Hello! Here you'll find comments on the afterlife of Timothy Leary - his impact on our culture and his portrayal in the media. Consider this a continuation of the biography 'I Have America Surrounded - The Life of Timothy Leary', by John Higgs with a foreword by Winona Ryder.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't mention Leary!

Poor Doctor Leary! A team of academics were finally brave enough to replicate - and validate - some of his early work. But not only does he not get any credit, he gets dismissed by a researcher with a few sarky comments!

The worldwide press have reacted positively to the work of a team from John Hopkins University - examples are here, here and here. Their research showed that under certain circumstances psilocybin - the active ingredient in magic mushrooms - can be used to create a spiritual epiphany, which will have a long lasting and positive effect on the lives of those who experience it. It's not hard to see why the press took such an interest in this - it's pretty amazing stuff. Genuine religious epiphanies are pretty rare in our Western culture and the ideas of scientists being able to create them at will has epic implications.

For the psychedelic research community, this is a major achievement - but not because of what the research demonstrated. That information was already widely known. What is significant is that a team was able, after 40 years, to legally and officially return to Leary's work. The experiment itself replicated the work he did at Harvard with his colleague Walter Pahkne from the Harvard Divinity School, and it showed that Leary's and Pahkne's results were both correct and replicable. Their experiment, which was also done under the same 'double-blind' parameters, became known as the 'Good Friday experiment' or the 'March Chapel experiment' because of the date and place it was carried out. It showed - for the first time - that religious experience could be triggered by psilocybin if it was administered in the correct environment.

Leary is mentioned in a many press reports, but only in the context that his name is always dropped whenever the press mention psychedelics. Neither he nor Pahkne are given any credit for their original work. The nearest I could find in the press coverage was a quote from Rick Doblin at MAPS, reported by ABC news, where he links the research to the 1962 Good Friday experiment and says it was carried out "by a minister and doctor." Doblin is a well-respected figure who knows full well who this minister and doctor were, for he carried out a follow up study on the participants of the Good Friday experiment in the 1990s. It seems likely that Doblin fears that mentioning Leary's name would damage the reputation of the team or their work. But why is this? If the work is scientifically solid, then why is it so damaging to note where the original ideas came from? Is it that the name 'Leary' has come to symbolise how a respected scientist can somehow go 'off the rails', and end up with a reputation that is academically worthless - the ultimate fear for those trying to make a living doing scientific research? Is this why many in this field shudder with horror at his name - despite their frequent use his ideas?

This is hinted in the only quote about Leary from the researchers themselves, that I'm aware of, at Medpagetoday.com. Here Dr Griffiths remarks that "We are conducting rigorous, systematic research with psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions, a route which Dr. Leary abandoned in the early 1960s". Now, Leary also prided himself on the 'rigorous, systematic research with psilocybin under carefully monitored conditions' which he was undertaking at the time. But Leary was not unique in being changed by studying these things. Many psychedelic researchers cling on to the belief that they are pillars of respectability, even as the gulf between them and their straight colleagues begins to widen, and despite their willingness to label others who have pursued identical work as irresponsible crazies. But the fact is, research in psychedelics does take people to some very strange places. Time and time again, researchers have moved away from the detached, objective viewpoint and stated that a subjective, experience-led approach is the only way to get a grip on things. And from that point on, their relationships with their scientific credibility will almost certainly hit a rocky patch. You get a sense that it is the subject itself which is the problem, and not the baggage of the name 'Leary', in the statement that NIDA put out. Here they distance themselves from this work, despite the fact that they co-funded it, and despite that (as far as I know) there hasn't even been any adverse publicity or criticism yet.

So you have to wonder, if this team keep replicating Leary's work and keep finding that it is still valid, just how long their respectability will last. It may well be that with a combination of hindsight and some major new idea they will be able to come up with a whole new avenue of respectable research. But if not, they should be careful - if they keep following Leary's ideas, they will shortly be in some very strange territory indeed. And if things get so out of hand that any of these researchers find themselves escaping from jail, then I just might write a book about them!

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