Innocent Writer in Search of “The Edge”: Mad Scientists and Strange Machines

I was too. Twenty years ago, while living in New York City, I began writing magazine articles about emerging new technologies that claimed to have profound effects on the brain. The first one was about flotation tanks. I remember the editor telling me “Remember, we don’t want some flotation tank puff piece—be sure to put an edge on it.” An edge, right. I didn’t care—I thought the whole thing was great, getting paid to go have fun.

The article was well received—float centers all over the country were swamped with calls—and I began rounding up other story ideas having to do with mind-altering technologies. As I would hear of something that sounded colorful and bizarre, I’d pitch it to one editor or another, and they would laugh. You have to realize, this wasNew York City, and the editors were professional cynics. All this “brain machine” stuff sounded so crackpot, so bogus, like something those yo-yos on the other coast would dream up.

I’d told each of these editors about that first editor’s admonition to “put an edge on it.” So as I brought in a new story idea, the editor would laugh and shout, “Yes! Mad scientist stuff! Right up your alley! Go check it out.” And they would always end by saying “Just be sure to put an edge on it.”

At that time, most of these machines were still in the experimental stage—eccentric, alien devices that looked like props from some 1950s science fiction film. Some of them existed only in the form of a single crude prototype tinkered together in the inventor’s garage. The inventors and researchers would welcome me with outstretched arms and a peculiar gleam in their eye, producing reams of arcane research data, spinning out wild theories and speculations, and claiming to me that without doubt their machine could supercharge my brain. And a voice in my head would say, Be careful, these are people with a mission. No problem putting an edge on this article.

“Try it,” they would say, opening up the door to the black chamber, holding out the goggles and headphones, attaching the electrodes to my head, seating me just so in front of the towering null-field coils. “Try it,” they would say, “you’ll see.”

And I would think to myself, Well, I’m a writer. This is what I do. An assignment. And so, sometimes laughing to myself, sometimes with a bit of trepidation, but always with curiosity, I would try it. And many times, things would happen.

When the lights began flickering in my eyes, I soared through a kaleidoscopic stream of unearthly colored images that soon changed into vivid and realistic visions of childhood—scenes so real that I felt I was actually there…. When the blue frog-eyes were placed over my eyes, I was suspended in warmCaribbeanwaters, floating peacefully, glowing with pure mental clarity…. When I climbed into the sensory deprivation chamber and floated on the waters in the total blackness, my body melted as I spun head over heels through infinite black space until a story burst into my brain in its entirety, from the first sentence to the last, and when I later went home and sat down in front of my typewriter to write that story it flowed out exactly as it had come to me in the chamber. And it was a great story.

After my sessions were over, I would feel relaxed, alert, my senses keen, filled with a tingling pleasure that would stay with me, sometimes for days. And the inventors and researchers would grin at me with that gleam in their eye and nod at me and say, “See, now you know what we mean.”

So I would go home and write my articles. But often, after the articles were published, I’d find myself thinking, Boy, I’d sure like to try that thing again. In fact, I’d like to have one right here with me. So the idea arose that if I was writing not just disconnected articles but a whole book devoted to these devices, then I would be able to try them again and again. And I would have an excuse to seek out these interesting machines wherever I could find them and try them out. It would be “research” for my book.

So I began to write a book. For several years I experienced, explored, and experimented with the devices. To try to understand how they could have such mind-altering effects, I spoke with scientists, pored through hundreds of books, scientific journals, and articles, in fields ranging from neurochemistry, to psychobiology, to electroencephalography, to neuroanatomy.

At the end of it I wrote a book, Megabrain: New Tools and Techniques for Brain Growth and Mind Expansion. It described some of my experiences with some of these machines, provided scientific explanations for their effects, and included summaries of the existing scientific research into the effects of these machines. I was unprepared for the response it created.

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