Harvard Psilocybin Project

Timothy Leary was a pioneering advocate of Psilocybin Mushrooms Timothy Leary was a crusading pioneer of Psilocybin research in the 60s.

Timothy Leary was a person who will always have a lasting legacy associated with undertaking Research involving psilocybin mushrooms, and whose work could be argued to have played a fundamental role in increasing awareness and exposure of magic mushrooms' amazing qualities to the outside world, as well as providing an interesting, legitimate 'scientific' perspective to proceedings too. He was at the time a respected academic, and a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, who had revolutionized the field of personality testing. However, after famously trying magic mushrooms, whilst on holiday in a rented villa in Mexico, his life would never be the same again.  Leary was one of the new wave of magic mushroom advocates. that had arisen from the repercussive shockwaves of Wasson’s 'Life' article on magic mushrooms which had, at that time, generated a lot of interest and curiosity about them from people in the west.  A friend of Leary’s managing to obtain some Mushrooms eventually persuaded Leary to try them, as he was initially reluctant to do so.

He later wrote of his experience that until that moment he had been a middle-aged man involved in the middle aged process of dying.  He returned to Harvard both invigorated and determined to abandon all his previous research in favour of further exploration into the ‘strange deep realms’ that the mushroom opened up. He quickly learned, following a judicious meeting with Aldous Huxley, that the mushrooms’ chemical ingredients were readily available from Sandoz – thus solving problems of supply – and so he initiated what must rank as one of the most unusual  episodes in American intellectual history: the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

Leary’s principle concern in initiating the project was to see how people might be beneficially changed through psychedelic experiences.  He decided to reject the clinical, quantative approach – that of statistically comparing personality traits before and after the experience – in favour of one that was subjective and qualitative.  Instead he assembled an ever expanding group of willing volunteers – academics, poets, artists, musicians, students etc.. – and breaking all the rules took psilocybin with them in a ‘supportive environment’.  This typically meant a relaxed home setting where volunteers could listen to music, browse through books on art, or make love even.  Subjects were asked to record their experiences in whatever way they felt appropriate, be that in a painting, a poem, or an annotated report.   

From 1960-1963 some 200 psilocybin doses were administered, and the project began to look less and less like a scientific experiment, and more like a psychedelic tea party, or worse, a religious cult with Leary its leader.  For, quite surprisingly in this rationalistic environment, increasing numbers of subjects were returning from their ‘mushroom’ trips with reports of religious, spiritual or mystical experiences.

Unsurprisingly faculty divisions started to open up over Leary’s steadfast refusal to rein in the project and play by the accepted academic rules.  In the end he attracted too much unwelcome press attention and ruffled too many feathers, particularly over the issue of giving psilocybin to graduate students, and after some wrangling the project was forcibly closed down.

One of the best known of these early research studies to investigate whether Psilocybin could play an important role in creating positive, life changing experiences, was the Concord Prison Project, conducted by Timothy Leary and associates under the auspices of Harvard University’s centre for Research in Personality.

One  of the first studies of the Harvard group was to investigate the effects of psilocybin on ‘normals’ in a non clinical, non experimental but warm, supportive setting.  Results were evaluated by a questionnaire, which showed that 88% of their subjects reported that they had learned something of value about themselves and the world, while 62% claimed the experience of psilocybin changed their lives for the better’ (Leary et al. 1963).

Subsequently, Leary sort a controlled setting where measurable long-term results could demonstrate that psilocybin might be a powerful catalyst of behavioural change.  He found it in Concord Prison, where between February 1961 and January 1963, with the co-operation of the prison bureaucracy and staff and of thirty-two inmates, his team conducted in-house experiments using psilocybin in a unique setting of openness and mutual support.  The behavioural criterion of insight and personality change was to be the recidivism rate (the rate of return to prison after release) of the prisoners who had participated in the project.

The concept of the program was to be radical.  Leary’s philosophy of research was to design it as a ‘collaborative group program; we avoid as much as possible the traditional doctor-patient, research-subject, or professional-client relationships.’

When the end results of the Concord Prison project were finally tallied up, some 18 months after the project’s termination, it was found (no matter how Leary tried to dress the facts and statistics, recidivism rates for subjects were reported as not different from the expected base rate for Concord Prison as a whole.  Of all mean released from Concord 56% had returned two a half years later.  Out of the thirty-two involved in the project, four were still in prison, one had escaped , and eleven remained free, a recidivism rate of 59%. 

In a follow up study conducted by Dr Rick Dolbin and his team from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Leary’s original data was painstakingly re-examined.  It was found that Leary had used some unorthodox statistical methods.  When the rather glaring omissions were properly ironed out, it was concluded that Leary had wittingly or unwittingly steered this results in a direction that would endorse his belief in psilocybin as magic cure all.  Dolbin conclude that ‘ The failure of the Concord Prison experiment should finally put to rest the myth of psychedelic drugs as magic bullets, the ingestion of which will automatically confer wisdom and create lasting change after just one or even a few experiences.

However it would be wrong to say that Psilocybin offer no positive applications within research.  It has been used almost exclusively in Europe as an agent to help activate unconscious material in in depth psychology (psycho lysis).  This procedure utilizes the properties of hallucinogenic substances to stimulate the emotions and promote a fluid, dreamlike state that is experienced in clear consciousness and with good recollection of what is occurring.  In this manner, subconscious conflicts and memories can be re-created and made accessible to psychotherapy.   It is understood that it is not the pharmacological effect that causes the therapeutic result, but the long-term therapeutic processing of material that has been exposed, backing up Dolbin’s statement to a certain degree.

In utilizing this pharmacologically aided method, many previously therapy-resistant patients could be treated.  Psilocybin, as well as its quick acting derivative, CZ 74 (4 –hydroxy-N-diethyltryptamine), distinguishes itself by its unique properties of short duration of effects, mild neurovegetative side effects, few instances of depersonalisation or anxiety provocation, as well as a stable and positive influence on the emotional experience.  Since it offers a more gentle and direct control of the altered state than LSD, it appears to be a substance of choice for future application in psychotherapy. (Leuner 1968, 1981)