“I am proud to have ‘killed’ government-authorized research on psychedelics.”
Timothy Leary, 1992
Most stories about the early psychedelic research in the 1960s tend to converge towards a common narrative: Timothy Leary, a rogue researcher turned LSD prophet, triggered the social backlash that would ultimately condemn psychedelics to decades of prohibition. In her book “Acid Revival”, sociologist Danielle Giffort explores the history of psychedelic science and how the controversial figure of Leary has shaped the path towards legitimacy for contemporary researchers. In this interview, we discussed Leary’s responsibility for the demise of the first wave, as well as the history of self-experimentation, controlled methodologies and spirituality in psychedelic science.
How did you become interested in the history of psychedelic science?
I have always been very interested in Science & Technology Studies (STS) work on non-knowledge or what’s sometimes called “scientific ignorance”, not in the sense of studying public ignorance of science but in the sense of studying what kind of knowledge is not produced in science and why is that the case.
Psychedelic science offered a really good case to study how a group of scientists rallies to bring their field back to life. I wanted to trace the trajectory of psychedelic science to understand its ebbs and flows from knowledge to nonknowledge and back again.
When I started this project, as a sociologist, I thought I would be writing a broad institutional story about how governments, science, and the media shaped this field. But as I interviewed the researchers doing this work, listened to their presentations at conferences, and read their published commentaries and research, I found that their explanation for what happened to their field was very different. They told me that Timothy Leary, the infamous Harvard psychologist turned countercultural guru, caused the demise of this field. The consistency with which he came up in my data was such that I ended up organizing my whole book around the story.
In your book, you argue that Leary represents the figure of the “Impure Scientist” for contemporary researchers. Can you elaborate on what you mean with this concept?
I argue that the researchers are not necessarily just talking about Leary in their stories but that he comes to symbolize a larger figure in the field. The impure scientist is a person who defies the norms and the boundaries of science. In each chapter, I show how Leary crossed different boundaries in ways that caused all sorts of problems for the field of psychedelic science. First, there’s the boundary between science and pseudoscience. In other words, I’m talking about the legitimacy of the methods researchers are using. Second, there’s the boundary between objectivity and subjectivity in science; in the case of psychedelic science, this boundary has to do with whether a researcher has personal experience with these substances and whether that spoils, so to speak, their objectivity. Third, I discuss the seemingly irreconcilable gap between spirituality and science, which comes up again and again in psychedelic therapy with its recurrent focus on mystical experiences. Finally, I cover the boundary between “mainstream” society and the counterculture.
But I also found evidence of other researchers that did quite similar things during the first wave of psychedelic science. That’s why I say Leary, as the impure scientist, is a figure. Even though many other researchers could be accused of the same behaviors, Leary becomes the fall guy because he is this easily identifiable person that they can all point to and say: “He did it, he crossed these boundaries and polluted the whole field”. Leary represents a bad expert that current researchers are really trying to push away from. Ostensibly, they do that by being the opposite of what the impure scientist was, what some have even dubbed the “Anti-Leary.”
You stress that the goal of the book is far from reassessing the historical responsibility of Leary in the failure of the first wave of psychedelic research. At the same time, after reading your book, readers may wonder what criticism he rightly deserves for his behavior.
I am explicit, as you said, about how the point of the book is not to ask whether this story is true. That is, whether Leary is really to blame or not. In the book, I am more interested in studying how people use these subjective narratives and their accompanying performances to make sense of their situation and take action. So I asked myself, if psychedelic researchers are using this idea of the impure scientist to make sense of the situation, regardless of its truth, how does that interpretation influence what they do?
Ultimately, I am not blaming Leary nor exonerating him because the reasons why psychedelic science became forbidden knowledge are multifaceted. If Leary had been a bit more reserved, would it have caused such a media spectacle and subsequent public backlash against psychedelic drugs? The stories suggest that might be the case, but the fact that there were other researchers at the time who were doing similar things, even before Leary came on to the psychedelic scene in 1960, also suggests that what happened to this field is not all about him. He was a part of it, for sure. But Leary, the government regulations, the media coverage, the scientific expectations, the cultural panic; they all contributed to what happened with psychedelic science.
In the end, the focus on Leary does serve a strategic purpose. Instead of blaming institutions like the FDA or DEA (in the US), which are necessary for this research to happen, the story blames an individual. While the narrative avoids making a more direct critique of institutional systems of power, at the same time it still allows researchers to get work done within the system, potentially making change from within, for example, getting psychedelic drugs rescheduled.
You dedicate one chapter to the topic of objectivity and scientists’ self-experience with the drugs they study. This is still a contentious issue today when it comes to whether therapists should have personal experience with psychedelics to guide patients. Can you elaborate on this method of drug self-experimentation and how it has played out in the history of psychedelic science?
One of the first recommended uses for LSD was self-experimentation. The idea was that psychiatrists who took the drug themselves could understand what their schizophrenic patients were feeling because, at the time, LSD was thought to mimic endogenous psychosis. As such, it offered a tool for healthcare professionals to develop empathy towards their patients and a shared understanding of their mental health problems.
As many LSD researchers moved away from this “model psychosis” framework towards studying potential therapeutic uses, some investigators said that it was also important for therapists to take the substances themselves. The thinking was that if you have had a psychedelic experience, you can develop a kind of tacit, embodied knowledge that can help you as a healthcare provider know when to step in and offer support for your patient or when to back off and let them be. Here, self-experience was once again about empathy but also about patient safety.
