The Psychedelic Scholars Whose Research Influenced The World To Trip
Psychoactive and hallucinogenic substances have received a bad reputation over the years due to the fear instilled by officials and authority figures; these figures have had much of the general public convinced that the use of these mysterious substances is nothing but dangerous, criminal activity. What they often fail to mention, or choose to suppress, is the fascinating nature of the effects induced by these substances and the amazing accomplishments and bursts of inspiration that many people (including some very well-known individuals) have attributed to their use of psychedelics. Some of the brightest and most talented minds of the last century have shared their thoughts on psychedelic substances and how their experiences with them were sources of profound inspiration.
English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was noteworthy scholar that was very fascinated with the esoteric nature of life. He obtained his English Literature degree 1916 from Balliol College, Oxford with high praises. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Huxley had his run in with psychedelics after having already written so many ground-breaking and provocative titles such as Brave New World, Eyeless in Gaza, Point Counterpoint, Ape and Essence, and many more. His interaction with LSD and peyote would leave his life changed and his view on reality altered. He became fascinated with the psychedelic states induced by these substances, so much so that in 1954 he was inspired to write considerably his most famous novel The Doors of Perception. This novel is entirely about Huxley’s recollection of an afternoon mescaline trip where he speaks of sensations such as pure aesthetic stimulation and being bestowed with ‘sacramental vision’. This book became a source of inspiration for many who were fascinated by spiritual journey and the exercise of the consciousness. In fact, the novel inspired Jim Morrison so much so that he would name his band The Doors as a tribute to novel. After his familiarization with psychedelics and their power, Huxley attributed his inspiration for his novels The Devils of Loudun, Island, and The Genius and the Goddess and more to his experiences with psychedelics.
If we could sniff or swallow something that would, for five or six hours each day, abolish our solitude as individuals, atone us with our fellows in a glowing exaltation of affection and make life in all its aspects seem not only worth living, but divinely beautiful and significant, and if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution-then, it seems to me, all our problems (and not merely the one small problem of discovering a novel pleasure) would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise. Aldos Huxley
Dr. Richard Alpert and Dr. Timothy Leary were colleagues at Harvard University. They both received a PhD in the discipline of psychology; Alpert had focused on personality and social psychology research and Leary had focused on the interaction of the dimensions of personality and social relationships. Leary also worked as a psychotherapist. Leary went to Harvard to deliver psychology lectures in 1959 which is when the two had met and after Leary’s arrival, Alpert and Leary co-founded the Harvard Psilocybin project. The project was created with the purpose of developing an understanding of the effects of psilocybin, along with other psychoactive substances, on the human consciousness. At this time, both psilocybin and LSD were not illegal in the United States. The two of them would administer the hallucinogens to groups of volunteer subjects and record their observations, even while under the effects of the substance themselves at times. This experimentation led them to collaborative relationships with influential individuals such Aldous Huxley, Ralph Metzner, and Allen Ginsberg.
Faculty members began to question Alpert and Huxley’s scientific integrity due to their unorthodox and seemingly uncontrolled research methods. Statements were printed in the press which accused Alpert and Leary of not just researching the nature of these substances, but actually promoted their recreational use. Strict regulations were then put on the way they conducted their research only allowing them to use fully informed, graduate subjects in a controlled research environment. In 1963, the two of them were fired from Harvard and discredited from academia after it had been found out that Alpert had given psilocybin to an undergraduate off-campus. Though unfortunate, this marked the real beginning of both Alpert and Leary’s public lives as counter-culture icons and psychedelic advocates. In 1967, Alpert traveled to India and met with a guru by the name of Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaji) who bestowed Alpert with the new name of Ram Dass, meaning “servant of God”. It was here that the dharmic life of Ram Dass began and he now understood his true purpose in life. He went on to write the modern spiritual classic ‘Be Here Now’.
Leary went on to conduct more of his own personal psychedelic research and became famous for his phrase “tune in, turn on, drop out” and his interpretation of Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign which he changed to “Just say know” for the concluding line of his autobiography Flashbacks. He also went on to write titles such as The Psychedelic Experience, Your Brain is God, The Game of Life, and many others. Sagan too experimented with psychedelics and their potential for untapping and expanding the consciousness for the purpose of self exploration and inspirational guidance.
