Social Networks, Influencers and the Story of LSD

Social Network, Influencer and the Story of LSD

Is there anything in the rise in popularity of LSD that can show us how social networks operate and spread ideas?

We look at some of the more interesting connections between the parties who helped propel LSD into the public consciousness and try to find out why LSD reached the mainstream.

Most of the information about how LSD/ psilocybin spread through a society was taken from the excellent book, Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control by Dominic Streatfeild. In particular we looked at the chapter, “Eating the Flesh of God”. You can view the network diagram yourself by visiting this link.

To look at the spread of LSD into mainstream culture, we’ll look a few different pieces of research and ideas that have been proposed to explain how ideas spread in a network.

The story of LSD in western society started with a Swiss scientist, Albert Hoffman who accidentally took mushrooms one day and experienced strange visions. Even after Hoffman’s discovery, there were still only a handful of scientists in the world who were working with the drug and very few research papers published on the subject.

Albert Hoffman network

As you can see from the graph, Hoffman was to eventually play an important role in providing LSD/ psilocybin to intelligence services both in the US and Russia.

Closeness of connections

While Hoffman was arguably one of the first westerners to experience LSD, it is perhaps a letter from the poet Robert Graves that set the wheels in motion for the spread of LSD/ psilocybin . Graves has fewer connections than many of the other people who helped to spread LSD - but did he have a closer connection to the friends in his network than others?

Robert Graves

Grave’s network would seem to fit the idea of network influence proposed by Nicholas A. Christakis. Rather than there being specific influencers, Christakis suggests that the closeness of people in a network is more important in helping ideas to spread.

Graves certainly had the respect of Gordon Wasson, vice-president of J.P Morgan and William Sargant, who worked for the British intelligence services. Wasson went to Mexico to look for the mystical mushrooms after corresponding with Graves. Wasson had also been impressed with Grave’s play, I Claudius, so it’s probably safe to assume that Wasson held Graves in high regard if he went to Mexico because of him.


Gordon Wasson went to Mexico to look for the mushrooms and his experience both during and after taking them had a profound effect on him.

Wasson became an evangelist for the mushrooms, enthusiastically telling people about the great experiences he had while taking them. Wasson clearly loved the product of LSD/ psilocybin , as did others. Was it this passion for the “product” that helped propel it into the mainstream? Wasson’s passion for the mushrooms led him to write a piece for Life magazine that would be read by people like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary.

Even if there are some people who are more influential, would it have made a difference if the “product” was bad? If Wasson hadn’t loved the product so much would even influentials have been able to make LSD/ psilocybin so popular?

Duncan Watt’s research on social networks suggests that a bad song won’t be popular and a great song won’t be unpopular but “almost any other result is possible”.

If we go by Watt’s research then was LSD such a great product that anybody could have spread LSD and it would still have had a chance of becoming popular, or did it need influentials to reach the mainstream?

Gordon Wasson


The influentials theory suggests that a small percentage of the general population has the ability to affect the likelihood that a trend will be adopted by a community. It’s suggested that these people are usually more influential because of their personal reputation, the number of friends they have and their knowledge on a particular topic.

If there are any influentials in the group who brought LSD to the masses then arguably, they would be Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and Alfred Hubbard. (Picture of Leary’s network is below)

Timothy Leary Network

Hubbard was a millionaire who purchased 43 cases of LSD. He refused to charge anybody for the drug and he and Aldous Huxley thought it was their mission to give the drug to members of the American intelligentsia so they could try the wonder drug for themselves.

Ken Kesey, who went onto write, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, held parties were he handed out the drug and presumably there would be a number of people at those events who he had never met before. Kesey gave the drug out to large numbers of people, but he probably didn’t have had the same “closeness” of connections with those friends as Graves had.

