This week, psychedelic scientists and investors converged in Miami for the Wonderland conference. One of the panels was on the ‘shamanic approach to investing’. There, spiritual healer and financial advisor Sylvia Bentino said she’d had a vision on ayahuasca that cryptocurrency was going to change the world.
Thanks for the investment tip, Mama Ayahuasca! Now who do you favour in the 3.15 at Kentucky?
In fact, the plant spirits have been long on crypto for some time. Blockchain advocate Matt McKibben also followed the sacred path from psychedelics to cryptocurrency. He says:
Years ago, I was anxious about the world financial system to the point that it was detrimental to my life. I was one of those people who thought we should be buying land in Latin America and getting out of here because I didn’t know how long this system was going to last. Then, in 2014, I did an ayahuasca ceremony, and that completely healed the anxiety and pain I’d been inflicting on myself by living in such a state of fear. And it also led me to focus on solutions like blockchain, versus being scared and fearful.
McKibben subsequently organized CryptoPsychedelic, a summit in Tulum, Mexico to explore the overlaps between crypto currency and psychedelics. He’s also donated some of his fortune to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which researches and promotes psychedelic therapy.
He’s not alone. The biggest funders of psychedelic therapy are Peter Thiel and Christian Angermeyer, who invested in Atai Life Science, which in turn funds Compass Pathways, the biggest psychedelic corporate. Both have also invested heavily in bitcoin. Angermeyer said the first time he tried magic mushrooms, ‘I finally understood bitcoin’.
This may seem a weird mixture of the spiritual and the materialistic. But in fact, the relationship between ecstatic experiences and stock market investing goes all the way back to the birth of the stock markets in the early 18th century.
One of the key cultural shifts during the Enlightenment was a shift in western society’s attitude to money and investing in financial products. In medieval culture, usury was a sin. In the Enlightenment, self-interest and greed were reframed as good for society, and financial markets boomed.
Some conservatives saw the new stock markets as a moral evil and threat to society. But Enlightenment philosophers like Adam Smith argued they were good. Instead of the divine wisdom of church and king, the wisdom of crowds would guide societies to an optimal outcome, through the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.
Rational, secular, commercial societies would actually be better, materially and morally, than religious societies, because they would be less prone to ‘enthusiasm’ (the Enlightenment’s pejorative term for religious ecstasy) and therefore less prone to religious violence.
But a few years after the birth of stock markets, it became apparent that crowds aren’t always as rational as Smith thought. A new form of ‘enthusiasm’ emerged — stock market mania. Observers noticed a similarity between stock market manias and the religious manias of earlier times. In 1841, historian Charles Mackay gathered examples of mass enthusiasms (both religious and financial) in his book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. He begins the book:
IN READING THE HISTORY OF NATIONS, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.
Mackay examines early examples of stock market mania, like the Mississippi Company bubble, which wrecked France’s economy in 1718. He writes:
The highest and the lowest classes were alike filled with a vision of boundless wealth… The price of shares sometimes rose ten or twenty per cent in the course of a few hours, and many persons in the humbler walks of life, who had risen poor in the morning, went to bed in affluence.
Or the South Sea mania, which swept through Britain a few years later. Mackay writes:
It seemed at that time as if the whole nation had turned stock-jobbers…innumerable joint-stock companies started up everywhere. They soon received the name of Bubbles, the most appropriate that imagination could devise…Some of them lasted for a week, or a fortnight, and were no more heard of, while others could not even live out that short span of existence.
the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which shewed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled “A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.” Next morning, at nine o’clock, this great man opened an office in Cornhill. Crowds of people beset his door, and when he shut up at three o’clock, he found that no less than one thousand shares had been subscribed for, and the deposits paid. He was thus, in five hours, the winner of £2,000 [around £200 million today]. He was philosopher enough to be contented with his venture, and set off the same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.
The Earl of Shaftesbury, in his ‘Letter Concerning Enthusiasm’ of 1711, suggested that stock market manias spread in the same way as ecstatic religious movements — through ‘contagion’. However rational people think they are, they can’t help being swept up in the collective fervour. Even the great astronomer and controller of the Royal Mint, Isaac Newton, got burnt in the collective madness , losing a fortune in the South Sea bubble.
Since then, there have been countless stock market bubbles, examples of what John Maynard Keynes called ‘animal spirits’ and Alan Greenspan dubbed ‘irrational exuberance’. I started my career as a financial journalist in 2000, just as the dot.com bubble was bursting. There was certainly a messianic feel to internet investing in the 1990s — an age of universal reason and brotherhood was dawning, colossal fortunes were there to be made, and start-ups needed little more than a website and a press release to attract millions in investment.
