Stoned scientists are challenging old stereotypes about drugs

Stoned scientists are challenging old stereotypes about drugs

VicesJanuary 05, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Eric Gatley, 58, a former engineer living in Atlanta, says psychedelic drugs make his brain do amazing things, and he has the science to back it up.

Seven times, starting in 2010, the former engineer took magic mushrooms in his home and observed his own brain waves. He used this crazy, yet inexpensive, EEG machine, which tracks the electrical activity in his brain. When he took 3.5 grams of shrooms, he reported that his brain waves looked similar to how Buddhist monks brains do when they're in the deepest moments of meditation.

"I thought it might be some kind of secret to the universe," Gatley tells us.

Is it? Other amateurs, while tripping at home and watching their own brains with EEGs say they have found similar things too. Are they achieving oneness with the universe? Or are they just tripping? Or both?

A neurologist we spoke with is skeptical about Gatley's "I-took-drugs-and-I'm-suddenly-a-monk" hypothesis. Gatley says himself that he isn't sure either; maybe it only felt like transcendental bliss.

But, still, Gatley is part of a small but growing wave of amateur scientists, from Los Angeles to New York, who are using cheap home EEG machines and literally watching their brains on drugs and finding out surprising things about themselves. The machines that let anyone do this used to cost $5,000 or more. Now, they've dropped around the $1,000 range.

Brave psychonauts are taking them with into their wildest trips.

Take Linus (not his real name), a 21-year-old technology student who has an EEG machine he built himself. One night last semester, he took 400 mcg of LSD — which is larger than a typical dose — and the highest dose he'd ever taken.

"It was the most intense experience I've ever had," Linus says by phone. "And because it was so intense, I thought, well, I have all this equipment, there's no reason I shouldn't watch my brainwaves right now."

Linus slipped on the OpenBCI EEG helmet and watched his brainwaves on a computer screen. They went wild.

"There was this huge spike," he says, including waves called gamma waves — which are the same waves supposedly produced by Buddhist monks in the deepest throes of meditation, the same waves Gatley claims to have observed.

Is this true? Do drugs get you to nirvana? Emily Lampe, a neurologist in Denver, says she is skeptical about these amateur scientists' claims to have had their brain in gamma waves. It's more likely that they were seeing the electrical activity from their forehead muscles, she says, since the electrical signals from muscles are a lot stronger than the electrical signals from the brain.

Still, Dr. Lampe says, many substances do change brainwaves. When patients come in to Lampe's clinic for EEGs, anti-anxiety medications like benzos show up on the graph. So home experimenters on other substances should see differences, too. "While you may not be able to describe what you're seeing" without medical training, Lampe says, "you will see a change."

Ever since EEGs were invented, curious scientists have watched brains on drugs. A decent number of studies have been done, like this one on marijuana from 1972 and this one on LSD from 1962.

John Lennon used the same technology to make music with his brain. ("Plug me in!" Lennon said.) But by the 1980s, the Drug War dampened scientists' freedom and enthusiasm for the stuff. However, now that home EEG machines are so inexpensive, and drugs so accessible from the darknet, guerilla scientists are doing the studies the government never wants to be done.

Kurt Othmer, president of EEGInfo, a California company that trains people to use EEGs, says he, too, doubts that Gatley and Linus achieved the vaunted brain states of Buddhist monks. "Was the guy looking at his EEG also on drugs?" Othmer asks, half jokingly. But, while Gatley and Linus might not be proving that drugs morph you into Buddha, they are helping to shatter the old myths that drugs make you crazy.

An EEG is "an objective way of knowing what your brain is doing," Dr. Lampe adds. "You can objectively say that 'I am calm right now, my mind is in a relaxed state.'"

By watching their brainwaves, two trippers told us that their EEG machines guided them into a more relaxed state while high. That's not surprising to the pros. "When we have info on what's going on in our brains, we adapt and learn from that information," says Othmer.

Corey Gouker, a 33-year-old software engineer, has watched his brain on adderall, buspirone, and other drugs using his homemade machine, along with watching his brain while reading or listening to music. He showed us a special video he usually keeps private. The video he shows us is confusing at first. It has multiple rectangles. In one rectangle on screen is a shot of him wearing a helmet made by OpenBCI — BCI stands for “brain computer interface” — which looks like a plastic octopus is eating his cranium. In another rectangle are eight oscillating lines, like the kind you'd see on a polygraph test — the output from his helmet, his brain's electrical activity.

[A screenshot of Corey Gouker tracking his own brain waves while listening to music. Courtesy of Corey Gouker.]

And then there appears, in the rectangle with his head in it, something perfectly familiar: a water bong the size of your forearm.

"Ok," Gouker says to the camera, "here I go."

Gouker flicks a lighter, holds the flame to the wad of Jupiter OG in the bowl, and rips three or four huge tubes. He blows the smoke into the light from the window. Wearing his brain mapping contraption, he resembles a stoned robot. Then you watch his brain waves as they change. Gouker was surprised by what he saw: an increase in brain activity, not a decrease.

Gouker's bong rip is what science looks like in 2017. 

Eric Gatley, Linus and Corey Gouker all say their drug experiences helped them in life and business. While high on LSD, Linus came up with a business idea for EEGs. While smoking marijuana regularly, Gouker helped start a marijuana delivery company called Mr. X, named after one of the world's greatest stoned scientists, Carl Sagan. And Gatley had some of the most calming and amazing experiences of his life on magic mushrooms.

Home science seems to be the next frontier. When fancier, more sensitive equipment like fMRI machines are cheap enough for home use, and everyone can put molecules in their bodies and slide into a brain imaging machine, then we'll learn a grip more about the brain on drugs. For now, these simple and cheap machines are letting us ask the simple questions, and getting some interestingly simple answers.

Linus, for one, is trying to coax his friends to come over to his house and slip the EEG machine on while they're on LSD. What will he find out? Maybe nothing. But who knows? Some people see great hope in these stoned scientists.

"A neuroscientist is only going to ask the question that a neuroscientist is going to ask," Joel Murphy, co-founder of OpenBCI, says. "They won't ask some crazy whacked out question, but those kinds of questions might be the ones that lead you to some crazy discovery."