Alpert and Leary have, in a way, symbolically reunited with Harvard thanks to a long lost collection of counter culture and altered state research notes, books, photographs, and posters dating as far back as the 16th century that has recently been curated and catalogued in the Harvard research bank. The article A collection unlike others from the Harvard Crimson Gazette offers more on this. Read here.
Astrophysicist, cosmologist, and astronomer Carl Sagan had many scientific contributions throughout his career. He and Bruce Murray together determined that mars was covered in dust rather than vegetation by studying images taken of the changing weather patterns on mars. He was also the first to hypothesize that Venus was unbearably hot below its clouds and that Saturn’s moon Titan and Jupiter’s moon Europa may be able to harbor life and could serve as possible locations of colonization. It was also Carl Sagan that sold NASA on the idea of attaching a plaque made of gold-anodized aluminum on the Pioneer 10 Spacecraft portraying human life on Earth and a map to our location in the solar system. Sagan too experimented with psychedelics and their potential for expanding consciousness for the purpose of self exploration and inspirational guidance.
In his book Broca’s Brain – Publisher: Atlantic Monthly, 1979 – Sagan wrote an article called “Amniotic Universe” in which he shows a familiarity with the effects of LSD, DMT, ketamine, MDA as he reviews Stanislav Grof’s thorough and revolutionary research over LSD and its effects on the consciousness. It has also been found that Sagan had written an abundance of unpublished papers over his thoughts on the use of marijuana, drug policy, and the war on drugs. He felt that the war on drugs was an enormous waste of time and resources and that instead of obstructing people’s personal freedom, we ought to be focusing on the exploration and understanding of our universe, regulated animal rights, and stopping nuclear weapon testing. Carl Sagan was a very inspirational icon in the field of physics and had a remarkable way of communicating scientific advancements with those who were unfamiliar with the discipline. He managed to bring a certain level of popularity and interest to the sciences never before seen.
The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serendipity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world. Carl Sagan
It was also later uncovered that Carl Sagan and Timothy Leary were acquainted and that Sagan had even written to Leary about some casual thoughts on deep space travel and other forms of intelligent life while Leary was in prison for a minor marijuana charge. In the letter, Sagan encloses an interesting poem by the name of The Other Night by Dianne Ackermann. He shares it with Leary as he feels that the poem is something they “both resonate to”:
Last night, while
cabbage stuffed with
brown sugar, meat and
raisins was baking in the
oven, and my potted holly,
dying leafmeal from red-spider,
basked in its antidote malathion,
I stepped outside to watch Kohoutek
passing its dromedary core through the
eye of a galaxy. But only found a white
blur cat-napping under Venus: gauzy, dis-
solute, and bobtailed as a Manx.
Pent-up in that endless coliseum of stars,
the moon was fuller than any Protestant
had a right to be. And I said: Moon,
if you’ve got any pull up there, bring me
a sun-grazing comet, its long hair swept
back by the solar wind, in its mouth a dollop
of primordial sputum. A dozing iceberg,
in whose coma ur-elements collide. Bring me
a mojo that’s both relict and reliquary.
Give me a thrill from that petrified seed.
Mars was a stoplight in the north sky,
the only real meat on the night’s black
bones. And I said: Mars, why be parsimonious?
You’ve got a million tricks stashed
in your orbital backhills: chicory suns
bobbing in viridian lagoons; quasars dwindling
near the speed of light; pinwheel, dumbbell,
and impacted galaxies; epileptic nuclei
a mile long; vampiric moons; dicotyledon suns;
whirling dust bowls of umbilical snow; milky ways
that, on the slant, look like freshly fed pythons.
There are countless other philosophers and researchers who have helped to shape the way we view reality today and it is undeniable that psychedelics have played an important and pivotal role in human development. The experimentation and understanding of psychoactive substances and their consciousness altering capabilities have been the source of guidance and inspiration for scholars, artists, and everyone alike. It is unfortunate that the cultivation and regulated access to these spirit tapping substances are not more readily available in this day and age. Thanks to organizations like MAPS, change is being made so that those who could benefit from these therapeutic medicines may have access to them in the coming years.
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