I stood in a silent auditorium and stared obediently into the eyes of a stranger. His eyes were brown. His nametag said Mark. He had a soul patch so tiny I wondered if he had to tweeze it into shape. Around me, several hundred other people were similarly engrossed in this “experiment in connection.” I snuck a glance to my right, where a woman was beaming at her partner. Another pair were clasping each other’s shoulders like slow-dancing eighth graders, one of them weeping. I looked back at Mark. It was like making eye contact with a harbor seal. “That was 30 seconds,” said the man with the microphone. “Ten minutes to go.”
I was at Awakened Futures, a conference in San Francisco that brings together experts in technology, meditation, and psychedelic drugs for a weekend of contemplation and “high weirdness.” The staring contest was someone’s idea of an icebreaker. The exercise leader instructed us to imagine we’d known each other all our lives. To feel the connection. To feel the oxytocin. My stomach hurt. I felt guilty for failing Mark. Then we were told to finally say something to the other, just one sentence, the most vulnerable thing we were willing to share.
“I’ve never stared at another person this long,” I blurted, which is lame and likely a lie. (“I’ve been fired from my last three jobs,” said a middle-aged man to my left.)
“I underestimated you,” Mark said. His eyes remained blank.
The experiment over, I rushed to the bathroom. Earlier that morning, I’d taken a cardboard cup of ceremonial cacao from a tray held by a guy wearing a lanyard in a dark room with slow-motion rave lights and a DJ named East Forest trilling into a microphone while everyone else sat, lay, or interpretive danced barefoot to a song that was mostly drones, whistles, and the intoned mantra “I am a guru.” Only there on the toilet did I consider that guzzling the murky liquid may have been a bad idea. But cacao and nootropics are to Awakened Futures what plastic water bottles and mints are to a business conference, so, stomach still gurgling, I made my way back to the auditorium.
Awakened Futures thinks of itself as a kind of un-conference. Joshua Fields, the executive director of Consciousness Hacking, the company behind the summit, urged us all to leave our social-climbing, networking personas at the door. He shared that he had thought about taking beta blockers to calm his nerves, but decided to “be real” with us instead. The crowd whooped. They were a mixture of startup-hoodie tech dudes, Gary Johnson types, California business women in pearls and sweater sets, OG hippies and their man-bunned proteges, and a few scientists—a cross-section of Silicon Valley psychedelics and mindfulness culture: eager, unironic, and here to disrupt your brain.
I sat down at my first “un-panel,” trying to imagine East Forest and empirical research existing in the same space. Two seats over was a mousy scientist, who leaned over and told me that her life was “hijacked by shrooms.” She was at the conference to hear more about opportunities to conduct psychedelics drug research on humans, especially since Denver had decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms. “Who cares what a rat thinks of it?” she said.
A woman in her fifties with a giant thermos and long gray hair trailing down past her waist came up to me, pointed at the seat between the scientist and me, and asked if I was saving it for anyone. She had a musical accent I couldn’t place and was the person every white woman who burns sage wants to grow up to be. I told her I wasn’t. “So you’re a weirdo,” she said, taking the seat. “Like me.” The talk began before I could reply.
Psychedelics research isn’t conducted by scientists trying to justify a drug habit. It has always been serious science, and the scientists at Awakened Futures were well-respected people. Some of it was even dry. “In clinical use,” said Rael Cahn, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, “psychedelics are old news, really.” He showed us papers from the 1970s that suggest mushrooms alleviate existential dread, even in patients with terminal illness. He was clear about his work’s limits and the challenges of talking about consciousness within a neuroscientific context. “Our brains are constantly constructing meaning and an enduring sense of self,” he said. “But we can’t find it.”
Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, had come to share personalized brain-training videogames designed to improve “mind quality,” along with a digital map of his own brain that showed brightly colored electrical impulses flickering through it like fish on a coral reef. He looked and talked like thought-leader Santa, but his videogame research shows promise and is being adapted for patients with ADHD, autism, depression, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimers. Cassandra Vieten, the president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, spoke about using VR to induce awe, and with it self-transcendence, a sense of our smallness in the universe, to “encourage prosocial behavior.” She also talked about a mushroom trip in which she hallucinated a pair a small gray men inside her head. When she asked what they were doing, the gray men replied, “You said if you ever got to this point, we could do some maintenance,” and continued their tinkering. The crowd sighed, and it’s onomatopoeia: Awwwwwweee.
