“Turn on, tune in, drop out”: this six word catchphrase coined by the psychologist Timothy Leary is most closely associated with the drug counterculture and progressive social transformation of the ‘60s. Leary, who, as a professor at Harvard, researched and advocated the use of hallucinogenic substances, believed that substances like LSD could treat various psychiatric disorders including alcoholism. Ironically, Leary’s fervent avocation of his prized hallucinogens led to the political firestorm that ushered in the drug prohibition in 1970. Sadly for Leary, his public persona as a drug advocate overshadowed his fascinating research with hallucinogens. Today, such research on hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin (mushrooms) is limited due to its widespread prohibition. However, in the past decade, the intrigue of hallucinogens is recapturing the attention of leading psychopharmacologists and neuroscientists who theorize that their chemical properties may reveal what humans consider a religious or spiritual experience.
But what exactly constitutes a religious experience? Whether it’s someone’s first communion, the birth of a child, a marriage or the death of a loved one, religious or spiritual experiences seemed to be marked by feelings of awe, intense bliss or fear, connection to a higher power as well as deep understanding of macrocosmic themes generally thought to be incomprehensible. The idea of using hallucinogens as a shortcut to spiritual enlightenment may seem absurd to some, but for Leary and his colleagues at Harvard, it seemed to be worthwhile research.
One of Leary’s earliest experiments, the Marsh Chapel Experiment on Good Friday, 1962, aimed to facilitate a sort of religious experience — to see if ingesting psilocybin could stimulate the feelings of awe and transcendence typical of feeling closer to a higher power. In the study, graduate degree divinity student volunteers were divided in two groups. Half of the students were given psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) while the control group received a large dose of niacin, a placebo.
The results of the experiment were remarkable. The experimental group, that is the number of students who received psilocybin, reported transcendence of time and space and closer connection to God. What’s even more fascinating about the study, however, occurred ten years later. Out of the subjects, all of who were training to become pastors or priests at divinity school, 90 percent of those who ingested psilocybin later became religious pastors, whereas absolutely none of those in the placebo group went on to become religious figures. When those in the experimental group were later interviewed about their transcendent experience, they claimed that the Good Friday experiment was a significant and contributing factor to their career path. Is it possible that psilocybin facilitated such a profound spiritual experience that would eventually motivate divinity school students to complete ministry?
The backlash from the drug culture of the ‘60s would later prevent similar research on hallucinogenic substances. However, a recent study at Johns Hopkins University, conducted by Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavior sciences, led a study similar to Leary’s famous 1962 experiment that yielded similar results.
Like Leary, Griffiths found that ingesting psilocybin could induce a long-lasting personality change similar to the religious experience reported in the Good Friday study. Using a series of post-study questionnaires and interviews, Griffiths found that volunteers ingesting psilocybin had undergone what he describes as a “mystical experience — a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”
The role of hallucinogens in spiritual ceremony predates Western academia. For hundreds of years, some Native Americans have used peyote, which contains the psychoactive ingredient mescaline, in ritual contexts. Additionally, the ancient Greeks held a 2,000-year old tradition of using kykeon, an allegedly entheogenic substance. From an anthropological standpoint, the use of psychoactive drugs to facilitate spiritual connectedness is nothing new.
Now it’s time to outgrow the backlash and stigmatization of such psychoactive drugs harbored from Leary’s time. Hallucinogens, if systematically studied, could be applied therapeutically to treat numerous psychiatric disorders. For a terminally ill cancer patient, the mystical experience that may be facilitated through these drugs could aid the depression and anxiety that accompanies impending death. More so, further research could shed light on the mysterious spiritual transcendence practiced by ancient societies as well as the religious experiences discovered in Leary’s research.
Michael Roe chose UCSB because of its reputation as a research university. Little did he know, this isn’t the ‘60s anymore, and he doesn’t get to be a test subject.