Dr Leary Gets Turned On

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For 40 year-old Leary it began, as ever, in Mexico. Already an established and respected psychologist at Harvard, he spent the summer of 1960 with some friends at the Mexican resort town of Cuernavaca. During his stay an anthropologist associate at the University of Mexico, who had come across references to sacred mushrooms whilst studying the Aztecs, suggested that Leary try some.

At noon one Saturday Leary gulped down six obnoxious-tasting local Mexican brand mushrooms which had been obtained with much more ease than those consumed by Wasson five years earlier. Through this strange lunch, Leary's fate was effectively sealed for, as he later wrote in his autobiography, whilst the psilocybin coursed its way through his 'virgin' Irish bloodstream he enjoyed the most awe-inspiring religious experience of his life.

Leary was convinced that in four hours under the influence of psilocybin he had learned more about the mind and the brain than in the fifteen years that he'd been a professional psychologist. This gives good measure to the strength and psychological impact of his first psilocybinetic encounter. Under the right conditions the mushroom is able to restructure one's culturally determined concepts about reality, and proffer an entirely different set of beliefs with which to navigate oneself through life.

Being a keen and responsive practitioner of psychological science alert to new fields of discovery, Leary immediately requested funds in order that he could set up a research program into psilocybin. In no time at all the Harvard Psilocybin Project was initiated, commencing at the end of 1960 when a handy batch of psilocybin arrived from Sandoz. Already the natural mushroom had been replaced with jars of precisely-dosed pills, thereby subtly altering the context of the psilocybin experience. How different might the implications of psilocybin have been at Harvard had the scientists had to go out into the wilds in order to pick their research material by hand

One of the most impressive projects undertaken was the systematic study of 175 subjects given psilocybin, where the experimental emphasis was upon providing a relaxed and supportive setting. This important notion of set and setting - the subject's mental and physical environment prior to taking the psilocybin - can never be stressed enough as they are crucial factors determining the subsequent psychedelic experience. Leary and his co-workers had already established these facts amongst themselves prior to their official experimentation and they were at pains to point out how set and setting played a key role in whether the psilocybin experience proved well or ill. It is almost certain that had someone without Leary's temperament and intimate knowledge of psilocybin organised the experiments instead, then more negative experiences would have been reported.

As it was, most of the subjects reported a pleasant or ecstatic experience, that the psilocybin experience had changed their lives for the better. No psychological casualties were reported even though more moderate doses had been used than in previous experimentation. There was no evidence for psychological or physical addiction, although 90% wished to repeat the experience. No hangovers were reported and presumably no-one awoke the morning after to rooms strewn with empty bottles and cans. In a six-month follow-up study none of the subjects developed enduring psychotic or neurotic symptoms. The experiment was a success in demonstrating that under favourable conditions, ordinary people were able to have an inwardly enriching experience with psilocybin. Things on the psychedelic front were looking good. Gaia's special mushroom, albeit in pill form, was showing promise.

These findings were eclipsed however by the legendary Good Friday experiment of 1962, surely one of the most radical and far-reaching psychological studies ever undertaken. In their general approach to research and the collection of data, psychologists, particularly up until the fifties and sixties, had always had a rather special affinity for rats, more often than not placing them in specially constructed boxes where behavioural phenomena like classical conditioning (you remember Pavlov's dog salivating to the sound of a bell ) can readily be observed. Go into any academic psychology department and you will likely find and smell a rat or three, so beloved are these furry creatures to the ardent psychologist. They are cheap, easily maintained, and behave in a remarkably reliable way (like small machines) in their reactions to the manipulating advances of experimental psychologists. Explanations about human behaviour can then be extrapolated (so they say) from the results of these rattish experiments on the reasonable but limited assumption that all mammalian brains run on similar principles.

Such 'ratomorphism' as the writer and philosopher Arthur Koestler cynically termed it, used to dominate psychological science, and topics like mind and consciousness were banished from the scientific arena like some forbidden fruit unfit for empirical consumption. Even though, of course, the science of psychology is itself mediated through the stuff of consciousness. Today things are fortunately beginning to change and a kind of philosophical psychological approach to mind and consciousness is emerging, a topic I will later explore in much detail.

Back in 1962 the Good Friday psilocybin experiment was as far removed from rats as is possible, stretching empirical science to its limits. It was the type of experiment that our controversial psilocybin demanded and its results remain significant.

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