Not everyone self-experimented because it raised questions about objectivity. Some argued that if the researcher has had a psychedelic experience, it will influence how they interpret their data or how they guide their participants through a psychedelic therapy session, potentially in a way that leads to a particular outcome.
Personal experience with psychedelic drugs continues to create dilemmas for researchers because objectivity is synonymous with legitimate science. The public wants you, the researcher, and all your values and opinions, to be detached from what you are studying so that I, as the consumer of knowledge, know that the knowledge produced from your research is credible. That is the public imaginary around science. So there is a desire among many psychedelic researchers to keep hush-hush about any personal experiences with these drugs to avoid accusations of being biased or being like Leary, but at the same time, these experiences are very meaningful for those who have had them. Like their predecessors, the researchers I spoke with agree that, although not strictly necessary, self-experimentation is important for patient safety and empathetic interactions.
Spirituality has featured prominently in psychedelic research throughout its history. How would you evaluate the relation between spirituality and science in the field of psychedelic research?
Since the early days, spirituality has also been controversial in psychedelic therapy. Some people believed that spirituality wasn’t compatible with scientific inquiry. It would bring up questions, such as, “How do you objectively quantify a psychedelic-induced spiritual experience?” which then brings up larger scientific issues surrounding conceptualization and operationalization. In other words, how are we defining what we are studying and how are we measuring it? Answering these questions has been key to demonstrating scientific objectivity.
Despite such obstacles, we see this mystical discourse popping up again in the revival. Some research teams, like the group at Johns Hopkins, have embraced this approach, and they have worked to validate mystical experience questionnaires that they use to assess people’s experiences and outcomes. Neuroscientists are also using brain scans to study the spiritual experiences induced by psychedelics, although some groups, such as the team at Imperial College in London, prefer the language of “ego dissolution” to describe them. If scientists can actually uncover these processes happening in the brain, then they can make the case that what happens when people take psychedelics is not simply a subjective experience. They can back up patient accounts with quantified questionnaires and brain scans. That kind of evidence could help legitimate psychedelic treatments further, as numbers and neuroscience hold a lot of weight in today’s scientific environment.
So far, it doesn’t seem like people are totally against the idea of mystical experiences in psychedelic science. Research on this exact topic is getting published in mainstream scientific journals, getting approval from advisory boards, and getting a lot of positive attention in the media. So, although it continues to create dilemmas for researchers on their road to legitimacy, I see this intertwining of spirituality and science unfolding a bit differently than it did in the first wave.
Findings from LSD research in the 60s are often dismissed because of the lack of rigorous methodologies. In the book you say that questions about aligning psychedelic therapy with the method of randomized controlled trials (RCT) remain in the renaissance. What methodological lessons do you think contemporary researchers have learnt from the first wave?
They learned that to be seen as legitimate researchers, they need to use controlled methodologies.The US-based researchers I spoke with regularly shared with me the arduous process of getting FDA approval, and how they need to submit proposals that include an experimental group, a placebo, and so on. So RCT methods have been legitimated institutionally, not just within scientific cultures. Looking at the past, researchers learned that they need to play that game for their studies to get approval, get funding, and get published.
But I think that today’s researchers are also careful to avoid past mistakes that happened when researchers who didn’t have a lot of experience doing LSD therapy focused too closely on sticking to the RCT model. The poor treatment outcomes observed in some of the studies of LSD therapy for alcoholism in the 1960s were not necessarily because the treatment didn’t work, but because researchers failed to optimize set and setting. One group of researchers, for example, gave LSD to patients, strapped them to a hospital bed and left them alone for hours. Based on what we know about the interactive effects between drugs, the mind, and the physical and social environment, it is not surprising that these patients consistently reported terrible LSD trips and that the drug was deemed not therapeutic by some researchers.
So I think that today’s researchers learned that controlled methodologies are legitimate and they need to use them, but at the same time, they recognize that an excessive focus on that step-by-step process isn’t a good fit for psychedelic therapy. That is why you see this merging of set and setting, such as preparing the treatment room and the patients to optimize the experience, while also having placebos and control groups, in much of today’s psychedelic research protocols.
At the OPEN Foundation, we try to foster interdisciplinary dialogue between the social and the medical sciences. How do you think that psychedelic researchers may benefit from reading your book?
I still can’t decide if I want to be a historian or a sociologist. But here is where my historian side comes out. Delving into the past can be very important for helping us understand how people act in the present. Regarding psychedelic research in particular, this means understanding not just cultural narratives about Leary or figures like him, but understanding, for instance, the institutional regulations in the first wave regarding scientific methods that changed how clinical research gets approved, conducted, and hence, legitimated. Knowing these contextual influences can change what researchers do in the present in ways that can help them make this work happen.
From a sociological perspective, I hope that the book helps researchers and readers think about science not as insular but very much as a social endeavor. The production of scientific knowledge does not exist in a vacuum, and psychedelic science is a great example of this. As Ido Hartogsohn shows in his book “American Trip”, for example, in developing protocols for psychedelic therapy, researchers not only have to take into consideration the setting of the therapy room itself, but the broader environmental factors that are shaping this research in the first place. They must navigate different social obstacles and opportunities, such as government regulations for clinical drug trials or public preconceptions about psychedelic drugs. Thinking sociologically about science and psychedelic drugs helps us take into consideration larger social factors that potentially affect this work, both in ways that can help and in
ways that can hinder psychedelic research.
Danielle Giffort: Author of Acid Revival: The Psychedelic Renaissance and the Quest for Medical Legitimacy (2020)
Art taken from the front cover of Acid Revival
Interview by Alberto Cantizani López