The same also applies to Timothy Leary. He had various research chapters set up in the US and probably didn’t meet all of the people who attended those either. In Leary’s graph we see a large number of loose connections. Is he more influential than someone like Robert Graves who had fewer connections, but presumably had closer ties with his friends? Did a large number of friends and connections play an important role in the spread of LSD or was the “product” of LSD destined to become popular without these well-connected individuals?

Differences in networks

It’s difficult to look back on a set of data as complex as human interactions and determine what exactly propelled LSD into the mainstream.

It could be that a combination of influentials, evangelists, close ties and just a damn good idea/product are needed to make something popular. This article is only attempting to raise some questions as to what elements are needed in a social network to make something popular and it should be noted that all social networks behave differently and are constantly evolving.

If we turn our attention away from LSD and look at how some social networks work on the web we can see that each network is slightly different. They might regard certain types of content as being more valuable than others and they also interact differently. Before the recent algorithm change, Digg was arguably a much tighter network with a smaller number of influentials than many other sites. It has been widely quoted that 100 people controlled 56% of stories that appeared on the front page.

On Facebook it’s possibly the closeness of connections that help to spread an idea or application. It’s unlikely that you’ll add an application unless somebody you trust and respect from your network has added it already. If you get multiple requests every week from someone you don’t know or trust very much then are you likely to pass on the message/add the application or are you likely to ignore it? I have a tendency to ignore people who send me lots of applications to install, but other people might behave differently.

We recently looked at the StumbleUpon network and that seems to fit Watt’s idea more closely. As long as a piece of content is good (although this is obviously subjective) and correctly tagged on StumbleUpon an article has a good chance of becoming popular.

There are obviously more examples of how people interact in networks than just Digg, Facebook and StumbleUpon. Hopefully, the story of how LSD became popular has made you think a little about how ideas spread throughout a network.

So, what do you think?

Was the success of LSD was down to a small number of influential people, close ties in a network or was it just a good product that was always going to be successful? Leave your comments below

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18 Readers have left their thoughts

  1. Snarky McCritic

    Unfortunately, although the author presents an interesting premise, the narrative is completely in error, both in its foundation and in major details. Biochemist Albert Hoffmann did not “accidentally ingest mushrooms.” He accidentally ingested his invention, LSD-25, in an unknown fashion when he performed the second synthesis of it in the early 1940s. He intentionally took a small amount some days later (actually an enormous amount) and “tripped the light fantastic,” so to speak. He was not “arguably the first;” he WAS the first. After alerting his bosses to his major discovery, essentially the post potent and dynamic psychoactive compound known, LSD (”Delysid”) was eventually marketed to the world psychiatric community from various angles, and was the subject of multitudes articles in academic journals LOOOOONG before it ever hit the mainstream.

    Hoffmann’s exposure to mushrooms came from samples known to be psychoactive, sent to him by a colleague (Wasson, I believe). He did not eat these; his role was to isolate and synthesize the active compounds, psilocin and psilocybin. He was successful.

    Further, Wasson was very much NOT an LSD advocate. He loved his fungi, and was preoccupied with them. LSD was not really part of this “thing.”

  2. Hi Snarky McCritic

    Thanks for commenting.

    My mistake with the Hoffman part about accidentally swallowing mushrooms. It was LSD as you say.

    I should have made it clearer that Wasson wasn’t necessarily promoting LSD, but he promoted his experiences of the mushrooms and that led to interest from other parties. But from the book, it sounded like his enthusiasm got a lot people interested in at least experiencing what could happen if they took the mushrooms (which could have led to them wanting to take a synthetic version)

    From the Brainwash book by Dominic Streatfeild:

    No sooner had Wasson got home to New York than he was telling everyone about the Flesh of God


    Hoffman did eat the mushrooms though (at least according to the book).

    “Wassons mycological friends in Paris succeeded in propagating the muhrooms…he popped them in an envelope and posted them to Albert Hoffman.

    Even for the man who had discovered LSD, the results were impressive. Half an hour later he had swallowed thirty-two mushrooms. Hoffmans world transformed itself.”