Outside the auditorium, vendors had set up tables. One woman burned sage while another in thigh-high leather boots gave massages, airport-style. There was information about ayahuasca and preserving the Amazon, and about meditation retreats. Mostly, there were pieces of technology designed to hack brains. A man named Watson handed me a small orb that glowed and buzzed in time with my pulse, supposedly to center me. He said he was a data scientist, a machine learning guy, and a good one, with a history at MIT and NASA. But after crashing his bike on the Golden Gate Bridge and busting his skull in three places, he reevaluated. “Do I want to make the smartest machines possible, or do I want to make humans as smart as they can be?” he said. He picked humans.
Psychedelics people have lovely, rosy worldviews. They feel deeply connected to everyone, to the grand project of human improvement, and they want you to feel that way too. I heard versions of Watson’s story all weekend. I also heard a lot of bro-ier chatter about self-optimization and “becoming the smartest version of me.” Awakened Futures encouraged that attitude by handing out nootropics to every entrant. (I saved mine, and they’re giving me a jangly, unhelpful caffeine high while I write this.) “I’m skeptical of the Silicon Valley ethic of ‘let’s just build things to make us more productive,’” Fields, the director of Consciousness Hacking, told me. “Improving for the sake of improving is a pathological perspective. What’s it all for?”
The dress code at Awakened Futures ranged from suits to T-shirts to outfits made entirely of blankets. People did unusual things to their hair. Some people were there to talk gods and oneness, and others were like Matthew Simpson, an author-proselytizer who told anyone who would listen of his plan to take veterans suffering from PTSD to ayahuasca churches in Florida. Liana Gillooly, a development officer at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelics Studies, told a story of working with black communities to incorporate psychedelic drugs like psilocybin or MDMA into their healthcare. (Many in those communities, she confessed, were skeptical.) A young brown woman named Damla, who was representing the San Francisco Psychedelics Society, urged me to go share any “healing experiences” I’d had on psychedelics with Oakland’s legislators, who are looking to decriminalize mushrooms.
I found myself thunderously ambivalent. “What if all the problems we face in our times, like climate change, political polarization, tribalism, were symptoms of a deeper crisis, a metacrisis of meaning?” Fields asked me at one point. In his world, the drugs and the mindfulness and the tech could one day cure all of it in one psychedelic swoop. I’ve taken psychedelics before, and some of the trips were important and life-altering. Other times, I just looked at clouds or watched Avatar or became convinced that I knew everything about everyone. Was that knowledge real? I have a feeling many people at Awakened Futures would say yes. To them, such grandiose thinking isn’t just magical. It’s sacred.
Lili, the older woman with the thermos who called me a weirdo, sat next to me again during a small group exercise. We were supposed to consider giant philosophical questions together, but her answer to each of them was, “I don’t think.” While other people talked about the meaning of life, she pulled out a mason jar full of mandarin oranges and kept handing me slices to eat. She put her small, cold hand on my forehead. “Your focus is here,” she said.
“Completely,” I said, surprising myself.
She clucked, smiled, and stroked my cheek. “You’re so fun!” she said, and went back to not participating in the exercise. Eventually, I asked her what was in the thermos, if it was anything fun. “It’s very fun. It’s warm water,” she said. Then, more seriously, “I’m not on anything. Except for what I’ve been on since I had a full-body orgasmic experience when I was 3 years old.”
“What is that?” I said.
“Awareness,” she said. I barked out a weird laugh, maybe because Lili was sassing me and maybe out of relief. She put a hand on my arm. “There,” she said, patting my bicep. “You stopped thinking.”
As I walked around the conference at the end of the day, I couldn’t do anything but think. I’m an introvert: My people battery was well past empty, and we hadn’t even gotten to the bizarre swayfest that was the afterhours concert. I couldn’t stand these happy people; I knew I was a little jealous of their calm. I found them limited in their thinking; I knew they’d think the same of me. Why does this all feel like a party I shouldn’t be at? I walked past a man with a braided rattail guiding a woman through a psychedelic VR experience. “I am the dragon,” she said.
I decided to make my consciousness endure one last push, one last attempted hack, and went back to one of the vendors, Zendo e-meditation. The inventor, Bashar Badran, a psychiatry and neuroscience specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina, stuck electrodes to my forehead and temple. The electrodes connected to a device about the size of a smartphone and would send electricity through my brain to “quiet mental chatter” while I meditated. After the electrodes were on and he sat me in a chair in the corner of the crowded lobby, he told me the session would last 20 minutes. He told me it would tingle—it stung, but I did ask him to turn it on high. At first, every minute was social agony: I was a weirdo, a person with their eyes closed in a room full of strangers. The timer dinged. My head was swimming, but not buzzing. “You didn’t move at all,” Badran said. I was shocked. He wasn’t. “Once we understand the brain, we can do anything.” Maybe even stop thinking, though I’m not sure we’ll be better for it.
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