Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Legend of a mind: The archives of Timothy Leary

By David Presti

Hooray for public libraries!  Last week the New York Public Library announced its acquisition of the personal archives of Timothy Leary (1920-1996) (1).  While many students in college today do not know who he is, Timothy Leary is without a doubt one of UC Berkeley’s most famous graduates.  He received his PhD in psychology at Cal in 1950.  The title of his dissertation, which has gone missing from the shelves of the various UCB campus libraries, but can be requested from the UC library storage warehouse and perused in-house, is The social dimensions of personality: group process and structure.  It is a sophisticated analysis of interpersonal interactions during group psychotherapy sessions.  Following his doctorate, he taught psychology at Cal and other places for several years, before moving to become director of psychological research at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in nearby Oakland, California.  During this period he wrote a classic book on the quantitative measurement and modeling of personality, a subject in which he was a pioneer.  His accomplishments got him invited to teach at Harvard University, and in 1959 he returned to his native Massachusetts to assume a teaching and research position there.  What happened thereafter has become the stuff of legend.

In 1960 Leary encountered the powerful mind-altering properties of Psilocybe mushrooms, after the shamanic use of these mushrooms was revealed to contemporary society in a Life magazine article published in 1957.  The article had been written by Gordon Wasson, a New York City bank executive and mushroom scholar, after receiving knowledge of the therapeutic use of these mushrooms from Maria Sabina, a Mazatec healer from southern Mexico.  Being a psychologist interested in the nature of the human mind, Leary was, to say the least, impressed by his encounter with what was obviously a most powerful probe of the human psyche.  He decided to focus his research in this area and began a series of projects at Harvard investigating the effects and potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, the primary psychoactive chemical identified from Psilocybe psychedelic mushrooms.  Psilocybin had recently been identified by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who in 1943 discovered the powerful psychoactive effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).  In those days, the use of such substances was not controlled by any laws, and LSD was already the subject of extensive and highly regarded clinical study in the nascent discipline of biological psychiatry.  Leary collaborated with others at Harvard to conduct and accomplish successful research, but the psychological complexity and turmoil precipitated by work with such powerful substances eventually led to Leary and his psychologist colleague Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) getting kicked out of the University in 1963.  Some of this era has been documented in two excellent recent books (2,3).

Unfettered by the etiquette of the Academy, Leary became a free agent and attracted a great deal of media attention with his flamboyant and provocative style.  He gave numerous public lectures promoting personal experimentation with psychedelic substances, as well as scientific and clinical research.   He developed close relationships with folks like Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, and John Lennon.  In 1968, The Moody Blues even recorded a song about him, entitled Legend of a Mind.  Arrested for possession of marijuana, he received a draconian jail sentence, appealed, had the conviction overturned, was arrested again for marijuana possession, jailed, escaped in 1970, left the country, was captured, brought back to the US, imprisoned again in 1973, and released in 1976.  President Richard Nixon, so goes the legend, is said to have referred to him as the most dangerous man in America.  A wild ride, indeed!

Timothy Leary was a visionary.  He explored ideas 50 years ago that psychological research may productively return to in the coming 50 years.  He was deeply interested in the nature of the human mind and in human behavior.  He conducted psychedelically-assisted psychotherapy with prisoners, hoping to have positive impact on their rehabilitation.  He carried out studies of psychedelic substances demonstrating that, with careful preparation and attention to set and setting, life-transforming mystical experiences may take place.  This finding has recently been replicated and extended by exquisitely designed studies conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical School (4,5), the latest installment of which just appeared a few days ago (6).  Shamans may have known such things for a very long time, but in contemporary biomedical science it helps to have demonstrations with controlled studies conducted at prestigious institutions.  Other recent work has demonstrated the therapeutic efficacy of psilocybin in relieving anxiety and improving mood in terminal cancer patients (7), and the efficacy of a very different kind of psychedelic substance, MDMA, in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (8).  These are all clinical studies of profound importance and, if the trend continues, research like this will continue to expand (9).

Psychedelics are substances of great power.  Their effects can range from terrifying to ecstatic.  They may facilitate great psychological healing, but also trigger or exacerbate psychological problems.  Various sectors of human society have utilized them, in their plant or mushroom forms, for centuries at least, and quite possibly for millennia, for their healing potential.  This potential is conferred upon them by the power they have to open the human psyche, with all the risks that may come from delving deeply into the world of the mind.  In their use by indigenous shamans, be it Mazatec mushroom ceremonies, peyote circles in North America, ayahuasca rituals in the Amazon, or iboga ceremonies in Africa, the experiences are always conducted with the utmost care, support, and ritual structure.  Certainly among the lessons learned from the contemporary exploration of these and related substances is that such great power is worthy of the very highest respect.

Opinions about Timothy Leary are often strongly polarized.  He was a brilliant and visionary psychologist, and also a trickster, a rascal, and a provocateur.  It has been popular to demonize him, in his exuberance and flamboyance, for drawing excessive attention to the use of these powerful substances, thus contributing to a situation that resulted in clinical and other scientific research being shut down by the legal restrictions placed on these substances by the end of the 1960s.  This is far too simple.  Leary, his era, and the issues with which he was involved were complex.  Although books have been written, the role of Timothy Leary in the early days of contemporary psychedelic research and his impact on society during the second half of the 20th century are far from having been fully explored.  Kudos to the New York Public Library for acquiring these archives and thus insuring they will be preserved and available to present and future scholars!


(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/16/books/new-york-public-library-buys-timothy-learys-papers.html?ref=arts

(2) Ram Dass, Ralph Metzner, & Gary Bravo, Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, Synergetic Press (2010)

(3) Don Lattin, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, Harper (2010)

(4) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16826400

(5) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18593735

(6) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21674151

(7) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20819978

(8) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20643699

(9) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21141361