    What I found interesting from your comments was “LSD…was marketed the world psychiatric community… and was the subject of multitudes articles in academic journals LOOOOONG before it ever hit the mainstream”

    So how important do you think these scientific journals were in promoting the spread of LSD? If you like I’ve included a link here so you can add in any data you think is particularly important to the graph.

  3. Ephraim Glodz

    Thank you for making this available. Please also check your facts meticulously as there is much misinformation and deliberate disinformation about the history of psychedelics.

    Hoffman had no engagement with Psilocybin to my knowledge. Psilocibin is quite structurally distinct from Lysergic acid Diethylamide, which is a deriviative of the ergot fungus alkaloids, the ergotomines.

    Sandoz had done substantial research into beneficial uses of the ergot alkaloids and many are in continuous use for legitimate medical purposes today. The potent effect of LSD-25 was a purely accidental side discovery in Sandoz’ ongoing research of the ergotomines.

    Hoffman was avery straightlaced Swiss research chemist who also smoked cigarettes. He had gotten a microscopic quantity of LSD-25 onto his fingers, one should note here that LSD-25 is highly effective in microgram doses so one could easily have the substance on one’s skin with no knowledge. Anyway, Hoffman reported that he has a thread of tobacco from his cigarette on his lip and brushed it away with his fingers, unwittingly applying the LSD to his lip, which was then pulled into his mouth with the next wetted cigarette tip when he smoked.

    It seems that LSD was considered mostly a curiosity and a potential treatement for mental disorders or neurotic emotional limitation. Because the other ergotomines were significant for the treatement of senile dementia and memory loss, there was the assumption that LSD would fit into this pharmaceutical category. A close relative, Hydergeine, also causes a strong amplification of color perception in some users, although without the hallucinogenic properties. Therefore, LSD was assumed to be only a stronger memeber of the Hydergeine class of medicines in the beginning.

    Somehow, in the early 1960s, Timothy Leary was teaching at Harvard and became informed of this “experimental therapeutic”. Strangely, the original experiments were with the religious community. Even in the beginning there were signs of drug induced psychoses among the priests who tested it and it was strongly questioned as a Get Closer To God drug.

    It also about this time appeard to have induced a strong personality change in Leary. His general attitude had moved from the research and controlled study mode to a deeply hedonic, self indulgent, ultimately frighteningly self destructive form of life.

    Leary had access to considerable funds and began to host LSD events at a private location which seemed to have devolved into some bizarre hybrid of legitimate spiritual questing and mindless pleasure feasting.

    Many are of the opinion that it was this confused, yet irresistably tempting opportunity to have all of one’s desires fulfilled after a lifetime of self discipline and denial that was the true source of the LSD pleasure cult that then swept across America and the world.

    However, it was also a mass epidemiological experiment with an unknown variable. LSD had a multitude of complex, sometimes dangerous side effects that were poorly understood, and no clear protocols of treatement existed for.

    Following on the wave of LSD indulgence was the “tragic wave” of a number of permanently damaged persons know as the Acid Casualties, walking advertisements for the unstated risks. With the emergence of the Acid Casualties a counter-story built momentum, which in many minds culminated with horror movie of Charles Manson and the Manson Family in California.

    So we could say that LSD has taken a great round trip in the mind of the culture, from its innocent, accidental birth through a Hero phase where is was seen as a savior to mankind, then through a Trickster phase, where it was thought to have a multiple, unpredictable nature, then it entered the Shadow phase of the Underworld… and possibly it has now reemerged like one of Carlos Casteneda’s Ally Powers, something to be used with care, respect, moderation, and understanding.

  4. Hi Ephraim Glodz

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I did have another draft of this post that had more details of the story of LSD/Mushroom, but it was too long for a blog post. I was primarily interested in trying to see if there was any way to pinpoint how LSD/Mushrooms reached the public consciousness. Do you think there was any particular reason why LSD/Mushroom’s became popular?

