s also unlikely that ANYONE who takes controlled doses of LSD would get instant epiphanies; you’re not going to turn a wandering vagabond into a Nobel Prize winner overnight with psychedelic drugs. Some scientists get breakthroughs from other non-drug (or so it seems) means, such as Kekule’s account of a vision when he was half awake of a snake biting its own tail (the benzene ring). Other ideas that came out of dreams include complex number theories and even the melody of the Beatles’ classic ‘Yesterday’. The link between dreams and hallucinations is a blurry one, and you could say taking LSD is like having an accelerated ‘waking dream’. Every successful maverick has a favourite story to tell on how they stumbled upon their world-changing ideas, almost none involving pen and paper or through a textbook. You could be sleeping, sitting on the toilet, taking a stroll, idling on a couch, or in the case of Steve Jobs, getting high on LSD, before getting your ‘Eureka!’ moment. The inspiration for this blog came when I was eating with friends at Mushroom Pot in Stadium Walk in 2010, and no they weren’t Magic Mushrooms.
Then there’s the problem of establishing cause and effect. Were these scientists already creative to begin with, or did drugs boost their creativity? The fact that they ‘experimented’ with illegal substances does itself point to a certain devil-may-care, risk-taking attitude which is needed for any trailblazing work. Or perhaps the fact that they smoked this stuff at ‘parties’ with like-minded individuals in a relaxed (putting it mildly) environment led to a free-flowing ‘cross-fertilisation’ of ideas, which would have occurred anyway if they had been dining, drinking coffee, or playing squash. In the corporate world such get-togethers in order to ‘brainstorm’ ideas are called ‘retreats’, though in most cases they’re as productive as a damp drizzle.
Prof Shi’s suggestion of ‘getting help’ from banned substances also undermines the ‘traditional’ process of innovation (i.e hard work and intelligent discourse), rocking the very foundation of the robust, scientific ‘method’ that NUS worships, not lying on the grass in a purple haze and having an image of a rainbow-coloured AppStore swirling around your head in a higher state of consciousness. If the prof had instead discovered a herb that ‘increases blood flow to the frontal lobe’ and suggests that consuming it could modify cognition, i.e a potential blockbuster drug in the making, NUS would have blasted the news with the enthusiasm of an Ecstasy user at a rave party.
Perhaps this uproar over LSD is because taking drugs to generate ideas or boost intelligence doesn’t just have implications on academia, but raises all kinds of moral and ethical ambiguities as well, a scenario captured nicely in the 2011 film Limitless, where Bradley Cooper stumbles upon a drug that turns him into a best-selling author, sexy beast and millionaire. It would have been more convincing if the guy was actually UGLY. It’s too easy and it’s unfair for anyone to be smart and successful without even trying. And that alone goes against everything a meritocracy stands for, though we have people who are effortlessly successful because their parents were. But that’s another story. NUS wouldn’t even allow the argument to go that far before forcing the prof to remove his post.
If you want to start your kids young with ‘creative thinking’ to get ahead of the curve, it’s unethical to dose them with LSD (though those with ADHD are using ‘focussing’ drugs like Ritalin). You just need to fork out money to enroll them in GEP tuition classes, whereby they’d be too busy with homework to take mindbending drugs or even dream their little dreams, coming out into the real world where the only ‘retreats’ from reality to ‘think’ about problems are in the form of company chalets, powerpoint slides and torturous minutes taking.