Which brings us to today and the mania for crypto, blockchain and decentralized finance. This week, bitcoin hit a new high, while Coinbase became the most popular app on Google Play (more popular than TikTok). You can’t walk down the street without hearing someone say ‘what exactly is an NFT?’ (An NFT is an internet meme turned into an asset, which are then sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars). New currencies are launched daily — perhaps they will soar ‘to the moon’, or perhaps they will fizzle out, like the Squid Game crypto whose founders disappeared with millions last week.
Many commentators, like the investor Mark Mobius, have compared cryptocurrency to a religion or cult, based more on ecstatic hope than any rational assessment of fundamentals. Like a cult, it has its own slogans: instead of ‘Jesus loves you’, it has ‘buy the dip’. Investors speak of their epiphanies when they finally ‘got’ crypto — and psychedelics often play a role in the inspiration. Here’s one believer on r/bitcoin:
I have had 3 deeply spiritual experiences in my life. The immediate moment after smoking DMT, meeting my fiancé, and the HODL epiphany.
One day my life turned to chaos. In the space of a month, my girlfriend jumped ship, my company spectacularly crashed, debt spiked, before crippling sciatica and insomnia set in.
In that darkest week, the strangest thing happened. 3 people out of nowhere started spouting off about DMT. At the end of the week I tell my close friend of the weird coincidences around DMT. The following day he calls me up and says “you’re not going to believe this, I have DMT in my hand right now, a friend gave it to me… for free, thats the DMT code”. The next day I woke up and saw the world with a fresh set of eyes. I’ve never looked back.
Cut to 2020…what the heck?
One day amidst the chaos as a joke I say outloud “well only Bitcoin can save us now”. At that moment, I had the epiphany. BITCOIN! It’s f*****g Bitcoin. The world has been trying to tell me for the last 6 years it’s Bitcoin and I finally get it. The Bitcoin and re-emergence of pyschedelics in the west, are part of the same agenda. HODL for life. [HODL is crypto for ‘Hold On For Dear Life]
Bitcoin is, according to an article on bitcoin.com, itself like a psychedelic drug:
Bitcoin is a mind-manifesting experience. It deeply alters the psyche, and also causes intense insight. It is immaterial money put into focus by the human mind. Through Bitcoin, the boundaries of finance and economics are dissolved. It is the ultimate psychedelic expression, intended to meet humanity’s needs and desires for economic self-fulfillment.
Why this overlap between crypto and psychedelics? Both operate at the margins of legality, both are popular with libertarians who are suspicious of governments, and both are, in a way, symptoms of despair with the State of Things. Both are moonshots for a better way of living. And both seem to inspire a similar fervour that this new age of love is dawning, inevitably, as if the universe itself yearns for it to happen.
The thing about ecstatic movements is, they tend to be way over-certain and over-optimistic. But often they are not entirely wrong, they just overshoot in their optimism. Ecstatic movements often really do change the state of things. They just change it less than their wide-eyed followers expect. The fervour dies down, bureaucracy sets in, and the ecstatic change becomes incorporated into the new imperfect state of things.
That’s what happened with the internet. The bubble burst and greed turned to panic. But the apostles of the digital age weren’t entirely wrong. Some tech companies did go on to become the biggest companies on the planet (Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tesla and so on). We did end up in a totally new reality. It just wasn’t quite as utopian as the apostles believed it would be.
The same thing is likely to happen with cryptocurrency and psychedelic therapy. They won’t necessarily ‘save the world’ and abolish suffering, they will become part of the new imperfect order of things. Crypto may become another asset class, which banks, funds and corporates allocate a portion of their capital to. And psychedelic therapy will become part of the medical landscape, one imperfect option among many others for healing.
But that would still be interesting, and still presents an opportunity for investment. I have the same attitude to them as I do to other religious movements — sceptical ecstasy. No religion is perfect, they are probably all wrong in their cosmic predictions and all have flaws and shadow sides. But many religions have some value in their ideas and practices. That’s why I have, as it were, a balanced portfolio of religious ideas, rather than going ‘all in’ on one particular religion.
We can nurture the same sort of ‘sceptical ecstasy’ with crypto and psychedelics: be open to the new, have hope that things can and do get better, but don’t let your animal spirits carry you away completely. Or plant spirits.
By the way, congratulations to my friend Shayla Love on winning an award for best psychedelic journalist at the Wonderland conference. She gave me the idea for this piece. Check out her excellent and award-winning reporting on Vice.