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IN THE MID-1950S, Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, learned about Osmond and Hoffer’s work with alcoholics. The idea that a drug could occasion a life-changing spiritual experience was not exactly news to Bill W., as he was known in the fellowship. He credited his own sobriety to a mystical experience he had on belladonna, a plant-derived alkaloid with hallucinogenic properties that was administered to him at Towns Hospital in Manhattan in 1934. Few members of AA realize that the whole idea of a spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a “higher power”—a cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous—can be traced to a psychedelic drug trip.

Twenty years later, Bill W. became curious to see if LSD, this new wonder drug, might prove useful in helping recovering alcoholics have such an awakening. Through Humphry Osmond he got in touch with Sidney Cohen, an internist at the Brentwood VA hospital (and, later, UCLA) who had been experimenting with Sandoz LSD since 1955. Beginning in 1956, Bill W. had several LSD sessions in Los Angeles with Sidney Cohen and Betty Eisner, a young psychologist who had recently completed her doctorate at UCLA. Along with the psychiatrist Oscar Janiger, Cohen and Eisner were by then leading figures in a new hub of LSD research loosely centered on UCLA. By the mid-1950s, there were perhaps a dozen such hubs in North America and Europe; most of them kept in close contact with one another, sharing techniques, discoveries, and, sometimes, drugs, in a spirit that was generally more cooperative than competitive.

Bill W.’s sessions with Cohen and Eisner convinced him that LSD could reliably occasion the kind of spiritual awakening he believed one needed in order to get sober; however, he did not believe the LSD experience was anything like the DTs, thus driving another nail in the coffin of that idea. Bill W. thought there might be a place for LSD therapy in AA, but his colleagues on the board of the fellowship strongly disagreed, believing that to condone the use of any mind-altering substance risked muddying the organization’s brand and message.

• • • SIDNEY COHEN AND HIS COLLEAGUES in Los Angeles had, like the Canadian group, started out thinking that LSD was a psychotomimetic, but by the mid-1950s Cohen, too, had come to question that model. Born in 1910 in New York City to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, Cohen, who in photographs looks very distinguished, with thick white hair slicked back, trained in pharmacology at Columbia University and served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in the South Pacific during World War II. It was in 1953, while working on a review article about chemically induced psychoses—a long-standing research interest—that Cohen first read about a new drug called LSD.

Yet when Cohen finally tried LSD himself in October 1955, he “was taken by surprise.” Expecting to find himself trapped inside the mind of a madman, Cohen instead experienced a profound, even transcendent sense of tranquillity, as if “the problems and strivings, the worries and frustrations of everyday life [had] vanished; in their place was a majestic, sunlit, heavenly inner quietude . . . I seemed to have finally arrived at the contemplation of eternal truth.” Whatever this was, he felt certain it wasn’t a temporary psychosis. Betty Eisner wrote that Cohen came to think of it instead as something he called “unsanity”: “a state beyond the control of the ego.”

As often happens in science when a theoretical paradigm comes under the pressure of contrary evidence, the paradigm totters for a period of time as researchers attempt to prop it up with various amendments and adjustments, and then, often quite suddenly and swiftly, it collapses as a new paradigm rises to take its place. Such was the fate of the psychotomimetic paradigm in the mid-1950s. Certainly, a number of volunteers were reporting challenging and sometimes even harrowing trips, but remarkably few were having the full-on psychosis the paradigm promised. Even poor Mr. Katz’s twelve hours as a madman included passages of indescribable pleasure and insight that could not be overlooked.

As it happened, the psychotomimetic paradigm was replaced not by one but by two distinct new theoretical models: the psycholytic and, later, the psychedelic model. Each was based on a different conception of how the compounds worked on the mind and therefore how they might best be deployed in the treatment of mental illness. The two models weren’t at odds with each other, exactly, and some researchers explored both at various times, but they did represent profoundly different approaches to understanding the psyche, as well as to psychotherapy and, ultimately, science itself.

The so-called psycholytic paradigm was developed first and proved especially popular in Europe and with the Los Angeles group identified with Sidney Cohen, Betty Eisner, and Oscar Janiger. Coined by an English psychiatrist named Ronald Sandison, “psycholytic” means “mind loosening,” which is what LSD and psilocybin seem to do—at least at low doses. Therapists who administered doses of LSD as low as 25 micrograms (and seldom higher than 150 micrograms) reported that their patients’ ego defenses relaxed, allowing them to bring up and discuss difficult or repressed material with relative ease. This suggested that the drugs could be used as an aid to talking therapy, because at these doses the patients’ egos remained sufficiently intact to allow them to converse with a therapist and later recall what was discussed.

The supreme virtue of the psycholytic approach was that it meshed so neatly with the prevailing modes of psychoanalysis, a practice that the drugs promised to speed up and streamline, rather than revolutionize or render obsolete. The big problem with psychoanalysis is that the access to the unconscious mind on which the whole approach depends is difficult and limited to two less-than-optimal routes: the patient’s free associations and dreams. Freud called dreams “the royal road” to the subconscious, bypassing the gates of both the ego and the superego, yet the road has plenty of ruts and potholes: patients don’t always remember their dreams, and when they do recall them, it is often imperfectly. Drugs like LSD and psilocybin promised a better route into the subconscious.

Stanislav Grof, who trained as a psychoanalyst, found that under moderate doses of LSD his patients would quickly establish a strong transference with the therapist, recover childhood traumas, give voice to buried emotions, and, in some cases, actually relive the experience of their birth—our first trauma and, Grof believed (following Otto Rank), a key determinant of personality. (Grof did extensive research trying to correlate his patients’ recollections of their birth experience on LSD with contemporaneous reports from medical personnel and parents. He concluded that with the help of LSD many people can indeed recall the circumstances of their birth, especially when it was a difficult one.)

In Los Angeles, Cohen, Eisner, and Janiger began incorporating LSD in their weekly therapeutic sessions, gradually stepping up the dose each week until their patients gained access to subconscious material such as repressed emotions and buried memories of childhood trauma. They mainly treated neurotics and alcoholics and people with minor personality disorders—the usual sorts of patients seen by psychotherapists, functional and articulate people with intact egos and the will to get better. The Los Angeles group also treated hundreds of painters, composers, and writers, on the theory that if the wellspring of creativity was the subconscious, LSD would expand one’s access to it.

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