In times of metaverse and microdosing, we should be looking back to Timothy Leary’s ideas

Once upon a time, psychedelics were used to amplify our minds and help us unlock new insights and discoveries. Now, they are a popular productivity trick in the Silicon Valley. Shouldn’t we review that?

Disclaimer: This is the translation of an essay originally published at O Futuro das Coisas.

For the past years, increasingly more countries and companies have been studying and commercializing cannabinoid products. There is still some resistance in Brazil, where cannabis is stigmatized, but there are some initiatives that are changing the scenario by showing the medicinal benefits of it. In the U.S. and Europe, the substance is more thoroughly disseminated — also in a sense of using cannabinoid products not only for therapy, but also for leisure.

In fact, we already know that, depending on the plant, it’s possible to achieve different moods, for instance, relaxation or improved focus. The app Leafly is an example of a technological solution targeted to people who want to consume the plant through smoking. On the other hand, there are also beverages, cosmetics, and food that use cannabis in their composition.

Going beyond cannabis though, there is a niche dedicated to the experimentation and the study of psychedelics beyond medicine. The so-called microdosing is an approach that aims for a precise and cautious use of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca in order to reach a mood or consciousness state that doesn’t necessarily imply it’s for medical therapy.

In the Amazon, ayahuasca is used by groups that associate the beverage to specific rituals or even religions, such as the case of Santo Daime. When we move a little bit more to the global north though, we will find ayahuasca being commercialized in specialized centers that have no connection with religiosity.

In the first season of the Goop series, which shows Gwyneth Paltrow’s company and her enterprises in the world of alternative therapies, we watch her employees trying ayahuasca out with the help of professionals. Additionally, in the documentary (Un)Well, we are presented with an analysis of the use of psychedelics, its risks and benefits, learning that from Brazilian scientists that study ayahuasca. In other cases, YouTube channels of scientific divulgation such as Física e Afins, there are videos that address scientific research dedicated to ayahuasca.

With the exception of rituals and religious practices, it’s possible to infer today that the use of psychedelics is more oriented to the physical body, even when we consider a mental health approach. In the 1960s and 1970s though, psychedelics were tightly connected to cultural movements such as New Age, which searched for a new perspective through the use of such substances. Even the art and culture of that period reflected a lot of this pursuit, being it in a more popular level with The Beatles’ album “St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or the psychedelic guitar of Jimmy Hendrix. But there was also experimentation in the niched spaces.

The animation Fantastic Planet (1973), for instance, illustrates very well this subversion of viewpoints proper to that decade. In this science fiction movie, we meet a planet inhabited by giant blue humanoid beings that try to either eradicate human beings or turn them into pets. Among their cultural habits, there is this meditation ritual through which these beings are able to connect to others in another plane that could be, in a way, compared to a state of grace.

From this perspective, we can also mention the work of researchers such as Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson who, at the time, became cultural leaders due to their studies and experiments with psychedelics. The duo even proposed the 8-circuit model of consciousness, through which they tried to organize the different levels of consciousness experienced by human beings.

Matching neuroscience with psychoanalysis and other cultural and scientific references, Leary and Anton Wilson proposed that the first four levels or circuits were the most rudimentary, meaning that they are mostly experienced by human beings during their first years. These are named “terrestrial”. In spite of being primitive circuits connected to the first stages of human development, they are still achievable later through the use of substances such as opioids, antidepressants or alcohol, for instance.

In the remaining circuits, which are named post-terrestrial, there are more advanced levels of consciousness which can be achieved through practices such as yoga and meditation, or through the use of specific substances. In other words, these are levels that we don’t normally experience, since they demand some “preparation” or “stimuli” that could come from a practice or a substance.

Curiously, the authors believed that reaching the last circuits, such as the seventh and eighth, could “unlock” certain abilities or knowledge that isn’t accessible when we are “sober”. While Leary and Anton Wilson suggested these practices from a more philosophical way (i.e. the pursuit for knowledge and comprehension), what we have seen in the following decades was the use of these same substances to enhance our productivity.

It’s popularly known that Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur who did microdosing to improve his productivity and creativity. This is something still practiced in the Silicon Valley to this day. It is through this kind of approach that movies such as Limitless (2011) suggest that a certain drug or substance could be used to make someone extremely creative, productive and smart, to the point that they could work efficiently, generate profits and achieve prominent positions in society.

As I already mentioned before, the use of diets and specific recipes is another approach explored in the Silicon Valley when the goal is to improve productivity. However, here we are talking about the specific use of psychedelics, which leads me to the following insight: isn’t now a great moment to recover Leary and Anton Wilson’s principles, in which they understood that these substances could be used to the production of human knowledge, not necessarily profits? This is the very reason why the work of these two scientists has influenced countercultural movements, occultist niches or even practitioners of the so-called Chaos Magic.

Curiously though, in the 1980s, Timothy Leary grew interested in cybernetics and the internet, which made him think that cyberspace and virtual reality are the ultimate frontier for human transcendence. It’s worth remembering that this insight was reached after Leary spent many years being punished for his experiments with psychedelics, thus finding in the technology a “safer” way to carry on with his research.

My undergraduate research was focused on the Japanese animation Serial Experiments Lain (1998). It was through this study that I learned about the 8-circuit model of consciousness and the work of other researchers. It is interesting to notice how this anime combined Leary’s interest in cyberspace and the notion of transcendence through which technology started to formulate as transhumanism was unveiled (especially in Mind Children, Hans Moravec’s book). Besides, the anime also suggests that the internet or Wired (a very advanced version of the metaverse) was a human technological achievement that was only reached after we transcended the “normal” circuits of consciousness.

In another opportunity, I mentioned that the use of virtual reality and other similar technologies are being helpful tools in medicine, such as in the case of the rehabilitation of people who suffered from stroke, but also as a means to channel specific levels of consciousness. Therefore, if we take in consideration that we are living a new moment when psychedelics are seen through other lenses and the metaverse has come back in fashion, it seems to me that Leary’s proposals are growing increasingly more relevant or even possible.

More than a new environment for work meetings, metaverse can be the new frontier for the expansion of human consciousness, thus potentializing insights and discoveries that are currently locked in the limiar of “sobriety”. It is hard to believe that this would happen in a context when Facebook has turned into Meta to set up the stage for a new era for the internet, but the truth is that real innovation happens in the margins, not in the center.

An example of that is in the very design and proposal of Meta when it comes to metaverse and how VRChat players have been, for years, developing much more interesting experiences with technology that is not that advanced, but which are capable of setting up a much more relevant experience than simply a clone avatar. For this same reason, I believe there is still hope and I’m excited to see what is coming next.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin


Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.