    As I say, I mainly used the Brainwash book by Dominic Streatfeild. It’s a really interesting book and is quite heavily footnoted. Would you recommend any books to read on the subject for anybody interested?

  5. Ephraim Glodz

    First, I had to quickly return as I investigated the truth of my own statement about Hoffman and LSD and Psilicybin. I was totally mistaken on two counts.

    LSD and Psilocin/Psilocybin do in fact have a common molecular core that is found in the phenyethylamines and tryptamines. Psilocybin differes in that it has a complex phosphate arm. Hoffman appear to have eventually been aware of the psilocybin fungi, done research on them showing the realtionship to LSD, and had some late life curiosity about mushromm shamanism. This was news to me as I only knew the early part of the story until today.

    The gentleman who took Dr. Hoffman’s work well beyond the original scope of the investigation was of course Sasha Shulgin, a PhD pharmacological chemist who massively expanded the molecular vocabulary of the less potent phenyethylamine cousins by adding new, untried atoms, especially of the “4 carbon” position. Shulgin experimented with Fluourine, Chlorine, Bromine, Iodine, hydrogen isotope Deuterium, longer alipahtic chains, about anything he could get away with. He also applied the same techniques to the more LSD like tryptamines. Thus Shulgin obtained the reputation as the father of designer drugs and the great displeasure of the United States Drug Enfocement Agency.

    Shulgins “problem children” were several isomers of his designer drugs that proved to be letally toxic in overdose, possibly when taken in combination with other substances. This again caused an outraged backlash and deigher class phenyethylamines and tryptamines were placed under Schedule I classification in an act of Congress. Many are now as illegal as the possesion of heroin.

    Shulgin authored two famous books, PIHKAL (phenylethyalmines I have known and loved) and TIHKAL (tryptamines….) which detail both the synthesis techniques and the subjective experience of consuming them.

    In the minds of some, the unbelievably rapid acceptance, some would say the naively uncritical acceptance, others would say the moment of cultural breakthrough, all are probably true to some extent, was a reaction to a repressive, spiritually dead society that had become entombed in materialism, automaticity, and cold war dynamics.

    The phenomenon of LSD, Psilocybin, Phenyethylamines including the most famous, Exstacy or methylene dioxy methyl amphetamine, MDMA, and the Tryptamines, was essentially one of spontaneous liberation from the contradictions and frustrations of consensus reality.

  6. I like the way you combined the expansion of the LSD-culture with social networks. It is indeed so and in fact not only with LSD.
    With AIDS there was the Canadian “Patient Zero” (as he is now called), who was responsible of bringing the disease in the western world.
    Examples of such networked behavior are numerous; great article.

  7. Hi - just want to say that the intro for the article was incorrect. My fault, I had a few different drafts of the post and use the wrong intro - i’ve cleaned it up a bit.

    @Ephraim Glodz - thanks for you input and your very thorough comments

    @RoboJiannis, thanks very much for commenting. The Canadian “Patient Zero” would be really interesting to look at. I also wanted to look at the spread of the idea of “Atlantis” as it originally comes from just one source but now there seems to be a whole field devoted to it (TV shows, books etc..). It would be interesting to see how the idea spread over time.

  8. Lux

    Geez, guys. It’s Hofmann. H-o-f-m-a-n-n.

  9. Lux

    I highly recommend “Storming Heaven” by Jay Stevens for a solid history of the history of LSD and psilocybin. “Acid Dreams” is also good, but a bit muckrakerish.

    The best book that will ever be written on MKULTRA is “The Search of the Manchurian Candidate” by John Marks. I agree that Brainwash is very good.

    Erowid has an MKULTRA page:

  10. Greg

    Interesting read. Way beyond me, though those are some of the longest comments I’ve ever seen.

  11. It is not sufficient to consider the networks themselves. They did not exist in a vacuum. Look to the external influences, too, because they are part of a larger network. Everything from space flight to war to the assassination of JFK, the development of personal computers and transistors. They ALL had a bearing on the uptake of hallucinogens in general and ‘magic mushrooms’ and ‘acid’ (’street’ acid was seldom LSD-25 … usually a combination of other drugs because, IIRC, LSD-25 isn’t stable outside of a refrigerator).

  12. @Lux, thanks for commenting. I’ll remove one of the “f’s” in the next few minutes. I initially wrote the name down on good old fashioned notepaper. My mistakes. Thanks for picking it up.

    @BillinDetroit. Yeah i agree, it’s difficult to isolate a network from society. I was just trying to pose a few questions rather than provide a definitive answer.

    Out of interest, why do you think the JFK assassination had a bearing on the popularity of hallucinogens? But, you’re right, culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Thanks for the comment.

    @greg - thanks for commenting. I thought the comments for this post have been really good - and offered up a lot of interesting and different perspectives.

  13. Thanks for a great post. We are currently trying to get a handle on social media, ALL of it, and my head was beginning to hurt.

    Articles like this are like social media headache tablets to me, that help lift the migraine and shed some light on what can sometimes be a daunting, convoluted and difficult subject matter.

    On a lighter note, these info graphics are also kick butt. I spent some time checking out Swarm on Digg Labs and it’s a nice way to get an abstracted sense of the activities of users and the interactions between users and content items. Big up to both Digg and Stamen Design as well.

  14. Ephraim Glodz

    Ya, that is correct, Albert Hofman with only one B.

    I think it is essential to consider the incubator environments such as the Esalen retreat in Big Sur. Places like Esalen had enormous concentrations of sex, drugs, and philosophy in one place. One could sit down for lunch with Bregory Bateson or John Lilly who was doing work on isolation tank environments and Ketamine like psychotropics.

    There was a dense interaction between mind philosophies, some of which became cults or cult like organizations, scientific thinkers from Stanford, often an extreme quantity of experimental sex, Occultic practices, musical styles and tastemakers, the Viet Nam war, wide scale urban rioting and rising racial awareness, and strangely pathological leaders Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Add to this was a massive nuclear arsenal that was being competitively upgraded to MIRV warheads and apocalyptic hawks who didn’t think it too bad an idea to vaporize the Soviet Union. Oddly, George Bush and the NeoConservatives are the spiritual children of this process.

    How one could distinguish cause from effect or background from foreground is beyond my powers of comprehension. It is fair to say that much of the American condition, mentally, emotionally of the here and now was a deliberate reaction to the LSD induced social phenomena.

  15. Ephraim Glodz

    I would briefly add that the intermediates used in LSD-25 synthesis are highly unstable. The are most sensitive to blue frequencies of light, therefore the synthesis is usually conducted in deep red light.

    Once purified, LSD-25 is moderately stable at room temperature for a period of time.

    The problem that “street acid” suffered was a high level of contamination from side products of the synthesis. In order to remove these a rigorous purification must be undertaken. Many profit motivated drug makes wanted to maximize yield, the opposite of maximizing purity, which significantly reduces yield.

    Stanley Owsley produded an exceedingly pure LSD-25 by passing through a chromotography purification column 4 times to strip out the lysergic acid isomers. Only the 4x purified substance could attain the “clear light” status which is by now legendary. Most LSD-25 following the rigorous phase was moderately to highly impure and often gave the user a terrifyingly disoriented trip experience. Hence the general term for an exceptionally bad life experience is sometimes Bad Acid.

  16. Paul Ford

    I found this page on google…so maybe I’ve missed something obvious to regular participators. What methodology and statistical techniques are used to produce the networks depicted here. There are persuasive scientific approaches to this…what is used here?

  17. jj

    as soon as I started to read this apparent “history” of LSD I noticed a bunch of mistakessss. check your facts people.

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